Door into the Dark – Afterthoughts

Heaney the extraordinary man in ordinary clothes Heaney the cordon-bleu cook Heaney the agent of change Heaney the orchestrator Heaney the word painter Heaney the meticulous craftsman Stylistic devices an extraordinary man in ordinary clothes Poets are a breed apart!  Unlike ordinary mortals, such as you and me, their consciousness is constantly tuned into things that give off a poetic charge and their vocation compels them to pounce on such sudden, involuntary moments before they fade away. Poets are constantly on the qui-vive; they have a way of recording these unpredictable, involuntary instances – poets are never far away from composition mode which transforms  electrical impulse into verse poets are alchemists Heaney was one of the tribe – he acknowledged […]


Forewords: Commenting on the relationship between his first two collections to DOD (p.98) Heaney acknowledged some new ventures:  I don’t see all that much ‘development’ in Door into the Dark; it’s more a matter of trying out and spreading out … spreading  out from Toner’s Bog in Bellaghy parish to ‘Bogland’ in general. He added that placing the poem at end of Door into the Dark pointed forward to his further use of the bog as a metaphor. The piece itself it had been given, had come freely, had arrived out of old layers of lore and language and felt completely trustworthy as a poem (DOD90) … From the moment I wrote it, I felt promise in ‘Bogland’. Without having […]

Bann Clay

Heaney liked to look at things in depth including science. This autobiographical piece seeks to enlighten whilst expressing the poet’s modest disappointment at not knowing more. The Bann Valley interested Heaney as he grew. He discusses the archaeological dimension with DOD (135).  Oh yes… there was always a lot of talk at school (Anahorish Primary) … about the flints and scrapers found in the mud of the banks. There were even flints in a cupboard in the master’s classroom. Bann Clay delves deeper into the telluric underlay, focussing on a mineral specific to the Bann valley, a natural product once harvested in pits near Toome that operated during Heaney’s Castledawson days but closed down once they became unprofitable. Toome’s Bann […]


Heaney pinpoints stretches of the Irish coast where sea and land meet. He combines lyrical description with a sprinkling of geographical locations which open a treasure chest of events and associations in his mind. From the 1960s’ days when the poet was assessing teaching practices around Northern Ireland he became accustomed to using his car to access remote schools he was required to visit as part of his job. The habit stuck and, as time went by, countless outings undertaken alone or with wife and friends took him along the beautiful and varied Irish coastline by road. Unsurprising perhaps that in numerous poems across his published work a windscreen separates the passing Heaney from the object of his attention. From […]

The Plantation

‘Self is a location’, Heaney wrote in ‘The Aerodrome’ from District and Circle (2006), that one comes to recognize from ‘bearings taken, markings, cardinal points’. Written much later the poem describes a woman close to the poet (then a child) whose strength of character defeated temptation. What the poet drew from that incident opens a door into ‘The Plantation’ published nearly 40 years earlier and expressed as a kind of dream sequence. The piece falls into the category of ‘meditative landscapes’ (MP84) featuring a discrete section of woodland, ostensibly a site of orderly trees planted for commercial gain used by ‘incertus’ Heaney as a mystical door into the as-yet-undiscovered, an interface between the literal and the allegorical, the lived life […]


On the face of it Heaney sets out on a kind of botanical meditation delivered with the nonchalant ease of a teacher on a nature walk talking of things that his lifelong curiosity has brought to his attention. However the narrative unearths a subtext of Irish history, geology, flora and nationhood beyond the confines of Castledawson. Heaney’s imagination lights upon natural forms and shapes from both childhood and adult experience, ones which articulate the identity of the whole of Ireland, and not merely his own (MP84). For Heaney the ever present bush (all year round) boasts its best light both out of season (blossom or two) and at its splendid best (in full bloom now). To illustrate the whin’s sheer […]

The Given Note

This beautiful early poem was inspired by a haunting Irish lament (Port nabPucai  -‘song of the fairies’) composed long ago, the story went, by a lone fiddler on a Blasket island (Inish Tearaght) off the west coast of Ireland. It was the only one of Heaney’s poems to be read at his funeral service held at the family’s Parish Church of the Sacred Heart in Donnybrook, South Dublin, chosen perhaps because it represented in memoriam all that was dear both to the poet and his wife – their deep-seated Irishness … their love for the Irish-speaking populations of Ireland’s Gaeltacht … the magical Celtic underlay … things that render Irish music special and unique … Heaney’s own ability to pluck […]

A Lough Neagh Sequence 7 Vision

In Door into the Dark Heaney makes no secret of the insecurity that left him prone to disturbing dreams – Night Piece paints the picture of the youngster and the farm horse behind his bedroom wall coping sleeplessly with scary darkness; Dream opens a trapdoor into the Heaney’s subconscious to reveal the dynamics of nightmare. Vision points at finger-wagging warnings that may well have contributed to Heaney’s need to bolster the confidence his nature sometimes lacked. Dire warnings instilled by grown-ups (unless …  they said) served to make sensitive child-Heaney all the more susceptible to vivid dreams.  Mind you, as an avid young reader Heaney might in fact have frightened himself – Hoffmann’s Struwwelpeter describes the disastrous consequences visited on […]

A Lough Neagh Sequence 6 The Return

Heaney pays tribute to the eel’s extraordinary return trip to Sargasso. It turns out eels live out almost their entire lives in a juvenile form, only developing sex organs as they make their final journey back to the Sargasso. Heaney converts the ‘he’ of Beyond Sargasso into the female pronoun. After ten or fifteen years (older now) the eel’s Northern Irish location (ponds, drains, dead canals) is suddenly in her slipstream (turns her head back). Driven by an irresistible impulse (whim deliberately) she has set out on her journey back to Sargasso roots (at sea in grass) with not the slightest intention (damned if she’ll turn) to refashion (new trenches)  the habitat she has just vacated – Heaney lists the […]

A Lough Neagh Sequence 5 Lifting

The fishermen have returned to reap the benefits of their labours (busy in a high boat) as the vessel pursues its prey, carried gently north and west (stalks towards Antrim), adrift (power cut). The thin, discoloured fishing line (filament of smut) is recovered in a rhythmical routine (drawn hand over fist), its yield exposed hook by hook … no catch (hook’s missed) … ‘eel on’ (taken). Dark, clinging fragments accumulate (smut thickens, wrist- thick). The line becomes a whiplash (flail)  with which to dislodge the eel catch (lashed into the barrel) in a single swipe (one swing). The treatment eels receive is described ironically (welcome) – each incoming creature becomes a piece of merchandise (hook left in gill or gum) […]

A Lough Neagh Sequence 4 Setting

Heaney recounts the baiting and laying of hundreds of yards of fishing line. He interweaves an unforgettable experience with reflections on the mind-set of the working Lough Neagh fishermen to whom he has become endearingly accustomed through the Devlin connection. I The line drops into murky darkness (out of sight) – fixed in the poetic imagination for sure but of no importance to the fisherman (out of mind) – snaking its way down to where the eel is to be found (soft bottom of silt and sand) – let out with the impassive dexterity (indifferent skill) of man turned predator (hunting hand). Cruel barbs resembling a metal spike still-life (bouquet of small hooks coiled) at the back of the vessel […]

A Lough Neagh Sequence 3 Bait

A momentary lightening of mood as a burlesque drama unfolds – three poachers are heading for eel habitat … unhurriedly (lamps dawdle), operating at an ungodly hour (midnight) on a familiar path (follow their nose), led by the sharp-angled light beam (prow) that shows them the way (compass). Remain incognito … Index finger pressed against lips (silence) … extreme care that the equipment in hand (bucket) does not give them away (better not clatter) … use the subdued light ideal for digging worms (gather bait). Then to business … tricks of the trade passed on to a new recruit: strike quickly (nab him) then relax (wait) … let the creature pull against the pressure (first shrinking) … you will know […]

A Lough Neagh Sequence 2 Beyond Sargasso

Heaney pays tribute to the globetrotting juvenile eel that makes its way to Lough Neagh. From its Atlantic birthplace (beyond Sargasso) nearly three thousand miles distant from the Northern Irish landfall the sheath like, sticky-substance-exuding shape (gland) reaches its furthest destination, beating a path (agitating mud) through heavy-weight conditions (scale of water on water) on upstream journeys (working up estuaries). An inner dynamo moved into gear (drifted into motion) at the half way point, its navigation system pre-programmed as surely as by satnav (satellite’s insinuating pull) guiding it through the watery wilderness (ocean), obedient to an urge within itself (true to his orbit). Meeting every challenge (ebb, current, rock, rapids) the silver-skinned body-builder (muscled icicle) takes on a new shape […]

A Lough Neagh Sequence 1 Up the Shore

The poem reflects conversational snippets picked up by the young poet in Devlin’s bar and around the Ardboe locality. I To the communities along its banks (Up the Shore) the ominous promise Lough Neagh delivers on an annual basis (lough will claim a victim every year) adds to its supposed magical transmutational  properties (virtue that hardens wood to stone), its myth of punishment visited on greedy locals (town sunk beneath its water), indeed its very existence – the legendary hole left when Finn McCool’s great handful of earth gouged out and thrown at a fleeing Scottish giant was sufficient to create a land mass in the Irish Sea (scar left by the Isle of Man). II The eel that will […]

A Lough Neagh Sequence – Forewords

Asked how his second collection differed from Death of a Naturalist Heaney commented (DOD98):  I don’t see all that much ‘development’ in Door into the Dark; it’s more a matter of trying out and spreading out, trying out a sequence like ‘A Lough Neagh Sequence’, spreading out from Toner’s Bog in Bellaghy parish to ‘Bogland’ in general. (NC16) ‘A Lough Neagh Sequence’ gives Heaney his first opportunity for an organized form more ample than the individual lyric, an attempt renewed frequently, in different ways, in his later work … The sequence has a strange and compelling subject: the extraordinary life­cycle of the eels and the work-cycle of the fishermen on Lough Neagh … the cycle of the poem itself moves […]

Relic of Memory

As in At Ardboe Point Relic of Memory draws on ‘energies within the Irish landscape’ (MP83), in this case of things happening beneath the surface of Lough Neagh. The title adds a spiritual element. Heaney revealed to DOD (93) that the lough held a ‘fascination’ for him and in doing so revealed a linkage between the thirty year old poet and his childhood self: It was right in the centre of a big map of Northern Ireland that hung at the front of the master’s room in Anahorish School. And on the shelf of that room there was a piece of petrified wood, or at least wood that had gone through some process that rendered it silicate. It was a […]

At Ardboe Point

Heaney responds to ‘energies within the Irish landscape’ (MP83), the phenomenal sight of swarming Lough Neagh midges engaged in a seasonal aerial dance. The poet describes how the flow and spiral of the shifting insect cloud produces annoying sound effects that disturb lovers’ bedtime activities! The midges are swarming in search of a mate, a motif not lost on Heaney whose anonymous lovers, readily identified as him-self and Marie, are driving to a Lough Neagh beauty spot close to Marie’s family home in Co Tyrone. The poet is captivated by the immensity of the natural phenomenon – a far-reaching, airborne swarm of midges (right along the lough shore) setting a hazy cloud (smoke of flies) against a horizon of pure […]

Night Drive

Heaney describes a man’s pent up sexual feelings for his woman as he journeyed towards her, the promise of passion simmering beneath the surface of each passing experience. Fulfilment will be confirmed once are reunited. The piece is a thinly veiled love poem from Heaney to his absent wife Marie based on compatibility-genes and perfect chemistry that to them are totally un-extraordinary. As he journeyed overnight the driver’s senses were already working overtime. The standard yet distinctive aromas of being in France (smells of ordinariness) came fresh (new) to his nostrils at a time of day that heightened them (night drive through France). He could distinguish between them (rain and hay and woods) carried pervasively (on the air) by pulses […]

Victorian Guitar

                                                                For David Hammond                                         Inscribed ‘Belonged to Louisa Catherine Coe before                                         her marriage to John Charles Smith, March 1852.’ Heaney’s ingenious little poem dips into a period when social etiquette was in its ascendancy, when, within middle-class families, so called ‘Victorian’ values such as chastity and modesty were paramount and where rules for social behaviour regarding courtship and marriage were strict and rarely deviated from.  An inscription triggers Heaney’s interest and his imagination does the rest. The poet’s examination of a century-old guitar owned and played by his entertainer friend David Hammond and the coldness of the dedication it carries generate a comparison between Hammond’s electrifying technique and Heaney’s image of the influence overbearing Victorian men insisted upon […]

Elegy for a Still-born Child

Sombrely antithetical to the happy delivery of his and Marie’s first child Heaney places Elegy for a Still-born Child next to ‘Cana Revisited’.  He will refine the elegy form as his oeuvre unfolds and compose very moving poems in memory of people or events that struck a chord with him. He writes here of a child lost by another couple who got married at the same time as us (DOD97). I  Heaney talks compassionately to the shadow of the still-born child: his mother no longer bears the burden of pregnancy (walks light) – to the poet’s mind a fishing basket with its catch removed (empty creel). She is accustoming herself (unlearning) to the loss of reminders of his foetal presence […]

Cana Revisited

In conversation with DOD (97) Heaney revealed the use he made of a notebook to record and remind himself later of details of daily life that struck him. He indicated how useful it proved when he came to compose ‘Cana Revisited’: I was using it during Marie’s first pregnancy and it’s full of things where pregnancy is the theme or the preoccupation. The poem’s exuberant quatrains set the impending miracle of creating a family alongside a biblical miracle that brought new life to a flagging wedding celebration in Cana. Heaney’s poem might be said to result from his confession to DOD that his wife’s pregnancy was inspirational: something beautifully generative about living with the new life between us. Nothing in […]


Heaney places himself within a woman’s experience voicing his dramatic monologue to a farmer’s wife coping as best she can with the incessant demands of her daily work made more challenging by pregnancy and the kicks administered by the fetus she is carrying. Heaney constructs the poem such that pump, pregnancy, delivery, farm reality and metaphor remain interwoven. Whether his poetic alliances are effective or strained is a moot point. The daily chore of drawing water (I work at the pump) is unremitting. The weather is against her (wind heavy … spits of rain) tearing at (fraying) the normal flow (rope of water) from the pump’s outlet. To a woman familiar with calving the pump’s delivery (pays itself out) provides […]

The Wife’s Tale

Following the poems of Irish tribulation and starvation in ‘Death of a Naturalist’ Heaney paints the living tableau of a working day at threshing time reflecting the traditional rhythms, values, rituals and relationships of rural Irish country-folk at a moment of measurable success. His dramatic monologue is voiced to a proud and dignified farmer’s wife who articulates her woman’s perspective at a time when ‘man’s work’ and ‘woman’s work’ were strictly demarcated. She performs a duty expected of her providing midday lunch for her farmer-husband and his band of threshers. No evidence in her case of Undine’s wish to instil ‘subtle increase and reflection’ on her man. She extends a womanly refinement (spread it all on linen cloth) setting her […]


Driven by instinct to find a human mate and produce the child that would provide her with a soul Undine chanced upon a humble ditcher. The steps he takes to improve her nymph’s environment awaken her attention and might just possibly lead to the act of mutual fulfilment that will bring her what she seeks whilst enthralling him in the process. The poem is voiced to Undine. To recognize an allegory of love and marriage is a small step – to think water spirit and see in Undine aspects of Marie Devlin, to think ditcher and be reminded of energetic farm hand Seamus Heaney, to read Heaney’s version of the Undine story in the context of an established marital relationship […]

Rite of Spring

Heaney relives the steps required on his family’s rural mid-Ulster farm to reverse the trials of winter. Their cast-iron pump stood unprotected from the elements in the Mossbawn farmyard. When it froze up the family was without fresh water until something was done! The ritual solemnity offered by the title suggests there were sustained frosts almost on an annual basis during the period. Recalling the elation when water flowed anew Heaney has elected to personify his pump as a woman and celebrate it in barely veiled sexual terms. To start a sentence with a conjunction (So) might have raised eyebrows amongst pedants but Heaney who left nothing to compositional chance chose it deliberately with the sense of ‘as expected’ helping […]