The Bookcase


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

The piece is constructed to high specification and entirely fit for purpose – made of quality material (ashwood or oakwood); expertly prepared (planed to silkiness) and joined (mitred); each length of wood tested for straightness (much eyed-along) and naturally coloured (vellum-pale); shelves that have stood the test of weight and time (held and never sagged) – in short, perfection (virtue … from its very shipshapeness).

Heaney’s memory-eye comes to rest on a book-spine that by its colour triggers a 1940s’/50s’association (rough blue paper bags loose sugar was once sold in); if the book’s publisher was a head-scratch (Oliver & Boyd’s?) the title was not (Collected Hugh MacDiarmid).

A second volume (Selected Elizabeth Bishop) the colour of skimmed milk bluey-white published by Chatto sits next to a matching pair (murex of Macmillan’s Collected Yeats… Collected Hardy) with a selected poem from each. 

The bookcase held records too (voices of Frost and Wallace Stevens  a Caedmon double album) – including a recording of Dylan Thomas at the top of his voice, the Welsh poet who fell victim to his addiction (the Bushmills killed) and, foreseeing his inevitable demise perhaps, left a poignant legacy along the lines of ’let off steam about things and hang on for as long as you can’ (‘Do Not Go Gentle.’ ‘Don’t be going yet.’)

  • plane: tool with a steel blade for shaving and smoothing wooden surfaces;
  • mitre: 90 degree joint between two pieces of wood where the joining point is at 45 degrees;
  • vellum-pale: a writing surface derived from animal (principally calf) skin; medieval texts were very often composed or copied onto vellum; after long preparation the finished material for writing on was off-white off-cream in colour;
  • run the eye along: look down the length of a prepared surface as a rough check for alignment or discrepancy;
  • hold: retain its shape permanently
  • sag: sink, be weighed down in the middle;
  • virtue: sign of quality;
  • shipshape: in good order, trim;
  • rough: basic, simple, crude;
  • loose: describing an item that arrives in bulk and is weighed into smaller amounts;
  • jacket: detachable outer cover of a book;
  • Oliver and Boyd: publishing firm originating in Edinburgh; established around 1807 byThomas Oliver (1776-1853) and George Boyd (died 1843); built up a reputation for educational, science and medical books
  • collected: variously the complete works of a single author or an assemblage of works by a single author;
  • Hugh Mac Diarmid: M. Grieve, best known under his pseudonym Hugh MacDiarmid; credited with effecting a Scottish literary revolution; acknowledged as the greatest poet that his country has produced since Robert Burns; writer, political theorist, revolutionary, prophet, and multifaceted personality; man to be reckoned with sufficiently admired by Heaney to find a place in his bookcase;
  • skimmed milk: from which the cream has been removed;
  • Chatto: publishing house traceable back to 1855 still publishing outstanding literary fiction and contemporary international writers as well as the best literary biography, memoir, history, cultural comment, cookery and poetry;
  • selected: chosen from a writer’s oeuvre for some particular reason;
  • Elizabeth Bishop: 1911 in Worcester, Massachusetts and grew up there and in Nova Scotia; father died before she was a year old and her mother, suffering seriously from mental illness was committed to an institution when Bishop was five; raised first by her maternal grandparents in Nova Scotia, then wealthy paternal grandparents in Massachusetts; during her lifetime a respected yet somewhat obscure figure in the world of American literature. Since her death in 1979, seen by many as one of the most important 20th century American poets” of the 20th century; a perfectionist who did not write prolifically, publishing only 101 poems; verse marked by precise descriptions of the physical world , an air of poetic serenity; underlying themes include the struggle to find a sense of belonging, and the human experiences of grief and longing
  • murex: describing a purple shade of colour;
  • Macmillan: publishing house founded in Scotland in 1843; publications included works by Yeats and Hardy, mentioned here; still operational on the international stage under a different name
  • Yeats: William Butler Yeats is widely considered to be one of the greatest poets of the 20th century; belonged to the Protestant, Anglo-Irish minority that had controlled the economic, political, social, and cultural life of Ireland but was staunch in affirming his Irish nationality. Neil Corcoran suggested that Heaney was ‘ braced but not bound by the Yeatsian legacy’; Michael Cavanagh:’ Yeats has never been an inhibiting father to Heaney but an enabling elder brother’;
  • ‘Memory’: One had a pretty face,/ and two or three had charm,/ but charm and face were in vain,/ because the mountain grass / cannot but keep the form / where the mountain hare has lain;
  • Thomas Hardy: (1840–1928), English novelist and poet of the Victorian period much admired by Heaney; born in Dorset (Wessex), inspired by Wordsworth, sensitive to a perceived decline in rural society and concerned with the individual’s struggleagainst the indifferent force that inflicts the sufferings and ironies of life; notable for Far from the Madding  Crowd (1874) The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891), and Jude the Obscure (1896);
  • ‘The Voice’: Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me, / Saying that now you are not as you were / When you had changed from the one who was all to me, / But as at first, when our day was fair. // Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then, / Standing as when I drew near to the town / Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then, /Even to the original air-blue gown! // Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness / Travelling across the wet mead to me here, / You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness, / Heard no more again far or near? // Thus I; faltering forward, / Leaves around me falling, / Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward, / And the woman calling.
  • Robert Frost 1872-1963: his work was initially published in England before it was published in America; known for his realistic depictions of rural life and his command of American colloquial language;
  • Caedmon double album: the company produced vinyl recordings that included poets reading their own work, for example Dylan Thomas in 1952, Robert Frost (1957); name associated with the 7th century Northumbrian cattle-man working at Whitby Abbey who became an accomplished Christian poet;
  • Wallace Stevens: American modernist poet born in Reading, Pennsylvania, educated at Harvard and then New York Law School; spent most of his life working as an executive for an insurance company in Hartford, Connecticut; awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his Collected Poems in 1955;
  • Dylan Thomas (1914-1953: ‘Wales’ most literary son’ spent time in Donegal in 1935 ‘recuperating from the ravages of drink’: little did his agent who brought him there realize that the area was a major producer of poitín; Thomas liked a dram or two of Bushmills distilled in Co Antrim;:
  • ‘Do Not Go etc.; Do not go gentle into that good night,/ Old age should burn and rave at close of day;/ Rage, rage against the dying of the light. // Though wise men at their end know dark is right, / Because their words had forked no lightning they/ Do not go gentle into that good night.// Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright / Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay, / Rage, rage against the dying of the light. // Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight, / And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,/ Do not go gentle into that good night. // And you, my father, there on the sad height, / Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray. / Do not go gentle into that good night./ Rage, rage against the dying of the ligh
  • Bushmills: brand of Irish whisky;
  • 4 quartets; lines 10-12 syllables;
  • unrhymed 14 sentence construct – anexpanded enumeration of authors, publishers and performers;
  • question marks indicate attempt from distance to refresh memory;
  • Q1 assonant strands: ‘planed…pale…case…shape’/ ‘mitres…eyed’/ ‘board…forth’/ ‘vellum…held…never’;
  • alliterations: [m/n] ‘planed…silkiness…mitred…vellum’; sibilants [s]’case…sagged…shipshapeness’; labio-dental [v/f] ‘virtue…forth…very’;
  • Q2 assonant strands ’who…blue…loose…Hugh’/ ‘rough…sugar’/ ‘mid…skimmed milk’;
  • alliterations: [m] remember… might remember…MacDiarmid…skimmed milk’; alveolar [t/d] ’collected…MacDiarmid…skimmed’;
  • Q3/4 assonant strands ‘bluey…murex’/ ‘Hardy… memory…Hardy’/ ‘Elizabeth Bishop… Macmillan’/ ‘Yeats…Caedmon’/ ‘double volume…Bushmills’; ‘too…volume’
  • alliterations [m]; [h] [y]; labio-dental [v/f];voice…voices…Frost…Stevens…shelves…different…full volume’; sibilant variations [s/z/sh]


An association with childhood is generated by the swing of the bookcase door (the gate I hung on once at Mossbawn that followed the same scientific principle (swung its arc through air) and opened wide (round to the hedge-back).

Heaney’s in-home door opened with a slight stiffness (druggy hinge) and revealed collected treasures (load divulging into a future perfect tense) under the relaxed eye of poet and wife (hang loose, ruminating), both revelling in the home-grown content (‘ books from Ireland’) and consulting a 7th century non-Irish commentator (Venerable Bede ) who averred that early Irish books had curative medicinal properties – a mystical potion – scrapings off individual pages steeped in water deemed to soothe the worst possible symptoms (palliate the effect of snake-bite).

Bede’s conclusion, much applauded by the Heaneys, is that Ireland (this isle) is a God-favoured site of comforting security: ‘almost everything confers immunity’.

  • arc: curve from a pivot point
  • druggy hinge: hard to associate opiates with this expression (!) – best guess the hinge was tight because it needed a drop of oil (Germanic droge ‘dry’), archaic variant of ‘drag;’
  • hinge: movable joint permitting opening and closing;
  • divulge: make known something previously secret;
  • future perfect(possible pun: verb tense expressing completion in the future as in ‘will have done’; future tense producing perfect outcomes;
  • hang loose (informal US): behave in a relaxed non-serious way;
  • ruminate: chew over, think about;
  • Venerable Bede (673-735): (also known as St Bede) widely regarded as the greatest of all the Anglo-Saxon scholars, living and dying between the twin monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow  in the North East of England; wrote or translated some forty books on practically every area of knowledge; his most famous writing was on theology and history and his best known work is The Ecclesiastical History of the English People.
  • scrape: remove, rake, scratch tiny fragments from a surface
  • leaves: pages;
  • steep: soak;
  • palliate: reduce, relieve;
  • confer: bestow (as if a gift from above);
  • immunity: resistance to, protection from something nasty


  • 3 quartets in 2 sentences; unrhymed; heavily enjambed; line length 9-12 syllables;
  • Q1 assonant echoes: ‘hung…once…swung…book…druggy….divulge’/ ‘hinge…-ing…into’/ ‘through…future’/ ‘heavy…hedge…tense;
  • alliterative strands: [h] heavy…hung…hedge…hinge’; alveolar [d] ‘hedge…druggy…load…divulging;
  • future perfect: on the one hand ‘will have been’ verb tense; on the other the tense ‘will be’ of a perfect future
  • Q2/3 assonant echoes: ’loose…ruminate’/ ‘we…three…repeat…each…Bede…history’/ ‘Ireland…writes…bite…isle’/ ‘scrapings…palliate…snake…states’/ ‘leaves…steeped’/ ‘
  • alliterative strands: [w] ‘where we…words…writes’; nasals [m/n]’on…thing…confers immunity’; bilabial [p/b] ‘scrapings…books…steeped…palliate…bite’;



Heaney appreciates the bookcase’s design (I liked the lines and weight of it), its proportions (measuredness), its placement and the craftsmanship (carpentered right angles); he shudders at the thought of its loaded weight (I could feel in my neck and shoulder).

He looks up two scenes from the shelves (books from everywhere) that paint bleak images: firstly a William Faulkner character, a carpenter (Cash in As I Lay Dying), outlining the design of his mother’s casket – with its sloping edge (‘on the bevel’), easier to secure permanently (more surface for the nails) and more impressive (a better job) to those who will attend her funeral.

Secondly the stage set of an Irish one-act play (Riders to the Sea … Synge) reveals new boards standing by the wall placed there as coffin wood for Maurya’s son Michael who is missing at sea or another son Bartley who intends to brave the storm in search of him. Maurya’s foreboding will come true for both her sons (like storm-gleams on the flood), their coffins floating in the swell.

Heaney’s bookcase is drawn into the scene, recovered (salt salvaged) from the watery depths and rebuilt as a raft for books, or to transport a coffin and its contents (bier to be borne) – he pictures himself and Marie set to bear a heavy load (braced ourselves for the first lift) then thrown off balance (staggering) by the unexpected– without corpse or books it has no weight (grown so light).

  • chiefly:
  • measuredness: with pleasing proportions;
  • carpenter: made by an expert, cabinet-maker;
  • Cash, As I Lay Dying: Cash Bundrun, a character in William Faulkner’s novel of that name;
  • bevel:
  • Riders of the Sea, Synge: play written by Irish Literary Renaissance playwright John Millington Synge first performed on 25 February 1904; one-act tragedy set in the Aran Islands and noted for capturing the poetic dialogue of rural Ireland. The plot is based not on the traditional conflict of human wills but on the hopeless struggle of a people against the impersonal but relentless cruelty of the sea.
  • Maurya: grief-stricken widow and mother of eight children; in the first scene her son Michael is missing at sea and clothes recovered from a drowned man
  • flood: sea, storm surge;
  • salt-salvaged: recovered, from, cast up by the sea;
  • raft: floating timber structure;
  • bier: a frame on wheels carrying a corpse or coffin;
  • brace oneself: prepare oneself for something heavy or unpleasant;
  • stagger: lurch, sway;


  • 4 quartets in 8 unrhymed sentences’; variable line length 9-13 syllables;
  • sentence 7 enjambed, otherwise balance of punctuation and enjambment;
  • Q1 assonant echoes: I liked…lines…right…my’./ ‘chiefly…feel
  • alliterative strands: nasal [m/n]’lines…measuredness…long…neck’; velar [k] ‘back…carpentered…could…neck…books’;
  • Q2 assonant echoes: ‘lay…makes…stated…nails…makes
  • alliterative strands: [k] ‘Cash…makes…coffin’/ ‘first…surface’;
  • Q3 assonant echoes: ‘Riders…specifies…direction…white’/ ‘boards…wall…Maurya…storm’/ ‘sea…speech… gleams
  • alliterative strands: sibilants [s/z] Riders…Sea Synge specifies… stage’ etc; [m] ‘Maurya …storm-gleams’;
  • Q4 assonant echoes: ‘makings…bracings’/ ‘very end…selves’/ ‘salvaged…raft…imagine…staggering…balance’/ ‘grown so’;
  • alliterative strands: bilabial [b]books…bier…borne…bracing…balance’; sibilants ‘salt salvaged makings…books’;


  • 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