Human Chain

Heaney’s title poem, dedicated to Terence Brown, salutes chains of support – human solidarity in the face of social disaster. He associates himself with the compassion, love and respect required of people who devote themselves selflessly to such missions

The poem adapts the ‘shared burden’ theme of Miracle marking the backbreaking work undertaken by aid workers dedicated to the survival of victims of Third World famine and political repression. He imagines himself as an active even allegorical participant (he is a poet with a public voice and huge sensitivity to the Troubles in his own Northern Irish homeland).

In the final couplet Heaney reflects on his own dwindling potential as a link in the human chain.

Heaney is reviewing footage of basic supplies being delivered in emergency aid (bags of meal passed hand to hand by the aid workers). Television footage by its nature adds drama to news clips – that of indigenous victims, reduced to animal starvation and fear of not receiving anything, subjected to repressive control (soldiers firing over the mob).

The memory of loading heavy sacks as a farmer’s son is sparked – Heaney (braced again), physically poised to join with aid workers.

Heaney is skilled at describing how the laws of physics and anatomical dynamics inter-react. He breaks down the process (as he illustrated in A Shiver of District and Circle of 2006): firstly securing a grip (two sack corners) by manipulating a handhold (worked to lugs) then dealing with its dead weight (heave)  either in single combat with the sack or operating with a co-worker (eye-to-eye) prior to developing a rhythmical momentum (one-two, one-two) and upswing.

Not just a single sack … more of the same (stoop and drag and drain of the next lift). No greater relief (nothing surpassed) once the weight is shifted from the upper body (quick unburdening, backbreak’s truest payback).

Heaney confesses his youthful sack-tossing days (letting go) are over (will not come again) then reflects on another sense of the phrase – as illness has made it so clear, he is mortal and will one day  relinquish his grip on life – the final letting-go (once) … with no come-back (And for all).

  • Terence Brown1944-: born in China, the son of Presbyterian missionary parents; educated at Belfast Academical Institute; prominent in rugby and cricket as a schoolboy; Associate Professor at Trinity College Dublin, where he is also a Senior Fellow; member of the Royal Irish Academy and of the Academia Europaea. He attributes the dedication to ‘SH’s view that as a teacher I have helped to pass on a tradition of love and respect for poetry.’ His e-mail of Sept 23, 2010 to DF
  • meal: edible powder ground from grains and pulses;
  • mob: large potentially disorderly crowd;
  • braced: with body set to retain balance;
  • wad: describing something large and tightly-packed;
  • grain: wheat seeds intended as food;
  • lug: corner grip to facilitate lifting and carrying;
  • give purchase: achieve fingerhold;
  • eye-to-eye: suggestive of co-ordinated lifting with a second person:
  • stoop: bend forwards and downwards;
  • drain: expenditure, her, of energy;
  • surpass: exceed, be better than
  • payback: return, dividend;
  • let go: play on two ideas release of a burden (sack), relinquish one’s hold on (life);
  • More on Terence brown: That Island Never Foundis a collection of poems and essays in honour of Terence Brown by some of Ireland’s leading writers and scholars. This poem is included in the Festschrift. In the cultural history of twentieth-century Ireland, Brown is regarded as having played a central role for decades in the island’s critical imagination. His gifts as a scholar and teacher are recognized.
  • In this brave and unsentimental book, continuity and finality compete for prominence. The title poem concerns itself with ‘A letting go which will not come again. Or it will, once. And for all’ as Heaney, in a masterful elision of image and memory, compares aid workers passing bags of meal ‘hand to hand/In close up’ to his experience of heaving sacks of grain on to a trailer(Tel/O’Riordan)
  • 12 free-verse lines in tercets; one long sentence split by a dash; a final phrase accepts the human condition;
  • theimagery recognizes that harvest yields a financial return: Two packed wads of grain (suggestive of rolls of banknotes); the dual meaning of purchase (physical leverage and financial transaction);
  • Heaney succeeds in packing much into the short alliterated phrase:drag and drain defines the awkward posture, overtaxed muscles and overall sapping of energy summed up in backbreak’s truest payback;
  • assonance: seeing/ meal; again/ drain;
  • repetitions echo the repetitive task:hand to hand/ eye-to-eye; one-two/one/two.
  • 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: twelve 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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