Ancestral Photograph

  A brown-tinted study of the family’s past is to be removed from the wall where it has been hanging. The study is a revealing snap-shot of the person it depicts conjuring up three generations of the Heaney human chain. The poet transposes the photo into words: that of a proud Irish countryman (with jaws that puff) of seemingly indestructible build (round and solid as a turnip), his lifeless, matt (dead) eyes (fixed by the camera’s shutter) like those of a statue, the facial features suggestive of a dour, overbearing nature: upper lip/ Bullies the heavy mouth down to a droop. His accessories (a bowler-hat and well-to-do watch-chain of silver … like a hoop) lend him a theatrical stage Irishman […]


A burlesque drama is played out in the guise of paramilitary exercise.  Two macho Laurel and Hardy ‘heroes’ are motivated by official bounty payments that could be claimed for killing listed vermin. Their pursuit of financial reward is long in build-up and over in a flash; relative failure is written off as hardly worth the effort anyway! The poet chuckles at the laddish mentality exhibited by the narrator and his companion, Donnelly. The inhospitable dawn sky is as grey and damp as building materials:  Clouds ran their wet mortar, plastered the daybreak. The bounty-hunters are en route to the ‘killing fields’, along a railway-track, disturbing stones that clicked tartly underfoot and compromised the surprise factor (mostly silent). Too early for […]


Heaney expresses his respect and love for his father, explores his own place in the family line and, in observing the toll that time takes on Man, sets out a paradox that is evident to him twenty years on. The poet paints the rural portrait of a strong, silent father from twenty years before: an impressive sight then, a tall-ship (shoulders like a full sail strung); a man at work in the fields, in full control of plough and horses (between the shafts and the furrow). In short, to his admiring son, he is a hero (expert) adept at positioning the plough’s wing and bright steel-pointed sock so as to produce the perfect sod rolled over without breaking, controlling his […]

For the Commander of the Eliza

In a dark setting unrelieved by any chink of light Heaney pursues the issue of Irish suffering at the hands of the British (the 1845-8 famine conditions were introduced in Potato Digging iii). He describes an incident that upholds the poem’s epigraph and accounts for the burning sense of injustice still felt within the Irish psyche over 150 years later. The epigraph (drawn from The Great Hunger; Ireland 1845 – 49  by Cecil Woodham-Smith) sets out the visual manifestation of suffering  on Irish ground and the absence of compassion further up the chain of command; the most dismissive are the loftiest who hold the whip hand in London. CWS cites Routh Russell, a contemporary provider of reports on the Irish […]

At a Potato Digging

Heaney builds his sympathy for the Irish condition into this bleak sequence via particular reference to the great misfortunes suffered by his fellow countrymen during the Irish potato famines between 1845–8. All four poems explore Irish dependency on its staple potato crop. Heaney is asking why anyone should be surprised at long-term Irish grievance resulting from the non-response to rural hardship of those who over history have imposed insensitive government from Whitehall in London. I In many cultures Mother Earth (presented here as a divinity worshipped in Ireland on the altar of the sod) presides as a pre-Christian symbol over planting and harvesting. The legendary importance to the Irish of the potato crop explains the reverence Heaney lends it. This […]

Personal Helicon

Personal Helicon dedicated to Michael Longley, co-member of Hobsbaum’s Belfast poetry Group in the 1960s. In the collection’s final poem Heaney delves into the Irish ‘underlay’ (things that make Ulster magically special and unique for him) revealing his affection for a common feature of the damp South Derry landscape. He identifies the wells of his childhood as sources of poetic inspiration (his Personal Helicon). Still a part-time poet he reflects on the transition from childhood to the here-and-now and whilst acknowledging a debt to wells reveals that he has outgrown his childish pursuits. The youngster was fascinated by wells and old pumps that no parental cautions could ( ) keep me from, particularly on account of the winching gear (buckets […]

The Play Way

As a young teacher Heaney was required to plan and assess lessons and teaching methods; his poem reports on a lesson he devised to encourage creative writing. Some things have not changed: classic sunlight entering in shafts through the window-panes (glass) seeks confirmation (probes each desk) of the sights smells and textures (milk-tops, drinking straws and old dry crusts) of a standard British classroom. In contrast, responding to a progressive Educational initiative of the period, the trainee goes for innovation: using a classical recording (music strides to challenge it) he eschews the ‘chalk-and-talk’ of his own school-days (mixing memory and desire with chalk-dust) and seeks the creative and emotional responses of the pupils themselves. His lesson-plan introduces Beethoven. Initial impertinence […]

The Diviner

Heaney delves into the Irish ‘underlay’ (things that make Ireland magically special and unique for him) depicting a talent that, to onlookers, verges on the miraculous. At a different level the poem alludes to the transmission of the poetic message and the magical talent of the poet; its title is ideally chosen to introduce the ‘extraordinary’. The dowser (called in to locate underground water) goes about his task in a calm and professional way. His equipment amounts to a forked hazel twig, living wood from a green hedge which he grips tight by the arms of the V. He walks in circles so to capture a signal from below ground (the pluck of water) as distinct as the note made […]

The Folk Singers

The poet delves into the Irish ‘underlay’ (the ‘something’ that makes Ireland magically special and unique for him) here elegizing a rural music genre eclipsed by modernism. Note that after 1957 Heaney lived independently in Belfast accommodation initially as an undergraduate student; this piece has a city provenance. The poet regrets the technological changes overtaking the ‘live’ folk-music beloved of his nation. He weaves the ‘new’ vocabulary of commercialised sound-production (‘turn-tables’ and ‘grooves’) into a lament. A wistful country boy in the city listens to music on a turn-table. He sums up his discomfort: vinyl records that enable him to play and replay the same track of well-known lyrics as he pleases (Re-turning time-turned words) have replaced ‘the real thing’ […]

In Small Townlands

Heaney’s artist-friend, Colin Middleton (who saw himself as the only Irish ‘surrealist’ of his time and to whom the poem is dedicated) is composing a landscape painting in his own very personal style. Heaney’s poem creates its own word-canvas of the painting in progress reporting the transformations Middleton imposes en route. Often preoccupied with his own issues of poetic composition and personal imprint on his poems, Heaney observes the techniques and overlays of a creative act exercised within another medium. The initial big-brush outlines and washes executed with hogshair wedge reflect things much as Heaney sees them: Middleton works on the different segments to distinguish between the granite and the clay, using washes of muted colour (blue … grey), until […]


Settings, subject matter and formats Digging Ulster home setting; composed ‘at home’ at The Wood in August, 1964. The poet is seated behind a window pen in hand, in the act of composition. Initial focus on the hand holding his squat pen, the symbolic tool of his poetic trade, contrasts it with the elegance of the spades used by father and grandfather; Heaney has abandoned the family farming tradition by going to University and choosing a different direction in life. 9 stanzas of varying length from 2 to 5 lines (31 lines in total); lines grouped largely around 10 syllables; stanzas end in half lines breaking the rhythm or adding emphasis; the rhyme scheme is equally diverse: starting formally aabbb […]