[Poetry Analysis] From the Republic of Conscience

Published on the Human Right Day of 1985, From the Republic of Conscience is written by the celebrated Irish poet Seamus Heaney (I love his works a lot!) to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Amnesty International, a leading global human right NGO. Through narrating the speaker’s journey in the virtual nation of conscience, Heaney challenges the racial barriers created by political ideologies like nation-states, explores the common ground between different racial groups, and urges his readers to defend human rights with our consciousness.

From the Republic of Conscience

By Seamus Heaney

When I landed in the republic of conscience
it was so noiseless when the engines stopped
I could hear a curlew high above the runway
At immigration, the clerk was an old man
who produced a wallet from his homespun coat
and showed me a photograph of my grandfather
The woman in customs asked me to declare
the words of our traditional cures and charms
to heal dumbness and avert the evil eye
No porters. No interpreter. No taxi.
You carried your own burden and very soon
your symptoms of creeping privilege disappeared

Stanza I

  • Republic of conscience: Heaney imagines that Conscience can be a nation, a real place that you can visit (I consider a journey to the Republic of Conscience as some kind of ‘mental exploration’.)
  • old man: old and wise, familiar with traditions
  • ‘homespun’: simple and unsophisticated
  • declare the words of our traditional cures and charms: Strange, right? We declare luxury and taxable goods at the custom, not traditional custom and norms (Wordplay: The Customs and folk customs)
  • No interpreter: The Republic of Conscience expects every man who visits the country understand and can communicate with the language of ‘conscience’, i.e. Conscience is an inborn and primitive trait of every human being.
  • your own burden: 1. luggage; 2. your past, your family history, your traditions
  • symptoms of creeping privilege: Heaney deems privileges as ‘symptoms’, as sicknesses, defying the socio-economic and class differences between human beings.
  • Heaney subverts the general perceptions of nation-states and identities. In real life, humans are bound by their nationalities and separated by borders, races, statuses and so on. However, what truly define human are not passports and identity documents, but our personal history, cultures, and customs.

Fog is a dreaded omen there, but lightning
spells universal good and parents hang
swaddled infants in trees during thunderstorms
Salt is their precious mineral. And seashells
are held to the ear during births and funerals.
The base of all inks and pigments is seawater
Their sacred symbol is a stylized boat
The sail is an ear, the mast a sloping pen,
The hull a mouth-shape, the keel an open eye.
At their inauguration, public leaders
must swear to uphold unwritten law and weep
to atone for their presumption to hold office
and to affirm their faith that all life sprang
from salt in tears which the sky-god wept
after he dreamt his solitude was endless

Stanza II

  • Heaney tries to find out the common ground of humanity, regardless of races and religions: 1. Morality (e.g. everyone knows it is immoral to leave a helpless baby unattended during thunderstorms) 2. symbolism (e.g. salt: carries a positive connotation in different religions like Christianity and Islam) They are what unite humans and bring us together.
  • Their sacred symbol… the keel an open eye: Based on the fact that the poem is a tribute to Amnesty International, “a stylized boat” (line 8) with eye, ear, mouth and a sloping pen is a metaphor for the human right fighters of Amnesty International, who make remarkable contribution in global ethic initiatives (boat: vehicles for dissemination of ideas of human rights)
  • The base of all inks and pigments is seawater: inks and pigments are metonyms for words. Human right fighters like Heaney use words as means of protest (similar to seawater and boat: without water, boats can travel to nowhere).
  • Public leaders need to respect and “uphold unwritten laws ”, echoing the traditions mentioned in the first stanza.
  • sky-god wept: Sky-god cries for his solitude (vs. humans are connected by common traditions and history) Ha ha he envies us.
  • Sum Up: The transnational and trans-ethnical affiliation among every human being agrees with the principle beliefs of human rights: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. All humans are endowed with reason and conscience. We should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

I came back from that frugal republic
with my two arms the one length, the customs woman
having insisted my allowance was myself
The old man rose and gazed into my face
and said that was official recognition
that I was now a dual citizen
He therefore desired me when I got home
to consider myself a representative
and to speak on their behalf in my own tongue
Their embassies, he said, were everywhere
but operated independently
and no ambassador would ever be relieved

Stanza III

  • Without any efforts, the speaker is granted with “dual citizenship”: the citizens of both the Republic of Conscience (he is even a representative!) and his own country
  • speak on their behalf in my own tongue: We don’t have to compromise our national identity to fulfill our responsibility as a representative of conscience
  • operated independently: our judgment (conscience) should not be subject to political pressure
  • SUM UP: Finally, the poem urges us to reflect on the responsible of individuals in safeguarding human rights. Of course, Amnesty International is not the only one who should struggle for human rights. All human beings are the ambassadors of the Republic of Conscience that “would ever be relieved” (line 39).  Everyone should carry his/her own burden (protect our conscience). Our duty of speaking out against injustice would never cease.




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