Navigating the ‘North’ Collection

Foreword Introduction Biographical ‘events’ between 1968-1975 Themes and issues Enrichment Dedications Lexical focus Comments contemporary to Publication Comments from main source authors (as below) Heaney’s further insights The structure of North The North Poems  individual commentaries with footnotes and reflections on style and structure Part I Act Of Union Aisling Antaeus Belderg Bog Queen Bone Dreams Come to the Bower Funeral Rites Hercules and Antaeus Kinship North Ocean’s Love to Ireland Punishment Strange Fruit The Betrothal of Cavehill The Digging Skeleton The Grauballe Man Viking Dublin: Trial Pieces Part II Freedman Singing School 1 The Ministry of Fear 2 A Constable Calls 3 Orange Drums 4 Summer 1969 5 Fosterage 6 Exposure The Unacknowledged Legislator’s Dream Whatever You Say Say […]


North published by Faber and Faber in 1975 is Seamus Heaney’s fourth collection. Heaney was in his mid-thirties. The totality of his collections over more than half a century have confirmed Heaney’s place at the top of the premier league of poets writing in English. The textual commentaries that follow seek to tease out what Heaney’s poems are intimating in North. Of course, the poet’s ‘message’ will have started life as an essentially personal one not intended primarily for his reader; there are moments when some serious unravelling is required. Thanks to the depth of Heaney’s knowledge, scholarship and personal feelings, his poetry is rich in content; digging into background-materials is both essential and edifying. In the case of a […]


The poem is a memorial to its central figure, a warm, nostalgic rural study from the poet’s past dedicated to his Aunt Mary. The first line introduces the motif and emotions of what follows: There was a sunlit absence. The phrase encapsulates: nostalgic feelings from childhood; the warmth of sunlight; warm relationships; irreversible time past; a scene and a person missed. We will follow the poet’s eye as it moves from farmyard into kitchen. The initial scene is narrated in the past. In the yard stood the helmeted pump as if on sentry-duty (Heaney often lends a military bearing to the cast-iron agricultural paraphernalia of his childhood); the poet evokes the subtle colour of water drawn from the peaty water-table […]

The Seed Cutters

A second ‘word-canvas’ depicts an age-old routine practised in Heaney’s Ulster farming community. He is perhaps inspired by a memory or a photo, even literally a calendar picture depicting rural practice. Such groups of farm workers would be recognisable back in Breughel’s time: They seem hundreds of years away. Heaney addresses the Flemish artist who painted rural scenes in 16c. Flanders; the artist would approve Heaney’s likeness, providing he, the poet, can find the words to do the scene justice: if I can get them true. This uncomfortable activity is taking place at ground level: the labourers kneel and are exposed to the elements behind an ineffective wind-break. Scene-setting precedes identification: only in line 5 do we learn that They […]


A ‘giant’ figure from Greek/ North African mythology, Antaeus was invincible in combat as long as he retained contact with the earth that renewed his strength whenever he fell. Antaeus clarifies the myth but foresees the advent of a more skilful combatant who will find the means to bring him down. Antaeus knows that earth-contact renews his life-force: I rise flushed as a rose each day. He is a practised wrestler; in combat he cunningly contrives a fall in the (wrestling-) ring to replenish his strength; sand acts as a magic potion: operative/ As an elixir. This ‘child’ giant is suckled by Earth; he cannot, dare not be weaned/ Off, live separate from earth’s long contour and the living blood […]


A specific historical site in Ireland provides Heaney with the catalyst for exploring, in congenial dialogue, the linkage between artefacts, peoples, myths, cultures and ancient languages; the piece tells of doggedness, roots and recurrence. The speaker cites a comment from a ‘local’ about objects that regularly came to light (just kept turning up); given lack of education no thought was originally given to historical linkage and they were written off as foreign. The stone’s central hole made it one-eyed but (unlike the classical one-eyed Cyclops, perhaps) harmlessly benign. The original finder simply kept them lying about his house just Quernstones out of a bog. Excavation of the bog, to Heaney, reveals layered evidence of the past; peat is the lid. […]

Funeral Rites

A sequence of 3 poems; Heaney follows three lines associated with death and burial: natural causes; the result of sectarian strife; myth and legend. Ultimately the sequence seeks out a solution to the unbreakable cycle of murder and revenge. I The speaker describes one of a number of traditional Irish Catholic family funerals he has attended. These conferred a kind of manhood upon a young man not yet quite a ‘man’ as he shouldered the coffin both as physical weight and personal responsibility. He recalls the ceremonial: dead relations/ laid out in familiar rooms suddenly marred (tainted) by death; he picks out colours and textures: the pallor of dough-white hands; the glistening eyelids; the discernable changes that death visited on […]


Wrestling with questions about his current status and mindset Heaney has felt the need for solitude; he would benefit in his uncertainty from the reassurance of a counselling voice. The speaker revisits a stretch of the Donegal coast, a shod of a bay. The sounds he is hearing recall the god Thor who in Viking mythology hammered to create land, sea and heavens. Conscious of his own sensitivities and temperament the poet has come to seek release from the build-up of inner tensions emanating from uncertainty about the way his poetry is presenting. The first forceful voice he hears is of this earth, not yet the counselling voice he seeks: only the secular powers of the Atlantic thundering. His gaze […]

Viking Dublin: Trial Pieces

‘Then there was the Viking Dublin exhibit in the National Museum, based on the dig being done by Brendán Ó Ríordáin at the Wood Quay site’ (DOD p.163); . Dublin was founded by the Norwegian Vikings in 841AD. A sequence of 6 poems; Heaney permits his imagination free rein in pursuit of Viking links with Dublin and by extension with Irish language and culture. I considers evidence offered by an early Norse record of its culture: the speaker reflects upon the significance of marks inscribed on a bone by a child of ancient Norse origins. II ponders the meaning of other exhibits and pictures bequeathed by the ninth-century arrival of Viking explorers on the Liffey river. III explores the retrieval […]

The Digging Skeleton

Scholars and students have long set themselves the challenge of translation. Heaney show-cases his skills in this version after Baudelaire. Heaney is loyal to Baudelaire’s picture of human misery and his rejection of belief in a better life after death. I The speaker is strolling along the dusty quays of the Seine, past the stalls of Parisian ‘bouquinistes’ still to be found there more than 150 years later. He has chanced upon anatomical plates as he flicks the pages of books yellowed like mummies Slumbering in forgotten crates. The sight of the human body reduced to skeleton possesses an odd beauty, its illustrator deemed gravely sensitive to the sad Mementoes of anatomy; the plates represent a form of art: mysterious […]

Bone Dreams

Heaney shed light on the genesis of his six ‘dream’ poems in conversation with DOD (p 157) ‘That summer of 1972, the month before we moved (to Glanmore Cottage in County Wicklow)…we did a lot of driving in the south-west of England, saw the white horses carved into the hills, visited Maiden Castle in Dorset and the old earthworks in Dorchester. When we were in Gloucestershire staying in this lovely Tudor manor house where Marie’s sister was then living, I wrote Bone Dreams – the first of those loose-link ziggy-zaggy sequences that would eventually appear in North. At the time artist friend Barrie Cooke was doing a series of ‘bone boxes’; thinking about them brought up memories of bones I […]

Come to the Bower

In this first of six titles referred to as the ‘bog poems’ in North the voice is that of the individual who has come upon the mummified corpse of a woman hidden beneath the surface of the the bog where it has been preserved. The initial ‘forensic’ examination of the mummy is overtaken by the finder’s reactions to what he is uncovering. The answers to many of the questions set by the piece, particularly the sexual connotations of the discovery, remain elusive. His hands come, touched (the sense of touch is paramount in the piece) by bog flowers, sweetbriar and tangled vetch, before trespassing beneath the surface of the bog, foraging past the burst gizzards/ Of coin hoards (valuables bagged […]

Bog Queen

A Bog Queen’s body lies dead yet sleeping at the interface between Nature and Man, waiting (the word is repeated from the previous piece) between turf face and demesne wall between the heathery levels below and glass-toothed stone above. Her body has been subjected to the destructive forces of nature: a touch-code for Nature’s sightless trespassers: Braille for the creeping influences; victim of extreme temperature groped then cooled by the orbiting sun; consumed through my fabrics and skins by the seeps of winter and riddled with plant growth: illiterate roots that pondered and died/ in the cavings/ of stomach and socket. Her waiting rôle is reaffirmed, her brain stained by the peat (darkening) but ripe still with imagination: a jar […]

The Grauballe Man

The piece provides stunning close description of an iconic ‘bog body’ on display and reveals the poet’s emotional responses to it. The notion of man’s barbaric treatment of his fellows is never far away; associated ideas link the fate of Grauballe Man with contemporary events in Ulster. The body might have emerged from a mould As if …poured/ in tar. It is posed in bogland décor: he lies on a pillow of turf; the face expresses an inner sadness, appearing to weep/ the black river of himself. The observer’s eye ranges up and down the body; its at-oneness with the bog that preserved it are striking; similes of comparison are vegetable then mineral finally animal: the fibres of the body’s […]


Heaney measures his sense of injustice against a stone-age community’s brutal intolerance of rules perceived to have been violated. He illustrates the troubling irony: stone-age justice that puts an adulteress to death is not so far removed from contemporary Ulster society that metes out punishment when sectarian rules are seen to be breached. Conflicting loyalties, pity and guilt, private and collective, supply ‘Punishment’ with its emotional charge… Heaney is looking for a tenable position (MP p 137) The first person speaker attends the stages leading to the execution of a young woman accused of adultery. He senses the tug of the halter at the nape of her neck as she is pulled to the execution site; her upper body has […]

Strange Fruit

A sonnet prompted by the bodiless head of girl similar to one retrieved from a Danish bog in the 1940s. The head is introduced with a sweep of the hand: Here is … its texture that of an exhumed gourd, an oval shaped face; skin and teeth have prune associations, the former its wrinkled exterior, the latter the smooth, stained appearance of its stones. Her hair has been deliberately let down by those working on the head who unswaddled its wet fern, posed the exhibition of its coil and released life-giving air at her leathery beauty. The waxy surface and colour of the face form a pash (archaic English word) of tallow. Here is an example of treasure for him […]


Kinship describes affinity, fellow feelings and at-oneness. The six-poem sequence explores lines of connection, correspondence and closeness. The pieces sit in a landscape of which Heaney feels himself very much a part. The bog is the unifying factor and Heaney’s close relationship with it takes different forms. I the first piece is triggered by simply standing in its midst. The poet’s ability to read the sacred markings, evidence of the spade marks left where peat has been harvested (hieroglyphic/ peat on a spreadfield) guides him to a kindred spirit beneath the surface: the strangled victim of stone-age ritual sacrifice and the private space, the love-nest in the bracken where she lay preserved. The bog is known to Heaney since childhood […]

Ocean’s Love to Ireland

Heaney summarises the sequence of 3 short poems and the two that follow in a response to DOD (p 169): an allegory involving the Elizabethan armies entering Gaelic Ulster (Smerwick below is in fact in Munster) and the ground being possessed by the planters – the whole ‘Aisling’ scenario – England being the male conqueror, Ireland the ruined maid and wee ‘no surrender’ Ulster being the product of the union … The ‘speaker in the poem’, whoever he is, is deeply aware of his implication in being ‘imperially’ male. The poems plot a crucial moment in political history pointing to the desolation that will be the outcome for Ireland; The title requires a preposition. Heaney’s unexpected choice of to suggests an […]


Crime and punishment: a different genre, a classical time; the ‘he’ and the ‘her’ from classical mythology feed myth and allegory. Actaeon’s attempts to possess Artemis (He courted her) are less physical than Ralegh’s towards the maid of Ireland but the arch flattery of his intentions, his decadent sweet art is judged equally unworthy. The peeping-Tom is given away by the wind’s vowel/ Blowing through the hazels that whispers his question for him: ‘Are you Diana . . . ?’ But was he Actaeon or is he a figure of allegory? Heaney warns all abusers, whether they rape the aisling’s maid of nationality or lust after a classical goddess of Beauty, that whatever their remorse, a painful fate will be […]

Act Of Union

Heaney offers insights to DOD (p 169-70): The ‘speaker in the poem’, whoever he is, is deeply aware of his implication in being ‘imperially male’.. He lies like the island of Britain beside an expectant mother island who has her back turned to him. He’s experienced a certain guilt at having caused the pregnancy. Far from creating a bond, the child born of union forced on the maid of Ireland carries within it the seeds of anger and rebellion. I A birth is imminent(To-night): its symptoms seem human enough: a first movement of contraction, maybe the pulse of a heartbeat. Then allegory steps in: the amniotic fluids/ ‘waters’ surrounding the foetus and preparing to burst wear the guise of Ulster: […]

The Betrothal of Cavehill

A wedding is about to be celebrated; ordinary folk get on with their lives against the backdrop of a divided Ulster. In the troubled Belfast of the 1960s, hostile Gunfire barks its questions (of sectarian ownership) off Cavehill. The hill’s geographical features reflect the religious and political make-up of its immediate area: Cavehill is as hard and uncompromising as basalt; as defiant as its south-facing stare into Catholic areas; a stone projecting non-catholic traits: proud, protestant and northern and male. A good natured poke at the perceived naivety of bridegroom compares those taking their wedding vows with the artless innocence of Adam untouched before he was taken over by Eve and suffered joint expulsion from Eden (before the shock of […]

Hercules and Antaeus

As predicted in the very first poem of the collection Hercules has invaded Antaeus’ space; they meet in single combat: superman versus child of earth, brain versus brawn. Antaeus’s fate will be the repeated fate of Ireland. Hercules is the golden boy with the god-sponsored future: Sky-born and royal. He comes fresh from Labours fulfilled: snake-choker (the nine-headed hydra); dung heaver (the Augean stables). He is preoccupied (his mind big) with his next challenge: to steal the golden apples of the Hesperides from the north-African Atlas range. Legend has already ordained that Antaeus (Ireland’s ‘champion’ figure) will be no match for him. Hercules, his future hung with trophies, will not lose: Hercules has the measure, already knows how to overcome […]

Part II

In a 1973 conversation, Heaney said that the ideas behind Hercules and Antaeus led to Part II which was ‘an attempt at some kind of declarative voice’; In a 1975 article Heaney referred to ‘a need to be explicit about the pressures and prejudices watermarked into the psyche of anyone born and bred in Northern Ireland’; The language becomes more conversational, less poetically charged (MP p 144) The Unacknowledged Legislator’s Dream Whatever You Say Say Nothing Freedman Singing School 1 The Ministry of Fear 2 A Constable Calls 3 Orange Drums 4 Summer 1969 5 Fosterage 6 Exposure

The Unacknowledged Legislator’s Dream

In dialogue with DOD (p 181) Heaney had the following to say about his prose-poem: It’s a free-floating invention, that one. I remember writing it in a café in Bray as I waited for my Volkswagen Beetle to be serviced. It’s a corrective to the more tragic-elegiac scenario in ‘Exposure’… This particular unacknowledged legislator is fit as a fiddle, his spirit blithe, his audience in great fettle … but he happens to be a joke in the eyes of his captor and he’s aware that he has simply become a part of some new political spectator sport Concerned about the relationship between his perceptions of injustice that deserve public comment and his inability to respond adequately, Heaney’s speaker comes to […]

Whatever You Say Say Nothing

A poster put up during the ‘Troubles’, featuring a masked, uniformed paramilitary carrying a sten gun, bore the legend: ‘Loose-talk costs lives In taxis On the phone In clubs and bars At football matches At home with friends Anywhere Whatever you say – say nothing’. Composed of amateurish cut and pasted newspaper headings and snippets it was evidently the work of extremist factions. It was threatening. A society is warned to refrain from unguarded political or religious comments that could cause a violent reaction. Heaney levels his anger against propagandist threats to free speech at a time when the voices of the neutral majority should be raised in protest; equally he deplores the imposition of repressive ‘political’ measures that fly […]