The Conway Stewart

At the time when Heaney turned 11, it was not uncommon for parents to offer children a gift to celebrate some important success, here passing entrance examinations and entering Secondary education as a boarder.

So authentic are the markings he describes that Heaney might well be looking at the very pen of 60 years earlier: the nib’s Medium point; its 14 carat gold composition; the Conway Stewart branding of the screw-top and mottled barrel; the bubble at the nib’s tip for smooth script.

The pen-gun of ‘Digging’ is recalled: the Conway Stewart has a barrel and pump-action (akin that of a shotgun); it requires to be manually loaded, not with cartridges, but treated to its first deep snorkel/ In a newly opened ink bottle . The process is not a clean one: ink can be ejected unpredictably, guttery, snottery; nor is it quick: letting it rest then at an angle/ To ingest

The emblematic purchase and the process capture then deflect the emotional atmosphere between parents and son: time/ To look together and away/ From our parting, though the pen’s first function is foreseen: next day’s letter home, in longhand/ ‘Dear’/ To them.

  • The statement of poetic intent in the very first poem of Heaney’s first published anthology, ‘Death of a Naturalist’ of 1966 and its associated metaphors resurface in ‘The Conway Stewart:

Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests, snug as a gun… I’ll dig with it

  • Conway Stewart ranges are still in production aimed at the luxury end of the market. They vary little in design and branding from the vintage model Heaney is describing here;
  • The theme will find its echo in the collection’s later pieces dedicated to the earliest Irish scholar/ scribes, for example Colum Cille Cecinit where the scribe asserts ‘‘my hand is cramped from pen work’’.
  • 6 tercets of free verse; lines of varying length (from I to 10 syllables) and emphasis; the stressed monosyllable ‘Dear’; the whole piece in a single sentence;
  • 4 tercets refer in close detail to the purchase of an object and its maintenance; 6 lines reflect a much deeper emotional plane;
  • the pen is both metaphor ( personification of ingest) and essential schoolboy tool;
  • Heaney selects spatulate to describe the internal workings of the fountain-pen: its  external hinged lever operating a flat internal blade creates a vacuum in the rubber ink-bag so that it draws in the fluid when released;
  • alliteration: guttery, snottery: imaginatively used if not newly invented words, the former a clever concoction of like-sounding words e.g. ‘gutter’ and ‘guttural’ mimicking the throaty sucking sound made by the pen-filling process; the latter describing how ink might flood and collect at the end of the pen-nib, like a mucous ‘dewdrop’ on the tip of the nose;
  • further swimming image: snorkel;
  • Heaney’s treat (his present) is itself given a treat (something special), namely ink;
  • contradictory adverbs describe the delicate emotional position: together and away
  • loose rhyme: snorkel/ bottle; assonance: away next day;


  • … In ‘Digging’ the pen is what Heaney will dig with, and in “The Conway Stewart”, the pen still means poetry. In its shoring of the fragments against ruin, poetry prepares for severance and yet maintains attachments; it looks at life and gets ready for death. Nick Laird in The Telegraph of 02 Sep 2010;
  • The shopkeeper demonstrates how to fill it, “Treating it to its first deep snorkel/ In a newly-opened ink-bottle” – and immediately we are in the liquid, mysterious, many-layered, freely metaphorical world of Heaney’s imagination. Such a transformation entails a cost: the pen’s first official task in Heaney’s hands is to write a letter home, so that in effect he signs the warrant for his own exile. Sean O’Brien  in The Independent of Friday, 3 September 2010