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 […]


The mythical content of the North collection opens with a North African child-of-the- earth living in an ‘Irish’ habitat. Allegory is in the making: the confrontation between Antaeus and Hercules is announced; they will meet in combat in the final poem of Part I.  As the end of the story is already known we are reconciled to the inevitable defeat of Antaeus and whatever he stands for. Heaney himself  spelt out both the allegory and its irony: ‘elevation’ is impossible for Antaeus and, by extension, for Ireland’. A ‘giant’ figure from Greek/ North African mythology was invincible in combat as long as he retained contact with the earth that renewed his strength whenever he fell. Antaeus describes what makes his […]


A 3000 year old site in County Mayo, Ireland acts as a catalyst for exploring in congenial dialogue the linkage between artefacts, peoples, myths, cultures and ancient languages. The piece centres the doggedness, roots and recurrence critical to the development of Irish nationhood around an ancient artefact. Heaney is said to have pinned the poem to the door of Patrick Caulfield’s house (see below) as a thank you note after they exchanged views in 1974 (DODp163). The speaker tells of a ‘local’ with whom he discussed objects that regularly came to light (just kept turning up) but were dismissed by the uneducated as beyond their comprehension (foreign). Each stone’s central hole made it one-eyed though, unlike the classical Cyclops, harmlessly […]

Funeral Rites

In a 1962 commentary Heaney referred to Funeral Rites as a dream of forgiveness, the dream of the possibility of forgiveness; His 3-poem sequence pursues angles associated with death and burial moving from family wakes via the uncontrolled violence of the Troubles into myth and legend. Ultimately the sequence yearns for a solution to the unbreakable cycle of murder and revenge and suggests a Norse hero might hold the key. In a sense Heaney ‘s vision is prophetic: history will demonstrate almost twenty years later that the road to peace and reconciliation will by definition require that some acts remain unavenged and that irreconcilable factions talk together. I Heaney reflects on his presence at traditional Irish Catholic family funerals at […]


Incertus, the pen name Heaney gave himself in the early Belfast days of poetry writing never really goes away. The poet has come to seek release from a build-up of inner tensions, be they generated by the depressing state of Northern Ireland or his nagging uncertainty about the way his poetry is presenting. To help him cope with troubling issues Heaney has felt the need for solitude in which to receive the benefit and reassurance of a counselling voice. The speaker is standing on a sandy beach (strand) along the rugged Donegal coast (shod of a bay). The sheer power of what he is hearing brings to mind the god Thor who in Viking mythology hammered to create land, sea […]

Viking Dublin: Trial Pieces

Heaney feeds on poetic charges triggered by a cultural event: ‘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). An exhibit Heaney sees arouses his curiosity and sparks off subsequent associations. Heaney gives his imagination free rein in pursuit of Viking links with Dublin and by extension with Irish language and culture. I A museum exhibit invites questions as to its provenance … something human maybe (jaw-bone or a rib) or part of something more substantial (sturdier). Poised to move on (anyhow) the observer’s interest is captured by an original marking (a small outline) scratched into the bone (incised) a squared, […]

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 – an Irish poetic genre – a classical myth – a ‘he’ and a ‘her’ appropriate to allegory. The Ralegh figures (see ‘Ocean’s Love to Ireland’) whose historical acts have resulted in social and secular violence building to a head in the Troubles do not go unpunished in Heaney’s succinct Irish dream poem. Actaeon’s attempts to possess Artemis (He courted her) are less lustful 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 the forbidden question for him: ‘Are you Diana . . . ?’ But was this Actaeon […]

Act Of Union

Allegorizing on the pun of ‘union’ as an act of sexual as well as political ‘congress’, Heaney reflects on a historical enactment imposed upon Ireland by the British government in 1801 and the gap between what was anticipated in Westminster at the time and the turbulent reality it has delivered. Background: following the Irish Rebellion of 1798 the British Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger decided that the best solution was a union of Irish and the British parliaments: the Irish Parliament would be abolished, and Ireland thenceforth represented at the Parliament in Westminster, London. Pitt argued that this would both strengthen the connection between the two countries and provide Ireland with opportunities for economic development. It would also, he […]

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 […]

6 Exposure

In conversation with Henri Cole as published in The Paris review no 75, Heaney spoke about his move to Wicklow in 1972: ‘… leaving the north didn’t break my heart. The solitude was salubrious. Anxiety, after all, can coexist with determination. The anxiety in a poem like “Exposure” is about whether the work that comes out of this move is going to be in any way adequate. The poem is asking itself, Is there enough here to hold the line against the atrocious thing that is happening up there? And the poet is saying, What am I doing but striking a few little sparks when what the occasion demands is a comet?’ … I suppose the corollary of being battened […]