In Small Townlands

Heaney’s 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 landscape painting in his own very personal style.

Heaney’s poem creates its own word-canvas of the painting in progress reporting the transformations Middleton imposes en route. Often preoccupied 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.

The initial big-brush outlines and washes executed with hogshair wedge reflect things much as Heaney sees them: Middleton works on the different segments to distinguish between the granite and the clay, using washes of muted colour (blue … grey), until contrasts emerge (Till crystal in the rock is bared) and grounds are more sharply defined (Loaded brushes hone an edge).

Setting perspective pits artist against Nature: outstared by the strength of Middleton’s superhuman concentration, the landscape cowers (outcrops of stone contract).

The background fixed, Middleton’s surrealist impulses suddenly explode (a bright grenade/ When he unlocks the safety catch); bright colour (spectrum bursts) is injected into colour-neutral subjects (dew … cloud … rain); light is defined in sharp, detached beams; visibly splintered, the shafts slice like a spade.

Middleton’s radical brush technique removes unwanted blur (strips the land of fuzz and blotch) to leave edges pared clean as bone as sharp as life-threatening sensations: cruel as the pain/ That strikes in a wild heart attack. 

From creation to creator: Middleton’s short-sighted eyes (thick lenses), devouring the subject-matter (greedy), baking bare, bald earth in a furnace of white and red, burning it to a cinder (Incineratetill it’s black), cremating it brilliant as a funeral pyre.

Heaney applauds Middleton’s ability to impose seismic change: A new world cools out of his head. 

  • townland: the smallest division of Irish administration, akin to small village;
  • hogshair: hair of the hog used for making paint-brushes;
  • wedge: paint brush of a certain style with a broad straightedge;
  • split: separate;
  • crystal: a natural solid substance with a geometrical form;
  • bared: exposed, laid bare;
  • hone an edge: create a sharp edge;
  • outcrops: formations of visible rocks;
  • contract: shrink, decrease in size;
  • outstared: unable to stare back any longer;
  • spectrum: band of colours in rainbow order;
  • bursts: breaks apart, shatters;
  • grenade: small hand-launched bomb
  • safety catch: part of gun that prevents it being fired accidentally;
  • splintered: split into tiny fragments;
  • slice: cut off;
  • strips: divests
  • fuzz: blurriness;
  • blotch: smudge, blot, smeary patch;
  • pares: trims, cuts
  • wild: fierce;
  • heart attack: sudden thrombosis;
  • greedy: voracious, insatiable;
  • lens: transparent curved piece that concentrates or disperses light (e.g. spectacles);
  • fire: bake pottery in a kiln;
  • bare: barren, without vegetation;
  • bald: resembling a head without hair;
  • incinerate: consume by fire;
  • funeral pyre: the pile of wood on which a corpse is burnt in certain religions;
  • cools: said of molten rock that hardens as it loses heat;
  • out of his head: reference to the conceptual design that the artist turns into a painting;


  • In the poem ‘Loughanure’ published in his thirteenth collection (Human Chain, of 2010) Heaney will dedicate an elegiac sequence to the memory of Colin Middleton (1910-1983), the eminent Irish artist, picking out the Middleton stare of artist-concentration . The Heaneys were friendly with Middleton (even buying a painting) within the broad creative circle of poets and artists in Belfast in the early 60s ;
  • 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 musical terms the poem has a quiet, measured first movement until outstared; sudden pace and volume are injected as the painter subjects his canvas to the fireworks of volcanic eruption, a long crescendo ending with the thunder of bass-drum and cymbal at heart attack; the poem’s third movement builds again to a second climax before the death image at funeral pyre before decelerating into the measured single beats of the coda;
  • Alliterative pairings: his hogshair; clay/ crystal; outcrops/ contract; spectrum bursts; clean/ cruel; bare/ bald; black/ brilliant ; extended:[ɪ] his/ thick/ this/ incinerate it till it’s / brilliant;
  • Assonance pairings: [ɪ] split/ granite; [əʊ] loaded/ honed; [au] mountain/ outcrop/ outstared; [ei]  grenade/ safety;       
  • In combination: [ s],[ɪ], [ai] splintered lights slice like a spade/ strip;
  • Follow the vocabulary of colour on a range of intensity from pastel shades to volcanic violence; trace the steps in the creative relationship of painter/ product (Heaney’s suggested reason why all creative artists differ one from another);             


  • Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to;
  • the music of the poem: ten assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text.


  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies;
  • the first lines, for example, weave together a cluster of plosives (bilabial [p] [b], alveolar [t][d], velar [k] [g]) alongside sibilant[s] [z] and nasal [m][n];
  • it is well worth teasing out the sound clusters for yourself to admire the poet’s sonic engineering:
  • Consonants (with their phonetic symbols) can be classed according to where in the mouth they occur
  • Front-of-mouth sounds voiceless bi-labial plosive [p] voiced bi-labial plosive [b]; voiceless labio-dental fricative [f] voiced labio-dental fricative [v]; bi-labial nasal [m]; interlabial continuant [w]
  • Behind-the-teeth sounds voiceless alveolar plosive [t] voiced alveolar plosive [d]; voiceless alveolar fricative as in church match [tʃ]; voiced alveolar fricative as in judge age [dʒ];  voiceless dental fricative  [θ]  as in thin path; voiced dental fricative as  in this other [ð]; voiceless alveolar fricative [s] voiced alveolar fricative [z]; continuant [h] alveolar nasal [n] alveolar approximant [l]; alveolar trill [r]; dental ‘y’ [j] as in  yet
  • Rear-of-mouth sounds voiceless velar plosive [k] voiced velar plosive [g]; voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] as in ship sure, voiced post- alveolar fricative [ʒ]   as in pleasure; palatal nasal [ŋ]  as in ring/ ang


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