Bone Dreams

Heaney shed light on the genesis of his six ‘dream’ poems in conversation with DOD (p 157)

That summer of 1972, the month before we moved (to Glanmore Cottage in County Wicklow)…we did a lot of driving in the south-west of England, saw the white horses carved into the hills, visited Maiden Castle in Dorset and the old earthworks in Dorchester. When we were in Gloucestershire staying in this lovely Tudor manor house where Marie’s sister was then living, I wrote Bone Dreams – the first of those loose-link ziggy-zaggy sequences that would eventually appear in North.

At the time artist friend Barrie Cooke was doing a series of ‘bone boxes’; thinking about them brought up memories of bones I used to find around Mossbawn, so next thing a frolic of free association got started and ended up taking in the whole of Roman-Celtic Britain, from Maiden Castle to Hadrian’s Wall. The chalkiness of the bone, the chalk downs, the amorousness and adventure of that summer are behind those particular ‘dreams’.

The poet’s ‘frolic of free association’ produces an absorbing medley that interweaves items of historic, linguistic and intimately personal interest. Whilst the pieces range far afield both in geography and time there is a basic empathy with Celtic origins and echoes of the theme of Irish dispossession that features more explicitly, perhaps, in other poems in the collection. The allegorical motif of the sequence, that of an Irishman counter-‘invading’ England, is never far away.


The sequence is triggered by the discovery of a bone found on the grazing land of Heaney’s rural landscape. The bone’s texture transmits its message via its rough, porous/ language of touch.

It is a remnant from the past, a yellowing ribbed/ impression in the grass, a memento mori even, a long-dead symbol of the loss of Celtic roots, a small ship burial lifeless as stone. hard and flaky as flint, bleached as a nugget of chalk but as valued to the finder as gold.

Having confirmed the truth of its touch the speaker resolves to prime the rudimentary Old Testament vintage weapon he carries (wind it in the sling of the mind) and hurl the bone as an act of defiance against a historical oppressor of Ireland, a missile-symbol fired onto the strange fields of the English mainland and to follow it in the mind’s eye then to go there himself;

  • sling: a primitive weapon used, for example by David to kill the giant Goliath;

  • strange: implication of ‘foreign’ F. étranger;

  • The bone is an example of nubbed treasure approved by the warning voice in the poem North, as something the poet knows he can touch and trust;

  • 4 quatrains; variable line length between 3 and 7 syllables; 8 enjambed lines; no rhyme scheme; 2 sentence structure;

  • assonant effects centre round: [əʊ] bone/ yellowing/ stone; [ʌ] rough/ porous/ touch/ nugget[ai] white/ find/ wind[ɪ] its/ ribbed impression in/ ship/ flint/ it in the sling/ England/ pitch it; [e]yellowing/ impression/ burial/ dead; [ɒ] follow its drop; distant echo[ei]grazing strange;

  • vowel (i) sounds in melodic assonant combination: I wind it in/ the sling of mind/ to pitch it.  


Bone associations send the poet-philologist back into the history of language; the device he picks out acts as a catalyst.

Heaney unearths a ‘kenning’ (vehicle of allegory), Bone-house, now linguistically defunct, so a skeleton retrieved from the tongue’s/ old dungeon.

He delves into the differing ways people who contributed directly or indirectly to Irish historical experience expressed themselves (dictions): the Elizabethan age of canopies was equally a 16th century time of Irish occupation by the English; the heraldic devices of the Normans who made their presence felt in 12th century Ireland; back in time past the 11th century ‘courtly love’ age of the troubadours in France’s ‘latinised’ Provence region remembered for the aphrodisiac effect of its erotic mayflowers; past the persistent ivied Latins/ of churchmen who via the likes of Saint Patrick in 5th century Ireland carried the Roman language across Europe as part of the development of the organised church. The journey ends in the place where the ‘kenning’ would have been heard in pre-Viking Ireland.

The final quatrain paints a vivid picture of linguistic and military clash of those times: the sound of voice and bowstring; the glint of weaponry and the forceful utterance, the persistent tradition of oral recitation and the axe blows of battle it might have celebrated: the scop’s/ twang, the iron/ flash of consonants/ cleaving the line.

  • bone-house’ is an example of ‘kenning’. This stylistic device from Old Norse Skaldic verse, generally a compound word, expresses one thing in terms of another so as to add descriptive colour; here a circumlocution for ‘human body’;

  • the Elizabethan era produced the style of ornate canopy beds;

  • Provence: an area of Southern France; 12-14c home of the troubadour court poets and of ‘courtly love’; seat of the Latinised ‘langue d’oc’ (‘hoc’, latin word for ‘yes’) eventually superseded by the northern ‘langue d’oïl’ (‘oïl’, the Frankish word for ‘yes’ that became ‘oui’) as a basis for modern French;

  • device: late 13c., from O.Fr. devis “division, separation, disposition, wish, desire; coat of arms, emblem; last will,” from deviser “to divide, distribute”

  • scops were the Anglo-Saxon composers and reciters of poetry, based on an oral tradition;

twang: first spotted in the1550s as a word imitating the sound made by bows and bow-strings; extension to “a nasal vocal sound” first recorded 1660s.

  • sonic chains: [ʌ] tongue’s/ dungeons/ push; [ai] I/ devices/ ivied/ iron/ line; [ɪ] dictions/ Elizabethan canopies/ erotic/ ivied Latins; [ɒ] erotic/ Provence/ scop’s/ consonants;

  • cleaving: offers a dual idea: firstly from Old English that of ‘sticking’, ‘clinging’; secondly from a different root that of ’splitting’, ‘separating’.

  • fricative consonant sounds [ʃ] push/ dictions/ flash [tʃ] churchmen alongside numerous sibilant [s] from skeleton to consonants and plosive [t] components;


The bone-house inspires a dream of Celtic landscape.

The philologist-poet has retrieved the kenning ban hus from the treasure-chests of ancient tongues with their unusual syntax and noun shapes: coffered riches of grammar / and declensions.

The ban hus evokes a picture of human existence in Celtic times: the rudimentary dwelling with its fire, benches,/ wattle and rafters; the superstition that dead souls fluttered awhile/ in the roofspace prior to transmigrating; the human skull, crock for the brain, of ritual importance to the Celts.

In this environment the animal urge to reproduce was predominant: a cauldron of generation swung at the centre; kenning-like compounds link basic native lust with the animal-like lairs where it was sated: love-den and blood-holt. The final periphrastic dream-bower offers a much less primitive reference to the act of love emanating from that part of the mind where pleasures, emotions and aspirations are said to be generated.

  • holt: an animal’s (more specifically, otter’s) lair;

  • 4 quatrains; variable line length between 3 and 5 syllables; 8 enjambed lines; no rhyme scheme; 2 sentence structure;

  • fricative consonant sounds [ʃ] declensions/ generation [tʃ] riches/ benches alongside numerous sibilant [s] from riches to centre and pulses of plosive [k] from coffered to cauldron and fricative [f] from found to roofspace;

  • sound chains and echoes include [ai] I/ fire/ while [ei] space/ brain/ generation [əʊ] soul/ holt [ʌ] fluttered/ swung/ love;[ɒ] coffered/ wattle/ was/ crock; [ɔː] small/ cauldron;


Connecting time-past to time-recalled: Heaney sets out an association between a personal happening and a hillside symbol of Celtic carnality, a sexual experience born of, intimately related to and at one with the landscape in which it occurred. The voice is at once that of the Celtic-British Cerne Abbas Giant and the modern speaker.

His intellectual foray into philology and kennings now behind him, the speaker lies in his bone’s lair, his love-nest in the grass. He is not alone. Anatomical and geological features are intimately linked; touch becomes paramount as the man’s senses are aroused: I hold my lady’s head/ like a crystal/ and ossify myself (become as hard as bone; the giant’s outline features an outsized erect penis cut into the chalk)) / by gazing. The relationship is an intimate coming-together: I am screes on her escarpment: she is the sloping Dorset hillside turf; he is the chalk giant at one with her: carved upon her downs. He uses his hands to excite the erogenous zones of her body: the sunken fosse (reference to the excavated trenches of ancient earthworks) of her spine and her passes.

  • kenning: defined from the early 14c. as “sign, token; teaching, instruction;” ; its association with the Old Norse verb kenna “to know, to recognize, to feel or perceive; to call” opened the suggestion of poetic metaphor: a periphrastic phrase standing for something else

  • philology: from its earliest sense of “love of learning,” the word came to be used with reference to the “science of language” referred to in the United States as linguistics;

  • chalk giant: reference to the priapic chalk giant with its phallic appendage cut out of the chalk hillside at Cerne Abbas in Dorset;

  • 4 quatrains; variable line length between 3 and 7 syllables; 10 enjambed lines; no rhyme scheme; 3 sentence structure;

  • Sound effects: assonant [ʌ] come/ love/ upon/ sunken; [ɪ] philology/ kennings/ is/ in/ gazing [ɒ] philology/ ossify; [ɒ] on/ fosse of; [e] kennings/ enter/ memory/ lair/ nest/ head/ escarpments [ei] lady’s/ gazing; [əʊ] bone’s/ hold [uː] soon/ move; alliterative: velar plosive [k] around stanza (3); recurring sibilant [s] groups;


As passions cool the intimacy remains; the couple, real or allegorical, lie side by side cradling each other between the lips of an ancient earthwork. The ‘she’ is now as much ‘country’ as ‘woman’.

Interlacing the vocabulary of anatomy and ancient fortifications the male partner casts a surveyor’s eye over the object of his desire: I estimate for pleasure her knuckles’ paving/ the turning stiles/ of the elbows/ the vallum of her brow the long wicket/ of the collar bone. The speaker’s allegorical counter-possession of England looms large: he has begun to pace the Hadrian’s Wall/ of her shoulder, dreaming of Maiden Castle its Celtic impregnability overcome, the speaker’s ‘ invasion’ complete.

  • vallum: from Roman Antiquity: a rampart, raised stockade of defence;

  • stile: an Old English “device for climbing, ladder” ; also a footpath arrangement to allow persons to pass but not sheep and cattle;

  • wicket: early 13c., “small door or gate”; in this context it may also contain connotations of Old English. wican “to give way, yield”;

  • Hadrian’s Wall’, a turf and stone barrier built by the Romans from 122 AD, (between Wallsend on Tyne and the Solway Firth) to stifle raids from Pictish tribes to the North;

  • Maiden Castle: expansive Iron Age hill-fort in Dorset; its original Celtic name means ‘great hill’. Its actual name lends itself to a number of implications;

  • 4 quatrains; variable line length between 3 and 6 syllables; 10 enjambed lines; no rhyme scheme; 2 sentence structure;

  • principal assonant chains: [i:] we/ each/ between later dreaming; [ɜː] earthwork; [e] estimate/ pleasure/ elbows/; [ei] cradling/ estimate/ paving/ pace/ Hadrian’s/ Maiden; [əʊ] elbows/ bone/ shoulder;

  • pulses of bilabial [m] and alveolar [n] nasals; paired bilabial plosive [p];

  • MP sees an allegorical message of the sequence: Heaney’s invasion of England is a lyrical affair, a gentle love-act in which the partners end up ‘cradling each other’ (p 134)


In the final ‘bone dream’ the speaker makes the chance discovery a dead mole discovered early one morning (the dew still beading it) on a visit to England’s West Country. The creature is unknown in Ireland thus Heaney’s knowledge of it is limited: not the big-boned coulter (referring to the metal wedge immediately in front of the plough that forces its way through the soil and would lend the creature a super-mole earth-moving capacity) but small and cold/ as the thick of a chisel. The creature seems a metaphor for small things capable of great impact.

His interest centres first on the little points of the mole’s eyes revealed beneath the fur on his head and then the feel of the shoulders.

This example of nubbed treasure triggers associated ideas and emotion, linking a tiny creature unknown in Ireland to a lengthy range of English mountains stretching southwards down the northern spine of the country: I touched small distant Pennines/ a pelt of grass and grain/ running south.

  • Pennines: a mountain range forming the backbone of England from the North Midlands northwards;

  • pelt: skin of a fur-bearing animal;

  • grain: used of wood (1560s), from the arrangement of fibers; against the grain (1650), a metaphor from carpentry: cutting across the fibers of the wood is more difficult than cutting along them.

  • 4 quatrains; variable line length between 3 and 7 syllables; 7 enjambed lines; no rhyme scheme; multiple sentence structure;

  • Sentence (1) assembles slightly variant vowel (o) sounds with [e] Devon/ dead and beats of alveolar plosive [d] Devon/ found/ dead/ dew/ beading;

  • (2) rings a change to assonant [əʊ]mole/ boned coulter/ cold and paired [ɔː] thought/ small combined with velar plosive [k] coulter/ cold/ thick;

  • (3) (4) and (5) re-echo [əʊ] blow/ blow/ Those/ shoulders; labio-dental fricatives fur/ feel;

  • (6) combines flavours of [ɪ] distant/ running and sibilant [s], the bilabial plosive of Pennines/ pelt and alliterative trilled velar plosive grass/ grain;

  • running south: beyond its immediate context this final line of the sextet awakens the thought that at the time Bone Dreams were developing Heaney himself was perhaps poised to ‘run south’ from Northern Ireland into the Republic;  

The Bone Dream sequence as a whole

  • 6 poems partly about the philological development of language and languages;

  • SH describes himself burrowing into Celtic/ Norse lexis to gain a sense of the ancient culture;

  • The carnal theme introduced in IV is animated by reference to natural features as if to suggest that sensual delight and linguistic intimacy can be associated with landscape;

  • The allegory of Anglo-Irish relationships holds good;

  • paradox: Heaney was not born into a family where Irish was spoken (he had to learn it);

English is his poetic medium whatever pro Irish sensitivity he may harbour as regards the British presence in Elizabethan times or as a catalyst to the current Troubles;

  • IV & V, combining sexual philology and topography are as strange as anything Heaney has written (NC68).