Glanmore Sonnets – 10


With all the twists and turns of Heaney’s subconscious dream the Glanmore Sonnets reach a positive conclusion.

The poet’s imagination fired e when he was asleep (I dreamt we slept). His anxiety as regards a major relocation of his own doing has placed him and Marie alongside each other in an Irish Republic peatbog (a moss in Donegal) facing a night under the sky (turf banks under blankets), open to the elements (our faces exposed all night), in unfavourable conditions (wetting drizzle) and deathly pale (pallid) amidst the pathetic fallacy of empathetic nature (dripping sapling birches).

There are comforting precedents: a couple with Shakespearean credentials (Lorenzo and Jessica) made it together, far from the warmth of Venice (in a cold climate); devoted Fenian-Cycle characters (Diarmuid and Grainne) wandered far afield in fear of capture (waiting to be found) and were rewarded with a happy outcome.

Heaney’s dream touches on nightmare: he and Marie appear to have gone through pre-burial rituals (darkly aspergedcensedlaid out) mere shadows of themselves (breathing effigies) waiting to lie in state (raised ground).

Their recovery is expressed in Shakespearean terms (how like you this?) triggered, he explains to Marie, by the consummation of their marriage more than a decade before (our first night years ago) via the proof she gave him that their act of love fulfilled her (you came with your deliberate kiss), the uplifting, phallic bond (raise us) that has seen them through the ups and downs (lovely and painful) of their marital commitment (covenants of flesh), left room for their different personalities and creativities (our separateness) to flourish and is reflected now in the facial expressions of two prostrate peatbog presences  in the Irish Republic (respite in our dewy dreaming faces).

Heaney acknowledges he was the prime mover in severing links with Northern Ireland and that Glanmore was the fortuitous outcome but had things to prove. The quality of his sonnet sequence suggests that a principle writerly fear has been dispelled thanks to a solid, supportive wife who will be rhapsodized in the poems that follow

  • moss: bog, peat-bog;
  • Donegal: Republic of Ireland county between Derry and the Atlantic west coast;
  • turf: section cut from the ground;
  • drizzle: fine drops of light rain;
  • pallid: pale, ashen
  • sapling birch: slender young tree with bark that peels;
  • Lorenzo and Jessica: Jessica , daughter of Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice ( c.1598) elopes with Lorenzo, a penniless Christian, and a chest of her father’s money; the two young people manage to navigate the complications and temptations that life throws in their way and come to symbolize true love:
  • Diarmuid and Grainne: central characters in a tale from the Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology; it concerns a love triangle between the great warrior Fionn mac Cumhaill, the beautiful princess Gráinne, and the man she falls in love with Diarmuid Ua Duibhne. The couple run away, navigate myriad threats and adventures, remain devoted to each other, settling eventually it was said in Co Sligo and bringing up five children:
  • asperged: ritually sprinkled with holy water
  • censed: ritually perfumed with the odour of burning incense;
  • lay out: prepare for burial;
  • effigy: sculpture, model, dummy or image of a person
  • deliberate: carefully considered;
  • covenant: mutual compact;
  • separateness: of different nature perhaps rather than distance;
  • respite: lull, pause, rest;


  • Spirit Level (1996) will include a tribute to Marie’s father Thomas Devlin ‘The Sharping Stone’ ; similarly alone in nature Seamus and Marie Heaney resemble ‘babes in the wood’;
  • HV 68 The rat and his imagined retinue of horrors banished, the Glanmore sonnets close with a pastoral dream… the poet and his wife have become ‘Lorenzo and Jessica in a cold climate. / Diarmuid and Rainne waiting to be found.’ The first, Shakespearean metaphor still lies within the positive dimension of pastoral, even if transmuted from the warmth of Venice to the chill of Wicklow· the second, Celtic one, however, comes within the aura of tragedy. Both metaphors are literary, both almost mythical; the anthropologist suddenly seems to want to leave his level cottage ground. But the poet turns the sequence back to the domestic, to the occasion when the marriage was sanctioned – not by clerical ceremony but by personal vow.
  • MP (170) X in the final sonnet, he proffers his act of atonement, in the form of a dream embracing the most intimate of memories. Marriage again supplies the poem with its ‘central trope’,the couple passing from a chaste, sepulchral separation (‘laid out/ Like breathing effigies ‘) through ritual purification (‘Darkly asperged and censed’) towards consummation (‘the lovely and painful/ Covenants of flesh’. Throughout, the surreal is firmly bedded in the physical, the literary within personal experience. The actuality of the ‘moss’, ‘Donegal’, ‘turf-banks’, ‘wetting drizzle’ and ‘dripping sapling birches’ prevents the allusions to famous runaway lovers – Lorenzo and Jessica from The Merchant of Venice and Diarmuid and Crainne from Celtic myth – from seeming cloyingly romantic. After the ninth line where biblical resonances (‘And in that dream I dreamt’) dally with the tender conversational tones of an Elizabethan love lyric – Sir Thomas Wyatt’s ‘They flee from me’ is the source for ‘how like you this?’ – the sonnet moves from the ‘public’ domain of literature into the private past. Significantly it is the decisive act of his wife, her’ deliberate’ kiss, that breaks the spell, that frees them from stasis and catalepsis, that raises their relationship onto a new, exquisitely sensuous and sacred plane. Through this and subsequent acts of love, a space has been created which is uniquely theirs, a ‘separateness’, a place for dewy dreams. The sequence closes with the poet asserting the primacy of domestic love over political/social responsibilities;
  • NC (105) X …’deliberate’ is a beautifully tactful word, drawing love, responsibility and inexperience into its net; and ‘raise’ similarly entraps both sexual tumescence and spiritual uplifting. ‘Lovely and painful ‘ is a telling paradox, just as these are ‘covenants’ which leave husband and wife, nevertheless. in their ‘separateness’. The kind of art Heaney longs for in ‘Oysters’ is one in which his trust might ‘repose’; but the saving grace of his own in the ‘Glanmore Sonnets’ is that it culminates not in the permanence of ‘repose’, but only in the temporary relief of ‘respite’; implying that the covenants made by flesh – in poetry and in marriage alike – are always, in the end, vulnerable:


  • sonnet in eight sentences (including semi-colon, dashes and interrogative);
  • the sonnet follow the classical octave/ sestet pattern;
  • the octave describes a dream in familiar peatland environment (in the Republic): a couple alive but ritually prepared for death; pathetic fallacy; the idea of hanging on for dear life uses 2 literary couples who survived against the odds; Catholic ritual practices alluded to;
  • the sestet moves from dream into lived experience via a barely credible spoken phrase possibly deliberately chosen as of literary provenance; Heaney aims to elevate his and Marie’s physical bond that has seen them through whatever was thrown at them; suggestive sexual allusions -‘came’, ‘raise’; thesonnet’s final phrase encapsulates what Glanmore has placed within their shared grasp;
  • the relative balance between sentence length, punctuation marks and enjambed lines determines the flow and rhythm within the oral delivery potential; the sestet is rich in enjambed lines;
  • line length between 9-12 syllables; Heaney suggested the sonnets rhythms were iambically tight;
  • the sonnet follows pattern abab cddc efef gg; rhyme is more often than not dependent on assonant and 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 dominated by alveolar plosives [t] [d] alongside nasals [n] [m], sibilant variants [s] [z] [sh] and front-of-mouth sounds, breathy [w], bi-labial [p] [b] and labio-dental fricatives [f] [v];

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