The Little Canticles of Asturias

Three snippets from a wider poetic travelogue recount stages along the roads of northern Spain that lead to Santiago de Compostela, the cathedral city and culmination of the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrim Way of St James.

Heaney and his passengers are not pilgrims as such and Heaney only reaches Santiago de Compostela in imagination.

Heaney’s canticles, traditionally hymns or chants, are composed as three short pieces. The first paints a real-life descent into a Dantesque hell; the second, the calm after the storm, focuses on the spiritual and emotional restitution of the soul; the third concentrates on bodily recovery before returning to the pilgrim theme.


Heaney presents an on-going (and then) chronicle at mid-point (in medias res). Driver and passengers have been on the road for a long time (midnight) when suddenly below them a fiery landscape appears (the burning valley of Gijon), painted in stark, dark brush strokes (blacks and crimsons) and bearing all the hallmarks of the mythological underworld fires of hell.

The blazing industrial panorama awakens a déjà-vu (it was as if … long ago) – the flush of alarm from childhood days (as if my own face burned again) that occurred on the day a fire was lit (pile of newspapers) that ran out of control – paper edges curled by the heat (fanned-up lip) close to the jaws of the conflagration (crimson maw) –  paper clusters stoked by the wind breaking off-and away, pretty to the eye (flame-posies) but suddenly, as realisation dawned and the mood music changed, agents of destruction (small airborne fire-ships) capable of burning down the whole farm (house-thatch … stacks).

Alarm bells are ringing now (we almost panicked), generated by an extraordinary landscape (epic blaze … furnaces … hot refineries) in which human workers toil (night shift), exposed to heat and light (in their element).

Direction finding in the darkness of an unknown city causes dismay (we lost all hope of reading the map right), exhausted emotions boil over, control is compromised (gathered speed) and foul language passes lips: cursed the hellish roads.

  • Gijon: large coastal city in northern Spain; its heavy industries included manufacturingof chemicals, iron, and steel that would later decline;
  • in medias res: a narrative work beginning in medias res opens in the midst of the plot; exposition filled in gradually, either through dialogue, flashbacks or description of past events in the midst of things;
  • burn: blaze, glow;
  • fan up: intensify heat by injecting air;
  • maw: jaws;
  • break off;: become detached;
  • break away: become separated;
  • posy: flower bouquet;
  • fire-ship: in maritime history a ship full of combustibles sent to drift amidst enemy ships to set them on fire;
  • thatch: straw or reed roof covering;
  • stack: mound of straw;
  • epic: grand scale, heroic;
  • furnace: structure for smelting metal;
  • refinery: industrial installation for refining crude oil;
  • shift: recurrent time of day when people work;
  • element: one of four earth, water, air and fire regarded in ancient and medieval times as basic constituents of the world, here fire;
  • in one’s element: in a situation where one can perform well
  • curse: fulminate against;


  • sonnet form, no distinguishable volta; effectively a single sentence in 2 hyphenated halves;
  • line length 9-11 syllables; unrhymed beyond some end-of-line assonant echoes;
  • near total enjambment leaves the reader to dramatize the descent into hell, loss of control and growing hopelessness;
  • give-way links with classical mythology: ‘epic’, ’hellish’, even ‘cursed’ as souls routinely did being transported over the Styx;
  • colour contrast: darkness/ deep colour shades; vocabulary of conflagration; lighting is artificial, man-made;
  • compounds: ‘flame-posies…’fire-ships’ (touch of Viking?)/’house-thatch’/’night-shift’;
  • alliterative effects: ‘front…fanned up’/ sometimes distanced : ’flame… fire…furnaces…refineries’; sibilant speed…cursed…hellish…roads’;
  • assonant effects: ‘papers…breaking…flame…danger/ ‘furnaces…worked’/ ‘reading…speed’;
  • in a collection that ranges across Europe proper nouns help to differentiate the differences between regions and cultures: ‘Gijon’;


If ‘Known World’ described Heaney’s discovery of ‘west-in-east’ then this piece uncovers a ‘north-in-south’.

Scene 2 plays out 20 miles west of Gijon (on the way to Piedras Blancas) – Gijon’s hellish cauldron is replaced by an altogether calmer, spiritually uplifting scene reminiscent of an Irish yesteryear.

Heaney is no longer the damned sinner about to be pitched into the fires of Gijon’s hell – today redemption beckons: I felt like a soul being prayed for.

His spirits are lifted by rural practices (men cutting aftergrass with scythes), nature at its productive best, both uniquely Spanish – (beehives in clover) with its rich and royal-born, sun-drenched harvest (maize like golden cargo in its hampers) – and could-be-Ireland with antiquated wells (a windlass) and evidence of devotion (shrine),

A hitherto unknown Spanish camino perhaps (pilgrim new upon the scene) yet one that conjures up an Irish déjà-vu from Heaney’s teenage years (home ground … Gaeltacht … nineteen-fifties) … the warmth that he, an insignificant stranger (of small concern) received on the Donegal coast in the 1950s replicated by the humble folk of Spanish Asturias (watch and wave at me from their other work) more than forty years on (the custom still near Piedras Blancas).

  • Piedras Blancs: capital of the municipality of Castrillón, in the province of Asturias, 20 miles west of Gijón and 185 miles west of Santiago de Compostela;
  • aftergrass: second growth after the first has been mown;
  • scythe: agricultural tool for mowing with long curved blade at the end of a long pole with handles;
  • beehive: dome-shaped or box structure home to bees;
  • clover: free-growing plant of pea family used as fodder or part of the crop-rotation system;
  • windlass: winch constructed over a well for raising water;
  • shrine: holy place dedicated to holy person;
  • maize: cereal crop producing corn or sweet-corn cobs covered with individual kernels used as animal fodder or human food;
  • hamper: basket with carrying handles
  • Gaeltacht: the Irish speaking districts of Ireland;; Heaney spent residential time learning and practising his Irish in his teens;
  • concern: importance, significance;


  • ten lines in a single verse in 3 sentences (2 short, 1 long and heavily enjambed)
  • from previous hell visions to lyrical eutopia;
  • ‘souls being prayed for’ alliterated with sibilant prayer whispers: ‘Piedras Blancas…soul…grass…scythes…hives…windlass’;
  • assonances: ‘Piedras…prayed’; ‘scythes…hives…shrine’; ‘clover…golden…cargo…home’;


The self-styled ‘pilgrim’ has reached a coastal town at the mouth of the Nalon in Asturias. To the spiritual uplift of the previous day Heaney adds physical replenishment (a bright day of the body) boosted by health-giving weather (sunlight).

His eye zooms from the coastal features beneath his feet (watercourses scored the level sand) out to the muted sound and bright light of the offing where river meets ocean (sea hushed and glittered outside the bar).

Movement in the air above grabs his attention – the dip and display (bobbed and flashed) of seabirds par excellence (gulls in excelsis), conjuring up images of altar boys (he was once one such) responding automaton-like to the liturgy (quick turns and tapers and responses) and bringing him back to the underlying meaning of the camino.

He pictures himself in the vast sun-starved space (great re-echoing cathedral gloom) of journey’s end for the pilgrims and echoes its distant name (Compostela, stela, stela) with final ‘starry’ repetitions that soar heavenwards as they die away.

  • San Juan de las Harenas : coastal town in Asturias
  • watercourse: stream, channel, the bed along which it flows;
  • score: cut or scratch into a surface;
  • hush: fall silent;
  • bar: sandbank at the mouth of a harbour or an estuary
  • gull: common long-winged, web-footed seabird;
  • in excelsis: in the highest degree; part of ‘Glory to God in the highest’ doxology;
  • bob: move up and down, dip and duck;
  • flash: flare, display, be prominent;
  • taper: be less conspicuous, dwindle
  • response: a reaction to events; a cued reaction to a priest’s verbal lead;
  • gloom: semi-darkness, dimness;
  • distant: faraway;
  • Santiago de Compostela is the capital of northwest Spain’s Galicia region. It’s known as the culmination of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route, and the alleged burial site of the Biblical apostle St. James; folk etymology suggests ‘Compostela’ comes from the Latin “Campus Stellae” (field of stars);


  • couplet followed by octet; lines of 8 -11 syllables; unrhymed;
  • couplet enjambed; 6-beat assonant launch: ‘At San Juan de las Harenas’;
  • octet: interwoven alliterated (sibilant ’sunlight…courses…scored…sand’) and assonant effects (‘courses…scored’;
  • spiritual superlative ‘in excelsis’;
  • simile birds and boys;
  • further plays on vowel and consonant sounds :’turns and taper/ ’re-echo…cathedral…stela’/ ‘hushed…gulls’/ ‘tapers…great’;
  • final sentence provides a delightful musical enjambment from ff to pp morendo;
  • 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: twelve 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;
  • the assonant and alliterative effects set out above for the first piece can be plotted into the following two;
  • 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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