Glanmore Sonnets – an Introduction

Glanmore was the fortuitous outcome (hence the dedication to Ann Saddlemyer  who first rented then sold the cottage to the Heaneys) of a couple’s shared agreement to change direction and move on and away from suburban Belfast steeped in pain and turbulence. Heaney was not of a mind to remain in Belfast out of provincial loyalty; his resentment of the way minority Catholics were treated added to the attraction of a move to the Irish Republic.

The move however was fraught with complications at a domestic level, not least his children’s educational needs and family income – he had resigned his University post and the family was now dependent on his freelance work to pay incoming bills.

Most importantly perhaps for a poet with three collections to his name and growing academic prospects at home and overseas it was critical that his new surroundings provide the emotional stability in which his writerly needs would flourish (they did of course).

As Heaney’s time-line also reveals Glanmore came about while North was still under construction  and seven years before Field Work was published. By the time Field Work appeared the family had already been resident in Dublin for a number of years and Glanmore had changed status from family home to poet’s writing-refuge.

Heaney’s comments

DOD (197-8) was eager to know what led to the ‘intended, complete’ feel of poems like ‘Glanmore Sonnets’ via the bundle of accident and incoherence that sat down to breakfast in Glanmore: the person who had moved from city to country, drove the children to school -every morning in his Volkswagen Beetle and then climbed the stairs to write; who was trying to devote himself to his own work but was earning his keep by freelance work.

Heaney’s responses say it all:  I knew it 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 …  At the same time, there was an element of anxiety because I knew that living there couldn’t be a permanent arrangement. During those years, Ann Saddlemyer had every intention of retiring to Wicklow, so she wasn’t going to sell the place, and it was too small anyhow for three kids and two adults to inhabit indefinitely. Our furniture for example, was back in the house in Belfast, which we still owned …  everything in me felt connected up to an energy source. Maybe it was because of certain physical aspect of the house – old cement floor in the living room, latches slapping up and down on the doors, a fire in the grate – things that connected back to the Mossbawn house… There was no heating, apart from the open grate and those miserable little two-bar electric fires, but the very bleakness had it attractions. And there were the compensations of watching leaves sprout and weeds flourish and birds build. Even though I mostly looked out at all this through a fug of cigarette smoke, it was still a sustenance … 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 (so around 1974), 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 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 … Glanmore truly was what I called it, a ‘hedge-school’ in the literal sense. I gathered blackberries off the briars and ate them, as if I were back on the road to school. I even found a blackbird nest in the hedge at our gable …

Anyhow, that’s where we landed in August I972 – a far cry from Ashley Avenue and the Ashley Arms at the corner where the landlord, Mr Lavery, had been blown up as he tried to carry a parcel bomb out of the lounge bar. 

The Heaney family ‘at-home’: as regards developing social contacts Heaney had well-heeled cultural and professional contacts in the area that provided occasional parties. However as regards the immediate neighbourhood (DOD 200):  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 (DoD 201) 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. Later on, Marie taught in the Ashford school and ­ thanks to her work there – we were even more integrated into the local life. In the shop and on the road, I’d meet the schoolkids’ parents, and our babysitters’ parents, and some of the customers in the pub would have heard the radio programme I used to present every week, so all that helped to settle us in.

Helen Vendler (66) refers to ‘the best-known marriage-group in Field Work, the ten poems called ‘Glanmore Sonnets’ (which ring changes on both Shakespearean and Italian forms), Heaney writes a deliberately middle-voiced Wordsworthian sequence, poems which he hopes will ‘continue, hold, dispel, appease’ … Heaney hopes, in this domestic retreat, to create a new hard-edged form of pastoral – ‘I will break through,’ he says, ‘what I glazed over / With perfect mist and peaceful absences’.

Michael Parker (166) … the core of the collection, the ‘Glanmore Sonnets’, ten epiphanies celebrating ‘opened ground’, personal and poetic quickening  …  Abandoning the regularity of nine-to-five enabled him to establish his own rhythms, and heightened that acute responsiveness to seasonal change, to ‘planetary, biological reality’, which had been with him from infancy. At Glanmore Heaney seems to have experienced a deeper assuredness than any he had known since his days at Mossbawn. The poet himself sees the two places as analogous. Both Glanmore and ‘the original place’ were presided over by generous, benevolent, female deities, and bustled with children and their enthusiasms. (167) … As the sequence develops, the poet’s wife, Marie, becomes an increasingly important presence as a stabilising and energising force … ‘We had been married six years, and, you know, I think it takes a while to get to know how to be married. What happened to us personally as a couple, as a family, was that we got married again in a different way. We started life again together’.

Choice of the sonnet form , suggests MP (167) indicates a desire to re­establish the ‘old values’ of order, harmony, and lyric ceremony in his work, after the highly-politicised, thrusting quatrains of North. Appropriately the sequence begins with a dedication to his ‘patron’ at Glanmore, Ann Saddlemyer, the academic who had leased the cottage to the couple. She is addressed as ‘our heartiest welcomer’, a phrase borrowed from Yeats’s ‘In Memory of Major Robert Gregory’. ‘Settled’, like Yeats in his new home, Heaney prepares himself to receive some of the ghosts of his past, the ‘dream grain’ of memory.

Neil Corcoran o(from p. 100) offers an inventory of wider considerations of considerable help to students  I quote at length and with great respect for his scholarship:

The sequence of ten ‘Glanmore Sonnets’ which lies physically at the centre of Field Work is a concentration of preoccupations apparent in its other poems too. The presence of a sonnet sequence, after the disruption of the lyric in North, is the most open acknowledgement in Field Work of an allegiance to the English lyric tradition … the tenth sonnet alludes to Thomas Wyatt, the first English sonneteer. This allegiance is fused, however, with a further acknowledgement of Patrick Kavanagh, whose sonnet sequence ‘Temptation in Harvest’ delicately registers the rural world of his native Co. Monaghan; in Preoccupations Heaney observes that some poems in the sequence ‘beautifully and wistfully annotate … Kavanagh’s move to Dublin in 1939’ … Unlike Kavanagh, however, Heaney discovers in the site a new point of confirmation and resolution, a firmer ground.

NC points out further literary influences he perceives in Glanmore Sonnets : If Mandelstam is a hidden presence sonnet 1 of the sequence, other writers are there too, in varying degrees of visibility, in allusions which make the literary as much a mode of the perceiving consciousness in these poems as it is in North. Boris Pasternak’s ‘Hamlet’ ends with a Russian proverb which Lowell translates, in Imitations, ‘To live a life is not to cross a field’; and Heaney’s opening sonnet remembers this when it says of the relaxed ease of the Glanmore life, ‘Now the good life could be to cross a field.’ Wyatt, as I have noted, is alluded to in the tenth sonnet, where the eroticism of the poet’s ‘first night’ with his wife is allied to one of the most tenderly erotic moments in English poetry, Wyatt’s ‘They flee from me’:  When her lose gowne from her shoulders did fall, / And she me caught in her armes long and small; / Therewithall sweetly did me kysse, / And softly saide, dere hert, howe like you this?

More glancingly, Joyce is alluded to in the ‘inwit’ of IX (Stephen meditates in Ulysses on the medieval English phrase ‘agenbite of inwit’  (remorse of conscience); Philip Sidney’s Apology for Poetry in X (‘What is my apology for poetry?’); Shakespeare, also in X , with the eloping lovers Lorenzo and Jessica from The Merchant of Venice; and Diarmuid and Grainne in the same sonnet, lovers pursued in the Ulster mythological cycle.

Above all, though, it is Wordsworth who shadows the sequence, as obviously present here as he is in Death of a

Naturalist. In II ‘sensings, mountings from the hiding places’ is Wordsworthian in its gerunds and in its reference to ‘the hiding places of my power’ in The Prelude. In III, the poet is about to make a direct comparison of his wife and himself, in their ‘strange loneliness’, to Dorothy and William in ‘Dove Cottage, but the hyperbole is deflated by his wife’s interrupting demurral. Sonnets IV, V and VI are also Wordsworthian in the way they seek out moments analogous to the ‘spots of time’ in The Prelude, moments from the poet’s childhood through which, in memory, an imaginative extension occurs. In IV, the child misses the reputed ‘iron tune’ of the train when he puts his

ear to the line, but the adult retrieves a poem from the memory,(104)lying now with an ear to the poetic line. In v , the meditation on a tree associated with early sexual experience, and already named in ‘Broagh’ – in dialect the ‘boortree’, in standard English the ‘elderberry’ – is offered a one instance of what has made this poet an ‘etymologist of roots and grafting’ in the ‘tree’ of language. And in VI, the legendary story of ‘the man who dared the ice’ is an implied analogy from the poet’s childhood for the daring, attack, inspiration and impetuousness of a particular

kind of poem, whose risk is also ‘a cold where things might crystallize or founder’. It is to the point also that it is in an essay in Preoccupations which makes reference to Wordsworth’s ambulatory compositional methods that Heaney traces the derivation of ‘verse’ from versus.

Poem VI refers to ‘the unsayable lights’; but these are all poems which manage to ‘say’ complex experiences, even while reminding us of the difficulty with which any experience struggles out of it ‘hiding place’ into the articulation of a poem. Formed partly from other poems, and gratefully allusive to them, the ‘Glanmore Sonnets’ are nevertheless directed out towards the world as well as inwards towards writing itself, seeking their ideal in a harmoniously reciprocal relationship between culture and nature. The sequence discovers its finest metaphor for these correspondences not in literary creation, but in sculpture, when, in II, Oisin Kelly is imagined ‘hankering after stone / That connived with the chisel, as if the grain / Remembered what the mallet tapped to know’. An understanding of these relationships, however, is not simply given, but must be slowly acquired; and this is why Glanmore is a ‘hedge-school’ in which the poet tries to learn a voice that might ‘continue, hold, dispel, appease’. The hedge-schools’ were the only means the native Irish had of gaining an education during

the period of the Penal Laws, and we can take it that what this voice must dispeI and appease is, at least in part, the inheritance of a history of violence and repression. For all that the sonnets find their comforts in pastoral calm, in literature, and in the achieved mutuality of marriage, these consolations are set (105) against insistent reminders of the world’s pain. In VIII, the innocent sight of a magpie inspecting a sleeping horse summons to mind the ‘armour and carrion’ of a historical battlefield; in IX, a rat ‘Sways on the briar like infected fruit’, terrifying the

poet’s wife, and other rats killed in threshing leave their ‘Blood on a pitch-fork, blood on chaff and hay’; and the final sonnet evokes a dream in which husband and wife lie down together and apart, in the attitude of death, as well as the embrace of sexual love.

In ‘Yeats as an Example?’ in Preoccupations, Heaney claims that in Yeats’s poems ‘the finally exemplary moments are those when [the] powerful artistic control is vulnerable to the pain or pathos of life itself.’ The strength of the ‘Glanmore Sonnets’ is that, for all the control of their artistry, and the self-delight of their literariness, they never forget this vulnerability.

Postscript: Seeing Things (1991) includes the sequence ‘Glanmore Revisited’; Electric Light (2001) includes a ‘Glanmore Eclogue’; and in ‘District and Circle’ (2006) the poem ‘Blackbird of Glanmore’ stirs memories of brother Christopher killed in a road accident at a bus stop close to Mossbawn in 1953.


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