Hermit Songs

Heaney dedicates his nine-poem sequence to long-time friend, American academic and author Helen Vendler. 

He celebrates those who have demonstrated resolute dedication to ‘books’ and scholarship,  who have shut themselves off to a greater or lesser degree from wider society. Some hermit-scholars are legendary and monastic, scribes of illuminated texts; other ‘greats’ are much more recent. With characteristic modesty, Heaney includes his own experiences as part of the chain.

The introductory couplet sets out the price of scholarship: its scholar-scribe has shut himself away to follow the mechanics of medieval manuscript production with its ruled quires.  Secluded in his cell he cannot, however, shut out the external sounds of Nature’s joie-de-vivre:

I hear the wild birds jubilant.

  • The epigraph is to be found on pp.1 (in Irish) and 10 (in translation by James Carney) of Patrick Crotty’s Penguin Book of Irish Poetry,
  • Ruled quires describes both the inscribed lines that the text will follow and the standard eight leaf format in units of 4 folded sheets of vellum.
  • Hermit Songs is dedicated to Helen Vendler, the scholar and critic whom Heaney once described as “the best close reader of poems to be found on the literary pages” Alan Taylor, Herald Scotland Review 15th February, 2011


A 1940’s schoolboy ‘covers’ his issued books, a regular practice to prolong their active life particularly during the post WWII period of austerity. There is a hierarchy!  Best material: wartime window covers, cut-offs of black calico,/ Remnants of old blackout blinds; recovered off-cuts Ironed, tacked with criss-cross threads (at the overlap-point inside thecover where, nowadays, sticky tape might be used). A less durable but more attractive alternative: The mealy textured wallpaper, of recognizable 1950’s vintage, with braids of bosomed roses pressed/ And flattened under smoothing irons.

Lower down the league comes Brown parcel paper; at the foot: Newsprint, even.

Heaney suggests he learned two important lessons from the exercise: how to retain the volume’s newness; that books are only ever on loan to mortals: Learn you were a keeper only.

  • total Black-Out was observed during WWII during hours of darkness; any sign of internal lights, helpful to enemy pilots on bombing missions, was forbidden and punishable in law.
  • the 12 line format is adopted throughout the sequence; there is no rhyme scheme; lines based around 8 syllables provide a noticeable rhythmic contrast when delivering the poem orally with standard 10 syllable lines;
  • Mealy: Heaney involves two senses to suggest colour and texture;
  • when delivered orally smoothing takes on an onomatopoeic quality;
  • five sentences with only one main verb; full stops in the final stanza permit pauses in delivery that might allow an audible response, say, a chuckle from the listeners;
  • in a clever  alliterative use of voiced bi-labial [b] and voiceless velar [k] plosives Heaney weaves a sonic criss-cross alongside the text; later use of voiced alveolar plosive [d]: durable…desired;
  • Heaney’s alliteration in brede of bosomed roses compares with that of Keats’ line: ‘brede/ Of marble men and maidens overwrought’(Ode on a Grecian Urn);
  • Alliteration: brown parcel paper (note: [b] and [p] are both bilabial plosives, one voiced, one voiceless);
  • assonances: mealy/ brede; need/ even/ keeper;
  • brede (n): a braid.
  • covert (n.) : a covering or place that serves to conceal or protect something; for example, the proximity of keeper hints at birds in hiding among trees (in line with the epigraph)

ii  Heaney traces the routine followed by the scribe, as he prepares to work: Open, settle, smell (as if deriving reassurance from a familiar odour), begin. He follows the hermit’s lips and hands: A spelling out, a finger trace.

Scribes, however modest, were part of a famed breed: on a par with Fursa, Colmcille, whose task in their riddle-solving seclusion of unravelling the complex questions of personal faith and ways to put it to best use ultimately made of them two of the greatest Christian missionaries ever to leave Irish shores; at one, too, with Macóige of Lismore, active in the 9thcentury in the monastery of Tallaght, for whom ‘steadiness’ both of mind and hand was essential to the scholar’s task, and furthermore a trait beyond reproach.

Heaney reminds us of the challenge such men shared in common as they strove to produce, reproduce and transmit written knowledge: Tongue-tried words/ Finger-traced, retraced, lip-read.

  • Heaney pursues his exercise in sound. He creates a sonic chain with sounds that are produced from the same place in the mouth. The first couplet makes frequent use of the sibilant [s] sound of silence and concentration; from then on the voiceless alveolar plosive [t] dominates and its voice counterpart [d] add a staccato precision to the diction; this is particularly evident in tandem with [s] in Macóige’s judgment: Steadiness for it is best;
  • alliterations: Fault found; Tongue-tried words/ Finger-traced, retraced;
  • combination of compound adjective and sibilant [s]: riddle-solving anchorites;
  • Assonances: settle, smell/ spelling;
  • The introduction of famous identities and quotation invites apt deference via changes in modulation and cadence;

iii Heaney takes us back to his Primary school days: The age of lessons to be learnt, not least reading and writing. 

The smell of manuscript in hermit’s cell is replaced in the school-room by those of Bread and pencils. Musty satchel.

Addressing us directly, he recalls the vocabulary of the 40’s and 50’s: ‘reading books’ and elevated titles: ‘scholarsHe expresses the privilege he felt: our good luck/ To get such schooling in the first place, even though pedagogy remained unchanged from one year to the next: For all its second and third handings. In contrast, the illiterate, wiseacre herdsman by the roadside could only pass on by word of mouth the local oracles, chit-chat and old-wives’ tales: The sibyls of the chimney-corner.

Teaching methods might have seemed immutable but, for Heaney-schoolboy, it was The age of wonders, too: The discovery that bread-pith erased pencil-marks; the invention of one-off transfers that transmitted their picture from one surface to another when wetted; stamps from Eden, indicating school ownership and, once inked, pressed on flyleaf

  • The fortuitous brand-name Eden may permit the reader to infer some parallel between privileged schooldays and the biblical account of paradise.
  • initially short sentences setting out sense-data and scene;
  • sudden flurries of alliteration: sibilant [s] is dominant; sibyls echoes the whisperings of fire-side gossip; Rubbings out with balls of bread-pith, plosive recognition of something worth reporting;
  • assonance: adds to the incongruous mixture of smells: Bread and pencils;
  • The age of picks up a motif from Route 110; it hints at Heaney’s overall intent: less a collection brooding over sickness and death, more a definition of links in a chain not even broken by man’s mortality;


iv Heaney recalls Primary school writing materials stored in a mysterious 1940’s resources room. The teacher, referred to then as master’, possessed a remote, fairytale store room,an otherwhere. Heaney picks out the dip-pens of the time: Penshafts sheathed in black tin – was it? (He knew it was!) The shafts, each a finger-like tight nib-holding cuticle, came separate from the nibs in packets by the gross. Ink was bought in powder bulk to be mixed with water, cedar pencils came loosely bunched with an elastic band. Jotters, exercise books, rulers captured the attention like treasure-trove excavated from tombs: Stacked like grave goods on the shelves.

Some pupils acted as ‘monitors, chosen ones offered the privilege of being sent/ To fetch a box of pristine chalk for the master or templates to train youngsters in the rote of writing ornate script: perfect copperplate examples/ Of headline scripts for copying out. It is as if Irish schoolchildren of the time were still being schooled in what it took to become a medieval scribe.

  • Copperplate (mainly 19th c.) is an old-fashioned term for prints made by engravings and etchings in printmaking, and still a correct term for the original metal plates (made of copper) used to print them; thus Copperplate writing with its distinctive cursive style (learnt from plates and made with a sharp nib) has the cachet of ornate medieval script about it;
  • Imagining the penshaft as a slender human finger with cuticle at the base of the fingernail gives a clear image of its hand-held shape;
  • In the days before decimalisation was adopted in the U.K. in 1971, items were routinely sold by the dozen; a gross was 12 dozen, that is 144 units.
  • mild assonance: Store/ otherwhere;
  • alliterative effects in stanza 1 in a criss-cross of bilabial [b] and [p] and sibilant [s], [sh] and plosive [t] all produced in the dental/ alveolar area of the mouth; bilabial [b] and [p] carry through, with [p] becoming the dominant sound (there are 7 examples + being and box in a final stanza of 22 words).

v  Heaney has already alluded in iii to the untutored herdsman, and paints him here as one of those ignorami who are ever prepared to make fools of those who teach. His test: the three ways to spell the phonetic [tu]When the Primary school pupils cannot meet the challenge of to, too and two, his ignorant scoffing is barely hidden! He bids them ‘Ask the master if he can.’

Reflecting on the issue of backwardness, Heaney refers to Caesar (frequently regarded as ‘above grammar’ by ancient grammarians) to provide Latin text and rendering of a judgement about the absence of written texts amongst peoples Caesar regarded as more primitive than those of his Roman culture: Nor do they think it right/ To commit the things they know to writing.

Dramatically Heaney pinpoints the seminal moment, two hundred years or so after the fall of the Roman Empire, when Ireland took its first step, in the shape of The psalm book called in Irish catach., the ‘battler’, the nom de guerre of which Heaney seeks to clarify.

  • The Cathach or ‘Battle Book’ sometimes referred to as The Psalter of St. Columba (Colmcille) is derived from the oldest surviving Irish manuscript psalter of which only fifty-eight leaves survive, It is dated as far back as the sixth century and reposes in the Royal Irish Academy;
  • Interestingly in Human Chain Heaney provides translations for those not blessed with his classical education
  • Late 6th c. Irish ‘clan’/family leaders would seek to get Colmcille on their side in battle (and via him Christian backing)  as a means of assuring victory; The Hastings ‘Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics explains the ritual on p.657: ‘the catach of the O’Donnells was always borne three times right-hand wise round their army before battle’
  • assonance: askscan’t/ ask; right/ writing; alliteration: strong chains of sibilant [s] overtaken by alveolar plosive [t]; battler/ born; Not;
  • Not as first word is  dramatically poised to set the records straight, as if accompanied by a wagging finger;

vi Snippets from epic medieval texts and primary school pen-nibs fuse in surreal fashion, as in a Disney animation.

Heaney selects scenes from the Ulster Cycle, extant thanks to the scribes who ensured the safe passage of what otherwise were legends handed down by story-tellers. The first tale, as recorded in a 12th c. manuscript, is one of violent confrontation as Sparks the Ulster warriors struck/ Off wielded swords made Bricriu’s hall, Blaze like the sun.

In the second, Irish hero Cú Chulainn demonstrates his magical powers to the embroidery women, creating a glittering reeling chain of needles by casting them into the air. Heaney conjures up a school-room parallel As in my dream a gross of nibs/ Spills off the shelf, airlifts and links/ Into a giddy gilt corona.

  • Bricriu  was a hospitaller (briugu), troublemaker and poet in the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology. Bricriu’s name crops up in the Saga of Cú Chulainn who is depicted as a magician here; the story of the needles is recounted in slightly different versions.
  • Lebor na hUidre or the Book of the Dun Cow is an Irish vellum manuscript dating to the 12th century. It is one of the oldest extant manuscripts in Irish held in the Royal Irish Academy . Only 67 leaves remain and many of the texts are incomplete. Legend has it that it was made from the hide of a cow by Saint Ciarān of Clonmacnoise;.
  • Punctuation: the piece is written in a single sentence broken into 3 by a semi-colon [;] and a dash [-], the former distinguishes war from peace and the latter separates ancient from modern.
  • The outset is all light and violence; the sibilants [s] and [z]  dominating the first stanza are now a threatening sound; voiceless velar plosive [k] mimics the sound of blows:Sparks/ struck/ Bricriublaze expresses the anger of confrontation; echo chains: Ulster/ sun/ dun; needles/ reeling/ dream; alliteration: point/ Partnered;
  • Heaney chooses the word corona, from a Latin root meaning ‘crown’; referring to the atmosphere of the Sun most easily distinguished during a total solar eclipse, it describes something truly amazing to the eye;
  • the word chain and its associated links  is used infrequently in the volume; here  it serves to echo the sense  of ‘connectedness’ implicit in the title of the collection; the vocabulary is of shaky unreality: reeling … airlifts …giddy. The final stanza displays frequent use of the voiced velar plosive [g]: glittering … gross … giddy gilt.


vii A monitor’s tale. The event recalled seems unreal to Heaney now, so distant in time: A vision of the school the school/ Won’t understand, nor I, not quite. The human action is suspended (as the schoolboy seeks to make the occasion last as long as he can)whilst the water and, thereby, time continue to move. The monitor’s task, My hand in the cold of a running stream: to draw water To turn ink powder into ink. His reward: a double bonus enabling him first to escape into the open, the land and sky/ And playground silentand providing at the same time official permission to ‘skip’ a singing class, music that he cannot shut himself off from (any more than the scribe in the epigraph) but is secretly all too happy to be absent from. 

A scene that was real and fixed in time, might now be a thing of legend: Yet still and all a world away.

  • A past memory is told in a kind of historic present using  passive tenses: I’m sent; I’ve been excused
  • Vocabulary with biblical overtones: vision; privileged one; the monitor is ‘chosen’ to bring about the ‘miracle’ of what is, after all, the banal chemical reaction of water and ink-powder! Stanza one uses nasal [n] In preparation for 2 negatives: vision/ won’t understand/ nor not quite; fricative [f] in stanza 2 gives way to alveolar [t] with assonances added: powder/ out/ ground;
  • Sibilants [s] and [z] of stanza 3 followed by contrasting adverbs: going on/ Coming out;
  • The use of going on is subtle: the  phrase can be used in English to describe a persistent grumble as in ‘What’s he going on about’;
  • Still: Heaney invites selection from different layers of meaning: fixed/ not moving; at peace (when paired with silent); even now;
  • The inexorable passing of time underlies the narrative. Heaney sets up an intriguing contrast between the still photo aspect (Suspended) and onward movement (flow); this subtext is implicit, too, in the singing which is of measurable duration.

viii A ‘modern’ scholar comments on the development of language: the term ‘Inkwell’, already almost a historical artefact in the late 40’s (after all, Heaney was presented with a de-luxe Conway Stewart fountain pen for passing his Scholarship at the age of 11), is now as robbed of sense./ As ‘inkhorn’, perhaps even the tip of cow’s horn, after which Dun Cow manuscript was named. 

From it emerges an anecdote about Colmcille, his inkhorn at dipping distance/ In the floor of the cell. It recounts an example of brash lack of consideration for scholars and scribes who have important work to accomplish. 

Heaney offers a rough translation of the scribe’s impromptu response, his extempore on being deprived of the calm required to pursue his work when a loudmouth lands/ breaking the Iona silence. Colmcille knows what will happen: the self-important harbour shouter / Staff in hand will be  Inclined  (both intending to show respect and bowing his head) to kiss the kiss of peace but his presence will turn to unbearable intrusion via his crass ability to blunder in/ … catch and overturn/ My little inkhorn/ spill my ink.

  • Heaney demonstrates clear evidence of his multiple talents as poet, scholar and skilled translator from several languages;
  • assonance in stanza 1: dun/ stuck upside; alliteration: dipping distance; echo: cell/ -cille;
  • Stanza 2: extempore voices a terseness; alveolar [l]: loudmouth lands/ silence;
  • The piece has a timeless dimension: the scholar’s search for seclusion and privacy is a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign whether in the 6th or 21st centuries.


ix The final piece is at once epilogue, tribute and epitaph. It draws together the threads of ‘books’, scholars and scholarship; it offers acclaim from one Nobel Laureate to two others; it salutes the legacy left by scribes; it provides an obituary  to those whose faith, determination and creativity left a legacy that has outlived them (akin, say, to those in another field, who built  the Pyramids or Machu-Picchu). It offers a prayer for the survival of books. It reflects, too, that, as for all those cited, now inevitably deceased, the time for Heaney himself to say important things is a dwindling resource.

Heaney salutes two great ones offering clues as to their identity. The first, whose personal experiences made human freedoms imperative, has put faith in ‘meaning’/ That runs through space like a word/ Screaming and protesting. The second, and Heaney draws directly from Yeat’s ‘The Tower’, was a poet who, as he resisted the decaying power of old age, put faith in his ‘Poet’s imaginings/ And memories of love’.

Heaney himself may be old but for now he is still alive. From this provisional position, he clings to the Macóige of Lismore model in ii placing the survival of his faith in the survival of literature: steady-handedness maintained in books.

Heaney announces his Roll of Honour: five principal manuscripts, each separated by a pause for ovation. The fifth is the cathach, still proudly bearing the warmth of its medieval dye and hallowed: berry-browned, enshrined.

He pays final tribute to the medieval legacy of cured hides. Tribute, too, to The much tried pens: literally, the much-used instruments; metaphorically and significantly, those who held them and endured so much trial and tribulation in pursuit of their goal.

  • The first great is Polish poet, Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004. The final sentence of Milosz’s poem, ‘Meaning’ (Collected Works, p.569) reads:

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

            Through interstellar fields, through the revolving galaxies,/ And calls out, protests, screams.

  • Milosz has expressed his ‘meaning’, aimed loud and clear (despite exile and personal danger) at the totalitarian regimes that imprisoned his native Poland: Hitler’s outrages of WWII, replaced, in their turn, by Stalin’s ruthless control over the post-war Eastern Block of Europe.
  • Yeats’ The Tower (1928) continues as follows: ‘Memories of the words of women,/ All those things whereof/ Man makes a superhuman,/ Mirror resembling dream.’
  • The Yellow Book of Lecan (Leabhar Buidhe Lecain) is a medieval Irish manuscript written in two stages, 1391 and 1401. It currently resides at Trinity College, Dublin. Written on vellum and containing 344 columns of text, the first 289 lines were written by 1391; the remainder were written by 1401. It is written in Middle Irish.
  • assonances: faith/ space; maintained/ against;
  • alliterative effects of bilabial nasal [m]: imaginings/ memories/ mine;
  • meaning … screaming … protesting …imaginings … memories … steady-handedness: key words contribute each in its different ways to creativity, each provides a link in the chain; each helps to maintain faith in the survival of books and scholarship irrespective of age and threat.
  • Much tried pens: metonymy and synecdoche are similar figures of speech. Metonymy replaces words with other closely associated terms e.g. the Crown for the Monarchy; in synecdoche the part stands for the whole e.g.100 sail, meaning 100 ships. Here ‘pens’ for ‘scribes’.

Other Comments:

  • ‘Hermit Songs’ explores the meaning of writing and writing paraphernalia, and follows the poet learning to read and preserve books by covering them with calico sheaths. This respect for the potential of the item resembles the steady craft of the ancient scribes of Ireland working on illuminated manuscripts. The blended father/Colmcille figure brings the paternal presence deep into the heart of Heaney’s creative life, as an inspiration, a teacher and a craftsman in his own right. Part of the joy of Human Chain is tracing these subtly submerged connecting chains between the people who inhabit Heaney’s poetic world, both in this collection and in his past writings… Heaney focuses on the human experience of work, with particular attention to scholarly labours… in “Hermit Songs,” where Heaney evokes the sensual experience of book-work, remembering with amusement his schoolboy days and the pride and reverence he took in study. Christine Fears Literateur Magazine of 13th Sept 2010
  • He begins with his schooldays, carefully covering books with whatever is to hand to protect their covers, books being sacred objects, as they were in much earlier times, as they were to saints such as Fursa and Colmcille, “the riddle- solving anchorites”. Thus Heaney makes the connection between himself, the Irish seers and Virgil’s Aeneid, between poet and priest, the one kept in our consciousness by the other, the past linked to the present and vice versa. Alan Taylor, Herald Scotland Review 30/08/2010