Heaney’s choice of title within the context of Human Chain, awakens multiple associations: his mother and father, so long a couple, no longer exist either as a pair or as individuals; two earlier links of a human chain have been disconnected as part of a human process to which Heaney himself will be subjected.

The two vignettes are like short clips of moving film: the mother’s movement slow, dignified, inexorable and orderly; the father’s fast-moving, characterised by a kind of hyper-activity, and generating insecurity in the youngster watching.
i Who is this ghostly appearance engaged in the domestic routine of a rural Northern Irish farm where even ashes have further useit is the erect figure of a woman on en route to the ash-pit , walking at a steady pace as if in a procession. She is burdened with the slender pan  that she has just lifted from beneath the firebox. This is a discomfiting chore: the container is weighty, full to the brim and not yet cool: its whitish dust and flakes still sparkling hot. The troublesome ash is blown by the wind into her apron bib,/ Into her mouth and eyes. She is not a woman to be fazed: Unwavering…her burden horizontal still. The heat that she suffers in silence is evident from the sight of her Hands in a tight, sore grip round the metal knob.

Without slowing the stoical figure moves out of shot until sight of her is lost along the well-trodden, worn path leading to the henhouse

  • The title attunes to one of the central themes of the collection embodied in its title;
  • Heaney depicts his  mother’s qualities: industrious; conditioned to routine chores (worn path); proud and dignified; suffering discomfort without complaint; stoical and pious;
  • His deliberate choice of the ash pan provides images of pallor, sickness and death; it reminds even of Ash Wednesday, the 1st day of Lent, deriving its name from the practice of placing ashes on the foreheads of worshippers as a sign of repentance.
  • 4 three-line stanzas based around 10 syllables; free verse;
  • the piece is written as a single sentence making rich use of enjambed lines to echo the revenant’s steady unwavering progress;
  • the final words of each line in the first tercet add a kind of sonic punctuation by using an initial bilabial plosive [p]: pit /procession/ pan
  • Use of dual meaning: walking tall – both erect and proud; bearing – both carrying and suffering;
  • We confirms the presence of children.

ii The second poem poses the same rhetorical question, this time focussing on Heaney’s father caught up in the noise and confusion of his professional ‘wheeler-dealer’ activity. The child that Heaney was feels relegated beneath the demands others make on his father.

For all his modest stature (not much higher than the cattle) the father punches above his weight accustomed as he is to control and management: His ashplant (stout stick) …Lifted and pointing. The child pictures his father striving to move unsuccessfully towards him: Working his way towards me through the pen.  The child is physically and emotionally vulnerable: perched/ On top of a shaky gate; his father is seeking to communicate but his words are lost in the noisy confusion: calling… Waving and calling something I cannot hear. 

The father’s attempts are hampered both by the sounds of the market (the lowing and roaring, lorries revving) and by others making claims on his attention: the dealers/ Shouting among themselves and now to him. To the regret of the powerless youngster, it is their demands that prevail: So that his eyes left mine.

The powerful conclusion offers the wisdom of hindsight: everything is relative; whatever anguish that early memory might have caused, it did not prepare him for the grief of bereavement: I know/ The pain of loss before I know the term.

  • Heaney goes to great lengths to compare the noisy, demanding existence of his father’s working life with the much more solitary and silent life that he suggests his mother led, devoted to children and home;
  • Heaney seems not yet to have come to terms with a father-son closeness that seems to have eluded them both;
  • Whilst acknowledging the fleeting nature of human existence the clarity of Heaney’s memories and emotions is manifest;
  • 4 tercets ; free verse, mainly 10 syllable lines with lines 3 and 6 shortened to add punch and emphasis;
  • Heaney transfers the epithet shaky from the boy’s insecurity to the gate on which he sits;
  • what started as a long-lost memory adopts a poignant immediacy through the use of the present tense in the final couplet; frequent use of the –ing form, used verbally(revving) or as a noun (lowing) lends a dramatic present-ness to a past events;
  • Heaney makes deliberate and ingenious use of words that convey a double intent; term: on the one hand the child was too young to understand the full significance of ‘loss’;at the same time the word acknowledges that all human life comes to an endOther poems in this section refer to term-time and Heaney’s feeling of exile in boarding-school.


The ensemble:

  • Here (Northern Ireland) is portrayed as largely bucolic and wild, infused with childhood memories. “Uncoupled” … contains allusions to Caithleen ni Houlihan, a figure of Irish folklore. From Coldfront.com, 22nd Sept 2010
  • The picture moves from Heaney’s temporary separation from family and home as an adolescent to the pain of terminal severance: the diptych focuses on his mother and father long since dead.
  • Lives are conjured up through objects, so that each instance seems to offer two timelines: one to do with the remembered life, the other to do with the ongoing 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’’. SBPO G Roarke 2010.
  • There is one poem, “Uncoupled” – a diptych in memory of his parents – that has all the placid beauty of a Dutch painting or a Schubert song. Both parts of the poem are structured in the customary four three-line stanzas, both beginning with the same three words “Who is this”, both offering a single ghostly image from memory, something hovering between what is lost and what has now been found. From the Guardian review by Colm Toibin Aug 21st 2010
  • In the subsequent diptych, “Uncoupled”, we infer that it is separation that has enabled Heaney to do such tender honour to his parents. His mother, walking with a pan of ash from the fire, and his father among cattle and the noise of market, are transfigured, like inhabitants of a Virgilian underworld. … Heaney is the fortunate recipient of a Classical education. Their allusions to the characters of poetry and legend, and their adaptation of its landscapes and modes are not in the derogatory sense academic, but a claiming of an imaginative birthright the rest of us risk losing. From the Independent Review of Sept 3rd 2010; Sean O’Brien