Eight lines produce an outstanding distillation of Irish landscape, Celtic mythology and the sounds and associations of language and music. The piece culminates in an expression of the pure joy of being alive and Irish, echoing the poetry of legendary Irish giant Finn McCool.

The first tree Heaney espies (rowan) is female oriented, ideally shaped and coloured to house a Celtic wood nymph (like a lipsticked girl) growing alone at the junction of ancient and modern Ireland (between the by-road and the main road).

Then trees with male associations (alder) braving the Irish climate (wet and dripping) distant and detached from humbler marshy flora (stand off among the rushes). Some Irish legends had it that the first woman came from the rowan tree and the first man from the alder.

From sight to sound correspondences – wetland beauty (mud-flowers) and Irish twang (dialect); everlasting helichrysum flowers (immortelles) that hit the right note unerringly (perfect pitch).

To crown it all, that rare moment, as Finn Mac Cool promised, of ultimate reward (when the bird sings very close) in total harmony with its world (the music of what happens). Wherever and whoever you may be, Heaney suggests, the five senses of your consciousness can bring delight to your sense of being.

  • rowan; Celtic ‘Tree of Life’ symbolising courage, wisdom and protection with clusters of bright red fruit;
  • by-road: minor thoroughfare;
  • alder: small deciduous tree common in Ireland; symbolic of strength and protectiveness, discrimination and loyalty;
  • stand off: remain separate from; note stand-off of two forces competing for the same space
  • immortelles: Helichrysum flowers deemed ‘everlasting’, producing a constant supply of mainly yellow and umber shades with medicinal uses;
  • perfect pitch: absolute pitch said of musicians who can produce a given note from within themselves without external prompts;


  • “As Heaney dwells in this place of origins, contemplating the intersection of human, natural, and supernatural worlds, his attention turns to language and music. In the phrase “the mud-flowers of dialect,” he suggests an organic connection between human speech and the local terrain, the flowers of human dialect and the mud from which they’ve sprung.  Likewise, in “the immortelles of perfect pitch,” he evokes an intimate connection between the sounds of the natural world and human musicians with absolute pitch, who can reproduce those sounds without external prompts. And in his closing line, he recalls the legend of Finn McCool, who challenged the warriors of the Fianna—accomplished poets, all—to name the finest music in the world. The music of the lark over Dingle Bay, suggested one.  The laughter of a young woman, suggested another. The bellowing of a stag, suggested a third. No, replied Finn McCool. The finest music is “the music of what happens.” Ben Howard 2011


  • miniature of 2 quatrains (Q) in 3 sentences;
  • Q1 uses gender symbols echoing Celtic mythology; the rowan female, independent and alluring thanks to the clustering and colour of its fruit and echoing the dryad image of the title poem Field Work’; the alders male, in a group together, implied a touch aggressive; roads emblematic of old and new Ireland’ allusion as to irish climate;
  • Q2 injects language and music alluding to poet and creative processes; leads to rare ‘perfect moment’ borrowed from the ancient Irish literature;
  • line length 7-11 syllables; unrhymed; the piece is a richly enjambed flow of lyrical celebration; Heaney stressed that his Field Work lines were iambically tight;
  • the relative balance between sentence length, punctuation mark and enjambment determines the flow and rhythm within the oral delivery potential;


  • 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: nine 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 first quatrain is rich in alveolar plosives [t] [d] alongside nasals [m] [n]; also alveolar [r] and of front-of-mouth sounds breathy [w], approximant[l] and bi-labial plosives [p] [b];


One thought on “Song

  1. Beautiful poem, and a lovely concise analysis. A great help, this being the first time I’ve been able to write academically on Seamus Heaney. Thank you 🙂

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