The Lift

A touching, much admired poem, filled with a warm humanity for individuals and groups; the piece follows Heaney’s aunt Mary’s coffin on its final journey to the graveyard. Mary passed away in the mid 1970s.

Paradoxically spring is showing signs of life at the very moment an old woman has died. Her funeral is well supported by the local community – her cortège filled the road. Heaney makes a link between close-knit rural Ulster communities of the period  and the ritual processions of rural Brittany (remote familiar  women and men in caps walking four abreast.

In the midst of the Troubles the gathering attracts the attention of the forces of order seeking to enforce restrictions -The solemn proceedings are outrageously disrupted by the throttle and articulated whops of a helicopter crossing. 

 Once the sounds of intrusion have subsided, calm is restored, not just physical awareness … of our own footsteps but a consciousness of political circumstances, being  constrained and smothered –  the value of open airthe life behind those words  ‘open’ and ‘air’.

 The deceased is recalled in decline: her world closing in, symptoms of mental and physical extremes (aghast, foetal, shaking, sweating, shrunk, wet haired ) ; oxygen in short supply (beaten breath,) fading features (misting mask,) instances of dementia (flash of one wild glance) not far removed from the pilot’s ghost surveillance from behind a gleam of helicopter glass.

 Such is the human cycle: a lifetime, then the deathtime common to all humanity.

 A hushed procession of Catholics and Protestants unified by a common purpose (reticence keeping us together when together), where decency dictates that no one airs their differences: all declaration deemed outspokenness.

The deceased succeeded in different roles: Heaney’s favourite aunt good sister to Heaney’s mother Margaret Kathleen and third sister, Sarah, faithful daughter, physically frail (delicate) perhaps but in personality a tough alloy demonstrating’ as she judged fit disapproval, kindness and hauteur. Heaney’s second French usage sums up Mary’s brand of moral-high-ground aloofness.

Portraying her as a self-sacrificing, inhibited spinster Heaney cannot prevent a warm chuckle: in later life she exposed herself to the risk … of certain joys. These were modest enough by any normal standards: her birdtable and jubilating birds, an updated but by no means  trendy taste in clothing – hence the inverted commas – (the ‘fashion’ in her wardrobe and her tallboy) – any suggestion of ‘male’ involvement in her life            limited to the name of a piece of furniture.

Remembered for its chill Spring weather and sadly recalled at intervals (reprise of griefs in Summer’s clearest mornings) or when, perhaps, the death of Heaney’s brother Christopher was remembered (children’s deaths in snowdrops –the soothing flowers of Mid-Term Break) or when the hawthorn trees surrounding Mary’s grave were in blossom (the may) or at moments of full orchestral celebration of nature on a grander scale  (whole requiems at the sight of plants).

 Her frail weight, carried lightly on the bier, helps the coffin-bearers (four womenshe would have called them girls) to claim the privilege as friends of lifting then lowering her coffin into its final resting place.

  • braird: green shoot;
  • pardon the French word for a traditional pilgrimage, religious festival or funeral in France’s western province of Brittany;
  • throttle: powerful engine sound
  • articulated: distinct;
  • whops: sounds of revolving helicopter blades;
  • aghast: open-mouthed and wild-eyed;
  • foetal: resembling the shape of a foetus with bent back and folded arms;
  • beaten breath: faltering breathing;
  • misting: blurring over, fading;
  • mask: set into a particular expression
  • reticence: restraint;
  • delicate: susceptible to illness;
  • alloy: blend of metals, here personal qualities;
  • hauteur: proud haughtiness
  • take the risk: have a go at something that might not work out
  • jubilate: rejoice
  • tallboy: chest of drawers ( to offset any intended pun,Mary was unmarried)
  • say our say: have the last word;
  • reprise: repeated passage in music;
  • may: hawthorn and its blossom;
  • requiem: music for the repose of the souls of the dead;
  • bier: frame on which a coffin is placed prior to interment;
  • claim: assume entitlement to do something;


  • at a political moment in Irish history when all gatherings gave grounds for suspicion, the solemnity of the occasion is invaded by a military presence;
  • problems associated with sectarian division and sporadic violence required security patrols including the use of helicopters; the Catholic population would see this as a form of ‘protestant’ intrusion especially on a solemn occasion;
  • 10 tercets and 1 final line; largely based on 10 syllables; shorter line 2 highlights the topic; varied punctuation and enjambment (one over 4 consecutive lines) ensure an oral delivery that can follow the proceedings, permit reflection and solemnity;
  • no formal rhyme scheme beyond paired rhymes after tercet 5;
  • braird: regional use for ‘shoot’; pardon the French word for a Breton pilgrimage/ religious festival; the Irish and Breton languages share Celtic roots, so why not the people, too; French words hauteur/ reprise;
  • multiple rich and  varied groups and chains of vowel sound effects: [ɪ] Lift/ in /filled; [i:] green/ later keeping/ deemed/leaf later gleam later still reprise/  griefs/ clearest; [əʊ] road/ old/ photograph/ remote/ own/open; [ʌ] could/ some; unstressed [ə]   Breton/ pardon/ women; ɔː] walking/ four/ falling; [ɒ] throttle/ whops/ helicopter crossing; [au] sound/ our; [ai] life behind later wild/ like behind/ lifetime/ deathtime childhood/ kindness end-of-piece sight/ lightly/ final; [eə] air/ haired/ breath/ deathtime; later deaths; [ɔɪ] alloy/ joy/ tallboy; [ɜː]certain/ birdtable/ birds; [e] weather end requiems/ friends; [ei] say/ say/ may;
  • occasional alliterative effects: hawthorn half; half photograph; shaking/ sweating/ shrunk; beaten breath/ misting mask; gleam/ glass; together/ together; declaration deemed; bore/ bier;
  • oxymoron: remote/ Familiar; onomatopoeia: whops copies the sound of air pressures and revolving rotor blades;


  • 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 four lines are rich in  nasals [m] [n], alveolar plosives [t] [d] and sibilant variants [s] [z][sh]; alongside front-of-mouth sounds: bi-labial plosives [p] [b], labio-dental fricatives [f] [v], continuant [w] aspirant [h] and alveolar [l];
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;

Join the Conversation - Leave a comment