The poem, “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing”, was written by Heaney in the North collection of poems, therefore we can establish that Heaney will be considering the nature of the Irish conflict in this poem. The poem is split up into three sections, with each section dealing with a different viewpoint on the conflict. Section one takes a political stance, showing Heaney’s attitude toward the media representation of the conflict, presenting an outsiders viewpoint, while the third section deals with the nature of the Irish conflict from the views of the Irish themselves and also showing Heaney’s frustration.
The last section concludes with a morbid conclusion of what is to come. The poem opens with, “I’m”, maybe allowing the reader to acknowledge that the issue in which Heaney will talk about, is something he feels deeply connected with. While the others poems in this collection are from a third person point of view, this is from a first person point of view, establishing a strong connection between Heaney and the issue at hand, showing that Heaney is possible protective of the nature of the Irish conflict.
Furthermore, the opening line of, “I’m writing this just after an encounter with an English journalist”, gives the impression of an informal tone, almost conversational, however the negative use of the word, “encounter”, portrays the notion that it was not planned; it shows antagonism between him and the English journalist. The reason perceived by the audience is that the English journalist is, ” ‘in search of views on that Irish thing’ “, meaning the Irish conflict. Heaney claims the journalist simply does not care about the means of the conflict, it is simply nothing to them and the means in which they write about it is ignorant.
Also the fact that the journalist is English can be said to depict the idea that the English again, do not care about the Irish and the conflict. Following on from the bitterness, Heaney extracts feelings of sympathy from the reader when he states, “I’m back… where bad news is no longer news”. Heaney is back in Ireland, to his heritage and the idea that bad news is, “no longer news”, allows the reader to see the nature of the conflict, there had been so much pain and suffering, that the Irish have simply gotten used to it, any bad news is no longer relevant, in fact it is expected.
News is supposed to be shocking, especially bad news, however in Ireland this is not the case. There has been such an influx of bad news that it has almost become monotonous. Heaney is showing how peoples lives have become so morose from the conflict. Heaney continues with the feelings of bitterness towards the media, they are said to, “sniff and point… litter the hotels”, invoking the negative animalistic imagery of dogs, conveying the idea that the media are simply rubbish, they are just scrounging around to try and get a story, they do not care about the nature of the conflict, they just want to report on it.
The animalistic imagery, “coiled leads”, is also used personify the media as sly snakes, who again, just litter and worm around to get their story. The journalists times are said to be, “out of joint”, relating to the idea that their news stories on the Irish conflict are lies, they are false and being the snakes that they are, they twist the words to suit their stories headline. The belittling of the media is continued further on, when Heaney claims that the words that the media write, despite the topic being a strong one, are just, “jottings”, they don’t care about them.
This is why Heaney is angry. The poem is from his point of view, he cares about the issue and the feels scorn to those who simply report of the topic and do not care about it. The media are also criticised in another way, Heaney shows they didn’t help with the conflict they simply, “scribbled down the long campaign from gas”. Heaney may apply this to the journalists, however it can be said that Heaney is referring to the English, who, as they didn’t care about the conflict, they did nothing to help, just sat back and watched.
From this point of view, it is expected that Heaney will feel some degree of contempt towards the English; they did nothing to help his homeland. The Irish conflict itself is portrayed here with negative connotations of military vocabulary, “gelignite and stern”. The words are unexpected and sharp, to shock the reader into seeing the true nature of the Irish conflict, which is what the journalists have not done. Snippets of newspaper reports are given in the fourth stanza, such as, “long standing hate”.
This is the view that the rest of the world has on the Irish conflict and it is used last in this snippet list to maybe show that this is the one view that Heaney believes in himself. His previous poems deal with how the Irish are divided amongst themselves and cannot let go of the past. A full stop is used after this, one of the few so far, to show that Heaney is now interrupting his rage on the media to state his own personal view, “I live here, I live here too”. This again envokes feelings of empathy from the readers as Heaney seems to be in pain here.
Heaney uses repetition of, “I live her”, to show that the negative words that the media have used to describe his heritage is causing him hurt and this is why he has let out this backlash against the media, he is angry how the English media have lack of respect over Eire, but unfairly, they hold all the power. The Irish are not speaking out, so the English have free reign on what to print. Heaney can be said to be showing the Irish how their enemies are portraying them, to give them the encouragement to stand up and ‘fight back’.
All sections of the poem are divided in quatrains with ABAB rhyming scheme. The reason why can be directly applied to the first section of the poem. As stated, in the first segment, Heaney shows bitterness at the way that external people perceive the nature of the Irish conflict and they way it is reported. The structured rhythm of the stanzas is very rigid and almost restricted. Heaney possibly could be giving the impression that any judgments made of Ireland should be restricted to the Irish themselves and the English and their media have no right to judge.
The first section concludes, to which I believe is words that the English readers speak when they read these newspaper reports. Heaney as expected is angry. The responses that some read, such as “They’re murders”, anger Heaney. He is annoyed at the fact that the people of his original country are being illustrated in such a malicious way, that people are condemning and judging these people with their sole evidence being words from a newspaper. The second section veers from the first and instead Heaney describes the frustration he feels towards the Irish people themselves.
It starts with, “Religion’s never mentioned here of course”, meaning Northern Ireland. The sense of segregation is show with, “You know them by their eyes, and hold our tongue”. It shows the detachment and separation in Ireland, how the Protestants and Catholics are so isolated. This is what the conflict has done. People are ‘labelled’, by their eyes and Heaney realises the absurdity of the situation when he states, continuing the conversational tone, “Christ, it’s new time that some small leak was spung”, he wants something to be done.
He uses the metaphor of springing a small leak, to show that once this happens, once a small gap in created, it will converge into a larger one. One person needs to stand up and take lead so the others can come forward and break this chain of segregation that has been commencing for so long. The use of, “Christ”, in Heaney’s sentence allows the reader to see the cause of the conflict, religion. However, the word is used negatively as Heaney wants something to be done, even though the people are divided in religion, their common factor is, “Christ”, so Heaney may be wondering why the divided factions cannot see this.
The next stanza starts with Heaney continuing the idea that the segregation is holding people back, using the, “great dykes”, to show the strong barrier that is not letting freedom pass through. However, the next few lines can be interpreted in several ways. Heaney states, “Yet for all this art and sedentary trade I am incapable”. Heaney here may be trying to continue to theme of barriers and it simply saying he cannot break the dam. However, this is contradictory as before, he says that all the conflict needs is one person to break away and speak out.
The reason he cannot be this one person is of his, “sedentary trade”. Despite all the anger towards the media in the first section of the poem, a sense of irony is drawn here. The journalists are simply writers, stating their view on events. This is exactly what Heaney does, he is also a writer, who in his own poems, states his own opinions and views. Therefore, he is also in some way guilty, he is, “incapable” as while he is still of Irish origin, his trade is still as a writer. The third stanza in the poem continues and concludes with a repetition of the title of the poem, “And whatever you say, you say nothing”.
While deriving slightly from the main title, it focuses on not only the Irish themselves, but drawing the reader in via the use of “you”. Heaney’s accusatory tone in the sharp word of, “you”, is like pointing the finger at the reader, showing he is angry at the way the Irish conflict received no outside help. However on the other hand, he can be reflecting on the culture of keeping quiet that Ireland has, the way they are in fear and there is safety in being quiet, as after all, ignorance is bliss.
Heaney continues this section showing the futile ways in which Protestants and Catholics are isolated as a result of the conflict. “Subtle discrimination by addresses”, relating how they lived apart, the discrimination described as being, “subtle”, as even though there is no explicit violence, there is still the underlying tensions. Heaney uses a satirical tone when he says, “O land of password, handgrip, wink and nod”. The monosyllabic, “O” at the beginning gives the impression that Heaney is launching into a matter of national pride, praising his land, but Eire is locked, it lacks freedom.
It is a land of hidden meanings, the way that name and religion dictates whom you are. People are isolated immensely, it may seem it isn’t so, but peoples supposed, “open minds” are “open as a trap”, showing that a trapped mind, a mind of trouble is worse than a trapped mind, the oxymoron allows Heaney to cry out on his wondering on how can the Irish move on with the mindset they have at the moment. This section concludes also negatively, but with feelings of remorse. Heaney’s land is one where, “tongues lie coiled”, people are like the media who spit venom out when they have the chance. Half of us, as in a wood horse, reflection to the Trojan plan of entrapment, Heaney uses this chance to talk about the Catholics in Northern Ireland who were under siege, again expressing anger at the unfairness of the situation. The idea that he compares it to the Trojan war which entailed trickery, showing the deception of the conflict, shows how it is just a constant battle, that it cannot be escaped. The final section begins with Heaney distancing himself, “from a dewy motorway”, and now he is a sense of reflection. This section is much shorter to the rest.
This can be for the reason that Heaney explores the internment camp of prisoners and it can even be said that the limited stanzas in comparison to the rest of the sections, reflects the short lifespan of those in the internment camps. Heaney decided to fill the last section of his poem with negative implications. It has to be noted that throughout the whole of the poem, Heaney as a poet, gives his views and opinions. He doesn’t offer any answers as there isn’t any, which gives the idea that if something doesn’t happen soon, then the vicious cycle of segregation and pain will continue.
The last stanza of the poem initiates with the morbid sentence of, “Is there a life before death”. It is a touching sentence. Short and sharp to shock the reader into reflection. The Irish lives as a result of the conflict are so miserable, that they are in their own personal hell right now. The line is also quite religious and similar to the usual evangelical phrase of, “is there life after death? ” Heaney doesn’t use this phrase as he puts across the idea that it doesn’t matter if there is life after death anymore, the Irish peoples miserable existence is enough torment during their lives that the afterlife is of no importance.
The whole conflict and point of the whole poem is summed up in this pessimistic religious phrase, which is ironic as the conflict centres around religion. This phrase is actually inscribed on the wall of Ballymurphy, which Heaney makes perfectly clear to the audience, showing that although throughout the poem Heaney has been stating this viewpoint, the life before death connotation is a united thought throughout Northern Ireland. As the poem draws to an end, Heaney states the depressing emotions experienced from the people of the conflict, “Competence with pain, coherent miseries”.
To the people, pain and misery is part of their lives now. Heaney almost lists the emotions, to show the extent of suffering that goes on. The poem finally concludes with, “We hug our little destiny again”. It is noticeable that here Heaney changes the personal narrative and emerges himself with the Irish people with the use of, “we”. The last sentence of one of unity, while “hug”, brings the idea of warmth and security, their destiny is described as, “little”, almost reminiscing that there is no hope, that if the conflict continues, there will be no encouraging ending.
However despite that, the fact that the idea of unity and togetherness is shown via, “hug”, does end the negative poem in a sense of hope, that maybe if they are united in the right context, they can hope for a better future. In conclusion, Heaney uses a variety of techniques and description to put across several perspectives on the Irish conflict. However, they all have one thing in common. The title is a fitting one, there is no unity, just a lack of security, everyone says nothing, as they are scared. Heaney ultimately wants a better future, but the question is, can Eire ever achieve one?