The Loose Box

The title focuses on the particular compartment within the Mossbawn stable complex in which the animal was free to move about.

In her review of Electric Light (Irish Times of Mon, Jun 3, 2019) under the heading ‘Heaney the Survivor’, Helen Vendler suggests that ‘the best vehicle for a memory-cluster is a poetic sequence. The Loose Box provides Heaney with the vehicle to grasp, explore and expand the bundles of associations that orbit his central focus.

The sequence’s central motif is food … the fodder offered to the farm’s animals … the electric charge providing sustenance for the creative mind …  the single natural component of an underwhelming Christmas Nativity scene witnessed by child-Heaney … the sacrifices fed a monstrous threshing machine that elated adolescent reader … the hay-store in which the hubris of an iconic Irish figure first came to light.


Heaney describes a special place: his memory-eye re-enters the farm’s ‘loose box’ focussing at the dark end on the manger in which the horse’s fodder is stored (hayrack), moving from its wood strip construction, its wide-open mouth  secured at chest height (breast-high beam), its taper(angled tautly down) to floor level, its mature seasoned timber polished by constant contacts (silked), its end mountings (brackets) completing the kangaroo-like image of a marsupial bellypouch.

Beneath the rack is comfortable bedding (deep-littered) and, though empty on the day (silence), ample evidence of recent use (horsedung) at once inoffensive (odourless), non-persistent (untainting) and characteristic (fibrous).

  • slat: thin, narrow batten of wood;
  • taut: tight, rigid;
  • breast: chest;
  • beam: sturdy length of timber supporting a roof or floor;
  • silked: rubbed to a fine finish;
  • seasoned: from which moisture has been removed, suitable for long-lasting use;
  • ‘straw’ and ‘hay’ are not the same thing though Heaney is happy that they both
  • rack: framework of wood in which to store things;
  • marsupial: reference to creatures that carry their young in a belly-pouch
  • litter: straw bedding
  • taint: contaminate; befoul;
  • dung: animal droppings;


  • 5 lines; variable line length between 10/13 syllables; unrhymed;
  • rhythm and flow based on a balance of punctuation and enjambment over 2 sentences;
  • neat combination of alliteration and assonance ‘silked and seasoned timber’;
  • sense of sight dominates alongside bland almost non-smells;
  • comparison: manger and marsupial;
  • compounds for economy of words: ‘breast-high, ‘deep littered’


Heaney, the collector of poets’ voices (v. ‘Book Case’) listens in an old recording to the words of a kindred, creative spirit, Patrick Kavanagh extoling the benefits (health and worth) of Ireland’s greatest natural feature (the properties of land).

The physical make-up of Ireland’s soil (sandy, glarry, mossy, heavy, cold) that Kavanagh describes is, however, secondary in Heaney’s mind to the boost poets derive from making it part of a poem: the tonic to the creative soul (inner restitution), the  firm foothold (purchase) of the poetic ‘tum-tee-tum’ (pacing it in words) and the ‘yes’ feeling of sound meter (found your feet in what ‘surefooted’ means) and personal match (the ground of your own understanding).

Hercules of classical mythology springs to Heaney’s mind as he considers the challenges poets face  – the weight on their shoulders (standing under Atlas’s sky-lintel), the same exhilarating, dizzying electric charge that runs through Heaney’s being (as earthed and heady) when he writes of his loose box.

  • recording: words put onto disc for subsequent broadcast;
  • Patrick Kavanagh (1904-67): Irish poet and novelist. His best-known works include the novel Tarry Flynn, and the poems “On Raglan Road” and “The Great Hunger”; known for his accounts of Irish life through reference to the everyday and commonplace;
  • health: benefit;
  • worth: value;
  • property: attribute; aspect;
  • glarry: ‘… Ulster muddy. The Donegal Irish is glar’ Diarmaid O’Muirithe in an Irish Times article of Feb 1, 2019;
  • matter: be important;
  • restitution: restoration, rebuilding, reward, something back;
  • purchase: firm contact, leverage;
  • pace: measure step by step, set out rhythmically;
  • find one’s feet: become accustomed, adjust;
  • surefooted: confident, unlikely to stumble;
  • ground: foundation, basis;
  • Heracles: Hercules: a hero from antiquity; apprentice-god, set 12 Labours;
  • Atlas: a Titan from classical antiquity, punished for his part in their revolt against Zeus by being made to support the heavens; became identified with the Atlas Mountains;
  • lintel: horizontal weight-bearing support over door or window;
  • earthed: connected (electrically) to the ground;
  • heady: exhilarated, invigorated;


  • single 12 line stanza in 2 complete sentences; unrhymed;
  • line length largely based on 10 syllables;
  • flow of delivery governed by the balance of punctuation and enjambed lines
  • whole range of adjectives ending in suffix ‘y’ ‘tending, inclined towards’;
  • vocabulary alluding to poetry: ’pacing’/ ‘feet’, extending to metaphor ‘surefooted’;
  • alliterative effects: ‘that there’s health and worth’/ ‘found…feet…surefooted’/ ‘Herakles stepping in and standing’; assonant ‘pacing it in words’;
  • electric effects: ‘ground… earthed’;
  • classical parallels;


Once upon a time child-Heaney came face to face in church with a kitschy, 1940s’ representation of the Nativity. In comparison with the eloquent New Testament story in which visitors to the new-born child found the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger the crib tableau came a poor second – a distinctly non-human, anachronistic plaster child in nappies, unprotected (bare baby-breasted), clearly the epitome of lifelessness (little rigor vitae), unnaturally deformed (crook-armed), with tiny, tinted finger nails (seed-nailed) and conspicuous lack of warmth (gloss and chill).

The Jesus replica fell well below child-Heaney’s expectation via his Sunday-School training (he wasn’t right at all) as did a Nativity-setting with no proper Mossbawn-style manger (no hayrack to be seen).

Child-Heaney’s appraisal is thorough: marginal disapproval of the humble bystanders (solid stooping shepherds), of the unreal stiff-lugged donkey which, together with Jesus’ parents, were deliberately (well and truly) placed in the winter crib … the token attempt to add something natural and available (real straw on the side-altar) … in short all the wrong size (out-of-scale), broken down (crockery, kneeling cow)  and spoilt by contemporary embellishment – Christmassy fairy lights.

By far the child’s main gripe (But) was the total absence of fodder provision he would have found in the ‘loose box’ (no fodder-billowed armfuls spilling over).

Child-Heaney, kneeling in reverence at the altar rail, has to battle with his Catholic conscience so as not to admit the let-down to myself.

  • reference Luke 2:12 ‘And this shall be a sign to you’, New Testament message delivered by the angel of the Lord announcing the birth of Jesus to terror-stricken shepherds in the fields;
  • swaddling: cloth a child is wrapped in;
  • manger: rack from which animals feed;
  • plaster: hard white mixture used in sculpture; cheap version of carved wood or metal;
  • nappy: absorbent towelling wrapped between baby’s legs;
  • rigor vitae: (pun) ante-mortem ‘stiffening of life’ more readily understandable in the context of rigor (stiffening) mortis (of death), the post-mortem stiffening of joints;
  • crooked: bent out of shape;
  • seed-nailed: the tiny finger nails on tiny hands, the size and colour of seeds;
  • stoop: bend in reverence;
  • stiff: rigid;
  • lug; animal’s ear;
  • crib: Nativity model using a manger as a bed;
  • well and truly: completely;
  • altar: surface used in Christian worship; where sacred vessels and icons are laid out;
  • scale: proportion;
  • crockery: rickety, decrepit’;
  • fairy lights: strings of small decorative electric lights;
  • billow: bulge, swell outwards;
  • let-down: disappointment;


  • sonnet form via full and half lines; volta after 12 lines (unconventional);
  • 6 complete sentences; unrhymed;
  • a child might start sentences with ‘and’ or ‘but’,
  • multiple adjectives add punctuation to the balance of enjambed lines;
  • use of italics the first providing an epigram the second punning on Latin ‘rigor mortis’;
  • sense of childish let-down present in negatives ‘no’, ‘not’;
  • alliteration based on paired bilabial [p] [b]: ‘plaster…nappies…bare baby breasted’; on sibilant [s]: ‘seen…solid stooping shepherds… seen’; assonant effect: ‘’seed…be seen’/truly…even real… kneeling’/ ‘billowed…spilling’;
  • word order: ‘He wasn’t right at all’ placed emphatically;
  • compounds useful for economy;


The Mossbawn ‘loose box’ admirer and crib-watcher (stable child) of those early years became more clear-headed and informed (stabler) via his reading in adolescence of Thomas Hardy (marked in Heaney’s mind by the author’s distressful tones – dolens).

The spiritual spur Hardy provided (magnified my soul) came not from his Christmas Eve night-piece ( ) oxen in their bedded stall, but from the manic, life-threatening vibrations of the threshing machine episode in chapter 47 of Tess of the D’Urbevilles.  

Heaney sets out the  frenzied motion of raving machinery … untamed bronco seeking to unseat its rider (bucking sky)… gouger of the ground beneath it (rut-shuddery) … destructive agent of Homeric proportion (headless Trojan horse) spewing out discarded straw from the top …  self-feeding, ever-hungry contraption (underjaws like staircases set champing)  … its cocktail of sound, now low and continuous (hummed) now percussive (slugged) as dictated by the tensions (big sag and slew) of the continuous canvas belt  driven in turn by a revolving flywheel  capable of executing the unwary (cut your head off if you didn’t watch).

Images and sensations of threshing days come flowing back to Heaney: the uncontrolled swirl of flying particles (mote-sweaty havoc), the frenzied hyperactivity (mania).  The sacrificial rituals of distant  Mexican cultures spring to mind: feeders (at the very top of the machine) like pyre-high Aztec priests slitting the twine (gutting) round the bodies of forked sheaves and feeding them unprotected (ungirded) to the drum where grain was ripped away from the stalks. Separated now, the undigested gulped straw is expendable (slack), the grain-filled sacks bulge with sustenance (belly-taut).

Darkness (stilly night) brings respite as the ground still licks its wounds: earth raw where the four wheels rocked and battled.

  • stable: balanced, clear-headed;
  • adolescence: teenage years;
  • dolens: (from Latin participle) hurting, lamenting, suffering;
  • 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); Heaney refers to the threshing scene in chapter 47 of his novel Tess of the D’Urbevilles;

In Station Island’s The Birthplace Heaney pays his respects to Hardy at his home in Upper Bockhampton, Dorset, England, describing the rooms in which Hardy lived and worked reminiscent of the Heaney boyhood home at Mossbawn in Ulster; Lightenings vi of Seeing Things contrasts Hardy the precocious boy with the eccentric, slightly demented old man he became;

  • Ronald Schuchard teacher of a class of Emory University students at an Oxford Summer School in 1982 on a visit to Hardy’s grave tells of an unexpected encounter: Soon came the creak of the iron entrance gate and the appearance of a lone distant figure, whom I ignored in turning back to a poem until I saw the uplifted eyes of the students watching the person approach. I was gobsmacked: it was Seamus Heaney! “Hello, fellow pilgrims,” he said. “I’m on my own Hardy pilgrimage to the gravesite and birthplace and thought I would join you if it wouldn’t be an interruption.” And so for the next hour Heaney shared in the picnic with the awe-struck students, recited and discussed several of Hardy’s poems from memory, and talked of Hardy’s importance to him—of how Hardy had liberated him from the intimidating intellectualism and abstraction of much modern poetry and shown him that he could write about the people, places, and objects of County Derry as Hardy had written of those of Dorset (Into the Heartland of the Ordinary p271);
  • oddly enough: as it happens;
  • stall: pen, enclosure;
  • threshing: separating grain from corn;
  • magnify: boost;
  • soul: inner seat of a person’s emotions;
  • raving: uncontrolled, frenzied;
  • buck: operate in sudden jerks;
  • rut: deep track made by wheels;
  • shuddery: shaking convulsively;
  • Trojan Horse: hollow wooden statue filled with Greek soldiers taken into Troy and bringing about its downfall;
  • expel: throw out;
  • jaw: mouthpart where chewing takes place;
  • champ: chew noisily
  • slug: assonant representation of repeated, muffled percussive thump;
  • sagging: hanging loosely;
  • slew: sideways lurch;
  • canvas belt: long continuous canvas band linking motion from one section of a machine to another;
  • flow: move, pass;
  • flywheel: heavy, revolving wheel in a machine;
  • mote: speck, particle;
  • havoc: chaotic disruption;
  • mania: demented hyperactivity;
  • feeder: person throwing in the raw material;
  • pyre: sacrificial altar;
  • Aztec priests: religion in the Aztec Empire included rituals and prayers during religious festivals and ceremonies and also human sacrifice performed by priests;
  • gut: disembowel;
  • forked: v-shaped;
  • sheaf: bundle
  • ungirded: with the string that held it together removed;
  • drum: central cylinder;
  • slack: loose, free;
  • gulp: swallow quickly and noisily;
  • belly-taut; reference to tightly filled grain bag;
  • stilly: hushed calm;
  • chaff: discarded husks;
  • raw: sore, tender;
  • rock: lurch from side to side;
  • battle: fight tenaciously;


  • 20 lines in a single verse; line length based on 10 syllables;
  • 5 sentences, unrhymed; the rhythm and flow are governed by the balance between punctuated and enjambed lines; this is particularly evident in the raving machine section;
  • pun on word ‘stable’;
  • author very much present in his narrative;
  • Latin ‘dolens’ selected by Heaney as best expressing his feelings about Hardy’s innate personality;
  • specific reference to Hardy text and their effect on Heaney’s morale;
  • vocabulary of huge drama -thresher turned into a massive, godlike automaton with animal characteristics threatening violence on everything around it including human life;
  • notions of sacrifice to a god figure in ancient Mexican culture references;
  • assonant effects ‘underjaws…hummed and slugged’/’pyre-high’/’feeders…priests’/’bucking…rut-shuddery’/’whole mote’;
  • alliterative effects, sibilant variants ‘stable…stabler…adolescence…Thomas dolens’/’sag and slew…canvas’;
  • use of compound nouns and adjectives ‘night-piece’/ ‘rut-shuddery’/’mote-sweaty’/’belly-taut;


The literal and metaphorical fall of iconic fighter for Irish independence Michael Collins who fell foul of political infighting and was assassinated, Irish-on-Irish, in April 1922 (ambushed at Beal na Blath).

Heaney contrasts the grisly murder with the delicate sonic ring of the spot where it happened (Pass of Flowers … Blossom Gap) the place where Collins started his blossom-rich (bloom-drifted) journey into the underworld (soft Avernus mouth).

He sets the murder in a hay-store – Collins felled by a shot (nothing to hold on to) taking his assailants on with no chance of survival (willingly … lastly), as if he ignored warnings and chose his own death-site (foreknowledgeably).

A similar hay-floor witnessed an alleged childhood incident in which Collins fell through the bedded mouth of the loft trapdoor ( ) the loosening fodder-chute to the floor below. To Heaney the story signals Collins’s hubris: a naive act (one of his boy-deeds) entering the mouth of hell (hidden jaws of that hay crevasse) and by emerging unscathed and, ‘fanked up’ by a dazzle of pollen scarves, believing he is invulnerable.

Heaney ponders hero status: the boyhood accident (fall within his fall) that reduced his judgment to an underworld of understanding, provides a more realistic appraisal of his leadership qualities than the State funeral he received (newsreel lying-in-state … footage of the laden gun-carriage … grim cortege).

Heaney is happy to talk freely (so it can be stated) albeit within the context of a fusty, confined Irish space in which a horse can move at will and people say what they feel in camera: the must and drift of talk about the loose box.

  • Michael Collins: Irish revolutionary, soldier and politician, leading figure in the early-20th-century Irish struggle for independence; Chairman of the Provisional Government of the Irish Free State from January 1922 until his assassination at Beal na Blath near Cork; on Sunday August 20th, 1922, at around 7:30 in the evening he was shot dead in an ambush whilst actively returning fire against his ambushers. The day that he was shot, August 22nd, 1922, became a historical landmark;
  • drift: accumulation;
  • Avernus: lake near Naples regarded by Virgil as the entrance to the underworld (‘where no birds sing’);
  • willingly: by choice;
  • foreknowledge: warning;
  • bedded: hay-covered;
  • loft: space immediately beneath the roof;
  • trapdoor: hinged panel in a floo;
  • chute: sloping channel to conveying things to a lower leve;
  • aftermath: after-effects, repercussions;
  • crevasse: chasm, abyss;
  • unscathed: unhurt;
  • dazzle: brightness, brilliance;
  • pollen: fine grainy substance discharged by plants;
  • scarf: wrap;
  • find one’s feet: adjust to/ get used to something;
  • newsreel: short news’ films for pre-television cinema showing;
  • lie in state: be honoured in public;
  • footage: cinema record of an event;
  • laden: loaded (with Collins’ coffin);
  • gun-carriage: wheeled support for piece of artillery;
  • grim: dreadful, awful;
  • cortege: solemn funeral procession;
  • must: describing a smell of mildew, fustiness;


  • 21 lines in 3 verses; the short final verse brings Heaney back to where he started;
  • variable line length between 7 and 13 syllables; unrhymed; the spoken flow of the poem very dependent on the balance between punctuation and enjambment
  • irony: gruesome assassination and its euphemistic variants in Irish translation; the rise ‘dazzle of pollen scarves’ and fall ‘grim cortege’ of a larger-than-life figure;
  • dramatized, visual comparison: the miracle of survival ‘get to his feet again’ and imminent death ‘nothing to hold on to’;
  • classical references: ‘Avernus’…’underworld’; vocabulary of descent: ‘falls’…’down’…chute’…’fall’
  • accretion of adverbs ending in suffix ‘y’;
  • assonant effects ‘loosening…chute’/’hay…again…unscathed’/; alliterative nasal effect ‘Michael…ambushed…blossom…bloom’; labio dental [f] ‘fall…flower-floor…find’’;
  • use of compounds ‘bloom-drifted’/ fodder-chute’’/ ‘boy-deeds’;
  • Heaney states his sources written and newsreel


  • 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: ffifteen 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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