As early as Blackberry Picking with his family in Death of a Naturalist (1966) child-Heaney discovered perishability In the world around him, laws of mutabilty that reduced stored treasure to decomposition, pleasurable blackberries to ‘rat-grey fungus’. The experience offered him two lessons, firstly that nothing remains in its perfect state for long and secondly that moments of poetic charge from whatever source can and do spark an involuntary welling up of emotional consciousness within him. The heart-on-ones-sleeve responses of that early poem are replaced, in the metaphysical parable of Hailstones, by the outcome of a childhood experience in which ice melted into nothing and how its nothingness in the mind of a child destined to become a poet became an […]

From the Republic of Conscience

An anonymous first person ‘I’, let us call him Traveller, journeys wittingly to a place with a mysterious name. Traveller is an individual normally caught up in a maelstrom of activity, sensitive to Nature surrounding him and family-minded. I Heaney accepted that the poem was set in a remote island off the north-east coast of Scotland: I imagined the Republic of Conscience as a place of silence and solitude where a person would find it hard to avoid self-awareness and self-examination, which is what made me think of Orkney (DOD292); The airplane carrying Traveller has arrived at its scheduled destination – an allegorical somewhere bearing an unusual name (republic of conscience). Traveller is met with conducive silence (noiseless when the […]

Parable Island

For all the title’s alignment of ‘Island’ and ‘Ireland’ Heaney presents his four-piece sequence of 1985 as a fictional place in which he is a silent listener. The clues he feeds into the narrative reveal, however, that he is on home ground. Helen Vendler’s view that the importance of these poems of competing discourses lies in the poet’s conviction that the person who owns the language owns the story, and that he who wishes to change the story must first change the language (HV125) is at the very source.  Parable Island regrets the seeming impossibility of what Heaney yearns for in his every sinew: he senses that from the way they communicate with each other the Irish themselves have placed […]

A Daylight Art

for Norman MacCaig In this fascinating poem Heaney seeks to shed light on tantalizing questions. What is self-doubt?  What is ‘art’? Where does it begin and where does it end? Is there a place alongside ‘art’ for ‘art form’? Where does he stand? He shines his lamp on what makes people tick – historical or classical figures or characters in tragic drama  – and finally what makes him tick. He claims his ‘light’ is generated from pursuits he follows, the ‘art’ writing poetry and the ‘art form’ of catching fish! Jacques Louis David’s canvas of Socrates pictures him on his death couch (day he was to take the poison), holding forth to friends, supporters and gaolers. Heaney is perplexed that, […]

The Stone Grinder

He who composes the poem provides the key to understanding (‘ordained opacities’ line 9).  If we are to enter The Stone Grinder easily then sifting the clues Heaney provides is key. On the one hand legendary queen Penelope of Homeric legend with a mission to achieve (some guarantee of a plot) in challenging circumstances; by cunning construction and deconstruction of her shroud (she unweaved at night) she engineers a successful outcome for herself advance it all by a day), defeating unworthy male intrusion in the process; her story and her ‘plot’ are memorialised in Homer’s classic. Alongside queen Penelope an unpretentious figure of old Irish pedigree – a tetchy stone grinder who has laboured at the same job throughout his […]

From the Frontier of Writing

In the anonymity of Heaney’s ‘From the…’ world, somewhere can be anywhere … except that we recognise a road block mounted by the British Army somewhere in Northern Ireland in the post 1972 period, acknowledge that Heaney is the man behind the wheel of his car and that, similar to the fate of a nation under occupation, this poet’s life and career have undergone humiliating stresses and strains of others’ making. The piece’s first 12 lines adopt a kind of ‘cinéma vérité’ approach – portraying threatening subject matter, exposing an unpleasant reality that so many Irish people suffered at the time, reducing military scrutiny to its basic routine and repressing personal feelings on both sides – survival. Only when the […]


Heaney sets out the tangle of contradictions and demarcations with which his brain was confronted from an early age. The poet tells Neil Corcoran just how confusing he found Mossbawn boundaries following the commentaries below. The frontman Heaney selects for the title of his triptych is the Roman god of boundaries able to look in both directions, something Heaney feels a poet should aspire to. Perhaps also, as history has recorded, the position reached by Heaney’s earl character in the final couplet was equally a ‘terminus’ point for Irish unification. The first two parts of the poem set out the doubleness of young Heaney’s experience, conflicting sets of evidence arranged in left-right fashion and organized within the framework of lived […]


Alphabets commissioned by the exclusive Phi Beta Kappa Society of high-performing undergraduates and friends at Harvard University was delivered in the Sanders Theatre in 1984 The sets of letters that represent the sounds and glyphs of language as a child first hears it form the basis of its written and reading forms critical both to basic skills and more refined long-term uses. Learning the alphabet underpins the first stage at school. First language comes from home and school; subsequent ones out of interest or study. Heaney runs us through his range of English, Latin, Irish and Greek from modest Anahorish Primary to the most prestigious lecture theatres in the world. I A child’s earliest memory of shape: the shadow of […]


I should like to dedicate my commentaries on The Haw Lantern to passionate Heaney aficionado Eugene Kielt. Eugene knows Heaney’s stamping ground around Mossbawn, Catledawson and Bellaghy like the back of his hand and he took great pleasure in passing on to me his scholarship, anecdotes and precious insights when I stayed with him and his wife Gerardine at their excellent Laurel Villa Guesthouse in Magherafelt (www.laurel-villa.com). Eugene, you brought it all to life for me and I count you as a friend. Thank you so much. Foreword Seamus Heaney’s The Haw Lantern is the poet’s seventh collection published by Faber and Faber in 1987. By that stage Seamus Heaney is a highly cultured, sensitive, northern Irish Catholic approaching fifty […]

Would They Had Stay’d

The five section sequence laments a clutch of Scottish poets all of whom have passed away in the period preceding Electric Light. ‘Deer’ emerges as a unifying motif. In  Station Island’s ‘On The Road’  the prehistoric deer inscribed on a Dordogne cave wall became Heaney’s emblem for the creative force that his quartet of elegised poets have undoubtedly bequeathed to Gaelic and Scottish literature and heritage. Shakespeare’s three witches from Macbeth melt in and out of the narrative in their capacity to prophesy. 1 A couple on a Scottish visit chance upon Highland wildlife. ‘His’ sharp eye has spotted a quartet of elusive creatures hiding in the heather, deer camouflaged against the Highland background. The sight will have allegorical consequences. […]


for Felim Egan Heaney composes a sequence featuring three static graphic art shapes: a two-dimensional Renaissance drawing that Heaney realizes he once once copied in three dimensions as a youngster at the seaside; a much earlier sacred mural revamped for the twentieth; finally a Dublin Bay ‘canvas’ capturing in words the painting of an abstract artist who lived and worked there and to whom the poem is dedicated. Old postcards of Portstewart reveal the natural deep pool in which boy-Heaney on vacation could immerse himself and did (waded in up to the chest), then found his floating balance (half-suspended) and adopted a Vitruvian pose: (legs wide apart … arms stretched sideways  buoyant to the fingertips), the sea level with his […]

Virgil: Eclogue IX

Heaney offers us his version of Virgil’s original.  He remains loyal to the original but weaves into his translation the subtleties of meaning he perceives, adding the alliterations, assonances, mood and rhythms that ensure that Virgil’s original ‘song’ remains pleasing to the ear. The inclusion of the eclogue form in Electric Light is meaningful. There is much in Eclogue IX of 37BC that chimes with Irish experience and Heaney’s inner preoccupations 2000 years on: dispossession and change of routine imposed on ordinary folk from above; the apparent  impotence of opposition and repression of the vox populi ; the role of poetry in this respect and the dangers this brings; the reluctance of poets–in-waiting to wade into the debate; the opposition […]

Turpin Song

The poem is built around an emblematic eighteenth century horse-pistol that sat on a wall in the Heaney family home, long an object of both mystery and interest to Heaney and his siblings. Heaney recalls the weapon in great detail: the intricate decoration of its grip (brass inlay smooth in the stock); its primed state (hammers cocked like lugs); the patterning (mottled) of its twin barrels; the evidence of discharge (sooty nostrilled) and its angled readiness for a duel (levelled). Deliberately placed beyond reach of young curiosity (bracketed over the door) in an upstairs room, it was viewed as an imitation weapon with weight and mass (ghost  heft) that children’s itchy fingers longed to feeI and could imagine themselves handling […]

To the Shade of Zbigniew Herbert

Heaney addresses the memory of a Polish poet he respected greatly for his ‘exemplary ethical and artistic integrity, his noble profile, solidarity with the victims of history and poetic and thereby political strength’; he became a bastion of resistance during turbulent periods of Polish occupation by the Russians. Active within the Polish Solidarity movement (one of those), of hyperborean giant status caught in the Polish ‘cold’ (from the back of the north wind), touched by creative talent (Apollo favoured), a poetic mouthpiece and spiritual strength when times were dark (the winter season), a popular (among your people) voice-in-waiting when his poetry was forbidden by the authorities (herald whenever he’d departed), when freedom of speech was repressed (the land was silent) […]

The Real Names

Heaney’s substantial ten-part sequence traces the twin development of his journey into Shakespeare and his journey into poetry. It ranges back and to in time and location. The ‘real names’ are the authentic individuals who were at school with Heaney and as members of St Columb’s Dramatic Society played the Shakespearean characters of annual school productions. The Shakespeare texts were set in stone, the lives of the young actors, including Heaney’s, anything but. In her review of Electric Light (Irish Times of  Mon, Jun 3, 2019) under the heading ‘Heaney the survivor’,  Helen Vendler offers her own insights into the poet’s use of sequences:  ‘Exploring the mystery of the self has been a steady concern in Heaney’s work, but while […]

The Loose Box

The title focuses on the particular compartment within the Mossbawn stable complex in which the animal was free to move about. In her review of Electric Light (Irish Times of Mon, Jun 3, 2019) under the heading ‘Heaney the Survivor’, Helen Vendler suggests that ‘the best vehicle for a memory-cluster is a poetic sequence. The Loose Box provides Heaney with the vehicle to grasp, explore and expand the bundles of associations that orbit his central focus. The sequence’s central motif is food … the fodder offered to the farm’s animals … the electric charge providing sustenance for the creative mind …  the single natural component of an underwhelming Christmas Nativity scene witnessed by child-Heaney … the sacrifices fed a monstrous […]

The Little Canticles of Asturias

Three snippets from a wider poetic travelogue recount stages along the roads of northern Spain that lead to Santiago de Compostela, the cathedral city and culmination of the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrim Way of St James. Heaney and his passengers are not pilgrims as such and Heaney only reaches Santiago de Compostela in imagination. Heaney’s canticles, traditionally hymns or chants, are composed as three short pieces. The first paints a real-life descent into a Dantesque hell; the second, the calm after the storm, focuses on the spiritual and emotional restitution of the soul; the third concentrates on bodily recovery before returning to the pilgrim theme. 1 Heaney presents an on-going (and then) chronicle at mid-point (in medias res). Driver […]

The Gaeltacht

  Background: In September 2013 the Derry Journal published a photo taken at Ros Guill  in 1960 (https://www.derryjournal.com/news/remembering-seamus-1- 5534865). It featured ‘Seamus Heaney … pictured with friends on a trip to the Donegal Gaeltacht at Easter 1960’. Some of them were still traceable 40 years on, at least one of them has died, others were off radar. According to the Journal ‘Those featured include Vera Rafferty, Paddy Simon Gallagher, Peter Gallagher, Margaret Conway, Patricia Bradley, Aoibheann Marren, and Noel Hamilton. Alongside Seamus Heaney in the foreground are Gerry Downey and Patsy Quigg’. It was further suggested that Heaney had used Vera Rafferty’s nickname ‘Chips’ in the poem. Peter Gallagher, identified in the original photograph, revealed in an article in the Derry […]

The Fragment

Heaney presents two fragments, the first drawn from his translation of Beowulf and the second from his own post- Belfast chronology; both Beowulf’s swim and Heaney’s move to the Irish Republic were judged reckless. Poet and warrior join forces to rebuff their critics. An envious courtier, Unferth, has challenged Beowulf’s honour-code by implying that the latter’s exposure to a reckless swimming contest does not make for heroism. In rebuffing Unferth’s comments Beowulf celebrated (sang) his survival after ‘seven days in the icy waves’, swimming and fighting monsters at sea that now lay dead on beaches and would no longer attack passing ships. For this early Christian the rising sun (‘Light … from the east) is proof of the Almighty (bright […]

The Clothes Shrine

In praise of women. Heaney composes a poem at once crackling with sexual electricity and diffused with spiritual light. Composed in a single sentence hyphenated to offer three distinctive angles Clothes Shrine harks back on the one hand to the sexuality of Heaney’s and Marie’s early-days’ relationship (he found her sensationally attractive, as he explained in Twice Shy of Death of a Naturalist of 1965) and on the other the shining example of an Irish goddess turned saint; the strengths and qualities embodied in the final quartet apply to both and (unstated) to other strong female influences in Heaney’s life – his own mother and her sister Mary. Heaney chatted to Daljit Nagra in a BBC interview of March 2001 […]

The Border Campaign

for Nadine Gordimer Heaney alludes specifically to a guerrilla warfare campaign carried out between 1956 and 1962 by the Irish Republican Army against targets in Northern Ireland. Local knowledge confirms a direct link between the poem’s opening scene and an IRA attack on Magherafelt Court House on December 12th 1956, the day after the campaign was launched, at a time when Heaney was a teenage boarder at St Columb’s College in Derry. The poem contributes to a time-line of Irish politics and, via an Anglo-Saxon epic, the emotional response of a teenage boarder to unfolding events in the area where he lives and the city where he is schooled. The visual aftermath of explosion: the shell of a public building […]

The Bookcase

  A bookcase standing in the Heaney home indicates the joint tastes of Heaney and Marie and triggers layers of association in the mind of a widely read, aesthetically-sensitive and highly imaginative Irish poet. The piece is constructed to high specification and entirely fit for purpose – made of quality material (ashwood or oakwood); expertly prepared (planed to silkiness) and joined (mitred); each length of wood tested for straightness (much eyed-along) and naturally coloured (vellum-pale); shelves that have stood the test of weight and time (held and never sagged) – in short, perfection (virtue … from its very shipshapeness). Heaney’s memory-eye comes to rest on a book-spine that by its colour triggers a 1940s’/50s’association (rough blue paper bags loose sugar […]

Ten Glosses

  Glosses figure in the margins and between the lines of poems in composition or books being read, not just as a poet’s comment, explanation, interpretation or paraphrase of something penned, but equally a new layer of consciousness or a fresh association to be borne in mind or the germ of a new piece. In that respect Heaney’s Ten Glosses fascinate and absorb as the wider intent of each emerges. They are compact, to the point and poetic. Perhaps for this reason the background information required to get to grips with them can considerably outweigh the word count itself. 1 The Marching Season Ostensibly this first gloss draws together quotations and characters from Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ (I wait for Banquo and […]


in memory of Mary O Muirithe Poetic licence permits Heaney (who first attended Irish camp in his teens) to spend childhood camp time with Mary who was 4 years his senior. Mary and the breac-Gaeltacht are inextricably linked in his mind. She is dead and he wants to talk warmly to and about her – in this retrospective dramatization she is still very much alive. Mary will never leave the eternal present of the poem He hears Mary’s voice in the mountain cataract (sruth) that sang with the region’s blend of Irish and English (bilingual) – genuine, pure sound-water (truth) gushing (race … spilling) down from the iconic Donegal peak and landmark (Errigal), its flow a cascade (rush of its […]

Sonnets from Hellas

  Five colourful vignettes depicting a country acknowledged by many as the cradle of western civilisation and a land of milk and honey – five ‘diary entries’ in verse – a moveable feast for senses, spirit and intellect recalled in vivid and intimate detail. Heaney spoke to DOD of his 1995 holiday (369) … Marie and myself and Cynthia and Dimitri Hadzi. … long promised, long deferred, but finally it had become inevitable. I’d done the first Sophocles translation five years before  (‘Philoctetes’ premiered by Field Day Theatre Company as ‘The Cure of Troy’) and had just published a limited edition that included the ‘Mycenae Lookout’ sequence, with art work by Dimitri.  I’d got to know the Hadzis in Harvard. […]