Searching for words to express the mood of the present time, I found lines from Seamus Heaney. The first stanza of his poem Servant Boy tells of a man who has spent his years working wherever he may earn a wage:
He is wintering out
the back-end of a bad year,
swinging a hurricane-lamp
through some outhouse
Heaney’s words capture a mood of powerlessness, a feeling of a lack of access to resources, of sense of walking uncertainly into an unclear future. The words written in Ulster in 1972 could as well articulate the feeling of being in England in the autumn of 2020.
Wintering out is the option for those who have neither buildings to accommodate their cattle over winter months, nor the fodder to feed them for the months when they would be in from the fields. They must make the most of the grazing available, carry fodder out to the livestock when the grass becomes short. Wintering out is the only option for the poorer farmer.
Like the Servant Boy, English wage earners are people left to metaphorically “winter out.” The old Etonian elite led by Boris Johnson is as far removed from working class people as the Ulster landowners were from the labouring man of Heaney’s poem. Like the farm labourer of the poem, they approach the back end of a bad year and they struggle to see a way forward.
Except they have no-one with the sort of audience that Seamus Heaney commanded who might articulate their plight.
Ireland might be insular in the most literal sense of that word, but its insularity allows a shared sense of community, a shared sense of meaning.
I remember a time when I bought a collection of Patrick Kavanagh poems, partly because I enjoyed the Monaghan writer’s work and partly because I realised that his writing was part of the canon of Irish literature. In Ireland, there are writers whose name will always appear among the greats and whose works will be studied by successive students of English literature. The Nobel laureates Shaw, Yeats, Beckett and Heaney head a list on which there would be a considerable degree of agreement.
An appreciation of writers that is shared by many, a reading of their work at least the students of secondary schools, means the writings still have the capacity to speak to a large proportion of the population.
After Wintering Out was published in 1972, a comment from Seamus Heaney on that violent and turbulent year was reported in the Cork Examiner, “If we winter this one out, we can summer anywhere.” Heaney’s words became the most popular meme in Ireland in the spring of this year as people faced the Covid-19 crisis.
Homogeneity, a shared canon of writing, allows a common expression of feelings. England has no such homogeneity, no Heaney to provide words for the servant boys of the present time.