Sonnets from Hellas


Five colourful vignettes depicting a country acknowledged by many as the cradle of western civilisation and a land of milk and honey – five ‘diary entries’ in verse – a moveable feast for senses, spirit and intellect recalled in vivid and intimate detail.

Heaney spoke to DOD of his 1995 holiday (369) … Marie and myself and Cynthia and Dimitri Hadzi. … long promised, long deferred, but finally it had become inevitable. I’d done the first Sophocles translation five years before  (Philoctetes’ premiered by Field Day Theatre Company as ‘The Cure of Troy’) and had just published a limited edition that included the ‘Mycenae Lookout’ sequence, with art work by Dimitri.  I’d got to know the Hadzis in Harvard. Being Greek-American, Dimitri spoke some modern Greek; and being a sculptor in stone and bronze, he was an ideal guide to the sites. Cynthia had travelled the route with Dimitri several times before – Ancient Corinth, Mycenae, Epidauros, Arcadia, Sparta – so she was our driver.

Coincidentally it was during the holiday in 1995 that news broke of Heaney’s Nobel Prize for Literature and created the drama of contacting him with the news!

  1. Into Arcadia

In praise of sheer abundance (opulence and amen) – walnuts purchased on the roadside from a globe-trotting local (once in Melbourne, Australia) drawn back to his homeland, whose primitive irrigation system (pipes and runnels of split reed offers proof positive that little has changed in Arcadia over nearly 3 millennia (known  in Hellas probably, since Hesiod).

Even greater surprises in store (the least of it): a layer of poorly loaded apples strewn over the road surface (burst open) – perceptible within the car via tiny ups-and-downs (raunched) and the sound of squashing fruit (scrunched) that left the vehicle splashed with a rich layer of fruity matter (juiced up and fleshed and spattered); the whole episode a source of great fun for the travellers (revelling in it).

To cap it all a timeless icon of ancient Arcadia (goatherd with his goats) standing incongruously amidst the twentieth century (forecourt of the filling station) – a remnant from a Virgilian age (subsisting beyond eclogue) who has survived across the ages (translation).

  • opulence: abundance, wealth of natural resources
  • amen: prayer ending ‘so be it’; connotation of ‘who could disagree?’
  • walnut: edible fruit contained in a large, hard rounded shell;
  • Melbourne: capital city of Victoria, a state in south-eastern Australia, on the Bass Strait opposite Tasmania
  • train: direct;
  • runnel: tiny stream;
  • reed: strong, hollowed out plant stem;
  • Hesiod: one of the earliest known Greek poets (c.700BC), whose work included a poem about the genealogies of the mythological gods, and a piece offering moral and practical advice that became the chief model for later ancient didactic poetry;
  • the least of it: a first example fading into insignificance;
  • Argos: ancient Greek city-state ; the Peloponnese City of Argos, along with Mycenaeand Tiryns, was a significant Mycenaean centre, and the city remained important throughout the GreekHellenistic, and Roman periods until its destruction by the Visigoths in 395 CE.
  • Arcadia: term derived from the Greek province of the same name dating to antiquity; the province’s mountainous topography and sparse rural population later caused the word Arcadiato develop into a poetic byword for an idyllic vision of unspoiled wilderness. Arcadia is a poetic shaped space associated with bountiful natural splendour and harmony;
  • burst: split and disgorge
  • raunch: (uncommon use as a verb: suggestion of downward compression into an earthy surface
  • scrunch: suggestion of loud crushing sound;
  • juiced up: juiced up: covered in semi-liquid remnants(v. also ‘The Turnip Snedder’ of District and Circle);
  • flesh: generally used as a noun to indicate the soft edible part of a fruit;
  • spatter: splash, splatter;
  • revel: feast noisily and pleasurably;
  • goatherd: character who might have appeared in a Virgilian Eclogue still working with goats in the 20th century
  • forecourt: open area around the pumps;
  • subsist: retain the classic shape of ancient times; survive, endure;
  • eclogue: short pastoral poem in dialogue form;
  • translation: rendition from one age to another;


  • sonnet; volta in line 12;
  • 3 sentence construct; line length 9-13 syllables; balance between punctuated and enjambed lines;
  • rhyme pattern just visible: tight ‘road…load’, approximate ’farmer…water’/ ‘border…farther’/ ‘spattered…goatherd’;
  • assonant strings: ‘Argos…Arcadia…farther…yards’/ ‘road…known…load…open…road…so…drove…goatherd…goats’/ ‘fleshed…revelling…then’/ ‘forecourt’;
  • alliterations: ‘[m] amen…mountain…Melbourne…farmer’, [w] who’d worked…once’, plosive pair [b][p] pipes…split…probably’; [f] ‘forecourt…filling’;

2 Conkers

Seventy miles to the south the travellers are scaling a footpath to the acropolis in Sparta amidst a swirl of sense data (dank, sunk, rock-floored lane) and the underfoot echoes (tramping on burst shells and crunching down) of mellow Spartan fruitfulness (conkers …high-gloss horse-chestnuts).

Heaney ponders how best to express the conkers’ shade of brown – something from the sea perhaps (kelp bladderwort), some shade seen on a young animal (foals’ hooves) or the tint of a cared-for shoe (dubbed leather). His next test is to describe the distinctive aroma of crushed chestnuts (tainted pith) held to the nostril: not entirely pleasant (hint of ordure) but not pervasive (coming and going).

Onwards and upwards – past reminders of mythical one-eyed monsters (cyclopic stone), over earthworks (rings of defence … breached walls) in guilty possession of ‘stolen’ goods (looted conkers gravid in my satchel).

The final scene replaces the strenuous activity of people getting to the top with a peaceful canvas of those who made it: a big-sky background (daylight moon) … a foreground in which an artist reaps the artist’s rewards for his efforts (Dimitri sketched) … in a stance at once mythical (squared shoulders like a centaur’s) yet anchored in this world (nodded, nodded, nodded towards the spouses), heedful of wives chatting out of sight (heard but not seen)  behind a middle-ground of thick acanthus.

  • conker: fruit of horse-chestnut tree;
  • dank: unpleasantly cold and damp;
  • acropolis: fortified citadel of an ancient Greek town;
  • Sparta: important city-state in ancient Greece;
  • tramp: tread heavily;
  • high-gloss: with a highly polished surface
  • kelp: large brown seaweed;
  • foal: young horse;
  • bladderwort: aquatic plant kept afloat by air-filled sacs;
  • dubbed: grease smeared;
  • hint: small trace, indication;
  • ordure: dung, excrement;
  • tainted: blemished, discoloured;
  • pith: white spongy tissue inside the outer skin of a fruit;
  • cyclopic: with the appearance of a single eye in its centre
  • breached: fractured;
  • loot: plunder, steal;
  • gravid: swollen (reference to the lump that develops in pregnancy)
  • satchel: bag with a flap that hangs from the shoulder on a long strap;
  • Dimitri: Dimitri Hadzi (1921-2006): artist born in New York whose etchings were reproduced in a number of limited edition of SH’s poetry and whose work featured on the dust jacket of the Farrar, Straus and Giroux edition of The Burial at Thebes; Professor of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard University (1975-89) and a widely exhibited sculptor; on vacation with his wife, Cynthia Hadzi, with Seamus and Marie Heaney when the award to SH of the 1995 Nobel Prize for Literature was announced: the Hadzis are the dedicatees of SH’s poem ‘Mycenae Lookout’. Dimitri Hadzi;
  • sketch: initial rough drawing;
  • square the shoulders: draw back the shoulders prior to an action;
  • centaur: creature with a man’s torso and the body of a horse;
  • nod: incline the head as a sign of assent or understanding;
  • spouse: wife;
  • acanthus: free-growing spiky, spiny plant also used to decorate Corinthian capitals (a style of architectural columns) in the ancient world;


  • sonnet; volta after line 10 attention turns from ascent to level ground;
  • 7 sentence construct; first and second sentences enjambed so that the laboured climb can be reflected by the speaker;
  • varied line length 9 – 13 syllables;
  • loose pattern of rhymes/ end of line echoes: ‘lane…down’/ ‘help…kelp’/ ‘pith…path’/ ‘nicely…Dimitri’;
  • monosyllabic first line ‘dank, sunk, rock-floored lane’ – also alliteration [k] + ‘acropolis…couldn’t’;
  • alliteration: [d] ‘bladderwort…dubbed’/ ‘velar [k] [g] ‘conkers gravid…swinging’/ sibilant [s]’sketched…squared…shoulders…centaur’s’; nasal [n] repeated’nodded…not seen behind…acanthus’; [r] ‘rings…breached…gravid’;
  • assonant pairs or strings: ‘rock…acropolis’/ ‘horse…thought’/ ‘leather…bent…them…defence’/ ‘nicely…light’; ‘each…defence…appeared’/ ‘going…stone’;
  • mythological allusions ‘cyclopic…centaur’

3 Pylos

On the Peloponnese coast eighty miles west of Sparta the poet looks from his window onto the sea-front at Pylos. The associations generated lead him in tribute to the American scholar who primed Heaney to see beyond and beneath the surface.

Early morning  invigoration – shoals of sea bounty (Barbounia schooled) …  reflections of a rising sun on the beach … the intimacy of incoming breakers (wave-clip and flirt), their thudding impact (tide-slap), collapse and ebb (flop and flow) – restoration and rejuvenation for Heaney, conjuring up the image of a mythological son in search of his heroic father (Telemachos, young again) and the colourful ancient world beyond the whitewashed light of morning.

The play of light flashed on the ceiling urges Heaney (early warning) not to be distracted (be more myself) by things immediate, however seductive to his senses the mast-bending marine breeze.

The curved mast and its ropes (image of the bow strung as a lyre) create an involuntary link (key the understanding) to a Harvard Professor and teacher who brought the ancient legends to life: Robert Fitzgerald (Harvard Nestor akin to the wise old king of Pylos in Greek history).

Heaney chose the name, he tells DOD (273), after Fitzgerald had taken him on one side at Harvard and pointed out the hidden demands of the Boylston chair of Rhetoric and Oratory, the contract Heaney had been offered and would take up in 1984.

Heaney lauds Fitzgerald’s qualities: his kindness to the poet, an Irishman abroad (sponsor and host) … his mammoth achievement (translator of all Homer) … his health-consuming commitment (wasted face in profile) … his moments of distant concentration (ceiling-staring) … his attitude that of an elderly yet far from world-weary man (not yet past caring) … his eagerness to miss nothing (scanning the offing) … his insights and caring guidance (far-seeing shadower).

  • Pylos: ancient Greek kingdom of Nestor in south-western Peloponnese;
  • Barbounia: red mullet
  • school: prepare, instruct;
  • shelve: slope gently downwards;
  • clip: glancing contact
  • flirt: teasing contact
  • slap: sound of heavy contact;
  • flop: slump, tumbles;
  • flow: swirl, surge
  • Telemachos: in Greek mythology son of the Greek hero Odysseus and his wife,  When Telemachos reached manhood, he visited Pylos and Sparta in search of his wandering father. On his return, he found that Odysseus had reached home before him. Then father and son slew the suitors who had gathered around Penelope. According to later tradition, Telemachus married Circe (or Calypso) after Odysseus’ death.
  • whitewash: thin layer of matt white;
  • early warning: sign of something about to happen
  • to be oneself: be in character, act naturally, follow personal feelings and instincts
  • mast: upright post on a sailing vessel carrying a sail;
  • key the understanding: make the intellectual link;
  • bow: weapon with a curved frame, its ends joined by taut string
  • lyre: ancient u-shaped musical instrument with gut strings played by the songsters and bards (Apollo, Orpheus) in Greek mythology; symbol of musical reativity
  • Robert Stuart Fitzgerald (1910 – 85): American poet, critic and translator whose renderings of the Greek classics became standard works for a generation of scholars and students; best known as a translator of ancient Greek and Latin he also composed several books of his own poetry;
  • Harvard: prestigious American university in Cambridge Massachusetts; after 1979 Heaney spent many years in tailor-made part- and full-time roles as lecturer and Professor of Poetry, making many illustrious friends in the process;
  • Nestor of Gerania: wise king of Pylos in Greek mythology
  • sponsor: benefactor;
  • Homer: (8th century BC), Greek epic poet traditionally held to be the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey (initially part of an oral tradition); later regarded as the greatest epic poet, his poems constantly used as a model and source by others;
  • wasted: cadaverous, gaunt
  • profile: outline seen from side-on;
  • past caring: world-weary;
  • scan: contemplate intently, scour;
  • offing: more distant area of sea short of the horizon
  • far-sighted: able to see at distance, imaginative, insightful;
  • shadow: person who monitors what is going on, keeps tabs on development;


  • sonnet; loose volta as attention turns from location to individual;
  • 4 sentence construct; lines of 10-13 syllables; balance between enjambed and punctuated lines;
  • enjambed central section
  • rhyme pattern/ assonant echo emerges ‘’balcony…Pylos’/ ‘morning…warning’/ ‘bending…understanding’/ Homer…shadower’ ‘staring…caring;
  • onomatopoeic effects in line of monosyllables ‘wave-clip…tide-slap…flop…flow that adds alliteration [f];
  • weave of alliteration and assonance ‘barbounia schooled…below…balcony’;
  • string of present participles = noun ’staring…caring…offing…far-seeing’;
  • other use of compounds ‘wave-clip…tide-slap’ ’mast-bending’ ‘ceiling-staring’ ‘far-seeing’
  • mythical and academic links: Telmachos, Nestor, Homer, Robert Fitzgerald, Harvard;
  • alliterations [s] variants ‘shadows…shelving…sand…sandy…Pylos;
  • assonant pairs or strings ‘flow…woke…spoke…host…Homer…profile…shadower’/ ‘whitewased light… like…myself’/ ‘ceiling…be…marine breeze…key;
  • different senses of ‘school’ top and tail the sonnet;

4 The Augean Stables

An antique frieze-carving depicts the mythological goddess Athene offering support (nod of her high helmet … staff sunk) to a divine hero faced with a seemingly unattainable task – she is showing Heracles where to harness (broach) the powers of nature (Alpheus flowing out of its course) as an ingenious, labour-saving means of removing thirty years of neglect (deep dung strata … reeking yard and stables).

Continuous downhill river flow from the water tables will remove both stench (sweet dissolutions) and wash away foul solids (blocked doors and packed floors) turned to liquid (deluging like gutters ).

Heaney’s volta paints a shocking contrast – images of sublime surroundings (Olympia, down among green willows), of a cleansing river flowing calmly (lustral wash and run of river shallows) shattered by news of a foul political assassination back home in Northern Ireland (Sean Brown’s murder in the grounds of Bellaghy GAA Club).

Heaney spells out the paradox– pressured water deployed (hose-water smashing hard) to cleanse the car park of the evidence of barbarism that killed a community-minded sixty-one year old: where his athlete’s blood ran cold.

  • Augean Stables: associated with the Twelve Labours of Greek god and hero Heracles (Roman Hercules) appearing commonly in the phrase clean the Augean stable, that is clear away corruption or perform a large and unpleasant task that has long called for attention. Augeas, the mythical king of Elis, kept great stables that held 3,000 oxen and had not been cleaned for thirty years. Hercules was assigned to the job to be completed in single day. He accomplished it, his 5th Labour, by diverting two rivers to run through the stables. When Hercules was young he was visited by two nymphs—Pleasure and Virtue—who offered him a choice between a pleasant and easy life, or a severe but glorious life: he chose the glory.
  • bas-relief: moulded, carved piece of art with texture;
  • Athene: wise senior goddess of Greek mythology;
  • broach: puncture, make a hole;
  • nod: inclination of the head that transmits some unspoken meaning;
  • staff: long stick symbolic of authority
  • Alpheus: longest river in the Greek Peloponnese, said to be one of the 2 rivers diverted by Heracles to clean the Augean stable
  • course: normal bed:
  • dung: animal excrement;
  • reek: give off an unpleasant smell, stench;
  • dissolution: noun used to describe the power of water to reduce solid to liquid;
  • water-table: level below which ground is saturated;
  • block: seal;
  • pack: raise artificially:
  • deluge: flood;
  • gutter: channel that carries away rainwater;
  • Olympia: plain in Greece, in the western Peloponnese, said, In ancient Greece, to be the chief sanctuary of the principal god Zeus;
  • lustral: linked to classical Roman ‘lustrum’ ritual of spiritual cleansing; element of brightness attached;
  • Sean Brown: 61 year old victim of a sectarian atrocity, attacked and beaten by members of an Ulster loyalist paramilitary group as he locked the gates at Bellaghy Gaelic Athletic Association Club in May 1997; put in the boot of his own car he was later shot six times; well known in south Derry as a dedicated family man and chairman of the club; this senseless murder was beyond Heaney’s comprehension;
  • hose: man-made tube carrying water and directing its flow;
  • asphalt: bituminous road-surfacing material;
  • run cold: in death; connotations of horror as in ‘it makes my blood run cold’


  • sonnet; volta after line 8;
  • 3 sentence construct; line length 10-12 syllables; balance between punctuated and enjambed lines;
  • rhyme pattern rather than scheme – some tight rhymes ‘showing…flowing’/ ‘stables…tables’ others approximate ‘bank…sunk’/ ‘willows…shallows’;
  • first lines interweave assonance (‘stables…favourite…Alpheus/ ‘show…broach’/ ‘relief…Heracles’) and alliteration ([r] favourite…Heracles…broach…river/ [h] Heracles…high helmet/ sibilants ‘staff sunk…exact spot…Alpheus;
  • later alliterative effects’ alveolar plosives[d] [t] deep dung strata’/ [l] and [w] ‘Olympia…willows…wash…shallows’ / ‘hose…hard’ and  paired assonances ‘doors…floors’ / ‘Brown…grounds’/ ‘hose…cold’;
  • classical references and abstruse words ‘dissolutions…lustral’;
  • literal phrase ‘blood ran cold’ that assumes figurative proportions;

5 Castalian Spring

Heaney and his group have moved onto the Greek mainland north of the Gulf of Corinth close to Delphi.

Immovable object meets irresistible force – Heaney is determined to win.

She who guards the Castalian site (thunderface) betrays an anger of godlike proportion (not Zeus’s ire, but hers) as she seeks to prevent an Irish visitor (!) from entering the spring site itself.

The poet’s temper rises (mine mounting from it) in face of of impending failure to achieve what he came all this way for (drink the waters of the Castalian Spring), a thing he views as the just desert (arrogate … to myself) of an Irish bard in a place dripping with poetry (under the god Apollo’s giddy cliff).

The shock of unexpected obstruction (inner water sanctum … roped off) is followed by an expletive explosion (to hell with that … to hell with all who’d stop me, thunderface!) as he brushes authority aside (up the steps then, into the sandstone grottoes).

The sonnet’s volta lowers Heaney’s blood pressure from furioso to calma – once access is achieved the poet has space and time to take in the seeps and dreeps, the shallow pools, the mosses, and reflect that both he and the natural water entering the site along distant geological channels have ended up here from beyond, and come far. He acknowledges he is soothed (useless anger draining away) shows his reverence (bowed) and drinks freely from the spring (mouthed in sweetness) adding a nod of approval for his refusal to be deterred (defiance)!

  • Castalian Spring: sacred source of Delphi whose waters played an important role in the cult and procedure of the temple and of the oracle; place where Pythia (the priestess who held the oracle’s court at Delphi), the priests and the temple staff washed and where the water used to clean the temple came from. The theopropoi – those wishing to consult the oracle – were also obliged to wash here in order to purify themselves. The Castalian spring is located at the foot of the rocky crag Phleboukos (‘flamboyant’), inside the ravine separating the two Phaedriades (‘shining rocks’). Delphi itself is situated on a small plateau on the southern slopes of Mount Parnassus;
  • a face like thunder: bearing an expression of extreme anger
  • Zeus: supreme god of Greek mythology, legendary founder of Delphi; god of atmospheric phenomena not least thunder and lightning;
  • Ire: rage, fury;
  • vow: pledge to do something whatever gets in the way:
  • arrogate: claim, demand for oneself, as one’s right;
  • Apollo: national divinity of the Greeks,  variously recognized as a god of music, truth and prophecy, healing, the sun and light, plague, poetry, and more; son of Zeusand Leto and twin brother of the chaste huntress Artemis.
  • giddy: teetering;
  • inner sanctum: most sacred, secret place;
  • roped off: surrounded by a barrier denying access;
  • to hell with: regulations be damned
  • sandstone: sedimentary rock;
  • grotto: cavern -like recess
  • seep: slow trickle, dribble
  • dreep: (Scots/Irish) drip;
  • beyond: a distant place
  • drain away: subside to the point of disappearing altogether;
  • defiance: open resistance;


  • sonnet; volta in line 9; 5 sentence construct; line length 9-11 syllables; unrhymed;
  • balance between punctuated and enjambed lines;
  • vocabulary of confrontation offers a new Heaney angle on hiss inner personality
  • title and sonnet interweave a profusion of assonant and alliterative pairs or strings ‘Castalian…Thunderface’/ ‘Zeus…refusing’/ ‘ire…mine’/ sibilants [s] ‘Castalian Spring…/thunderface…Zeus’s [z] ‘hers…refusing’/ [m] ‘mine mounting’; ‘mounting…vowed’/ Castalian…arrogate’/ ‘giddy cliff…inner’/ ‘poet…Apollo…roped’/ ‘much…under…sanctum’ /‘when…well then..hell…hell’/ [w] ‘water…when we…well’/ ‘seeps and dreeps + [s] [z] stop…so…steps…sandstone grottoes… shallow pools mosses’ / [m] [n] come…come from… mouthed’/ ‘anger draining’/ ‘bowed…mouthed;
  • interesting play on ‘mouthed in’ – on the one hand took sweet water into his mouth; on the other made a highly audible objection to disregard the rules;
  1. Desfina

An evening celebration set in the hilly area around Delphi.

The mountain of the Muses (Mount Parnassus placid on the skyline) has set the Irish-speakers the challenge of finding gaelicized equivalents. Heaney and Marie do well – Slieve (from the Irish sliabh  ‘mountain’); Filiocht (old Irish word for ‘poetry’; Knock (old Irish cnoc –‘hill’, ‘mount’; Ben (Scottish ‘high mountain’); Duan (Irish for ‘poem’, ‘song’).

The holiday-makers sit together at sunset in the farmyard, gorging themselves pre-dinner Greek-style refreshment (we wolfed down horta, tarama and houmos) and aperitifs (ouzos), making light of the high-pitched histrionic outbursts (squeal) of a dead ringer for the Delphic oracle (streel-haired cailleach in the scullery).

They move on leaving the hag to her family (allow them to sedate her) driving up to Desfina for a dinner of further Greek delicacies – wine (retsina), seafood (anchovies, squid), stuffed vine leaves (dolmades) plus a ubiquitous non-Greek side-dish (french fries even).

Heaney’s over-indulgence blurred the journey back (my head was light … hyper, boozed), made him feel like an alien (borean). Unforgettable however the white-knuckle experience (bowled back down), the skidding navigation of bends (siren-tyred), the demented ‘clear-out-the-way’ warnings (manic on the horn), the succession of hairpin bends so frequent as to resemble the endless reversed lettering of a Greek inscriptions (looped like boustrophedon).

  • Desfina: town and a former municipality in the southern part of Phocis, Greece in the vicinity of Delphi;
  • Parnassus: mountain of limestone in central Greece towering above Delphi, north of the Gulf of Corinth, and offering scenic views of the surrounding olive groves and countryside … in ancient times sacred to Dionysus, Apollo and the poetic Muses; 
  • Slieve: Irish sliabh  ‘mountain’;
  • Filiocht: old Irish ‘poetry’;
  • Knock: old Irish cnoc – hill, mount;
  • Ben: Scottish ‘high mountain’; Duan : Irish ‘poem’, ‘song’;
  • gaelicize: find an equivalent expression in Gaelic:
  • wolf: devour greedily;
  • horta: Greek dish of oiled wild green vegetables with feta sauce;
  • tarama: Greek selection of small dishes of salted and cured roe of the codfish, carp or grey mullet mixed with olive oil, lemon juice and a starchy base of bread ior potatoes;
  • houmos: delicatessen Greek purée of chickpeas, lemon juice, garlic, cumin, salt and tahini;
  • ouzo: Greek national drink; strong aniseed-flavoured spirit that turns milky when ice is added;
  • squeal: high pitched cry, screech; streel-haired: with scruffy, unkempt, uncombed hair; streel-head: Irish word for a disreputable individual especially a woman;
  • cailleach: in Gaelic mythology a divine hag, creator deity, weather deity and ancestor deity;
  • scullery: rear kitchen area where the dirty jobs are done;
  • sedate: knock someone out using a drug or alcohol
  • Greek delicacies: retsina: resinous Greek wine; anchovy: small, highly flavoured fish preserved as a food; squid: mollusc resembling a small octopus; dolmades: stuffed vine leaves;
  • light-headed: faint, unsteady;
  • hyper: worked up, stimulated;
  • boozed: inebriated;
  • borean: a man living, as it were in classical Greece, beyond the northern frontier, from the north, from elsewhere, non-Greek;
  • bowl along: travel at speed, belt along;
  • Sirens: in Greek mythology women or winged creatures whose sweet singing lured sailors to their destruction on reefs and rocks;
  • manic; frenzied, frantic
  • hairpin bend: u-shaped loops;
  • boustrophedon: from Gk ‘ox turning’ when ploughing up and down a field – bi-directional text, as seen in ancient Greek inscriptions- alternate lines of writing reversed with reversed letters;


  • sonnet; no real volta, simply a change of location; line length 9-12 syllables;
  • some loose rhymes or echoes but no scheme ‘houmos…ouzos/ ‘Desfina…retsina’/ ‘even…borean’
  • even balance between enjambed and punctuated lines;
  • proper names and words of Irish provenance (from ‘Slieve’ to ‘cailleach’) alongside Greek locations and stock starters or main courses;
  • alliterations [p] ‘Parnassus placid’/ sibilants [s] ‘Parnassus…skyline…Slieve…gaelicised’/ [k] ‘squeal…cailleach…scullery’/ [b] ‘boozed…borean…bowled back’/ [w] we wolfed;
  • assonances ‘skyline…gaelicized’/ ‘farmyard’/‘wolfed…sunset’/‘pretend…squeal,,,streel…cailleach…Desfina…retsina…’/ ‘fries…my…light…hyper…Siren-tyred’/ ‘boozed…looped…boustroph
  • Greek and Irish locations linked;
  • compound adjectives for poetic economy of words ‘streel-haired’/ ‘siren-tyred’;


  • 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;
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;


Join the Conversation - Leave a comment