The poem focuses on an Boston fire-fighter’s headgear, symbolic of a breed regarded as god-like ‘supermen’ risking their lives for society especially after 9/11. It was presented ‘formally’ to Heaney in an informal ceremony in Boston. The poem celebrates heroism and  human solidarity.

A helmet –  its owner; its provenance –  a Boston fireman’s gift, bearing the name printed boldly on its spread / Fantailing brim , an elongated shoulder-awning.

 The eye is drawn upwards:  evidence of its energetic use (tinctures of sweat and hair oil) and its enduring  longevity (withered sponge and shock-absorbing webs); its dome not a civilian crown , but rather a proud classical symbol of ‘military’ prowess crest, for crest it is;  its particular strength (steel-ridged) and individuality (hand-tooled, hand-sewn) held together at the top with a reminder of military armour of the past: a little bud of beaten copper.

 An exclusive  badged helmet ceremoniously presented to Heaney twenty years before as visiting fireman by a fellow fireman ‘poet’ (Heaney modestly returns the compliment) and proudly exhibited in his home – a symbol, too, of a solid, self-sacrificing mind-set: ‘the headgear/ Of the tribe’ handed over jovially one afternoon in right heroic mood. America is justly proud of her ‘heroes’ and the poet chooses his adjective deliberately as he enters into the spirit of the event.

Flattered by any association Heaney, is stutteringly modest, as if …as if. He has not served time under this helmet and symbol of classical nobility, this fire-thane’s shield.

 He pictures the active circumstances of fire and its falling debris – as the twin towers collapsed around  them the helmets and their wearers fought on to the very end: Till the hard-reared shield wall broke.  

  • Bobby Breen was a Boston fireman; pictures of 9/11 and memories of the huge number of firemen who perished in the disaster have lent new honour to his helmet;
  • the  Boston fireman’s helmet represents a body of men pitted against the elements;
  • fantail: fan-shaped;
  • brim: projecting edge round the bottom of a hat;
  • withered: that has shrunk;
  • crown: upper part of hat or helmet;
  • trimmed: decorated;
  • ridge: line where two sloping sides meet;
  • hand-tool: impress a design/badge on by hand
  • bud: a small button-shaped stud;
  • beaten: shaped using a hammer;
  • badge: a distinguishing insignia;
  • tribe: an exclusive group
  • to be up to it: have the appropriate skill or ability;
  • thane: (anglo-saxon) man granted land by a powerful lord
  • bolt: metal rivet;
  • hail down: descend like iced rain stones
  • hatchet, hose: fire-fighting equipment
  • hard-reared: held above heads to form a defence;


  • Characteristically, ‘Helmet’ balances violence with healing following the destruction visited on the World Trade Center (“Anything can happen, /the tallest towers / Be overturned.”)  An example of Heaney’s care in shaping a book. Stephen Knight in the Independent Sunday, 9 April 2000
  • Original footage, documentaries and docudramas following 9/11 heralded the selfless bravery of the New York Fire Department; they also showed its equipment, especially the standard fire helmet, in which Heaney has discovered ‘poem-life’;
  • Heaney’s way is to scrutinise familiar objects for their accumulation of meaning – a stove-lid, a turnip-snedder, a railway sleeper, a fireman’s helmet, a bricklayer’s trowel. The last two items witness Heaney’s long absorption in the Classics: both are used to reveal soldierly virtues benevolently applied to a peacetime world. Sean O’Brien Friday, 7 April 2006


  • 7 tercets with lines of widely varying length; in 2 main units with sub-sections; strong use made of enjambed lines give the narrative its own impetus;
  • assonant effects: [ɪ] his/gift/ in/ its/ brim/ Tinctures/ withered ; [e] spread/ sweat / better/ crest/ leather; a cluster of vowel [o] variants: oil/ sponge/ shock-absorbing/ crown; [æ] hand/ hand; [e] and [ɪə], alveolar sounds in sequence: helmet’s/ shelf/ twenty / years/ headgear ; [ai] and [ɪ] in combination over 6 lines: right heroic/ fireman/ it/ visiting fireman; if/ I/ it/ if / I/ time/ it/ his fire-/ His/ while; [əʊ] bolts/ hose/ broke;
  • accompanying alliterative clusters: [b] Bobby Breen’s/ Boston; absorbing/ webs; other consonant groups in tandem: voiceless alveolar plosive [t] and dental fricatives [θ] and  [ð] Tinctures/ sweat/ withered/ beneath/ better/ crest/ Leather-trimmed/ steel/tooled; bilabial effects: Tipped/ bud/ beaten/ copper; alveolar [r]: right heroic/ afternoon/ fireman/ presented; voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] (sh) mimics the sound of falling materials: shield/ shoulder/ shattering/ shield; aspirate [h] hailed/ hatchet/ hose;
  • 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 triplet is dominated by alveolar plosives [d] [t] and front-of-mouth sounds labio-dental fricative [v], aspirate [h],[l] and [w] alongside nasal [n];;
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;

2 thoughts on “Helmet

  1. Excellent ‘Poetry By Numbers’ lesson.
    The whole arsenal of techniques is here employed
    and camaraderie of Boston donors of the examined helmet,
    every part as intricate and work-worthy as the Towers themselves.
    Anything can happen but humanity endures in memory and poetry.

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