Seeing Things published by Faber & Faber in 2001 is Seamus Heaney’s tenth collection. He is in his early sixties.

The book demonstrates the erudition and vitality of his earlier poems and adds a ‘literary’ strand and an elegiac strand that break the Heaney mould.

Electric Light and subsequent collections over more than half a century confirm Heaney’s place at the very top of the premier league of 20th century poets writing in English and provide a hugely rich legacy and archive following the poet’s relatively sudden untimely death in August 2013 at the age of 74.

The textual commentaries that follow seek to tease out what Heaney’s poems are intimating in Electric Light. It must be appreciated that Heaney was writing to fulfil his writerly aspirations at different stages in his eventful life; his ‘messages’ started life as essentially personal ones, not intended primarily for his reader; accordingly, and especially in the case of Electric Light there are moments when some serious spadework is required to provide the inquisitive reader with quick and ready access to otherwise time-consuming research. In the case of a poet as accomplished, complex and focused as Heaney, the rewards for persevering are at once enriching, fortifying and hugely pleasurable.

There are issues, too, beyond ‘the text, the whole text and nothing but the text’: there is the question of ‘style’, that is the combination of language and poetic devices deliberately selected by the poet to carry his narrative forward; then there is the matter of Heaney’s appeal to the ear, the poem intended as a song to be heard and enjoyed or, to the mind’s eye, a picture to be ‘seen’ and felt. These issues are explored in individual commentaries and summarised at the end.

Introductory notes, textual surveys and footnotes are largely personal. The approach is not calculated to promote any particular viewpoint.

In support of students whose first language may not be English, definitions are designed to be as helpful as possible.

The commentaries are enriched from the source below:

Dennis O’Driscoll:  ‘Stepping Stones, Interviews with Seamus Heaney’ published by Faber 2008 (DOD)

Selective Chronology

1995 The Heaneys holiday in Greece with Dimitri and Cynthia Hadzi; notice of the Nobel Prize reaches them in Pylos; Heaney begins work on his translation of Beowulf;

1996 Heaney attends the memorial service for Joseph Brodsky in New York;

1997 Publication of The School Bag anthology coedited with Ted Hughes; second journey to Greece;

1998 Death of Ted Hughes;

1999 publication of Heaney’s translation of Beowulf;

2000 Beowulf wins Whitbread Book of the Year; Heaney attends a St Patrick’s Day party in the White House at the invitation of President Bill Clinton; reads from Beowulf in Denmark on the reputed site of Hrothgar’s hall

Meeting a never ending challenge

A full-time freelance poet since the early 70s, at the top of his profession since 1995 and into his tenth collection Heaney has clearly succeeded in securing a constant supply of material in order to fulfil his writerly needs, to meet publishing deadlines, to appeal to a world-wide host of devotees and to present his work in fresh and innovative ways.

He has everything on his side – intellect, a photographic memory, imagination, powers of observation, single-mindedness, a work ethic instilled in him by family and school plus that rare genius that sets apart the very top performers in the creative arts … be it a Mozart or a Heaney.

Heaney’s poetry does not stand as the archetype of single style.  His BBC Obituary of 30th August 2013 leaves that in no doubt: Heaney was a translator, broadcaster and prose writer of distinction, but his poetry was his most remarkable achievement, for its range, its consistent quality and its impact on readers: love poems, epic poems, poems about memory and the past, poems about conflict and civil strife, poems about the natural world, poems addressed to friends, poems that found significance in the everyday or delighted in the possibilities of the English language.

Themes and motifs spring up at intervals, moderated and disciplined by new forms or adapted to a new aesthetic; the prevailing mind-set is influenced by events and experiences within each given period.

Heaney’s versatility as a wordsmith, his accumulating technical sophistication and emotional outreach give him a constant edge. Clarity, balance and transparency of ‘message’ are watchwords. His poetic dynamic stretches from the finest delicacy to exceptional power and transmits a vast range of modes from violence to sensuality. Hence, perhaps, Heaney’s remarkable assurance (even as he expresses his own vulnerability as man and poet) and his remarkable artistic effect.

His rural origins, classical education, closeness to destructive sectarian forces in his own backyard, his solid family relations and Irishness, his globetrotting, all of these contributed to a unique collection of experiences with which to create his distinctive compositional language. His rare ability enables him to craft subtle changes in instrumentation, orchestration and tone colour from describing lyrical beauty to bringing out psychological and emotional states in others and himself.

All very well, you might say, but as an inquisitive reader I should love to know where the poems of Electric Light start and why at any particular point in time … whether ideas spring up or are invited it in …how quickly Heaney seizes items with poetic charge … how the unifying factors of a collection emerge.

‘the light of a more distanced and more informed consciousness’

In an article he sent to The Guardian on line of Saturday 16th June 2001 Heaney did his very best to explain how it works for him.

In the case of Electric Light he had reached the point of choosing the collection’s title. The Real Names might have fitted the bill: what happens in the poem of that title is what’s happening throughout the book. Incidents from childhood and adolescence and the recent past swim up into memory: moments that were radiant or distressful at the time come back in the light of a more distanced and more informed consciousness.

The majority of poems in Heaney’s earlier Seeing Things collection (1991) follow a deliberate ‘method’ of revisiting primary experience, re-sifting it in the light of time and experience and crediting the ‘marvels’ missed first time round. This is no longer the case in Electric Light but the differences in approach bring the reader one step closer to an understanding of how distance and information influence poetic outcomes.

In answer to questions as to how the poetry emerges Heaney uses an angling image: he is the man fishing in a pond of hard-wired memory, casting a series of fishing lines from the circumference of your whole understanding towards intuitions and images down there in the memory pool.

The remembered things he is seeking do not always take the bait but if you’re lucky, you feel life moving at the other end of the line. In fishing parlance Heaney strikes to secure his fish-memory and reels in. What follows is routine (a chain reaction of words and associations). The ‘yes, yes, yes’ excitement he feels now needs his uniquely personal spring-board (the whole of your acquired knowledge and understanding, your cultural memory and literary awareness) to throw up a shape that will match and make sense of your excitement.

In her review of Electric Light Helen Vendler sets it in layman’s terms: 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.

Heaney revealed that in Electric Light he would accommodate the poetically charged stuff that surfaced in the same session within a single piece and keep his fingers crossed that that things would coalesce into something that met his approval and would be understood by his readership. 

In many of the poems, however – “Out of the Bag”, “The Loose Box”, “Known Word”, “The Real Names”, the poem in memory of Ted Hughes, the title poem, and several others – it was not a single shape that was thrown, but several. Different sections of the poems represent the different casts made. The pleasure of doing it that way was in following each new impulse, finding and trusting approaches that allowed both oneself and the subject to stretch their wings. The risk was that the poem might then range too freely beyond the reader’s ken – but it still seemed a risk worth taking.

(the poem) ‘Electric Light” is a case in point,’ said Heaney in his Guardian article. ‘The first and third sections are probably straightforward enough: I don’t say that the old woman is my grandmother, but there are clues to show that she is ancient, archetypal and central to the family. The risk is in trusting that the reader will go with the middle section, which is an evocation of my first trips to London, by ferry and train, but is also meant to suggest a journey into poetic vocation. It should signal a connection between the strange and slightly literary word “ails”, spoken by the sibylline grandmother to the distressed child, and the aspiring poet’s sense of historical and literary England, seen first from the train window and then deliberately sought out in the Southwark of Chaucer’s Tabard Inn and Shakespeare’s Globe.’

Professor Vendler sums up Heaney’s formatting : increasingly, Heaney has found that an expansive sequence ranging over a wide terrain is the right vehicle for such memory-layers … this provided the poet with  charged recollection … ‘Where negative ions in the open air/are poetry to me’ (Toomebridge).

Heaney remains the same basic human being meeting his professional challenges

Beyond the exceptional poetic figure he cuts both at home and abroad and world acclaim in the shape of his Nobel Prize for Literature of 1995 Heaney remains normal flesh and blood at heart, subject to the daily ups and downs of health and mood, with busy schedules to meet and bills to pay, responding in as balanced and open-minded a way as his nature dictates to events and situations that mark his existence, some of them fixed in the past, others changing as things unfolded, some banging for attention, others relatively workaday, many of them attracting his lyric attention.

Periodic changes of dynamic bring changes of poetic frequency

Heaney is producing collections at approximately five yearly intervals. Within each of the interim periods events occur that impose a fresh complexion on things, some bringing pleasure, others causing distress to his extraordinary sensibility. Changing social trends, the sudden unexpected event and personal dynamics suggest to Heaney’s creative spirit  the need for a fresh approach, a retuning of poetic ‘frequency’.

In the title poem Heaney describes his discovery, when he was very young of the electricity-powered radio and his ability to retune it at will across worldwide frequencies. The image helps explain the differences between successive collections visible to his most canny readers.

Seeing Things (1991) 

The collection’s thought-provoking title carried the twin possibility of revelation and disillusion. Heaney set himself the challenge of revisiting primary experience’, sifting through it with fresh eyes and crediting the marvels he failed to notice first time round. He hoped that the coincidental spiritual refreshment and self-awareness would bring him to a moment of epiphany… when he could genuinely say he was ‘in step with what escaped me’. The model worked very effectively.

Spirit Level (1996)

Heaney is in search of balance – political developments suddenly offered grounds for optimism to the vast majority people on both sides of the sectarian divide in Ulster who were heartily sick after 25 years of conflict. However frail the 1994 cessation of hostilities might have seemed in the early days it impacted on Heaney’s creative spirit as he gathered the poems of The Spirit Level together. The message that emerges is clear enough: persistence and tenacity are required to oppose things that trample on the human spirit. Heaney’s mental strength also finds ways to raise him above other spirit-denting events: the human condition and the passing of loved ones, tradition overtaken by progress, sickness and incapacity.

Electric Light (2001) produces a wholly new frequency.

As the book approached publication stage the poet felt the need to point out …  ‘I am in my sixties ‘ he said ‘ and a sense of elegy comes creeping in’. Little surprise, perhaps, that the 38 poems that make up Electric Light include a host of elegiac pieces for family, friends, poets and academics who have been important to him.

That said, Heaney’s poetry sits very firmly on the side of life…  it is bathed with the light of love, empathy and compassion that echoes his Catechism Gloss  –‘ my neighbour’ he says, ‘is all mankind’ … hence, perhaps, the collection’s shining title.

Heaney had toyed with the idea of entitling it ‘The Real Names’ in celebration of real people and real-life incidents, both radiant and distressful , that swam up into memory.  However, composing the title poem ‘Electric Light’ settled the issue – the brightness of his maternal Grannie’s home and permanent electricity supply at the flick of a switch alongside the serenity of a dying father’s smile in Seeing the Sick chimed perfectly with the ‘lux perpetua’ of classical Requiem … ‘let perpetual light shine upon them’ … cementing his tributes in the eternal present of his poems.

Heaney took in his stride everything life threw at him … the pleasurable Greek holiday interrupted by news of his Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995 is celebrated in the Hellas sonnets … vignettes from the cradle of western civilisation …  a Greece of milk and honey that gorged both Heaney’s thirst for culture and his sensory appetites … classical sites and celebrities spring up all over the place. A flash of open defiance, too, on the infamous occasion Heaney barged past a human No Entry guardian to force entry to the Castalian Spring.

He pens episodes from boozy adventures at Struga Poetry Festivals and journeys in the wider Balkans to discover political struggle and strongly-held  religious feeling that he has met on Ulster soil … closer to home three stretches of the routes of Northern Spain lead him from Gijon’s fiery furnaces and tantrums to spiritual uplift and replenishment further west towards echoing Compostela – stela – stela.

To Heaney’s sorrow the period witnessed the passing of poets and scholars important to him; thus he pens a final poem of respect (in the style of WH Auden) for the ‘exhilarating’ company of fellow Nobel Laureate, Joseph Brodsky following it, with a warm tribute to Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert for his  ‘exemplary ethical and artistic integrity’.

The genesis of Electric Light competed for time with Heaney’s masterful translation of the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf. He ingeniously links the passive suffering of deceased friend and Poet Laureate Ted Hughes after Sylvia Plath’s death with Beowulf’s King Hrethel whose Geat code of honour punished the accidental death of one son with the execution of his sole surviving son for fratricide.

Beowulf crops up too in ‘The Border Campaign’ that juxtaposes the violence of IRA campaigns in the Irish borderlands  and Beowulf’s Danes eager to satisfy  themselves that the evil Grendel monster is dead.

Would They had Stay’d’ laments a clutch of Scottish poets writing in Gaelic whose deaths occurred in the period  … allegorised as a herd of deer in the Highland heather they emerge one by one to receive Heaney’s approbation.

The Eclogue genre with its melancholy songs and passive suffering fits well with Electric Light; Heaney has spotted correspondences with the Irish scene. He translates Virgil’s Eclogue 9 and adds two variations of his own –  Bann Valley Eclogue forecasts the arrival of an ‘aisling’ figure,  a girl-child born of an Irish mother heralding renewal whilst in Glanmore Eclogue Heaney walks beside a hibernocentric figure and ends the piece with an exuberant Gaelic-derived celebration of summer and Irish patrimony. All three eclogues celebrate songs, music and poetry as raisers of spirit . They also regret that, as they age, the songsters slowly lose their marbles!

Heaney’s wife Marie is central to pretty much everything in his life: ‘Red, White and Blue’ portrays her as the star jiver of 1960s’ student gigs … as the girl most likely to thumb down cars for free lifts … as the medieval chatelaine in the labour ward whose knight was sent packing and nicknamed himself Sir Cowardice for not insisting on being present at the birth.

The Clothes Shrine crackles with sexual electricity as Marie and Irish workhorse-turned-saint, Brigid, work their magic; out on the road Marie is the driver who sits patiently behind the wheel when some passing scene has fuelled Heaney’s creative juices.

Heaney paints endearing,  self-deprecating sketches of himself … the toddler permitted to experiment with new-fangled electric switches … the literal interpreter of his mother’s suggestion that all nine of the Heaney offspring came from Dr Kerlin’s medical bag … his starlit moment in the Mossbawn farmyard when the notion of a lifelong poetic journey first took root … his own body in the sea at Portstewart …  posed to fit Leonardo’s Renaissance drawing of the perfect anatomy … himself play-acting on the barn roof at home in the days preceding his interest in School drama… himself dealing with mixed ability youngsters as a short-term Secondary teacher with endless compassion.

Electric Light is at its most spellbinding when Heaney conjures up his Real Names those true-to-life individuals –students, teachers, the caretaker who shared his time at school – some are still alive in 2001, others have passed away or are simply off–radar.

‘If only we could meet now’, he is saying, ‘think of the tales would we have to tell each other?’

The spotlight focuses initially on the St Columbs’ Dramatic Society which produced the annual Shakespeare plays in which Heaney appeared … but it also picks out areas where he was less than keen … PE drills … the cacophony made by ‘bereaved’ students heard wrecking their piano scales … or boarders like he was, kicking their heels around the corridors, drawing faces on steamed-up windows and feeling exiled from their families.  The collection includes a heart rending tribute to the dead son of Desmond Kavanagh whom Heaney met on his very first day at St Columb’s in 1951.

A second set of young people attended Irish-learning schools in County Donegal’s Gaeltacht with Heaney in the late 1950s… images of friendships were conjured up by a newspaper photograph …  some of them later married and survivors still talked fondly of him … Sruth eulogizes a deceased woman he first met in the breac-Gaeltacht  … her childhood imagination filled to overflowing with tales of Irish fairies and folklore and trying to draw him in.

The final poems portray the earlier generation: his father Patrick who had appeared in the very first poem of Death of a Naturalist…  pictured close to death … once a canny farmer and cattle-dealer confounded now by dementia yet still smiling serenely thanks to the morphine that took his pain away.

Finally the title poem, in which a desperate child consigned for the first time by absentee mother and her sisters to his grandmother’s overnight care is scared by her deformed thumb-nail and made more homeless by her archaic language … it was in the same home that Heaney’s first experienced electricity on demand … and far ahead, beyond St Columb’s lay the holiday-job that would take him to London and the landmarks of both English Literature and the local club-scene.

Electric Light shines down on a panoply of events and personalities over half a century. Regarded by some as Heaney’s most ‘literary’ collection it requires background research to tune into the full magic of Heaney’s poetic frequencies.

‘Electric light shone over us’

Heaney explained his reason for the collection’s title: At several places in the collection, a brightness of other days falls from the classical air, from the imagined weather of Virgil’s Eclogues and from the actual skies above sites in the Pelopponese and other legendary parts of Greece. And some of that brightness casts its beams even farther north, to shine on the Bann Valley on the eve of the third millennium, or to turn a rented smallholding in Co Wicklow at the end of the 20th century into the equivalent of a farm in the Mantuan countryside, confiscated and resettled on the eve of the first.                                                                                  

Once I settled on the title, Electric Light, I began to see what I hadn’t seen before, that there was light all over the place, from the shine on the weir in the very first poem to the “reprieving light” of my father’s smile in the penultimate line of the penultimate poem in the book. from Heaney’s Guardian article of Sat 16th Jun 2001 

  • the bringer of visibility to the poetic eye and heart – bright light, subdued light, growing light, waning light, light struggling against the dark, light overcoming obstacles;
  • the eminently usable motif that for Heaney extends the range of English language possibilities … from luminosity and illumination to interpretation and understanding;
  • rarely totally absent even in darkness or dream;
  • light possessing countless synonyms and myriad adjectives to describe its nuanced effect on the eye and the emotions;
  • Electricity on demand: the newly installed domestic miracle in 1940s’ Mid Ulster.

‘light all over the place’

  • in poems describing the natural world: the flowing waters over the weir at Toomebridge fallen shining into the continuous/ present of the Bann;
  • onto previous memory (slime and silver of the fattened eel);
  • we are treated to the deflected, refracted light of Perch: alder dapple and waver;
  • the pastels of Lupins like pink-fingered dawn producing shades of sifting lightness to the point in autumn when no colour remains (blanched);
  • the allegorical representation of socialist Finland produces industrial estuary lights, spiritual, angelic white wings and emblematic flowers;
  • on landscapes vitalized by creature-life – Heaney, parked at Ballynahinch Lake in the spring-cleaning light of Connemara is held by its captivating brightness of in the grey blur nuances of Sandymount Strand  filtering down to earth.
  • Light shines out of poems recalling the past: Out of the Bag reflects snappy dress and medical hygiene (Dutch interior gleam of waistcoat satin and highlights on the forceps …white and chill of tiles … chrome surgery tools);
  • Heaney’s childhood cowboy hero from Montana takes his ease in a scene suffused with mid-Ulster sunlight; the underwhelming Nativity Jesus-child (gloss and chill) of Loose Box is posed amidst the fairy lights; in the same sequence the fiery pyre-high Aztec priests of Thomas Hardy’s feed oblations to his raving thresher and finally the historical Michael Collins’ reckless childhood antics play out amidst the dazzle of pollen scarves;
  • The Real Names focuses initially on the stage-lighting of St Columb’s school productions, followed by Shakespearean lantern carriers, starlit portent (a light that sparked upon seeing Charles’ Wain) and community closeness, the perpetual (light) visible in the sparks from a neighbour’s chimney;
  • Jim Logue, St Columb’s College caretaker in Bodies ans Souls was the brush-toting glimmerman of dorms; Mossbawn’s farmyard ‘queen’ tree with its corona top of flick and shimmer summoned her willow vassal sto confirm the drowning of a tragic Shakespearean heroine in the Moyola; finally from the early student night scene of London’s Earl’s Court the phosphorescent mark that guaranteed re-admittance to pub and club;
  • Light shines upon classical sites and foreign travels: Out of the Bag takes Heaney to the pre-tourist sunlight of Epidaurus, at noon (very eye of the day) and hope of a moment of divine visitation – Hygeia in her haven of light.
  • Known World reflects Balkan underwater purity (coral floor of Lake Ohrid), recalls a post-prandial siesta that stretched until sunset; Little Canticles distinguish between the infernal night-framed burning valley of Gijon and the flame posies … airborne fire-ships of its furnaces and the golden cargo of the Asturian harvest; amidst the opulent nature of Sonnets from Hellas, sunken paths are embellished by high-gloss horse-chestnuts, the recumbent poet of Pylos is invigorated by the whitewashed light of morning that flashed on ceiling;
  • In the eclogue poems the Irish earth mother of Bann Valley Eclogue who will bear the child of renewal is out on her sunset walk; Eclogue IX is rife with dark issues of confiscation and resettlement (how Irish-historical) yet its culminating song paints nature meshing shade with light as its songster recalls serenading the slow sun down to rest; Glanmore Eclogue salutes summery Augusta (for the bounteous loan of her cottage) and POET’s song salutes the unique beauty of the Wicklow landscape (yellow-blossoming whinsbogbanks shine) and life at its finest (summer, shimmer, perfect days).
  • The Fragment from Heaney’s translation epic poem Beowulf links the rising sun (light from the east) with the change from pagan to Christian (bright guarantee of God).
  • an ambiguous light figures in poems introducing conflict or civil strife: the Balkan political refugees of Known World gaze through an open door at sunlight in search of paradise lost; the upper-crust Rolls-Royce driver of Red, White and Blue recalls the burning of Irish properties; Heaney pictures the driver’s lady wife in the lamplight of some coaching inn summoning her ardent courtly-lover to service her needs.
  • Light shines post mortem through poems addressed to the society of dead poets: in On His Work in the English Tongue (linking both Ted Hughes and the anonymous Anglo-Saxon author of Beowulf) the private place where Heaney gathers his thoughts is open to the light, its as-if-listening railway tracks shining in silence; the Highland deer of Would They Had Stay’d stand stock  still (the step of light … halted mid-light); George Mackay Brown’s deer glittered by the water; Late in the Day produces light in monastery darkness (quill pen feathered itself with a miraculous light) to illuminate the monk’s work (ink-gleam and quill-shine); David Thomson author of Nairn in Darkness and in Light’s suffers an eye condition that all but deprives him of sight; Arion a miraculous Pushkin survivor like Heaney and Thomson lives to dry his wet clothes in the sun.
  • Light embellishes poems of love and family: The Clothes Shrine offers the seductive shimmer of light, white muslin and nylon slip in the shine of its own electricity; next to it is strung St Brigid’s magic clothes-line (a ray of sun), the task of a Catholic workhorse made light of … got through brilliantly; in Red, White and Blue, Marie Heaney in labour lies on the high berg of the bed; dismissed from the delivery room Heaney becomes the Knight of the White Feather turning tail; Seeing the Sick highlights the reprieving light of the dying Patrick Heaney’s smile, his pain relieved by morphine; Heaney’s maternal grandmother’s house in the title poem is the first house where I saw Electric Light; leaving the light on brought a desperately homesick child no comfort (waste of light) as opposed to the stage-lighting of Heaney’s arrival in the Southwark London of Chaucer’s Tabard Inn and Shakespeare’s Globe (from tube-mouth into sunlight).
  • The electric radio brought illuminated switches and dials … in short, from that early 1940s’ moment electric light shone over us.

A commentator sums it up as follows: Light shines perpetually in Seamus Heaney’s poetry. It has its first glimmerings in poems conceived in darkness and brought into luminous being. The interplay of darkness and light becomes the prevailing metaphor in a poetry of memory and perception, especially in the books published in the 1960s. In the 1970s and 1980s, writing in a subdued light becomes a necessary condition in a tense and sometimes turbulent political climate. A more equable light shines in the work composed in the 1990s, enabling a poetry of meditation and spiritual scrutiny, of quiet celebration and elegy ( S Regan -‘Lux Perpetua ; Durham Research online, posted May 2nd 2019).

Lux Aeterna –‘let perpetual light shine upon them’

Heaney’s eulogies in memory of Ted Hughes and Joseph Brodsky (both elegised in ‘Finders Keepers’) may well have sent him down the track of other important literary figures and scholars who had passed away largely during the 1990s. He identified more than a dozen altogether and suddenly found himself with the elegiac strand that would come to dominate Part II of the book.

Poems in memoriam include a coincidence of dates that link two names: WB Yeats d. 28 Jan 1939 and Joseph Brodsky d. 28 Jan 1996. The others in order were: Patrick Kavanagh d. 1967; WH Auden d. 1973; Robert Graves d. 1985; Robert Fitzgerald d. 1985; David Thomson d. 1988; Sorley MaClean d. 1996; Norman MaCaig d. 1996 ; George Mackay Brown d. 1996; Zbigniew Herbert d. 1998; Iain Crichton Smith d. 1998; Ted Hughes d. 1998 and Peter Levi d Feb 2000;

Heaney adds moving tributes to the son of a school friend Desmond Kavanagh in Clonmany to Ahascragh and to a woman he met in the Irish-speaking Gaeltacht when she was young (Mary O’Muirithe, in Sruth) and, though not in themselves formal tributes, two poignant pieces about his father Patrick in the days before his death (Seeing the Sick) and his maternal grandmother at home in the title poem.

Thematic strands grouped across titles:

  • Elegy: WH Auden; On his Work in the English Tongue; Audenesque for Joseph Brodsky; To the Shade of Zbigniew Herbert; Would They Had Stay’d (ref. 4 Gaelic poets;  Late in the Day; Clonmany to Ahascragh (Rory Kavanagh and father Des) Sruth (Mary O’Muirithe); Electric Light;
  • Eclogue: Bann Valley Eclogue; Virgil IX in translation; Glanmore Eclogue;
  • Irish landscapes: At Toomebridge; Perch; Lupins; Loose Box; Ballynahinch Lake; Glanmore Eclogue; The Real Names; The Bookcase; The Gaeltacht; Colly; Clonmany to Ahascragh; Sruth;
  • Irish confrontations and Weltpolitik: Border Campaign; Beowulf; Known World; Red, White and Blue; The Real Names; Marching Season; The Bridge; Colly;
  • Beowulf: The Fragment; On his Work in the English Tongue;
  • The lost domain of childhood: Out of the Bag; Montana; Turpin Song; The Real Names; Vitruviana;
  • Foreign travel: Eastern Europe – Known World; Western Europe – Sonnets from Hellas (conflation of two visits); The Little Canticles of Asturias;
  • Nearest and dearest: Clothes Shrine; Red, White and Blue; Seeing the Sick, Electric Light;
  • Heaney’s human feelings and sense of what is right Catechism On his Work in the English Tongue;
  • Where have I been: Gaeltacht; The Real Names;
  • St Columb’s College, Derry: The Real Names (Shakespearean angles); Border Campaign; Vitruviana; Marching Season; Bodies and Souls; Clonmany to Ahascragh;
  • Into Literature and the Arts: The Bookcase; Vitruviana; The Party; Audenesque; Electric Light;
  • Tongue-in-cheek/ self-deprecation: A Suit The Lesson;
  • Search for the self: Norman Simile, The Fragment;
  • Heaney the survivor: Late in the Day; Arion;

Electric Light People and Places


  • Marie Heaney
  • Patrick Heaney
  • maternal Grannie McCann


  • Dr Patrick Kerlin
  • Bob Cushley
  • Ned Kane
  • John Dologhan
  • Sean Brown (murdered)
  • the MacNicholls (neighbours)


  • Ann Saddlemyer
  • Dimitri Hadzi
  • David Hammond

Scholars and poets

  • Peter Levi d. Feb 2000
  • Robert Graves d. 1985
  • Patrick Kavanagh d. 1967
  • Robert Fitzgerald d. 1985
  • Czeslaw Milosz d. 2004
  • Yeats d. 28 Jan 1939
  • Brodsky d. 28 Jan 1996
  • WH Auden d. 1973
  • Zbig Herbert d. 1998
  • Norman Macaig d. 1996
  • Iain Crichton Smith d 1998
  • Sorley MaClean 1996
  • George Mackay Brown d 1996
  • Thomas Hardy
  • David Thomson d 1988
  • Patrick Heaney d 1986


  • Virgil
  • Beowulf
  • Pushkin


  • Matthew and literary agent Caroline Michel (Faber and Faber)
  • Nadime Gordimer
  • Eamon Grennan
  • Brian Friel
  • Felim Egan

Tributes post mortem

  • Ted Hughes
  • WH Auden
  • Joseph Brodsky
  • Zbigniew Herbert
  • Rory Kavanagh
  • Mary O Muirithe

St Columb’s staff and fellow students

… the ‘Real Names’

  • Owen Kelly
  • Liam MacClelland
  • Gerry o’Neill
  • Anthony Murray (comic)
  • Gallagher (staff)
  • Frankie MacMahon
  • Irwin
  • Bredin
  • Cassoni
  • Philip Coulter (‘featly, sweetly’)
  • Joe Coulter
  • Desmond Kavanagh (f. of Rory)
  • Leo Day (drillie)
  • Jim Logue, caretaker

Struga and the Balkan adventure

  • Vladimir Chupeski
  • Rafael Alberti
  • Caj Westerberg
  • HM Enzensberger
  • (Hygo Simberg – artist)

Gaeltacht (Irish speaking area of the Irish Republic)

  • Barlo, Paddy-Joe, Chips Rafferty, Dicky
  • Mesdemoiselles Marren, Conway, M and M, Morton, Niamh


  • Stock Virgilian characters
  • Meliboeus aka John Millington Synge

Classical sites in Greece and associated figures

  • Epidaurus
  • Asclepius
  • Parnassus
  • Castalian Spring
  • Augean stables
  • Hygeia


  • Bellingham
  • ‘Childbirth’

Sites in London

  • Earl’s Court student area
  • Southwark for Chaucer and Globe theatre

Some Real Names answer back

By identifying his school-friends in the collection Heaney invited them into the debate.

In the Irish Examiner of November 8th, 2014 fellow-student Philip Coulter offered his take on school and times:

St Columb’s was the only Catholic school in Derry and produced so many achievers. Seamus Heaney, Brian Friel (co-founder of Field Day Theatre Company and Member of the Irish Senate), John Hume (prominent politician and co-winner of the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize) – all with very different talents and abilities and desires, but the one thing we all had in common was the work ethic. It was instilled into us in school. There was a tacit acceptance that Catholics were second class citizens and didn’t get jobs and houses and so on. But things were changing. And there was also the hard-edged reality that the Labour government of the late 1940s had opened up third-level education to scholarship. Without that I’d never have got to Queens University. My dad was a cop on the beat (Heaney’s was a small farmer and cattle-dealer).

A group of Heaney’s contemporaries held a jovial meeting at the HomePlace in Bellaghy under the heading Heaney, Sir!, a title that recalled young Heaney’s obvious if impertinent reply to a teachers’ question in class ‘What’s your name, Heaney’, originally reported by another famed contemporary and man-of-letters, Seamus Deane.

The featly sweetly tuneful Philip Coulter’ reminded them of the poem that portrayed Heaney crossing the Glenshane Pass by bus on the road to boarding school in Derry … his weekly ‘Trail of Tears’ like an American First Nationer expelled from his home territory. ‘Post-war St Columb’s could be a lonely, brutal and hungry house for the young boarder’, it was suggested.

Heaney’s South Derry neighbour and college ‘cellmate’ Liam Donnelly (they didn’t have rooms in the early years but rather partitioned cubicles), twice chooses the verb ‘endure’ to describe his stretch at the Derry school.

Donnelly and Heaney, despite living only a couple of miles apart, had never met before they went to St Columb’s, but they would rapidly become firm friends. ‘When I heard Seamus got a food parcel in the post,’ says the now Father Donnelly, ‘I would be as delighted as if it were for myself – because I knew I was going to get fed that night. Likewise, if I got a parcel, Seamus got fed.’

It was clear from the off that Heaney was a gifted student, said Donnelly. ‘He got nineties in everything. He was particularly prodigious at Latin, eventually scoring 394 out of 400 in his ‘Senior’ (A Level) exam. This contributed to him winning a State Exhibition. Phil Coulter would later get one too. Donnelly notes that Heaney began writing rhyming Latin couplets at the age of 14 to impress Father McGlinchey, and by his Sixth Year was replicating Virgil’s verse style perfectly.

‘I can tell you something he was never any good at,’ interrupts Coulter to long laughs. ‘He couldn’t sing! He never made the cut for any of our college shows.’ And Coulter, who of course went on to win Eurovisions with his songwriting talent (‘Puppet on a String’ 1967), took great delight in reading aloud the poet’s recollection of the St Columb’s Drama Society:

‘The boy-men reappear/Who’s-whoing themselves like changelings./So will it be/Ariel or the real name, the already/Featly sweetly tuneful Philip Coulter?/Or his brother Joe as Banquo, dressed in white,/Wise Joe, good Banquo, fairest of the prefects?’

Jim Sharkey, Ireland’s former Ambassador to Russia who was a few years behind Heaney at St Columb’s  had a poem dedicated to him when his diplomatic career was recognised with an ‘Alumnus Illustrissimus’ award in 2005 from St Columb’s. ‘The bond that exists between ex-College Boys of that generation’, he said, ’is a lasting one, not unlike that between men who fought a war together!’

On a separate occasion the son of a real name, St Columb’s caretaker Jim Logue, featured in the first of the three poems of Bodies and Souls expressed his delight at the inclusivity of Heaney’s poetry: ‘Jim Logue the caretaker was my dad now deceased. The poem ‘In the Afterlife’ has a special place in my family’s hearts. That was his job for over 50 years …  ‘Glimmerman of dorms’. Seamus captured boarding life in St Columb’s brilliantly’.

Elsewhere one Hugh O’Flaherty reported: ‘Seamus had played Gaelic football, as did those other poets, Patrick Kavanagh and Brendan Kennelly. I once confessed to him that when I got involved in a debate on who was the best poet, I stood back from that; but said I knew which poet was the best footballer – and that was Brendan Kennelly. Seamus wryly conceded the justice of that.’

Postscript comments

Notes from Langdon Hammer’s article (New York Times of April 8, 2001 Talking Irish):

‘Seamus Heaney’s new book of poems … is a compendium of poetic genres: eclogue, elegy, epigram, joke, yarn, meditation, ecstatic lyric, after-dinner speech and more — all subtly tuned to diverse vocal registers in an array of verse forms fitted to various occasions, showing again Heaney’s will (and ability) to speak of many kinds of experience to many kinds of reader… This is the work of a world citizen aware of his cultural authority and the rights and responsibilities that come with it… Reflecting on the death of his father and others in these poems, Heaney speculates about his own. Will it be (he wonders) ”like following Jim Logue, the caretaker” as he walked the night-time corridors of Heaney’s boarding school, where each boy’s laundry was labelled with his name, ready to be taken away? Memories like this one are the only afterlife these poems allow. But the lives of Heaney’s people have a primitive material persistence too, rooted in race and the land, a force that is not undone, but only fully realized, in death.

Patrick McGuinness: ‘Heaney doesn’t toil with language, which he seems to come by easily and carefully, but with the forms of revelation a poem might body forth. Electric Light finds him on his trusted terrain, and there is a return to the locations – Mossbawn, the Bann, Lough Neagh, Glanmore and Bellaghy – of his previous work. This collection, however, is dominated by images of air, light and water, and is full of liminal places – strands and beaches, frontiers and checkpoints – where different elements meet or mingle or come into conflict’.

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