• Foreword
  • Main sources
  • Biographical details
  • A creative spirit on his ‘journey of the soul’
  • Field Work a summary overview
  • Misleading boundaries
  • Drawing a line under Northern Ireland
  • Aspects of relocation to Glanmore
  • The Dante factor
  • The Lowell Factor
  • The Yeats Factor
  • Post ‘Exposure’ Heaney
  • The ‘narrow winding stair’ factor

Field Work published by Faber and Faber in 1979 is Seamus Heaney’s fifth collection. Heaney was forty years of age.

The totality of his collections over more than half a century confirmed Heaney’s place at the top of the premier league of poets writing in English. Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. He died suddenly in August 2013.

The textual commentaries that follow seek to tease out what Heaney’s poems are intimating in Field Work. Of course, the poet’s ‘message’ will have started life as an essentially personal one not intended primarily for his reader; there are moments when some serious unravelling is required. Thanks to the depth of Heaney’s knowledge, scholarship and personal feelings, his poetry is rich in content – unravelling the personal circumstances and digging into background-materials is both essential and edifying. In the case of a poet as accomplished, complex and focused as Heaney, the rewards for persevering are at once enriching, fortifying and hugely pleasurable. In a very real sense Heaney both entertains and educates.

There are issues, too, beyond ‘the text, the whole text and nothing but the text’: there is the question of ‘style’, that is, the combination of language and poetic devices deliberately selected by the poet to carry his narrative forward; then there is the matter of Heaney’s appeal to the ear, the poem intended as a song to be heard and enjoyed or, to the mind’s eye, a picture to be ‘seen’ and felt. These issues are explored in individual commentaries and summarised at the end.

The following introductory notes, textual surveys and footnotes are largely personal. The approach is not calculated to promote any particular viewpoint.

Main Sources:

Seamus Heaney Field Work, Faber and Faber 1979

Michael Parker’s Seamus Heaney The Making of a Poet Macmillan 1993 (MP)

Neil Corcoran’s The Poetry of Seamus Heaney, Faber 1998 (NC)

Helen Vendler: ‘Seamus Heaney’ published by Harvard University Press 1998 (HV)

Dennis O’Driscoll’s Stepping Stones, Faber 2008 (DOD)


Heaney Biography – selective dates pertinent to the poems of Field Work:

  • 1965 Heaney marries Marie Devlin; they are still happily married with three children when Heaney dies quite suddenly in August 2013;
  • 1970-1 Heaney undertakes a sabbatical year with his family in the United States, where he is visiting lecturer at University of California, Berkeley; he returns to Northern Ireland during the week in which internment without trial is introduced; The Maze prison became a notorious symbol of repression; relationships between paramilitary prisoners and the British authorities deteriorated and by 1976 The Maze witnessed initially ‘dirty protests’ and later from 1981 Hunger Strikes in the course of which ten men starved themselves to death;


  • Wintering Out is published;
  • Jan 30 Bloody Sunday: British paratroopers kill 13 unarmed protesters in Derry; on ‘Bloody Friday’; IRA bombs in Belfast kill 9 civilians; direct rule from Westminster is imposed;
  • The IRA demands a curfew on the day the victims are buried; Louis O’Neill Heaney’s acquaintance from Ardboe is killed in an explosion at a pub that did not close;
  • shortly after Bloody Sunday of January 1972 Heaney demonstrates under the Civil Rights banner in Newry, effectively breaking the law; the march is baton-charged by the RUC;
  • at the end of the Academic Year Heaney resigns his lecturing post Queen’s University Belfast to pursue his writing career;
  • August: the family moves to Glanmore Cottage in Co. Wicklow, thirty miles from Dublin in the Irish Republic;
  • Heaney begins work on Buile Shuibhne (published 10 years later as Sweeney Astray);


  • April: birth of Catherine Ann Heaney; at this stage second son Christopher is 5 and elder son Michael 7;
  • October 1973: two visits to Denmark explore interest in so-called ‘bog bodies’; he meets anthropologist PVGlob who supervised body-retrieval from the Jutland bog; he travels to Jutland viewing Tollund Man in Silkeborg and Grauballe Man in Aarhus; an exhibition in Dublin of Viking memorabilia and culture also enthuses him;


  • 1st visit to Grasmere and Dove Cottage the Wordsworths’ home;


  • North is published;
  • Heaney is appointed to a teaching post at Carysfoot College of Education in Dublin; the Heaney family moves from Glanmore Cottage to a house in Sandymount, Dublin, retaining the cottage as Heaney’s writing refuge
  • Heaney organises the Kilkenny Arts Week attended by Robert Lowell;
  • during the same week the random sectarian assassination of his second cousin Colum McCartney opens the issue of Heaney’s non-attendance at McCartney’s wake near Catledawson in mid-Ulster; two poems the first an elegy in Field Work and a second in Station Island remember the incident and the victim’s imagined backlash;


  • Heaney is granted leave of absence from Carysfoot College and returns without his family to the University of California, Berkeley; he is presented with the Duff Cooper Memorial Award in London by Robert Lowell;


  • Field Work is published; Heaney takes up a visiting lecturer post at Harvard University where his friendship with Helen Vendler is strengthened;

A creative spirit on his ‘journey of the soul’

Reflecting on Heaney’s work, the highly respected American scholar and the poet’s friend Helen Vendler (p14) points out that in common with every other creative spirit Heaney is a person of a particular place in a particular time. She indicates later in the chapter that such individuals  are born into an identity  and a set of circumstances (in Heaney’s case Northern Irish minority Catholic from a farming background; first name ‘Seamus’; family name Heaney) with which their heart and mind have to grapple in the search for their unique voice. As water flowed under Heaney’s bridge cultural, religious, political and domestic challenges were thrown up that reshaped the way ahead.

In Heaney’s case he continually asks himself the questions as to what he stands for and how he should write. Helen Vendler summarizes his case: as someone who is culturally Irish, attached to a historical and anthropological identity that predates, in its beginnings, the Christianization of the country? Or as ‘a ‘Catholic’, a spokesperson for an ‘ ethnic group sharing a certain culture of which one strand is the childhood practice of Catholicism that may well be abandoned, in adult life? As an English speaker, reader and writer? Or as a transmitter of an Irish literary tradition? Perhaps as a European, or even (like Yeats in his latter years as a world poet).

Beyond the exceptional poetic figure Heaney cuts both at home and abroad and the world acclaim that attracts his Nobel Prize for Literature of 1995 he remains normal flesh and blood at heart, subject to the daily ups and downs of health and mood, with busy schedules to meet and bills to pay, responding in as balanced and open-minded a way as his nature and his stamina dictate to events and situations that mark his existence and provide the electric charges for his poetry – some of them fixed in the past, others changing as things unfold, some banging for attention, others relatively workaday, all of them benefiting from his talent.

MP (152) provides an inspired quotation from Wordsworth’s Prelude Book X that sits very neatly alongside the major strands of Field Work – a soothing and supportive female presence keeping a poet on track; the dignity and challenge of poet status; Heaney’s best efforts successfully to pursue his life’s calling; Nature’s lyrical bounty all around raising his spirits when they flagged; a richly rewarding personal and national inheritance to fall back on:

She, in the midst of all, preserv’d me still

A Poet, made me seek beneath that name

My office upon earth, and nowhere else,

And lastly, Nature’s Self, by human love

Assisted, through the weary labyrinth

Conducted me again to open day,

Revived the feelings of my earlier life,

Gave me that strength and knowledge full of peace.

Field Work – summary overview

Field Work of 1979 is the fascinating outcome of a radical change of direction in Heaney’s life focussed around total relocation from Belfast to the Irish Republic in 1972 with all the adjustments required to fashion a happy life both domestically and writerly – initially in a small cottage in County Wicklow in the middle of an Irish nowhere – and later in a smart, middle-class Edwardian house in Dublin.

Juggling, sometimes guiltily, the balance between wife and young family and the ‘winding stair’ up to his poet’s workroom Heaney needed the reassurance of good poetry. With few exceptions each lyric, elegy and meditative piece contributes to Heaney’s barely veiled relief at severing ties with Northern Ireland or is the result of confronting the emotional fall-out.

Heaney carries the day by changing tack, looking to include himself in what is going on, celebrating people and pleasures and tuning his penmanship to new styles.

Thus he celebrates people, sites and congeniality beyond the borders of Northern Ireland. ‘Oysters’ rejoices at the delight and camaraderie of sense-titillating seafood on the Donegal coast; things like this have stirred his poetic juices and renewed his sense of the value of poetry. ‘The Singer’s House’ recalls Heaney’s annual attendance at good friend David Hammond’s ‘Summer School of revelry and rascality’ in Donegal and urges David to sing out despite the depressing daily news generated by the Northern Irish Troubles.

Heaney’s sense of Irishness is both restorative and comforting. ‘Triptych’ brings a home delivery of vegetables in the colours of the Irish tricolour flag and transports us to Lough Erne’s wooded islets of both Christian and Celtic settlements. The title poem ‘Field Work’ celebrates the beauty and symbolism of a landscape that brings a couple closer. ‘Song’ weaves the sounds of language and music into an outstanding distillation of Irish landscape and Celtic mythology.

Field Work is rich in elegies for Heaney’s ‘known dead’. Sean O’Riada and Robert Lowell died of natural causes and are celebrated for their links with Irish music and Heaney’s poetry respectively.

Others who died violently trumpet the waste triggered by entrenched sectarian attitudes standing in the way of a happy Ireland. ‘Tripych’ stems from the assassination of a British diplomat that somehow tarnished the honour of Irish nationhood in Heaney’s mind.  His ‘Postcard from North Antrim’ recalls a social-worker friend shot by a hit-man for trying to bridge the sectarian gap between Catholic and Protestant communities, poignant because Heaney had begun his relationship with Marie in Sean Armstrong’s company. ‘Casualty’ deplores the all-enveloping cycle of violence, tracing the loss of a simple eel fisherman from Ardboe during Heaney’s courting days who refused to accept an IRA curfew and was blown to smithereens in a pub.

In an affectionate and moving piece ‘The Strand at Loch Beg’ reworks the last moments of Heaney’s distant cousin Colum McCartney murdered in a paramilitary ambush. He sets his elegy within a loch-side landscape close to both his and Colum’s homes imagining it at the entrance to Dante’s Inferno. Heaney returns to Dante elsewhere in the collection either to remind him he has reached middle age or, roguishly, as the place to which Marie in a paroxysm of frustration would consign all poets and poetry or in Field Work’s grisly finale, his version of the ‘Ugolino’ story, to be read, Heaney said, in the context of the ‘dirty protests’ at Belfast’s Maze prison.

The core of the collection centres on ten Glanmore Sonnets, the iconic cottage that facilitated the Heaney family’s Great Escape from the North but brought domestic challenges in its wake and the need for the poet to confirm through his work that Glanmore was the right place at a pivotal stage in his career. Positives emerge stage by stage:  at the outset the pre-conditions for mellow fruitfulness are ideal, the seeds of a new poetry are planted, the rustic calm is a boon … Heaney’s ancestral figures stride into sight – the stirrings of poetic productivity are fed from a clean spring deep within himself and clamour for release – Wicklow’s natural harmony feeds rich lyrical data into the lifeblood of his poetry – a first Mossbawn memory awakens the importance to him as a boy of sound communication and the need to capture fleeting charges before they died – a second recalls the twin languages and traditions that shaped the man he has become – a Castledawson happening in the depths of winter helped shape his risky conviction that nothing ventured was nothing gained – a sudden, involuntary eureka shout confirmed that Glanmore was a ‘haven’. Then and only then does his wife Marie appear in the sequence … her calming hand soothes her husband’s fevered brow – Heaney reciprocates in the following sonnet as the male ridding the domain of a rodent intruder that has sparked Marie’s revulsion – their joint final seal of Glanmore approval is couched in a dream moment of supreme togetherness and shared lovers’ embraces.

In the wake of ‘September Song’ that defines the moving-on-moment from Glanmore to pastures new in Dublin Heaney presents a sequence of loosely termed ‘marriage poems’ seeking heartfelt expression of love-feelings, reminding himself that a woman with three children under seven and a husband equally espoused to poetry and too often absent from the household has a lot on her plate!  ‘An Afterwards’ discloses a domestic flash point before Marie fears Dantean reprisal and softens her tone –  ‘A Dream of Jealousy’ allegorises the plight of a wife competing with Heaney’s ‘other woman’ who turns out to be his Muse of Poetry – in ‘High Summer’ a supposedly restful French holiday is hijacked by a teething child!

Conscience feelings further compounded by his term alone in California lead to love songs and marriage poems addressed to Marie. She is in turn a sandmartin’s nest welcoming back an errant migrant who entreats her to mould him into the nest-shape that best pleases her … then she is a stretch of land reclaimed from the sea … finally a hybrid woman-dryad who meets all his criteria of perfection.

Watching young folk going through courting rituals outside his lonely hotel room in ‘The Guttural Muse’ Heaney acknowledges that he has passed the first flush of youth. He begins to transmit ‘erotic’ signals, the first hint in ‘Polder’ and then via two zoomorphic poems using creatures few would identify as symbols of love or desire. In ‘Otter’ he watches Marie skinny-dipping in a natural pool and responds with vicarious pleasure to her litheness and sex appeal … then much more pointedly in ‘The Skunk’ Heaney, sex-starved in California, latches onto the creature’s body markings and movements to dream up a bedtime scene of Marie rummaging naked in her bottom drawer for the black and white plunge-line nightdress that turned her husband on.

Sandwiched in between are vignettes from the Castledawson era – ‘The Toome Road’ confirms Heaney’s essentialist view that the Irish have a set of characteristics that make them what they are, with or without the Troubles and British intrusion. ‘A Drink of Water’ recounts the story of an old Mossbawn crone who revealed herself as a kind Muse figure, teaching the youngster to remember where poetic charges came from and to hang on to the Christian lesson she has taught him. Finally, much later, Heaney’s discovery of ‘The Harvest Bow’ that his father’s dexterity and long practice has enabled him to fashion over the years is reworked into a tender love piece for both his parent and the beauty of mid-Ulster’s harvest tints.

Unmentioned are Heaney’s tribute to First World War Irish poet Francis Ledwidge who died in action, ‘Leavings’ that notes that Tudor times treated England’s religious architecture every bit as badly as they interfered in Ireland’s history; finally in ‘Badgers’ Heaney’s meditates on the link between the inner and the outer lives one leads.

Misleading boundaries – Belfast to Glanmore to Dublin, ‘North’ toField Work’

The poems of Field Work actually reflect Heaney’s changing mind-sets and writerly preoccupations over the period from 1972, the year in which the family moved into the Irish Republic, to 1979 by which time the Heaneys had already been in residence in Sandymount Dublin for three years and had retained the iconic Glanmore cottage as a poet’s refuge.

So whilst set in chronological stone the years in which collections are published (North 1975, Field Work 1979) form misleading boundaries: during his early years at Glanmore Heaney was still completing the North collection and yet the evolution visible in Field Work was already beginning to kick in; the seeds for emigration were planted four years before ever North came out.

As early as 1971 the Heaneys had returned from the poet’s teaching contract in California with a half plan to leave Belfast and live freelance out in the country in Northern Ireland (Paris Review 75). Northern Ireland was an increasingly depressing reality – between 1969 -72 nearly 700 people had lost their lives in the Troubles. Heaney once said that returning to Belfast from his US part-year teaching commitments was like pulling on ‘an old dirty glove’ for which he wasn’t suited.

Little wonder that the generally mild mannered if occasionally contrary poet, clearly empathetic towards the minority Catholic condition yet opposed to violence whatever the circumstances, was at once unsurprised, depressed and angered by what was unfolding in flashpoints such as Belfast where he and the family were living and in Derry.

The circumstances of the move south ‘were not some sudden transition’, Heaney explained – 1972 offered him and his family a golden if unexpected opportunity to rent Glanmore in County Wicklow from Canadian academic and friend Anne Saddlemyer who later sold it to them. They moved in August of that year into the modest cottage that over four years came to play an iconic role in every aspect of his life. Relocation witnessed the poet’s severance from his Northern Irish past including resignation from his University teaching post to face the challenges of full time self-employed poet.

MP sums it up (pp119-120): Heaney’s feeling that a change of air matched his quest to ‘go it alone’ (his profession on Primary school registration documents now reads ‘poet’ rather than ‘lecturer’); his tax bill would be lower at a moment when he had forfeited a regular salary; they felt that Glanmore was a ‘suitable’ place to bring up their children (2 sons, wife pregnant with daughter); he would be freeing himself from the ‘group’ ethos of both university Common Room and Northern Irish community in Belfast; his presence would no longer be taken as approval of a state whose legitimacy he denied.

There were practical family consequences: Heaney needed to raise income from whatever source for taxes, rents and family bills (opportunities included more regular appearances by Heaney ‘on the podium’ and radio commitments both of which distanced him from the Glanmore home); the couple needed to readjust to a much more modest existence; Marie’s pregnancy meant loss of potential earnings on her side; above all with a husband equally espoused to poetry Marie had a great deal to cope with as Heaney acknowledges in the collection.The psychological and emotional repercussions of the move and the very fine balance between poetry and household feature strongly in Field Work.

Heaney offered Henri Cole insights into the genesis of ‘North’ (Paris Review No 75) that would extend to Field Work:  At the time when I was writing the poems, I was putting the pressure on myself and feeling, well, exposed as in “Exposure.” I associate the poems of ‘North’ with a particular place, the upstairs room of that cottage, me chain-smoking and working against a deadline, looking out into the sunlight, hunched over the table, anxious.

A further consequence: Heaney sets to one side the views and judgments emanating from Northern Ireland as regards his poetry and ignore any potential loss of image and reputation or political backlash if and when he was deemed to have abandoned ship (his legitimate fears of being marginalized for ‘running away’ seem to have been unfounded); in the event it was not possible for him to effect his move with minimum fuss; local and national media attention effectively ‘politicized’ the event.

He had few regrets – leaving the north didn’t break my heart. The solitude was salubrious (Paris Review 75). He put the modest reception ‘North‘ received in his native province down to his move into the Irish Republic and the ‘cordon sanitaire’ he sensed between himself and members of the community he had felt the need to distance himself from (DOD160).

The dust would not settle completely in Wicklow until the Incertus (‘the uncertain one’) in Heaney had tested his ability to write good poetry amidst pastures new. The first tremors of tangible changes of content and poetics visible in Field Work were hinted at in North’s ‘Exposure’ as Heaney reflects ruefully on opportunities he may have missed on the journey of his soul.

‘Exposure’ is deliberately placed as a coda in ‘North’ for emphasis, impact and confessional self-review. Heaney is taking stock of changes to his personal circumstances, his role and function as poet and public voice, the immediate world around him and current events. The poem is all about whether he has stepped up to the mark or fallen short.

In conversation with Henri Cole in Harvard University’s Paris review no 75. Heaney was reflective: the anxiety in a poem like “Exposure” is about whether the work that comes out of this move is going to be in any way adequate. The poem is asking itself, is there enough here to hold the line against the atrocious thing that is happening up there (the Troubles inundating Northern Ireland)? And the poet is saying, What am I doing but striking a few little sparks when what the occasion demands is a comet?’ … I suppose the corollary of being battened down is being a bit tensed up. At the time when I was writing the poems, I was putting the pressure on myself and feeling, well, exposed as in “Exposure.”

In a series of twists and turns his ruefulness will be replaced by a radically different stance: by the time North is published in 1975 Heaney has drawn a line under his Northern Ireland experience and by the time  Field Work is published in 1979 the family have been living for three years in Dublin.

Drawing a line under Northern Ireland  After 1972 (DOD 208) Heaney made selected visits only: More to County Derry and County Tyrone, to our families, than to Belfast. My work for the BBC Schools Service with David Hammond meant that I was more in touch with him, and David’s summer house in Donegal was also becoming a regular destination in the summer. In those years, you were contending with the whole drag-down of Troubles Belfast – not just the army and police, but the polarization and the lurking sectarianism. One motive that some writers had for staying on was to redeem the place, perhaps even redeem the State, but I had no such motive. It was a time of ‘shifts in the camp’, as I said years later in ‘The First Flight’ realignments that became clear, for example, with the responses to the publication of North.

The Troubles’ factor

MP153: A recurring concern within Field Work and Station Island is the tension between song and suffering. In counterpoint to the spiritual harmony and artistic growth enjoyed by the poet, the ‘implacable, disconsolate wailing’ of sirens continued in the North. During their last two years in Glanmore, 1975 and 1976, killings in the province totalled 247 and 297 respectively – amongst the victims, his second cousin, Colum McCartney.

Was relocation a political statement DOD 208: To a certain extent, yes. SH When I came back from Berkeley, I had a sixth sense that some shift or shake-up had to happen; otherwise the whiff of freedom and promise I was feeling might pass for ever. I knew it was a turning point, although I didn’t necessarily know where we’d end up.

Was Wicklow part of a scheduled  flight path  No. The move south came by chance – even if it was a happy one. To quote ‘The First Flight’ … ‘It was more sleepwalk than spasm / yet that was a time when the times were also in spasm’. Also, to repeat something I was telling you earlier, we had friends’ voices – Barrie Cooke and Ted Hughes … urging us to think about making a move, and their encouragement was significant. (DOD209).

Was the move seen as ‘defection’. I didn’t give much thought to such things because I would have taken them for granted. But I also took for granted that, in the republic of letters, there were rights of way everywhere for everybody. I didn’t perceive myself as a trespasser. If anything, I would have felt more like a homecomer;

Did Glanmore meet expectations DOD197 I suppose I want to know more about what led to the ‘intended, complete’ feel of poems like ‘Glanmore Sonnets’SH: J knew Glanmore was the right place because, when I was there, I always felt what Wordsworth might have called that ‘blessed mood, / In which the affections gently lead us on’.  Glanmore led me on to new confidence and new work, so I never had any doubts about the move … Glanmore produced a kind of empowerment. You were determined to have something to show for it. So when the cuckoo and the corncrake ‘consorted at twilight’, almost two years after we had landed, I gave in. I wrote at that moment  involuntarily  in ‘smooth numbers’ – iambic lines that were out of key with the more constrained stuff I was doing at the time, the poems that would appear in North. But that musical shift meant that I had a definite stake in the Glanmore ground.

A new location and a new stance MP 152 At the core of Heaney’s fifth collection, Field Work, is a sequence of sonnets and lyrics celebrating his wife, Marie, and their home, the cottage at Glanmore. The experience of living together there – a husband, father, poet – was the ‘makings of my adult self’, he has said, an experience which left him renewed and fortified physically, spiritually, imaginatively. His aim had been to change the rhythms of his life and verse, to ‘displace’ himself in order to develop as a man and writer, and in this he succeeded as the longer, assured, melodious lines of the poems of Field Work testify.

(NC 83) Field Work is certainly more relaxed in its structure than North, less concentratedly intent on its own coherence. It brings together poems in a variety of kinds: political poems, ‘pastoral’ poems, elegies, love or ‘marriage’ poems, and a translation.

Chatting with James Randall about the ‘new kind of verse’ discernable in Field Work Heaney stated: I think one of the greatest collections of poems in the last fifty years was Lowell’s Near the Ocean … a kind of triumph of meter, of intelligence, and of morality. So how, he was asked, did that influence matters at this stage in his writing? SH: Well, I wrote a fairly constricted freeish kind of verse in Wintering Out and North in general, and then in the new book, Field Work, I very deliberately set out to lengthen the line again because the narrow line was becoming habit. The shortness of a line constricts, in a sense, the breadth of your movement. Of course, a formal decision is never strictly formal, I mean it’s to do with some impulsive thing, some instinctive sense of the pitch you want to make. And with North and Wintering Out I was burrowing inwards, and those thin small quatrain poems, they’re kind of drills or augers for turning in and they are narrow and long and deep. Well, after those poems I wanted to turn out, to go out, and I wanted to pitch the voice out; it was at once formal but also emotional, a return to an opener voice and to a more—I don’t want to say public—but a more social voice. And the rhythmic contract of meter and iambic pentameter and long line implies audience. Maybe I’ve overstated that. (reprinted from Issue 18 of Ploughshares, Fall 1979. Emerson College)

How did the Heaneys fit into the neighbourhood DOD 200 : SH Mostly we were battened down in the cottage, and my social centre wouldn’t be an eighteenth-century lodge in the hills but the counter of the pub in Ashford, a mile and half or so down the road. We were lucky, all the same, in our neighbours: the Johnsons on one side, who had a dairy herd, and the Chapmans on the other, who did more arable farming. I remember very soon after we landed, coming up the road from the village and being faced with  about ten or twelve cattle galloping down the hill towards me, with Mrs Johnson well back behind them. I realized they had broken out and had to be turned, so I spread my arms and let a shout out of me the same as I would have done at home on our own land, and the beasts halted. I got them turned and, from that moment, I think I was regarded as OK. 

At what point did Glanmore outrun its moment  By the time Field Work was published … the Heaneys had been living for three years in a handsome Edwardian house in the Sandymount area of Dublin. (MP153) Essentially it had served its purpose. It had enabled the couple to achieve a deeper intimacy and understanding as husband and wife, and had given the young Heaneys something of the ‘simple animal joyousness’ and sensuous innocence which had characterised their father’s ‘hedge-school’ experience at Mossbawn. The children were moving into Secondary and the poet had taken on a lecturing post at Carysfoot College. 

Field Work – What’s in a title?

(HV 59) The poet has now changed countries in a political sense, if not a geographical one, and comes among the new scenes and people of the Republic as a ‘fieldworker’ in an alternate culture; he is also (after living in Belfast for years) once again living among fields, in a rural setting. The work he has before him is to register the new ambience and the new feelings it brings with it, while keeping a connection with his Northern past.

(NC 106) Field Work is a more miscellaneous collection than some of Heaney’s, as its title proposes, with its suggestion of a collection of samples gathered together.

(NC109) The art of the volume is that it has held tensely in the same balance the song of possible reconciliation and the memorial lament. If Field Work offers comfort, it is a comfort earned well on the other side of distress. Heaney had been pleased with Lowell’s comment that the sonnets ‘seemed to have come through a grief’

MP 154 Within the all-pervasive context of the Troubles Heaney dramatizes his anxieties over the morality, justification and efficacy of poetic utterance in contemporary Ireland. As one of the meanings of the title implies Field Work is exploratory, preparatory, sometimes a tentative projection of what might be.

HV58 The title of Heaney’s 1979 volume Field Work has of Course an agricultural implication. But it is also a phrase used in anthropology: ‘Where did you do your field work?’ In that sense it implies investigation into a culture not one’s own, or at least one removed in time. Readers had already met the notion of fieldwork in Heaney’s poetry: in ‘The Backward Look’ in Wintering Out the poet recalls obsolete Irish language kennings for the snipe: little goat of the air,/ of the evening, /little goat of the frost. As the snipe disappears in the air over the dangerous landscapes of the North, its obsolescent Irish names disappear into ‘a fieldworker’s archive’. The poet’ ‘backward look’ watches as, in present-day Ireland, snipe meets sniper.

The poems preceding the Glanmore Sonnets Heaney, by nature the Uncertain One (the ‘Incertus’ of his earliest poetry) required the reassurance that a life-changing relocation was successful both as a writerly and domestic journey into the unknown. As regards the poems of ‘Field Work’ including elegies that precede the Glanmore Sonnets it is important to consider in what way each lyric, elegy and meditative piece supports Heaney’s barely veiled relief at having found a way to sever his ties with the nastiness of life in Northern Ireland principally Belfast where they were living.

Glanmore, the place of retreat and empowerment DOD 207 Belfast is where we grew up, in Glanmore we were grown-ups when we arrived. It was a new stage, probably the foundation of my belief that the secret of life and art is the threefold: getting started, keeping going and getting started again. We were at the end of a decade of extraordinary richness, whether you look at it in terms of creative life or professional career or personal loves and friendships. In 1962, I’d started teaching, met Marie and started writing. In 1972, I resigned from Queen’s, withdrew from a thriving poetry scene and went full-time as a writer in the more solitary conditions of Wicklow. Yet Glanmore was a retreat in more senses than one. It was like the spiritual retreat we’d always do at the beginning of the school year: on the last evening here would be a formal renewal of your baptismal vows. I’d say that the move we made required something similar, a renewed espousal. I think that sense of two people committing, or recommitting, is present in ‘Glanmore Sonnets’.

Marie Heaney, love and marriage MP 152:  At the core of Heaney’s fifth collection, Field Work, is a sequence of sonnets and lyrics celebrating his wife, Marie, and their home, the cottage at Glanmore. The experience of living together there – a husband, father, poet – was the ‘makings of my adult self’, he has said, an experience which left him renewed and fortified physically, spiritually, imaginatively. Marie herself only makes an appearance in the last two or three sonnets. Heaney then dedicates half a dozen or so pieces acknowledging the debt he owes her as homemaker and describing the sheer delight of their relationship – she is perfection to him.

Elegy (NC 86) Field Work is full of encounters with its poet’s known dead. “there are the violently dead of Northern lreland: Colum McCartney, Heaney’s second cousin, the victim of a random sectarian killing in 1975; Sean Armstrong, a Belfast social worker whom Heaney had known at university, in A Postcard from North Antrim’; the victim in ‘Casualty’ (unnamed in the poem, but in fact a friend of Heaney’s called Louis O’Neill); the ‘murdered dead’ and the ‘violent shattered boy’ of ‘The Badgers’. Dead artists are also commemorated in the book’s elegies: Sean O’Riada, the Irish composer who died at the age of forty in 1971; Robert Lowell himself, who died in 1977; and ‘Francis Ledwidge, the Irish poet killed fighting for England during the First World War. Such encounters, shadowed by the Dantean example in Field Work, achieve a further pitch of intensity in the title sequence of Heaney’s next book, Station Island, in which the idea of example becomes structural’.

Drawing a line under Northern Ireland  Neil Corcoran offers a tcomprehensive summary of the snippets Heaney borrowed from a poet he had been working on. (NC 84 -85)The major poetic presence in Field Work, and in much of Heaney’s subsequent work, however, is Dante. The Divine Comedy is present in the epigraph to ‘The Strand at Lough Beg’, and in that poem’s haunting conclusion, where the poet wipes his murdered cousin’s face with dew and moss, as Virgil wipes Dante’s at the opening of the Purgatorio itself. It supplies the witty conceit of ‘An Afterwards’, which set the poet in the ninth circle of the Inferno for the domestic treachery of too great a devotion to his art. In ‘Leavings’, Thomas Cromwell, despoiler of the English monasteries, is similarly imagined in one of hell’s circles, ‘scalding on cobbles, / each one a broken statue’s head’; and the opening line of ‘September Song’, ‘In the middle of the way ‘ is a version of the opening line of the Commedia, ‘Nel mezzo del camino di nostra vita … ‘. Above all, Dante figures in the translation from Cantos 32 and 33 of the Inferno, which Heaney calls ‘Ugolino’ and uses to bring Field Work to a grisly conclusion. In a collection rich in elegy and tributes to Heaney’s known dead Dante is of crucial value to Heaney as the greatest of all poetic communers with the dead. The Divine Comedy is a series of encounters in which they offer explanations of their fate and advice, encouragement and instruction to the poet and his companion Virgil.

(NC 86) Less obvious focus of his interest in Dante when he said that ‘the first person singular and the historical life, the circumstances of the time and the man’s personal angers, are all part of the forcefulness of the utterance’ Dante, therefore, like Lowell, proposes a different way of saying ‘I’ in a lyric, a new mode for the expression of subjectivity; and in fact the more personal voice of the poems which open Field Work is actually fortified by an awareness of the intimate relationship between the personal and the political or historical.

The Lowell Factor Heaney had become familiar with Robert Lowell’s poetry as early as the Group led by Philip Hobsbaum in the poet’s undergraduate period at QUB around 1963. In the group’s meetings Heaney was able to share his rookie poems with like-minded fledgling poets. He acknowledged that Lowell’s poetry (‘all through the sixties I was reading him, constantly) was to his liking as he searched for his own poetic voice.

Heaney first met Lowell in 1972 at a party thrown for him and his second wife Elizabeth Hardwick in London: he sums up their first conversation (DOD217) ‘he was well clued into the Northern Ireland situation. It was a genuine enough meeting, and he was immensely charming and even more immensely intelligent; but I’d read Norman Mailer’s account of him in ‘Armies of the Night’, where his powers of flattery are very accurately set down, so in spite of my delight at how well we got on, I was still a bit on my guard … then three years later in ‘North’ (1975) Heaney admits Lowell’s influence into the second half of ‘North’, in the blank verse, ‘why not say what happened’ bit of the ‘Singing School’ sequence, and in particular in the ‘Fosterage’ section. This ‘say-how-it-was’ style extended across Field Work is present in ‘Elegy’ where Heaney pictures Lowell warts and all.

DOD 215 You mentioned earlier that you had engaged in some ‘ventriloquizing for Robert Lowell’.  SH: Oh yes, that made sense all right. In fact, you can see the influence in the second half of North, in the blank verse, ‘why not say what happened’ bit of the ‘Singing School’ sequence, and in particular in the ‘Fosterage’ section. That one is an unrhymed sonnet, modelled on those unrhymed sonnet-portraits of writers in Notebook and History  … And that same pitch and head-on approach to portraiture – if we can call it that – is defInitely present in Field Work in the memorial poem for Sean O’ Riada, and of course, in the one for Lowell himself.

DOD 216  reveals a poetic kinship with Lowell: I was delighted when he said of them in general that the Glanmore Sonnets ‘seemed to have come through a grief’. He had a wonderful way of coming close, personally and critically. that was also the occasion when Lowell said to me, ‘You see a lot of your children.’ If ‘An  Afterwards’ is anything to go by Marie might have suggested that ‘seeing’ them covered a multitude of absences!

The Yeats factor DOD 193 Whilst Heaney would not acknowledge Yeats as a model for change he did accept that elements of affection and disaffection following a Yeatsian model crept into Field Work: In 1976, when we moved from Glanmore to the new house in Dublin, I was worried about it as a ‘place of writing’. I wasn’t going to be happy there until I had produced work. So very soon I sat down and deliberately took the hammer to my own scrap and tried to beat sense and shape out of the loss of friends like Sean Armstrong and Louis O’Neill. That was the one time when Yeats was an actual tuning fork for a poem I was writing. ‘Casualty’ commemorates the eel fisherman Louis O’Neill – whom I’ve mentioned – and I was counting out the metre to keep in step with ‘The freckled man who goes / To a grey place on a hill/In grey Connemara clothes’ … Changes are part and parcel of individual creativity both in himself and noticeable in Yeats: I realized that that The Wind Among the Reeds collection was the culmination of one kind of poetry and that – after its publication – the plainer, ‘walking naked’ Yeats had taken over. And …  I couldn’t help noticing that a similar turn was occurring in my own work after North – even, indeed, before North was finished … And it was occurring at round about the same age as it had occurred for Yeats, between thirty and thirty-five.

Post ‘Exposure’ Heaney  NC 83 quotes Heaney from a 1982 interview: I suppose that the shift from North to Field Work is a shift in trust: a learning to trust melody, to trust art as reality, to trust artfulness as an affirmation and not to go into the self-punishment so much. I distrust that attitude too, of course. Those two volumes are negotiating with each other.… In place of the previous book’s chastened, ascetic restraint, there is a relished sensuousness of natural imagery; and the self-communing, withdrawn ‘I’ of North is replaced by a more relaxedly personal pronoun, the signal of a more conversational self.

(HV 59) In Field Work Heaney makes an almost complete break with both anonymity and archaeology. He is no longer the anonymous child of a quasi-medieval rusticity, nor the spectator of a renewed archaic violence symbolized by bodies long nameless. Rather, his poetry becomes recognizably that of an individual man engaged in ordinary domestic and social relations, who writes in an idiom largely shorn of both archaism and portent, his poems visibly kept at a middle level of both genre and style. He is a husband, a father, a person with friends and relatives – and increasingly an elegist.

DOD191 Heaney accepts that Field Work is more concerned than the earlier collections with the shaping of the verse

SH: You have sonnets in there. You have quatrains that rhyme and many more that don’t. There’s a poem in an irregular five-line stanza at the beginning and one in a blunted form of terza rima at the end. One of the first things I wrote after the pub­lication of North was ‘The Harvest Bow’, and in that case you would say the stanza form was what made the poem. I remember discovering a shape and then realizing that it could be built on, and relishing the whole gradual cumulative effect. But the texture of ‘The Harvest Bow’ is richer than many others in the book.

DOD 195  … you have also said that, in Field Work, you wanted the note of the poetry to sound more like your ‘social self’. SH: I should have said ‘include my current circumstances’ rather than ‘sound like my social self’. At the time I was glad that something of the actual life I was living in Glanmore was getting into the poems, that the silage smell came from the farm next door and not from the flax dam in Broagh. At this distance, however, ‘Death of a Naturalist’ or ‘The Tollund Man’ or ‘The Grauballe Man’ seem to have as ‘social’ a voice as anything in Field Work.

DOD198  SH: Glanmore was the first place where my immediate experience got into my work. Almost all the poems before that had arisen from memories of older haunts; but after a couple of years in the cottage it changed from being just living quarters to a locus that was being written into poems.

(MP 152)  His aim had been to change the rhythms of his life and verse, to ‘displace’ himself in order to develop as a man and writer, and in this he succeeded as the longer, assured, melodious lines of the poems of Field Work testify.

The ‘narrow winding stair’ factor habit or routine (DOD202) SH: What I’ve always been interested to find is the right balance between insouciance and application. For years I had a dread of turning out conscientious verse and had a rather negative attitude towards industriousness; it didn’t seem to produce great artistic results  …  Poetry had come into my life suddenly and I’d experienced a change that felt almost magical at the time. So that old-fashioned understanding of poetry as a visitation has been a determining one for me; and, for better or worse, I never set up my writing life on what you might call a professional basis. For most of the years when I was teaching and breadwinning, there was no daily time set aside for the composition of poems, no routine …  I’d even say that deep down there was a superstitious fear that such a procedure might drive the poems away. I had this contrariness, a kind of perverse drive not to trade, even in my own eyes, on the safe conduct that the word ‘poet’ might provide in the academy … And when Heaney reaches his work-table, he says,  poetry always reserves its right to reach for the stars. The question is whether the poet can rise to that challenge (DOD196)

Standards of language – colloquiality and impoverished speech DOD196 regrets the falling standard of colloquial speech as one of the failings of our society, exactly like ignorance, poverty and disease’ SH: In a severely impoverished speech world, what Auden once called ‘the mass and majesty’ of the reality we inhabit and should be measur­ing up to – ‘all / That carries weight and always weighs the same’­ all that is slighted. Which is not to say that the use of a plainer speech necessarily prevents a poem from attaining nobility. Think of Yeats’s ‘Long-Legged Fly’. Or indeed Auden’s ‘The Shield of 197 Achilles’. Cadence with a head of intelligence and strong shoulders of syntax still has a lot of carrying power. 

Heaney on what makes poetry ‘good’ (DOD196) SH: I keep coming back to the statement because it gets at the truth. It’s another way of accounting for the fact that, if a poem is any good, you can repeat it to yourself as if it were written by somebody else. The completedness frees you from it and it from you. You can read and reread it without feeling self­

indulgent: whatever it was in you that started the writing has got beyond you. The unwritten poem is always going to be entangled with your own business, part of your accident and incoherence – which is what drives you to write. But once the poem gets written, it is, in a manner of speaking, none of your business.






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