A Mite-Box

The poem renews and down-sizes the charity theme in Human Chain, from large-scale international aid to the poet’s experiences as a youngster carrying a collecting-box round the parish in search of donations towards ‘foreign missions’

Despite the numbing effect of stroke the memory triggered from Heaney’s childhood is very much alive: But still/ to feel; 

Heaney was skilled at the collector’s rôle adopting an entreating pose, with cupped palm, and feeling with a growing sense of achievement brought about by the chunk and clink of coins donated by willing if badly-off neighbours until his box was Full to its slotted lid with copper coins.

The cheaply-made, self-assembly cardboard kit of the mite-box gave away its religious provenance: Wedge-roofed like a little oratory. The task of collecting brought with it the need for personal responsibility: yours to tote as you made the rounds. Children were used, it is implied, because indulged on every doorstep they were seen as more persuasive collectors; however income and trustworthiness were rigorously Accounted for by a pinprick in a card.

Heaney comments wryly on the calculating way the collection was pitched: A way for all to see a way to heaven, selecting the analogy of the pinholed Camera Obscura that offered a means of reflecting solar glare safely as it unblinds the sun eclipsed that might otherwise keep folk ‘in the dark’. 

  • Mite box: the local word to describe a small cardboard collecting-box
  • Camera Obscura: the original principles are over 2000 years old: a sealed (Latin ‘obscura’-‘dark’) chamber (Latin ‘camera’) acts, via a tiny pinhole. as a collecting-plate of images that are projected upside-down onto a screen; the implications of what might be ‘hidden’ from a gullible populace are not lost on Heaney;
  • Three dimensional descriptions such as that of a charity box itself, then the methods and implied motives of the organisers, the pride of the youngster and the suggested naivety of the populace are skilfully interwoven; Heaney packs every phrase with information or implication;
  • ‘foreign missions’: perhaps Heaney is suggesting that by not defining beneficiaries more exactly the organisers retained a kind of dodgy carte blanche over the money’s distribution;
  • 4 tercets; free verse; a single sentence which, following the dash, introduces a more personal view: collecting in this way exploited the gullible;
  • religious cliché: way to heaven; the sun regarded as a symbol of spiritual enlightenment;
  • onomatopoeia: chunk and clink ; you feel the chunk, you hear the clink;
  • repetition with religious connotations: way .. to see a way
  • oratory: a chapel for private worship;
  • sonic echo: pinprick … pinholed;
  • unusual usage: unblinds: it is not the sun that is blinded, rather the person who would dare to gaze at it directly; variation of word order: sun eclipsed;
  • use of you/ your is both personal (he did this chore himself) and impersonal (as ‘one’ of many);
  • (silver and) copper coinage  used to differentiate between rich and not-so-rich;


  • Masterfully finished pieces like “A Mite-Box”, “Chanson d’Aventure” and several of the in memoriam poems refract the idea of the “human chain” in new directions, leading it through the collection and giving it momentum, building plenty of jumping-off points for thinking about relationships. Charlotte Runcie, living.scotsman .com, Aug 20 2010.