In Small Townlands

In Small Townlands

Heaney watches an artist-friend, Colin Middleton, to whom the poem is dedicated, composing a painting in his own very personal style. Preoccupied with his own questions of composition and his personal imprint on his poems, Heaney describes a creative act exercised within another medium.

The initial landscape executed by the painter looks familiar to Heaney. The artist’s first steps, with hogshair wedge brush, seem to the poet’s eye, to be those of a ‘classically trained’ artist: his ‘process’ begins by treating variously the different components, distinguishing between the granite and the clay; using muted shades of colour (blue … grey) to add detail Till crystal in the rock is bared; defining outlines sharply where Loaded brushes hone an edge.

As if Outstared by the strength of Middleton’s burning gaze, the landscape recoils: Outcrops of stone contract.

The initial shaping completed, the landscape’s fears are confirmed: the surrealist within the painter suddenly explodes injecting bright colour into conventionally colour-neutral subjects (dew … cloud … rain). His colour-spectrum bursts, a bright grenade/ When he unlocks the safety catch modifying light effects so that, visibly splintered, they slice like a spade.

The painter employs a reductive sharp-edge to remove unwanted detail (fuzz and blotch) that is pared clean as bone. So extreme is the reversal of technique that its impact provokes equally strong reactive sensations: cruel as the pain/ That strikes in a wild heart attack.

The Middleton eyes that ‘see’ nature this way through thick, greedy lenses, dictate the use of strong primary colours that transform bare, bald earth into a volcanic conflagration of white and red, then go even further: Incinerate the land until it is burnt black yet brilliant as a funeral pyre.

The composition has imposed seismic change on the landscape: A new world cools out of his head.

  • In the poem ‘Loughanure’, published in his thirteenth collection, Human Chain, of 2010 Heaney will dedicate an elegiac sequence to the memory of Colin Middleton. The Heaneys originally met Middleton (even buying a painting) within the broad creative circle of poets and artists in Belfast in the early 60s ;
  • this study describes in words the painting style with which the poet associates Middleton; the latter saw himself as the only Irish ‘surrealist’ of his time;
  • townlands were the smallest administrative division of Irish administration;
  • Heaney provides a demonstration piece in which punctuation, enjambement and sound effects create variety of rhythm, impetus and oral dynamics;


  • 3 sextets of 8 syllable lines; a further rhyme scheme variation abcabc defdef;
  • in musical terms the poem has a quiet, measured first movement until outstared; sudden pace and volume are injected as the painter subjects his canvas to the fireworks of volcanic eruption, a long crescendo ending with the thunder of bass-drum and cymbal at heart attack; the poem’s third movement builds again to a second climax before the death image at funeral pyre , then decelerates into the measured single beats of the coda;
  • alliterative pairings: his hogshair; clay/ crystal; outcrops/ contract; spectrum bursts; clean/ cruel; bare/ bald; black/ brilliant ; assonant groupings: [ɪ] split/ granite; ʊ] loaded/ honed; [au] mountain/ outcrop/ outstared; [ei]   grenade/ safety;       
  • in combination: [ s],[ɪ], [ai]  splintered lights slice like a spade/ strip; extended vowel sound:[ɪ] his/ thick/ this/ incinerate it till it’s / brilliant;
  • following the vocabulary of colour on a range of intensity from pastel shades to volcanic violence and tracing the steps in the creative relationship of painter and product illustrates both Heaney’s verbal skills and the differences between all creative artists in whatever medium.