Bann Valley Eclogue

Reading Virgil’s Eclogue IV (of 42 BC) Heaney spotted correspondences with the contemporary situation in Ireland 2000 years on. The poetic charge he felt resulted in an eclogue of his own, transposing the original into a contemporary Irish setting and focussing on the elusiveness of renewal. Whilst 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. Their exchanges are conducted with due respect and deference.

Heaney defines the seriousness of his eclogue using Virgil’s opening lines: Sicelides Musae, paulo malora canamus (‘Sicilian Muses, let us sing of more important matters’).

His Bann Valley Eclogue is designed as a song worth singing that rises like the curtain in the hope of something very momentous proceeding from Old Testament utterances pointing to life’s fate-ridden forward momentum (and it came to pass) and things that brought the ‘world’ to any given point (in the beginning).

VIRGIL provides the counselling voice (my hedge-schoolmaster) from whom POET wishes to learn. Beyond the eclogue’s standard peripatetic outdoor setting , Heaney casts a first stone at historical sectarianism: secret schools known as hedge schools (‘scoileanna scairte’) were set up from 1695 in acts of active disobedience of strict Protestant laws in Ireland which forbade Catholics from setting up schools or from sending their children abroad to school.

POET announces a child that’s due and his hope that, Christian-era heavens permitting, better times for her and her generation are in prospect.

VIRGIL’s experience of ancient Greek city-states chimes with POET’s contemporary circumstances. He sets out the cornerstones that determine positive societal outcomes: Carmen, ordo, nascitur, saeculum, gens clarifying them (their gist in your tongue) for POET’s Irish province: public creative voices of messages in song (carmen/poetry); the need for laws regulating public behaviour and obedience to authority (order), the possibility of redemption through new birth (nascitur), the spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by its events and beliefs (times), the ideals, shared or otherwise, of its citizens (nation) The infant, boosted by the Augean-Stables cleansing effect of the Bann’s water, will be instrumental in removing the stink of history (flooding away all the old miasma).

Recognizing the historic wrong that catapulted Catholics and Protestants, nationalists and loyalists into conflict culminating in the Troubles VIRGIL pulls no punches as regards the resultant stain: self-inflicted (you rubbed it into yourselves), intrinsically Irish (earth mark) and irremovable (birth mark) … its blood-stained mould as indelible as the memory of Romulus’s murder of his twin Remus that pitched the Roman world into civil war.

The breaking of the mother’s waters and the overflowing Bann waters will team up to wash away historical boundaries (old markings) separating predominantly Catholic west Ulster from predominantly Protestant East Ulster and the Irish Republic to the west and south of Ulster, creating a new order of shared care: washed like the new baby.

The ink on the Good Friday ‘peace’ Agreement of 1998 is barely dry … POET is not convinced that peace can be achieved overnight (Pacatum orbem: your words are too much – though he might be cautiously optimistic  – nearly), nor that such things are conceivably possible in the world he has been accustomed to (even orb by itself).

To POET superstitious omens seemed stacked against such hopes and expectations: last month, at noon – eclipse … eerie consequences (wind dropped … millenniaI chill … birdless and dark) casting doubt over the significance of the baby. However the prospect of a deliverer, a messianic  alpha (firstness steadied) and omega (lastness), to spark growing consciousness amongst the population (born awareness) of something remarkable (as name dawned into knowledge) was reason to be converted (I saw the orb).

VIRGIL cuts to the chase – ‘forget the supernatural (eclipses won’t be for this child) … this sky-born child’ will live a pure and simple infancy on an Irish farm (the pram hood over her vestal head), her humble pram wheels will be embellished by a tangle of Irish natural beauty (big dog daisies …  fanked up in the spokes). What she hears will be the sound of healthy Irish agricultural practices (the chug and slug going on in the milking parlour) and not recent close gunfire or explosions so destructive of the past.

Memory of POET’s annual chore on St Patrick’s mornings springs involuntarily to his mind – his boyhood search along the railway track for a disregarded emblem of all-Ireland (little trefoil), peerless (untouchable), transcending division. The St Patrick’s Day shamrock – ubiquitous (all over the place), unifying (twining, binding) and doggedly invasive (creepery, tough, thin roots) that brings awareness that it has not yet unified (dew- scales shook off the leaves) and unquenchable tears to POET’s eyes (tear-ducts asperging).

POET addresses the child on the way , about to land among us, born of an earth mother whose fertility matches the abundance of Irish landscape around (showing signs, out for her sunset walk among big round bales): ‘Planet earth around you floats within the grand scale of things’ (hangs by its world-chain), he tells the child, ‘visible to you even within the microcosm of your pram’ (Iike a teething ring suspended).

Time is on hold: your pram waits in the corner … life goes on (cows are let out) … daily farming routine occupies itself with cleansing and renewal: they’re sluicing the milk-house floor.

  • Background: in Eclogue IV, Virgil’s muses celebrate the imminent birth of a boy child fathered by Jupiter; the Cumaean sibyl has prophesied that the boy will bring a period of intense civil strife to an end and usher in a Golden Age in which traces of past evil will be overcome. The boy will enjoy a divine, ‘sky-born’ status, ruling via the heroic example of his father. Domestic goats and cattle will thrive and agriculture prosper – indeed the baby’s cradle will drip with flowers. Lurking remnants of past wrongs will reignite sporadically but in the long term the new age will deliver comprehensive self-sufficiency within an Arcadian pastoral paradise. The child is marked by fate – but his smile to his mother will require a mother’s return-smile if he is to receive the continued support of the gods.
  • Ireland, not Greece: Heaney’s child will be a girl born not of a mythological god but of a mother bearing all the hallmarks of an unsophisticated Irish earth-mother. Heaney’s girl child is confidently predicted to bring about a feminine peace, in part, perhaps, because Heaney feels the need to counter the uncontrollable male aggression at the root of most armed conflicts. Moreover, the ‘aisling’ vision and dream poems written in the Gaelic tradition portray Ireland as a woman and in his North collection of 1975 (Ocean’s Love to Ireland) Heaney portrays the island as a ‘ruined maid’ raped by Elizabethan invasion; in Act of Union his female speaker is ‘the tall kingdom over your shoulder’ open neither to seduction nor force by Britain. If history has spawned the Troubles from which after nearly thirty years Ulster is emerging with enhanced optimism, then Virgil IV will have acted as a visionary spur to Bann Valley Eclogue.
  • Defining sympathies: it is worth suggesting that, in reflecting Heaney’s sympathy for the minority Catholic cause in Ulster the piece may actually be testing to the limit the poet’s nature and instincts that avoid openly revealing his hopes for the island of Ireland as a whole.
  • eclogue: short pastoral poem, usually in dialogue, on the subject of rural life and the society of shepherds;  depicting rural life;  largely free of but not exempt from the complexity and corruption of the world around. The Roman poet Virgil (70–19 BC) adopted the form for his 10 Eclogues, or Bucolics. Eclogue IV was written around 42 BC. The exact meaning of the poem is still debated; modern interpretations tend to shy away from imagining the child as a specific person and could be seen metaphorically as Virgil’s poetry; some felt it was messianic;
  • Bann Valley: the Lower Bann flows northwards out of Loch Neagh towards Coleraine and enters the Atlantic Ocean a little further on; in this piece Heaney views the river valley as a symbolic borderland between sectarian zones;
  • DOD p 135 To Heaney the Bann Valley had both a political and archaeological significance: There was always a lot of talk at school about the Bann Drainage Scheme in the 1920s, about the flints and scrapers found in the mud of the banks. There were even flints in a cupboard in the master’s classroom at Anahorish Primary School;
  • muse: any one of 9 goddesses in Greek and Roman mythology who presided over the Arts and Sciences; by extension a source of inspiration to the creative spirit;
  • And it came to pass: phrase appearing liberally in the Old Testament appropriate to describe the different events of earthly history and the varied phases of earthly experience; things that happen then move on;
  • In the beginning: first phrase in the Bible’s Old Testament; reference to how the world began and how people came to inhabit it;
  • hedge: a boundary formed by closely growing bushes; see also the hedge school reference explained in the narrative
  • due: about to be born (note nascitur ‘is born’);
  • tongue: language;
  • province: both geographical area and area of knowledge/ experience;
  • renewal: repair, regeneration;
  • flooded away: washed away by copious water;
  • miasma: from Greek ‘noxious vapours’ rising from the ground and considered injurious to health;
  • stain: mark not easily removed (note ‘blood-stained’ guilty of slaughter);
  • birthmark: permanent skin blemish that one was born with;
  • mould: fungal growth difficult to remove permanently from surfaces;
  • Romulus: co-founder of Rome with twin brother Remus whose love-hate relationship boiled over into fratricide; Remus was allegedly killed by his brother after jumping over the earthworks destined to become Rome’s city walls;
  • ditchback: Ulster usage describing a natural location adjacent to water-courses;
  • waters: juxtaposition of river flow and amniotic fluid discharge preceding childbirth;
  • markings: evidence (of political boundaries, patterns of behaviour);
  • Pacatum orbem: line 17 of the original text reads pacatumque reget patriis virtutibus orbem ‘a world pacified by the virtuous deeds of the (child’s) father’;
  • orb: spherical globe by extension earth;
  • eclipse: reference to the total solar eclipse of August 11, 1999 that affected the UK at around noon; considered as a bad omen in many cultures; the reference sets the poem’s composition in September 1999;
  • firstness: word with philosophical connotations suggestive of something/someone of elemental, origin that will take on explicit qualities; lastness: what the firstness becomes/ stands for;
  • steadied: calm, pacified;
  • vestal: chaste, pure;
  • fank up: (Ulster usage) entangle, knot;
  • chug and slug: assonant representation of repeated muffled sound and percussive thump;
  • trefoil: triple-lobed plant e.g. shamrock, the national emblem of Ireland;
  • twine: entangle strongly;
  • bind: both enwrap tightly (of roots) and unite or bond (disparate groups);
  • creepery: Heaney neologism based on notion of growth and invasive take-over;
  • sleeper: wooden beam supporting a railway-track;
  • scale: small plates to be found, for example, on a fish or pine cone; ‘scales falling from the eyes’ suggests an unexpected discovery;
  • tear-duct: internal facial passage linking tears and eye;
  • asperge: (not generally recognised as a verb) allusion to holy water sprinkled at the beginning of Mass;
  • land: arrive from the sky, alight;
  • bale: large, packaged bundle of hay:
  • teething ring: for an infant to bite on as teeth emerge painfully through the gums;
  • pram: 4-wheeled baby carriage;
  • sluice: wash, swill away with water;


  • a reworked version of the poem, ‘The Child That’s Due’ which omitted the 2nd and 3rd voices and added the following stanza that clarified Virgil’s original smile reference and stands as a symbol of more cheerful times:       

                 We know, little one, you have to start with a cry/ But smile soon too, a big one for your mother./Unsmiling life has had it in for people/ For far too long. But you have it in you/ Not to be wrong-footed but to first-foot us/ And, muse of the valley, give us a song worth singing.

Heaney had been commissioned to write a piece in support of the “Save the Bog Campaign” and recited it on Radio Telefis Eireann on the Millennium’s eve.

  • Latin epigram confirms classical ingredients; eclogue format;
  • dialogue in 5 parts; 1 starting with an apostrophe/ vocative addressed to the Bann Muses, lyrical, enjambed; 2 ‘schoolmaster’ speaker more serious and moralistic; 3 weaves in Latin components; vocabulary of superstition and omen linked to quasi-Christian references; 4 assertive Virgil resets the Mediterranean lyricism of his original settings bang in the middle of the Irish landscape; 5 in two parts: strongly emotional anecdote from childhood; final apostrophe, (Oh) Child welcoming signs that birth is imminent … aisling notion;
  • sections of 6 or 12 lines, 42 in all; almost 30 completed sentences;
  • uneven line length based around 12/13 syllables;
  • allusion to Hercules who diverted the river Alpheus to flood away the gathered excreta in the king’s stables to effect progress; reference to the Troubles that have threatened normal life even in rural areas – yet life will go on;
  • macro and micro: solar system and camera zoom the farmyard within it;
  • intrinsic Irishness of landscape and folk;
  • sky-born child/ earth mother;
  • Irish usage ‘fanked’;
  • assonant and alliterative effects interwoven ‘earth mark, birth mark’ … ‘Muses/ us/ singing/rises’…’mould/overflow/old’…’cows/out/house’…’chug and slug’etc;
  • 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:
  • syllables without highlight are largely the unstressed sound as in common, little [ə]

  • 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 sentence assembles alveolar plosives [t] [d]  nasals [m] [n], alongside sibilant variants [s] [z],velar [k] [g]  and front-of-mouth sounds: bilabials [p][b], alveolar [l] and breathy [h] and [w];
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;

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