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.

In that respect Heaney’s Ten Glosses fascinate and absorb as the wider intent of each emerges. They are compact, to the point and poetic. Perhaps for this reason the background information required to get to grips with them can considerably outweigh the word count itself.

1 The Marching Season

Ostensibly this first gloss draws together quotations and characters from Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ (I wait for Banquo and Macbeth to come) and what a studious scholar has decided in advance (prepossessed by what I know by heart).

It is his title reveals that reveals the tragic parallel on Heaney’s mind – what unfolds on stage (‘What bloody man is that?’) recalls graphic images of Ulster’s sectarian violence and the proximity of murder during the ‘Troubles’ – the brash percussive sounds announcing the arrival of Orange parades (‘A drum, a drum!’) herald confrontation and hatred.

The dreadful irony is that actors tied to the text of a tragic play and sectarian bigots from one side of the sectarian divide or the other behave with script-like predictability (unbowed, on cue, and scripted from the start).

  • Marching Season: even though the Good Friday Peace agreement of 1998 was signed three years before Electric Light was published, the annual Marching Season remains the period during which sectarian tensions are at their highest and sporadic violence can ensue; the most important marches occur on or around 12th July to commemorate the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 in which forces loyal to the Protestant William of Orange defeated those who sided with the deposed Catholic monarch James II; thus the 12th July Orangemen marches are significant to the majority Protestant and Loyalist sections of the Northern Irish population and disdained by the minority Catholic and Nationalist community;
  • Drum: ‘Orange Drums, Tyrone, 1966’ of Heaney’s North collection (1975) paints the brash, dramatic caricature of a lambeg drummer prominent in a Protestant Unionist march during the Marching Season. Heaney allowed his emotional responses to the scene and what it represented to leak out; he felt that those engaged in the parades were deliberately incensing the Catholic communities by marching provocatively close to Catholic-majority areas;
  • Macbeth references: Act 1, ii: question posed by Duncan at the sight of a wounded captain and introducing the theme of blood symbolic of murder, brutality and guilt that foretells of his own death; Act 1, iii: drum announcing the arrival of Macbeth to the Witches; they will tell Macbeth and Banquo what the future holds;
  • prepossessed: biased, prejudiced, coloured;
  • unbowed; in thrall to no-one; under no-one’s ower;
  • on cue; at exactly the right moment in the script;
  • scripted: performing the set lines of a written text; by extension; forteseeable outcome of a narrative;


  • quartet in 2 sentences; line length based on 10 syllables; rhyme abab
  • assonat echoes: ‘blood…drum…come’/ ‘possess…know…Banquo’/ ‘heart…start’;
  • alliterative strands: [w] ‘what…what…wait…bowed’; bi-labial [p/b] ‘prepossessed…Banquo…Macbeth…unbowed…scripted’; sibilant [s] ‘scripted…start’; nasals [m/n]: ‘know…Banquo…come…unbowed… on…from’;

2 The Catechism

Heaney admitted to DOD that he suffered from a surfeit of Catholic training in childhood (‘formed my mind’). Part of the oral training aspect of his religious upbringing were the ingrained cues and responses of catechism (Q. and A. come back).

At this stage in his life Heaney sees so little evidence of neighbourly love at home or abroad that his compassionate nature pens a response that all could and should aspire to live by: ‘My neighbour is all mankind.’

  • catechism (from Ancient Greek ‘to teach orally’): summarises church doctrine, serving as a learning introduction to the Sacraments as part of the religious teaching of children and adult; uses cues and responses (Q and A);
  • Luke 10:29 ‘who is my neighbour?’; Leviticus 19:18 ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’;
  • Heaney’s final phrase is reported by CEO Dominic MacSorley to have become ‘something of a motto’ for Ireland’s largest aid and humanitarian agency Concern Worldwide;


  • rhymed couplet in 4 sentences; lines 9-12 syllables;
  • assonant echoes: ‘Q… who”/ ‘A…they…neighbour’/ ‘formed…alll’/ ‘mind…kind’;
  • alliterative strands: nasal [n]; velar [k] ‘Q…come…back…kind’;


3 The Bridge

Bearing in mind the reconciliation of sectarian opponents in Northern Ireland barely three years earlier

Heaney’s extended metaphor amounts to a prayer for the success of power-sharing in Northern Ireland. He depicts a structure capable of spanning the chasms of prejudice and self-interest separating his contemporaries; he views bridging gaps as is an essential work of grace that demands all that one has to offer.

Emphatic repetition of first and last line in this piece’s approval of political developments is reprised in Beowulf’s wise response in The Fragment which follows.

The poet’s unifying structure is built to solid engineering specifications that, to overcome adverse forces, build in tolerances (steady under strain … strong through tension); it links opposite banks and opposing sects (feet on both sides), but remains impartial (in neither camp) and resistant (stands its ground) – it stands as an icon under constant scrutiny (span of pure attention), of strategic defensive importance against attack (holding action); its structure and way onto and off the roadway (arches and ramp) are designed to bridge the bumps and gaps in understanding and acceptance which keep warring individuals and groups apart (steady under strain and strong through tension).

  • strain, tension: stress (both architectural engineering and human)
  • camp: side;
  • to stand one’ s ground: hold firm in the face of opposition;
  • span (pun): both period of time and reach;
  • holding action: military manoeuvre to stall an enemy attack;
  • arch: curved structure spanning an opening;
  • ramp: sloping surface between two levels;


  • Heaney first featured the redemptive potential of man-made structures in Scaffolding (from Death of a Naturalist, 1965), a poem presented to his wife (she let slip in a radio interview) in the early says of marriage after a row.
  • quintet in a single sentence; first and last lines repeated; lines based around 10 syllables;
  • rhymes ababa;
  • assonant echoes: ‘feet…neither’/ ‘camp…stands…span… action…ramp’/ ‘ steady…tension…’/ ‘both…holding’;
  • alliterative strands: sibilant [s] ‘steady…strain…strong… tension…attention’; alveolar [n];

4  A Suit

Heaney composes a pun-rich spoof generated by a deal struck between tailor and customer (Heaney himself).

He recalls the tailor’s pitch (he said) and promise to provide the ideal match of garment and the poet’s frame (balance it perfectly on you).

Heaney was taken (could aImost feel) by the idea of trousers that would satisfy line, length and fashion (plumbline of the creased tweed), corrugation-free (hit my heel), plus a jacket tailored to his shoulders (like a spar) and wrists (arms of a scale) – indeed promising a whole new persona (my whole shape realigned), for which he finds a pun to express his positive judgment (ways that suited me down to the ground).

Whilst he had not actually come in for a suit he listened to the sales patter (weighed his words) and bought it (wore them) on the spot (there and then) seeing the deal as a ‘snip’:  going for a song.

  • balance it : have it sit harmoniously
  • plumbline: line determining vertical precision;
  • crease: knife-edge semi-permanent fold
  • tweed: rough surfaced woollen cloth originally from Scotland
  • spar: cross beam;
  • of a scale: in proportion;
  • suit (triple pun): clothe in a suit, look good on someone, fit the bill;
  • down to the ground (pun): to ground level, (informal) totally;
  • weigh: consider his sales pitch;
  • wore (pun): said ‘yes’, ended up wearing a suit;
  • going for a song: a bargain, snip, giveaway;
  • The personal touch that promises perfection clearly appeals to Heaney – in District and Circle (2006) his poem Poet to Blacksmith lists the requirements dictated by an 18th century Irish agricultural labourer to his ‘spade-maker’ that will produce the only bespoke tool that meets his standards;
  • 3 triplets in 3 sentences; variable line-length 10-13 syllables;
  • enjambed lines predominate;
  • initial rhyme ‘feel…heel’ not suatained;
  • assonant echoes: ‘I’ll…like…relign…decided’/ ”feel…creased…tweed…heel… needed’/ ‘spar…arms’/ ‘scale…shape…ways…weighed’/ ‘you…you… suited…suit’;
  • alliterative strands: sibilant [s/z/sh]: ‘so…creased…shoulders…spar…arms…shape’ etc; front-of-mouth [w] ‘one…ways…weighed’;       

5 The Party

The  dominance of memory over circumstance.

A poet killed in wartime, too young to have achieved his true potential (unexpected softly powerful name of Wilfred Owen), is mentioned in a social gathering (overheard at the party) impacting on Heaney’s mind with a depressing thump (like wet snow that slumps down off a roof).

Memory of the blinding mire of WWI trenches resurfaces ironically as people cheerfully toast each other’s health (mud in your eye) and conjures up in Heaney’s mind the after-shocks resounding in Owen’s merited otherworld (artillery in heaven).

  • slump down: fall heavily and suddenly;
  • Wilfred Owen: much admired British World War I poet, composing nearly all of his poems in slightly over a year, from August 1917 to September 1918. In November 1918; killed in action in Nov 1918 at the age of twenty-five, one week before the Armistice
  • here’s mud in your eye (pun): friendly toast before downing a drink, mixed earth and water;
  • artillery: big guns;


  • quartet in 3 sentences; lines 10-11 syllables; assonant rhymes abab;
  • assonant echoes:’over…snow…Owen’/ ‘down…powerful’/ ‘slumps…unexpaect…mud’/ ‘wet…expect…heaven’/ ‘Wilfred…in…artillery’;
  •  alliterative strands: sibilants [s]snow…slump…expect…softly;

6  W. H. Auden, 1907-73

Heaney sketches stages in the life of a hugely talented and highly complex poet who lived and worked on both sides of the Atlantic.

Auden’s ‘old’ world – his blue riband education (Oxford) and travel for pleasure (Iceland and Spain), his leftist anti-Establishment and psychoanalytical interest (Berlin and Freud), his flirt with communist theory (Marx) across a whole decade (the Thirties) – was superseded by the ‘new’ world (New York), by his engagement in an enduring  all-male love affair (Chester) and the search to rekindle his faith (God).

The period (pause for po-ethics) produced a yield of personal lyrics loaded with matters of principle (moral ascent of Parnassus) later winding down to a cocktail of opera, dolce vita (retrenchment, libretti, martinis) and the leisure of companionable middle-age (the slippers, the face).

A product of York (conceived in the Danelaw), Auden somehow retained the attitude of folk upon whom long ago the Vikings imposed a historical language shift and who still objected to it (ruction).

To Heaney Auden’s high pitched peremptory voice (barker of stanzas) was highly distinctive on in both poetry reading and classroom (star turn… source of instruction) and spelt out his rare talent (definite growth rings of genius rang in his voice).

  • H. Auden (1907-73): Wystan Hugh; b York England; Oxford educated; who spent time abroad – in Iceland as a travel destination and on the European continent including Berlin partly to satisfy his rebellious political spirit; taught in English private schools; became an American citizen in 1946; later appointed Oxford University Professor of Poetry (1956-61)
  • Sigmund Freud (1856-1939 ): Austrian neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis, a clinical method based on dialogue between patient and psychoanalyst: Auden’s 1939 poem “In Memory of Sigmund Freud” reflects on the similarities between psychoanalysis and the poetic challenge of adapting traditional elegy to a world in which violent and impersonal death on a massive scale had become rife;
  • Karl Marx (1818-83): socialist revolutionary who ‘invented’ Marxism , the concept of a classless economic and political system that placed all resources and means of production under government control as a means to ensuring social equality; Auden was young, socially conscious, rebellious, leftist and outspoken – sufficient for him to be labelled ‘Marxist’ in the 1930s:
  • God: Auden developed a mature commitment to Christianity around 1940 after bouts of atheism based around his notion that it had the miraculous power to change human lives
  • Chester: Chester Simon Kallman(1921 –1975) ; librettist, and translator, best known for collaborating with Auden on opera librettos and engaged in both a sexual and later Platonic relationship with Auden;
  • poetics: the art of writing poetry;
  • ethics: moral principles governing behaviour;
  • moral: ethical high-minded;
  • 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;
  • retrenchment: cutting back, holding back
  • libretto (pl –i): text of an opera or long vocal work;
  • the slippers: home comforts (based on footwear to relax in);
  • conceive: bring about (biologically):
  • Danelaw (aka Danelagh; Old English: Dena lagu; Danish: Danelagen): historical name recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle given to the part of England in which the laws of the Danes held sway and dominated those of the Anglo-Saxons around the 1st millennium; the area included York where Auden was born);
  • language shift: imposition of a new language on a population; the Germanic languages of Angles Saxons and Jutes were overtaken by the Norse of Viking invaders;
  • ruction: angry reaction;
  • bark: describing a dogmatic, ‘you’d-better-listen’ tone of voice;
  • barker: a tout at a sideshow calling out to attract passers-by;
  • star turn: most impressive performer;
  • growth ring: concentric layers of a tree denoting annual development;


  • 7 lines in 2 verses; rhymes abba surround unrhymed triplet;
  • first and last line rhyme repeated in The Lesson which follows, echoing the ‘firstness’ and ‘lastness’ of The Fragment;
  • 5-sentence construct; unusual line length 14-16 syllables;
  • emphatic repetition ‘after’ suggestive of Auden’s helter-skelter life-style;
  • neat neologism opens up the internal, psychological phases of Auden’s output:: ‘po-ethic…moral ascent…retrenchment;
  • assonant echoes: ‘Berlin…Thirties’ ‘ascent…then…retrenchment…libretti’/ ‘pause…law’/ ‘face…Dane’/ ‘conceived…genius’/ ‘instruction…rings in his’;
  • alliterative strands: velar [k] ‘Oxford…Marx; bbi-labial [p] ‘pause…po-ethic…Parnassus…slippers; sibilant variants ‘presence…stanzas…star…source…instruction’;
  • play on words: ‘barker’ suggests both voice tone and attention-seeking trait;

7 The Lesson

Heaney pays tribute to a friend (David Hammond), a master raconteur delivering a tale of Irish black humour with a religious slant. For all its short length the poem’s enjambed format permits pauses to be built in by the storyteller as he strings his audience along … Hammond’s shaggy-dog story is long in the build-up and arguably only funny in the punch-line because of the story-teller’s skill.


Hammond heard the tale when he was out carousing (on a spree) …. from a fellow who claimed to know….the cleric (the priest chaplain on duty) …. who was supposedly present and in receipt of the final comment of a convicted man about to go to the gallows … (morning the last man was hanged) in a now defunct Belfast prison notorious not least for its nationalistic reputation amongst Irish folk of its time (Crumlin Road Jail).

Hammond has drawn his listeners into a situation where they hang on to his every word however increasingly unlikely …  the final earthly moments of a condemned man … a priest trying very earnestly to follow his pastoral script …hoping perhaps to be called on to show compassion for the despair, tears of remorse, maybe a last prayer… no sir … the gallows-bird shows deferent insouciance (he shook hands) before taking his final steps (went to the hangman) … And what was that final comment? ‘Father, this is going to be a lesson to me’.

Heaney does not report audience reaction!

  • David Hammond (1928-2008): raconteur, singer, song collector, broadcaster born in Belfast; great friend of Heaney’s; co-dedicatee with Michael Longley of Wintering Out, the singer in SH’s poem ‘The Singer’s House’;  director of Field Day Theatre Company;
  • spree: unrestrained night out with plenty of alcohol;
  • chaplain: clergyman attached to a prison;
  • on duty: working at that moment;
  • last man: in fact, one McGladderywho was hanged in 1961 for the murder of Pearl Gamble, such facts are not the stuff of jokes!
  • Crumlin Road Jail: Victorian era prison in Belfast now used as a visitor attraction;
  • hangman: executioner;
  • ‘Father’: polite form of address to a Catholic priest;


  • quintet in a single sentence; line length 12-15 syllables;
  • assonant echoes: ‘spree…priest…me’/ ‘Hammond a man…chaplain…last…man…hanged…hands…hangman’/ ‘said…went…lessson’;
  • alliterative strands: bi-labial [p] ‘spree…priest…chaplain’; nasals [m/n]; interlabial [w] ‘who…was…what…went…was’;

8  Moling’s Gloss (from the Irish)

An ageing hermit turned ecclesiastic confesses there are two sides to him: when with senior clerics (among my elders) he behaves correctly, is holier-than-thou in manner (know better) and superior (frown on any carry-on).

Out with the younger, devil-may-care priests (brat-pack) out-of-bounds and breaking the rules and vows (on the batter) Moling,participating,  sheds the years (taken for a younger man).

  • Moling: Irish legend tells of an elderly hermit who allegedly ‘impersonated Jesus come down from the cross to embrace a young nun looking for a sign from her bridegroom-to-be in heaven and got carried away’!; he later became a much more serious figure ending up as a 7th century saint;
  • frown: furrow the brows as a sign of disapproval;
  • carry-on: stir, spot of bother;
  • brat-pack: a nickname given to a group of devil-may-care young actors who frequently appeared together in teen-oriented films in the 1980s;
  • on the batter (Irish slang): out for a night of heavy drinking;


  • quartet with loosely paired rhymes; line length 8-9 syllables;
  • assonant echoes: ‘among…and…carry…brat-pack…batter’;
  • alliterative strands: nasal [m/n]; bilabial [b/p/ brat-pack…batter’;

9  Colly

Perhaps most elusive of the ten glosses, Colly hides Heaney’s ‘dirty glove’ of the Troubles’ period behind the ring of a popular children’s rhyme and the reality emanating from mid-twentieth century Northern Irish back-to-back working-class estates.

The piece offers stark contrasts: fine legend versus sordid reality; Irish communities ripped asunder by events; purity contaminated by grime; a privileged fictional Irish jet set and the contemporary Irish masses who eke out existence on the bread-line. 

The legendary Fenian white charger (Niamh’s horse for Oisin) is just fine (grand) however Heaney’s working-class speaker opts for something less high flown – a different conveyance (saddle me colly) figured as a chunk of sooty matter caught up in air currents (giddy on wind) that conjures up the historical figure key to Irish religious partition and sectarian division (black as the hair on King Billy).

Soot – a physical and metaphorical blot on the urban 1940s’to 70s’ landscape – lifted skywards by the heat of coal fires (chimney flakes), visible to the eye (flecking the air), landing at will on immaculate laundry strung out to dry (carbon-dotting the white wash on the line), carried in mocking military formation by the wind (fly-past) to the frustration of those affected by what was beyond their control (freak-out of soot).


  • in the irish Fenian Cycle an otherworldly woman, Niamh, carried away Oisín to live with her in her domain of Tir na Nog, the Land of Youth; after many years living together, Niamh reluctantly allowed Oisín to visit Ireland on condition that he did touch the ground there; to do so would render him unable to go back to see Niamh ever again; whilst helping someone his horse unseated him and he was turned into a feeble blind old man;
  • colly (dialect): soot, grime, coal dust;
  • giddy: skittish, carefree;
  • William III, widely known as William of Orange, and nicknamed King Billy in Ireland became King of England, Ireland and Scotland from 1689 until his death in 1702; the Battle of the Boyne was fought in Ireland between Protestant Williamof Orange and Catholic James II in July 1690; William’s crushing victory secured the Protestant ascendancy in Ireland and is linked ultimately to the  sectarian ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland;
  • King Billy: the nickname carries different connotations: on the one hand regarded positively by militant Protestants for whom he epitomises successful resistance to Catholic domination; on the other hand to militant Catholics, the person who guaranteed they would be marginalized;
  • flake: fragment, tiny piece;
  • fleck: patch, speck;
  • carbon-dot: spread tiny particles of carbon;
  • fly-past: ceremonial flight past a person or place;
  • freak-out: wild, uncontrolled reaction;


  • 2 couplets in a single sentence;lines12-13 syllables; unrhymed;
  • assonant echoes: ‘Niamh…Oisin…giddy…chimney…collie…giddy…freak’/ ‘grand…saddle…black’/ ‘giddy…wind…Billy…chimney’/ ‘hair…air’/ ‘fly…line’/ ‘carbo-dotting…wash’;
  • alliterative strands: [f] ‘flakes flecking…fly’; nasals [m/n];

10  A Norman Simile

Heaney jots down a gloss in response to something 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 his fundamental persona (marvellously yourself) and the apparently ‘unchanging’ that is flowing by in front of him (the river water … in Arklow harbour).

Gerald‘s eureka moment establishes a parallel effect in Nature – changes imposed by high tide are not readily visible but further investigation reveals a marvellous scientific truth: lighter fresh water (when you’d expect salt water) rises above the denser salt water which is being pushed upstream.

DOD 373 Nobel Prize laureates sometimes fear they will never write another word. What in fact was your first post-Nobel poem (1995)? Seamus Heaney I was asked to do a tribute to Norman MacCaig, and all of a sudden I remembered an image from the Norman writer Giraldus Cambrensis and came up with ‘A Norman Simile’; the muses were instructing me, I thought, to be myself, not to go with public expectations of something oceanic and tidal and super-Nobelish, but to stay fresh and true to the old channels’.

  • simile: figure of speech comparing two different objects in such a way as to clarify and enhance an image or idea;
  • be oneself: act naturally according to personality or instinct;
  • Gerald of Wales (c.1146-c.1223) (Giraldus Cambrensis): Cambro-Norman archdeacon of Brecon and historian; royal clerk to king Stephen and two archbishops, he travelled widely and wrote extensively both in France and in Rome . His Topographia Hiberniae is an account of Ireland and its early history as seen by a Norman in A.D. 1185.; possessed a delightful gift for storytelling; (Cambro-Norman: Irish preference to Anglo Norman describing those who settle in South Wales after the Norman Conquest of 1066);
  • Arklow: town in County Wicklowon the east coast of Ireland founded by the Vikings in the ninth century. Arklow was the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the 1798 rebellion;
  • 2 couplets in a single sentence; lines12-13 syllables; unrhymed

  • assonant echoes: ‘Niamh…Oisin…giddy…chimney…collie…giddy…freak’/ ‘grand…saddle…black’/ ‘giddy…wind…Billy…chimney’/ ‘hair…air’/ ‘fly…line’/ ‘carbo-dotting…wash’;

  • alliterative strands: [f] ‘flakes flecking…fly’; nasals [m/n];

  • single triplet in 1 sentence; lines 11-12 syllables; rhymed;
  • assonant echoes: ‘’self…Gerald…expect’/ ‘ark…harbour’/ ‘Wales…says’/ ‘high-tide
  • alliterative strands: front-of-mouth [w]’water…Wales…Arklow…when’
  • Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to.
  • the music of the poem: fifteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text:
  • 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;


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