A Herbal

after Guillevic’s ‘Herbier de Bretaagne

Eugène Guillevic (1907-1957; b. Carnac, Morbihan, Brittany, France) who used only his family name; well-known French regional poet of the second half of the 20th century.  

The sequence comprises 19 short pieces, the longest of 15 lines. The dedication’s after confirms that Heaney is offering his own version of a French poem altered to adapt it to Ireland’s flora, his own non-coastal surroundings and to meet his own poetic priorities.  He is loyal to the original text but omits some sections and re-orders others. He adds a personal incident involving himself and Marie Heaney where the original text offers the possibility.

The sequence produces plants in their natural environment with human voices, emotions and distinct personalities. They naturalise and self-renew annually reflecting on death and decay amongst humans upon whose interred remains they feed.

Conversation and dialogue is conducted between them and speaker in cordial, easy-going terms.

By definition personification of a plant community hints at human communities in which the same traits co- exist.


Herbal 1 creates an unexpected pecking order: wherever one looks (everywhere) the world of flora thrives (flourish) whilst man’s mortal remains are routinely interred (graves). Plants take advantage (sinking their roots) of the nourishment provided by close-knit past generations (dynasties of the dead).

  • flourish: grow well, prosper, thrive;
  • dynasty: ancestral line, descent;
  • alliteration:dynasties/ Of the dead;


Heaney’s Ireland-based version (in our place) questions whether churchyard grass enriched by human remains is any better quality than grazing land (ordinary field grass). He turns to one who walked with him on one occasion, Marie his wife: they were with a film crew and she requested (you wanted) a professionally produced (sound recordist) document (loop) of themselves in meadow grass stirring up (wildtrack of your feet) the sound of lushness (through the wet).

  • for a moment Heaney personalises Guillevic’s anonymous reference to the wisdom of woman : Flagrant and daily / Is the revelation / By the leaf and the flower / Of what the earth Makes of the universe, / Of what in the woman / Finds expression;
  • sound recordist: member of a film-crew ensuring that every sound detail is perfect;
  • loop: repeatable section;
  • wildtrack: sound recording that will be synchronised with a film;
  • 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 fie


Plants reflect the individuality of people: the abundant flora might recognize each other’s regional patois (lush compliant dialect), yet forget any idea that they all pull in the same direction (no way have plants here arrived at a settlement). There has to be some natural explanation (to do with the wind).

  • lush: abundant, profuse;
  • compliant: amenable, biddable;
  • dialect: local parlance, individual way of speaking;
  • settlement: agreement, understanding; connotation of ‘way to live alongside one another’;
  • mare’s tail: water plant on solid stem;
  • broom: shrub rich in flowers
  • whin: gorse, furze;
  • alveolar plosive [t] used for effect at the end of words: Yet/ Compliant dialect/ plants;
  • the voiceless bilabial [w] continuant sound of whinsand wind is itself produced by airflow between the lips mimicking the sound of the wind;


The poem resists ready-made explanation lending the grass a fickle personality, ready to pick an argument (takes issue), openly disagree (sets its face to the wind) or snub the wind (now turns its back). 

  • take issue with: challenge, disagree
  • set one’s face against: offer tough resistance;
  • turn one’s back: snub, give cold shoulder;
  • the poem is suggestive of ‘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;


Grass speaks: control-freak wind thinks it has me sussed (well rehearsed) in his scheme of things (the ways of the world) … wrong … I am (says grass) knowingly unpredictable (unstable is good) offering masterful assent to my fellow flora (citizen of the wind) to follow their natural bent (go with the flow). Grass’s use of the ‘revolutionary’ epithet citizen might also suggest a different political hierarchy with alternative strict regulation. Heaney himself had received similar advice from the James Joyce figure he met in Station Island XII.

  • rehearsed: prepared in advance; pre-programmed;
  • ways of the world: how things typically happen;
  • unstable: changeable, unpredictable;
  • permission granted: official permission from superior to subordinate;
  • go with the flow: go along with things as they are;
  • assonances: rehearsed/ world; Go/ Go/ flow


Use of personification lends plant-life individual traits of character: (bracken  less boastful) less pushy than grass. Its frond behaviour protects its shyness (closes and curls back) rendering its privacy (secrets) impossible to decode (best kept upon earth).

  • bracken: tall ferns together;
  • boastful: outwardly proud, self-satisfied;
  • curl back on: move, curve inwards;
  • bilabial plosive [b] velar [k] and sibilant [s] sounds produce a textile in sound;


Hang on (to be fair), let us not forget the bringer of warmth, light and life (sun as well), peerless (nowhere else like this) reborn young and fresh daily (morning sun) wall-to-wall (all day long) – a plant-friendly force that all but coaxes the flora (tempted) into believing it is reliable (into trust).

  • to be fair: something said favourably to modify a false, negative comment;
  • tempt: entice;
  • trust: confidence, belief;
  • Sonic chain: fair/ there/ nowhere/ there;
  • alliteration:  tempted into trust;


The poem returns to the graveyard to challenge the notion that death is final: formal procession (sunlit tarmac) ritual dressing (memories of the hearse) and slow solemnity ( walking pace) do not, in Nature’s world, denote the end of the affair – the human dead become part of an eternal cycle (borne towards the future).

  • tarmac: permanent road surface of stone fragments mixed with tar;
  • hearse: vehicle conveying coffin to funeral site;
  • verge: grassy edge of a road;
  • borne: carried
  • deeper considerations enter the narrative: the idea of nature feeding on the nutrients provided by the dead (see i) creates a cycle of events; a further classical Virgilian reading may also be valid: souls destined to enjoy a second existence implied in the sound of borne: so, transported in a hearse/ born again;
  • alliterations: plosive [t] of sunlit tarmac interweave with sibilant [s] ofsunlit/ memories/ hearse;
  • internal rhyme;Hearse/ verges;


Plant life becomes excited (the grass is all a-tremble) at the prospect of nourishment in store (when the funeral bell tolls), but recognises other invitations to devotion that do not whet its appetite (not every time any old bell rings).

  • toll: mark death with a series on single repeated beats;
  • a-tremble: in an elated state;
  • any old: describing an item without any personal attribution;
  • alliteration: tolls/ a-tremble;
  • rings: Heaney gives the resonant sound a line to itself;


Enter a new plant (broom): outsider (like the disregarded) yet kindred spirit (company for them) radiating a huge inner strength that spurs on Nature’s neglected plants (keep going the whole thing’s worth the effort) and when, occasionally uplifted (sometimes) by the sun-kissed feeling of well–being (when the weather’s very good) common to them all (same characters), celebrates openly (broom sings).

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


Where things of the same genus grow location determines variations – the soil’s immutable (never, in later days) geological legacy infliences its bounty (fruit so taste of earth) – its rocky provenance is prominent in the sweetness it produces (slate in the blackberries slatey sap).

  • slate: a fine grained rock found in Donegal of Heaney’s Gaeltacht days and Wicklow where he lived and worked out of Glanmore cottage for a period;
  • slatey:  distinctive taste of slate once deposited in the soil;
  • blackberry: soft purple edible fruit of the bramble;
  • sap: fluid keeping a plant alive and explaining its vigour;
  • Heaney demonstrates the discriminating palate of the ‘taster’ able to describe the subtle differences between savours; consideration of wine growing and the location of vines that affects quality only confirms the notion;
  • 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;


The urge to fumble (grope), explore, reach into the natural profusion along each water-course (ditchback growth) brings mixed results: alongside the anticipated (roots thick and thin) evidence (gave itself away) of unwelcome alien presence (tail of a rat we killed). Heaney replaces Guillevic’s original ‘viper’ – snakes are unknown in Ireland.

  • ditch: man-made channel dug to carry water away; ditchback: overgrown sides;
  • grope: search uncertainly by feeling;
  • give itself away: reveal something unintentionally;
  • sonic chains: growth/ grope/ once/ one;
  • alliteration interweaving dental and velar [t] and [th]:roots/ Thick and thin./ But roots of what?


Guillevic and Heaney alike discovered to their cost that not all plants were friendly (nettles, malignant things) for all their cunning pretence (letting on to be asleep).

  • nettle: leaf with jagged leaves and stinging hairs
  • malignant: malicious, nasty-minded;
  • let on: reveal information
  • In a piece focusing on the nettle, nasal [n] abounds;


The innocent curiosity of his early years (nobody seemed able to explain) was quickly superseded: Heaney had to come to terms (put up with) with toxic plants and learn that Nature provided its own antidote (dock to cure the vicious stings).

  • put up with: suffer, grin and bear;
  • dock: coarse weed rubbed on to relieve nettle sting
  • sting: tingling sensation transmitted by contact;
  • the gentler sibilants of the wind are replaced by the hissing sibilants of vicious stings;


The poet describes how wonderful it is to be at one with his rural universe (leaves on the trees  growth on the headrigs) and share close and trusting dialogue (you could confess everything to) about the most personal of feelings (your fears of the night) including those who scared him (people even).

  • headrig: strip at the top of a meadow in which farm machinery could manoeuvre;
  • confession: formal admission of sin or shortfall as for example made to a Catholic cleric;
  • 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;


The ultimate aroma therapy! The poet salutes the peerless ability (what was better then) of herbs to sharpen the consciousness of being: first release the aroma (crush a leaf or a herb), then swish its aerosol (wave it) with deliberation (slowlysoothingly) past your sensory organs (mouth and nose) to know for sure you are alive (breathe).

  • crush:
  • palm:
  • herb: aromatic plant;
  • wave:
  • soothing:
  • breathe: more than just ‘take in the oxygen required to live’, suggestive of ’savour the privilege of being alive’;


A deeper, wiser tone emerges extending the lesson on consciousness to the importance of knowledge. For the inquisitive who have come to understand existence (know a bit about the universe) it was a deliberate act (because you’ve taken it in like that) to delve into space and matter in and beyond the world outside as hard as into their inner person (self).

Heaney has reached beneath the surface of the world around him (into the rat hole), stripping away its cover (vetch and dock that mantled it); he has learned the touch and texture of growing things (your cheek against the rush clump) and investigated geology and origin (known soft stone to break on the quarry floor).

  • universe: cosmos, the entirety of space and matter;
  • take something in: understand meaning and importance;
  • vetch and dock: undergrowth plants;
  • rush: tall-growing waterside or marsh plant;
  • clump: small, close group of the same plant;
  • quarry: site, pit from which items have been extracted for commercial reasons;


The poet’s consciousness links him inseparably with his landscape – between a host of familiar plants at ground level, reaching upwards to the interface between atmosphere and deep space (clear blue and cloud) between the beauty of rural activity and eternity (haystack sunset sky) between emblems of natural longevity and man-made impermanence (oak tree and slated roof), on a journey between the now and the what-next.

Heaney’s on-record presence in the human chain (I had my existence. I was there) and his natural environment are inextricably bound (me in place and the place in me).

  • heather: purple flowered ground-hugging heathland plant;
  • marigold: ornamental yellow-flowered plant of the daisy family;
  • sphagnum: peatland moss;
  • buttercup: grassland plant with bright yellow cupped flowers;
  • dandelion: yellow flowered weed of the daisy family;
  • broom: shrub rich in flowers
  • forget-me-not: ornamental low-growing plant with small blue flowers
  • honeysuckle: climbing shrub with fragrant tubular flowers
  • in place: in one’s element, comfort zone, where one belongs;
  • Heaney comes close to the feelings ofCzeslaw 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)


The final snippet takes the form of an unanswered question posed by a seventy-one  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 the agnostic Heaney expresses his longing for an elsewhere world, beyond maps and atlases that provides so completely for the man and poet that he is (where all is woven into and of itself), perfectly constructed in all the complex simplicity of the botanical world his (and by him Guillevic’s) sequence has explored and lauded (a nest of crosshatched grass blades).

When Nature seems eternal, then why not Man.

  • elsewhere world: a somewhere-other, parallel;
  • weave: interknit, entwine, interlace;
  • crosshatch: intersection of elements that somehow orchestrates the whole;
  • 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
  • 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;

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