High Summer

The poem is set in the French Pays Basque region visited by the Heaney family in 1969 to fulfil the conditions of the Somerset Maugham Award. Heaney and Marie had their two young sons with them – Michael born in 1966 and Christopher born in 1968 who was cutting his teeth as they holidayed. The claustrophobia of gite accommodation in trying circumstances offered little respite to a man who was also a poet!

Nothing was to be done to soothe Christopher (child cried inconsolably) when his crying most grated on parents in need of rest (at night). With his flowing locks the neighbours who mistook the ‘he’ for a ‘she’ (la petite) were treated to the endless wailing (him harrowing the air) that put a damper on both accommodation (damped their roof-tiles) and surroundings (vines).

Hope of catching up on sleep was quickly dashed (at five o’clock) by the onset of the farming day – the landlord’s tractor … instantly recognizable (familiar) indifferent to insomnia (ignorant) and tough to bear (hard) as it throttled in rough terrain (battled) or idled throatily (gargled). Paradoxically welcome dawn (relished daylight in the shutter) brought relief (fell asleep).

Elsewhere at eye level the silent river’s fast-flowing lumpy water (slubbed with eddies) seemed full of fish (laden) and bore the colours of bounty (mud and olive into summer).

Above, acrobatic bird flight (swallows mazed) from mud based roosts (nests caked up) in the eaves (roof-tiles) of the barn where Heaney sits (double door stood open) watching antiquated Basque country transportation (carter passed) drawn by obedient draught animals (bowed oxen).

This potential side-line appealed to a poet not naturally drawn to fishing – local suppliers sold fishing bait (maggots) packaged like treats in the post WWII rationing period (paper bags, like sweets) – for late-day recreation (fished at evening) as the air cooled but not the soil (earthy heat) and pungent odours were amplified (green reek of the maize).

His shadow was concealed from the fish (screened bank) by the woven, repetitive backdrop (plaited frieze); other unseen fishermen were at work betrayed by their tackle (bamboo rods) protruding at an angle (stuck leniently out), rising and falling (nodding) patient (waiting), silent enticements (feelers into quiet).

French culinary delicacies at hand (snails in the grass), creatures communicating in flight (bat-squeak), on-coming night (darkening trees ….)

Heaney’s conscience addresses the ‘someone’ hiding himself away … his son is a challenge (Christopher … teething), poetic charge arrives more readily perhaps (barn ideal place to write) amidst the rich conglomeration of texture (bare stone), farm tack (old harness), places on which to deposit ‘things’ (ledges, shelves) and external sense data (smell of hay and silage all’s hot and still).

Oh, and if a clinching argument was required he has already forked out (scattered twenty francs on fishing tackle)!

Who knows whether conscience led to compromise but as Heaney tidied up behind himself (last day … clearing up) he came upon unused bait (bag of maggots) where he had left it (warm ledge) and still alive.

He recounts the monochrome hallucination that ensued: the repellent writhing exodus of maggots (black and throbbing swarm came riddling out), current TV footage (newsreel) of stomach-churning black-uniformed RUC men out of control in the Northern Irish Troubles (police force run amok), nauseating insects (sunspotting flies) behaving repulsively (gauzy meaty flight), snippets of High Court lawyers in black (barristers) and paramilitaries opposing British presence (black berets of light).

And then the Heaneys left it all behind … upwards (high bare roads of the pays basque) over ground where Catholic emblems (calvaries) acted as check-points (sentry the crossroads) … and onwards to the next stage (slept that night) over hazy Pyrenean passes (near goatbells in the mists) into Spain.


  • high: beyond the allusion to the best days of summer the adjective carries a further connotion of ‘strong smelling’, ‘things going off/ rotting’;
  • curls: wavy hair;
  • La petite: feminine singular form – the neighbours mistook the child for a girl;
  • harrow: (n/ v) heavy farm implement dragged across ground to break it up; also notion of causing distress;
  • battle: struggle to achieve; fight its way;
  • gargle: make a gurgling sound as with water held in the throat;
  • relish: enjoy, delight in;
  • slubbed: describing fabric with lumpy uneven texture;
  • eddy: circular movement of water flow
  • laden: rich with fish;
  • maze: move in complex patterns;
  • caked: applied as a sticky substance now hardened;
  • cart: strong, open wheeled farm vehicle puled by horse or ox;
  • maggot: insect larva used as fishing bait;
  • reek: strong pungent smell;
  • maize: cereal plant yielding large grains (corn cobs) and used as stock-feed or oil (and latterly human consumption);
  • plaited: interlaced, interwoven;
  • frieze: horizontal band with repeated pattern;
  • bamboo: strong stemmed woody plant that grows in warm climates;
  • lenient: relaxing, soothing (note also a touch of poetic licence – the sound of ‘lean’ in the sense of ‘tip forward’);
  • nod: move up and down as a sign of assent;
  • feeler: antenna searching by touch;
  • snail: escargot:
  • squeak: high-pitched sound;
  • teethe: cut one’s milk teeth, painful for a young child;
  • harness: straps and fittings by which a draught animal is attached to a cart;
  • silage: green fodder, compacted, stores and dried as a winter animal-feed;
  • scatter: cover a shop’s counter with random coinage;
  • franc: French currency pre-dating the €Euro
  • tackle: equipment;
  • throb: pulsate, beat;
  • swarm: large, dense group;
  • riddle: emerge as if through a sieve; (note also a touch of poetic licence – the sound of near homophone ‘wriggle’ with the sense of ‘writhe’);
  • newsreel: footage of some current affair projected in cinema or on TV;
  • run amok: behave uncontrollably;
  • sunspot: reference to dark patches appearing randomly of the sun’s surface
  • meaty: fleshy, beefy;
  • barrister: advocate/ counsel in the High Court formally dressed for the occasion
  • beret: full, round, flattish black cap;
  • calvary: Catholic roadside carved scene of the Crucifixion:
  • sentry: stand guard;
  • mast: tall upright posts
  • goatbell: attached to goats to indicate to the goatherd where they are in open countryside;


  • Summer Home from Wintering Out (1972) provides an earlier example of and a different angle on the pressures of personal experience on the same holiday break. The cocktail of summer heat in a foreign clime, unaccustomed accommodation, sheer fatigue and the company of two children under three years of age (one of whom is cutting his teeth) pushes an otherwise reasonable man over the top. ‘Maggots’ were the straw that broke this alternative camel’s back!


  • Four verses (V) (one half-lined) plus final triplet, the whole in fifteen sentences (S) (including suspension points and colon leading to an enumeration); direct speech sounds like the voice of conscience intended for Marie ;
  • S1-3 outline the sheer claustrophobic discomfort of the circumstances; S4/5 paint the picture of rural Basque life; S6/ 7 introduce a ready avoidance tactic; S9-12 listen to the voice of conscience in short sentence format; S13/14 change the mood completely (the full holiday including Spain witnessed grave events back in Northern Ireland) offer the opportunity to clear Heaney’s physical and emotional baggage; the final triplet dominated by Catholic emblems points to the nest stage;
  • look for subtle French language gender give-aways; wails that penetrate like farm blades; triple adjectives that suggest and double verb that describes tractor data; effective multi-sensual lyrical description of life in the Basque country, water, fishing and bird behaviour; listen to the more humble confession of the poet acknowledging that Marie is bearing the brunt of family responsibility; be prepared to accept that although it is never openly stated Heaney has found a way to introduce the Troubles troubling him;
  • the relative balance between sentence length, punctuation marks (some mid-line) and enjambed lines determines the flow and rhythm within the oral delivery potential; the first and final sentences are more heavily enjambed; the rest are rhythms deliberately disrupted;
  • variable line length between 6-11 syllables; Heaney suggested his Field Work lines were iambically tight;
  • varied rhyme patterns: strict abab cdcd replaced by less formal lines with occasional rhyme or none or tenuous assonant or alliterative effects in final syllable or word;


  • 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: fourteen 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 triplet is rich in alveolar plosives [t] [d], sibilants [s] [z] and front-of-mouth sounds, breathy [w], bi-labial [p] [b], labio-dental fricatives [f] [v] and [l]; also velar [k] [g];


Join the Conversation - Leave a comment