A Herbal

A sequence of 19 short poems, the longest 15 lines, imitating the work of a 20th century Breton poet. The foreword’s after suggests that Heaney, in addition to the poetic shape and form of the genre, may be offering his version of lines from the original. 

The sequence produces plants with human voices, emotions and characteristics operating in natural context. Heaney is intimately involved as translator and communicator. 


Heaney stresses a paradox: Nature is eternally self-renewing, growing thick wherever it may Flourish; mankind is mortal and consigned ultimately to graves. The different strata of earth beneath cemeteries in general (Everywhere) are a kind of time-line of past generations, from whom the plants gain their nourishment, Sinking their roots/ In all the dynasties/ Of the dead.

  • alliteration: dynasties/ Of the dead;


Questions arise as to how different Irish cemeteries in particular, In our place, might be and whether churchyard grass, enriched by human remains, was any different from ordinary/ Field grass. The picture conjured up suggests a difference. As if to confirm that Field grass bears witness to the acts of the living rather than the repose of the dead Heaney addresses one who walked with him on one occasion: you wanted/ The sound recordist/ To make a loop of footsteps through meadow grass: Wildtrack of your feet/ Through the wet.

  • play on words: wildtrack: the sounds of a person’s unfettered movement through wet grass; track: the technical words for an item recorded as in ‘sound-track’;
  • sonic interweave both alliterative and assonant: Wildtrack/ feet/ wet/ foot field.


The poet senses a paradox: the abundant flora might speak with a regional tonguea lush/ Compliant dialect, yet for all the comfortable sense of place that a local patois might suggest, the familiar species on view remain somehow unsettled: No way have plants here/ Arrived at a settlement. He identifies the unsettling force: It must have to do/ With the wind.

  • alveolar plosive [t] used for effect at the end of words: Yet/ Compliant dialect/ plants;
  • the voiceless bilabial [w] continuant sound of whins and wind is itself produced by airflow between the lips mimicking the sound of the wind;


The poet adopts an animistic approach in lending the grass a ‘soul’, imagining it has ‘human’ emotional responses to the wind: unable to rest in peace, able to take issue as it Now sets its face/ To the wind,/ Now turns its back. The grass resists.

  • animism: an Eastern philosophy that gave living souls to plants and natural phenomena;
  • rich use of sibilants  [s] and [sh] mimics the sound of wind through grass; the music of this phonetic sound can be either gentle or a more aggressive ‘hiss’ hardening to plosive [t]: sets/ too/ turns;
  • loose rhymes: grass/ peace/ face;


The grass speaks: it admits to being controlled by the wind that Has me well rehearsed; its contact has brought insights into the ways of the world where the wind’s unpredictability is positive: Unstable is good; the master gives controlling assent to its underling citizen of the wind to adapt to its force, bidding it Go with the flow.

  • ‘going with the flow’ reveals a kind of tacit acceptance of a group dynamic; indeed, the use of the ‘revolutionary’ epithet citizen implies a sort of political hierarchy with strict regulation;
  • assonances: rehearsed/ world; Go/ Go/ flow


Combining observation and imagination, Heaney provides plant-life with traits of character, judging that The bracken/ is less boastful, less confessional than the grass. The shape of bracken fronds protects its privacy; the plant closes and curls back/ On its secrets whilst its impenetrable vegetation renders these secrets The best kept/ Upon earth.

  • Bilabial plosive [b] velar [k] and sibilant [s] sounds produce a textile in sound;


First mention to be fair of a less turbulent force: There is sun as well, a sunlight to be compared with Nowhere else, with all the sharpness and youth of Morning sun that lasts All day long. Its appearance in this climate all but coaxes the vegetation into trust, into an accepted reliance on its life-giving force.

  • Sonic chain: fair/ there/ nowhere/ there;
  • alliteration:  tempted into trust;


Heaney returns to the graveyard. Amidst Nature’s seemingly eternal self-regeneration, nothing human is forever: sunlit tarmac,/ memories of the hearse/ At walking pace. Yet for all the finality of death, the dead remain part of an eternal cycle: The dead here are borne/ Towards the future.

  • Deeper thoughts enter the text: the idea of nature feeding on the nutrients provided by the dead (see i) creates a cycle of events; a second, the classical Virgilian notion of souls destined to enjoy a second existence is also implied in the sound of borne: so, transported in a hearse/ born again;
  • alliterations: plosive [t] of sunlit tarmac interweave with sibilant [s] of sunlit/ memories/ hearse;
  • internal rhyme; Hearse/ verges;


Nature is excited at the thought of nourishment in store: the solemn sounds and significance of burial When the funeral bell tolls/ The grass is all a-tremble; it is arch knowingness: its excitement does not extend to other invitations to devotion, not every time any old bell/ Rings.

  • alliteration: tolls/ a-tremble;
  • Rings: Heaney gives the resonant sound a line to itself;


A new down-land plant is introduced: the Broom: an outsider like the disregarded,  yet a kindred spirit offering company for them. It radiates a huge inner strength that tells Nature’s neglected plants They have to keep going/ That the whole thing’s worth/ The effort. Buoyed sometimes by the sun-kissed feeling of well–being shared by all those same characters When the weather’s very good/   Broom sings.

  • the disregarded : an emotive reference to sections of society whose existence is so hopeless, so bleak that it threatens their motivation to carry on.


A taste memory relating to the soil and its bounty, one of unrepeated distinction: Never, in later days,/ Would fruit so taste of earth as the ground’s rocky origin can be tasted in the sweetness produced: slate/ In the blackberries,/ A slatey sap.

  • Heaney demonstrates the discriminating palate of the ‘taster’ able to describe the subtle differences between savours;
  • alliterative interweave: sibilant [s] and alveolar plosive [t]; testing flavour within the mouth involves both a smack of the lips and tongue against palate in the [t] position;
  • assonance: later/taste/ slate/ slatey;


An invitation to touch, explore, reach in reveals that ugliness and death are to be found amidst the weave of ditchback growth. Whatever little might be learnt about individual plants from fumbling amongst roots/ Thick and thin, anything out-of-place Gave itself away,/ The tail of a rat/ We killed.

  • sonic chains: growth/ grope/ once/ one;
  • alliteration interweaving dental and velar [t] and [th]: roots/ Thick and thin./ But roots of what?


Lurking danger: Heaney’s country pursuits as a youngsters led to the discovery of unfriendly plants:: Among them Nettles,/ malignant things, all the more deceitful for letting on/ To be asleep.

  • In a piece devoted to the nettle, nasal [n] abounds;


In Heaney’s early years nature instructed a youngster that, beyond argument or discussion, some plants were hostile but had to be/ Put up with (akin to the smelly class-mate in Eelworks iii). He also learnt that the smarting could be countered by rubbing other friendlier plants: There would always be dock/ To cure the vicious stings.

  • The gentler sibilants of the wind are replaced by the hissing sibilants of vicious stings;


Heaney describes the benefits that people might derive from close and private dialogue with nature, from leaves on the trees/ …growth on the headrigs/ You could confess everything to; an appreciation on Nature’ constancy extended to the most intimate of matters: Even your fears/ of the night/…Of people/ Even.

  • a sonic chain extends through the piece: leaves/ trees/ Even/ fears/ people/ even;
  • successive lines shorten in length eventually isolating the final even; these final lines echo a childlike voice talking to itself;


Heaney celebrates the ability of herbs to generate peerless (What was better then) aroma-therapeutic effects that sharpen the consciousness of being alive. He sets out a slow, deliberate experience: crush a leaf or a herb…/ wave it slowly, soothingly/ Past your mouth and nose/ And breathe.

  • Breathe: not simply ‘take in the oxygen required to live’ but also’ recognise the privilege of being alive’;


The poem adopts a deeper, wiser tone, extending the lesson on consciousness and stressing the importance of knowledge. Its thesis: If you know a bit/ About the universe … It’s because you’ve taken it in/ Like that. 

Being successfully aware is not rocket-science: you have been enquiring and looked as hard into the world outside as you do into your inner person; you have used your 5 senses to reach beneath the surface of the world around you, Into the rat hole/ Through the vetch and dock/ That mantled it; you have learned the touch and sound of things, Your cheek/ Against the rush clump; you have learnt to recognise texture, known soft stone to break/ On the quarry floor.


The poet’s own consciousness places him forever at the heart of the landscape to which he belongs, makes him an intrinsic part of it, in a shoulder-to-shoulder state of ‘between-ness’: between familiar plants at ground level; starting from below his poet’s eye climbs upwards from microcosm to macrocosm.

Thanks to the dialogue, the poet’s existence and his affinity to his environment are authenticated both in time and space. He is an essential part in an inevitable natural process: I had my existence. I was there./ Me in place and the place in me.

  • Heaney comes close to the feelings of Milosz’s tireless messenger from his poem ‘Meaning’ of which the final sentence reads :

                   ‘there will remain/ A word wakened by lips that perish,/ A tireless messenger who runs and                      

                  runs/ Through interstellar fields, through the revolving galaxie’ (Collected Poems)


From precarious human existence on earth to the ‘what-next’. The final poem takes the form of an unanswered question relating to worlds beyond the physical world. When an individual’s perceived world and his existence are as closely interrelated as Heaney senses, and when death is inevitable, where else might this present source of huge satisfaction be replicated?

The question is posed by a seventy year old poet at one with his world, knowing he must leave it sooner rather than later yet thirsting for more! 

More in hope than in expectation, perhaps, Heaney movingly expresses his longing for An elsewhere world, beyond/ Maps and atlases,/ Where all is woven into/ And of itself, perfectly constructed in all its complexity like a nest/ Of crosshatched grass blades. 

When Nature seems eternal, then why not Man.

  • Eugène Guillevic (b. Carnac, Morbihan, France, August 5, 1907 d. March 19, 1997 Paris) was one of the better known French poets of the second half of the 20th century. Professionally, he went under just the single name “Guillevic”
  • In “A Herbal,” which is an adaptation of Guillevic’s “Herbier de Bretagne,” Heaney hears and gives voice to grass and bracken. He presents nature as thriving, irrespective and unconcerned with human existence. Saint Columba saw oak trees and elderberry bushes just as we do today. Erin Lynn, Coldfront, September 22, 2010
  • Alongside such surprises are common phrases on which a tender pressure has been exerted, as in the precisely quiet and enthrallingly beautiful, A Herbal (‘‘Nettles, / Malignant things, letting on / To be asleep’’). Vona Groarke, Sunday Business Post Online, Sept 13 2010
  • ‘A Herbal’ – after French poet Guillevic’s poem of decay and renewal ‘Herbier de Bretagne’ – offers consolation and continuity, opening ‘Everywhere plants/Flourish among graves’. In this beautifully strange and sustained poem, the voice declares ‘I had my existence. I was there/Me in place and the place in me’: the line might well be taken pars pro toto (Latin: the part for the whole). Adam O’Riordan, The Telegraph of August 29,2010
  • Heaney is conversational and welcoming, often present in his writing as a relaxed host. He never overdresses his poems. ‘A Herbal’ is an example of this restraint – a devotional piece about graveyard plants with secretive bracken and independent grass. Kate Kellaway in the Observer, August 22, 2010