Foreword Overview Fifty Years on Heaney in the four years since District and Circle Main Sources Thumbnails The textual commentaries that follow seek to tease out what Seamus Heaney’s poems are intimating in Human Chain. Of course the poet’s ‘message’ started life as an essentially personal one not intended primarily for his reader Accordingly there are moments when some serious unravelling is required. In the case of a poet as accomplished, complex and focused as Heaney the rewards for persevering are at once enriching, fortifying and hugely pleasurable. There are issues, too, beyond ‘the text, the whole text and nothing but the text’: there is the question of ‘style’, that is, the combination of language and poetic devices deliberately selected by the […]


Heaney dedicates this elegiac sequence to the memory of Colin Middleton the eminent Irish artist who described himself as the only surrealist painter of his time in Ireland. Born in Belfast in 1910 he died at the end of 1983. He became a friend of the Heaneys even selling them a piece of his work (thirty guineas forty-odd years ago). i Heaney describes the correspondence he perceived between Middleton’s gaze (smoke … already in his eyes) – alluding cleverly to both to his abstract technique and  his tobacco addiction – and the intensity with which the contortion of his artist’s eye (the way he’d narrow them to size you up) made Heaney feel like subject matter (a canvas all the while). […]

‘Had I not been awake I would have missed it’.

Heaney recalls a moment pivotal to his recovery from stroke (in 2006 in a Co Donegal guesthouse) describing the moment when Nature’s external show of energy kick-started his own internal engine. The poem builds in Heaney’s certainty (Had I not been awake) that he would not have been conscious of his next poetic spark (I would have missed it). There is a further dimension – within the consciousness of an agnostic poet over 70 years of age, lies the knowledge that departing this world will bring everything to a close. Sleep inducing treatment has rendered moments of consciousness more fleeting and increasingly important; ‘reawakening’ generates a new-found impetus that replaces a mind-set of physical and mental frailty, even fear. Heaney’s […]

The Conway Stewart

In the foyer of the Seamus Heaney HomePlace, an arts and literary centre dedicated to the life and work of Seamus Heaney, located in Bellaghy close to where the poet was born and brought up, a prominent display case contains a Conway Stewart pen, possibly the same heirloom that his parents gave him as an 11 year old, though his widow, Marie Heaney, is ‘not quite sure’. It was not uncommon for 1950s’ parents to offer children a gift to celebrate some important success, here passing the entrance examination to St Columb’s College in Derry and entering Secondary education as a boarder. Four quatrains are devoted to a comprehensive, in-depth consideration of what would have been an expensive object. So […]


Poems such as Album trace the development of emotional relationships as the individuals involved change and age, imbuing each moment with a significance that resonates throughout the collection. Fascination with the captured moment may be a theme found in earlier work renewed in Human Chain, but Heaney’s current perspective as a septuagenarian under some threat allows his poems to dip in and out of a lifetime, from his boyhood through…. Christine Fears in The Literateur of 13th September 2010 ‘Album is a sequence of vignettes painted in remembrance and with regret. Initial focus on Heaney’s parents and himself, their first born, comes eventually to rest on father ‘Paddy’ Heaney. Heaney’s rueful recollection of his own and his father’s reluctance to be too showy in affection not […]


Heaney adapts a New Testament miracle to pay tribute to those who came to his aid in crisis. The Nobel prizewinner and his wife, Marie, had been in a Donegal guesthouse in 2006 celebrating with close friends the 75th birthday of Anne Friel, the wife of playwright Brian Friel. Heaney fell ill during the night, could not find his balance and discovered that his leg was twisted. Such were the symptoms of stroke. Fortunately, surrounded by strapping fellow guests his ‘support chain’ of Human Chain, he was carried downstairs to a waiting ambulance and transferred to Letterkenny hospital. ‘I cried and I wanted my daddy, funnily enough,’ he admitted. Heaney is commemorating not the beneficiary of a biblical miracle (the […]

Chanson d’Aventure

          Love’s mysteries in souls do grow, / But yet the body is the book The epigraph, drawn from Donne’s Ecstacie, judges the inter-relationship of body and soul and the spiritual union between individuals: the body is the all-too vulnerable vessel within which the soul is said to repose; the soul is the area in which emotions are born. The soul seeks outward expression through the body, inhibited at this point in time by Heaney’s stroke-induced paralysis. When the metaphysical dimension is stripped away Heaney and his wife Marie are the main actors in an extraordinary love poem. The chanson d’aventure originated in Old French lyric as a framing device in which the troubador- poet wanders into a wild, […]


The collection moves from Heaney’s temporary separation from family and home as an adolescent exile in a boarding school to the pained recall of terminal severance. His Virgilian diptych focuses on his mother and father long since dead. There is an element of nightmare in both depictions. The two figures demonstrate their personalities via the challenges they dealt with and the circumstances in which they operated. As so often Heaney’s ingenious choice of title awakens multiple associations: his mother and father, so long a solid close-knit couple, exist now only in his memory and the eternal present of his poem; death has decoupled two links from one end of a human chain to which for the time being Heaney remains […]

The Butts

Crossings xxxiii from Seeing Things of 1991 is closely linked to The Butts. Both poems are set specifically at The Wood farm inherited from great-uncle Hughie into which the family moved from Mossbawn following the death of the poet’s brother Christopher in 1953. In the earlier poem the removal of his father’s personal effects from the deserted farmhouse (what had been emptied out) had completed an ‘unroofing’ process that closed the door on a chapter of Heaney’s life that had included parents (turning your back and leaving), Those feelings have lain and matured over nearly a decade. His father’s ‘plain, big, straight ordinary’ design for the house he built and lived in as a widower are reflected in the lack […]

An Old Refrain

Musicality is clear from the title, both reference to the jingle of a Tudor song and the musical power that words possess or conjure up in the poetic imagination. Heaney picks up the refrain from a joyous Elizabethan madrigal of Shakespearean provenance sung by the choir of Pages in As You Like It. The refrain placed as a break between verses becomes a predictable repetition echoing a landscape that repeats itself seasonally. His two poems mimic folk songs: the first celebrating the lush perennial vegetation growing in profusion along the byways of Heaney’s childhood; the second listing an array of images and sensations the poet associates with familiar Irish labels for other hedgerow dwellers. i The vetch plant familiar to Heaney […]

The Wood Road

The poem provides a series of visual dramas that occurred along the road outside Heaney’s second family home at the Wood which runs northwards from Bellaghy towards Portglenone via Mullhollandtown. Heaney uses Wood Road in his poems possibly because the actual name on the map (Ballymacombs Road) is too much of a mouthful! The Wood Road (as it is and was) has been maintained but not upgraded (resurfaced, never widened). This is how it will present when at the end of the poem all its dramas have been played out. Scene 1: a night scene from the 1950’s period prior to the so-called ‘Troubles’; a caricature  B Special volunteer in training (Bill Pickering … with his gun ) on surveillance […]

Human Chain

Heaney’s title poem, dedicated to Terence Brown, salutes chains of support – human solidarity in the face of social disaster. He associates himself with the compassion, love and respect required of people who devote themselves selflessly to such missions The poem adapts the ‘shared burden’ theme of Miracle marking the backbreaking work undertaken by aid workers dedicated to the survival of victims of Third World famine and political repression. He imagines himself as an active even allegorical participant (he is a poet with a public voice and huge sensitivity to the Troubles in his own Northern Irish homeland). In the final couplet Heaney reflects on his own dwindling potential as a link in the human chain. Heaney is reviewing footage of basic […]

A Mite-Box

Encouraged by his mother’s example Heaney was a very active member of his local church and served for a period as altar-boy. He later referred to this as a ‘surfeit’ of Catholic training as slowly but inexorably his own faith lapsed. For all his loss of belief the stories and words, parables and liturgy he had learned by heart plus the sounds, smells and church paraphernalia with which he was familiar continued to resonate and emerged whenever poetic charge required. A Mite Box renews the charity theme downsizing it from large-scale international aid of Human Chain to the poet’s experiences as a youngster carrying a collecting-box round the parish in search of donations. As Heaney lies awaiting the return of […]


Heaney’s pictures from boyhood and adolescence the 1940s and 50s era are the richer for his minute and often sensuous concentration on detail. Here he ponders on the properties of a household fuel, the way his family adapted to shortage and austerity and the emotional leftovers of this temps retrouvé. Look too for one of the collection’s themes – weight felt, weight lifted. i Heaney’s post-WWII boyhood featured a coal product unknown to current consumers (slack). He sets out to describe its consistency – more than black powder (not coal dust), something with a little more bulk (weighty grounds of coal). It arrived at the farm conventionally enough (by lorryman … in open bags) and was tipped into the coal shed […]

A Herbal

after Guillevic’s ‘Herbier de Bretaagne Eugène Guillevic (1907-1957; b. Carnac, Morbihan, Brittany, France) who used only his family name; well-known French regional poet of the second half of the 20th century.   The sequence comprises 19 short pieces, the longest of 15 lines. The dedication’s after confirms that Heaney is offering his own version of a French poem altered to adapt it to Ireland’s flora, his own non-coastal surroundings and to meet his own poetic priorities.  He is loyal to the original text but omits some sections and re-orders others. He adds a personal incident involving himself and Marie Heaney where the original text offers the possibility. The sequence produces plants in their natural environment with human voices, emotions and distinct […]

Derry Derry Down

The title is taken from the refrain of The Keeper, a traditional song, ostensibly about a gamekeeper searching for female deer but loaded with the insinuation of sexual encounter. Heaney combines young speaker, factual experience, fairy-story and ‘still life’ Art form to describe pleasurable moments from his life. His two settings elevate the less refined sensuality of the original song. In 2011 Helen Vendler spotted Heaney’s subtlety – ‘Two mildly erotic snatches of pleasure ‘, she commented, adding ‘sensuous delight in Heaney has often a tinge of the erotic’. i  Heaney was foraging for fruit close to his Mossbawn home. It was July and he spotted the assonant ripeness (lush sunset blush) of a full bosomed fruit (big ripe gooseberry). His daring attempt […]

The Baler

‘Against the cyclical, seasonal processes there is apprehension that our partaking in them is limited’ says Nick Laird. The solid, repetitive sound of a vital piece of agricultural machinery delivering its annual farming bounty unearths deeper feelings in Heaney for whom a sense of mortality has crept in: about being and dying; about self; about a specific friend in memoriam. Lying in his convalescent bed Heaney has been aware of a constant (all day … ongoing) background thud (clunk) familiar to him (baler) as unexciting as the heartbeat (cardiac-dull) and unappreciated as vital (taken for granted).  The after effect of stroke has held him in a semi-conscious state all day (evening before I came to); full consciousness restores fond memory (hearing […]

Death of a Painter

In his obituary for the painter, Nancy Wynne Jones, in the Guardian of Wednesday 29 November 2006 Seamus Heaney demonstrated his respect and affection for the deceased artist referring to her paintings as ‘earthy and moist, with rich warm, subtle ochres and reds … place and palette and spirit all equal’. What, Heaney reflects, might we learn about Nancy’s canvasses and how she perceives things via the launch pad of her studio window? Not an overarching dome of sky (tent of blue) rather the sweep of rich yellow (peek of gold) of the Irish landscape that inspired her (Wicklow cornfield) from her first floor room (gable window) most beneficial (favoured coign of vantage) to her intense powers of observation (long gazing). With whom might she […]

The Riverbank Field

after Aeneid vi, 704-I5, 748-5I Heaney dips into literature, tracking back to Classical author Virgil of around 30 BC. References to his Aenied vi much cherished by Heaney from his Sixth Form studies onwards will provide him with some opportunity to show-case his own translation skills. The poem is far from a literary exercise however setting the poet firmly in his mid-Ulster landscape around Castledawson. His local Riverbank Field alongside the Moyola is deemed every bit as perfect as Virgil’s paradise. Scholarly translation (what Loeb gives) depicts Virgil’s Elysium alone. Heaney will create a watery fusion of classical mythology and mid-Ulster fact (I’ll confound the Lethe in Moyola). His Aeneas-like perambulation selects familiar place-names (Back Park … Grove Hill … Long […]

Route 110

A much admired sequence of 12 poems that ends with celebration of the arrival of first grand-child, Anna Rose, born to son, Christopher and his wife Jenny. Heaney collapses the distance between the mythical and the personal, setting out Aeneas-like on a staged journey of his own. In an interview with Eimear Flanagan for BBC Northern Ireland of September 23, 2010 Heaney commented that ‘oddly enough’ the poem began without any mourning intention, and was intended to mark a very happy family occasion. ‘Book VI, where Aeneas goes down to meet his father in the underworld, meets all the souls of the dead, the people he knew, people like his warrior friends … But then he is shown all the souls […]


From the late 1970’s Seamus Heaney enjoyed a long relationship with Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, initially as a guest lecturer. His regular presence enabled him to share the cultural calendar of America’s oldest established Ivy League university including a visual arts installation dating from May 1994. Its launch coincided with the spring-is-in-the-air suggestiveness of the most famous of the English madrigals, by Thomas Morley published in 1595 (Now is the Month of Maying). The installation lent a forest tree-top effect to Harvard Yard with added sights and sounds. In Heaney’s imagination it triggered something much more otherworldly. Spring was in the air (young green) and with it a hush of anticipation (whispering everywhere). An English visual artist had […]


In his interviews with Denis O’Driscoll that make up ‘Stepping Stones’ Heaney reveals his fascination, as he grew up, with Lough Neagh and his experiences of the eel trade (pp.93-4). The title of this 6-poem sequence refers to the familiar local name for the Lough Neagh Fishermen’s Co-operative with which his future wife’s grandfather and father were connected. Heaney takes us into the fairy-tale period of courtship (win the hand of the princess). i Getting his feet under the table (being invited into a girl-friend’s family home for the first time) was seen as a significant stepping-stone. In fairy-tales the male aspirant, a standard figure, had to jump through hoops (tasks the youngest son had to perform) to prove he was worthy […]

A Kite for Aibhín

Heaney’s late addition to the collection is a poem of greeting to his second grand-daughter, Aibhín [aye-veen] born to son Michael and Emer. It echoes L’Aquilone, a lyric written by Italian poet Giovanni Pascoli.  Heaney dips into elements of the original but adapts and edits to meet his own immediate writerly needs. Some factors are shared: a special event triggers a joyful and happy memory lying forgotten in the consciousness; memory offers at once pleasure hope and nostalgia. The evocation of succeeding generations and a family’s enjoyment at moments of celebration, the allegory of kite tugging against control and influence and unborn child waiting for release fuse into a memorable hymn of welcome. Heaney celebrates what is nearest and dearest in his […]

In the Attic

This four poem sequence circles around a young character from children’s fiction: initially the trials, tribulations and conscience that assail a youngster at sea exposed to terror and stress within his short fictional life. The sea-faring metaphor is extended to Heaney’s workspace to illustrate the interplay of reality and imagination triggered by an equally tumultuous existence. Enter thirdly a member of Heaney’s own human chain – his maternal grandfather (also featured in Haw Lantern’s The Old Team and the Clearances sonnets in memory of his mother) who confirmed memory-lapse as one of the drawbacks of the ageing process. Finally Heaney himself, showing symptoms of age in his turn but not done yet! Its final triplet confirms Heaney’s deeper structural intent. […]

The door was open and the house was dark

Heaney’s ‘dream’ poem is dedicated to the memory of close friend David Hammond, much admired Northern Irish writer, singer, teacher, songwriter, historian, musician, film-maker and broadcaster who died in August 2008. As with all dreams the conscious and sub-conscious contribute ostensibly at random to the dream’s main ‘message’. In a BBC interview with Eimaar Flanagan of Sept 23, 2010 Heaney insisted the poem was not written – but dreamt. ‘The dream is just recorded in verse that rhymes. It was an extremely strange, haunting dream. One of those dreams that marks, that you don’t forget’. Heaney’s indirect reference (hence perhaps the quotation marks) to Virgil’s Aenied vi (ll.172-177) – ‘Death’s dark door stands open day and night. But to retrace […]