The Voice of the Past:
Regionalism as Historical Consciousness in Three Contemporary British and Irish Writers
-- Stephanie Hilger
History is not only an academic discipline, but a major concern for
everyone who tries to understand the present and envisage a picture of the future. Yet
historical consciousness is not inherently present; it has to be created and sustained.
Various twentieth-century intellectuals have struggled to counteract the danger of a
cultural amnesia after the two World Wars. Their writings force the reader to confront
aspects of the past which have frequently been hidden in the bottom drawer of historical
In his Moses and Monotheism--published in 1939--Sigmund Freud attempts to
explain the emergence of a monotheistic system of belief for the Jewish people by drawing
analogies between individual and mass psychology. This transposed method allows Freud to
introduce valuable concepts for a different, "non-traditional," perception of
historical processes. One of these concepts is what he refers to as the "return of
the repressed." In the context of Jewish history, Freud defines the return of the
repressed as the return of the religion of Moses. Freud tentatively establishes a theory
according to which Jewish monotheism stems from pre-Exodus systems of belief, so that the
creation of the God Jaweh is a manifestation of the latent content of the society's
memory, that is the figure of Moses and the idea of a "Golden Age" associated
In the aftermath of traumatic events, such as the Exodus--in the case of the Jewish
people or the two World Wars and the British-Irish confrontations over Northern Ireland in
the twentieth century--repression takes place until the repressed/latent content forces
its way out of its confinement in the unconscious realm into consciousness. Although there
are proponents of Theodor Adorno's injunction that poetry has become impossible after
Auschwitz, other writers have self-consciously written about just these traumatic events.
The writings of these post-war novelists, dramatists and poets constitute a performative
effort to end the period of latency by describing the painful process of recovering
repressed violent events. In their attempt at recovery, they describe a society
characterized by--what Freud calls--a "neurosis." When the period of latency
ends and the repressed contents surfaces it is never in its original appearance: The
"distinctive character of them [all phenomena of symptom-formation associated with
neuroses] . . . lies in the extensive distortion the returning elements have undergone,
compared with their original form" (Freud, Moses 164). The "repressed"
returns in a disguised form, so that this "extensive distortion" results in a
"substitutive satisfaction" (163) of the past's claim to consciousness.
In the works of twentieth-century authors writing after a traumatic event such as a
world or a civil war, the "return of the repressed" is represented by the
appearance of an unreal and distorted figure, a kind of vision, or a disturbed, neurotic
individual who is one of the symptoms of this repression. The return of this repressed is
often a witness to a sense of guilt or inadequacy. Wilfred Owen expresses his experiences
as a soldier in the First World War by describing such a "vision" both in
"Dulce et Decorum Est" and in "Strange Meeting." His dead comrades
reappear in the form of revenants that surface everywhere he goes, "[i]n all my
dreams, before my helpless sight, / He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning"
("Dulce Et Decorum Est" lines 16-17) or "[d]own some profound dull tunnel .
. . there encumbered sleepers groaned / as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared, /
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes" ("Strange Meeting" lines 2-7). W.B.
Yeats faces the revenant in the form of a supernatural appearance which represents his
modernist vision of the apocalypse. In "Byzantium," the speaker encounters
"an image, man or shade, / Shade more than man, more image than shade . . . A mouth
that has no moisture and no breath" (lines 9-13). In "The Second Coming," a
"vast image out of Spiritus Mundi / Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the
desert / A shape with lion body and the head of a man, / A gaze blank and pitiless as the
sun." (lines 12-15). For various writers of the first half of the century--Yeats and
Owen serving as "representative" examples in the context of this argument--the
revenant appears either in a disguised representation of a personal experience on the
battlefield or in a global vision of world history.
In the second half of the century there appears to be a shift in sensibility,
especially from the seventies onwards, because the scene for the return of the repressed
is neither personalized nor globalized, but happens in a space in-between. Novelists and
poets writing after W.W. II have tried to achieve the process of recovery by an intense
preoccupation with regional history as manifested on a geographically limited terrain.
Graham Swift's novel Waterland (1983) Seamus Heaney's sequence of poems Station
Island (1984) and Geoffrey Hill's Mercian Hymns (1971) are three instances of
this newly represented historical consciousness. In all of these three texts, an
investigation of regional concerns represents an attempt to understand both the individual
situation and the broader context associated with it. Hill's scouring of the Anglo-Saxon
kingdom of Mercia, Swift's intense preoccupation with the marsh region of the Fens in East
Anglia and Heaney's archeological interest in the traces of history on the Irish landscape
are all attempts at uncovering a society's "neuroses."
Geoffrey Hill's poetry reflects a self-conscious relation to history in general and in
particular to the aftermath of the Second World War. The form of the prose-poem makes his
verse often sounds nervous and strained in its reflection of the speaker's feeling of
guilt and inadequacy. The fragmented Mercian Hymns resonate with the voice of Offa,
the king of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom in the eighth century who says in and about the first
hymn that "'I liked that . . . sing it again'" (Hymn 1, line 9). His wish will
be fulfilled by the following twenty-nine hymns, but his identity will be fragmented in
the course of this long prose-poem in order to incorporate both the past and the present.
The representation of this ever absent and ever present ghost-like king with a maimed and
dispersed identity encompasses a consciousness about history and the violence associated
with the "progress" of civilization.
Offa becomes a chef, a "king in / his new-risen hat, sealing his brisk largesse
with / 'any mustard?'" in the context of a twentieth-century British coronation
ceremony (Hymn III, lines 1-3). Offa also adopts the voice of the poet "who was taken
to be a king of / some kind, a prodigy, a maimed on" (Hymn V, lines 7-8) and he later
emerges as a "village king" in the car accident alluded to in Hymn XVII (line
6). Although a protesting and angry voice rebels against this disintegration by asserting
its perceived integrity -- "I am the King of Mercia, and / I know" -- in Hymn
VIII (lines 3-4), the presence of the "maimed /souls" (lines 2-3) and the
"mad" (line 1) does not allow an unproblematic or essentialist conception of
identity. The "repressed" return and with them all the violent aspects of
history, the "ridged gleam" (Hymn XXVIII, line 10), "the solitary
axe-blow" (Hymn XXVIII, line 7), the "Tiber foaming out / much blood" (Hymn
XVIII, lines 10-11) and the "traces of / red mud" (Hymn XXX, lines 3-4) which
are scattered on the landscape of Mercia in particular and of history in general.
The ghost of Offa haunts every subsequent identity, always claiming its presence in the
collective consciousness, which might be repressing the treaty of commerce which Offa
signed with Charlemagne in 796. Offa's commercial dealings are hinted at in the first
hymn; he is referred to as the "contractor / to the desirable new estates:
saltmaster: money- / changer: commissioner for oaths: martyrologist: / the friend of
Charlemagne" (Hymn I, lines 5-8). As Hill considers commerce to be at the root of
most of the violence in history--a conviction which he most explicitly voices in another
poem, "Of Commerce and Society"--his invocation of Offa reinforces his endeavor
to deconstruct the mythical and legendary aura which history books and public
consciousness often attach to "great" figures in history.
The voice of the deconstructed and disintegrating Mercian king forces the reader to
face the immediate past. By intermingling the atmosphere of the eighth century with
references to other historical periods, the twentieth century is always already implied.
The contemporary violence claims its presence through the mask of the past. Masquerading
appears as a strategic means in claiming consciousness. This disguise goes along with
Hill's reluctance to paint clear descriptions of concretely defined physical violence.
Vincent Sherry, one of Hill's critics, claims that this method results from Hill's
"moral conscience, his reticence about using atrocities for heightened effect [which]
seems to join the intrinsic conservatism of British poetry to a world of postwar
awareness" (Sherry 7). Death and violence are omnipresent in Hill's sequence of
prose-poems, yet they are always invested with a vagueness which is typical for all of his
poetry. Hymn IX describes a burial where the churchyard is characterized by
"spoil-heaps of chrysanths dead in their / plastic macs, eldorado of washstand
marble" (lines 7-8). On another occasion--after a description of commerce and coins
that "struck with account- / able tact" (Hymn XI, lines 3-4)--the reader
stumbles upon "[s]wathed bodies in the long ditch; one eye upstaring" (Hymn XI,
line 9). This is Hill's most concrete description of violence, yet it is vague enough in
leaving out specific details in accordance with Hill's specific post-war sensibility. The
bodies are presumed to have been killed by the "king's anger" (line 10), but the
reference is certainly not limited exclusively to the context of Offa and the eighth
century. The landscape is always covered with the red of violence, so that the
"[e]arth lay for a while, the ghost-bride of livid / Thor, butcher of strawberries,
and the shire-tree / dripped red in the area of its uprooting" (Hymn XXVII, lines
9-11). The sequence of hymns ends with an allusion to the remains of historical processes.
When the ghostlike apparition vanishes, "he left behind coins, for his lodging, and
traces of / red mud" (Hymn XXX, lines 3-4). The ghost disappears, but the traces of
violence remain. Each period has its "butcher[s] of strawberries," leaving
behind destruction and death in their wake.
When Freddy Parr's body floats down the Leem in the East-Anglian region of the Fens and
gets caught in the Cricks' sluice, the body of history claims its presence in the form of
the dead teenager's corpse. Just as Hill's Hymns constitute a self-conscious
reflection on history, Waterland can be read as what Linda Hutcheon, in A
Poetics of Postmodernism, has termed "historiographic metafiction"--fiction
which self-consciously focuses on epistemological issues (105). Many of the concrete
events in the novel can therefore be read on two levels, a literal and a
metaphorical/symbolic one. Freddy Parr's corpse presents a mystery which encourages an
inquiry of the past. But the novel does more than ask the question "Who killed Freddy
Parr?" It forces the characters and the reader to roam the landscape of the Fens in
search of an explanation which reaches back into a more remote past than initially
expected. The disrupted time sequence of the novel is a reflection of the going back and
forth between the present and a variety of past periods. Again, as in Hill's Mercian
Hymns, the confrontation with the present can only be achieved by making a digression
to the far past, to the time of the Viking fleets and the Norman besiegers of the Fenland
region. But the search for traces in the Fens, where water takes away what man has
created, is a process which has to overcome denial and repression. The water acts as the
prison of the unconscious, locking in those memories which the ego and the super-ego
repress due to a fear of punishment and a feeling of guilt.
The search for an explanation in the past makes it clear that reaching "the
complete and final version" (Swift 8) of history is an illusion. The ghost-like
appearance of Freddy Parr and the presence of the narrator's brother, Dick Crick, destroy
this illusion. In the imaginary search for "the complete and final version" of
history, the events of the outer world become crystallized in the Fenlandian microcosm, in
a region where "[h]eavy drinking, madness and sudden acts of violence are not
uncommon" (17). On July 5, 1943, the narrator's father finds Freddy Parr's body, but
resists the acknowledgment of the violence associated with its presence in his sluice:
"He stood, facing us, on the tow-path. Then quite deliberately, for a matter of
several seconds, he turned to look the other way . . . He was hoping that if he turned his
back, counted ten, whispered a covert entreaty, it would go away. But it didn't"
(28). The narrator's father, Harry Crick, looks "the other way." He wants to
repress this ghost of history and attempts to "un-see" the bruise which is
visible on Freddy's forehead. In the course of the novel, the bruise comes to stand as a
metonymic representation of historical violence. For Harry Crick, the bruise is a
disguised reappearance of the violence he witnessed during his service in W.W.I in the mud
of Flanders. Freddy Parr appears as a revenant reminding Harry Crick of his own
experiences and the larger contemporary background of both W.W. I and II. Parr's ghost
destroys the illusion of the self-contained and non-contaminated Fenlandian way of life.
As the narrator puts it, "there's no escaping it: even if we miss the grand
repertoire of history, we yet imitate it in miniature and endorse, in miniature, its
longing for presence, for feature, for purpose, for content" (41). It is this
"longing for presence" of history which has as a result that "[t]here was
no suppressing Freddy Parr" (49). The bruise has to be acknowledged, which means that
its perpetuators have to be identified. From the beginning, the narrator establishes his
brother Dick, the uncanny character in the novel, as the main suspect. This attribution
conceals the narrator's own feelings of guilt and inadequacy, so that the character of
Dick Crick, the narrator's brother, comes to represent the destructive results of
In the various critics' reading of Waterland, Dick Crick crystallizes the
novel's perceived main themes. John Schad's Marxist reading of Waterland as
"an allegorical exploration of postmodern theories of the end of history" (911)
interprets Dick's situation as a "posthistorical vacuum that is still, very
obviously, set in relation to the Jamesonian nightmare of history: namely labor"
(914). Pamela Cooper's reading of Waterland as a postcolonial text posits Dick as
an instance of alterity: Dick Crick and his uncanny exterior appearance of "a long
potato-colored face, with a heavy jaw and a slack mouth which hung invariably open . . .
[and in which] the eyelids only registered emotion" (Swift 27) "becomes a kind
of revenant or ghost: the equivocal and fugitive accretion of those returnings which stalk
the embattled scene of modern history" in "Derridean terms" (Cooper 381).
Without confining Waterland into the postcolonial category, Cooper's interpretation
of Dick as "Other" does justice to the novel's attempt to redefine and expand
historical consciousness. Dick's mere presence counteracts "those amnesiac, those
time-erasing qualities so craved by all guilty parties" (Swift 134). In the course of
the novel, the narrator's inquiry into the past reveals that Dick is not Harry Crick's
biological son, but that of Helen Crick-Atkinson--Harry Crick's wife--and her father,
Ernest Atkinson. The incestuous relationship results in a character whose mental
limitations induce his surroundings to suppress that part of the past which is associated
with his presence. In the context of Freddy Parr's death, Dick's "mutilated"
identity and its illegitimate origin vehemently force their way into consciousness. The
past seems to take revenge for its repression in the present. Dick is suspected to be
Parr's murderer, but this is never proven. At the end of the novel Dick disappears--in a
similar way to the various types of revenants in Hill's and Heaney's poetry -- only to
leave the other characters behind with a feeling of their own responsibility and
One of the conditions for the "repressed material [to retain] its impetus to
penetrate into consciousness" is present '"[w]henever recent events produce
impressions or experiences which are so much like the repressed material that they have
the power to awaken it. Thus the recent material gets strengthened by the latent energy of
the repressed, and the repressed material produces its effects behind the recent material
and with its help" (Freud, Moses 121). The bruise on Freddy Parr's forehead,
which recalls the blow that Atkinson inflicted to his wife and which foreshadows the
bruises that the narrator inflicts on the abducted baby in an attempt to take it away from
his wife, is one instance in which the connection between the past, the present and the
future manifests itself. When the narrator's emotionally unstable wife, Mary
Metcalf--conjectured to have had a sexual relationship not only with her future husband,
but also with his brother, Dick--abducts a baby from a supermarket, Dick Crick's repressed
origin is forced into consciousness. The parallelism between these two instances of an
illegitimate creation of parenthood is also echoed by the Christian references associated
with it. For his biological (grand)father, Ernest Atkinson, Dick is supposed to become the
savior of the world, whereas Mary Metcalf insists that the baby was sent to her by God.
Both Helen Crick's father and Tom Crick's wife are afflicted by a kind of
"madness," a neurosis which -- according to Freud--always "conceals a quota
of unconscious sense of guilt, which in its turn fortifies the symptoms by making use of
them as a punishment" (Civilization and its Discontents 86). Dick and Mary
bear their own guilt--the murder of Freddy Parr and Mary's abortion when she was a
teenager--and that of previous generations.
The symptoms of this "unconscious sense of guilt" manifest themselves not
only in Dick Crick, Mary Metcalf and Ernest Atkinson, but in all the characters in the
novel, not the least the narrator. It is at this point that the past has to be faced and
can no longer be repressed because sometimes "the happening won't stop and let itself
be turned into memory" (Swift 329). The narrator, who considers himself to be "a
prisoner . . . of irreversibly historical events" (319-320), tries to break free from
this confinement when he "unlocked the past inside a black wooden chest" (320).
This unlocking of the broader context is achieved by the replacement of history with his
story. Price, the narrator's student, represents a part of Tom Crick's history. Price, who
paints his face white, appears as another revenant in the present of the narration. He
haunts the narrator, a history teacher, with his challenging and critical questions about
historical representation. Price's questions lead to Tom Crick's recovery of personal
history and to an awareness of the larger context, "[t]he very sentiments . . . of
1789" (6), "the Afghan crisis, the Teheran hostages, the perilous and apparently
unhaltable build-up of nuclear arms" (7). The unlocking of the regional past in order
to understand personal and global history is the narrative motor of the novel. The novel
itself becomes the space where the past is reworked. In the "historiographic
metafiction" of Waterland, the novel assumes some of the functions of
"that place which modernity forbids we call an asylum:" "First you tell
your dreams. First you speak your innermost fears. Then all the rest follows--the whole
story. Even back to when you were a little . . ." (155). Narration assumes the
function of psychoanalysis; the expression of the "innermost fears" constitutes
the first step on the way to recover as much as possible from "the whole story."
The voyage into the past triggers a reappearance of deliberately "forgotten"
events. In Seamus Heaney's sequence of twelve poems, "Station Island," which
constitutes one part of the larger 1984 collection of the same title, the speaker comes
across personifications of the regional past on his pilgrimage on the Irish Lough Dergh
island, which appears in many ways as a voyage to the underworld. In the course of one of
the various penitential exercises associated with the pilgrimage, the figure of a
"man had appeared / at the side of the field / with a bow-saw, held / stiffly up like
a lyre" (Part I, lines 9-12). This apparition defines itself as the speaker's
all-present "mystery man" (line 24). The present and the past mingle in a
dream-like landscape where the speaker encounters "half-remembered faces" (line
58). As the poem progresses, it becomes more and more concrete in its reference to the
conflicts between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. In part II, the speaker
confronts another version of the revenant, an "aggravated man" (line 9) who
"smelled hanged bodies rotting on their gibbets / and saw their looped slime gleaming
from the sacks -- / hard-mouthed Ribbonmen and Orange bigots" (lines 9-31). Before
this vision disappears, it gives the advice to "try to make sense of what comes. /
Remember everything and keep your head" (lines 53-54). This advice to understand the
future on the basis of the past is an exhortation to counteract the danger of cultural
amnesia. Yet, the poem does not present a utopian vision of this process of recovery, of
"remembering," because it points to the presence of those voices which
constantly shout "Secrets, secrets" and "Don't tell. Don't tell"
As the poem develops, more ghost-like figures appear and the violence is represented in
much more concrete terms than in Geoffrey Hill's poetry. In contrast to Hill's "curt,
sardonic utterance that borders on silent memorial" (Hart 88), Heaney's poetry is
marked by what Hart calls a "fascinated horror" (88). No wonder then that
"[t]o Heaney's detractors, he seems to justify atrocities any humane person would
condemn" (78). The difference in treatment of the Kurtzian "horror" by
Heaney and Hill is a reflection of the poets' opinion on what elements are necessary in
the process of creating historical consciousness. In Heaney's "Station Island,"
a multitude of voices bring in their stories--frequently with concrete descriptions of
physical violence--in order to give a sense of history as an accumulation of painful
personal experiences: the priest in part IV who went as a missionary to the rain forest
and imposed his religion on the "natives;" the man whose "brow / was blown
open above the eye and blood / had dried on his neck and cheek" (Part VII, lines
10-12) and who was the "perfect, clean unthinkable victim" (line 76) after a
robbery of his store; the Catholic in part VIII who was "dead at thirty-two"
(line 39) because a "Protestant . . . shot [him] through the head" (line 72) in
a "live sectarian assassination" (line 64); "[t]his voice from blight / And
hunger" (Part IX, lines 17-18) that emanates from the coffin to which it has been
confined since the "bomb flash" (line 7). Each of these dream-like appearances
vanishes after it has told its part of the history. One of them "headed up the road
at the same hard pace" (Part II, line 67), another "trembled like a heatwave and
faded" (Part VII, line 82) and yet another "moved off quickly [while] / the
downpour loosed its screens round his straight walk" (Part XII, lines 47-48). The
past appears as a mirage and yet it is real, because the description of the effects of
violence--Heaney's "fascinated horror" (Hart 88)--remains with the reader as a
"silent memorial" (88). After the vision has vanished, the reader is left with
an absence which is a presence. The past is always absent--that is past--yet it is always
already present in human consciousness, even if it is in a disguised form and has to be
awakened by "[t]his voice from blight / And hunger" (Part IX, lines 17-18).
Historical consciousness becomes possible when there is both an involvement and a
distance to the events. The moment of historical awareness becomes the creative impetus in
"Station Island." It occurs in part X when the speaker "mouthed at [his]
half-composed face / In the shaving-mirror, like somebody / Drunk in the bathroom during a
party, / Lulled and repelled by his own reflection" (lines 61-63). This experience of
self-division reflects the speaker's understanding of the connection between the regional
history which he has been exploring, his own life story and a broader historical
understanding. In the last part, part XII, the voice of an apparently blind man--who has
been read as representing James Joyce--tells him that "'[t]he main thing is to write
/ for the joy of it'" (192). At this point the speaker and the poet start to merge
and the verses become the poet's comment on the role of history in the creative process.
The voice warns the speaker/poet not to get caught in the past, but to move on with a
sharp historical consciousness: "'Take off from here . . . Let go, let fly, forget. /
You've listened long enough. Now strike your note / . . . You are raking at dead fires, /
rehearsing old whinges at your age . . . Keep at a tangent. / When they make the circle
wide, it's time to swim out on your own and fill the element'" (Part XII, lines
29-42). Rather than suggesting to repress the past, the voice encourages the speaker to
build a vision of the future on the awareness of the past. It is a positive
"forgetting" in its desire not to repress history, but to acknowledge it and to
work from there.
Heaney's widening circle is perhaps a subtle wink to Yeats's "widening gyre"
and all the ambiguities in meaning this much-quoted phrase implies. All of the above
discussed works refer to the possibility of a circularity of history. In Waterland,
the history teacher's lessons often turn around the question "how do we know . . .
that we are not moving in a great circle?" (Swift 135). Even a "revolution"
can be perceived as a "turning round, a completing of a cycle" (137). In part IV
of the Mercian Hymns, Hill refers to the immobility of a "clogged wheel"
(line 4). All of these references to circles, gyres and wheels can be taken to suggest
both a vision of despair and of hope. The widening gyre and the broadening cycle imply
both freedom and chaos; revolution is both a return of something past and the creation of
something new, the "clogged wheel" can befall the driver, yet human power can
liberate the wheel and even prevent the clogging. The ambiguity of the gyre points to the
responsibility of the individual in counteracting "a loss of happiness [which has
been created] through the heightening of the sense of guilt" (Freud, Civilization
81). Acknowledging the past and liberating its "repressed" aspects appears as a
way out of the "loss of happiness" and the self-destruction of humanity. Instead
of falling into a passive vision of the circle as repetitive and given, Geoffrey Hill,
Graham Swift and Seamus Heaney all at least suggest a vision of the circle as a metonym
for self-responsibility and agency in counteracting passivity and creating a historical
consciousness apt to prevent further violence. Whether this awareness of personal
implication in a broader conception of history is created by a scrutiny of the landscape
of the ancient Anglo- Saxon Mercian kingdom, the marshy East Anglian Fen region or the
Irish Lough Dergh Island depends on the specific kind of sensibility which digs the
"repressed" aspects out of the morass of history.
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Cooper, Pamela. "Imperial Topographies: The Spaces of History in Waterland."
Modern Fiction Studies 42.2 (Summer 1996): 371-396.
Freud, Sigmund. Moses and Monotheism. Trans. Katherine Jones. New York: Vintage
---. Civilization and its Discontents. Trans. James Strachey. New York: WW
Hart, Henry. Seamus Heaney -- Poet of Contrary Progressions. Syracuse: Syracuse
Heaney, Seamus. New Selected Poems 1966-1987. London: Faber and Faber, 1990.
Hill, Geoffrey. New and Collected Poems 1952-1992. Boston: Houghton Mifflin,
Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York:
Owen, Wilfred. The Penguin Book of English Verse. Ed. John Hayward. London:
Schad, John. "The End of the End of History: Graham Swift's Waterland."
Modern Fiction Studies 38.4 (Winter 1992): 911-925.
Sherry, Vincent. The Uncommon Tongue -- The Poetry and Criticism of Geoffrey Hill.
Ann Arbor: The U of Michigan Press, 1987.
Swift, Graham. Waterland. New York: Vintage Books, 1983.
Yeats, William Butler. Selected Poems and Four Plays. Ed. M.L. Rosenthal. New
York: Scribner Paperback Poetry, 1996.