District and Circle


A sequence of 5 sonnets bears the title Heaney chose for the collection as a volume, after long consideration of alternatives. The poems are based on his memories of early-days’ vacation work in London, tempered by subsequent terrorist attacks on London transport. Heaney weaves mythological images of the underworld into the corridors and levels of the London ‘tube’.

Michael Schneider suggests that ‘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’ Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, October 08, 2006

Heaney  recalled to DOD that he ‘removed 2 sonnets from the ‘Tollund Man’ sequence to form ‘a separate diptych’.


The initial piece has to do with mutual recognition –  the speaker anticipates meeting a kindred spirit amongst the ‘shades’ that move along the underground space, 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.

He leads us down a tunnel towards tunes that curled up (his synaesthetic effect turns sound that you can hear into something you can see). He knows from experience the point at which he will reach his cheerful busker (my watcher on the tiles) playing for coins tossed in his direction by appreciative passers-by cap by his side.

He notes a ‘fellow-artist’s’ musical posture and his stare: fingers perkedtwo eyes eying me. He has concluded that the man is not playing on his generosity (an unaccusing look) and that he can unashamedly hold his gaze (I’d not avoid).

He accepts that they are sizing each other up – 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, conjuring up  the western film ‘shoot-out’ mentality when opposing wills come face to face. 

He does lower his eyes to accompany his decision to hang on to his money offering a reason for his stinginess: their businesses are not about performance and reward (was our traffic not in recognition) both of them struggling to make ends meet.  Mutual recognition acts as a ‘pass friend’: accorded passage, I would repocket and nod, and he, still eying me, would also nod.

  • tune: melody;
  • tin whistle: rudimentary instrument – a metal tube with 6 holes for fingers
  • curl: move with a curve shape;
  • on the tiles: to do with having a lively time;
  • perked: moving cheerfully;
  • see for oneself: make one’s own judgment;
  • lark: behave mischievously;
  • caper: dance playfully;
  • trigger: prepare to deliver;
  • at the ready: for immediate use;
  • traffic: exchange of signals, messages
  • accord: grant;
  • nod: slight head movement of rcogntion;


  • 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 proceed military-automaton-like (Posted, eyes forward) through a transitional section of the Underground system crisscrossed by escalators, ascending and descending  – in line, akin to imaginary half bodies visible above the dreamy rampart of the handrail arriving from an elsewhere world accompanied by a monotonous slight rocking in the works – in sum conveyor belts of erect figures were moved along upstanding.

Heaney adds a crescendo and decrescendo of sound and momentum: an engine powered,/ Rumbled, quickened, evened, quieted … returns to sight: white tiles …  adds touch: passages that flowed/ With draughts from cooler tunnels.

Dim ‘underworld’ lighting creates a yearning in the young man (missed) for life above ground with its pervasive light in every corner all-overing,  fast losing its reality (long since mysterious day) but attractive and appealing: parks at lunchtime …body-heated mown grass.

The metaphor is of Virgilian resurrection, whereby  he anticipates eventual  light at the end of the tunnel (a resurrection scene minutes before the resurrection) and release back 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.

  • posted: stationed like a sentry or police officer
  • eyes-front: a military commend to look straight ahed
  • dreamy ramparts:
  • works: unseen machines in operation;
  • upstanding: both standing up and respectable;
  • all-overing: everywhere, all encompassing;
  • sunners: sunbathers;
  • resurrection: restoration to life;
  • habitués; frequenters
  • staggered: now dull now bright (as of London climate);


  • 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;


Descending  deeper into the network he emerges onto  a platform, thronged,  from aloneness to the safety of numbers with its connotations of refuge from potential threats.  The same Tube tunnels of WWII that protected the London population from Hitler’s ‘Blitz’ are no longer a refuge from the enemy within (following the terrorist attacks of July 2005).

The poet’s creative imagination seeks to convey the group dynamics – people in a cluster but not a scrum words (throng half straggle-ravelled , some like beads in an orderly  line half strung like a human chain; others are perceived as self-interested (pushy/ Jostling), purling, at once part of a pattern and a swirl and a liquidy sound (purling) beneath the low, curved ceiling. As if waiting for a starting gun to get on the train they are already on their marks  their voices reduced from street-loud to herd-quiet.

As he stands waiting he revisits the busker situation: he gave the man nothing – does this unrepentant, now repentant turn of conscience mean he was stingy or disloyal towards a fellow creative spirit?

Imminent relief: he is glad  that the first tremor of the approaching tube train puts an end to his concern but, inevitably, is caught up in the now-or-never whelm/ Of one and all carrying him powerless towards the open doors.

  • throng crowded by large numbers;
  • safety in numbers: feeling more secure in a crowd;
  • straggle: leave a distance from the person in front;
  • ravel: a cluster
  • string: thread on a string (like beads);
  • purl: move with a murmuring sound;
  • on your marks: instruction to place yourself in the right position;
  • succumb: submit, give way, cave in;
  • turn: a development, change in a situation;
  • tremor: vibration;
  • now-or-never: an urgent decision – take it or lose it
  • whelm: surge
  • one and all: bar none, no-one left behind;


  • 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;



Heaney treats us to an in-depth description of the physical forces exerted on the human body by Tube travel and how he occupied his mind.

He positions himself as of habit for the strains and dynamics of departure taking hold of straphanger (stubby black root-wort) and securing his stance above and below (from planted ball of heel to heel of hand).

His body becomes conscious of pressures that will make movement increasingly difficult:  sweet traction and heavy down-slump stayed me. His journey is starting (on my way), he is securely ‘harnessed’ (well girded) and stressed (on edge) … confined to a single position (spot-rooted),  as if held erect (buoyed) self-engrossed (aloof). Sound is in retreat (dwindling noises off), the last man to board (platform empty).

The final seconds (long between-times pause) of inertia before the budge, when both the windowed doors and his consciousness glaze over then an unwelcome force that require a rebalancing to cope with the laws of motion and personal space: blindsided to themselves and other bodies.

  • gap: dangerous space between platform and carriage ( warning signs ‘Mind the gap’);
  • grab: suddenly seize;
  • stubby: short and thick;
  • wort: root (Old Norse);
  • plant: set in position;
  • ball: protuberant part to the rear of the foot or base of hand below thumb;
  • traction: motive power;
  • down-slump: sudden downwards pull of gravity
  • stay: hold in the same position, glue to the spot;
  • girded: held solid;
  • on edge: tense;
  • rooted to the spot: unable to move;
  • buoyed: cheerful, head above water, surviving;
  • aloof: detached;
  • noises off: (theatre) offstage sounds intended for the audience;
  • budge: first movement;
  • glaze over: point at which the eyes see / feel nothing;
  • blindsided: no longer conscious of self or others


  • 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;


The train moves from lighted platform into a pitch-black tunnel: Deeper into it.  The speaker is subjected to mass movement (crowd-swept) but anchored (strap-hanging), his  lofted arm hyper-responsive to widely varying forces (a-swivel like a flail).

Suddenly like Aeneas (who in  Aenied Book 6 who sought an underworld  meeting with his dead father) Heaney catches a fleeting glimpse (my father’s glazed face in my own) that makes the human chain of life and death only too clear as he seeks to retain it waning and craning.

He relives the station stops-and-starts: the animal growl of shutting doors…  the abrupt jolt the high-pitched  one-off treble of iron on iron … the physics of pulling-away (a long centrifugal haulage felt in every joint in his body: through every dragging socket.

Tinges of pathos and regret increase  as the poet reflects on his erstwhile daily routine  transported through galleried earth , the only survivor of his previous generation: the only relict of all that I belonged to.

Both his journey and his time on earth hurtled forward at breakneck speed , almost film-like in a window whose  reflections he recalls with a touch of elegy (mirror-backed)  against  blasted weeping rock walls.  

  • a-swivel: (poetic) turning around the anchor point;)
  • glazed: both reflected in the glass and (of an expression) showing no emotion;
  • wane: dwindle, fade
  • crane: try hard to see something;
  • jolt: abrupt movement;
  • treble: the highest register of the human voice;
  • centrifugal: that throws objects outwards;
  • dragging: stretched to capacity;
  • socket: space in which an eye moves or shoulder revolves;
  • galleried: with different tiers/ levels
  • relict: survivor from an earlier period;
  • hurtle: speed forward in an uncontrolled manner;
  • mirror-backed: superimposed mirror surface;
  • blasted: London tube tunnels were made using explosives;
  • weeping: both exuding liquid and shedding tears;

 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.
  • 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: fifteen 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 lines are dominated by alveolar plosives [d] [t], bi-labial plosives [b] [p] alongside labio-dental fricatives [f] [v] and nasals[n] [m];
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;


  • 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

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