Contents Foreword Main sources Key dates in Heaney’s biography post 1969 Grounds for optimism Attributed comments and reviews Unattributed comments and reviews The makings of a lyric poet Talismans , portraits and concerns The bricklayer’s spirit level Heaney puts human spirit to the test Living is not giving in History and ignorance All-seeing and in-between Translation’ and other variations on the prefix ‘trans’ ‘So walk on air’ Water, earth, fire and air The Poems: individual commentaries with footnotes and reflections on style and structure; Afterthoughts Heaney an extraordinary man in ordinary clothing Heaney the cordon-bleu cook Heaney the agent of change Heaney the orchestral composer Heaney the word painter Heaney the meticulous craftsman (including phonetic information) Subjects and Circumstances of […]

The Errand

The second of  consecutive poems in which Heaney recalls incidents involving his deceased parents in particular his father. Heaney had left the family home (after seven years of boarding-school experience in Derry) to go to university after which he worked, married, travelled and brought up children in locations distant from his roots. His memories of those early days are crystal-clear. The child Heaney shows an early flash of the intelligence he will demonstrate abundantly as schoolboy and scholar: the father gives his eager-beaver son a job he wants done without delay: ‘On you go now! Run, son, like the devil’ ; he is to pass on an instruction: ‘tell your mother to try/ To find me a bubble for the […]

The Rain Stick

for Beth and Rand Rand Brandes: academic, critic and bibliographer working at Lenoir-Rhyne University, North Carolina; married to Beth; The poem first published in the New Republic in 1993 describes the ‘watery music’ produced by a cactus stalk. Heaney has discovered a snatch of pleasure that may be repeated at will.  In so doing he introduces a message found in the collection’s final piece (Postscript) – that of opening the heart and the senses to the simple delights that the world has to offer. The rain stick acquires the symbolic quality of an instrument of divine transmission. To play this ‘instrument’ only one lesson is required (upend the rain stick). What comes out of it is unprecedented (a music that […]

To a Dutch Potter in Ireland

for Sonja Landweer Sonja Landweer (born in 1933 in Amsterdam, died Dec 2019) was a Dutch artist resident in Ireland from the late 1960s. She created ceramics, jewellery and sculpture exhibiting in Ireland and internationally. She and Seamus Heaney shared a mutually inspirational friendship over many decades. Heaney composes a poem with her in mind celebrating inventiveness, originality and indomitable human spirit. He appends his own two-part version of a poem written by a Dutch poet J. C. Bloem who describes the agonies of nazi occupation of Holland in WWII and the need to win the peace. Heaney’s epigraph might well have fitted the Programme of the joint exhibition he and Landweer put on in Kilkenney entitled ‘Out of the […]

A Brigid’s Girdle

for Adele* The poet offers a warm hand of support to a friend with a life-threatening condition; he has known her from his Harvard days. The poem’s elegiac tone is ominous. Heaney recounts a previous contact with Adele, both the where (rustic table under magnolias in South Carolina) and the when (early spring in South Carolina as blossoms fell on me). The setting in which he wrote to her is vividly imprinted on his sense-memory: vision – a dwelling house (gable) sharp and majestic (as clean-lined as the prow of a white liner) set against strong Spring light (bisected sunlight in the sunlit yard); emotion –for him a moment of respite (glad of the early heat and the first quiet) […]


Heaney allegorizes the survival instinct of a herb that for all its lowly appearance graced the Heaney family’s Sunday lunch table. His underlying message, however, sets out the deeper danger represented by tenacious units who are in fact, or see themselves as, downtrodden. The plant becomes an emblem for the overlooked and a warning to the rest of society. ‘Anything Can Happen’ published ten years later in District and Circle (1996) spells out one awful potential aftermath when groups are not ‘regarded’. In contrast Nicholas Jenkins talks of ‘a benign, lyrical language that is one of this collection’s most appealing notes’ of the poem’s early lines (Walking on Air in the TLS of July 5th 1996) In its physical form […]

A Sofa in the Forties

A sequence of four poems set in the living area of the Heaney family’s farm at Mossbawn. Heaney reflected on this early period of his life in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: In the nineteen forties, when I was the eldest child of an ever-growing family in rural Co. Derry, we crowded together in the three rooms of a traditional thatched farmstead and lived a kind of den-life. The time of innocence or ignorance will ultimately be replaced by full historical and political awareness.   Active play is unfolding: the children are all positioned (on the sofa In a line) protecting limbs from the imagined ‘outside’ (kneeling behind each other). There is both hierarchy (eldest down to youngest) and an […]

Keeping Going

For Hugh A significant ‘sandwich’ of six poems dedicated to the poet’s younger brother Hugh. Whilst the top and the bottom layers are warm, compassionate and palatable pieces addressed to Hugh himself, the ‘filling’ is disturbing. Background: Short of living the experience is difficult for outsiders to appreciate the perseverance, determination and tact Hugh Heaney required both during and after the ‘Troubles’ period to cope with the entrenched stances and sensitivities of families on both sides of the sectarian divide within a narrow radius, the danger of saying things unguardedly, the bitter, enduring legacy of events and his perceived need to live alongside those same people from one day to the next. In the concluding piece Heaney, who sometimes hinted […]

Two Lorries

In this virtuoso piece Heaney adds the challenge of the sestina form to a creative routine that establishes a symbolic base, builds a structure that expresses the message it carries, makes appropriate choice of vocabulary and syntax, weaves together an interplay of senses and emotions that are essentially his own, scores the music of the poetry with assonance and alliteration and adds a ‘musical’ dynamic of light and shade, loud and soft to enhance the spoken word. Heaney creates two short screenplays, the first a cheerful harmless flirtation in the 1940s featuring his mother in her prime, the second a horror nightmare with ghosts and images of death and destruction, requiem for a mother now passed away and a local […]


The three-part sequence depicts people, circumstances and associations linked to the title-fruit. Background: for Heaney as a boy of five or six years old the bricklayer he knew best was king of local post-WWII building sites and child’s-eye giant of the world.  Mick Joyce portrayed anonymously in Damson was Heaney’s uncle who married one of his father’s sisters. He first appeared in The Demobbed Bricklayer of Sandpit (from Station Island, 1984), his friendly cheerful personality celebrated by ‘merriment in the spirit level’s eye’ and the ‘song of his trowel’. His final appearance comes in ‘District and Circle’ of 2006, an elegiac sequence of 5 sonnets To Mick Joyce in Heaven. Heaney commented that the sheer weight of his tools required […]

Weighing In

Something has lodged itself in Heaney’s nose and he ends up venting his anger against the forces seeking to perpetuate disregard for his minority Catholic community. He uses an everyday weight of defined mass to expose the political and sectarian imbalance in Northern Ireland and the need for very elusive compromise. The sequence is to do with weights and balances, dead weights and spaces for reason to intervene; ‘weighing’ has to do with balancing forces against one another or adding force to an argument so as to tip the balance; contestants ‘weigh in’ before a contest; ‘weighing in’ suggests ‘actively taking sides’. The unyielding, inflexible block (56 lb. weight … solid iron) is not an object that affirms much (unit […]

St Kevin and the Blackbird

The diptych focuses on an event from medieval Christian legend centred round the sixth-century Irish saint of Glendalough  translated into a parable of self-sacrifice and self­-forgetfulness which may also be read as a figure for the way the imagination can be totally possessed by its object. NC (p190) Images of St Kevin of Glendalough are plentiful. In his published Lectures Heaney referred to the poem indirectly as an example of poetry’s “angelic potential” and of ‘its function as an agent of possible transformation, of evolution towards that more radiant and generous life which the imagination desires’. The man he describes has placed himself in testing circumstances. The event he is remembered for made the reputation of humble Brother Kevin! The […]

The Flight Path

The Flight Path poems make a considerable contribution to the collection. Heaney selects a title suggestive of set routines that expose countervailing forces – movement across space and time, guided movement, movement determined by outside forces and personal time-lines. The metaphorical implications of ‘taking flight’ are also represented, not least the spiritual uplift expressed in the final line. In the six-poem sequence the planned course of an aircraft acts as a metaphor for the journey linking his early life with academic positions that took him to and from the USA  linking with a life-journey that also took him from Belfast to the Irish Republic in 1972 into a life of self-employed poet. The clockwork of events led an unpleasant confrontation […]

An Invocation

The poem was published in the London Review of Books on August 6 1992. In this three-poem elegiac sequence Heaney invokes hard-line Scottish communist poet Hugh MacDiarmid; he recognises a kindred empathist for causes (with the difference, perhaps that MacDiarmid reacted much more radically than Heaney in his own Scottish nationalist way against the perceived injustices of government from Whitehall).  The pieces are written in memoriam. Heaney seeks a gesture of recognition (Incline to me, MacDiarmid, out of Shetland) acknowledging that due regard might be hard come by from a Scot as uncompromising as the landscape around him (stone-eyed from stone-gazing), a boozer (sobered up), a man of natural  ill-temper (thrawn). Heaney is not seeking the acknowledgement of MacDiarmid the […]

Mycenae Lookout

Heaney’s mini-epic in 5 parts showcases his scholarship as a classicist and translator (what he modestly describes as ‘a certain amount of book work’) and his creative talent. Following the end of the Trojan War Heaney’s watchman follows the return to Mycenae of Agamemnon and his murder at the hands of his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. The fineness of the writing, the density and sustained intensity of the narrative, the richness of its symbolic plane and allegorical possibility, its shifts in structure, tone and style place the sequence at the very highest level of late twentieth century poetry. Background to its composition: in conversation with DOD (pp349-50) Heaney revealed the event that triggered the sequence; in doing so […]

The First Words

Heaney offers a version of a Marin Sorescu poem printed in ‘The Biggest Egg in the World’ (Bloodaxe 1987). Sorescu a Romanian from a humble farming background similar to Heaney’s is commenting on repressive political circumstances in his own particular way. He uses his ‘spirit level’ to establish just how much things are weighted against in a Communist state. A poet assesses the gap between what was promised and how things have turned out; it centres on corruption (the first words got polluted) – Heaney ‘s preference for ‘got’ over ‘were’ has something peasant-class, blunt and as-everyone-round-here-knows-very-well about it.  The changing content of flowing water offers a ready- made metaphor for contamination (river water in the morning / flowing with […]

The Gravel Walks

Heaney pens an elegy to the loss of an irrecoverable resource. In an interview he added that ‘The Gravel Walks’ ‘ is about heavy work—wheeling barrows of gravel—but also the paradoxical sense of lightness when you’re lifting heavy things. I like the in-between-ness of up and down, of being on the earth and of the heavens’. Heaney in the Harvard Crimson of Oct 2008. The poem’s most memorable line linking Heaney’s voice and his mid-Ulster heritage will appear on his headstone in Bellaghy church-yard. Heaney focuses on his cherished Moyola river and on the visible elemental inter-reaction of stone and water (river gravel) since time immemorial (in the beginning, that). At a time when water levels were depressed (high summer) […]


Heaney’s ingenious poem conflates two sites miles apart in space and time (Whitby a seaside town in north-east England and the Moyola river that flowed close to Heaney’s childhood home mid-Ulster) and two individuals one of whom became a saint and the other an anonymous Mossbawn cowman who shared Caedmon’s veterinary talents. The poem is topped and tailed with direct reference to 7th century poet-herdsman, Caedmon, working in a north Yorkshire abbey  whom Heaney came to know (alongside Beowulf) through his Old English undergraduate studies. Similar characters frequented Heaney’s Mossbawn farm not least Irishman John Dologhan ‘the best milker ever to come about the place’ in Montana from the Electric Light collection. The standards of perseverance and compassion amongst cowmen, […]

The Thimble

Helen Vendler identifies the geographical context for the frescoes as Pompeii (‘Seamus Heaney’ p.134); the thimble becomes the ‘absent centre’ around which Heaney constructs his vignettes; A study in balance … Heaney reveals how simple things, such as a thimble or a swing, can hold the weight of history – and how history can alter the emotional weight of an object. Noonday Press blurb of June 1996. The small closed-end cap (familiar since the late Roman period) worn traditionally over the finger-tip to protect it, for example, when pushing a needle through tough fabric is the unifying factor of a sequence of five short pieces.  1 Focus on a sexually explicit fresco (in the House of Carnal Murals) conjures up […]

The Butter-Print

 Prompted by the sight of an old-fashioned farmhouse utensil used to decorate pats of butter Heaney revisits the lost domain of childhood . The Heaney family produced its own butter on the family farm (see ‘Churning Day’ from Death of a Naturalist, Heaney’s first collection of 1966). Heaney shakes his head at the woodworker who carved the print’s circular, sunny disposition (round open face) with a barbed design (cross-hatched head of rye, all jags and bristles) emblazoning the tasty substance (soft butter) with a skin tearing image (sharp device) recalling the damage incurred by a saintly figure (breast … scored with slivered glass). The poet reveals that his personal reaction stemmed from a childhood crisis (I swallowed an awn of […]

Remembered Columns

Things that survive displacement and re-creation, Heaney seems to be saying, may confidently be regarded as true. The poet’s writerly anxiety is to do with alphabet and by extension language – he imagines a film-like animation in which written characters fly away – his delivery and reassurance derive from a Catholic legend in which something similar is said to have happened with a felicitous outcome. The components of language with which hitherto Heaney has felt secure (solid letters of the world) were suddenly unsteady (grew airy). The sturdy architecture of written letters (marble serifs … clearly blocked uprights) that this seasoned wordsmith has underpinned (built upon rocks) and elevated (set upon the heights) suddenly took to the air (rose). A […]

Poet’s Chair

The 3-poem sequence is dedicated to Carolyn Mulholland, born in Lurgan, Co Armagh in 1944; she studied at the Belfast College of Art from 1962 to 1966, where she was awarded the Ulster Arts Club prize for Sculpture in 1965. Something borrowed from da Vinci’s notebooks enables Heaney to hail the momentousness of works of art – be they a piece of sculpture, a painting or a poem – that result from a spiritual journey undertaken by their creator. According to Leonardo the universal source of light perceives no shade (the sun has never seen a shadow). This prepares us initially for the world of light, dark, and changing perspective within Mulholland’s mind (Now watch the sculptor move) as she orbits the concept that forms the centre of her […]

The Swing

A sequence evoking a mid-Ulster time, a place and a child-centred activity.  In the 1940s a large open barn in the Heaney farmyard at Mossbawn in Northern Ireland featured a swing that distracted Heaney and his siblings (the ‘herd life’ Heaney talks about in ‘Sofa in the Forties’ and his Nobel acceptance speech) and brought a mother’s presence to bear. The sequence moves back and forth between the extraordinary and the commonplace, the heavenly and the earthbound, idealized artistic representations and sheer down-to-earthness. * Learning to swing well is a metaphor for all manner of things not a means to successful independence. An early introductions to the laws of Physics: swinging was about maintaining impetus – the poet points out […]

The Poplar

Multum in parvo! This short piece goes to the heart of matters of alignment and balance. Heaney, a close observer of nature, is quick to perceive the previously unseen and consider whether it signals dramatic shifts in human affairs, themselves shaped by powerful forces. Heaney addressed the issue with Henri Cole in Harvard’s Paris Review: “The needle is always swinging between two extremes with me. One is the gravitas of subject matter, a kind of surly nose-to-the-groundness, almost a non-poetry, and the other is the lift and frolic of the words in themselves”. Heaney reflects on something he has not noticed before: a sudden rush of wind (shakes the big poplar) exposes as if by alchemy (quicksilvering) the lighter-shaded underside […]

Two Stick Drawings

Two vignettes borrowed from the lost domain of childhood portray youngsters in circumstances that to Heaney’s eye provided them with uninhibited pleasure. Walking-sticks form the main props to the action. 1 Heaney reflects on the actions and responses of a playmate (Claire O’Reilly)  wilful enough to misappropriate her granny’s stick for her own purposes –  its shape (crook-necked) ideal for blackberry-picking expeditions (snare the highest briars) and providing a solution to Claire’s refusal to be denied access to the best fruit (always grew the ripest blackberries). In comparison the fate of a ‘heroine’ of Greek mythology (Persephone) was much less fortuitous (in the halfpenny place compared to Claire), Claire’s nature ignored regulation (she’d trespass and climb gates) or danger (walk […]