(from Dante, Inferno, xxxii, xxxiii)

Heaney closes Field Work with passages translated from Dante’s original text. The following commentary does not provide detailed textual survey but provides definitions as a means to understanding the narrative plus coloured-hearing that showcases Heaney’s craftsmanship even in translation.  Further comments and references relate to Heaney’s decision to complete Field Work in this grisly way. In a collection that spends a deal of its time bolstering Heaney’s decision in 1972 to relocate with his family to the Irish Republic and sever his contacts the North this ‘black painting’ of the medieval Ugolino episode, though he might downplay it, provokes Heaney’s sense of outrage at political developments effectively triggered from Whitehall.

He explained the twin intent of ‘Ugolino’ (one political the other writerly) to DOD (425): The creative act is witnessed by history, and the writer writes to be read. In that sense, I translated ‘Ugolino’ in order for it to be read in the context of the ‘dirty protests’ in the Maze prison. But the contemporary parallel is not at all necessary; the sine qua non is personal rapport and writerly excitement. For example, for a while I was so exhilarated by the whole marvel of Dante that I was tempted to have a go at doing the complete Inferno – simply for its own imaginative splendour. Heaney had been working on Dante, had translated three cantos before abandoning the idea once he recognized the lack of Italian (the little words as opposed to the nouns and verbs) that inhibited his efforts to find a style that ‘would be right for me and for the material’.

Heaney was drawn to the Dante material because he sensed “there was something intimate, almost carnal, about these feuds and sorrows of mediaeval Pisa, something that could perhaps mesh with and house the equivalent and destructive energies at work in, say, contemporary Belfast”

Dante depicts a grim and grisly darkness unrelieved by any chink of light in which the protagonist shade is condemned to suffer in perpetuity and driven to barbaric cannibalistic behaviours for reasons of hunger and hatred. The narrative explores the interface between sanity and madness. The history of hostility between local city states demands evidence of local identity within rival ideologies in which accent serves as an indelible pointer. Recorded history identifies individuals without giving them the opportunity to tell their story. Ugolino describes a fall from grace that makes him a wanted man in the eyes of the dominant political bloc and triggers a manhunt and his long lasting incarceration with sons and grandsons at the hands of men no better than himself. He is never put on trial. Their human suffering is intensified by hardened policies through stages of starvation decline and death, children first. Ugolino is condemned to witness this atrocity before succumbing himself. His final act is to curse Pisa, scandalized, unpunished yet prepared to torture to death both the guilty man and his innocent issue. His curse delivered Ugolino returns to the cannibalism that will be forever his way of death.

Within this scenario it is difficult not to see the correspondences with Northern Ireland to which Heaney is providing a ‘response’.

We had already left him. I walked the ice / And saw two soldered in a frozen hole / On top of other, one’s skull capping the other’s, / Gnawing at him where the neck and head / Are grafted to the sweet fruit of the brain, / Like a famine victim at a loaf of bread. / So the berserk Tydeus gnashed and fed / Upon the severed head of Menalippus / As if it were some spattered carnal melon. / ‘You,’ I shouted, ‘you on top, what hate / Makes you so ravenous and insatiable? / What keeps you so monstrously at rut? / Is there any story I can tell / For you, in the world above, against him? / If my tongue by then’s not withered in my throat / I will report the truth and clear your name.’

  • Ice: the deepest level Nine of Dante’s Hell was in fact ice-bound such that the worse sinners (here treason) suffered the greatest torment in perpetuity;
  • solder: join two bodies as in metal-working with a low-melting alloy;
  • cap: cover from above;
  • gnaw: chomp, bite persistently;
  • graft: in horticulture a shoot inserted into a living body upon which it then lives;
  • berserk: demented, frenzied;
  • Tydeus/ Menalippus: characters from classical mythology and Greek tragedy caught up on opposite sides in power struggles between families around Thebes in central Greece; they met in mortal combat in Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes; Tydeus killed Menalippus but was mortally wounded; Dante consigns them both to the Ninth Circle where their mutual  hostility continues;
  • carnal melon: unusual juxtaposition ‘melon’ head-shaped and full of juicy moisture; ‘carnal’ contains a touch of lechery;
  • at rut: sexual instincts as of animals in their mating season

That sinner eased his mouth up off his meal / To answer me, and wiped it with the hair / Left growing on his victim’s ravaged skull, / Then said, ‘Even before I speak / The thought of having to relive all that /Desperate time makes my heart sick; / Yet while I weep to say them, I would sow / My words like curses – that they might increase / And multiply upon this head I gnaw. / I know you come from Florence by your accent / But I have no idea who you are / Nor how you ever managed your descent. / Still, you should know my name, for I was Count / Ugolino, this was Archbishop Roger, / And why I act the jockey to his mount / Is surely common knowledge; how my good faith / Was easy prey to his malignancy. / How I was taken, held, and put to death. / But you must hear something you cannot know

If you’re to judge him – the cruelty / Of my death at his hands. So listen now.

  • ease up: relax and raise;
  • ravaged: badly damaged, wrecked;
  • curse: utterance invoking a supernatural power to inflict damage on someone;
  • Ugolino: Count Ugolino della Gherardesca (1220-1289) earned his place in Dante’s Antenora-, realm of political traitors, for a series of betrayals against Pisa and her political leadership. Dante mentions only the reputed act of treason that eventually led to Ugolino’s downfall: he ceded Pisan castles to Florence and Lucca in 1285 ( 33.85-6). However, early commentators and chroniclers describe other–even more damning–examples of shifting allegiances and betrayals in the long political life of Count Ugolino.
  • Archbishop Roger (1271-1295): equally guilty of treason Ruggieri incited the public against Ugolino (by cleverly exploiting Ugolino’s previous “betrayal of the castles”) and had the count–along with two sons (Gaddo and Uguiccione) and two grandsons (Anselmo and Brigata)–arrested and imprisoned. They were held in theTorre della Muda for eight months until, with a change in the ghibelline leadership of Pisa, it was decided to nail shut the door to the tower and to throw the key into the Arno. They starved to death, as Dante’s Ugolino recalls, in a matter of days ( 33.67-75).
  • jockey/ mount: ‘jockey’ rider astride ‘mount’ his horse;
  • prey: quarry, creature killed by another for food
  • malignancy: malevolence, hatred;

Others will pine as I pined in that jail / Which is called Hunger after me, and watch / As I watched through a narrow hole / Moon after moon, bright and somnambulant, / Pass overhead, until that night I dreamt / The bad dream and my future’s veil was rent. / I saw a wolf-hunt: this man rode the hill / Between Pisa and Lucca, hounding down / The wolf and wolf-cubs. He was lordly and masterful, / His pack in keen condition, his company / Deployed ahead of him, Gualandi / And Sismundi as well, and Lanfranchi,

Who soon wore down wolf-father and wolf-sons / And my hallucination / Was all sharp teeth and bleeding flanks ripped open. / When I awoke before the dawn, my head / Swam with cries of my sons who slept in tears / Beside me there, crying out for bread. / (If your sympathy has not already started / At all that my heart was foresuffering / And if you are not crying, you are hardhearted.)/ They were awake now, it was near the time / For food to be brought in as usual, / Each one of them disturbed after his dream, / When I heard the door being nailed and hammered / Shut, far down in the nightmare tower.

  • pine: languish, lose strength;
  • somnambulant: like a sleepwalker;
  • veil: face covering of fine material;
  • rent: torn;
  • wolf: wild carnivorous animal;
  • Pisa: Tuscan city straddling the Arno river;
  • Lucca: Tuscan city very close to Pisa;
  • hound down: pursue relentlessly;
  • masterful: powerful, imperious;
  • pack: group of animals that live and hunt together;
  • keen: sharpened, fervent;
  • Gualandi/ Sismundi/Lanfranchi: powerful feudal families caught up in the 13th century political struggles; commissioned to pursue and arrest Ugolino and his sons and grandsons:
  • wear down: slowly sap the energy of;
  • hallucination: picture feared most
  • flank: side of body between ribs and hip;
  • foresuffer: be troubled with apprehension, by a foreboding;
  • nail: metal pin;
  • hammer: heavy tool for driving in nails etc;
  • tower: in this context the Torre della Muda, now a palazzo;

I stared in my sons’ faces and spoke no word. / My eyes were dry and my heart was stony. / They cried and my little Anselm said, / “What’s wrong? Why are you staring, daddy?” / But I shed no tears, I made no reply / All through that day, all through the night that followed  / Until another sun blushed in the sky / And sent a small beam probing the distress / Inside those prison walls. Then when I saw / The image of my face in their four faces / I bit on my two hands in desperation / And they, since they thought hunger drove me to it, / Rose up suddenly in agitation / Saying, “Father, it will greatly ease our pain / If you eat us instead, and you who dressed us / In this sad flesh undress us here again.”

  • stony- hearted: cruelly unfeeling;
  • blush: bring a pink tinge to something;
  • probe: seek to uncover;
  • desperation: state of hopelessness;
  • drive: compel, force;
  • agitation: disquiet, upset;

So then I calmed myself to keep them calm./ We hushed. That day and the next stole past us / And earth seemed hardened against me and them. / For four days we let the silence gather. / Then, throwing himself flat in front of me, / Caddo said, “Why don’t you help me, father?” / He died like that, and surely as you see / Me here, one by one I saw my three / Drop dead during the fifth day and the sixth day / Until I saw no more. Searching, blinded, / For two days I groped over them and called them. / Then hunger killed where grief had only wounded.’ / When he had said all this, his eyes rolled / And his teeth, like a dog’s teeth clamping round a bone, / Bit into the skull and again took hold.

  • steal: creep, slip
  • hardened: tough, insensitive;
  • roll: move in a circle;
  • clamp: fasten tightly;

Pisa! Pisa, your sounds are like a hiss / Sizzling in our country’s grassy language. / And since the neighbour states have been remiss / In your extermination, let a huge / Dyke of islands bar the Arno’s mouth, let / Capraia and Gorgona dam and deluge / You and your population. For the sins / Of Ugolino, who betrayed your forts, / Should never have been visited on his sons. / Your atrocity was Theban. They were young / And innocent: Hugh and Brigata / And the other two whose names are in my song.

  • hiss: sibilant expression of disapproval;
  • sizzle: utter a hissing sound;
  • remiss: negligent, forgetful;
  • dyke: barrier formed by alluvial deposits;
  • Arno: Tuscan river flowing into the Mediterranean near Pisa
  • Capraia/ Gorgona: twin islands off the coast into which the Arno flows:
  • dam: barrage;
  • deluge: severe flood;
  • visit on: impose punishment on;
  • atrocity: act of barbarity
  • Thebes: city in central Greece prominent in classical mythology;
  • Ugolino’s sons: Hugh, Brigata, Anselm, Caddo;
  • song: translation of Latin derived canto in Dante referring to a section of a long poem;


  • Commentators have spoken of Ugolino’s story (‘the longest single speech by one of the damned’) as Dante’s final dramatic representation in the Inferno of humankind’s capacity for evil and cruelty. Aimed at explaining the scene of cannibalism in hell, Ugolino’s story is all the more powerful because the speaker makes no attempt to exonerate himself of the crime (he had allegedly handed over Pisan castles to Lucca in 1285) of political treachery for which he is condemned to eternal damnation. He sets out to defame his enemy and elicit compassion from his audience by recounting the brutal manner in which he and his innocent children were killed.
  • Heaney will return to conditions and prisoners in The Maze prison and the links he perceived with the ‘Ugolino’ story in Flight Path of Spirit Level (1996). The piece stemmed from his outrage at political decisions that led to the squalid conditions created in the ‘dirty protests’ after 1976 (gaol walls smeared with shite) by men imprisoned without trial (Long Kesh). He likens images of the first Republican incarcerated (red eyes eyes of Ciaran Nugent) to an unfortunate condemned to Hell in the Inferno (something out of Dante’s scurfy hell) – Ugolino’s gimlet eyes boring into the poetic conscience (drilling their way  through the rhymes and images) as Heaney walks, poet himself, in the footsteps of Dante and his honourable companion (the righteous Virgil).
  • smeared with shite: prisoners daubed their excrement on the walls as part of the ‘dirty’ protest;
  • Long Kesh: (Maze Prison, the Maze, the H Blocks or Long Kesh) a prison in Northern Ireland near Belfast that was used to incarcerate paramilitary  prisoners without trial during the Troubles from mid-1971 to mid-2000. Prisoners convicted of scheduled offences after 1 March 1976 were housed in the “H-Blocks” that had been constructed. Prisoners deprived of Special Category Status began protesting for its return immediately after they were transferred to the H-Blocks where they lost privileges. Their first act of defiance (they regarded themselves as political prisoners) initiated by Ciaran Nugent  was to refuse to wear prison uniforms; they wrapped themselves in bedsheets. The British government refused to back down. Deprived of the use of toilets without first putting on uniform the prisoners began to defecate within their own cells, smearing excrement on the walls. This began the ‘dirty protest’;
  • Ciaran Nugent: best known as the first IRA ‘blanket man’ in the H-Blocks. Heaney was affronted when convicted Republican prisoners who saw themselves as political prisoners lost their special status and were treated as ordinary criminals. Their response was violent and included blanket protests, no-wash protests and hunger strikes. Ciaran Nugent was the first man to be sentenced to the so-called H-Blocks after loss of status;
  • When he had said all this … Heaney opens the link in his mind between intransigent Northern Irish mindsets and the Ugolino episode of Dante’s Inferno XXXIII as he depicts himself accompanying Dante and Virgil. This version of Dante’s tercet also appears in the third section of ‘Ugolino’ in Field Work (1979) in which Count Ugolino, a treacherous politician is doomed to die of starvation with his sons and grandsons in a boarded-up tower.


  • 106 lines in 4 sections (S) of varying length;S1 includes interrogatives, first person pronouns; S2 includes direct speech and names linking it to historical period; S3 prolonged section includes character fro the historical moment grim detail  of the effects of starvation; direct speech questions from those too innocent to comprehend man’s inhumanity to man; Ugolino’s cannibalism to prolong his life is not confirmed; Lear-like death of Ugolino (though U was guilty of treason and L only of foolishness);S4 contains the curse; local colour confirms geographical setting; Ugolino reflects on morality and injustice before returning to his Sisyphean task;
  • with few exceptions line length falls into 8-11 syllables; no rhyme scheme; an ostensibly random cluster of close rhyme and occasional assonant or alliterative effects in final syllables; Heaney stressed that his Field Work lines were iambically tight;
  • the relative balance between sentence length, punctuation and enjambment determines the flow and rhythm within the oral delivery potential; the piece is a measured balance of enjambed and punctuated lines;


  • Penning his own poems or in translation 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 opening lines are rich in alveolar plosives [t] [d] and front-of-mouth sounds breathy [w], aspirate [h], alveolar approximant [l] labio-dental fricatives [f] [v] and bi-labial plosives [p] [b]; alongside are nasals [m] [n] and sibilant variations [s] [z] [sh] ; a handful of velar plosives [k] [g]complete the package;

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