Settings, subject matter and formats

Ulster home setting; composed ‘at home’ at The Wood in August, 1964. The poet is seated behind a window pen in hand, in the act of composition. Initial focus on the hand holding his squat pen, the symbolic tool of his poetic trade, contrasts it with the elegance of the spades used by father and grandfather; Heaney has abandoned the family farming tradition by going to University and choosing a different direction in life.

  • 9 stanzas of varying length from 2 to 5 lines (31 lines in total);

  • lines grouped largely around 10 syllables; stanzas end in half lines breaking the rhythm or adding emphasis;

  • the rhyme scheme is equally diverse: starting formally aabbb the poem moves into free verse with the exception of a single distant rhyme;

Death of a Naturalist

Ulster home setting; lost domain of childhood; a bad dream poem; Heaney recalls how, as a youngster with a vivid imagination, he was open to disturbing dreams, describing how his childish enthusiasm for nature around his Irish townland turned into a nightmarish tale fed by his guilty perception of having committed a crime and his dread of punishment.

  • The poem is divided into 2 extensive sections: the first of 21 lines describes a sequence of innocent events; in the second section (13 lines) nightmare takes over;

  • Lines largely based on 10 syllables with a single exception; their arrangement as sentences with enjambed lines offers alternative ways of delivering emphasis and pace to the text; no rhyme scheme;

The Barn

Ulster home setting; lost domain of childhood; a second bad-dream poem plays on the stuff of nightmare: half-light and darkness; day and night, benign and threatening. Harmless objects picked out in the first section assume very different natures once a child’s imagination is unchecked. A youngster describes a place very familiar to him recalling farm objects stored in the family barn.

  • twenty line divided into 5-quatrains; a loose scheme abab/ cdcd of ‘close’ rhymes;

  • eleven sentences of varying length accompany the poetic eye as it flits around; the birth of fear brings enjambed lines that echo the quickening voice of a frightened child;

An Advancement of Learning

Ulster neighbourhood setting; rite of passage; poem written in early 1963 and first published in The Irish Times; an instinctively timid person in a tight corner is poised to challenge the nature he was born with. The defeated child of Death of a Naturalist (and the over-imaginative youngster of The Barn) will grow in age and courage and ‘see’ himself a little more clearly; a specific incident instrumental in his own personal development.

  • a 9 quatrain poem of mainly octosyllabic lines; the rhyme scheme follows no strict pattern: now abab, now cdc, now on even lines, now a middle couplet (v5), now odd lines;
  • the poem’s tempi vary to echo the calm start, the panic of being surrounded, the tenseness of stand-off


Ulster family farm setting; lost domain of childhood; In recalling himself as a boy, enjoying a family activity that appealed to his nature and all his senses Heaney show-cases his talent for transposing close observation into words. Blackberries would grow in profusion around the family home at Mossbawn.

  • 24 decasyllabic lines arranged 16/8; full-stops are more frequent in the shorter section offering a greater staccato effect;

  • rhyme scheme sometimes tight, sometimes loose;

Churning Day

Ulster family farm setting; whole-family activity; Heaney describes the production of farm-made butter witnessed as a youngster. The poem reveals close observations of the technical stages that accompany a ‘magical’ transformation. The process is akin to alchemy: the family produces gold from base metal, butter from milk! They are magicians.

  • 36 lines of poetry in 3 sub-divisions; unrhymed; punctuation is plentiful providing irregular intervals in the flow of the process;

The Early Purges

Ulster home setting; lost domain of childhood; title borrowed from totalitarian politics where ‘purges’ removed elements deemed ‘undesirable’ by those in power. Heaney applies it to the cruel realities of farm-yard life as he experienced them as a six-year-old. A youngster’s innate feelings are challenged. The boy has a conscience and sympathies but (as Heaney, perhaps, later in the Troubles) is never an active contributor to violence.

  • 7 triplets with decasyllabic lines; general rhyme pattern based on 1st and 3rd lines of each stanza;


Ulster home setting over 20 years; Heaney expresses his respect and love for his father, explores his own place in the family line and, in observing the toll that time takes on Man, illustrates a paradox that is evident twenty years on. The poet describes his dependency on a strong, silent father from twenty years before and the ageing process that reverses their positions;

  • poem of many themes: father/son relationship; family hierarchy; paternal skills that set an example to follow; changes in life-ambitions; the ageing process;

  • three part-rhymed stanzas portray his father; two and a half focus on the child;

Ancestral Photograph

Ulster home setting; decision taken to remove a brown-tinted study of the family’s past from the wall where it has been living; revealing snap-shot of the person it depicts conjuring up three generations of the Heaney human chain. The poet transposes the photo into words;

  • 5 sextets based around 10-syllable lines;

  • up to a dozen sentences; four consecutive enjambed lines (that provide a continuum describing the Heaney selling techniques) are replaced by a series of commas punctuating the tests used by buyers prior to purchase;

  • Heaney embarks on a challenging rhyme scheme that adds to the complexity of the composition: aabccb ddeffe etc;

Mid-Term Break

Ulster home setting; the title’s ostensibly casual reference to ‘time off school’ veils a tragedy to which Heaney was exposed at the age of fourteen and led to a moment of severance that would affect his whole life. From peculiar changes in his daily routine, via stages of dawning reality, to the heart-rending visual impact of a corpse laid in its coffin, Heaney comes to understand the irreversibility of his younger brother Christopher’s death (as result of a car accident in February 1953).

  • poem is constructed in 7 10-syllable tercets plus a single maximum-impact line; no formal rhyme scheme; this is replaced by a series of assonant effects;

Dawn Shoot

Ulster home setting ; the poet chuckles at laddish mentality recounting a rural activity he may well have experienced as a young man; a burlesque drama is played out in the guise of paramilitary exercise. Two Laurel and Hardy ‘heroes’ are motivated by official bounty payments that could be claimed for killing listed vermin. Their pursuit of remuneration is long in build-up and over in a flash; relative failure is written off as hardly worth the effort anyway! Heaney’s title is neatly chosen to time the event whilst ‘shooting’ a comic film of it.

  • the longest poem in the collection; 4 stanzas of variable length; lines of variable length, the shortest of merely 3 syllables; no rhyme scheme;

At a Potato Digging

Heaney builds his sympathy for the Irish condition into this bleak sequence via particular reference to the great misfortunes suffered by his fellow countrymen during the Irish potato famines between 1845–8. All four poems explore Irish dependency on its staple potato crop. Heaney is asking why anyone should be surprised at long-term Irish grievance resulting from the non-response to rural hardship of those who over history have imposed insensitive government from Whitehall in London.

  • i. 4 quatrains of based around 10 syllable lines, formal rhyme scheme abab cdcd;

  • ii. Sonnet form in two equal stanzas; lines based upon 7 and 8 syllables; sentence lengths are initially short; punctuation breaks up the flow. In contrast, the penultimate sentence leading to the Armageddon-like foreboding of the final line is enjambed; a partial rhyme scheme once developed persists to the end;

  • iii. this exceptionally bleak poem is of twenty lines in 5 quatrains with a recognisable abab cdcd rhyme scheme; the 2 single-line sentences provide further emphasis of misfortune that can be dramatized in delivery;

  • iv. 2 quatrains of broadly 8 syllable lines; rhyme scheme abab cdcd;

For the Commander of the ‘Eliza’

In a dark setting Heaney pursues the issue of Irish suffering at the hands of the British (the 1845-8 famine conditions were introduced in Potato Digging iii). He describes an incident that upholds the poem’s epigraph and accounts for the burning sense of injustice still felt within the Irish psyche over 100 years later. The epigraph (drawn from The Great Hunger; Ireland 1845 – 49 by Cecil Woodham-Smith) sets out the visual manifestation of suffering on Irish ground and the absence of compassion further up the chain of command;

  • 36 mostly decasyllabic lines in a single stanza; several long sentences with enjambed lines; all but the last 7 lines resemble the rather pedantic report of an incident written by a man trained to be short on imagination and long on policy; ungrammatical at one point (Less incidents the better rather than fewer.

  • the final 7 lines have a different voice acerbically relaying known historical facts, some of them quoted so two 1st person narrators: ship’s commander and poet;

The Diviner

Heaney delves into the Irish ‘underlay’ (things that make Ireland magically special and unique for him) depicting a gift that, to onlookers, verges on the miraculous; at a different level the poem alludes to the magical transmission of the poetic message and the magical talent of the poet; its title is ideally chosen to introduce the ‘extraordinary’.

  • the 12 mainly decasyllabic lines are grouped in 3 quatrains; the variably placed caesura (literally ‘cutting’, i.e. the natural break-point point between phrases) alters the dynamics: to deliver a pause; to create a ‘will-it-won’t-it’ suspense before the violent reaction of the rod; to hint at the ‘miracle’ implicit in the final phrase; the punctuation helps this;

  • recognisable scheme of loose rhymes abab/ cdcd etc;

Turkeys Observed

city setting, perhaps Londonderry of Belfast; Heaney laments the sorry sight of turkeys slaughtered for Christmas, providing a master class in transposing close observation into verse. Shop-window displays of traditional festive British fare generate a chain of associations in the poet’s mind linking the ‘v’ of the Diviner’s hazel stick and the ‘v’ of a turkey’s wishbone (poor forked thing)! He paints a pitiful scene;

  • 5 quatrains; lines of different length between 7 and 10 syllables with subsequent variations in rhythm and emphasis; free verse; feigning elegy the poem focuses on the sorry corpses of turkeys;

Cow in Calf

Ulster family cowshed setting familiar to a farmer’s son; Heaney composes a sonnet about birth, renewal and the treadmill of life’s routine based on the signs of pregnancy in a cow;

  • Sonnet form, split 3:6:5; no rhyme scheme save in the final 3 lines


Ulster setting: the rivers and streams close to Heaney’s boyhood home. He takes advantage of his ample opportunities to pause on arched bridges and acquaint himself with life-forms in the stream below. The poet teaches a master-class on how to translate visual observations into words;

  • as with The Diviner the title elides into line 1: Trout/ Hangs

  • 17 lines split into 4 quatrains of mainly 6 syllables lines plus a final line; no rhyme scheme; extended metaphor likening trout to firearm


Ulster setting; the power, texture and formats of flowing water present Heaney with the challenge of transposing the visual turbulence and disorder of a waterfall into words. Feel and finish are important in a poem that deploys a wide range of sense data. Heaney clarifies the process in the final triplet. The poet’s attention has followed a water course to a point above a waterfall.

  • 4 triplets of mainly 10 syllable lines; a single rhyme in the final couplet;


read to the Belfast ‘Group’ led by Philip Hobsbaum in late 1963 the poem exposes sectarian prejudice lurking behind the dour, uncompromising exterior of a dockworker in mid twentieth century Belfast. To Heaney’s mind the man’s intimidating appearance embodies the mentality of favoured Protestant working men as regards the Catholic minority. The poem is about uncompromising attitudes.

  • 4 quatrains of mainly 10 syllable lines without formal rhyme; the single 7-syllable line stresses the silent repressed anger;

  • Heaney chooses the vocabulary of intolerance and latent violence; his only cheerful reference applies to the docker’s attitude to alcohol;

Poor Women in a City Church

A second vignette of Belfast life portrays the devotions of Catholic women in an unheated Belfast church. The poem forms a pictorial canvas recalling classical paintings of groups of worshippers in similar circumstances; Heaney focuses on light-source and ambient conditions;

  • 15 lines mainly of 8 syllables in 3 stanzas;

  • Heaney works through the challenges and restrictions of a sophisticated rhyme scheme aabab, ccdcd etc; his use of the word Poor in his title offers us a selection of interpretations;


first of a suite of poems devoted to stages in his relationship with Marie Devlin. It acts as a kind of foreword that considers the force that draws objects inexorably together; it is about pull and resistance, freedom and restriction, seriousness and levity of manner. The poet prepares the ground for what love entails.

  • 12 lines of 10 syllables; rhyme scheme abab cdcd;

Twice Shy

a relationship is born; insights are offered into both Seamus Heaney’s and Marie Devlin’s personalities and the inhibiting, repressive sexual mores of the time; the title invites us to complete the idiom ‘once bitten … twice shy’: those who have been hurt are doubly careful the next time round (especially when love beckons). Heaney describes a walk, perhaps their very first, with the woman who was to become his wife and to whom he had been married for nearly fifty years when he died in 2013. They met during their University days.

  • Heaney rings the changes of poetic pattern: here he chooses a 6-sextet format made up largely of hexameters with rhymes on the even lines and free verse on the odd creating a different music to the ear;


From the first walk described in Twice Shy the relationship between Heaney and Marie Devlin has moved on; they are living together. Heaney chooses a title of classical derivation (saying ‘farewell’, ‘adieu’) betraying his fears that her temporary absence might be more than just au revoir and signal final separation. The need Marie has inspired in him has a touch of medieval ‘courtly love’ about it, that of the knight in thrall to his Lady. The poet sings his ‘lay’ (short lyrical song) as a troubadour might.

  • 16 hexameters in a single stanza; rhyme scheme abab etc;

  • the poem is addressed to his lady and Heaney uses a classical vocative of address;

Lovers on Aran

Heaney expands the sea/land relationship of Valediction settling on an extended metaphor for a couple’s togetherness and mutual fulfilment (they are on holiday off the west coast of Ireland in a place where land and sea meet and inter-react. The poem should be read in the context of seduction and sensual communion of man and woman. The sea, for example, is both elemental force and feminine symbol.

  • 3 triplets; 10 syllable lines that rhyme on the odd line axa byb czc; ‘a little gem’ of composition;


Based on notions of childhood ‘failure’ Heaney is determined that his marriage and his new direction will be successes; he is prepared to change and be changed. Faced with three seismic life-changes in his twenties (leaving behind his rural background for University in 1959; preparing his first collection of poetry after 1960; marriage in 1965), the poet identifies his wife as the force who will steer him through these rites of passage. Convinced that her support will help him grow and develop, he addresses her directly.

  • 16 decasyllabic line in 4 quatrains; a loose rhyme scheme abab etc;

Honeymoon Flight

In an extended metaphor Heaney draws a parallel between the act of faith required to board an aeroplane and the concerns that newly-weds harbour. The ‘flight’ is both a literal plane journey and, metaphorically, a committed move into uncharted territory.

  • 16 decasyllabic line in 4 quatrains; a very loose rhyme scheme abab etc.;

  • Heaney’s use of 1st person plural pronouns we and us indicates a new togetherness;


Heaney adopts a sermon-like tone setting out the need for sound construction in relationships; he does so in a very sincere but unintentionally clumsy way that suggests he alone possesses the skills. In his attempt to reassure them both Heaney betrays a touch of insecurity in himself. The building industry provides the perfect metaphor for successful marriage.

  • 4 rhyming couplets with decasyllabic lines; rhyme scheme aa bb etc.;

Storm on the Island

Heaney uses the metaphor of a storm-swept island to reassure and calm any niggling insecurities particularly in his wife’s newly-wed mind. His deeper meaning emerges: solid foundation and stoic perseverance will secure the couple’s long-term survival whatever short-term extremities life may throw in their way. The storm (from which there is no shelter) is one such ordeal. A decisive joint-statement affirms that he and Marie have what it takes to be a successful couple.

  • 19 decasyllabic lines in a single stanza; loose rhyme is confined to first and last couplets;

  • Heaney uses ingenious poetic ploys to describe the sounds of threatening turbulence

Synge on Aran

Heaney likens the wind’s erosive force to a known voice capable of equal abrasiveness portraying a much respected literary figure who, around 1900, spent time in exile on one of the Aran islands in Galway Bay in a vain attempt to overcome a life-threatening illness. The final couplet summarizes the physical and emotional correspondences between Synge and his adopted environment.

  • 16 lines of between 5 and 7 syllables; stanzas joined by 2 half lines; varied rhythms from the use of enjambed lines and full-stops in mid line; no formal rhyme scheme (one couplet only);

Saint Francis and the Birds
In the footsteps of the Irish literary giant of Synge on Aran, Heaney celebrates a much revered Catholic icon. The wild landscape of Synge’s island off the south-west Irish coast gives way to the mild calm of a southern European setting where inspired, perhaps, by birds flying around the parvis of some meridional church or decorating a religious statue Heaney honours a saint whose relationship with the natural world is not dissimilar to his own. Both he and Francis have a message to transmit.

  • three triplets and a single line; based on 8 syllables; a further variation in rhyme scheme the odd lines of each triplet (axa byb): and the final four lines twinned dede;

  • the poem’s form interweaves two motifs that echo across 10 lines and are summed up in the final line: love is true;

In Small Townlands

In an artist’s studio somewhere; artist-friend, Colin Middleton (who saw himself as the only Irish ‘surrealist’ of his time and to whom the poem is dedicated) is composing a painting in his own very personal style. Heaney’s poem creates its own canvas following in words the painting in progress and reporting the transformations Middleton imposes en route. Occupied with his own issues of poetic composition and personal imprint on his poems, Heaney observes the techniques and overlays of a creative act exercised within another medium.

  • 3 sextets of 8 syllable lines; a further rhyme scheme variation abcabc defdef;

  • Heaney provides a demonstration piece in which punctuation, enjambment and sound effects create variety of rhythm, impetus and oral dynamics;

  • in word-musical terms the poem has separate ‘movements’ with varying dynamics;

The Folk Singers

let us imagine Heaney in Belfast accommodation after 1957; the poet delves into the Irish ‘underlay’ (the ‘real thing’ that make Ireland magically special and unique for him) depicting a rural tradition rebranded by modernism. Familiar with the folk music tradition, Heaney cannot escape the technological changes overtaking the ‘live’ music beloved of his nation. He weaves the ‘new’ vocabulary of commercialised sound-production (‘turn-tables’ and ‘grooves’) into a lament.

  • 3 five-line stanzas based around 6 and 7 syllables; free verse save the final three lines;

The Play Way

As a young teacher Heaney was required to plan and assess lessons and teaching methods; his poem reports on a lesson he devised to encourage creative writing in his class using a piece of classical music as a catalyst in line with an Educational initiative of the period.

  • five quatrains variously 8 or 10 syllables; combination of punctuation (some mid-line) and enjambment provides for the ebb and flow of oral delivery. The rhyme scheme affects the even lines of each quatrain; odd lines are free;

Personal Helicon

the collection’s final poem; Heaney delves into the Irish ‘underlay’ (things that make Ulster magically special and unique for him) revealing his affection for a common feature of the South Derry landscape. He identifies the wells of his childhood as sources of poetic inspiration (his Personal Helicon). Still a part-time poet he reflects on the transition from childhood to the here-and-now and whilst acknowledging a poetic debt to wells reveals that he has outgrown his childish pursuits.

  • six quatrains based around 10-syllable lines; rhyme scheme abab cdcd etc., some assonant, others approximates;

Heaney provides a music pleasing to the ear

Heaney is a word-musician.

Singing scored music brings an awareness of many things beyond simply the number of beats in each bar. Music has a code of letters, abbreviations and signs that can be placed above or below the notes to indicate or modify the ways in which a piece is performed. The human voice is an instrument, so, for example, in musical terms of volume: f tells us to sing the next phrase loudly; ff to sing it very loudly; p softly; mp a little less softly; cresc (crescendo) tells us to sing the phrase increasingly loudly, and so on. Other words interpret the tempo: rall (rallentando): gradually to slow down the phrase. Other signs tell us to emphasise a word or to pause for an instant. Others advise on the sound: harsh or light or sweet or slowly dying away.

Collectively they refer to the dynamics of the music. Without dynamics the piece would be literally monotonous and boring.

Similar considerations should applied to reading poetry. Although, as a written form, poems are made up of ‘feet’ with a variety of stressed and non-stressed syllables which make up individual contributions to the overall music, Heaney’s poems are more than that. Many are songs that, when read aloud, cry out for individual dynamics. Heaney does not provide coded recommendations alongside the text; musicians do this but, apart from ictus accents and some aspects of sprung-verse, poets do not. The words and phrases themselves invite variations of timbre, modulation and cadence and by reciting them with dynamics in mind, the reader can turn each poem into an event in language!

Using assonance

In Death of a Naturalist Heaney experiments wit a variety of formal rhyme schemes. Beyond these end-of-line rhymes he also indulges in internal echo.

The poet places a rich variety of assonances in ostensibly random but in fact quite deliberate order, now juxtaposed, now separated by other figures. He is seeking to compose perfectly tuned phrases and wants his developing skill of playing with musicality of language and word order to generate beautifully turned passages. His thought processes and instinctive use of rhythm seem to go hand in hand, whether in phrases of bare simplicity or more complex ideas and emotions.

The English language with its complex spelling system offers assonant effects by creating words that sound remarkably similar even though their spelling is radically different: e.g. wood/ would

Equally, offering no assonant effect some words similarly spelt sound very different: ought/ though/ through/ cough and so on.

Using alliteration

Consonants differ according to where in the mouth they are formed: between the lips [p] [b] ; behind the teeth [t] [d]; velar or alveolar [[dʒ][k]. Some are voiced [b], some are voiceless [p]. Some ‘plode’ in a single sound, others can be continuous, floating on air being exhaled [s] [w], some involve friction [f], others are frictionless [w].

The poem can benefit from all of these ‘musical’ alternatives and Heaney knows it! He sprinkles his composition with alliterated consonants judged best suited to mood or melody. No poem is bereft of this technique, some are loaded; there may feature an interweave of sounds made in the same area of the mouth [s] [sh] [k] [tʃ] [dʒ] such that the resonance echoes and re-echoes.

Heaney’s alliterations arrive in pairs or larger groupings

Alliteration and assonance can be used in tandem to create a different effect: SEEK SOME OUT!

The permutations are endless and Heaney rings the changes as each individual poem reveals on close examination.

Finding the blend

The best wines are more than simply the sum of their basic combination of grapes plus other factors including soil and sun. The key to excellence lies in the skill it takes to engineer the perfect blend. The poet pursues a similar process. In Death of a Naturalist Heaney is the ‘blender’.

Indeed, in some later poems, for example, North, Viking Dublin and Bone Dreams (from the collection North of 1975), Heaney will offer insights into the poetic process as he experiences it.

What is clear from this first collection, without specific comment from Heaney, is that, whatever the initial stages in the process, the moment a poem ‘comes on’ or ideas with a poetic charge emerge, the stages by which these are translated into poetic form involve a deliberate and sometimes lengthy process of composition and revision, selection and rejection that determines the ultimate structure, vocabulary, verse-form, imagery and potential for success of each poem.

At one stage or another Heaney will settle on: the length of the poem and its internal structure; the nature of the verse (free or rhymed); the choice of individual words or phrases most fitting to carry his ideas through, thanks to their meaning, implication or sound, and so on. Whilst this is a far from exhaustive list of considerations it does indicate that spontaneity can only gain from being worked upon.

In addition to the depth and richness of his personal ‘word hoard’, his personal store of material, gleaned from scholarship and interest, plus a sensitivity and a discrimination born of wide reading of literature, Heaney has access to a rich vein of poetic devices accessible to and used by all poets; he will select from the list deliberately, adapting them to his own intentions, perhaps because he wants them to add something, or ring a change, or carry an image through, or provide an echo; his aim in brief: to turn ordinary language into something special. There is an alphabetical list of such stylistic devices at the end of this volume; knowing them by name is useful but ‘spotting’ one is less valuable, perhaps, than appreciating what it brings to the poem.

The blending of these ingredients can be roughly translated as ‘style’, that is, the ‘mix’ favoured by Heaney in each poem to carry his message forward (v. footnotes that comment on this aspect).


Heaney is a virtuoso painter of word-pictures.

When we stand in front of a painting, what the eye takes in, all in the same instant, is the completed item. Whatever its period or its genre, its finished state allows fairly rapid value judgments based on like or dislike to be made. The way to modify this initial view is to give the piece the attention it merits and ‘look’.

Only when prepared to ‘see’ might we realise, for example, that the composition was designed to lead the eye smoothly around the picture following its curves or shapes or groupings. In contrast, a portrait might provide single or multiple focal points requiring us to look in a different way, to assess what the features or the clothing or the stage-props reveal; this time the eye might move at random from detail to detail. A still life study or a dead body would surely provoke different reactions and different emotions: its blend of colours, its likeness to nature and so on. The key is to be prepared to look.

Look and discover that Heaney is an excellent painter of word-pictures of all the sorts described above: individual portraits, groups engaged in country pursuits, scenes from nature or past history. As with the painter he will have spent endless moments composing and revising his ‘canvases’ in search of perfection.

Moreover, he has advantages over the painter. The poem viewed on the page may be the ‘completed item’ but permits no immediate value-judgment. This can only take shape as you read the poem from its first word to its last; you follow Heaney step by step: he leads your inner eye in the direction he has chosen; only when it is over does he await your response.

Like the best painters, Heaney adds texture, colour, detail and shape to his ‘action’; he, too, generates emotion during the process. But, additionally, he can focus us on each of our senses in turn, by his choice of words and devices. Heaney’s oeuvre includes poems describing actual paintings he has observed; others narrate scenes etched, painting-like, upon his memory; some of his word-pictures are single-frame, others move from frame to frame, like a film.

Such is the edge that the poet has over other creators; Heaney makes the very best of it!

Stylistic devices

Translating ideas, notions, themes, that ‘something’ from the inner recess of the mind, into words involves selection: words and phrases, the ‘mot juste’ and so on, then the weaving of these lexical items into the fabric of the piece. This weaving process is a means to multiple ends: flow, sound, rhythm, echo, emphasis and so on; part of the labour is drafting and redrafting text to achieve maximum impact in the finished product.

Published poetry, though not perhaps written initially with readers in mind, is there for their enjoyment and can be an intellectual challenge as well as a pleasure. Part of that enjoyment can legitimately include analysis of the style of the piece. What follows is a list of devices open to writers as part of their technique.

Whilst there might be no intrinsic value in spotting a particular device and knowing it by name, nevertheless it is good training. It helps the reader to be inquisitive and begs the question as to why the writer chose that particular device and to what end. We cannot always tease out the poet’s real intention but perseverance brings huge rewards!

A figure of speech is a way of talking or writing by which you say what you don’t mean and yet mean what you say. For example, ‘He blows his own trumpet’. You don’t mean he has a trumpet but you do mean that he blows it. HUNT, Fresh Howlers (1930)

Antithesis: an arrangement of contrasted words in corresponding places in contiguous phrases, to express a contrast of ideas.

Chiasmus: the arrangement in parallel clauses of related terms in a reversed order, so AB BA as opposed to parallel order AB AB

Cliché: A phrase whose wording has become fixed, or almost fixed, as usage has given it a fixed meaning. Cliches commonly use a recognised literary device which eventually uses its power

Comparison: A statement that there is a likeness between things which can in fact be likened

Dual meaning: This when a word or phrase is used so as to be understood in two different meanings, both of which fit the sentence (e.g. a literal and a symbolic meaning), and in order that the two meanings may be related with each other

Enjambement/ enjambment: The continuation of a sentence, in verse, into the following line. Traditionally an enjambement is permissible if the break is at the normal break in the syntax or at a normal break between breath groups. This happens more routinely outside those conditions in free verse.

Enumeration: The arrangement of terms in succession, e.g. nouns in apposition, adverbs or adverbial phrases; economy of words is achieved. As a literary device enumerations can be used to add implications and rhythm to the subject matter, by grouping or gradation or even intentional iincoherency.

Euphemism: replacement of a distasteful by a more pleasant term, to refer to the same thing.

Free indirect speech: the expression of what is spoken or thought without introductory words such as He said, ‘…’ or He said that.. In narrative fis may be signalised by use of vocabulary appropriate to the character rather than the words of the author. Continuous fis becomes ‘interior monologue.

Hyperbole: the intentional use of an exaggerated term in place of the one more properly applicable, adding implications to the subject matter.

Inversion: The reversal of the normal order of the members of a sentence, perhaps to avoid ambiguity or to bring certain words into stressed or key position or to modify the rhythm.

Irony: The use of words containing a sufficient and apparently serious meaning in themselves, but conveying also, intentionally, to a more initiated person a further, generally opposed meaning; frequently the first meaning is laudatory or untenable

Litotes: intentional understatement inviting the reader to rectify. Frequently a negative expression.

Metaphor: an expression which refers to a thing or action by means of a term for a quite different thing or action, related to it, not by any likeness in fact but by an imagined analogy which the context allows.

A simile uses words like ‘like’ or ‘as…as’. Metaphors and similes have 2 terms: the thing meant and the thing ‘imported’ as a means of expressing, by analogy, what is meant.

Personifications are only 1 sort of metaphor.

This substitution of words has wide uses: ornament, implication, overtone. Its use may be regarded as a special means of revealing hidden truth.

Apart from enriching the thought by a device of form and enhancing the reader’s contact with the author, metaphors and similes may be significant or characteristic because of their reiterated suggestion of a writer’s preoccupations or his processes of thought.

Metonymy: the use of a word in place of another with which it is associated in meaning.

Objective-subjective: ‘objective’ – expressing reality as it is or attempting to do so; the reality of events or things is regarded as ‘external’. The reality may mental or emotional experience, examined rather than evoked. ‘Subjective’- expressing a version of reality in which it is modified by emotion or preconceived belief; or expressing conscious or subconscious experiences of states of mind

Oxymoron: the juxtaposition of contradictory or incongruous terms, understood as a paradox

Paradox: a statement or implication expressed so as to appear inconsistent with accepted belief, or absurd, or exaggerated, but intended to be realised by the reader as an acceptable or important truth, in some respect; often placed as a conclusion; in a paradox there is often a word which cries out for redefinition in order to provide the alternative meaning which the writer has prepared his reader to accept.

Pathetic fallacy: ascribing human traits or feelings to inanimate nature, corresponding with those being experienced by a character or ‘voice’.

Periphrasis: the expression of a meaning by more words than are strictly necessary or expected, so that additional implications are brought in.

Porte-manteau word: a deliberate mixture of 2 words into one retaining both meanings: ‘’a bestpectable gentleman’, respectable guy wearing glasses!

Preciosity: aiming at or affecting refinement or distinction in expression; avoiding vulgar phrases; visibly introducing greater care in expression; using this precision, formal arrangement of words, difficult combinations of ideas, allusions and puns in the hope of revealing truths not to be expressed in plain and simple terms; exaggerating this so that, for example an ‘armchair’ might become a ‘commodity for conversation’!

Repetition: expressing a meaning or an attitude by implication, through the deliberate use of a word or phrase a second time

Symbol: a term for an object representing, conventionally or traditionally, an abstraction.

Synecdoche: the use of a word denoting a ‘part’ in place of the word for the whole, so ‘100 sails’ meaning ‘100 ships’.

Synaesthesia: the representation of a sensation or image belonging to one of the five senses by words proper to another (‘loud tie’; Disney’s ‘Fantasia’).

Zeugma: providing syntactical economy of words by using one word with dual possibility so that two meanings are taken separately – ‘he took his hat and his leave’.

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