Human Chain is Seamus Heaney’s thirteenth collection since Death of a Naturalist in 1966. His work over nearly half a century has lost none of its accessibility, erudition and vitality. The textual commentaries that follow seek to tease out what his poems are intimating in Human Chain. Of course, the poet’s ‘message’ will have 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’, […]


An elegiac sequence dedicated to the memory of Colin Middleton, the eminent Irish artist (who described himself as the sole surrealist painter of his time in Ireland); he died at the end of 1983. He was a friend of the Heaneys even selling them a piece of his work for thirty Guineas/ Forty-odd years ago. i Heaney portrays the expressiveness of the artist’s face, fusing the effects of Middleton’s addiction and the intensity with which his artist’s eye focussed on you: as if there wereSmoke … already in his eyes/ The way he’d narrow them to size you up.  Recalling Middleton as a chain smoker, all the while/ Licking and sealing a hand-rolled cigarette, Heaney likens Each small ash increment flicked off/ As white […]

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

Heaney describes the moment when Nature’s external show of energy kick-started his own internal engine. The poem recalls the aftermath of serious illness (the poet had suffered a mild stroke in 2006 in a Donegal guesthouse) also reflecting Heaney’s in-built uncertainty as to where his next poetic spark might come from. Sleep inducing treatment has perhaps made moments of consciousness more fleeting; this ‘reawakening’ generates a new-found impetus that replaces a mind-set of physical and mental frailty, even fear. Heaney recalls a moment pivotal to his recovery. ‘Had I not been awake I would have missed it’. He heard the sounds and felt the buffeting of Nature’s strength, sufficient for his sense-memory to picture the scene: a wind that rose and […]

The Conway Stewart

At the time when Heaney turned 11, it was not uncommon for parents to offer children a gift to celebrate some important success, here passing entrance examinations and entering Secondary education as a boarder. So authentic are the markings he describes that Heaney might well be looking at the very pen of 60 years earlier: the nib’s Medium point; its 14 carat gold composition; the Conway Stewart branding of the screw-top and mottled barrel; the bubble at the nib’s tip for smooth script. The pen-gun of ‘Digging’ is recalled: the Conway Stewart has a barrel and pump-action (akin that of a shotgun); it requires to be manually loaded, not with cartridges, but treated to its first deep snorkel/ In a newly opened ink bottle . The process is not a clean one: ink […]


‘Album is a sequence of pictures painted in remembrance and with regret. A motif is introduced: a father-son relationship and the rueful recollection of ‘the Irishman’s reluctance to be too showy in affection, especially in affection between men’.  Thomas McCarthy writing in the Irish Examiner September 2010 i   Heaney’s world has shrunk to the size of the room in which he convalesces; he allows a modern domestic sound to act as catalyst to a fund of memories within him. He pays tribute to the nature of his own parents’ love for one other. As the heating boiler comes to life/ Abruptly, drowsily, its ignition sound sets off a memory-chain from early life, emerging like the timed collapse/ Of a sawn down tree . His focus is revealed: them, unnamed […]


Heaney adapts a New Testament miracle as a tribute to those who came to his aid in crisis. Having described his impotence as a stricken stretcher-case he salutes the initial human support-chain of friends whose efforts helped bring about the miracle of recovery. He is commemorating not the beneficiary of a biblical miracle (the one who takes up his bed and walks) but, rather, his own ‘stretcher-bearers’ (the ones) whose solidarity took up the challenge however daunting of moving him: Their shoulders numb, the ache and stoop deeplocked/ In their backs … the stretcher handles/ Slippery with sweat.They spared no effort (without let-up) to deliver a sick man for healing despite the logistical problems: strapped on … made tiltable… raised… lowered. Heaney urges us to be mindful of […]

Chanson d’Aventure

The epigraph, drawn from Donne’s Ecstacie, reflects on the inter-relationship of body and soul and the spiritual union between individuals: the body is the all-too vulnerable vessel within which the souls 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. i Crisis has brought a response from the Emergency Services in the form of an ambulance: the patient is Strapped on, wheeled out, forklifted,/ Locked in position for the drive. Since speed is of the essence the unevenness of the roads is exaggerated by the onrushing ambulance: Bone-shaken, bumped at speed. Clues and identities begin to emerge: The nurse a passenger with the driver, […]


Heaney’s choice of title within the context of Human Chain, awakens multiple associations: his mother and father, so long a couple, no longer exist either as a pair or as individuals; two earlier links of a human chain have been disconnected as part of a human process to which Heaney himself will be subjected. The two vignettes are like short clips of moving film: the mother’s movement slow, dignified, inexorable and orderly; the father’s fast-moving, characterised by a kind of hyper-activity, and generating insecurity in the youngster watching. i Who is this ghostly appearance engaged in the domestic routine of a rural Northern Irish farm where even ashes have further use: it is the erect figure of a woman on en route to the ash-pit , […]

The Butts

In conjuring up fragments of existence from his past Heaney recalls two scenes relative to his father: the fully active man revealed by the contents of his dead-man’s wardrobe; the family’s shared care for the dying man.  Familiar odours trigger a set of involuntary memories in Heaney who sees himself ‘invading’ his father’s wardrobe and, thereby, his privacy. His father’s everyday wear reveals both his nature and his stature: suits… broad/And short; suits of familiar cut and slightly bandy-sleeved; hanging in orderly fashion: Flattened back/ Against themselves; clothes that reveal his father’s natural aloofness: A bit stand-offish. The tobacco and under-arm odours lingering in the enclosed space (Stale smoke and oxter- sweat/) Came at you, strongly, in a stirred-up brew.  Emboldened, Heaney reached in (the phrase’s full impact […]

The Wood Road

The poem provides a series of dramatic visual images that Heaney associates with the road outside his second family home running northwards from Bellaghy past Mullhollandstown. The Wood Road is as it is and was, maintained, perhaps, but unchanged: resurfaced, never widened. The first story recalls the 1950’s period prior to the so-called ‘Troubles’; a night scene: as when Bill Pickering lay with his gun … Nighwatching in uniform, a member of the infamous protestant  B-Specials. Heaney captures both scene and atmosphere as if filmed in black and white: Moonlight on rifle barrels… a van/ Roadblocking the road. He comments sardonically on the patrol’s self-important, toy-soldier mentality: Special militiaman … his staunch patrol/ In profile, sentry-loyal, depicting an ‘epic’ incident on a burlesque level: a whole […]

An Old Refrain

Two poems akin to 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 dialect words. i The poem focuses on the vetch plant he knows from childhood as Robin-run-the-hedge. Its fading straggle/ Of Lincoln green is reminiscent of the legend of the eponymous Robin Hood, whose men ranged Sherwood forest dressed in their particular shade of colour. Heaney has observed how the plant’s runners and branched tendrils invade the undergrowth like English stitchwork/ Unravelling. For Heaney the vetch possesses the hey-nonny-no cheerfulness of the old refrain from English Elizabethan folk songs and midsummer night’s dreams. Back on the familiar territory of Wood Road he comments on […]

Human Chain

In this, the title poem of the collection, dedicated to Terence Brown, Heaney adapts the ‘shared burden’ theme of Miracle and marks the backbreaking work undertaken by aid workers dedicated to the survival of victims of Third World social and political disaster. In the final couplet Heaney reflects on his own dwindling potential as a link in the human chain. Heaney is reviewing footage of basic supplies being delivered in emergency aid, bags of meal passed hand to hand / … by the aid workers. He adds drama to news clips. The victims, driven mad by starvation, are subject to repressive control: soldiers/ Firing over the mob. A memory is sparked: Heaney is braced again, doubly braced: both mentally attuned to the shock he is […]

A Mite-Box

The poem renews and down-sizes the charity theme in Human Chain, from large-scale international aid to the poet’s experiences as a youngster carrying a collecting-box round the parish in search of donations towards ‘foreign missions’.  Despite the numbing effect of stroke the memory triggered from Heaney’s childhood is very much alive: But still/ to feel;  Heaney was skilled at the collector’s rôle adopting an entreating pose, with cupped palm, and feeling with a growing sense of achievement brought about by the chunk and clink of coins donated by willing if badly-off neighbours until his box was Full to its slotted lid with copper coins. The cheaply-made, self-assembly cardboard kit of the mite-box gave away its religious provenance: Wedge-roofed like a little oratory. The task of collecting brought with it the need […]


Heaney’s picture from the 1940s and 50s era is all the richer for recollections of domestic detail. i Heaney cannot settle on the mots justes to describe the consistency of slack: Not coal dust, more the weighty grounds of coal. Slack was delivered by  lorryman … in open bags that he would tip: vent into a corner, A sullen pile indicative of gloomy times. One positive for a youngster faced with this specific chore was that slack was soft to the shovel, accommodating, easier to handle than the clattering coal. This was a period when people were used to shortage and setting-aside: days when life prepared for rainy days. Slack contributed doubly: dampen down (inhibit fast burn in the grate by sitting as a layer on top and depriving the fire of its oxygen) and lengthen […]

A Herbal

A sequence of 19 short poems, the longest 15 lines, imitating the work of a 20th century Breton poet. The foreword’s after suggests that Heaney, in addition to the poetic shape and form of the genre, may be offering his version of lines from the original.  The sequence produces plants with human voices, emotions and characteristics operating in natural context. Heaney is intimately involved as translator and communicator.  1 Heaney stresses a paradox: Nature is eternally self-renewing, growing thick wherever it may Flourish; mankind is mortal and consigned ultimately to graves. The different strata of earth beneath cemeteries in general (Everywhere) are a kind of time-line of past generations, from whom the plants gain their nourishment, Sinking their roots/ In all the dynasties/ Of the dead. […]

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’s speaker uses a fairy-story atmosphere to describe a pleasure sequence from his own life. The two experiences hint at the deliberate sensuality of the original song. i  With innuendo at the discretion of his reader, Heaney selects a fruit, large and full: The lush/ Sunset Blush/ On a big ripe/ Gooseberry. His aim is to gather it, to enjoy of its promise and its plenitude. This daring task has some peril attached: I scratched my hand/ Reaching in. We know from The Butts that ‘reach in’ is an expression of intimacy. Then comes a further clue: in contrast […]

The Baler

The solid, repetitive sound of a vital piece of agricultural machinery unearths deeper feelings in a convalescent Heaney: about mortality; about self; about a specific friend in memoriam. Heaney has hit upon something as familiar to him and as unquestioned as the heartbeat: the All day …Ongoing sound of the baler in operation; its clunk, like that of the heart we feel beating within us: cardiac-dull, So taken for granted.  He is still feeling the effect of illness and emerging from sleep; it was evening before I came to and recognised the sounds of an annual event from the farming calendar as of annual tradition he experienced it in summer’s richest hours. Memories of days spent haymaking are triggered: the actions and the after effects: Fork-lifted, sweated through; a […]

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”. In his poem Heaney describes what could be seen through the picture-frame the Wynne-Jones’ studio window: not a big sky tent of blue, rather a peek of gold/… A Wicklow cornfield in the gable window as observed from the painter’s favoured coign of vantage. With whom and what may Heaney compare her nature and appearance? Not, to his mind, with a visual artist, not Cézanne, for all his views, say, of the iconic Ste Victoire hill of Provence; rather […]

The Riverbank Field

Heaney dips into literature, tracking back from 14th century Dante to Classical author Virgil around 30 BC. References to the Aenied provide Heaney with the opportunity to show-case his own translation. Heaney’s local riverbank field located firmly in County Derry is given a Virgilian mantle as the poet celebrates the similarities he perceives between his neighbourhood and Virgil’s Elysium. After consideration of a competing translation (what Loeb gives) Heaney indicates that his poem will be a fusion: I’ll confound the Lethe in Moyola. Chosen place-names are familiar to him:  Back Park … Grove Hill … Long Rigs. Virgil’s domos placidas are to be found in real-world Upper Broagh. The scene within his mind’s eye exudes all the serenity of the Elysian Fields where Aeneas came upon his father’s shade. […]

Route 110

A much admired sequence of 12 poems celebrating 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 journey of his own. I The journey begins in a dusty, down-at-heel (it smells of dry rot and disinfectant) haunt of schoolboys and students of Heaney’s youth. Its trading purpose is revealed by succeeding clues. An employee enters wearing a visibly grubby outer garment,a stained front-buttoned shopcoat; of dark dried-out sere brown, edged with crimson piping. This is a second-hand bookshop with a Classics bay.  Heaney adds further detail: she is single-minded (Eyes front); she is juggling money (absorbed in her coin-count within the slack marsupial vent/ Of her change-pocket); she is toying […]


Heaney reflects on a visual arts installation dating from May 1994. The title triggers instant thoughts of primeval forest and the sights and sounds of tree-tops, Heaney’s launch recalls 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).  Spring was in the air in Harvard Yard and with it a hush of anticipation: There was whispering everywhere. An English visual artist had installed a sound system in the tree-tops: Voice boxes in the branches; 1990’s technology disguised, wrapped in sacking/ Looking like old wasps’ nests, or (suggestive of the way they were suspended) like bat-fruit in the gloaming with the lumpy profile of Shadow Adam’s apples.  Heaney ‘paints a picture’ in sound […]


In his interviews with Denis O’Driscoll that make up ‘Stepping Stones’ Heaney reveals his fascination, as he grew up, with Lough Neagh (into which his local Moyola river flowed) and also his experiences of the eel trade (pp93-4). The title of this 6-poem sequence turns out to be the familiar name used to describe the Lough Neagh Fishermen’s Co-operative (revealed in vi) with which his future wife’s grandfather and father were connected. i ‘Getting ones feet under the table’: being invited into a girl-friend’s family home is seen as a significant stepping-stone in relationships.  In fairy-tales, as in Arthurian legend and Courtly Love, the male aspirants were challenged to show they were worthy of a damsel’s love Heaney’s task is reminiscent: To win the […]

A Kite for Aibhín

Heaney’s poem of greeting to Aibhín echoes L’Aquilone, a lyric written by Italian poet Giovanni Pascoli.  This final piece was added late to the collection in celebration of the birth of Heaney’s second grand-daughter, Aibhín [aye-veen] born to son Michael and Emer. The happiness of an event from the past is recalled in honour of the family’s new ‘high-flyer’. Air, at once space, life-giving force and lyric song bears a memory from another life and time and place. On this auspicious day, air has a spiritual depth: Pale-blue andheavenly. Aloft, within it, is a sign of life: A white wing beating high against the breeze. The emblem takes shape: yes, it is a kite. Heaney relives a moment when, father then, All of us trooped out into familiar surroundings Among the briar hedges […]

The door was open and the house was dark

This ‘dream’ poem is dedicated to the memory of 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 intrude in random measure to complicate the dream’s main ‘message’. Pitch-black night: the stuff of nightmare. A visitor stood before the door of a familiar house (he reveals he is not there for the first time). He was faced with an eerie paradox: the doorwas open yet there was no sign of life. The caller sought some reassurance from hearing his own voice: Wherefore I called his name.  The scene was heavy with prescience: I knew the answer this time. His call received no human response. […]

In the Attic

This four poem sequence eventually reaches its own starting-point. This apparent non-sense is explained by the stages that set Heaney in compositional reverse: a poet begins to notice within himself some of the drawbacks of the ageing process relating to memory; he recalls his grandfather who demonstrated similar memory-loss in his own life-time, a mental confusion relating to a character from the children’s novel Treasure Island; the novel acts as a metaphor reflecting aspects of the poet’s existence; the mistakenly identified character is part of a key event in the original book. Turn it all round and Heaney’s chosen format is revealed! Its final triplet confirms Heaney’s deeper structural intent. In what was originally Human Chain’s ultimate poem, he chose to return us […]