The Badgers

Heaney spoke to James Randall: There is a poem called “The Badgers” which I’m very fond of—a kind of bridging of the inner and outer life. It’s literally badgers, but they began in my mind to stand for the night-self, the night part in everybody, the scuttling secret parts of life. Just as in a sense the Provisionals are the nightlife of the Catholic community (Issue 18 of Ploughshares, Emerson College).

As regards the poems of ‘Field Work’ preceding the Glanmore Sonnets it is worth considering how each individual lyric, elegy and meditative piece contributes to Heaney’s barely veiled relief at having severed his ties with Belfast.

In this introspective piece Heaney addresses himself (you). A swirl of associations is generated by the close proximity of a creature single-mindedly pursuing its nocturnal routines.

A badger recognizable in the half-light by its white stripes has faded from view (glimmered away). The alcohol Heaney has imbibed (half-lit with whiskey) has launched a depressive train of thought suggesting he has somehow interrupted (disturbed) the Dantesque moment of some reprieved spirit (some soft returning), an unseen sibilant presence nosing around the undergrowth uncovering what is on the poet’s mind – the lost lives of the Northern Irish Troubles (murdered dead).

Perhaps, heaven forfend, the ultimate victim of murdered innocence (some violent shattered boy) seeking to understand what was lost (nosing out what got mislaid) between his birth and violent death (cradle … explosion) – a scene so out of kilter with the balmy weather Heaney is witnessing (windows stood open) and signs of rural normality (compost smoked down the backs).

Heaney’s mood runs with the idea that the badger is a messenger (visitations … taken for signs) its signals from nearby (duntings under the laurels) transmitting hints (intimations whispered) of better times ahead (about being vaguely honoured).

Badger carrion (carcasses) confirms the upsurge of the species (come back) – one of them, a ‘baddie’ (notorious), left dead on the carriageway (lay untouched in the roadside) – a second spared by Heaney behind the wheel of his car (had me braking), more perhaps to do with badger-reprisal (fear) than out of respect (honour).

Heaney is seeing correspondences with what the badger stands for: its covert lifestyle (cool from the sett), the nocturnal wandering routine (runs under the night) and scary reputation (bogey of fern country) have triggered recognition (broke cover in me) – a creature misrepresented (pig family) and misunderstood (not at all what he’s painted) – when I think badger, says Heaney, I am recognising bits of myself.

His mood turns to self-reflection: it is a form of treachery, he suggests (perilous to choose), for thinking creatures to debunk what they are born into (not to love the life we’re shown) – for all its grime badger is solid (sturdy dirty body), commendable for poking its nose wherever it sees fit (interloping grovel), instinctive and sharp of mind (intelligence in his bone).

Yes, think badger think poet indeed. The creature’s ability to cope with the most subservient of duties (unquestionable houseboy’s shoulders) bears all the trappings of minority Catholic status (could have been my own).

  • badger: heavily built nocturnal mammal omnivore of weasel family;
  • glimmer: shine faintly and waveringly
  • shattered: blown to bits
  • nose out: dislodge with the nose, prise;
  • mislay: lose somehow, misplace:
  • cradle: baby’s first bed;
  • compost: decayed organic matter;
  • visitation: appearance of a divine or supernatural figure;
  • dunting: strong low-sounding blow
  • laurel: dark green glossy plant or shrub;
  • intimation: hint, indication;
  • vague: unclear;
  • honoured: privileged;
  • carcass: dead body;
  • notorious: well-known, infamous;
  • sett: badger’s den, network of tunnels;
  • redolent: smelling strongly of;
  • bogey: imaginary spirit used to frighten people; object of fear;
  • fern: feathery-leaved flowerless plant
  • break cover: suddenly leave shelter when being pursued;
  • paint: make out to be;
  • sturdy: of solid build;
  • interloper: describing person or thing not welcome in a place;
  • grovel: crawl close to the ground
  • houseboy: personal employed to do the most menial tasks;


  • five verses (V) of variable length in thirteen sentences (5 +8+5+6+ sonnet length but unrhymed, volta after line 7));
  • the relative balance between sentence length, punctuation marks (including interrogatives but no exclamations) and enjambed lines (which dominate in this poem) determines flow and rhythm within the oral delivery possibilities;
  • varied line length from 2-9 syllables perhaps selected to mimic the ebb and flow of meditation;
  • very little rhyme and no formal scheme ; assonant echoes of final syllables are suggestive of rhyme;
  • V1 subtle treatment of twilight effects and humorous play on natural and alcohol fuelled effect;
  • move from visual to imagined; latter is more elusive; Dante possibility of reprieved souls is attractive;
  • V2 betrays a troubling link with the Troubles; invisible badger incorporates the shade of an innocent murder victimin limbo around the entrance to underworld tunnels;
  • Interrogative indicates it is all imaginative supposition;
  • V3 moves from the real and the supposed into a spiritual zone woven into neighbourhood reality and peppered with reference to what is impalpable; Dante allusion ever possible
  • V4 returns Heaney to the quotidian confirming strong badger presence even in death; personification – notorious badger reveals the misunderstood species with the power to scare humans;
  • V5 sonnet, unrhymed so perhaps more Lowellian than classical; volta after 7 moves from the poet siding with the creature to an understanding of the accidents of birth and genetic inheritance; both badger and the poet play the cards they were dealt when they entered the world, one a creature, one a human;



  • 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;
  • alliterative effects in stanza one are centred round alveolar plosives[t] [d], nasals [m] [n] and front-of-mouth sounds, breathy [w] [y] fricative [f] and aspirate [h]; the badger’s movements are echoed in the cluster of sibilants [s];

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