Anything Can Happen

Of the outrages that occurred increasingly regularly in the 5 years following Heaney’s previous published volume, it was the ‘strike’ of 9/11 that persuaded him to write Anything Can Happen. He adapts Horace’s Ode I, 34  drawing implicit attention to the destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York. This act had brought Heaney to a ‘terrified awareness ‘that ‘the tallest things can be brought low’ and demonstrated that absolutely nothing was beyond the bounds of possibility.

Both poems introduce Jupiter from classical mythology; sovereign God of the Romans, omnipotent, identified with the sky, storms and lightning. In the Heaney version Jupiter will mostly wait for clouds to gather head/ Before he hurls the lightning but on this occasion and totally unexpectedly, he galloped his thunder cart and his horses / Across a clear blue sky. The metaphor is graphic: no-one who witnessed 9/11 will forget events unfolding against a backdrop of cloudless azure.

 The impact of such a happening is shocking both in Jupiter’s mythological Underworld … the clogged underearth, the River Styx,/ The winding streams; and, on this occasion, in Heaney’s real world … the Atlantic shore itself where New York  takes the hit.

Do not rule anything out! The initial phrase is repeated.

Anything can happen. The tallest towers can be overturned (very specific), those in high places can be daunted (those on the highest floors of the buildings terrified, those who might have prevented it unnerved) and those overlooked regarded.

This is the most elusive phrase. Beyond reference to the glare of publicity,  those in the streets looking up and seeing signals from the stranded looking down (arms and handkerchiefs being waved) there is a less obvious, less palatable, more unspeakable yet feasible implication: Heaney who ever avoided taking sides in political struggles warns us very strongly that people who see themselves as put down will seek ways of drawing attention to themselves and hitting back at the perceived oppressor.

Heaney returns to antique mythology linking  the outrage with stropped-beak Fortune figured  as a rapacious bird of prey with sharpened beak making the air gasp, tearing the crest off one,/ Setting it down bleeding on the next. Alongside classical Greek and Roman emblems of military invincibility lies an uncomfortable parallel: the following poem ‘Helmet’ refers to the military-style ‘crest’ of the fire-fighter’s headgear.

 The effect is seismic: ground gives … the earth jolts  heaven’s weight off Atlas, like a kettle-lid. Critical superstructure lurches  (capstones shift).

The aftermath resembles a post-eruption volcanic landscape: Telluric ash and fire-spores boil away.

 No-one who witnessed the event will forget the infernal clouds of dust and the furnace within Ground Zero into which the Twin towers had collapsed.

Having alluded to political repercussions, in a much wider sense Heaney may well be warning us that the whole of humanity is at risk from the power of Nature rebelling against Man for having abused it.

  • gather head: increase in pressure/ power
  • clogged: blocked with thick matter/ obstruction;
  • Styx: river of the underworld over which Charon ferried the souls of the dead;
  • daunt: intimidated, apprehensive;
  • overlook: (dual possibility) look down on from above; disregard, neglect;
  • stropped: sharpened
  • beak: an animal’s projecting bill;
  • swoop: fly rapidly downwards in attack mode;
  • crest: feathers on a bird’s head or a fireman’s helmet;
  • Atlas: mythological Titan condemned to carry the world on his shoulders;
  • kettle: container in which water is brought to boiling-point
  • capstone; the highest stone that prevents a wall or arch from falling;
  • telluric: Latin tellus, the earth – of the earth
  • spore: reproductive unit so seed;
  • Horace was a Roman poet b. 65 BC, whose Odes (88 in all) were just one genre to be found in Heaney’s work. Essentially lyrical they contained political elements, as does this poem. The style was dense and sophisticated with changes of content and expression within the same poem. Heaney, as classicist and translator of great scholarship, clearly felt the genre to be ideal for his task of juxtaposing incidents from classical mythology and recent history and ‘realigning an account of ancient terror to connect with the present tragedy of the twin towers’.Digging deep Andrew Motion The Guardian Saturday 1 April 2006
  • In an article Heaney referred to the ‘thunderbolt that shakes one to the core’ and its impact in words: ‘the true poem has to hit you, has to reorient you, jolt you, bolt you.
  • Four quatrains, lined based around 10 syllables; no rhyme scheme but rich use of alliteration and assonance;
  • the title repetition offers a pause and break; the flow of the first sentence is aided by 4 consecutive enjambed lines; the second sentence refers to ‘political’ circumstances; the last 4 short sentences vividly describe the staccato effects of Nature’s impacts;
  • little vocabulary is calm or static; the weight of nouns, verbs and adjectives provide seismic impacts;
  • paired initial sound effects: [æ] can happen; [e] Anything/ head; [au] clouds/ now accompany aspirates: happen/ how/ head/ he hurls;
  • [ɜː] earth/ underearth combines with [ɪ] and emerging velar plosive [k]: cart/ clear/ shook/ clogged/ Styx/ Atlantic itself replaced by alveolar plosive [t] and [ð]: tallest towers/ those/ daunted/ those;
  • these in turn replaced by threatening sibilants hiss: [s] stropped/ Swoops/ gasp/ crest/ setting/ gives/  heaven’s lifts/ Atlas/ Capstones shift/ resettles/ spores; varying vowel flavours: [ɔː] tallest/ daunted; [u] Fortune/ swoops; [i:] Be/ regarded/ beak/bleeding; [e] crest/ next; heaven’s/ kettle/ resettles; finally pairs of [ai] and [ʊə]: right/ fire-spores boil;        
  • 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: fourteen 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, soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies; this is sonic engineering of the first order;
  • for example, the final quartet assembles alveolar plosives [t] [d], sibilant variants [s] [z] [sh], alveolar nasal [n]; bilabial, velar plosives [g] [k] and labio-dental fricatives [f] [v];
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;


  • Several of the finest poems are at the heart of this thematic (conflict) movement… the human geography of the central conflict in District and Circle becomes clear: Anything can happen ‘the tallest towers/ Be overturned, those in high places daunted,/ Those overlooked regarded.’ Arms around the world Tobias Hill in The Observe, Sunday 2 April 2006
  • In District and Circle, it allows him to study a worldful of wars, and to do so on his own terms. Heaney’s command of language remains as powerful a tool as ever. This is not the war on terror so much as the terror of war, and not so much the terror – or not only that – but the allure of it. District and Circle takes no sides, so that those who have overturned the high towers in ‘Anything Can Happen’ are ‘regarded’ – a typically slippery, double-edged blade of a word, in a book full of double-edged blades. (ibid)
  • Characteristically, Heaney balances violence with healing… the following poem returns to destruction with a version of Horace echoing the attack on the World Trade Center: “Anything can happen, /the tallest towers / Be overturned.” An example of Heaney’s care in shaping a book, this strategy replaces surprise with deliberation. Stephen Knight in the Independent Sunday, 9 April 2006
  • Heaney has the gift of integrating a personal, physically acute voice with an awareness – necessarily a troubled one of the world in whose threatening midst the poet finds himself. In the past, approaching this as an official-feeling, private/public dilemma, Heaney has risked too often the bathos of celebrity self-awareness. Now, something much more valuable has come to replace Heaney’s more dutiful versifying on the subject of history and the poet. The shades of 9/11 that fall across a poem about an American fireman’s helmet also give depth to a translation of Horace (‘Anything Can Happen’), Peter McDonald in The Literary Review
  • ‘Anything Can Happen’ is freighted by awful historical and global premonition. The sense that at any moment things can randomly shift their ground. And yet what is noticeable also about the book is that it is absolutely assured in its own voice and “stance” – a key word – or the (etymologically unrelated) way in which the people in the poems take their stand against troubling experience.  Steven Matthews, Poetry Society review Seamus Heaney.

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