Hermit Songs

Heaney dedicates his nine-poem sequence to long-time friend, American academic and author Helen Vendler.  He celebrates those who have demonstrated resolute dedication to ‘books’ and scholarship,  who have shut themselves off to a greater or lesser degree from wider society. Some hermit-scholars are legendary and monastic, scribes of illuminated texts; other ‘greats’ are much more recent. With characteristic modesty, Heaney includes his own experiences as part of the chain. The introductory couplet sets out the price of scholarship: its scholar-scribe has shut himself away to follow the mechanics of medieval manuscript production with its ruled quires.  Secluded in his cell he cannot, however, shut out the external sounds of Nature’s joie-de-vivre: I hear the wild birds jubilant. The epigraph is to […]

Lick The Pencil

In a sequence that ultimately reveals a deep, underlying sorrow two shades are recalled: Heaney’s father, Patrick, and Colmcille. The pencil and its marks come to symbolise things that do not fade with time. there was a pre-war habit in Britain of licking pencils before using them possibly because it helped darken the script. In the 1940’s and 50’s there existed pencils, also licked, that produced purplish, more permanent markings and were referred to as ‘indelible’ pencils. i Providing his father with a nickname derived from his quirky ways and his farming skills leaves Heaney with a dilemma. He recalls three fitting images of the man he knew. The first, ‘Lick the pencil’ was very apt: so quick and deft was his father’s action to wet the […]

Sweeney Out-Takes

A three-poem sequence dedicated to the noted contemporary Cork writer and poet Gregory of Corkus, pseudonym for Greg Delanty. Heaney reprises the internal struggles of the medieval Irish king of the Buile Shuibhne (Sweeney Astray,1983). See also the Sweeney Redevivus section in Station Island.  The basic story tells of Sweeney’s behaviour towards Bishop Ronan that brings the curse of madness upon him. He is driven out into the wilderness where readers follow him in his crazed wanderings through the forest and hills, torn within himself by his love of the wild and his incurable loneliness. i Otterboy Heaney imagines a letter sent to her exiled husband by Sweeney’s wife, Eorann, and quotes his reactions to it. The letter reports on happenings ‘back home’: our two otters/ Courting yesterday by […]

Colum Cille Cecinit

In this version of an 11th/12th century poem about the 6th-century scholar/saint Colmcille Heaney sets out the dignity and sacredness of daily toil and demonstrates his respect for scholarly labour. Cecinit: Heaney draws directly from Latin using (full title) the 3rd person singular of the Perfect indicative active tense of cano, canere (to sing), so ’sang’   i Is Scith mo chrob on scribainn The scholar/ scribe takes a break from his task: My hand is cramped from penwork. He examines his quill, its tapered point and the nature and gloss of wet ink issuing from itsbird-mouth: a blue-dark/ Beetle-sparkle. His function is to transmit Wisdom/ welling in streams from inherited texts. He and his writing are as one in fine-drawn/ hand.  Despite the script’s sallow faintness and the quill’s flooding, Riverrun with fluid the colour […]


Wraiths, A three-poem sequence dedicated to Ciaron Carson, a fellow Northern Irishman, about ten years Heaney’s junior. Principally a poet and winner of a number of prestigious literary awards, Carson is also a novelist and accomplished musician with an interest in traditional Irish music and ways. Heaney pursues the interplay of reality and folklore contained in the poem Loughanure.  i Sidhe (pronounced ‘shee’) Co-existent worlds in which a man both poet and a creature of fairy-tale, both a Heaney and a Caoilte figure, is led ‘underground’ by an unidentified female figure at once real and Sidhe; a further parallel is drawn between a cavern beneath the mythical mound on Tory Island and a real-life cattle-pen. The she/ sidhe takes the lead. She took me […]


What is in a title?  Human Chain … Heaney is a master of title, whether for a collection or an individual piece. His sometimes enigmatic, often ingenious headings invite the attentive reader to seek subtly submerged attachments. As regards Human Chain, it emerges that Heaney was carried down the stairs of the accommodation he was sharing with friends when his illness struck en route to the ambulance; he is a hefty six-footer and recognises the physical challenge that this represented. Within a short time he had written Miracle based on a Bible story but featuring the stretcher bearers without whom there would have been no miracle! The metaphor seems to have germinated from this. The Human theme is about body and soul; it is all-encompassing: a personal journey through […]