District and Circle

A sequence of 5 sonnets bearing the title Heaney chose for the whole collection after long consideration of alternatives. The poems are  based on his memories of early-days’ vacation work in London, tempered with anxiety following terrorist attacks on London transport and coloured by the Dantesque/ Virgilian notion of the underground/ underworld’ tunnels and levels between life and death.

Heaney  indicated that the sequence began when he removed 2 sonnets from the ‘Tollund Man’ sequence to form ‘a separate diptych’.


The speaker anticipates meeting a kindred spirit amongst the ‘shades’ that move along the underground space, the piece has to do with mutual recognition. The protagonists are an Orpheus-like busker and a young man/poet. The tenses used indicate that this event happened regularly. Only two people are involved initially.

We are led down a tunnel towards Tunes that Curled up (use of synaesthesia: sound that you can ‘see’ like smoke in a wind-tunnel). The speaker knows in advance the point at which he will reach the busker, My watcher on the tiles busking for coins donated by the passers-by cap by his side. He picks out elements of the ‘fellow-artist’s’ pose and his ‘look’: His fingers perked, his two eyes eying me; he interprets the message the eyes send out and maintains eye-contact: an unaccusing look I’d not avoid.

He hints that over time they might grow wise to each other’s ploys and look away; for the moment, however, both were out to see/ For ourselves.

He recalls the playful lightness of a music that larked and capered; he is torn on this and other occasions as to whether to throw in money or not: I’d trigger and untrigger a hot coin, hinting at the western film ‘shoot-out’ mentality when two separate wills come face to face. He lowers his eyes to mask the decision to hang on to his money, offering a reason: their business is not about performing and rewarding: was our traffic not in recognition that neither of them has money to spare. Mutual recognition acts as a pass-code: Accorded passage, I would repocket and nod,/ And he, still eying me, would also nod. This sign of recognition will have different connotations in the later poem The Nod.

  • Sonnet form; break after 7 and a half lines; line-length based on 10 syllables;
  • there is a ‘relaxed’  rhyme scheme in the 1st half: aabbcxc; then nothing until nod/ nod of the final couplet;
  • further multiple use of enjambment with mid-line commas mimics the continuous but interrupted movement along the tunnel;
  • Before the volta the recurrent vowel sound is [ai]: I’d/ I/ I/ find/ tiles/ side eyes eying/ I’d; its neighbouring [ɪ] as in tin whistle occurs frequently; initial consonant sounds [t]  and [d] are later replaced by [k];
  • In the second section [k] remains important with added velar plosive [g] alongside the [ɪ] of trigger and untrigger/ traffic/ recognition and [ei] capered/ gazed;  
  • the first sonnet in the new volume’s title sequence has a London busker and a poet-commuter who “eye” each other, recognise the impossibility of mutual judgment, and simply “nod.” Here Heaney seems altogether more forgiving — of himself and of us — than he once was. Of course, being Heaney, he writes further sonnets full of second thoughts about his second thoughts: “Had I betrayed or not, myself or him?/ Always new to me, always familiar/ This unrepentant, now repentant turn.” The busker (to whom he almost gives, but does not give, a coin) has become a Tube-stop Orpheus, the musical spirit in Heaney’s work, to whom the citizenly, responsible poet feels he ought to pay more heed.Stephen Burt reviews District and Circle by Seamus Heaney as part of the Christopher Tower poetry competition 2006


‘People moving’ become ‘people moved’: they accompany the speaker automaton-like (Posted, eyes forward) moving through a transitional section of the Underground system with escalators, ascending and descending. Part of a line of standing figures, no more than half bodies visible above the dreamy rampart of the handrail and accompanied from an unseen Elsewhere world by a monotonous slight rocking in the works/ We were moved along upstanding.

Heaney varies the sense data. Now sound: an engine powered,/ Rumbled, quickened, evened, quieted; now sight: white tiles; now touch: passages that flowed/ With draughts from cooler tunnels.

Dim ‘underworld’ light creates a yearning in the young man I missed  life above ground with its vivid images of light/ Of all-overing, long since mysterious day….Parks at lunchtime …body-heated mown grass.

The metaphor is of Virgilian resurrection as he anticipates the ‘Way-Out’ (A resurrection scene minutes before/ The resurrection) and beyond it release into the real world, from darkness to light, from death to life, to find himself amongst the sensual habitués/ Of their garden of delights and staggered summer.

  • Sonnet form; break after 8 and a half lines as the poem moves from underworld ‘blues’ to anticipation of release;
  • based on 10  syllable lines; no rhyme scheme; enjambed lines and mid-line punctuation offer variety to oral delivery;
  • the first sentence uses 4 present participles;
  • assonant [i:] dreamy links into the later narrative: We/ underneath/ gleamed; the [ai] of slight is echoed via quieted/ white tiles/ I/ light/ lunchtime to climax in delights;
  • the [əʊ] of posted echoes intermittently: flowed/ all-overing/ mown; clusters of [ɒ]: monotonous rocking and [ɪ]: overing/ since mysterious; [ʌ] lunchtime/ sunners;
  • the sonnet is very rich in sibilant [s] sounds;
  • past participles/ preterite forms abound from initial Posted to staggered; engine is modified by a sequence of 5 descriptors each providing a different quality to the sound heard;       


Carried deeper still to where, on a platform, thronged,/ I re-entered the safety of numbers a strategy used by creatures faced with potential threats. The confusion and manner of the crowd is described via the use of freshly associated words: A throng half straggle-ravelled made up of like-individuals half strung/ Like a human chain. Newcomers are perceived as pushy/ Jostling physically and mentally, purling, both in the sense of being part of a knitting pattern and the swirl and sound of a liquid current beneath the low, curved ceiling. Needing to compete to get on the train; they are already on their marks. They adjust from Street-loud to herd-quiet…

As he stands waiting (he will be glad of the first tremor of the approaching train), the speaker revisits the busker situation seeking to decide whether he is guilty of any stinginess or disloyalty towards a fellow creative spirit; This unrepentant, now repentant turn of conscience is an internal debate cropping up repeatedly.

Then inevitably, he is caught up in the now-or-never whelm/ Of one and all as they fight to board the rush-hour train.

  • Interestingly the Tube tunnels used in WWII to protect the London population from the ‘Blitz’ are no longer a refuge (following the terrorist attacks of July 2005);
  • sonnet form, split 7/6; lines based upon 10 syllables; sub-sections: arrival (1line); description of the new scene (6 lines); a question emanating from a previous incident (1 line); self-questioning interrupted by arrival of Tube train (5 lines);
  • use of vault reinforces the Underworld atmosphere of arched ceilings adding a connotation of ‘ enclosed’/ ‘claustrophobic’ as in bank-vault;
  • recurrent assonant effects: [ʌ numbers/ strung/ pushy/ underneath/ succumbing/ unrepentant/ up/ full; [æ] platform/ straggle-ravelled; [ei] safety/ chain/ betrayed/ waiting/ train; [e] level/ entered/ betrayed/ / unrepentant/ repentant/ tremor/ then/ -never whelm/ length; pairs [au] crowd/ loud;
  • recurrent consonants: alveolar [l] level/ straggle-ravelled/ Like/ jostling/ purling/ vault/ loud/ glad/ whelm/ length;
  • repetitions of always/ (un)repentant;                             


Once on board, he positions himself as of habit for the strains and dynamics of departure: I reached to grab/ The stubby black root-wort and take my stand/ From planted ball of heel to heel of hand.

His body now swinging from the hanging strap is subject to pressures that make movement difficult:  sweet traction and heavy down-slump stayed me. He assesses his situation: (he is en route) on my way; (stressed) on edge; (unable to move) Spot-rooted; (cheerfully suspended) buoyed; (indifferent to other people) aloof. Around him less sound of activity (dwindling noises off/ platform empty). Such a moment is all too fleeting.

He experiences the limbo before the train begins to accelerate away: That long between-times pause before the budge, before the glass doors close (glaze over) before the unwelcome force that throws people into one another obliging them to half turn to counterbalance the laws of motion: Blindsided to themselves and other bodies.

  • Sonnet; break at the semi-colon; lines based on 10 syllables; starts with rhyme aaaa before defaulting to free verse
  • gap: the narrow space between platform and vehicle; London Underground tannoys routinely offered the warning to ‘Mind the gap’;
  • wort: Heaney turns to OE w(e)orth, root, to describe the particular shape, strength and dark colour of the regulation London Underground hanging-strap;
  • stayed: more archaic/ literary use with sense of ‘check’ or ‘halt’
  • forwardness: both forward movement and, figuratively, the pushiness, self-centred cheek of newcomers mentioned in 3 above;
  • sound effects: initially [ɒ] on to/ across/ on to combines with and is replaced by [æ] gap/ carriage/ grab/ black/ stand/ planted/ hand/ traction;
  • accompanying  [k] across carriage is superseded by [b] grab/ stubby/ black/ ball;
  • new sound flavours are added: [i:] reached/ heel/ heel/ sweet and [ei] stayed/ way; followed by [ɒ] on/ on/ spot; [uː]rooted/ aloof [ɔɪ] buoyed/ noises and a cluster of [ɪ] listening/  dwindling/ wished it;
  • the final couplets blend vowels [ai] times/ blindsided [ɔː] pause/ forwardness [ʌ] budge/ unwelcome/ readjusted/ other and consonant bi-labial [b] budge/ bodies/ Blindsided/ bodies
  • glaze-over: Heaney creates a compound to indicate the drawing-together of doors with a large glass expanse to them;


From lighted platform into pitch-black tunnel: Deeper into it. He sets out how it feels to be crowd-swept, strap-hanging, to watch the lofted arm holding the ceiling strap revolving in the varying gravitational pull (a-swivel like a flail), to see a reflection from the past that predicts the future: My father’s glazed face in my own waning/ And craning.

He relives the station stops-and-starts: the growl of shutting doors, the jolt and one-off treble (high–pitched ‘human’ sound) Of iron on iron; the physics of pulling-away: a long centrifugal/ Haulage as it affects every joint in his body: through every dragging socket.

One detect tinges of pathos and regret as the poet reflects on his daily routine all that time ago as he was transported through galleried earth his memory the treasury of pictures and sensations that remain: the only relict/ Of all that I belonged to.

His time on earth hurtled forward at breakneck speed as if projected like a film in a window mirror-backed/ By blasted weeping rock walls.
The emotional sub-text is that of a man in his sixties, only too aware of the journey from young manhood to old age. He pictures the window-mirror and his image in it as frames from an old film, Flicker-lit. .

  • Sonnet form includes the unusual use of 4 half lines; the  volta after 8 lines shifts the narrative from the physical discomfort of the journey to its significance within the passage of a poet’s life- time;
  • assonant [i:] rings at beginning, middle and end: deeper/ speed/ weeping; the first 2 couplets bring together [æ] strap-hanging/ a-swivel and [ei] flail/ glazed face/ waning/ craning peppered with sibilant [s] and [z] and alveolar plosive [t];
  • [ei]  of Again acts as a link into the centre section with its jumble of different actions that leaves iron on iron as a stand-alone effect;
  • the [ʊə] of through acts as a similar link into the final sentence that is rich in the sound [ɪ] as in relict and the culminating phrase Flicker-lit; further assonant echo of [ɜː] earth/ hurtled;
  • multiple use of  compound words; seven examples between crowd-swept to Flicker-lit.     
  • In … the title poem he recollects parts of a journey or journeys on the London Underground to meditate on the recent London bombings. Digging deep Andrew Motion The Guardian, Saturday 1 April 2006
  • “District and Circle” is the single most impressive poem in the book, chillingly in sympathy with modern anxieties, and widening from particular circumstances to include themes of belonging, placement and responsibility. This is typical Heaney, in that it squares up to “now” but – like “Anything Can Happen” – also poses broad questions about fulfilment or its opposite. It creates a world which is compellingly actual (“A crowd half straggle-ravelled and half strung / Like a human chain, the pushy newcomers / Jostling and purling underneath the vault”), but ends in a condition which is almost if not actually visionary. Yeats might well have taken this as the cue for vatic declarations or the rhetoric of defiance; Heaney flies lower in the atmosphere but travels as far ibid
  • literature has the chance to comprehend the self, and on the basis of that understanding to create an exemplary wisdom. This is the journey that he describes in “District and Circle”: in the Dante-esque labyrinth of the Underground, it tracks the journey of an alert and nervous individual, as he tries to define what is durable and true about his loyalties. It is a poem about faith, which never uses the word. (ibid);
  • Facilis descensus Averni, Virgil wrote in book six of the Aeneid: the descent to the underworld is easy. Seamus Heaney began and ended his 1991 collection Seeing Things with trips to the same location, courtesy of Virgil and Dante, and in the title poem of his new book, District and Circle, he takes a trip on the London underground. The sound of a tin whistle in the first line suggests we may be dealing with worlds within worlds, and sure enough the poem soon finds itself ghosted by other “underground”presences from Heaney’s past.   The thought that riding the Tube should involve a painful memory of family ghosts and “all that I belonged to” is probably not one that occurs to the average London commuter (or at least not before July 2005), but so far does Heaney’s childhood seem from a modern urban environment, the way he tells it, it may as well be Virgil’s underworld. A central theme of District and Circle, as in so many other Heaney books, is the blessed world of the poet’s youth and how to protect and cherish its memory. David Wheatley in The Contemporary Poetry Review
  • In “District and Circle,” the five-poem title sequence, Heaney describes riding the London subway. Unless you know he’s referring to the Edgeware Road station, where the District and Circle lines converge, site of 2005 terrorist bombs, you miss much of the resonance of a poem in which death is a ghostly presence. In an underground world that recalls the London of Eliot’s “Waste Land,” the final sentence fragment, “Flicker-lit,” rings with gratitude for life as it tolls its fragility. Michael Schneider in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette of October 08, 2006
  • Still in the title poem Heaney makes several references to keeping his balance, and in more ways than one this is poetry that never loses its footing. Heaney the consummate technician is on show throughout, from the splendid translations from Rilke, Cavafy, Horace, and Eoghan O Súilleabháin to the terza rima of “The Lift” and the bouncing amphibrachs of “To Mick Joyce in Heaven.” Heaney is famously a poet of checks and balances, always at pains to see both points of view and reluctant to speak out of turn. This is mirrored in his almost obsessively balanced and symmetrical figures of speech. He is particularly fond of doubling up on verbs and nouns, fitting no fewer than four examples into the last two and a half lines of “Súgán,” with its description of plaiting a rope. David Wheatley in The Contemporary Poetry Review’