Bone Dreams

Heaney shed light on the genesis of his six ‘dream’ poems in conversation with DOD (p 157): ‘That summer of 1972, the month before we moved (to Glanmore Cottage in County Wicklow)…we did a lot of driving in the south-west of England, saw the white horses carved into the hills, visited Maiden Castle in Dorset and the old earthworks in Dorchester. When we were in Gloucestershire staying in this lovely Tudor manor house where Marie’s sister was then living, I wrote Bone Dreams – the first of those loose-link ziggy-zaggy sequences that would eventually appear in North.

At the time artist friend Barrie Cooke was doing a series of ‘bone boxes’; thinking about them brought up memories of bones I used to find around Mossbawn, so next thing a frolic of free association got started and ended up taking in the whole of Roman-Celtic Britain, from Maiden Castle to Hadrian’s Wall. The chalkiness of the bone, the chalk downs, the amorousness and adventure of that summer are behind those particular ‘dreams’.

The poet’s ‘frolic of free association’ produces an absorbing medley that interweaves items of historic, linguistic and intimately personal interest. Whilst the pieces range far afield both in geography and time there is a basic empathy with Celtic origins and echoes of the theme of Irish dispossession that features more explicitly, perhaps, in other poems in the collection. The allegorical motif of the sequence, that of an Irishman counter-‘invading’ England, is never far away.


The sequence is triggered by the discovery of a bone found on the grazing typical of Heaney’s mid-Ulster farming landscape. The bone’s texture transmits a message of invasion and occupation (rough, porous language of touch).

The bone amounts to an example of nubbed treasure approved by the counselling voice in the poem North, as something the poet knows he can touch and trust.

It is a remnant from the past (yellowing ribbed impression in the grass) a memento mori survivor of Celtic roots (small ship burial), lifeless and petrified (dead as stone), pockmarked  by hard, flaky (flint), bleached evidence of the past as valuable to the finder as gold (nugget of chalk).

Sympathetic to the anti-British message the bone carries the speaker resolves to prime the rudimentary dream-weapon he carries (wind it in the sling of the mind) and hurl it in an act of defiance (pitch) against a historical oppressor of Ireland onto the English mainland (strange fields) … then to go there himself to see if he might just find a way of reversing the process

  • grazing: grassland where cattle are pastured;
  • porous: property indicating water can pass through it;
  • ribbed: with a pattern of raised bands;
  • ship-burial: echo of Viking Dublin and the longships in which important Vikings might be buried;
  • flint: hard rock found as nodules in chalk;
  • nugget: small precious chunk;
  • chalk: soft limestone formed from remains of sea creatures
  • wind: repeatedly twist;
  • sling: a primitive weapon used, for example by David to kill the giant Goliath;
  • pitch: fling, hurl;
  • strange: implication of ‘foreign’ F. étranger;
  • 4 quatrains; variable line length between 3 and 7 syllables; 8 enjambed lines; no rhyme scheme; 2 sentence structure;
  • assonant effects centre round: [əʊ] bone/ yellowing/ stone; [ʌ] rough/ porous/ touch/ nugget[ai] white/ find/ wind[ɪ] its/ ribbed impression in/ ship/ flint/ it in the sling/ England/ pitch it; [e]yellowing/ impression/ burial/ dead; [ɒ] follow its drop; distant echo[ei]grazing strange;
  • vowel (i) sounds in melodic assonant combination: I wind it in/ the sling of mind/ to pitch it.  


Bone beginnings awaken the poet-philologist to a Skaldic vehicle of allegory (bone-house) a ‘human body’ kenning now linguistically defunct (skeleton) long buried out of sight and mind (the tongue’s old dungeon).

Heaney delves into the linguistic remnants and emblems (dictions) contributing to Irish historical experience: the Elizabethan age of canopies, upper-class beds from a 16th century period of Irish occupation by the English; the heraldic devices of the Normans who made their presence felt in 12th century Ireland; back in time past the 11th century ‘courtly love’ age of the troubadours in France’s Provence region, remembered for the aphrodisiac effect of its heat-induced flavours (erotic mayflowers); past the persistent ivied Latins/ of churchmen who via the likes of Saint Patrick in 5th century Ireland carried the Roman language to the four corners of Europe as part of the development of the Catholic church.

The journey ends in the place where the ‘kenning’ might have originated, painting a vivid picture of the linguistic and military clashes of those early times: the sound of poetic narration and bowstring (the scop’s/ twang); the glint of weaponry and the forceful utterance (iron flash of consonants/), the axe-blows of persistent oral recitation (cleaving the line).

  • bone-house: example of ‘kenning’, a stylistic device from Old Norse Skaldic verse, generally a compound word, expressing one thing in terms of another so as to add descriptive colour; here a circumlocution for ‘human body’;
  • tongue: spoken language, language;
  • dungeon: underground cell;
  • dictions: styles of speaking or singing;
  • the Elizabethan era (during the Tudor period when Elizabeth I reigned 1558-1603) produced the style of ornate canopy beds;
  • Norman: (long-lasting dynasty initially in present-day France that invaded England and ruled after 1066:
  • device: probable reference to coats of arms, emblem and rewards of land to the powerful barons who supported William the Conqueror who shared a common language;
  • erotic: sexually exciting;
  • mayflower: one of a family of scented plants produced in Mediterranean climates;
  • Provence: an area of Southern France; 12-14c home of the troubadour court poets and of ‘courtly love’; seat of the Latinised ‘langue d’oc’ (‘hoc’, latin word for ‘yes’) eventually superseded by the northern ‘langue d’oïl’ (‘oïl’, the Frankish word for ‘yes’ that became ‘oui’) as a basis for modern French;
  • ivied: illustrated lettering of Latin texts spoken by the clergy;
  • scops were the Anglo-Saxon composers and reciters of poetry, based on an oral tradition;
  • twang: word imitating the sound made by bows and bow-strings used to describe nasal vocal sound effects – first recorded 1660s;
  • flash: sudden burst of sound particularly of plosives [b/p] [d/t] [g/k];
  • cleave: split or sever along a natural line or grain;
  • sonic chains: [ʌ] tongue’s/ dungeons/ push; [ai] I/ devices/ ivied/ iron/ line; [ɪ] dictions/ Elizabethan canopies/ erotic/ ivied Latins; [ɒ] erotic/ Provence/ scop’s/ consonants;
  • cleaving: offers a dual idea: firstly from Old English that of ‘sticking’, ‘clinging’; secondly from a different root that of ’splitting’, ‘separating’.
  • fricative consonant sounds [ʃ] push/ dictions/ flash [tʃ] churchmen alongside numerous sibilant [s] from skeleton to consonants and plosive [t] components;


Ban hus’ inspires a dream of Celtic landscape. The philologist-poet has retrieved the kenning from the treasure-chests (coffered riches) of ancient tongues with their unusual syntax and noun shapes (grammar / and declensions).

The image evokes a picture of human existence in Iron Age times: the rudimentary dwelling (fire, benches, wattle and rafters); the end-of-life superstition of dead souls delaying for a moment (fluttered awhile in the roofspace) prior to transmigrating; the earthenware pot (crock for the brain) of ritual importance to the Celts.

The animal urge to create life was predominant (a cauldron of generation swung at the centre), its kenning-like associations linking basic native lust with the animal-like lairs where the human seed was passed on (love-den, blood-holt). The final periphrastic dream-bower alludes beyond sheer lust to that part of the human mind where pleasures and emotions are registered.

  • coffer(n) : strongbox for valuables;
  • grammar: whole system and structure of a language;
  • declension: word variations that identify things like number or gender
  • ban hus: kenning ‘house of bones’, human body;
  • bench: long wooden seat;
  • wattle: fencing with wooden uprights interlaced with twigs or branches;
  • rafter: internal roof beam;
  • flutter: hover unsteadily;
  • crock: earthenware pot;
  • cauldron: large metal cooking pot for use on open fires;
  • generation: (human) reproduction;
  • holt: an animal’s (more specifically, otter’s) lair;
  • den: lair of wild mammal;
  • bower: pleasant shady place amongst trees;
  • 4 quatrains; variable line length between 3 and 5 syllables; 8 enjambed lines; no rhyme scheme; 2 sentence structure;
  • fricative consonant sounds [ʃ] declensions/ generation [tʃ] riches/ benches alongside numerous sibilant [s] from riches to centre and pulses of plosive [k] from coffered to cauldron and fricative [f] from found to roofspace;
  • sound chains and echoes include [ai] I/ fire/ while [ei] space/ brain/ generation [əʊ] soul/ holt [ʌ] fluttered/ swung/ love;[ɒ] coffered/ wattle/ was/ crock;[ɔː] small/ cauldron;


Heaney has come across the bone he catapulted at England. It conjures up a link between a hillside symbol of Celtic carnality and something personal to Heaney intimately related to the landscape in which it occurred. It might be voiced equally to Celtic-British Cerne Abbas Giant and to sexually aroused speaker.

His intellectual foray into philology and kennings now behind him, the speaker is lying in his bone’s lair now figured as a love-nest in the grass. He lies holding a ‘nubbed’ female treasure (my lady’s head like a crystal). Anatomical and geological features linked as touch and sight (gazing) combine, in his mind at least, to arouse the male figure’s senses (ossify myself – become as hard perhaps as the giant’s outsized erect penis cut into the chalk). Compared with Ocean’s rape of the Irish maiden this relationship is a consensual coming-together he the stony surface of his cut-out profile (screes), she the body shape of the sloping Dorset hillside (her escarpment) – he the chalk giant in intimate contact (carved upon her downs) – he using his hands to excite her erogenous zones (sunken fosse of her spine) before proceeding to her most private parts (passes).

  • kenning: defined from the early 14c. as “sign, token; teaching, instruction;” ; its association with the Old Norse verb kenna “to know, to recognize, to feel or perceive; to call” opened the suggestion of poetic metaphor: a periphrastic phrase standing for something else
  • philology: from its earliest sense of “love of learning,” the word came to be used with reference to the “science of language” referred to in the United States as linguistics;
  • love-nest: place of secret meetings between lovers;
  • crystal: clear, transparent mineral;
  • gaze: stare intently in admiration or surprise;
  • scree: mass of small, loose stones;
  • escarpment: long steep slope;
  • chalk giant: reference to the priapic chalk giant with its phallic appendage cut out of the chalk hillside at Cerne Abbas in Dorset;
  • Downs: (eccentricity of the English language – what sounds low is actually high) rounded, grass covered hills in Southern England, typically of chalk
  • fosse: long narrow trench of a fortification;
  • pass: narrow cleft between, say, hills;
  • 4 quatrains; variable line length between 3 and 7 syllables; 10 enjambed lines; no rhyme scheme; 3 sentence structure;
  • Sound effects: assonant [ʌ] come/ love/ upon/ sunken; [ɪ] philology/ kennings/ is/ in/ gazing [ɒ] philology/ ossify; [ɒ] on/ fosse of; [e] kennings/ enter/ memory/ lair/ nest/ head/ escarpments [ei] lady’s/ gazing; [əʊ] bone’s/ hold [uː] soon/ move; alliterative: velar plosive [k] around stanza (3); recurring sibilant [s] groups;


Passions cool but the closeness remains; the couple, real or allegorical, lie side by side (cradling each other) inseparable now from the surrounding terrain (lips of an ancient earthwork). Pursuing the contiguity of anatomy and ancient fortification the male voice casts an x-ray eye (I estimate for pleasure) over the bone structure of the female figure from her hand (her knuckles’ paving) via the articulation of the arm (turning stiles of the elbows) and the indentations of the head (vallum of her brow) to the clavicle (long wicket of the collar bone).

Celtic counter-possession of England looms large: the Celtic male intruder has negotiated historical defensive ramparts (the Hadrian’s Wall of her shoulder) and dare think of overcoming her impregnability (dreaming of Maiden Castle) and completing an impossible reversal.

  • cradle: hold gently and protectively;
  • earthwork: artificial soil bank forming a fortification;
  • knuckle: finger joint;
  • stile: an Old English “device for climbing, ladder” ; also a footpath arrangement to allow persons to pass but not sheep and cattle;
  • vallum: from Roman Antiquity: a rampart, raised stockade of defence;
  • brow: forhead;
  • wicket: early 13c., “small door or gate”; in this context it may also contain connotations of Old English. wican “to give way, yield”;
  • Hadrian’s Wall, a turf and stone barrier built by the Romans from 122 AD, (between Wallsend on Tyne and the Solway Firth) to stifle raids from Pictish tribes to the North;
  • Maiden Castle: expansive Iron Age hill-fort in Dorset; its original Celtic name means ‘great hill’. Its actual name lends itself to a number of implications;
  • 4 quatrains; variable line length between 3 and 6 syllables; 10 enjambed lines; no rhyme scheme; 2 sentence structure;
  • principal assonant chains: [i:] we/ each/ between later dreaming; [ɜː] earthwork; [e] estimate/ pleasure/ elbows/; [ei] cradling/ estimate/ paving/ pace/ Hadrian’s/ Maiden; [əʊ] elbows/ bone/ shoulder;
  • pulses of bilabial [m] and alveolar [n] nasals; paired bilabial plosive [p];
  • MP sees an allegorical message of the sequence: Heaney’s invasion of England is a lyrical affair, a gentle love-act in which the partners end up ‘cradling each other’ (p 134)


Heaney’s ‘bone dream’ coda pictures him on a visit to England’s West Country (Devon) and the early morning discovery (the dew still beading it) of a small creature capable of great impact (dead mole). The creature unknown in Ireland is not as he imagined: not the big-boned coulter (referring to the metal wedge immediately in front of the plough that lends it a super earth-moving capacity) but small and cold no larger than a farm workshop tool (thick of a chisel).

Heaney’s inner voice, his interest since childhood in creatures great and small, focuses first on the little points of the mole’s eyes half hidden by the fur on his head and then its anatomy (feel of the shoulders).

The example of nubbed treasure he is examining opens an involuntary link (touched) with a low altitude range of English mountains stretching southwards down the country’s northern spine (small distant Pennines) similar to the mole both in their outer covering (pelt of grass) and anatomy (grain).

  • bead: small droplet;
  • Pennines: a mountain range forming the backbone of England from the North Midlands northwards;
  • pelt: skin of a fur-bearing animal;
  • grain: used of wood (1560s) and referring to the arrangement of fibres that determines the appearance of the surface;
  • 4 quatrains; variable line length between 3 and 7 syllables; 7 enjambed lines; no rhyme scheme; multiple sentence structure;
  • Sentence (1) assembles slightly variant vowel (o) sounds with [e] Devon/ dead and beats of alveolar plosive [d] Devon/ found/ dead/ dew/ beading;
  • (2) rings a change to assonant [əʊ]mole/ boned coulter/ cold and paired [ɔː] thought/ small combined with velar plosive [k] coulter/ cold/ thick;
  • (3) (4) and (5) re-echo [əʊ] blow/ blow/ Those/ shoulders; labio-dental fricatives fur/ feel;
  • (6) combines flavours of [ɪ] distant/ running and sibilant [s], the bilabial plosive of Pennines/ pelt and alliterative trilled velar plosive grass/ grain;
  • running south: beyond its immediate context this final line of the sextet awakens the thought that at the time Bone Dreams were developing Heaney himself was perhaps poised to ‘run south’ from Northern Ireland into the Republic;

The Bone Dreams sequence as a whole

  • 6 poems partly about the philological development of language and languages;
  • SH describes himself burrowing into Celtic/ Norse lexis to gain a sense of the ancient culture;
  • The carnal theme introduced in IV is animated by reference to natural features as if to suggest that sensual delight and linguistic intimacy can be associated with landscape;
  • The allegory of Anglo-Irish relationships holds good;
  • paradox: Heaney was not born into a family where Irish was spoken (he had to learn it); English is Heaney’s poetic medium whatever pro-Irishempathy he may harbour as regards the British presence in Elizabethan times or as a catalyst to the current Troubles;
  • IV & V, combining sexual philology and topography are as strange as anything Heaney has written (NC68).
  • 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: fifteen 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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