- Fifty Years on
- Heaney in the four years since District and Circle
- Main Sources
The textual commentaries that follow seek to tease out what Seamus Heaney’s poems are intimating in Human Chain. Of course the poet’s ‘message’ started life as an essentially personal one not intended primarily for his reader Accordingly there are moments when some serious unravelling is required. In the case of a poet as accomplished, complex and focused as Heaney the rewards for persevering are at once enriching, fortifying and hugely pleasurable.
There are issues, too, beyond ‘the text, the whole text and nothing but the text’: there is the question of ‘style’, that is, the combination of language and poetic devices deliberately selected by the poet to carry his narrative forward; then there is the matter of Heaney’s appeal to the ear, the poem intended as a song to be heard and enjoyed or, to the mind’s eye, a picture to be ‘seen’ and felt. These issues are explored in individual commentaries and summarised at the end.
Human Chain published in 2010 by Faber and Faber is Seamus Heaney’s thirteenth and final collection following Death of a Naturalist in 1966.
It was bitterly disappointing for Heaney’s worldwide following that Human Chain, heralded as his ‘latest’ collection, turned out to be his last. He died 3 years later after a short illness at the age of 74.
Heaney’s final text message to his beloved wife Marie just minutes before his death in a Dublin clinic – ’noli timēre’ ‘be not afraid’ – touched the whole Irish nation. She and he had been married since 1965 producing three children who in turn extended the Heaney Chain to the tune of three grand-daughters two of whom are celebrated in the current volume, the first Anna Rose in Route 110 and the second, added late, in ‘A Kite for Aibhín’.
District and Circle (2006) was published in the same year as Heaney suffered a stroke. He recovered in six weeks thanks to a number of factors – the proximity of medic friends who carried his hefty frame from the Donegal guesthouse whom he thanked in Miracle … the shared comfort of his and Marie’s love and the effectiveness of the Irish Emergency and Physiotherapy services celebrated in Chanson d’Aventure. Thankfully he suffered no impairment and could even laugh at Brian Friel’s good-humoured banter in the hospital ward: ‘Different strokes for different folks’.
There is no doubt however that Heaney was frightened to death by the experience – ‘I cried for my daddy’, he said. Conscious of his hectic lifestyle now part of a wider concern he resolved on the spot to take time-out for a year.
Thankfully his cognitive function was intact and despite mortality’s ‘little warning’ Heaney’s mind and memory remained intact (as he reminds us very forthrightly at the end of ‘In the Attic’). Put simply the important things he still had to say assumed a greater urgency.
Illness did not get in Heaney’s way. Within a very short time the sounds that came to him in his convalescent room provided the poetic charge to kick start his internal engine – Nature’s external show of energy – the muted click of a time clock – the rowdy sounds of a baling machine.
Within weeks his thirteenth collection was taking shape
A snippet from ‘Lick the Pencil’ seems to sum up the stage Heaney had reached: the marks that living Nature left on his body as an adventurous youngster (some of them livid others barely visible) symbolized the indelible impressions life left on his mind and memory. His ability to express recurring themes remains acute, sustained and voiced still with huge emotional and lyrical charge.
He conjures up lives through objects, so that each instance seems to offer two timelines: one to do with the remembered life, the other to do with the on-going power of the material world to trigger memory and reclaim narrative, as evidenced by a pen, a suit, an ash-pan or, as in the marvellous Route 110, a ‘votive jam pot’.
Heaney’s mother and father dip in and out … in Uncoupled as shades carrying ash-pan or ashplant as they did in life… now sharing their wedding meal with the ghostly embodiment of Heaney himself … now overcoming their emotions to commit their first born to a distant Secondary school … now presenting him with an heirloom fountain pen that will be used to contact them on his first day in boarding school. His father Patrick is elegised via the wardrobe of clothes he left behind and in touching scenes as Heaney and family dealt with the old man’s final weeks.
The future Marie Heaney, her family and the eel trade associated with the period of their courtship appear in Eelworks … in Chanson d’Aventure their ecstatic passion for one other is rekindled without words in an emergency ambulance transporting the stroke victim to hospital.
Memories of Heaney’s Castledawson background in deepest mid-Ulster manifest themselves in at least a dozen poems from the occasions when he rattled a Mite Box to collect coins from parishioners … to events that occurred in the Wood Road above the family farm, one of them burlesque another tragic … from wakes he attended as a neighbourly young fellow accepted by grieving families without sectarianism standing in the way … to the Gaelic words that provided common vegetation with a cathartic lyrical charm. His student days of shopping sprees in Old Belfast are remembered in the iconic Route 110 (the number of the bus that took him home) which celebrates stages and phases in his life including the touching humble piety of his neighbours and an item of outlandish student gear.
If Primary school was ‘an age of wonder’ for Heaney, St Columb’s College in Derry is remembered as a place of exile with rigid routines that for all its drawbacks fostered his love of languages and literature and set him on the way to academic success, fame and fortune.
Above all education brought contact with two inspirational figures recalled in Human Chain … the first Master Murphy at Anahorish Primary… the second an unnamed Latin teacher Father Michael McGlinchey whose dedicated teaching introduced Heaney to Virgil’s Aenied Book VI that animates a handful of poems.
Images of the peaceful atmosphere of Virgil’s Elysium contrast with the bruising competivity of the Bellaghy Games … Virgil’s depiction of privileged souls permitted to return to earthly life awakens Heaney’s curiosity as to what will happen to his own soul post mortem … he would yearn for reincarnation along the Moyola of Riverbank Field.
In total contrast Heaney can recall the magical earthly reincarnation that came about on journeys to the Irish-speaking Gaeltacht in Co. Donegal. Constant reminder of the region was close at hand – Colin Middleton’s Loughanure painting hanging on his wall at home. Wraiths recalls the emotional pull of Rannafest, the snatches of extramural pleasure Heaney grabbed with both hands and the Gaeltacht’s fairy-tale Irishness.
In both Colum Cille Cecinit and his impressive Hermit Songs sequence Heaney salutes a third inspirational figure – the exiled Columba – saintly figurehead of the scribes whose links to the chain of civilisation ensured survival of the printed word, triggered education and knowledge, discouraged backwardness and introduce more recent ‘greats’, Milosz and Yeats, important to Heaney.
Thanks to Heaney’s poetic stature, his reputed kindness, optimism and generosity of spirit he enjoys a long list of friends and people who matter and to whom he dedicates his elegies and tributes – artists Nancy Wynne Jones whose work reminded him of Thomas Hardy and Colin Middleton whose work and personality were totally unconventional – David Hammond much admired Northern Irish writer, musician and broadcaster to whom a ‘dream’ poem is dedicated.
However Heaney is not kind to the Catholic Church. In Mite Box It sent out children to raise money from its pious but financially stretched neighbourhood then checked on the honesty of the young volunteers … the ordeal of Heaney’s First Communion confirmed his view of an institution literally and metaphorically set in stone … the poet does not pin high hopes on his boyhood Catholic faith now lapsed helping him post mortem. The fate of the legendary Irish king of Sweeney Out-Takes exiled after a brush with his Bishop seems to provide evidence enough.
Human Chain … Heaney is a past master of title, whether for collections or individual poems. His sometimes enigmatic, often ingenious headings send the attentive reader in search of his subtly submerged attachments.
Human Chain is about body and soul, an all-encompassing chain of events through life each a chain in itself and part of a wider chain. It features the inevitability, the emotional experiences, the memories and sense of loss appropriate to the human experience.
The word ‘chain’ provides the metaphor for myriad possibilities: linkage and interconnections; family past, present and future; inheritance; linked possessions and artefacts; scholars and scholarship; progression in time and space; classical parallels of life, death, afterlife and reincarnation. The collection’s poems feed each and every heading.
Human Chain explores a personal lifetime. What shines through most brightly is Heaney’s irrepressible joy of composition in which requiem and endorsement go hand in hand, elegy affirms and lament seeks comfort. Heaney’s sense of wonder is undimmed by regret or anguish. Despite ‘times winged chariot’ his poetry remains firmly on the side of life.
Digging, the first poem of Death of a Naturalist sets out a kind of mission-statement : Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests./ I’ll dig with it’. Its final couplet declares a deeper quest: ‘I rhyme/ To see myself, to set the darkness echoing’. Half a century has elapsed and Heaney remains faithful to those aspirations. It is hard to imagine greater creative integrity than that!
Fifty years on
It is fascinating to compare the challenges and dilemmas facing the apprentice-poet preparing his first collection after 1960 with the way the world presents to Heaney now over 70 years of age, Nobel Laureate along the way and engaged in his thirteenth collection.
In 1960, Heaney is 21 years of age; he is single and will marry five years later; in 2010 he is over 70 is surrounded by his family, married to the same wife since 1965 with three children and two grandchildren who prompted poems of welcome in Human Chain and extended the family chain. Very movingly a third granddaughter Siofra was born just prior to Heaney’ death but with his impeccable timing he was able to compose ‘In Time’ for her scarcely a week before he passed away.
His move to Belfast as an undergraduate in 1957 took him into a different world. He had been brought up in the rural Irishness of his 1940s and 50s farming background in Castledawson, mid- Ulster, first at Mossbawn then at The Wood near Bellaghy to which the family moved when Heaney was in his mid-teens after the loss of brother, Christopher; in 2010 he and Marie are living in Sandymount, Dublin. Heaney’s memories of time and place are acute, sustained and voiced still with huge emotional and lyrical charge. Heaney was blessed with a photographic memory, a huge treasury of words and a rich hoard of classical and contemporary literary references into which he could dip at will.
Thanks to enlightened education policies he had made best use of a privileged, largely ‘classical’ education (at school he was particularly successful at Latin); both Anahorish Primary and St. Columb’s College in Derry fed his awareness of languages and literature and feature strongly in Human Chain.
In 1960 Heaney possessed all the uncertainty of young men with bright futures seeking to make their way; he needed to earn a living and was interested in ‘teaching’; by 2010 teaching had taken him from the modest classrooms of Belfast Secondary Schools to prestigious Lecture Theatres at Harvard, Oxford University and audiences around the world. The risk he admitted to in resigning his university teaching post, going ‘freelance’ and moving with his family to Glanmore Cottage in the Irish Republic has rewarded us with the evidence of a life’s journey of rare achievement.
If ever Heaney needed in those early days to confirm the legitimacy of his own language, place and voice, there is no doubt that he has achieved it in full measure, and earned a place amongst the very best of twentieth century poets writing in English.
Born to and brought up in the Northern Irish Catholic minority in predominantly Protestant-run Northern Ireland Heaney developed a deep sense of his Irishness from childhood. As a man who hated violence in all its forms whatever his personal sympathies for the minority cause he suffered very much from the cycle of murder and revenge inflicted on the Northern Irish communities in the ‘Troubles’ period ; by 2010, against all expectations, there have been 12 years of ‘peace’ following the major breakthrough of the Good Friday Agreement signed in 1998; As a result Heaney can be an Irish poet in Northern Ireland and carry an Irish ‘green’ passport without looking over his shoulder, unthinkable during those times of sectarian violence.
In the early 60s, Heaney was in need of friends and mentors, hopefully of all political and religious shades, who shared his interest in the creative arts and would help him along the way. He found them amongst fellow poets who met in groups and workshops to rehearse their work with each other and university mentor Philip Hobsbaum; by 2010 thanks to his poetic stature, his reputed good nature, optimism and generosity of spirit, Heaney can enjoy a world-wide list of friends and people who matter, to whom he dedicates his poems.
Heaney in the four years since District and Circle
District and Circle (2006) is published in the same year as Heaney suffered a stroke. He first spoke publicly and relatively light-heartedly about this issue in an interview with Robert McCrum, A Life of Rhyme, published in The Observer of Sunday July 9th, 2009. Heaney also sets out both his fright and his emotional responses in the immediate aftermath. A handful of poems accompany his recovery and confirm he has lost none of his creative instincts.
His decision, made in hospital, during initial convalescence, to take time-out for a year reflects the intense pressure of commitments that, over time, Heaney willingly accepted as part of his ‘territory’. He readily confesses in the same interview that responding positively to requests was part of his nature and that saying ‘no’ to invitations difficult for him. To illustrate this intense activity Heaney had attended the Hong Kong Literary Festival and offered readings in Ireland, USA, Rotterdam, Stratford, Grasmere and Edinburgh in the few months before the August of his set-back.
In 2009 he reaches the age of 70. He confesses to some of the symptoms of the ageing process (In The Attic). Despite mortality’s ‘little warning’, Heaney’s mind and memory are intact; the important things he still has to say simply assume a greater urgency.
Heaney might have had free choice over his Appointments Diary but there was no cooling of his poetic spark. Within half a decade he has published the present collection with its 29 titles and 97 individual poems!
Heaney may have reached that stage in life when the funerals of people that mattered happened more regularly, when there might be more Festschrifter to contribute to in celebration of literary celebrities but he has survived to memorialize them and does so. Thanks to his ‘muse’ he showed no appetite to turn down poetic charge.
Seamus Heaney Human Chain, Faber and Faber 2010
Dennis O’Driscoll’s Stepping Stones, Faber 2008 (DOD)
– an excellent set of interviews and conversations with Heaney providing a wealth of background information to clarify ‘from the horse’s mouth’ allusions in the poems to events and individuals from Heaney’s past;
For wider insightful views on earlier collections, I recommend the following books:
Michael Parker’s Seamus Heaney The Making of a Poet Macmillan 1993 (MP);
Neil Corcoran’s The Poetry of Seamus Heaney, Faber 1998 (NC);
Helen Vendler’s Seamus Heaney Harvard University Press 1998 (HV).
‘Human Chain’ – Thumbnails
Had I not been awake – recuperation- poetic charge and an elemental contribution from the world outside – mortality – things that outlive their creator
Nature’s external show of energy kick-starts Heaney’s internal engine as he recuperates from serious illness (the poet had suffered a mild stroke in 2006 in a Donegal guesthouse). The same elemental energy provides the poetic charge that the poet awaits on a daily basis. There is an added dimension within the consciousness of an agnostic poet over 70 years of age – his awareness that departing this world will bring everything to a close. Sleep-inducing medication has made moments of consciousness more fleeting but reawakened the poet’s powerful farmer’s boy instinct and a new-found impetus that replaces a mind-set of physical and mental frailty, even fear – each lived moment (courier blast … lapsed ordinary) is pivotal to his recovery of a poet still alive, kicking and continuing to produce poetry that will outlive its creator.
Album –convalescence – family vignettes – emotional hang-ups about unexpressed love – schooling and exile – generational chains
Five-poem sequence laced with emotions pinpointing Heaney’s parents eventually centred on father ‘Paddy’ Heaney. I Within the room in which Heaney convalesces the sound of a modern domestic triggers his daily physical and mental re-launch at a time of physical frailty (sawn down tree). He relives the local walks together as a child before thanking his mother and father now uncoupled from his human chain for their undisputed love and solid unvarying values based on shared ambition for him and sense of purpose (the same direction). II 1950s’ Heaney is a boarder in St. Columb’s College, a selective Catholic Boys’ Grammar School in Derry, first ever in the family to enjoy this ‘privilege’; its badge and motto are described in detail alongside his sense of Colum Cille exile at leaving home. Heaney also acknowledges the parental wrench required to deliver a cherished first born into the hands of boarding-school staff (turn and walk away), as united then as they were at the moment they conceived him. III An uninvited guest attends his parents’ wedding celebration – Heaney himself – an inescapable future reality and first of nine. Sea-sharpened senses (skirl of gulls) act as a backdrop to their literally once-in-a-lifetime level of cuisine and service to match. IV An enduring hang-up: Heaney demonstrates his lingering sense of failure to communicate his loving feelings to his father … a first occasion prior to his leaving home for boarding-school, the second on a pub visit much later when his father was too drunk to look after himself (do up trouser buttons). His feelings echo through the old man’s final week – Paddy Heaney’s inability to cope with basic needs prompting the son to act as a physical support in close physical circumstances. v The grandchild who had no truck with parental inhibitions planted a kiss, prompting involuntary recall of Aenied vi of Aeneas seeking his father’s shade in Elysium. The impetuous, uninhibited demonstration of affection for his granddad left the old man neither time nor room to flinch
Conway Stewart – a life and work conjured up by an object – forensic description of properties – heirloom – emblem of exile and distant communication
A special parental gift to celebrate passing the entrance examination to St. Columb’s College in Derry and entering Secondary education as a boarder presented on the eve of his departure. The school’s pastoral routines for new boarders ensured the Conway Stewart would be put to immediate use (next day’s first letter home) in best writing (longhand) delivering a filial exile’s love (‘Dear’ to them).
Uncoupled – diptych each devoted to a parent – links in a chain –spirit world atmosphere – a young poet’s insecurities – his unpreparedness for ultimate bereavement
Memory of two parents in action in their lifetime awakens the painful legacy of terminal severance and the impermanence of the human chain. The two figures pass Heaney by in a spirit other world, their personalities demonstrated by the challenges they faced on a regular basis. I The home-tied mother busy with the daily drudgery of a farmer’s wife with nine children undeterred by heat and physical pain. II Heaney’s father beyond the home caught up in the noise and confusion of his professional ‘wheeler-dealer’ life … child Heaney felt relegated and insecure beneath the demands others made on his father (loss) yet nothing prepared him for ultimate severance (term).
The Butts – a life and work conjured up by objects in a wardrobe – remnants of existence– dealing with his terminal decline – invasion of privacy – family solidarity
Patrick Heaney’s ‘plain, straight, ordinary’ approach to life is reflected in the lack of fanciness Heaney discovers in the dead man’s wardrobe –suits coats and pockets literally redolent with reminders of his active existence – triggered thoughts of the family’s shared pain as they cared for the dying man too sick to look after himself. Heaney regards as invasions of privacy both the wardrobe remnants of his existence and the unease of washing the old man’s personal areas. They just got on with what was required within a family’s duty of intensive loving care.
Chanson d’Aventure – the immediacy of stroke – love rekindled by life-threatening condition – consideration of metaphysical/ physical/ soul and body – human events reflected in works of art – convalescence linked to farming experience
When Donne’s metaphysical dimension is stripped away Heaney and his wife Marie are the main actors in an extraordinary love poem. I Heaney’s threatened body placed in the hands of the Irish Emergency Services; how he is handled (locked in position for the drive). Amidst fear of the unexpected he senses very strongly his and Marie’s love confirmed, their souls as one. II Loss of physical sensation brought about by stroke triggers two associations the first a tolling bell at the church in Bellaghy at some borrowed moment from the past (in illo tempore), akin to Heaney-boarder-exile’s bell duty at St. Columb’s College indicating ends of lessons. The deep feelings shared by the couple are tangible (our gaze ecstatic) despite the paraphernalia of emergency aid that separates them. III The physiotherapy of learning to walk again opens a link between illness and a work of art (charioteer at Delphi) – an emblematic kindred spirit, an incomplete figure striving to progress despite snags. Heaney’s rural experiences showed him the way: the inter-reaction of earth and cutting blade as he operated the plough through difficult terrain brings hope that his imagined exertions will herald the return of feeling to his own limbs.
Miracle – Heaney claimed it as his first poem in response to scripture – he is not a believer – human support chains – unstated emotional responses
A tribute to the strapping fellow guests, his ‘support chain, who’ carried Heaney’s considerable frame down a poky staircases to a waiting ambulance (I cried and I wanted my daddy, funnily enough’). Heaney speaks not as the beneficiary of a biblical miracle rather offering a vote of thanks to his ‘stretcher-bearers’ (the ones) without whose fortuitous presence his stroke might have left him with a less felicitous outcome.
Human Chain – human chain aid workers – repressive control of ravenous hunger – decline in old age – no prospect of life after death
A reprise of the ‘shared burden’ theme of Miracle marks the backbreaking work of those who support victims of Third World famine in the face of political control of the hungry. Heaney confesses he is no longer up this level of sustained effort – his youthful sack-tossing days (letting go) are over (will not come again) except on the inevitable day when, as illness has made it so clear, he will relinquish his grip on life – the final letting-go (once) … with no come-back (and for all).
A Mite Box – convalescence – a child’s charity work collecting from an already impoverished Irish community – the calculated approach of Catholic Church towards fund-raising – children used to maximise donations
As he lies waiting for the return of feeling to limbs numbed by stroke (still to feel) the poet’s sense memory handles the collecting-box and coinage from when he toured the parish in search of donations as a youngster. The box’s churchy format was designed to divert public opinion away from any notion of begging. Heaney is disdainful of the way the Catholic church sold its message of the mitigation of sin (indulged) to collectors and those targeted (way for all to see a way to heaven) and the way it assured the honesty of volunteers (pinpricks … card). He links this with a deceptively simple scientific model that would have allowed simple folk to see the light without blinding themselves in the process.
Old Refrain – musicality – unchanging Castledawson nature-scape – vernacular dialect
The repeated chorus placed between the verses of a song echoes the predictable repetition of mid-Ulster’s natural cycle. i celebrates the lush perennial vegetation growing in profusion along the byways of Heaney’s childhood; the washed-out tangle of vetch reminiscent of the eponymous Robin Hood; his familiar Castledawson territory (Wood Road) pulsates with the loveliest time of year and the roadside tangle. ii Heaney’s deepest feelings are triggered by the sounds and echoes of dialect words. Heaney helps the non-botanist with alternative names and attaches human traits to them: (seggins … sedge) conjures up the gentle sound of air movement (hear the wind) through compliant grass; close by boortree, the common elderberry then easing is whose flowers droop meekly as they sleep in response to the threat of rain.
The Wood Road – scenes very close to home – pre-Troubles paramilitary caricature – a hunger striker’s wake – death of a niece
Though visually unchanged (resurfaced, never widened) the road leading to Heaney’s second family home at the witnessed a series of visual dramas over time. Scene 1: a night scene prior to the so-called ‘Troubles’; a caricature B Special volunteer force on nocturnal manoeuvres severely disrupting the locals (a van roadblocking the road)- a puffed up toy-soldier mentality conducting an ‘epic’ training exercise on a burlesque level, armed to the teeth and laying siege to a hamlet of no size whatsoever. Scene 2: Heaney’s Uncle Hughie Scullion a highly respected link in the peat-cutting chain whose regular delivery sometimes involved child-Heaney atop his smartly turned out cart (built trig and tight). A source of pride from a care-free temps perdu (old cart rocked and rollicked). Scene 3: a coffin set out in a yard (the hunger striker’s wake) (that of Thomas McElwee buried in 1981). Heaney attended and recorded the tenseness and solemnity of a politically charged atmosphere (silent yard … watching crowd … guarded corpse ) with paramilitaries in balaclavas (guard of honour), intense, impassive (stared), technically illegal but left undisturbed. Scene 4 from 1985 – a road accident delivered a nasty blow to the Heaney family (stain at the end of the lane). 7 year old Rachel Heaney daughter of Heaney’s brother Hugh was killed by a road-hog. Heaney pints stark images of victim’s bicycle (back wheel spinning in sunshine) and vehicle (headlamp in smithereens). Its dramas played out the Wood Road is an abandoned film-set abandoned to farming life (milk-churn deck) and overtaken by invasive Nature (sign for the bus-stop overgrown).
The Baler – convalescence – farm machinery – pervading sense of mortality – terminally sick visitor
From his convalescent bed Heaney picks out the familiar sound of agricultural machinery delivering its annual harvest bounty that unearths deeper sentiments about being and dying; about self. His touching story tells of a specific friend in memoriam who knew his days were numbered – Derek Hill, already wheel-chair-bound was unable to face the prospect of the sun going down knowing it might be the last time (put with his back to the window).
Derry Derry Down – Irish musicality – fairy story – still life – snatches of mildly erotic pleasure
The Keeper, a traditional song ostensibly about a gamekeeper searching for female deer is loaded with the insinuation of sexual encounter… Heaney adapts the sensuality of the original song. i Someone foraging for fruit in a neighbourhood setting. Groping for the assonant ripeness of a full bosomed fruit (big ripe gooseberry) causes self-injury – pain and pleasure in tandem ii A dwelling house is entered (The Lodge) at once real (it has a remembered name that smacks of something royal and grand) yet make-believe (storybook back kitchen) provides a colourful still life. The humble intruder (scullion) dreams up a fairy-tale princess and the promise of pleasure (I came on): he discovered beauty; beauty excited him.
Eelworks – eel angles – Lough Neagh Fishermen’s Cooperative –Marie Devlin’s family and courtship – a classmate who stank – catching his first eel – folklore association – literary figure – Walter de la Mare’s voyeurism
Marie Devlin’s grandfather and father were connected with the eel trade. Heaney entered a brave new world of courtship where to get his feet under the family table was a first stepping-stone. i In fairy-tales the male aspirant had to jump through hoops to prove he was worthy of the damsel’s love. Admission to Marie’s family (fish factor’s house) brought a signature repast (eel supper) ii the eel fishing-yard reeked with invasive smells (cut of diesel oil) and sounds of commercial activity(tractor engines); the eel-boats used on Lough Neagh were of clumsy unsophisticated design and eel fishermen were basically retrained agricultural workers rather than true sailors. iii a schoolboy comes to terms with uncomfortable eel realities: a fellow-pupil sported an very smelly eel skin as a kind of glove revealing the creature’s shiny translucence and pliancy; its ski was fashioned to fit his hand; Heaney had no option for him but to grin and bear it. iv angling for fish with a rudimentary line and ended up with something unexpected on the hook – a young eel prepared him for the sterner challenge of mature eel akin to a skin-shedding creature of Irish folklore (selkie streaker). v The words of Walter de la Mare on a record introduce a young woman who shed her ‘skin’ for him in one of his voyeuristic moments; for the poet preparing an eel for cooking becomes a slow act of culinary sensuality (like silk at a practised touch).
Slack – autobiographical temps retrouvé – mid Ulster – period prop – post-war austerity – collection motif weight felt – weight lifted – sound poem – memory and catharsis
Vignettes from boyhood and adolescence the richer for Heaney’s minute and often sensuous concentration on detail. Household fuel eked out in times of shortage and austerity. i a coal product unknown to current consumers useful for putting a brake on consumerism (check on mammon) yet keeping fire going in a promethean sense (keeper of the flame) ii Just the sound of slack (more to me than any allegory) – three sentences harnessing onomatopoeia, alliteration and assonance to mimic shovel at work (slack schlock), journey from pile to grate (scuttle scuffle) and scuttle porter’s sound rhythm (shak-shak). Echo of a parental instruction to deposit a layer of retardant slack (’Bank the fire’) recalls its hard crust and a reminder of its previous heat (when its tarry coral cooled). iii Heaney’s boyhood chore to fetch the coal – whatever the weather, forever on call. Just to record this temps perdu has triggered emotional release (catharsis) for which the ageing Heaney feels all the better.
A Herbal – version of French poem adapted to include a personal incident – plant personification – Heaney and Guillevic, country boys at heart – consciousness of being alive – importance of knowledge – interface between now and what nest
Nineteen short pieces are adapted to Ireland’s flora and fauna (rat for viper) and to reflect Heaney’s his own poetic priorities. Plants in their natural environment are given human voices, emotions and distinct personalities. They naturalise and self-renew annually thanks in part to death and decay amongst humans upon whom they feed. Conversation is conducted between them and the speaker in cordial, easy-going terms. 15 promotes the wonderful symbiosis of self and rural universe; 16 promotes aroma therapy… the peerless ability of herbs to sharpen the consciousness of being alive; 17 stresses the importance of thirsting to know, coming to understand, following the urge to delve as much into space and matter as into the inner person (self) 18 Landscape that points the inquisitive mind towrds metaphysical issues: plants at ground level, reaching upwards to the interface between atmosphere and the deep beyond, between the beauty of rural activity and eternity , between emblems of natural longevity and man-made impermanence … that inevitable journey between the now and the what-next.
Canopy –episode from Harvard – visual art installation of 1994 – light and sound effects reproduced – correspondences with Dante – film-like animation of nature
David Ward’s forest tree-top effect in Harvard Yard. Initial concentration on sound – its amplification adding to the atmospheric, the distorted alliterative hiss human voices now strong now weak, random (desultory), now muted (hush), now rising or falling (backwash), now resonant (echo). Human responses- people’s attention captured, folk stopped in their tracks. Heaney salutes the imaginative fusion of elemental and technological and the innovative musicality of spoken language. Its otherworldly quality triggers a Dantesque correspondence fusing classical legend and modernity (wood of the suicides … magicked to lover’s lane); at that particular moment no one would have batted an eyelid … or so Heaney was thinking as reality was restored (the fairy lights came on).
The Riverbank Field – Aenied vi / Virgil conjured up – fusion with Heaney’s Castledawson neighbourhood
Treading his mid-Ulster riverbank field provides a Virgilian mantle of imagined similarities between Heaney’s neighbourhood and Virgil’s Elysium . The poem will be a fusion (I’ll confound the Lethe in Moyola) in which place-names are familiar Castledawson (Back Park … Grove Hill … Long Rigs) and where Virgil’s peaceful dwellings (domos placidas) are to be found in real-world Upper Broagh. Would that the similarity, thinks Heaney, extended to the Virgilian elite who having served their time drank the waters of the Lethe and thanks to its magical quality were permitted to return to the world above.
Route 110 – appreciable contribution to ‘chains’ – Heaney’s stage-by-stage journey – links with Virgil’s Aenied vi – varied personal experiences – example of humble piety – neighbourliness that transcended the sectarian divide – the insane cycle of Troubles’ murder and revenge – concluding tribute to a first grandchild
Much admired sequence of 12 poems collapsing the distance between the mythical and the personal as Aeneas-like Heaney sets out on a staged journey of his own. I the purchase of a Latin text recommended by the admired St. Columb’s teacher of a five-starred Latin student. A Belfast second hand bookshop identified by clues (employee musty circumstances, unhealthy air – the purchase is sheathed in period 1950s’ wrapping. II the heart and soul of Old Belfast (Smithfield Market Saturday) once for shopping sprees now as silent as the Italian entrance to the classical Underworld (birdless Lake Avernus), once seething with people crammed like the newly dead in Aenied vi (close-packed on Charon’s barge). … III Heaney’s journey home via the bustle and confusion of the bus depot; information acts as a starting- gun requiring a Charon-like figure to push folk in the right direction The iconic Heaney bus to home (Route 110)indicated in the panel. IV the gap between his period Sixth Form/ undergraduate image and later formal dress – the unyielding, saturnine, skin chafing over-garment that brought parental headshakes contrasting with wedding gear in Italy amongst tanned expats with delusions of grandeur (up their Etruscan slopes) and indifferent to a cultural legacy not lost on the classically-educated poet. V the humble piety of Mossbawn neighbours the (the McNicholl household) any link with classical mythology (Venus’ doves) replaced by humbler bird-stock (McNicholl’s pigeons). Memory of a kindly woman of piety (old Mrs Nick) proud of the shine of her modest altar who blessed him with a humble gift (stalk) that lifted Heaney’s spirits and his spirituality … VI departed ‘shades’ re-appear – Heaney’s first wake (without an actual body) at the home of Protestant neighbours who welcomed him across the sectarian divide (as a full participant) Heaney sits the drama through (by the fourth his coffin … was in place)… VII Heaney’s Catholic presence remains a non-issue as the mourning aspect (corpse house) shifts to the wake’s communal face (house of hospitalities). His fear of intruding was snuffed out by the offer to one fully on board of a short-cut home (absolve me formally of trespass). VIII a relationship comes to an end echoing the ill-fated relationship between Dido and Aeneas in Aenied vi but firmly anchored in mid-20th c. Northern Ireland: as dawn breaks a young man is turning his back on a young with whom he seems to have spent the night. 1950s’ and 1960s’ events and social mores provided routine obstacles to such relationships amongst young drivers caught up in the promise of pleasure (holdings on) which did not deter them from irresistible temptation and led to Dido and Aeneas situations and pangs of conscience. IX real casualties amidst the senseless cycle of sectarian murder and revenge in the Troubles (who if Virgil’s Aenied vi was to be believed found no resting-place). A Catholic publican blown to smithereens (what in the end was there left to bury) families denied closure (war graves with full honours) and turning to other alternatives – illegal gatherings (fired over on anniversaries) and IRA ritual performed by well trained (drilled), well turned out (spruce) and well dissident (unreconciled) paramilitaries. X Elysium’s harmonious paradise (happy shades in pure blanched raiment) versus the bruising contention of mid-Ulster’s Bellaghy Games: the intensity of rival units without let-up (going hell for leather) and the badges of honour (stud-scrapes on the pitch and on each other) XI myth, reality , fact, illusion? Those times he spent with friends kicking their heels (wait and watch) along the Moyola. The moment of was-it-wasn’t-it wonder … the something extraordinary that might have been (otter’s head). At 70+ Heaney is still waiting and watching but knows his time is running short. He yearns to know in advance if death bring elevation to a higher state of being (needy and ever needier for translation)… XII If Aenied VI dealt with death (age of ghosts) Route 110 will end with celebration (age of births). The humble tribute he brought (stalks and silvered heads) carried inextinguishable birth-lights (tapers that won’t dim as her earthlight breaks).The poem’s coda sets aside all learning and literature, mourning and misery in favour of infant-centred celebration (gather round talking baby talk). His poetry is on the side of life.
Death of a Painter – elegy – aesthetic appreciation for artistic output produced in different media – Old Testament reference
Heaney expresses respect and affection for deceased painter, Nancy Wynne Jones – ‘earthy and moist, with rich warm, subtle ochres and reds … place and palette and spirit all equal’. Initially the poem follows her view of the world outside from her studio window then points Heaney towards a mercurial figure from English literature (Thomas Hardy). Painter and novelist both worked on unremittingly despite age and decline (to the end) and dressed in their eccentric personal style. The similarity extends to style and technique – Hardy’s representation of frail creatures (butterfly one of the multitude) flitting across his writing. Something much more solid emanates from the legend of hapless Old Testament Jonah thrown overboard (entering the whale’s mouth). In an earthly world where humanity is infinitesimally small (suggests a borrowing from an anonymous 14th century poem) some individuals stand out against a solar background (mote through a minster door).
Loughanure – elegy – Gaeltacht and immersion into Irishness – post mortem reincarnation promised by Dante and Plato – Catholicism mmm lapse and eternal life – Old Gaeltacht’s tastes and places lost to modernity
Heaney pays tribute to friend Colin Middleton the eminent Irish artist (self-styled ‘only surrealist painter in Ireland’) who died in 1983. He and Marie had purchased a Midddleton painting many years before.
i Heaney’s humour links the slightly hazy quality (smoke) of the finished landscape with Middleton’s highly eccentric, intense gaze (as if you were a canvas) and his chain smoking (hand-rolled); he can imagines that flecks of cigarette ash blended with paint as it was composed. Its subject matter is of an Irish area of Co. Donegal very dear to Heaney and featured in other poems (pother of Gaeltacht turf smoke). Whenever Middleton visited the Heaneys he responded to the work as only he knew how (gazing, grunting) but in this case with approval (nodding). ii If an artefact can outlive its creator (afterlife) Heaney wonders about the fate of humans post-mortem. Neither Dante’s Inferno nor Plato’s Er ruled out the happy possibility of re-incarnation with free choice of life-style … hero Odysseus opted for privacy, musician Orpheus for quiet serenity (rebirth as a swan). iii Heaney is not confient that his lengthy Catholic apprenticeship, full membership and the Christian life he leads will work in his favour post-mortem; he edits the Lord’s Prayer text (‘Thy’ replaced by the) as if to confirm he is lapsed. From serious metaphysical issues to the ridiculous – Middleton’s grotesque posture whilst formatting his paintings resembled the demons of some Renaissance ‘Last Judgment’ mural inflicting the most degrading treatment on sinners about to be forked into hell … before he reverted to normal behaviour. iv Heaney developed his sense of Irishness on 1950s’visits to the Gaeltacht at Rannafest where Irish language, education, customs, and folklore prevailed; his lack of previous familiarity with Irish lore (seanchas) and its link with place names (disseanchas) – despite his eagerness to learn more (longing) – inhibited his learning curve (through that cloud-swabbed air) … the Loughanure painting he stands before reveals its name in its translated form (‘Lake of the Yew Tree’ gleamed)… v Years later, Proust-like, on a car journey across the Gaeltacht in view of the iconic Gaeltacht landmark (Mount Errigal) Heaney’s warm feelings of belonging are a touch alienated (unbelieving) by the shock of modern Planning strategies (grant-aided) but then retrieved by memory of still-savoured tastes and brands long disappeared, at 1950s’ prices and weights bought in shops now gone.
Wraiths – Gaeltacht lore in a farm setting – cinema special effects – in-life ‘reincarnation’ upon entry to Gaeltacht – time and space for red-blooded pursuits – pleasure snatching undimmed by age
The interplay of reality and make-believe contained in Loughanure plays on. i Sidhe (pronounced ‘shee’) reveals co-existent worlds where a man a creature of fairy-tale may inhabit the same space and inter-react, where an animal shelter assumes fairy proportions and where the ‘she’ figure may take the initiative. A climactic explosion of cinematographic special effect, earth-piercing and gathering pace is brought rudely back to earth via a command from the Director’s chair (cut)… ii Parking Lot When shared journeys to Irish Summer School reached the Gaeltacht boundary an in-life reincarnation took place; the young people transited (wraiths in the afternoon) from their known existence into an otherworld filled with promise; light from a distant lake entered them like a classical annunciation (a flit of the foreknown). iii White Nights Rannafast’s famous marching band rehearsing in the extended summer daylight (white nights) provides a back-drop for alternative, extra-curricular activities … two young people distanced from the others (white night absentees) hear but have other things in mind – Heaney’s pleasure snatching instinct is undimmed by age (open-eared to this day).
Sweeney Out-Takes – snippets after the story of legendary Sweeney –– Irish artefact and its galvanizing power – religious elements – poetry and posterity –
In the original medieval manuscript Bishop Ronan’s curse submits Sweeney to crazed wanderings through Ireland’s forests and hills; he is torn between his love of the wild and his incurable loneliness. Inverted commas suggests snippets not included in manuscript or Heaney’s translation re-produced as out-takes. I Otterboy A letter from Sweeney’s loyal wife Eorann reports a shared pleasure (our two otters) and otter intimacies she and Sweeney may no longer enjoy. Sweeney relives his religious duties to Ronan as an altar boy (otterboy) prior to the curse re-emerging after the curse like a dog from water and dousing everyone around with unsolicited spray/ poetry (unruly riverbreath) ii He Remembers Lynchechaun The discovery of an solidly balanced Irish utensil, discarded and cold reminds Sweeney he failed despite warnings to recognise base nature (my seeing through him) of his foster-brother nemesis, wobbly judgment now replaced by the shock of recognition (scales fell from my eyes)… iii The Pattern Sweeney’s anti-religious stance sits alongside the ordeal of boy- Heaney’s First Communion! Like its churches and statuary Catholicism was set in stone as the youngster noted: he peed himself, outgrew the mishap and confessed his sins (clean breast made) Such became the shape, order and routine of spiritual life (pattern set) that would resonate throughout Heaney’s existence even after his lapse.
Colum Cille Cecinit – thus sang Columba – snippets from an ancient poem attributed to Columcille – the unremitting vocation of scribe and poet
Heaney’s shows his respect for scholarly labour. i Is Scith mo chrob on scribainn Columcille takes a break from scribing (my hand is cramped from penwork) to reflect on his writing tools, his inexorable task (keeps going) with endless texts (through books) and his physical and mental strain. His urgent mission is to see the written word through the Dark Ages (enrich the scholars’ holdings) thus his repetitive stress syndrome ii Is aire charaim Doire … the Derry landscape cherished by saint and poet … its calmness, clarity of light and omnipresent spirituality visible to the devoted iii Fil suil nglais Banished without appeal for allegedly copying a text without permission, St Columba turns his departing gaze towards Ireland (grey eye). He knows that for all all his deep yearning to return his banishment will be absolute from land and its people.
Hermit Songs – celebration of scripts, materials, and ‘calling’ – both books and life on loan – famous antecedents – essential scribe qualities – Anahorish – Aladdin’s cave of school materials – IQ levels – trusted role of monitor a preparation for his poetic voice – literary greats Milosz and Yeats
Heaney’s tribute to those who shut themselves off from wider society – from legendary and monastic hermit-scholars to other ‘greats’ of more recent literary vintage – is echoed in the jubilation of Nature outside their workrooms i 1940’s routine instructed schoolchildren to prolong the active life of books they had borrowed by covering them with whatever was available including post-war remnants from a time when nothing was thrown away. A deeper lesson taught: what was entrusted to him, book or existence, was only ever on loan (learn you were a keeper only)… ii Scribe routines prior to starting (open, settle, smell) also rehearsed letter sound and letter shape. Heaney places all scribes on a par with the most famous (Fursa, Colmcille), committed to unravelling complex questions of personal faith (riddle-solving). Their strongest common factor (‘steadiness’ … persevere) placed them beyond reproach (never … fault-found). Heaney salutes the challenges scribes faced within their personal cell as they strove to pass on the printed word, its meaning, culture and wisdom (retraced, lip-read)… iii Heaney revisits his Anahorish Primary era (age of lessons to be learnt) with its classroom smells still alive in his sense-memory (bread and pencils … musty satchel). The influence of Master Murphy was inspirational as regards knowledge acquisition. Learning was accompanied by marvellous discoveries (age of wonders, too): the soft centre of a bread loaf erased pencil-marks; he could buy tiny coloured designs that could be relocated on another surface (flyleaf) when wetted. iv Master Murphy’s treasure house of writing materials – a fairy cavern (an otherwhere) of things in mint condition. Heaney’s role as trusted trusted ‘monitor’ was to fetching teaching aids. The experience gave him an early taste for writing thanks to a pedagogy that developed the skills required of a medieval scribe… v An untutored herdsman is eager to show how bright he is to callow pupils…when they cannot solve his spelling riddle he scoffingly challenges the teacher. Heaney pinpoints the moment when warring Irish chieftains used an illustrated Christian manuscript associated with Colum Cille (psalm book called in Irish catach) to get God on their side (borne three times round an army)… vi The Ulster Cycle, extant thanks to the scribes who recorded battles and legends handed down by story-tellers (Dun Cow scribe) told of miraculous feats performed by its heroes (Cuchulain and his chain of needles). Young Heaney has a shot based on materials from Murphy’s stockroom – a gross of nibs taking to the air, airlifted to create a glowing crown (giddy gilt corona). vii The monitor’s tale (vision of the school) that might surprise anyone who heard it : as a trustee he was sent outside to perform his own miracle (ink from powder) … he could not shut himself off completely from the sounds around him (singing class) as indeed an ageing poet cannot detach himself from a real event however distant (still and all a world away)… viii A poet- philologist traces the development of language: an archaic term (‘Inkwell’) already scarcely accessible to the modern reader (robbed of sense) had an even more remote Colmille-scribe equivalent (‘inkhorn’). It opens the way to the reaction of a short-fused ColmCille blowing a fuse at being deprived of calm and order by some bigwig (harbour shouter staff in hand ) bowing and scraping (inclined) to ingratiate himself… ix epilogue, tribute and epitaph draw together issues of ‘books’, scholars and scholarship . A 1995 Nobel Laureate salutes two others (Milosz and Yeats) whose legacy outlives them… Milosz (great one) celebrated for the importance he attached to ‘meaning’ … faith in ‘meaning’, that reverberates in perpetuity (runs through space like a word) at the top of its voice (screaming and protesting) … the second great Yeats whose ‘poet’s imaginings and memories of love’ describe the power of words to rebuff the decay of old age. The coda stresses culture’s and civilisation’s debt to the tools and materials that made it all possible – enduring vellum (cured hides), quill (much tried pens).
Lick the Pencil – ‘ saintly shades’ recalled – things that recall Patrick Heaney – things that recall Colmcille – coping with grief – the link of grief
Heaney shares his deep, underlying respect and sorrow for two ‘shades’ – his father Patrick and Saint Columba i Heaney searches for a nickname most suggestive of his father’s quirky ways and his farming skills … first the use he made of an ‘indelible’ pencil in the 1940s associated with his father’s professional need to make tallies that would remain legible based on a peculiar mannerism (‘Lick the pencil’). Second candidate (‘Drench the cow’) triggered by Patrick Heaney’s uncompromising way of administering medication to the cattle he owned. Finally (‘Catch the horse’) his ability to harness a large animal despite his own small stature … three options but only one winner! ii Marks that cannot be erased … Heaney falls back on two boyhood examples – the livid scratches (bloodlines holly leaves might score) inflicted on the hands of youngsters who dared to venture in (back of a bird-nester’s) – the almost ‘invisible ink’ the common dandelion left on his skin once it dried iii What started as an In memoriam for a father(In memory of him) morphs into a requiem for a Saint … from contemporary records the last moments of a much loved Irish scholar figure – last moments reported euphemistically (‘he was weary’) and imbued with the emotional response of a loyal horse (‘wept on his breast so the saint’s clothes were made wet’) … recognising that his end is nigh Colmcille retains a saintly poise bidding his attendant Diarmait not to intervene until the horse has grieved (‘til he has sorrowed for me and cried his fill’). Heaney will continue to grieve his father for as long as he has breath to do so.
The Door was Open – ‘dreamt’ poem – elegy to dear friend David Hammond – Aenied vi link – dead soul migrating – Broagh post-war aerodrome site rife with wartime ghosts
The dream is just recorded in verse that rhymes. It was an extremely strange, haunting dream. One of those dreams that marks, that you don’t forget’ … title alluded to Virgil’s Aenied vi (ll.172-177) – ‘Death’s dark door stands open day and night... The visitor stood before the door of a familiar house, welcoming (open) but without a sign of life (dark). His fear scared him (take flight) whilst a different instinct bade him ‘stay’ (there was no danger) to witness a dead man’s soul moving on’ (only withdrawal) Heaney’s thoughts return to a disused local aerodrome at an eerie moment (midnight hangar) no longer in war service (overgrown airfield in late summer) but still inhabited by the shadows and memories of a time past.
In the Attic – children’s classic novel – nightmare – autobiographical associations – correspondence crow’s nest/ poet’s workroom –
A callow youngster from children’s fiction suffers the trials and tribulations thrown at him by a seafaring adventure of goodies and baddies. i Ensconced in his attic workroom at the top of the house Heaney depicts Jim Hawkins (naïve but honourable hero of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island) dealing with the ghostly reappearance (rose) of a man he has already killed in self-defence pursuing him up to the crow’s nest in a confusion of ship’s-sail and winding-sheet (shrouds) and suffering a double death in the process (both shot and drowned). ii Heaney’s work room offers him sight (skylight) of the world below; in the foreground the garden’s ‘mast’ (birch tree) acts as a land based weather station overlooking the ocean beyond (Irish Sea). Caught between attic real life and crow’s nest imagination (rubbing his eyes to believe) there bridging the gap stands his own earthbound emblem … dominant, heroic (topgallant)… iii Enter the shade of Granddad McCann (ghost-footing) treading his old home (terra firma) in New Row, Castledawson with its upmarket period flooring (hallway linoleum) and his trembling, ageing voice (a-waver) . Grandad McCann’s recall of the Treasure Island character is equally wobbly – Israel instead of Isaac Hands –and he always got it wrong! iv Heaney acknowledges that he suffers similar symptoms (I age) – tricky short-term memory (I … blank on names) and faltering balance (my uncertainty on stairs). However he warns anyone who might have written him off that his hard-wired poetic impulses still sense the tiniest variations (slight untoward rupture and world-tilt) ‘I might be becalmed by age ‘he suggests’ but my creative antennae remain on the qui-vive and what drives me to compose is ever good to go (anchor weighed)’!
A Kite for Aibhin – a grandfather’s welcome to a new-born grand-daughter – the kite of a previous generation – the self-repeating process of parenthood– child-kite destined to pursue its own independent course – separate, elate
The poem of greeting to Heaney’s second grand-daughter Aibhín [eye veen] was added to the collection late in the day. A distant unidentified object suspended in air (at once space, life-giving force and melody) triggers an equally distant memory (from another life and time and place) when Heaney, father then, led the family into the fields (all of us trooped out) of his familiar mid-Ulster surroundings (briar hedges and stripped thorn) to launch a kite. Kite flying provides an eminently explainable metaphor for parenting: managing the kite-child’s natural impulse to progress (spindle unspooling) recognising its frailty (thin stemmed flower) its determination to soar and develop exponentially (climbing and carrying). The laws of physics dictate that ultimately the kite will free itself (string breaks) in the sense that the cutting of the umbilical cord (separate) is the first stage of a journey to successful independence. Aibhín’s arrival is a moment for jubilation (elate) – the godsend of an adored grandchild’s life-journey at the moment of launch (kite takes off, itself alone, a windfall).