Heaney’s picture from the 1940s and 50s era is all the richer for recollections of domestic detail.

i Heaney cannot settle on the mots justes to describe the consistency of slack: Not coal dust, more the weighty grounds of coal. Slack was delivered by  lorryman … in open bags that he would tip: vent into a cornerA sullen pile indicative of gloomy times. One positive for a youngster faced with this specific chore was that slack was soft to the shovel, accommodating, easier to handle than the clattering coal.

This was a period when people were used to shortage and setting-aside: days when life prepared for rainy days. Slack contributed doubly: dampen down (inhibit fast burn in the grate by sitting as a layer on top and depriving the fire of its oxygen) and lengthen out (economise on fuel by slowing the process). It developed, too, a deeper symbolism, by reining in Man’s excess via a check on mammon and by its promethean quality: in its own way/ Keeper of the flame.

  • The post-war period of the 40s and 50s was one of great austerity in Britain: not only did ration-books regulate limited amounts of basic foods and ‘treats’, but essential fuels were hard to come by. Children of the era would recall ‘slack’, the grindings of coal that had fallen through all the meshes and were its cheapest available form;
  • Heaney alludes to Prometheus who was heavily punished by the classical gods for giving fire to mankind; the latter had no means of making fire themselves and their priority was to keep it alight;
  • Mammon refers to worldly wealth conspicuously absent in the post-war period
  • Rainy days, old-fashioned amidst modern consumerism, was a mid 20th century cliché referring to setting things aside for future need;
  • the theme of heavy carrying is a recurrent theme in Human Chain;
  • 4 triplets; free verse; varied line length, the shortest recalling an effect on the emotions: a sullen pile;
  • 2 sentences with flow regulated by a combination of mid-line commas and  enjambed lines;
  • alliteration:velar [l] sounds in coal/ lorryman/ lug; use of sibilants [s] and [sh] soft to the shovel mimicking the ease of shovelling through slack compared with the demands of moving chunks of clattering coal;
  • the use of adverbs down/ out lengthens a process that contributes to frugality;
  • the principle sense-data are of sight and touch.

ii A change of senses from touch to The sound it made, stronger in memory than any deeper significance the slack may have possessed: More to me/ Than any allegory. Heaney builds onomatopoeic effects combining alliteration and assonance to echo the sounds both of shovel at work and receptacle that bore fuel to the grate: Slack schlock/ Scuttle scuffle,/ Shak-shak. 

Memories, too of the solid parlance of the time: ’Bank the fire’ (build it up with a layer of slack); and a visual recollection of the hard crust slack formed as the fading heat below modified its structure: The cindery skull formed when its tarry/ Coral cooled.

  • 4 triplets; free verse after an initial rhyme: me allegory; short lines of between 2 and 5 syllables, many enjambed;
  • the italicised sound stanza includes newly coined items; the use of full-stops at this point creates pauses between shovel strokes;
  • alliteration: sibilant solid/ cindery skull then velar [k] of Coral cooled;
  • analogy of the shape and  the indestructibility of the human skull;

iii The youngster’s chore is to fetch coal for the fire: Out in the rain/ Sent out for it / Again. He recalls the unlit/ Coalhouse, the violet blet of the slack, its wet sand weight. This is more than just memory; it amounts to an emotional release triggered by the memory of slack Tipped and slushed,/ Catharsis/ From the bag. Heaney feels all the better for the memory.

  • Catharsis: referring originally to Aristotelian tragedy and indicating the therapeutic effect on the spectator of the sense of emotional release following the storm and climax of the action;


  • 12 lines of poetry, a single sentence in 4 stanzas; 1 formal rhyme (rain/ again);
  • combined repetition of out with again expresses the internal grumblings of the less-than-willing youngster (unlike at Primary school, the youngster at home can be more reluctant to do as he is told);
  • one half rhyme (blet/ weight);
  • alternating alliterations, [s], [w] and [t] its wet sand weight; use of sibilants: slushed/ Catharsis;
  • Blet: see Peter Macdonald (below)


  • Heaney’s strike on the anvil of memory is so true, so mediated by apt vocabulary, that the reading of his work is a sensuous joy. Thomas McCarthy in the Irish Examiner of September 4th 2010
  • Yet physical memory is frequently the strongest idea in poems that pursue a more knowing profundity. “Slack” rather winningly admits that the childhood onomatopoeia of shovelled coal chips (“Slack schlock”) is “More to me/Than any allegory”, but still goes on to hear “catharsis” in the last gasp of the emptied bag, as if to remind us that Aristotle half-rhymes with coal-scuttle. Jeremy Noel-Tod in New Statesmen of September 13th 2010
  • What gives Human Chain much of its energy is the sustained intensity of Heaney’s fixing on the resource of his own memories. Some poems are relatively familiar Heaney performances, though none the worse for that: “Slack” addresses the kind of everyday substance that is no longer all that everyday with the verbal exactness and playfulness that have always characterized the poet’s returns to the physical minutiae of remembered environments. One of the motifs in this collection is the felt weight in heavy lifting, so a bag of slack being “Tipped and slushed” has a certain thematic role to play; yet it can also take dramatic verbal turns, to both “Catharsis” and “a violet blet”, where two different vocabularies are brought to bear, one with a classical literary pedigree, the other from the obscurer regions of English (“blet”, from bletting, seems to be the first mark of inward decomposition on fruit). Both words work in the context of Heaney’s poem (where onomatopoeia is also in play), with their not quite matching promises of emptying and of decay.Sunday Times of Oct 13, 2010; Peter MacDonald