Heaney has chanced upon a passage decribing the system within Ancient Rome that regarded outsiders/ vanquished races as second class and subservient but who, with exposure to what was civilizedly Roman and the right attitude, might be permitted freedom status.

Heaney unites title, epigraph and narrative to introduce the transformation that liberated him from previous control: the undergraduate period that allowed him to cast aside both Protestant Unionist domination that usurped his sense of Irishness and the Catholic markings of tribe, caste and conditioning that dominated his upbringing.

First the Orange Unionist sway to which the mild mid-Ulster Hibernian tradition exposed the Catholic minority (subjugated yearly under arches); then his personal search for academic corroboration (manumitted by parchments and degrees); finally the powerfully authoritative colourings of the Catholic Church (my murex was the purple dye of lents) and its annually repeated symbolism within his family (on calendars all fast and abstinence).

He pinpoints Ash Wednesday’s solemn warning that Man is mortal and will return to dust: ‘memento homo quia pulvis es’. His church attendance was routine (‘would kneel‘); he would offer himself to spiritual marking (impressed by ashes), his senses alert to the swish of clerical presence (silk friction) and the visual emblem of mortality (stipple of dust). Such, Heaney reflects, was the ritual reminder to the faithful of penitent status and subservience (I was under the thumb too like all my caste).

He awakened to a paradox: the thumb-print that marked him as one accepted and acceptable (earth-starred denizen) seemed not apply to those who ran the show (groomed optimi), sleekly superior and adept in their control function (estimating, census-taking eyes), feeding parasitically (fastened like lampreys) on an individual trained to feel inferior (on my mouldy brow).

Heaney’s route to freedom had nothing at all to do with Barrow’s Roman model. It coincided with his undergraduate days in Belfast when successful independence dawned (poetry arrived in that city). Poetry empowered him to cast off cause (the Church’s cant) and effect (his own self-pity). His new calling rid him of ritual ash (poetry wiped my brow) and acted as a starting-gun (sped me).

Now Freedman he can cope with the predictable censure of those who will brand him ungrateful (they will say I bite the hand that fed me).

  • Poetry if not morally heroic does provide a release from the defining marks of tribe and caste (NC80)
  • MP suggests that Heaney is levelling the charge that the Catholic Church had collaborated in and contributed to the political and spiritual repressiveness of the North of Ireland … he equates the success of children from the Catholic working class .. with the achievements of former slaves who reached major positions of authority in Ancient Rome (p145)
  • Historian R H Barrow published ‘The Romans’ as an ‘overview of Rome and its civilisation starting from the founding of the city’. Barrow’s epigraph describes how in the Roman Empire it was possible for ‘civilised’ slaves from ‘backward’ races to earn Roman status; interestingly, sculpted friezes from Roman times often depicted ‘barbarians’ as ugly Untermensche in contrast to the strength, nobility and good looks of their Roman victors;
  • subjugate: bring under domination; Latin sub jugum ‘under the yolk’;
  • arches: curved structures spanning openings; feature in Heaney’s memory of Unionist Orange ornamentation;
  • manumit: early 15c., from L. manumittere, lit. “to send from one’s ‘hand’; the word contains a sense of ‘control’, ‘direction’ by others;
  • parchment: formal diploma of recognition; ancient vellum writing surface;
  • degree: university academic award;
  • murex: describing a purple shade of colour derived from a shellfish; the colour of Lent;
  • Lent: a 40 day period in the Christian calendar (from Ash Wednesday to the Saturday of Holy Week) characterised by fasting and penitence in commemoration of Christ’s fasting in the wilderness;
  • Memento homo quia pulvis es: ‘Remember, man, that thou art of dust (and unto dust will return)’; related to Lent since this was not Jesus’ fate;
  • impress: apply a mark with pressure;
  • ashes: symbols of grief or repentance; hence Ash Wednesday (c.1300), from custom introduced by Pope Gregory the Great of sprinkling ashes on the heads of penitents on the first day of Lent; the poem uses the event to illustrate the change that is taking place within the poet;
  • silk friction: lightest touch of clerical garments;
  • stipple: flecks, speckled effect; an art technique applying paint using the bristle ends of the paint brush;
  • under the thumb: totally controlled by some other person or institution;
  • caste: originally 1550s, “a race of men,” from Lat. castus ‘pure’, ‘cut off’, ‘separated’; association with Hindu social groups picked up by English in India 17c. from Port. casta “breed, race, caste,”; here Heaney is reinforcing the idea of social/ religious divisions, ‘tribalism’;
  • earth-starred: marked as a mortal;
  • denizen: historically, an outsider admitted to certain rights of citizenship; a naturalized citizen;
  • groomed: preened to fit an image;
  • estimating: judging;
  • census: formal count, assessment
  • mouldy: mildew, bearing the signs of imperfection
  • optimi: Heaney’s tone suggests a deliberately unfavourable reference to senior clerics; Lat. optimus, ‘best’; the Senatorial class of Ancient Rome (MP p 146);
  • lampreys: origin, usually explained as lit. “lick-rock,” from L. lambere “to lick” + petra “rock”; rather unpleasant-looking parasites that attach themselves to things with their sucker-like mouths and are difficult to dislodge;
  • abjure: renounce;
  • cant: sanctimonious talk;
  • wipe the brow: bring cooling relief;
  • sped: the word contains suggestions of ‘sent me on my way’, ‘with alacrity’, ‘made me prosper’, even ‘stopped me looking over my shoulder;
  • bite the hand that feeds you: respond ungratefully to someone who has helped better you;
  • 16 ten-syllable lines in 4 quatrains, 6 sentences;
  • a rhyme scheme aabb/ ccdd initially loose then tightened;
  • the ‘colour’ of sound suggests at least 8 assonant clusters or chains of vowel sound:
  • alliteration provides a series of alveolar sibilant [s] in stanza 1alongside bilabial [p] [b ], alveolar [l] and plosives [d] [t] and fricatives [f]; the second stanza uses more bilabial [m] and alveolar [n] nasal consonants and the third reverts to alveolar plosives [t] [d]; the final stanza combines bilabial [p] and sibilant [s];
  • the vocabulary selected borrows directly from Latin terms used in religious services or requiems or employs rarely used, archaic terms with a Latin derivation (manumitted/ optimi); both approaches echo the heavy almost pompous language used in church contexts, indeed the routine use of a classical language might be said to bamboozle ordinary folk;
  • oxymoron: earth-starred;


  • 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: fourteen 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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