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: finding the blend; the poet’s compositional skills; the poem as a ‘music pleasing to the ear’; the music of the poetry; using assonance: ‘coloured sound’ is an attempt to highlight recurrent sounds in the poems […]

The Rain Stick

for Beth and Rand First published in the New Republic in 1993 Heaney describes the ‘music’ produced by a cactus stalk. He recounts a moment of unexpected pleasure that may be repeated at will; in so doing he introduces the message of 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 . The result of doing so is unexpected and miraculous: the cactus ‘instrument’ produces a music that you never would have known / To listen for. From this ‘ordinary’ […]

To a Dutch Potter in Ireland

  for Sonja Landweer The poem is dedicated to Sonja Landweer, born in 1933 in Amsterdam, resident in Ireland since the late 1960s; a creator of ceramics, jewellery and sculpture, Landweer exhibited in Ireland and internationally. She and Seamus Heaney shared a mutually inspirational friendship over many decades including a joint exhibition in Kilkenney entitled ‘Out of the Marvellous’. Heaney dedicates a two-poem sequence to her, celebrating creativity, resurrection and indomitable human spirit adding a version of a short poem written by a Dutch poet who described the agonies of nazi repression in WWII and the jubilation of freedom. Heaney’s history of creative writing and his cautious hopes that the current truce will lead to peace in Ulster are continuous […]

A Brigid’s Girdle

  for Adele The poet communicates with a friend he has known from Harvard days offering her a gift that he hopes will help alleviate a condition that is threatening her; the poem’s increasingly elegiac tone is ominous. The poet has been in contact with Adele before, in early Spring as he sat in a garden at a rustic table /Under magnolias in South Carolina/As blossoms fell on me. He recalls the vivid imprinted on his memory: what he could see – a sharp Spring light against which a gable /As clean-lined as the prow of a white liner/Bisected sunlight in the sunlit yard; what he felt: respite from a busy schedule that such a moment permitted: I was glad […]


Heaney admires the survival instinct of a herb that, for all its lowly appearance, graced the family’s Sunday lunch table. As an adjunct he points out the danger of radicalizing groups who see themselves as marginalised. Mint might not be anything to look at (like a clump of small dusty nettles) just an invasive plant Growing wild at the gable of the house established at the frontier between garden and rubbish heap: Beyond where we dumped our refuse and old bottles; a plant of unattractive coloration (Unverdant ever), and whilst not beneath contempt, yet insignificant to the eye: almost beneath notice. But Heaney insists upon fair assessment of mint’s promise / And newness whatever its lowly presence in the back […]

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. Make-believe required specific individual contributions that led to family solidarity: The children are all positioned on the sofa In a line, kneeling/ Behind each other. Whilst there is already a hierarchy (eldest down to youngest) they all demonstrate a common, energetic purpose: Elbows going like pistons, for this was a train. […]

Keeping Going

  A ‘sandwich’ of six poems dedicated to the poet’s younger brother Hugh. Whilst the top and the tail are warm, compassionate and palatable pieces, the ‘filling’ is disturbing. HV(p164) ‘the poem is in part an investigation of the qualities that go to make up that sort of emotional stamina (remaining equable/ living in peace with his neighbours), in part an overview of the atrocious conditions which make the stoic response an heroic one’ Heaney’s views of brother Hugh were formed in childhood: 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 (Heaney […]

Two Lorries

In this virtuoso lyric Heaney adds the challenge of the sestina form (see note below) to a creative lyric 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 […]


  For Heaney-as-a-boy the bricklayer was king of the post-war building site and therefore a giant of the world. In ‘Sandpit’ (from Station Island, 1984) he referred to his ‘demobbed bricklayer’, to the ‘merriment in the spirit level’s eye’ and the ‘song of his trowel’; he will return to the figure in ‘District and Circle’ of 2006: Mick Joyce is like a ‘demobbed Achilles ( ) Prince of the sandpiles’. In Damson Heaney likens him to a kind of altruistic ‘Odysseus in Hades’. The sequence is an interweave of people, circumstances and myths, triggered by the homely smell of damsons being simmered to make jam to which he will return at the end. The boy-watcher’s attention has been caught by […]

Weighing In

The title is teasingly equivocal: contestants ‘weigh in’ before a contest; ‘weighing in’ suggests ‘actively taking sides’; ‘weighing’ has to do with balancing one force against another, adding force to an argument so as to tip the balance. Often troubled by his placatory responses to events, there were moments when Heaney’s customary urbanity, generosity of spirit and sense of fair play were tested to the limit. In ‘Weighing In’ he appears to have reached just such a moment. Heaney invites us to envision a 56 lb. weight, an unyielding, inflexible block of solid iron. The Unit of negation is a metaphor for denial and contradiction, bigotry and extremism. Its cast-iron shape (moulded) is generally recognizable: Stamped ( ) With an […]

St Kevin and the Blackbird

A diptych picking out an event from medieval legend developed around the figure of the sixth-century Irish saint of Glendalough translates 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 HV(p159) (one way of formally enacting veteran status or stoic endurance) ‘is to mimic the continuing steadfastness of the stoic stance … in his beautiful double poem of immobility in service’ ‘Now here is another example …’ And then. Heaney is responding to an image of Kevin in which the saint is on his knees arms stretched out, inside/ His cell. The event with which the saint’s celebrity is synonymous […]

The Flight Path

Heaney’s title opens multiple lines of enquiry: 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, with his exodus from Ulster to the Irish Republic in 1972, with an unpleasant confrontation involving a nationalist figure in 1979 and an equally disagreeable happening with the Unionist protestant forces of order during the Troubles. The title suggests movement in space, movement in time, guided movement, movement determined by outside forces. The metaphorical implications of ‘taking flight’ are also represented, not least the spiritual uplift expressed in the final line. The six-poem sequence is dedicated to Donald Davie, fellow poet and critic who died […]

An Invocation

The poem appeared in the London Review of Books on August 6 1992. Heaney invokes hard-line Scottish poet and communist Hugh MacDiarmid; he recognises a kindred conscience (with the difference that MacDiarmid reacted much more radically in his own Scottish nationalist way against the perceived injustices of government from Whitehall). The three 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 approval of the sociable character who judged, joked and teased: the old vigilante/ […]

Mycenae Lookout

A mini-epic in 5 parts in which Heaney showcases both his scholarship as a classicist and translator (what he modestly describes as ‘a certain amount of book work’) and his lyrical talent. He recounts 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 lyric poetry. In conversation with DOD Heaney revealed the event that triggered the sequence; in doing so he invited us to watch the narrative unfold […]

The First Words

  Heaney offers a version of a Sorescu poem printed in ‘The Biggest Egg in the World’ (Bloodaxe 1987). Sorescu, a Romanian from a humble farming background like Heaney’s, comments in his own particular way on the trying political circumstances of his life. He is using his own ‘spirit level’ to judge a totalitarian state. The first words got polluted (Heaney ‘s preference for ‘got’ over, say, ‘were’ has something blunt and uncompromising about it). The river is a metaphor for contamination: Like river water in the morning / Flowing with ( ) dirt. Sorescu is sour: the pollutants are Communist propaganda-tools and a state-controlled press (blurbs and ( ) front pages) used to repress the individual. Sorescu rejects these […]

The Gravel Walks

an elegy to things irrecoverable. “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 Heaney focuses on a timeless product of elemental inter-reaction of rock and water: River gravel. In the beginning, that. The poem ‘came on’ in High summer triggered by an angler’s motorbike deposited Deep in roadside flowers like a fallen knight defeated in medieval combat. The angler, dead by now, is a distant memory (Whose ghost we’d lately questioned); on sight of an angler the youngsters would enquire […]


The poem’s title is a deliberate conflation: two places miles apart in space and time. Whitby is a seaside town in north-east England and Moyola the river that flowed close to Heaney’s Northern Irish childhood home. The poem pays tribute to two men in one: the first a 7th century poet-herdsman, Caedmon, from Yorkshire whom Heaney has come to know through his studies; the second a yard-man known to Heaney from his farming background. The honesty, wisdom, judgment and compassion of the humble Irish countryman towards his beasts are gifts common to a historical figure regarded by many scholars as the father of English poetry. Now here is another example (too) of privileged contact (lucky to have known) in the […]

The Thimble

  The small closed-end cap (familiar since the late Roman period) worn over the finger-tip to protect it when pushing a needle in sewing is the common factor in a sequence of short poems. “The Thimble argues that every object is an ‘absent centre’ around which every culture weaves a different text of meaning”. HV(p133) 1 Focus on a sexually explicit fresco In the House of Carnal Murals, conjures up the small thimble-shaped cup carried by its painter to hold a special red, its coloration deliberately chosen to exaggerate the fresco’s deviant, lascivious subject-matter: the lips and special bite-marks. House of Carnal Murals: wall paintings illustrating sexually titillating materials; touch: the caress of the paint brush adds to the lustfulness of the piece; special red: used […]

The Butter-Print

  Heaney revisits the lost domain of childhood, his memory awakened by the sight of an old-fashioned farmhouse utensil used to decorate butter (the Heaneys produced their own butter on the family farm in ‘Churning Day’ from Death of a Naturalist, Heaney’s first collection of 1966). The sight of the butter-print generates mock recrimination aimed at the woodworker who made it: Who carved on the butter-print’s round open face / A cross-hatched head of rye, all jags and bristles? The contrast between the tasty substance and the image it bears has given rise to a stinging memory: Why should soft butter bear that sharp device / As if its breast were scored with slivered glass? The poet’s reaction stems from […]

Remembered Columns

  Sensing that words, meanings and the world outside have come under threat Heaney simulates a cinematographic animation technique in which things come apart and are reconstructed. What he felt secure with is suddenly fragile: The solid letters of the world grew airy. The sturdy constructions of written letter and word that a seasoned poet has elevated (The marble serifs, the clearly blocked uprights / Built upon rocks and set upon the heights) are suddenly flimsy. The constituent parts rise like remembered columns in a story that (despite Heaney’s lapse of faith,) offers him a ray of hope: the legendary miracle of the Virgin’s house that rose and flew / And landed on the hilltop at Loreto. Reassured that things […]

Poet’s Chair

  A sequence of 3 poems dedicated to Carolyn Mulholland (born in Lurgan, Co Armagh in 1944; a student at the Belfast College of Art from 1962 to 1966, where she won the Ulster Arts Club prize for Sculpture in 1965). In the epigraph a sculptress orbits the Renaissance’s most celebrated painter/ scientist/ engineerand scholar, Italian Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519). Heaney quotes from da Vinci’s notebook (Leonardo said: the sun has never/ Seen a shadow) to prepare us for Mulholland’s world of light, shade, and changing perspectives: Now watch the sculptor move (orbiting her work-piece as a planet orbits the sun) Full circle round her next work, like a lover / In the sphere of shifting angles and fixed love; he salutes her contemplative approach and her devotion to her […]

The Swing

  A sequence evoking a time, a place, a family group and an activity: the 1940s; a large open shed in the rural Heaney farmyard in Northern Ireland; brothers and sisters (the ‘herd life’ Heaney talks about in ‘Sofa in the Forties’) and their mother; using the swing in the family barn. The sequence moves back and forth between the extraordinary and the commonplace, the heavenly and the earthbound, idealized artistic representations and reality. Learning to swing well is a metaphor for learning to lead a successful life. * Youngsters cannot easily use a swing; the poet sets out short-cuts that he and his siblings learned from each other: once launched little effort was required to maintain momentum: Fingertips just […]

The Poplar

  This short piece goes to the heart of matters of alignment as per The Spirit Level: as a close observer of the strength of nature Heaney is quick to perceive changes that find an echo in human affairs, themselves reshaped by powerful forces. A gust of wind exposes the much lighter shaded underside of the poplar tree’s leaves, suddenly changing the landscape: Wind shakes the big poplar, quicksilvering / The whole tree in a single sweep. The poet’s sensitivity as regards shifting ground and equilibrium, his natural caution about hopeful contemporary political developments lead to questions: when things are finely balanced which way will they tip: What bright scale fell and left this needle quivering? How much negative weight (loaded) […]

Two Stick Drawings

  Two childhood scenarios in which sticks featured. 1 Heaney reflects on the contrasting behaviour of two girls with whom he mixed as a child. On autumnal fruit-picking expeditions the first was skilled in the use of the stick she carried: Claire O’Reilly used her granny’s stick (its shape fit for purpose: A crook-necked one) to snare the highest briars. The reason for stretching up: the least accessible plants always grew the ripest blackberries. The second girl was less modest and thoughtful: Persephone/ Was in the halfpenny place compared to Claire. Heedless of danger or regulation She’d trespass and climb gates and walk the railway. Heaney recalls the inter-reaction of railway and nature (Where sootflakes blew into convolvulus) and the […]

A Call

The first of two regretful poems in which Heaney recalls incidents from the time before his parents passed away. In this piece he keeps in telephone contact with them. Heaney had left the family home (after seven years of part boarding-school experience) to go to university after which he worked, married, travelled and brought up children in locations distant from his roots. Heaney’s mother has answered the phone and heard his request to speak to his father: ‘Hold on,’ she said, ‘I’II just run out and get him. His elderly father is still actively engaged in what he enjoys best (fresh air and agriculture): ‘The weather here’s so good, he took the chance  to do a bit of weeding.’ Left […]