An Afterwards

Seamus and Marie Heaney were strong individuals with differing personalities (‘our separateness’ of Glanmore Sonnet X), so the occasional contretemps is natural to a healthy relationship between two people faced with different priorities – his to make sure the bills were paid, hers to make sure their children enjoyed their fair share of father’s time.

Marie Heaney has reached an emotional flash-point! Her husband’s constant withdrawal up the ‘narrow winding stair’ to his workroom to meet a deadline or inhabit the world where poets were his ‘next of kin’ is an abdication of responsibility.

Heaney selects a scene from Dante’s Inferno to play out a dramatic exchange between man and wife. Once when Marie reached the end of her tether as occasionally happened (would) she consigned the whole poetic fraternity to the lowest level of Dante’s Hell (plunge all poets in the ninth circle) and adjoined them(fix) so that, Ugolino-like, they might slake their unspeakable appetites (tooth in skull, tonguing for brain).

Because poets repeatedly name call (backbiting in life) she would go one step further than Dante (make their hell), turning them into foaming self-centred madmen (rabid egotistical) and, with a repressed giggle, conjoin them inextricably (daisy-chain).

She ramps it up judging her husband and his ilk pitilessly: they are judgmental (unyielding) pressurizing (spurred) driven (ambitious) and hatchet-wielding (unblunted), but now held at the mouth (lockjawed), snared (mantrapped), vainly struggling to escape (fastened badger), skilled at oneupmanship (jockeying for position), but locked in place (hasped) just as it was in the Dante (mounted like Ugolino on Archbishop Roger).

Marie is down in the ninth circle with Dante, Virgil and Heaney stomping round (circuit of the ice) supported (aided and abetted) by a woman whom she feels to be a kindred spirit (Virgil’s wife).

Heaney hams it up in period language (I would cry out), calculatingly disarming (My sweet), buttering her up  by suggesting she is queen-of-the-castle (wears the bays) in their earthly home (our green land above) and peerless (the life most dedicated and exemplary)’.

Adopting theatrical hyperbole herself Marie offers no concessions to an absentee husband (‘I have closed my widowed ears’) tied up with his hellish literary ‘next of kin’ (sulphurous news of poets and poetry).

She appeals to his better nature, spelling out her grumbles indirectly: why not more time spent with the family (why … not…oftener); why so often present but distracted (not … unclenched); togetherness (me and your children) on a rare outing (walked the twilight) brought close contact with nature (evening of elder bloom … hay … wild roses… fading).

Then, fearing Dantean retribution for her candour (some maker gaffs me in the neck), Marie turns to litotes (‘You weren’t the worst’) … you did try (aspired) in your good natured (kind), casual (indifferent) kid-gloved way (faults-on-both-sides tact).

Time, Seamus, to put family (us) ahead of intellectual priorities (those books) and not, as has been the case, the reverse.

  • plunge: send plummeting:
  • ninth circle: the lowest and most damning level of Dante’s Inferno to which traitors were condemned; a lake of ice to which traitors were consigned the worst beneath the surface in perpetuity;
  • tongue: lick with the tongue;
  • brain: ‘grey matter’;
  • backbite: talk maliciously behind backs
  • rabid: mad, foaming (symptoms of rabies;
  • egotistical: self-centred, absorbed with oneself
  • daisy-chain: a string threaded together;
  • unyielding: inflexible under pressure:
  • spurred: urged, driven on;
  • unblunted: sharpened
  • lockjaw: where jaw muscles seize up as a symptom of tetanus:
  • mantrap: set to catch poachers or trespassers; note alternative impolite meaning of ‘trap’ as ‘mouth’
  • jockey for position: use whatever method to get one up on a rival;
  • hasp: hinged plate part of lock over a loop that is the secured;
  • mount: climb on top of;
  • Ugolino: character from Dante’s Inferno in which the 13th century count is imprisoned and starving with his children Heaney’s Ugolinois a translation from Dante’s Inferno, xxxii, xxxiii. describing the narrator meeting Archbishop Roger in Dante’s lowest depths of hell. Greek mythology presents examples of characters attempting to eat the brains of those responsible for their misfortune. Heaney explained in a 1989 interview that he felt Dante gave a “cosmic amplification” to Heaney’s own contemporary world of Irish Catholicism. This mythical idea is seen when Ugolino explains to the narrator that his previous jail is named ‘Hunger’ after him, suggesting he has achieved a mythical status.
  • Roger: At the end of canto 32, Dante finds Ugolino gnawing violently at the head of another sinner, Archbishop Ruggieri whom Ugolino holds responsible for the dreadful fates he and his sons suffered;
  • aid and abet: assist someone in committing or encourage someone to commit a crime. Generally, an aider and abettor is criminally liable to the same extent as the principal.
  • Virgil: In DanteAlighieri’s The Divine Comedy, Virgil plays a key role a key role serving as protector, knowledgeable guide and a model of human reason and wisdom. Virgil is very protective of Dante as they travel through the different circles of hell. The only character besides Dante to appear all the way through Inferno; generally taken by scholars to represent human reason, which guides and protects the individual (represented by Dante/Everyman) through the world of sin.
  • bays: bay leaves used to make triumphal crowns:
  • dedicated: devoted, unwavering;
  • sulphurous: vapour smelling of sulphur the chemical element of which hellfire and lightning were formerly believed to consist;
  • exemplary: ideal, flawless
  • maker: creator:
  • gaff: impale with a barbed spear;


  • DOD 206 SH: Obviously, there were many times when I was under pressure to finish stuff for a deadline, and there were absences from home when I was doing broadcasts or readings, and there were the withdrawals and impatiences that are part and parcel of writing. But you’re espoused to poetry too, after all and other poets dead and “alive, attain the status of in-laws. So in a sense you’re living a double life, with two families. Yet, given goodwill and good stamina – and humour – this particular bigamy is manageable. The humour, I’d have thought, is central to ‘An Afterwards ‘. Virgil’s wife – an entirely imaginary one – and the poet’s wife, there on the infernal ledges, looking down at the spouses in the ice of the ninth circle … The fiction of the poem makes my actual family sound jealous of my relationship with poetry; but, in fact, the thing is really about jealousy within the poetry family itself, ‘the sulphurous new of poets and poetry’, as the woman says … Marie used to joke – joke in earnest – that the stock market wasn’t nearly as bullish as the poetry market, that the financial markets were clean compared with the insider dealing of the salons. Dear as many a poet has been to her, she has always had her detachments;
  • MP 172 Marie’s role in ‘An Afterwards’, however, is as a corrective influence on the poet, voicing her legitimate anger at her husband’s neglectfulness. The opening stanzas picture a woman in vengeful mood, consigning Heaney’s fellow-scrlbblers to hell because of their eternal ‘backbiting’, ‘Jockeying for position’, and treachery.68 When, in the fourth verse, his ‘sweet’ is allowed direct speech and givesvent t her pent-up frustration, the effect is dramatic; the satiricalseIf-mocking note disappears. Her words are rooted in the real world, and speak of responsibilities unevenly shared, of missed opportunities, of loneliness within marriage, a concrete world of rooms, children, elder and rose blossoms. Love, and the tender lyrical images, soften her reproach. His inability to unwind, and the rarity of his laughter concern and move her, to the extent that she offers him a partial absolution in the final quatrain. At least in his poetry he had striven to be even-handed in his approach to the Troubles and, though he had been unfair to his family, something of value – ‘those books’, Wintering Out and North? – did emerge out of his ‘responsible tristia’;
  • NC 98 Heaney’s achievement in the marriage poems of Field Work is a large one. He has written a poetry of ordinary domestic happiness) of the dailiness and continuity of married love, entirely lacking in either sentimentality or self-satisfaction. The poems manage this partly by not disguising the difficulties. … In ‘An Afterwards’, the constant accommodations to be made between domestic obligation and poetic responsibility – the conflict notably defined by Yeats as the requirement that one 99choose ‘perfection of the life or of the work’ – are treated in an unsolemn register. The tensions are figured in the conceit which renders Ugolino’s punishment of Roger comically bathetic, de­picting the hell of poets who are concerned only with the ‘bays’ of critical renown as ‘a rabid egotistical daisy-chain’. For all the poem’s affectionately wry comedy, however, the wife’s question, with its heart-sinking enjambement, sadly rebukes the poet’s self-absorption: (‘Why could you not have, oftener, in our year/Unclenched, and come down laughing from your room)… She lets him off the hook, nevertheless, for his ‘kind, / Indiffer­ent, faults-on-both-sides tact’;


  • Six quatrains (Q) in eight sentences (including semi-colon parenthesis and 2 interrogatives); some direct speech;
  • Q1 – Q2 is set within Dante’s Hell with fictitious characters; almost comic linking of poets with the tooth of the one sunk into skull of the next and so on; five parts of the body woven into the narrative either specific or extended ‘backbiting, lockjawed; enumeration of unfavourable epithets;
  • Q3 into 4 Marie added to the presences in Dante’s Hell in and creating hell; madrigal-style intervention from the poet; infernal odour injected;
  • after line 15 we re-enter the Heaney world; Marie provides a litany of beefs; modulations and cadences soften the atmosphere as loving affection replaces remonstration; earthly lyrical beauty; finally Heaney warts and all!
  • the relative balance between sentence length, punctuation marks and enjambed lines determines the flow and rhythm within the oral delivery potential;; S3 and the long interrogative into Q5 are heavily enjambed;
  • line length between 9 -12 syllables; Heaney suggested this Field Work rhythms were iambically tight;
  • rhyme scheme abab cdcd  etc; however Q 3 and 5 depend on tenuous assonant or alliterative effects;


  • 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: thirteen 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;
  • the final lines are rich in alveolar plosives [t] [d], nasals [n] [m] and front-of-mouth sounds, breathy [w], bi-labial [p] [b] and labio-dental fricatives [f] [v] and [l];alongside them sibilants [s] [z] and velar [k] [g];


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