Heaney an extraordinary man in ordinary clothing

Heaney the cordon-bleu cook

Heaney the agent of change

Heaney the orchestral composer

Heaney the word painter

Heaney the meticulous craftsman (including phonetic information)

Thumbnails of poems (in alphabetical order)

Stylistic devices


an extraordinary man in ordinary clothes

Poets are a breed apart!  Unlike ordinary mortals such as you and I their consciousness is constantly tuned into things that give off a poetic charge and their vocation compels them to pounce on such sudden, involuntary moments before they fade away. Poets are constantly on the qui-vive;

  • they have a way of recording these unpredictable, involuntary instances – poets are never far away from composition mode which transforms  electrical impulse into verse;
  • poets are alchemists;
  • Heaney was one of the tribe – he acknowledged that there were times poems ‘came on’ in torrents;
  • he said of the ‘Squarings’ sequences in ‘Seeing Things’ …’I felt free as a kid skimming stones’, the poems had something of ‘the splish-splash one-after-anotherness of stones skittering and frittering across water’;
  • then, in almost the same breath, he confessed to periods of drought when he wondered where his next title might come from;
  • poems come on unexpectedly;
  • the catalyst might be something from a book or a photo … a gallery exhibit or a foreign place … a newspaper report or a dictionary… something televised or remembered from church… even a serious metaphysical conversation between poet and his inner self;
  • poets are ordinary humans who produce extraordinary work
  • no question of Heaney living in some ivory tower … inside the skin of this extraordinary poet lived a modest, practical man coping with the things everyday life threw at him –  a wife and children to support,  bills to pay,  publishing contracts to meet, the will to supplement his poetry royalties with a stream of activities (poetry readings,  radio programmes, chances to meet his contemporaries) that continued even as his estate grew post-Nobel;
  • he was so successful that as he grew older it became exhausting;
  • Heaney the generous spirit as a person who found it difficult to say ‘no’ Heaney was forever at a ‘beck-and-call’ of his own making;
  • once his global reputation was established, his life developed an almost unstoppable momentum – increased foreign travel, a constant flood of invitations, prestigious awards in the shape of a Nobel prize for Literature in 1995 and distinguished academic positions he held at Harvard and Oxford Universities;
  • Heaney rose head and shoulders above the others in the tribe and, like cream in milk, rose to the top of his profession;

Comparison with performers in other virtuoso roles might offer a few insights into what it takes for Heaney to weave his creative magic.

Heaney the cordon bleu ‘cook’

  • in common with the best chefs he strives to find the right blend;
  • he and they recognise and deal solely with the finest products – they are endowed with a talent that adds the individual flavours of spices, herbs and myriad ingredients in just the right amounts at just the right moment;
  • they produce unique, signature dishes capable of delighting and inspiring those who savour the result;
  • their ‘knowledge’ is gleaned from experience, experimentation and hard graft … their ‘talent’ is a gift granted only to very few;
  • Heaney is both wordsmith and ‘master-chef’ – inspiration is just a start – spontaneous ideas can only gain from being worked upon.

Heaney the agent of change 

he wants to transform poetic charge into mouth-watering dishes – each will involve a deliberate process of composition and revision that will determine the ultimate structure, vocabulary, verse-form and imagery of each poem.

  • Heaney’s copious ‘word hoard’ grants him access to a rich list of poetic devices available to all who write – he takes from it just what he needs –  to add an underlay… or ring a change … or carry an image through … or provide an echo;
  • he wants no more than to turn ordinary language into a culinary feast for the senses and his blend of ingredients, roughly translated as ‘style’, is the ‘mix’ he favours in each poem to carry his message forward.

Heaney the orchestral composer

  • in seeking to write poetry that is pleasing to the ear or reflects his mood and preoccupations (jubilant, sad or harsh, calm or furious, light or sweet or slowly dying away) Heaney shares much in common with an orchestral composer;
  • he starts at a slight disadvantage because scored music brings with it a code of expression marks that indicate the way in which a piece is to be performed be it volume, cadence, emphasis and so on;
  • without expression marks the music risks being monotonous and boring;
  • there is no such notation for Heaney – he leaves it to his words, phrasing and punctuation to suggest timbre, modulation, ‘tum-tee-tum’ so that the skilled reader can turn each poem into a linguistic ‘event’;

Heaney paints using words

  • Heaney was excited by artists and by Art Galleries around the world – ‘anything can happen in a gallery: that’s the joy of it’, he once enthused;
  • across his poetry he refers to countless named examples appropriate to his poetic moment from Renaissance Giorgione to 20th century Dutch abstract Piet Mondrian, from Breughel’s Flemish landscapes to Goya’s nightmare canvasses in Madrid’s Prado;
  • as a friend with Irish surrealist painter, Colin Middleton, he was able to observe the techniques, overlays and textures  of a creative act exercised within another medium; this  awakened the notion  that he could ‘outstrip the given’ and reflect visual scenes in word; ‘Electric Light’ pays tribute to Irish abstract painter Felim Egan who worked from Sandymount in Dublin;
  • Heaney’s magic word-brush works – hiss poem-canvasses generate individual textures and compositional balance – he sets emotional sensations, shapes and colours within the picture’s frame, even mimicking cinematic techniques of zoom and pan to add movement and focus.

Heaney is a meticulous craftsman

  • Heaney’s intention was simply to use the musicality of language to generate beautifully turned passages;
  • he wove strands of assonant vowel sounds into the text, sometimes as many as 14 separate ones within the same poem, either grouping them within specific areas to create internal echoes or reprising them at intervals;
  • these are reflected in the coloured-hearing section of each poem using standard phonetic icons – ‘same colour’ means ‘same sound’ so that regional differences in vowel pronunciation will still be accommodated; Heaney rarely leaves a vowel sound in isolation;
  • he had another trick up his sleeve- he used the alliterative effects of consonants to modify his assonant melodies with pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions;
  • consonants (with their phonetic symbols) can be classed according to where in the mouth they occur:
  • Front-of-mouth sounds voiceless bi-labial plosive [p] voiced bi-labial plosive [b]; voiceless labio-dental fricative [f] voiced labio-dental fricative [v]; bi-labial nasal [m]; bilabial continuant [w]
  • Behind-the-teeth sounds voiceless alveolar plosive [t] voiced alveolar plosive [d]; voiceless alveolar fricative as in church match [tʃ];  voiced alveolar fricative as in judge age [dʒ];  voiceless dental fricative  [θ]  as in thin path; voiced dental fricative as  in this other [ð]; voiceless alveolar fricative [s] voiced alveolar fricative [z]; continuant [h] alveolar nasal [n] alveolar approximant [l]; alveolar trill [r]; dental ‘y’ [j] as in  yet
  • Rear-of-mouth sounds voiceless velar plosive [k] voiced velar plosive [g]; voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] as in  ship sure, voiced post- alveolar fricative [ʒ]   as in pleasure; palatal nasal [ŋ]  as in ring/ anger.
  • Heaney’s thought processes and instinctive use of rhythm (the ‘tum-tee-tum’ method) work hand in glove, whether in phrases of bare simplicity or more complex ideas and emotions.

Summary of themes – poems in alphabetical order

Arion  from the Russian of Alexander Pushkin

Heaney presents his own version of the Russian poem in which a songster-bard is saved from drowning when all around him perish. Read ‘Arion’, think ‘Heaney’ suggests Helen Vendler In her review of Electric Light (Irish Times of Mon, Jun 3, 2019) under the heading ‘Heaney the Survivor’: ‘Heaney’s poetry begins, now, to exhibit many elegies both for personal friends and for poets who have been important to him … Marking their disappearance, Heaney, the survivor, adapts a Pushkin’s poem in which Arion (saved from shipwreck by a dolphin) speaks a postlude’.

At Toomebridge

Heaney recounts the exhilaration he experienced when, later in life, he crossed the bridge over the river Bann on a bus. To one side the dam and sluices placed to catch eel; on the other the Lower Bann river exiting Lough Neagh visible a short distance away – ‘an appropriate poem with which to start the collection; a miniature version of the collection as a whole ‘the poem is doing what the book is about … it pays attention, gives full acknowledgement to the usual, the data, what happens … it allows the shine of your own imagining … or the glow of whatever consciousness is to come out’.

In the background are references to the execution of a nationalist and more recent loyalist destruction of his monument.

Audenesque  in memory of Joseph Brodsky

A last message of respect, admiration and affection for Heaney’s deceased friend and fellow Nobel Laureate expelled after a period of internal exile in from Soviet Russia in the early 1970s for dissidence and heading for a new life in the USA. He comments on Brodsky’s nature and high expectations of his students and fellow poets

The title alludes to connections: Yeats and Brodsky both died on the same day in 1939 and 1996 respectively; Auden wrote an elegy ‘In Memory of W.B.Yeats’ in 1940; Auden was instrumental in helping Brodsky get to America and helping him to settle.

Ballynahinch Lake for Eamon Grennan

In sympathy with an Italian poet’s entreaty to ‘seize the day’ Heaney spent countless hours behind the wheel of his car drinking in the surroundings. The sight and sounds of something that carried poetic charge might bring his journey to a temporary halt. The poem is much more, however, than the richly textured description of water-birds taking to the air within an idyllic frame – it dips into the private subtleties of husband-wife relationship … of things said and unsaid … routines that may not always suit both parties. By poem’s end one wonders whether the epigraph is a carpe diem exhortation to his wife to cheer up or Heaney’s acknowledgement that on occasion he might be a bit of a pain.

Bann Valley Eclogue

Reading Virgil’s Eclogue IV (of 42 BC) Heaney spotted correspondences with the contemporary situation in Ireland more than 2000 years on. The poetic opportunity he sensed resulted in an eclogue of his own, transposing the original into a contemporary Irish setting and focussing on the elusiveness of renewal in Irish society. The original Virgil eclogues tend to feature humble rural folk depressed or repressed by injustices heaped on them from above and hoping for bards to make their public case; the Heaney version brings together two wise and learned men – POET (resembling Heaney himself) and VIRGIL. He and Virgil discuss the likely fate of an imminent girl-child birth within an Irish rural community. 

Bodies and Souls

Heaney captures moments from his life as a boarder at St Columb’s College in Derry.

1 In the Afterlife – when the school day came to an end for a bored schoolboy exiled far from home young Heaney entered a kind of afterlife. Wiling away long hours before lights-out, was not much of a life for him. Were he to awaken on the other side of death, the scene might bear a depressing resemblance to St Columb’s College.

2 Nights or ’57 – In the Sixth Form at St Columb’s College Senior students were permitted to congregate for recreation in the lawned area in front of the school.

3 The Bereaved – At the end of the teaching day  St Columb’s College boys ached to escape the drudgery of regulated, supervised evening study and yet somehow they did not envy the fate of a ‘chosen’ group of souls who were first to leave to butcher their piano practice.

CIonmnany to Ahascragh in memory of Rory Kavanagh

Heaney dedicates this touching sequence to the deceased son of a long-standing friend. The family is very well known to Heaney but only mentioned by name via the dedication. The loss of a child is completely alien to the poet.

The title’s place names, one in north-west Ireland the other much further south are indicative both of Rory’s parental origins and of the trek the couple made to share family with their individual families. Heaney recounts a nightmare he once experienced when he and Des Kavanagh were contemporaries at St Columb’s College and for which he needed comfort; finally he describes the Irish a countryscape familiar to the Kavanaghs that might afford them some consolation.

Electric Light

Linking the collection’s title poem with a key incident at his Grannie McCann’s bungalow home Heaney commented: The title comes from ‘an actual pinpointed moment’… aunts and mother out,  child left with his grandmother, for the first time away from home and becoming scared, bewildered “what ails you child?” … made more homeless by this language.

The phrase dwelt in memory for over nearly 60 years providing ‘a little aperture a little chink into English English, into the other English … the high art English I learnt when I went to Shakespeare and to Chaucer’ that Heaney covers in the middle poem of the sequence.

In the final piece he re-lives the miraculous appearance of domestic electric light at the touch of a switch – it captured the attention of his child self, curious about everything and, grown-ups permitting, into everything. He notes wryly that the mangled Grannie thumbnail that scared him out of his wits will still be intact sixty years on in her grave! 

Glanmore Eclogue

Heaney moved his family from Belfast in Northern Ireland to Glanmore in Co. Wicklow (Irish Republic) in 1972. Initially a tenant he eventually purchased the property in 1988. The cottage became the family home and later an iconic refuge for composing poems.

Heaney takes an active role in his eclogue (POET) exploring and commenting on issues that emanate from his dialogue with MYLES (whose name recalls the Latin miles (soldier/ warrior) suggestive of an active hiberno-centric spokesman, possibly Myles na gCopaleen, one of the pen-names of Brian O’Nolan or Flann O’Brien). 

Initially the eclogue exposes Heaney’s conscience at living in the Irish Republic as an in-comer from the North; it ends with a delightful Gaelic-derived song of summer celebrating the beauty of the Irish landscape. Heaney respects the key melancholic elements of Virgil’s Eclogues – loss, guilt and the importance of recording ‘songs’ in written form for posterity. The final hymn to summer insists on the sweet effect that music and poetry have on existence.

Known World

In her review of Electric Light (Irish Times of Mon, Jun 3, 2019) under the heading ‘Heaney the Survivor’, Helen Vendler suggests that ‘exploring the mystery of the self has been a steady concern in Heaney’s work, but while the young poems came fresh to that mystery, the new poems come to it with layers of memory that both obscure it further and reveal it newly; the best vehicle for a memory-cluster is a poetic sequence. 

In this dramatic travelogue of May 1998 Heaney describes what he met ‘on tour’ in countries from the former Yugoslavian bloc. The responses generated range from the sheer joy of mixing with fellow poets at Struga to  the troubling evidence of ethnic cleansing, from the beauty of the Balkan surroundings to the power of the Eastern Church. You could take Heaney out of Ireland but you cannot take Ireland out of Heaney … he has lived alongside these issues at home. His Balkan adventure over Heaney reverts seamlessly to his more sophisticated western European ways.

Late in the Day

Heaney acknowledges the ‘sense of elegy’ creeping into his preoccupations as a 62 year old. Drawn from his readings and personal experiences Heaney dips into recorded events, real and mystical individuals and landscapes on both sides of the Irish Sea. Heaney’s title alludes also to the creative spirit’s small-hours wait for inspiration. Heaney pulls out an episode recounted by an illustrious Irish medical figure of 1849 reviewing the antiquities and spiritual sites along the river Boyne. He recounts the story of a miracle that helped a humble monk along the road to sainthood by accomplishing the mission he had undertaken. He follows it with images of the near-blind, reclusive vagabond David Thomson and the eccentric actions and images that emanate from Thomson in old age.


The sight of majestic lupins producing spectacular spikes ranging from strong chromatic colours to delicate, soothing pastel shades somehow recalls a loving relationship. The lupins’ aesthetic properties and the aura they project suggest ‘think lupins, think of a woman I am close to’. The visual impact is strikingly of something/ someone erect and upstanding, acting as a catalyst for memory.


The poem set in the early 1940s explores a youngster’s hero-worship of a cow-man from a mysterious Irish Republic background, highly skilled in working with cattle around the farm spending his day off wagering his income.

Heaney deploys a series of cinematic effects …  Lights…‘Camera … action’

On His Work in the English Tongue  in memory of Ted Hughes (mentioned by name in the dedication alone)

Heaney paid tribute to the first millennium author of Beowulf … ‘a work of the greatest imaginative vitality, a masterpiece where the structuring of the tale is as elaborate as the beautiful contrivances of its language … today called Anglo-Saxon or Old English’. The use of ‘tongue’ , of a similar period, suggests that his anonymous third person is the poet of Beowulf.

However, given the poem’s dedication to friend and recently deceased Ted Hughes, a twentieth century English Poet Laureate, it may also be that Heaney includes Hughes in the subtlety of his title. Having read Hughes’ ‘Birthday Letters’ (exposing the hurt of losing Sylvia Plath to suicide) Heaney came to link Hughes’ ‘no-win’ situation with a huge emotional legacy with the fate  and emotions of king Hrethel in Beowulf;

1 introduces the poem’s recurrent motif of ‘hurt in hiding’ and its valid place in poetry.

2  Heaney’s emotional immersion in a literary work and his need to reflect have taken him to a ‘somewhere-else’, a familiar, private retreat beneath the bridge of a familiar railway line;

3 Heaney launches an attack on those who dare reject repressed pain as a fitting theme for poetry. He has met it expressed in its finest form (certainly in Beowulf and perhaps, too, in the Hughes poems (above)

4 Heaney sustains the theme of passive suffering and hurt-in-hiding re-working  ll. 2444-66 of his Beowulf translation; he is aghast that anyone would fail to be moved by the pathos of an old man’s circumstances:

5 Heaney reflects on the poetic voice and its deployment  –  to reveal or not to reveal openly the hurt-in-hiding of a literary giant/ personal friend is a matter of conscience. His own moral sense of what is beyond public statement is a principle that enables him to look himself  in the eye.

Out of the Bag 

In her review of Electric Light (Irish Times of Mon, Jun 3, 2019) under the heading ‘Heaney the survivor’, Helen Vendler suggests that ‘the best vehicle for a memory-cluster is a poetic sequence. The most daring sequence in this collection, one about illness and health, begins with the childhood fantasies that attached themselves (in the precociously active imagination of the child Heaney) to the repeated arrivals of the doctor who “brought” a new baby in his bag’.

Heaney was the first of nine children born to Margaret Kathleen and Patrick Heaney living on the family farm at Mossbawn. As the eldest he was still pre-school when subsequent siblings were ‘delivered’ by Doctor Joseph Philip Kerlin, the local doctor, based in Magherafelt, Co. Derry. The bag Dr. Kerlin carried on each occasion was an evocative symbol of his profession. 

1 Heaney chuckles at his own childhood misconceptions of childbirth (only revealed in the final lines of the sequence), based on something his mother repeated to him that led him to believe that he and his siblings came ready-made in the doctor’s bag and were placed in her arms in the upstairs room.

2  Heaney takes us to the sacred site at Epidaurus that he and his wife visited on a Greek holiday in 1995 with Cynthia and Dimitri Hadzi. Heaney and his ‘learned consultants’ (all three erstwhile Professors of Poetry at Oxford University) have each combined creative writing and academia; as part of Asclepius’ ancient hospital the temple site’s medical connection is confirmed and Heaney recalls a moment of  physical frailty beneath a beating sun; in his semi-swoon he found himself back the Mossbawn kitchen where Doctor Kerlin was washing his hands, entertaining the child Heaney was with condensation drawings and handling the baby parts that floated into view;

3 Heaney mentions a grass-picking incident: he sent shrine grass to two friends suffering from cancer in the hope of miraculous benefit. In the temple site he chose to separate from his companions and mimic the actions of classical hopefuls, lying prostrate and hoping for Hygeai’s divine intervention;

4 Heaney’s original misconception and ensuing links with medicine and medics are clarified. Time may have revealed the realities of childbirth yet the Mossbawn room at the source of child-Heaney’s imaginings is as vividly recalled as the words of his mother exhausted by childbirth and thanking Kerlin for ‘delivering’ the new baby.


In complete contrast with Heaney’s trout of Death of a Naturalist (1966) which possessed the lightning reactions of a missile,  the indolent perch he observed in the Bann’s clear waters lay stock-still in their favoured location at a spot where light effects reflected in the water were never still.  These lumpy, misshapen water dwellers known to his mid-Ulster community as ‘grunts’ retain a indelible presence in the poet’s memory-stock.

Red, White and Blue

In her review of Electric Light (Irish Times of Mon, Jun 3, 2019) under the heading ‘Heaney the Survivor’, Helen Vendler suggests that ‘exploring the mystery of the self has been a steady concern in Heaney’s work, but while the young poems came fresh to that mystery, the new poems come to it with layers of memory that both obscure it further and reveal it newly; the best vehicle for a memory-cluster is a poetic sequence.

Each of the three poems bears a distinctive colour marking associated with wife Marie at specific moments in their history.

I  Red – the magnetic attraction of a red garment prompts a shy student into the realisation that ‘nothing ventured’ is ‘nothing gained; when a fellow student dares to denigrate the girl Heaney has taken a fancy to at a student hop he rubs it in with contemptuous glee.

2  White  – in fact two shades of white: the holiness, purity, and joy reflected in the pristine cleanliness of the labour ward in which Marie Heaney lies prior to childbirth alongside Heaney the expectant father in dutiful attendance; the colour of craven cowardice Heaney applies to himself when hospital practice ejects him from the ward!

3 Blue – an encounter between two young Northern Irish hitchhikers, Heaney and Marie, and an upper-crust British couple prepared to ferry them free of charge in their Rolls-Royce awakens the medieval troubadour in Heaney as he paints the cameos of two female figures – the first a real and permanent presence in his life able, thanks to her blue denim clothing and cosmetics to match, to secure free transport, the second a lady whose image is embellished by Heaney’s courtly love imagination! Heaney reports  the preconceived political notions of the English military man that went unchallenged by the young couple.

Seeing the Sick

Heaney’s father, Patrick appears on a score of occasions in the Heaney collections between ‘Digging’, the very first poem of Death of a Naturalist (1966), and ‘Lick the Pencil’ from Human Chain (2010), the last published collection in the poet’s lifetime.

Heaney covered every stage in their father-and-son relationship and regretted the awkwardness they experienced in expressing their affection for each other. His deep love and respect for a dying father relieved of pain by modern man-made medication is expressed very poignantly. Heaney described the impact of his bereavement: My father’s death in October 1986 was the final ‘unroofing’ of the world and I’m certain it affected me in ways that were hidden from me then and now. (DOD p322)

Sonnets from Hellas (ancient and modern name for Greece). Five evocative vignettes depict a country acknowledged by many as the cradle of western civilisation and a land of milk and honey ,  a moveable feast for senses, spirit and intellect recalled in vivid and intimate detail.

The Heaneys spent a first holiday in 1995 with Cynthia and Dimiitri Hadzi whom they had known since Heaney’s Harvard days. Coincidentally it was while they were in Greece that news broke of Heaney’s Nobel Prize for Literature and created the drama of contacting him with the news!

1 Into Arcadia … a sonnet in praise of sheer abundance, where a goatherd of timeless appearance is to be found on the forecourt of a garage … ancient and modern existing side by side

2 Conkers …seventy miles further south the travellers are scaling a footpath to the acropolis in Sparta amidst a swirl of sense data and the underfoot evidence of mellow Spartan fruitfulness.

3 Pylos …  on the Peloponnese coast eighty miles west of Sparta the invigorated poet looks from his window onto the sea-front and its shoals of sea bounty. What he sees leads him to a tribute to the classical American scholar who encouraged him to see beyond and beneath the surface of the Classical world;

4 The Augean Stables … an antique carving depicts the mythological goddess Athene offering support to a divine hero faced with a seemingly unattainable task – she is showing Heracles where to harness the powers of nature which will enable him to accomplish a seemingly impossible ‘labour’;

5 Castalian Spring … immovable object meets irresistible force. Heaney and his group have moved onto the Greek mainland north of the Gulf of Corinth close to Delphi. The poet has long been determined to sample the blessed waters and admits to barging past the woman employed to enforce the ‘no entry’ sign! 

6.Desfina … a very Greek-Greek evening set in the hilly area around Delphi. Nearby Parnassus, mountain of the Muses, sets the Irish-speakers the challenge of finding gaelicized equivalents before they all indulge themselves, first in starters and aperitifs at the farm, then a boozy holiday’s-end dinner in town and finally a white-knuckle return to their accommodation.

Sruth   in memory of Mary O Muirithe

Poetic licence permits Heaney (who first attended Irish camp in his teens) to spend childhood camp-time with Mary who was 4 years his senior. Mary and the breac-Gaeltacht are inextricably linked in his mind. He hears her voice in the title’s waterfall and recalls her compelling child-like fairy-tale presence. Mary is dead and Heaney wants to talk movingly to and about her – in this retrospective dramatization she is still very much alive and will, of course, never leave the eternal present of the poem dedicated to her

Ten glosses

Glosses figure in the margins and between the lines of poems in composition or books being read, not just as a poet’s comment, explanation, interpretation or paraphrase of something penned, but equally a new layer of consciousness or a fresh association to be borne in mind or the germ of a new piece. They are compact, to the point and poetic.

1 The Marching Season – the gloss reveals a tragic parallel on Heaney’s mind – the  ‘bloody man’ of Shakespeare’s Macbeth conjures graphic images of brash and provocative loyalist marches and the cycle of sectarian murder and revenge of the ‘Troubles’;

2 The Catechism – Heaney admitted to DOD that he suffered from a surfeit of Catholic training in childhood. Part of the oral training aspect of his religious upbringing were the ingrained cues and responses of catechism. His categorical response is to identify empathetically with all humanity;

3 The Bridge – post-Troubles reconciliation of sectarian opponents in Northern Ireland is barely three years old. Heaney’s extended metaphor amounts to a prayer for the success of power-sharing in Northern Ireland;

4  A Suit  – Heaney admits that a good sales’ patter pays dividends. He composes a pun-rich spoof …  a deal struck between tailor and customer (Heaney himself). He recalls the tailor’s pitch and promise to provide the ideal match of garment and poet’s body-shape;

5 The Party – War-poet Wilfred Owen who died in WWI action too young to have achieved his true potential is mentioned in a social gathering; Heaney reflects on the wasteful loss of a creative spirit and the party toast that celebrates Owen’s memory;

6  W. H. Auden, 1907-73 – Heaney sketches a short period from the life of a hugely talented and highly complex poet who lived and worked on both sides of the Atlantic;

7 The Lesson – Heaney pays tribute to friend David Hammond, a master raconteur delivering a shaggy-dog tale of Irish black humour with a msrginally irreverent religious slant;

8  Moling’s Gloss (from the Irish) – An ageing hermit turned ecclesiastic confesses there are two sides to him that tune in with the company he is keeping: the behaviour he adopts with the Church elders differs markedly from the figure he cuts with the young clerics out to enjoy themselves;

9  Colly –  the most elusive of the ten glosses – Heaney’s ‘dirty glove’ of Irish history leading to the Troubles’ is echoed in the jingle of a popular children’s rhyme as he might have heard it in mid-twentieth century Northern Irish back-to-back working-class estates;

10  A Norman Simile –  Heaney responds to a historical account he has been reading – a century after the Norman invasion of England, Gerald of Wales (of Norman origin, settled in Cambria but researching Ireland) reflects on parallels between the perceived layers of ones persona and the invisible science hidden beneath river-flow in an Irish harbour.

The Bookcase

A bookcase standing in the Heaney home indicates the joint tastes of Heaney and Marie and triggers layers of association in the mind of a widely read, aesthetically-sensitive and highly imaginative Irish poet and his wife.

The piece is constructed in three segments, the first dedicated to writers and publishers that commanded their attention, both written word and recorded voices; in the second an association with childhood is generated by the swing of the bookcase door – the gate at Mossbawn was subject to the same scientific principle, opening wide to let in the Irish literature and culture that young Heaney was so thirsty to sample; the final piece celebrates Heaney’s appreciation of the bookcase’s design, proportions, placement and fine workmanship; he selects two scenes of Irish drama from the shelves that paint bleak, heavy images of daily life in Ireland; he shudders at the thought of shouldering the bookcase’s loaded weight only to be surprised by its buoyant lightness;

The Border Campaign for Nadine Gordimer

Heaney alludes specifically to a guerrilla warfare campaign carried out between 1956 and 1962 by the Irish Republican Army against targets in Northern Ireland. Local knowledge confirms a direct link between the poem’s opening scene and an IRA attack on the Magherafelt Court House (that left a smouldering roof shell) on December 12th 1956, the day after the campaign was launched; at that moment Heaney was a teenage boarder at St Columb’s College in Derry.

The link between revolutionary direct action and an incident from the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf leaves a teenage boarder aghast at unfolding events in the area where he lives and the city where he is schooled … betraying also, perhaps, the first inkling of his sympathy for the nationalist cause.

The Clothes Shrine

In praise of Woman – Heaney composes a poem at once crackling with sexual electricity and diffused with spiritual light. Composed in a single hyphenated sentence the piece offers three angles.  Clothes Shrine harks back to the intimacy of Heaney’s and Marie’s early-days’ relationship (he found her sensationally attractive, as he explained in Twice Shy of Death of a Naturalist of 1965) when in early 1960s Belfast co-habitation ‘was not the habit’ and the shining example of Brigid Irish goddess turned saint; the strengths and qualities embodied in the final quartet apply to both women and to other unstated female influences in Heaney’s life – his own mother and her sister Mary.

The Fragment

Heaney presents two fragments, the first drawn from his translation of Beowulf and the second from his own post- Belfast chronology; both Beowulf’s swim and Heaney’s move to the Irish Republic were judged ill-considered and hubristic by grudging critics. Poet and warrior join forces to rebuff them.

Beowulf rejects the views of Unferth who has challenged his honour-code. Heaney, following his decision in 1972 to give up his university lecturing post and to move his family lock, stock and barrel to Glanmore in the Irish Republic, dismisses the raft of adverse comments that came to his notice from within the Belfast circles he had frequented including the notion that he had gone out of his mind … reality is more complex than that, he suggests – what the hell do you guys really know about me!

The Gaeltacht

In search of an Irishness that did not come from his English-speaking upbringing and education Heaney deliberately signed up for residential outings to areas of Donegal where the Irish language predominated.

In September 2013 the Derry Journal published a photo taken at RosGuill  in 1960 of Heaney and other young people on such a camp. Some of them were still traceable 40 years on, at least one of them had died, others were off radar. The Derry Journal photograph and a sonnet from Dante’s Inferno canto XX spark a moving piece with common themes and emotions. Both paint images of perfect friendship undimmed by the years of inevitable hiatus as those involved went their separate ways in life.

The Little Canticles of Asturias

Three snippets from a wider poetic travelogue recount stages along the roads of northern Spain that lead to Santiago de Compostela, the cathedral city and culmination of the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrim Way of St James.

Heaney and his passengers are not pilgrims as such and Heaney only alludes to the final echoes inside the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela. Heaney’s canticles, traditionally hymns or chants, are composed as three short pieces. The first paints a real-life descent into a Dantesque hell; the second, the calm after the storm, focuses on the spiritual and emotional restitution of the soul; the third concentrates on bodily recovery and ‘reaches’ the culmination of the Pilgrims’ Way.

1 Heaney presents an on-going chronicle at mid-point. At the end of an exhausting day driver and passengers are suddenly faced with a fiery landscape that bears all the hallmarks of the mythological underworld fires of hell.

2 Gijon’s hellish cauldron is replaced by an altogether calmer, spiritually uplifting scene reminiscent of an Irish yesteryear in which his spirits are lifted by redemptive rural practices.

3 The self-styled ‘pilgrim’ has reached a coastal town at the mouth of the Nalon in Asturias. To the spiritual uplift of the previous day Heaney adds physical replenishment boosted by health-giving weather and wheeling seagulls that take his imagination inside the journey’s-end cathedral.

The Loose Box

The title picks up on Patrick Kavanagh’s claim that ‘the properties of land’ were Ireland’s greatest natural feature. Heaney focuses on the compartment within the Mossbawn stable complex in which, both free and yet constrained, the animal could move about.

In her review of Electric Light (Irish Times of Mon, Jun 3, 2019) under the heading ‘Heaney the Survivor’, Helen Vendler suggests that ‘the best vehicle for a memory-cluster is a poetic sequence. The Loose Box provides Heaney with the vehicle to grasp, explore and expand the bundles of associations that orbit this central focus.

The central metaphor is of sustenance … the fodder offered to the farm’s animals … the electric charge that feeds the creative mind …  straw, the single natural component of an underwhelming Christmas Nativity scene witnessed by child-Heaney … the sacrifices fed into Thomas Hardy’s infernal threshing machine that elated Heaney as an adolescent reader … the hay-store in which the hubris of an iconic Irish political figure first came to light.

The Real Names

Heaney’s substantial ten-part sequence traces his linked journeys into Shakespeare and poetry. It ranges back and to in time and location. The ‘real names’ are the authentic individuals who were at school with Heaney and as members of St Columb’s Dramatic Society played the Shakespearean characters of annual school productions. The Shakespeare texts were set in stone, the lives of the young actors, including Heaney’s, anything but.

1 The annual Shakespeare is being staged in nineteen-fifties’ St Columb’s College, Derry; from the wings or in the audience Heaney watches the impact made by a local Sperrin Mountains’ boy in home-made costume playing an iconic Shakespearean character.

2 Heaney reflects first on the success of Junior pupils in female roles in an all-boys school, then reports on the performances of ‘real name’ school friends and next day’s judgments delivered by the director/ member of staff equally caught up in the euphoria of the moment.

3 Heaney’s secondary-school interests in Shakespeare and his recall of early childhood marked his enthused intelligence with catalysts and portents that would launch him on a journey into poetry.

4 A tale of two sons – the future Bard of Avon and the mid-Ulster farmer’s son are from slightly different social stock. Heaney ‘stages’ the contrasting behaviour of two boys both destined to become bards.

5 Ophelia’s suicide in Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ invites Heaney to imagine his own mid-Ulster version; its dramatis personae is made of Mossbawn’s ubiquitous willow trees.

6 Back in a St Columb’s College’s new-build classroom the Dramatic Society begins a read-through of Shakespeare’s ‘Merchant of Venice: the real names are handed their fictional roles, some, it seems, exceedingly well fitted by personal reputation. Heaney recalls time, place and conditions with absolute clarity.

7 Prompted by a scene from Shakespeare’s Macbeth Heaney provides three visions of apocalypse: the first a storm affecting the family home and scaring his mother out of her wits, the second recounting the aftermath of a failed attack during the 1950s’ Border Campaign, the third, the foundering of a vessel at sea with huge loss of life. Beyond the reach of mayhem the staid, dispassionate voice of the radio newsreader reads its script.

8 Heaney’s 1962 holiday job at the Passport Office in London enabled him to try out new experiences, some ‘cultural’: outdoor Shakespeare in Regent’s Park that linked the Elizabethan age with the 20th century, some totally recreational as he pubbed and clubbed in Earls Court

9 Heaney’s teaching diploma course was followed in 1962 by a short-term contract in a Belfast Secondary School. He noticed shades of Shakespeare’s Feste in three pupils: a low-ability Special Needs pupil with a crew-cut; a brighter compliant more middle-class deaf boy who was easily scared; finally a poor soul , locked-in and un-teachable.

10 Heaney’s reprises his response, in Gaeltacht, to the newspaper photograph of himself and friends on a residential weekend (if we could see ourselves now, what would we be saying to each other?). Would the ‘real names’ of St Columb’s College be wearing a different ‘costume’? Would they possess the same nature as before? Heaney calls on the ’boy-men’ to mount the stage.

To the Shade of Zbigniew Herbert

Heaney addresses the memory of a Polish poet whom he respected greatly for his ‘exemplary ethical and artistic integrity, his noble profile, solidarity with the victims of history and poetic and thereby political strength’; Herbert became a bastion of resistance during turbulent periods of Polish occupation by the Russians. Active within the Polish Solidarity movement his hyperborean giant stature was unflinchingly set against repressive Soviet-controlled Marxist–Leninist occupiers.

Turpin Song

The poem is built around an emblematic eighteenth century horse-pistol that sat on a wall in the Heaney family home, long an object of interest to young Heaney and his siblings. Its mystery lay in the children’s confusion as to Dick Turpin and his story. Heaney recalls the weapon in great detail before recounting how he and the others dismantled the ‘don’t-you-dare-touch-it’ weapon one day, simply because they wanted to, and faced parental wrath.

Virgil: Eclogue IX

Heaney offers us his version of Virgil’s original.  He remains loyal to the original but weaves into his translation the subtleties of meaning he perceives, adding the alliterations, assonances, mood and rhythms that ensure that Virgil’s original ‘song’ remains pleasing to the ear.

The inclusion of the eclogue form in Electric Light is meaningful. There is much in Eclogue IX of 37BC that chimes with Irish experience and Heaney’s inner preoccupations 2000 years on: dispossession imposed on ordinary folk by diktat; the apparent  impotence of opposition and repression of the vox populi ; the role of poetry and the reluctance of poets/spokesmen to wade into the debate at the risk of their lives; the absence of public polemic figues in a Greek city-state world willing to stick their heads above the parapet.

The verses, poems, poets, singers and live performance, of such importance to Virgil’s protagonists, bear a striking resemblance with Heaney’s deplored loss of tradition within Irish communities (see, for example North’s ‘Last Mummer’).

Vitruviana  for Felim Egan

Heaney composes a three-poem sequence inspired by the Leonardo da Vinci Renaissance drawing of Vitruvian man with its lines and links, circles and arcs that sketch body movement.

In the first Heaney, his memory perhaps triggered by an old photo, catches himself in a Leonardo-style ‘geometrical’ pose on a boyhood splash in the sea at Portstewart; later PE training exercises at St Columb’s College took Heaney and his class mates into similar postures; his mind’s eye image connects with an 11th century depiction a Catholic saint in which the artist indicates divine intervention by a visible line.

Finally on Dublin’s Sandymount Strand a geometrical child’s plastic windmill provides the link to a beach scene painted Irish abstract artist Felim Egan who lived and worked there and to whom the poem is dedicated. Heaney demonstrates his unique ability to convey, in just four lines of verse, his own word-picture of what he sees and feels.

‘Would They Had Stay’d’

The five section sequence laments a clutch of Scottish poets all of whom have passed away in the period preceding Electric Light. Deer emerge as the unifying motif adopted to celebrate the creative force that his quartet of elegised poets have bequeathed to Gaelic and Scottish literature and heritage. Shakespeare’s three witches from Macbeth melt in and out of the narrative in their capacity to prophesy.

1 A couple on a Scottish visit chance upon Highland wildlife. ‘His’ sharp eye has spotted a quartet of elusive creatures hiding in the heather, camouflaged against the Highland background. Humans and creatures eye each other furtively, super-alert to each other’s presence.

2 Heaney summons the shade of Norman MacCaig  from the water meadows of an Oxford college with its own herd of deer, a riverside habitat far removed from creatures’ and poet’s Highland origin – understandably, perhaps, Heaney receives no response.

 3 Heaney commemorates Iain Crichton Smith via his piece ‘Deer on the high hills’. To Heaney’s mind Smith’s Gaelic identity was overtaken by English, the language in which he wrote. Ironically Heaney, whose home and poetic language was English, spent a lifetime pursuing and confirming his own Irish identity.

4 A single couplet depicts admired Gaelic poet Sorley Maclean rising above destructive reality. Maclean materialises as a Saharan illusion, a Highland icon in silhouette soldiering in North Africa amidst WWII chaos.

5 Heaney elegises Gaelic-speaking poet George Mackay Brown in the context of the island where the poet spent most of his life. Brown’s Gaelic pedigree went hand in hand with Orkney’s landscape and fauna, providing the richly textured past from which the poet was fashioned. Heaney links the finest Orcadian craftsmen with weaponry used a thousand years earlier in the Crusades in far-off Byzantium (modern-day Istanbul).

Stylistic devices

Translating ideas, notions, themes, that ‘something’ from the inner recess of the mind, into words involves first selection: words and phrases, the ‘mot juste’ and so on, then the weaving of these lexical items into the fabric of the piece. This weaving process is a means to multiple ends: flow, sound, rhythm, echo, emphasis and so on; part of the ‘tradecraft’ is drafting and redrafting text to achieve maximum impact in the finished product.

Published poetry, though not perhaps written for the reader, is there for the enjoyment and can be an intellectual challenge as well as a pleasure. Part of that enjoyment can legitimately include analysis of the style of the piece. What follows is a list of devices open to writers as part of their technique.

Whilst there might be no intrinsic value in spotting a particular device and knowing it by name, nevertheless it is good training. It helps the reader to be inquisitive and begs the question as to why the writer chose that particular device and to what end. We cannot always tease out the poet’s real intention but it is well worth trying!


‘a figure of speech is a way of talking or writing by which you say what you don’t mean and yet mean what you say. For example, ‘He blows his own trumpet’. You don’t mean he has a trumpet but you do mean that he blows it.  HUNT, Fresh Howlers (1930)


antithesis: an arrangement of contrasted words in corresponding places in contiguous phrases, to express a contrast of ideas;

chiasmus: the arrangement in parallel clauses of related terms in a reversed order, so AB BA as opposed to parallel order AB AB;

cliché: A phrase whose wording has become fixed, or almost fixed, as usage has given it a fixed meaning. Cliches commonly use a recognised literary device which eventually uses its power;

comparison: A statement that there is a likeness between things which can in fact be likened;

dual meaning: This when a word or phrase is used so as to be understood in two different meanings, both of which fit the sentence (e.g. a literal  and a symbolic meaning), and in order that the two meanings may be related with each other;

enjambment: The continuation of a sentence, in verse, into the following line. Traditionally an enjambement is permissible if the break is at the normal break in the syntax or at a normal break between breath groups. This happens more routinely outside those conditions in free verse;

enumeration: The arrangement of terms in succession, e.g. nouns in apposition, adverbs or adverbial phrases; economy of words is achieved. As a literary device enumerations can be used to add implications and rhythm to the subject matter, by grouping or gradation or even intentional incoherency;

euphemism: replacement of a distasteful by a more pleasant term, to refer to the same thing;

free indirect speech: the expression of what is spoken or thought without introductory words such as He said, ‘…’ or He said that.. In narrative FIS may be signalised by use of vocabulary appropriate to the character rather than the words of the author. Continuous FIS becomes ‘interior monologue;

hyperbole: the intentional use of an exaggerated term in place of the one more properly applicable, adding implications to the subject matter;

inversion: The reversal of the normal order of the members of a sentence, perhaps to avoid ambiguity or to bring certain words into stressed or key position or to modify the rhythm;

irony: The use of words containing a sufficient and apparently serious meaning in themselves, but conveying also, intentionally, to a more initiated person a further, generally opposed meaning; frequently the first meaning is laudatory or untenable;

litotes: intentional understatement inviting the reader to rectify. Frequently a negative expression;

metaphor: an expression which refers to a thing or action by means of a term for a quite different thing or action, related to it, not by any likeness in fact but by an imagined analogy which the context allows;

A simile uses words like ‘like’ or ‘as…as’. Metaphors and similes have 2 terms: the thing meant and the thing ‘imported’ as a means of expressing, by analogy, what is meant. Personification is a form of metaphor.

This substitution of words has wide uses: ornament, implication, overtone. Its use may be regarded as a special means of revealing hidden truth.

Apart from enriching the thought by a device of form and enhancing the reader’s contact with the author, metaphors and similes may be significant or characteristic because of their reiterated suggestion of a writer’s preoccupations or his processes of thought.

metonymy: the use of a word in place of another with which it is associated in meaning;

objective-subjective: ‘objective’ – expressing reality as it is or attempting to do so; the reality of events or things is regarded as ‘external’. The reality may mental or emotional experience, examined rather than evoked. ‘Subjective’- expressing a version of reality in which it is modified by emotion or preconceived belief; or expressing conscious or subconscious experiences of states of mind;

oxymoron: the juxtaposition of contradictory or incongruous terms, understood as a paradox;

paradox: a statement or implication expressed so as to appear inconsistent with accepted belief, or absurd, or exaggerated, but intended to be realised by the reader as an acceptable or important truth, in some respect; often placed as a conclusion; in a paradox there is often a word which  cries out for redefinition;

pathetic fallacy: ascribing human traits or feelings to inanimate nature, corresponding with those being experienced by a character or ‘voice’;

periphrasis: the expression of a meaning by more words than are strictly necessary or expected, so that additional implications are brought in;

porte-manteau word: a deliberate mixture of 2 words into one retaining both meanings: ‘’a bestpectable gentleman’, respectable guy wearing glasses!

preciosity: aiming at or affecting refinement or distinction in expression; avoiding vulgar phrases; visibly introducing greater care in expression; using this precision, formal arrangement of words, difficult combinations of ideas, allusions and puns in the hope of revealing truths not to be expressed in plain and simple terms; exaggerating this so that, for example an ‘armchair’ might become a ‘commodity for conversation’!

repetition: expressing a meaning or an attitude by implication, through the deliberate use of a word or phrase a second time;

symbol: a term for an object representing, conventionally or traditionally, an abstraction;

synecdoche: the use of a word denoting a ‘part’ in place of the word for the whole, so ‘100 sails’ meaning ‘100 ships’;

synesthesia: the representation of a sensation or image belonging to one of the five senses by words proper to another (‘loud tie’; Disney’s ‘Fantasia’);

zeugma:  providing syntactical economy of words by using one word with dual possibility so that two meanings are taken separately – ‘he took his hat and his leave’.


Join the Conversation - Leave a comment