September Song

Heaney acknowledges that like Dante then, he now is en el medio del camino, at the half-way stage of his ‘threescore years and ten’ (in the middle of the way). He and his family are faced with re-relocation from Glanmore to Dublin and nature is in tune with torn emotions: wateriness (wet of late September) low-pressure turbulence (ash tree flails). Even the household pet senses disruption (our dog is tearing earth). At the back end of the Wicklow year water mounts (rising ditches) and nature regresses (fern subsides). Downpours sit on both natural and man-made surfaces (rain-logged berries and stones are rained upon); fallen mast (acorns) reflects in the morning light (shine from grassy verges).

Change is nigh (it’s nearly over) after four years engaged in writing poetry amid the Wicklow landscape, providing  rural education for his boys and escape for himself from the sectarian imbalance of the North (hedge-school). House-warming has changed to house-cooling: in the absence of Irish fiddlers (nobody is going to resin a bow) to raise some countervailing glee (test the grieving registers for joy) Heaney turns with a shrug (might as well) to the next best Irishness available (old record of John Field’s Nocturnes). Field’s talents (gifts) match Heaney’s inner feelings: the Incertus in Heaney (waste), the melancholy romantic (solitude) the thirst for recognition (reputation) and lack of jollity (laughter) … all of which Field somehow manifested as an emigré in Russia (all ‘Dead in Moscow’).

Heaney uses a distillation metaphor to demonstrate what it takes to achieve ultimate refinement (all those gallons of wash for the pure drop) adding Russian composer Glinka’s appreciation of Field’s performance using different imagery (notes ‘like raindrops, pearls on velvet’).

Heaney takes Marie back to their own ‘emigration’ (when we first got footloose) to the United States celebrated on their last night (remember our American wake?) as only the Irish knew how (lifted the roof for us) by musician-friends of Belfast vintage (Hammond, Gunn and McAloon) with no let-up (in full cry) until early-day bird-song took over (dawn chorus) free of all concern (insouciant) save that of giving them a good send-off (purposeful).

Heaney is jolted back to reality by blustery conditions outside the Glanmore window (gusts, harking, power-lines shaken) and faltering sounds within the cottage (music wavering). To these he adds his own feelings (inside and out) – his sense of ‘responsible tristia’ present in Exposure the last poem of North  and a sneaking sense of insecurity (babes-in-the-wood weather).

Needs must however (we toe the line) – sons on the cusp of Secondary Education, a new job in Dublin, a house in Sandymount to move into, a third child on the way – here are the starting blocks (between the tree in leaf and the bare tree).

  • middle of the way: when Dante penned the Inferno he wrote that he was en el medio del camino …half way through his earthly life expectancy of 70 years; Heaney is about the same age as he and Marie prepare to move from Glanmore to Sandymount in Dublin;
  • flail: swing wildly, thrash about;
  • fern: flowerless plant with light, feathery fronds, fond of warm, damp climates
  • subside: die back;
  • rain-logged: cf waterlogged; saturated;
  • verge: grassy edgings of roads and paths;
  • hedge-school: Heaney’s in-phrase for Glanmore: coincidentally a stone cast at historical sectarianism: secret schools known as hedge schools (‘scoileanna scairte’) were set up from 1695 in acts of active disobedience of strict Protestant laws in Ireland which forbade Catholics from setting up schools or from sending their children abroad to school;
  • resin: rub the bow of a violin with a powder that enhances the contact with the strings;
  • grieving register (to do with communication): voice or sound or intonation with very sad moments are expressed; in Linguistics variety of a language or a level of usage, as determined by degree of formality and choice of vocabulary, pronunciation, and syntax, according to the communicative purpose, social context, and standing of the user.
  • John Field (1782-1837): Irish pianist, composer, and teacher. Field is best known as the inventor of the nocturne predating Chopin; Field visited then elected to stay in Russia dying and laid to rest in Moscow;
  • nocturnes: said to be the creation of an Irishman who had his greatest success in early 19th Century Russia, the lyrical echo of an Irish soul combined with that Russian love of melancholy romanticism’;
  • waste:
  • ‘like raindrops’ etc: the “father of Russian classical music”, Mikhail Glinka had to say of Field: I clearly remember his energetic and at the same time sophisticated and precise performance. It seemed to me that he did not even press the keys, his fingers simply fell on them like raindrops, glided like pearls on velvet.
  • wash … pure drop: likely reference to the Irish whiskey process where the initial mash of grist mixed with large volumes of water is repeatedly reduced in volume until  pure whiskey is distilled;
  • american wake: what the Irish call a farewell to those emigrating to the United States;
  • footloose: able to travel freely and do as one pleases
  • lift/ raise the roof: cheer very loudly, show very loud appreciation;
  • David Hammond (1928-2008):much admired Northern Irish writer, singer, teacher, songwriter, historian, musician, film-maker and broadcaster; close friend of Marie and Seamus Heaney who collaborated with the poet on BBC radio. Heaney’s final collection ‘Human Chain’ (2010) includes ‘The Door was Open’, a ‘dream’ poem is dedicated to him; it’s title echoes the conviviality and companionship the Heaneys enjoyed in Belfast and at the singer’s home in Co. Donegal in the Irish Republic;
  • Thom Gunn (1929-2004) poet born in England and Cambridge educated; lived sand wrote in America after 1960 dying in San Francisco; very much a free spirit supportive of the pre-Aids gay scene and tolerant of the drug scene; 
  • Sean McAloon (1923–1998): piper and pipe maker from Northern Ireland; his first instrument was the fiddle but he is best known as a master of the uillean pipes; emigrated to the United States in 1964, but after a year he returned to Ireland and took up modest jobs first in Dublin then in Belfast; 
  • insouciant: relaxed, light-hearted, carefree
  • purposeful: dedicated, unwavering;
  • hark: listen out;
  • waver: faltering, wobbling, trembling;
  • babes-in-the-wood: traditional children’s tale; touching story of two innocents, abandoned in the woods by those hired to kill them who relent and abandon them; they starve and perish;
  • toe the line: accept the authority, policies, or principles of a particular group, especially unwillingly;


  • (DOD 197) Heaney paid tribute to the cottage that increasingly became an interim solution : Glanmore led me on to new confidence and new work, so J 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.


  • He also explained their ‘needs-must’ reasoning. To envisage the next stage was a matter of By 1975 we had three children, two boys and a baby girl. The boys had grown to a point where they were about to step into the system, on to an escalator that would carry them from primary school through secondary school and on to wherever. If we stayed out in the country, I saw years of travel for them in the backs of school buses, summers and winters of delivering and collecting them at the nearest bus stop, overcrowding in the gate lodge, Marie being left isolated in the country with all that on her hands when I went off to do lectures or readings, and so on … It seemed the best thing would be to move into Dublin … But to do so we would have to get a mortgage, and to pay the mortgage J would have to get a job. The freelance earnings were good enough as long as we were paying Ann Saddlemyer’s nominal rent in Glanmore, but for a more sustained commitment – and a far more;


  • Seven quatrains (Q) in eight sentences (S) (including dash and interrogative); direct refs apply to a judgment of John Field attributable to Glinka and the title of a record of his 18 nocturnes attributable to Challenge Records
  • S1-4 and S 8 (launched with a Dante reference to the ageing process) pathetic  fallacy uses the autumn Wicklow countryside as a frame for Heaney’s middle-age ‘tristia’ as he is poised to leave Glanmore;
  • S1: the dog ’tears ground’ in harmony with torn emotions; tree behaves like a farm implement; S2 antithesis of increase and decrease; S3 repetition of rain alongside other vocabulary indicating wetness; S4 dual purpose of hedge-school – a learning landscape rich with hedgerows an education free of protestant influence corroborating the initial Glanmore move; S5 a cultured peaceful atmosphere; composer whose creative talents match the poet’s at that instant; quartet of nouns that increase in cheerfulness ; do we infer regret at the absence of a roistering farewell in part attributable (and in line with Dante) to declining stamina and the rural quietness that has been customary over a period; S5’s final couplet however pays tribute to the peace that has produced good verse using  a distilling metaphor;
  • S6/ 7 replace the turbulent Wicklow scene of the ‘now’ with the celebratory boisterous send-off they received before his sabbatical at the University of California, Berkeley in 1970; S 7 amplified sound echoed by natural sound; oxymoron – ‘insouciant … purposeful’; S8 reprise of nature’s power alongside vacillating music and inner feelings; emotion replaced by pure reason ‘toe the line’; final tree metaphor that separates new Dublin beginnings from Glanmore winter ahead;
  • the relative balance between sentence length, punctuation marks and enjambed lines determines the flow and rhythm within the oral delivery potential; the early and last Wicklow sentences are heavily enjambed; those in the middle much less sobuilding from sedateness to foot-stamping rhythm
  • variable line length between 5 -12 syllables; Heaney suggested this Field Work rhythms were iambically tight;
  • little formal rhyme beyond 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 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];


Join the Conversation - Leave a comment