The Peninsula

Heaney pens the first of what MP describes as ‘meditative landscapes’. The poet is responding to the Irish landscape around him from behind the windscreen of his car, cut off in a sense from the object of his perception and locked into his own feelings. For NC (23) the poem tellingly recreates the exhilaration of meditative solitary driving. Heaney will reprise the figure on a score of occasions across his work (titles below).

Heaney explained to DOD how he came to know the countryside around Belfast. Part of his job supervising trainee teachers at St Joseph’s College necessitated the use of a car. The Volkswagen Beetle he owned was also useful for himself, Marie and friends to go on outings: a poem of mine, ‘The Peninsula’ – about the Ards peninsula in County Down – was written after one of those drives (DOD 77)

When words run dry (you have nothing more to say), ‘just go, look and feel’ he might be telling himself – his instant pick-me-up is at hand (just drive for a day) on this occasion following the Ards route (all round the peninsula).

The poet invites us into a wide-open of big sky (tall as over a runway) short of dominant, identifying features (land without marks), on a limit-free journey (you will not arrive) shared with the imagination (pass through) that can never quite escape earthly confines (always skirting landfall).

The poet is in a mood to express subtle nuances – oncoming nightfall (dusk) brings a rich lyrical yield: distant skylines (horizons) gulping down evolving natural panoramas (sea and hill); and nearer to hand evidence of man’s activity (ploughed field) that is engorged (swallows) and human settlement (whitewashed gable) … stuff that only confuses his poetic recipe (you’re in the dark again).

Overcome the moment’s drouth of words, his counselling voice tells him, by falling back on memory (now recall). He conjures up a seascape similar to the ‘island’ poems of Death of a Naturalist (take a peek at the title poem of North, Glanmore Sonnet VII  of Field Work and one of Heaney’s most moving piece, Postscript from Spirit Level).

He floods the scene with seashore images: the watery luminosity reflecting off the sands (glazed foreshore), flotsam thrown into profile by the sea (silhouetted log), the collision of land (rock) and ocean (breakers) that rips and tears (shredded into rags); shoreline waders (leggy birds) balancing as if on artificial limbs (stilted on their own legs) … a departing impression of movement – the illusion of islands seemingly retreating (riding themselves out) into incoming sea mist (fog).

His writer’s block might persist (stillnothing to say) as he returns to the urban life (drive back home) yet has confirmed his skill to report things utterly as seen and felt (uncode all landscapes) just as they are (founded clean on their own shapes), his ability to paint a word picture using two elemental giants (water and ground) in their rawest state (their extremity).  

  • skirt: go round and past without entering:
  • landfall: arrival on terra firma after air or sea journey;
  • drink down: swallow:;
  • gable: triangular upper part at the end of a pitched roof
  • in the dark: both without the light of day and in a state of unawareness;
  • glazed: overlaid with a smooth, shiny surface;
  • foreshore: shore between the high and low water marks;
  • shred: tear into fine strips
  • rag: remnant of old tattered cloth;
  • leggy: with long legs
  • stilt: long supporting leg attachment; a long-legged wading bird carries this name; some communities wore stilts to get about in marshy conditions;
  • uncode: sort out a particular set of properties;
  • founded clean: based on a set of principles
  • extremity: furthest point or limit;


  • NC (24) commented that watching from behind the steering wheel provided Heaney with a form of anonymity gained when the poet becomes wholly a perceptual observer – one with no history, no ethnicity, no religion, no family. This is the form of anonymity that Heaney has, in the long run, found most rewardingIt shows up early in ‘The Peninsula’ … is chiefly a meditation on the purifying power, for human beings, of the primary senses and of memory founded in the senses … an example of Heaney’s early reliance on the perceptual as a never-to-be­forgotten standard of veracity and plain speech;
  • The questions triggered in Heaney’s mind by what he sees, suggests NC (24), provided him with a visual and mental and emotional harvest – what won’t be lost of the day’s experience. This reservoir of images that struck home (as we know because they called up metaphors for themselves – glazing, a profiled silhouette, rags, stilts, riding) is a treasury of ‘things founded clean on their own shapes’.
  • MP 84 The final group of poems from Door into the Dark which merit consideration are ‘meditative landscape poems’, encompassing ‘notions about history and nationality … The primeval, and sometimes pre-Celtic landscapes  as of  ‘The Peninsula’ illustrate Heaney’s increasing concern with Irish geography, history and archaeology … ‘home’ now means something greater than the Mossbawn microcosm. ‘Seeking the place of … resurrection’, his imagination lights upon natural forms and shapes from both childhood and adult experience, ones which articulate the identity of the whole of Ireland, and not merely his own …Recognising the poetic necessity of peregrination in  ‘The Peninsula’, he seems to echo Eliot in asserting You will not arrive/ But pass through and in stressing the virtues of ‘the backward look94  His growth and survival as a poet will depend on his ability to ‘uncode all landscapes’, to remain fluid and … to accept new personas, other personalities. These ideas are expressed succinctly in the final quatrain of ‘The Plantation’;
  • So-called ‘Windscreen’ poems: Death of a Naturalist> nil; Door into the Dark> ‘Peninsula’; Wintering Out’ >’Winter’s Tale’; North> Whatever You Say iv; Field Work> ‘Leavings’; Station Island> ‘Last Look’, ‘Station Island II’ , ‘On the Road’; Haw Lantern> Frontier of Writing’; Seeing Things>  xxv,xxvi, xxxi; ‘A Retrospect’; Spirit Level> ‘Postscript’; Electric Light> ‘Known World’, ‘Canticles’, Ballynahinch Lake’, ‘Sonnets from Hellas’, ‘Clonmany to Ahascragh’; District and Circle> ‘Nonce Words’, In Iowa’, ‘Blackbird’; Human Chain> nil
  • NC 25 … Heaney much later ‘rewrites’ ‘The Peninsula’ in ‘Postscript‘, the poem that closes The Spirit Level (1996). ‘Postscript’ is another sixteen-line image of a drive … (triggered this time by) the tendency of the preoccupied middle­aged heart to shield itself against feeling. Heaney here gratefully pays homage to the sheer power of perception itself – how much it sees in a glimpse, in a glance – how many objects and shades it absorbs at once, how breathtaking the conjunction of world and senses can be, breaking open the shut door of the heart.


  • four quatrains (Q) in 4 sentences (S) (including the colon); line length based on 10 syllable (4 lines at 11);
  • the balance of punctuation marks and enjambed lines determines the flow and  rhythm within the oral delivery potential; the balance between these governs pace or pause; variable tense usage (present, past, future) to different between happening, its recall, personal development;
  • NC 24 sums up the format as more than a sonnet, less than a narrative, this important poem (written in four irregular quatrains with embraced rhymes); the poem has a loosely enclosed rhyme and half rhyme scheme of abba cddc etc.
  • S1 (enjambed) displays a note of deflated spirit repeated in the final quatrain suggesting that the individual spirit remains fundamentally unchanged; first use of a series of invitations disguised as imperatives;
  • S2 (part enjambed) sense of freedom triggered by being aloft – the literal and allegorical uses will have a role in Heaney’s poems not least in the Sweeney Redevivus sequence; personification (sky physically tall); metaphysical reflections on the individual, his on-going existence and impact on it; contrast between limitand boundlessness;
  • S3 loaded with personification; macrocosm and microcosm; all signs rather presences registered from behind the windscreen of a car;
  • S4 (partly enjambed) the poet’s principal weapon (‘Now recall’); wealth of imagery and metaphor; clever conceit of waders whose appearance suggests they are on stilts; see NC’s note immediately following:
  • NC 21 refers to a stylistic device  for which he provides examples from Door into the Dark: … the ‘self-inwoven simile’ (or the ‘reflexive image’) first noted in Andrew Marvell’ poetry as the ‘short-circuited comparison’ whereby things are compared to themselves and somehow described in ‘their own likeness’. … NC cites ‘The burn drowns steadily in its own downpour’ from  Death of a Naturalist’s ‘Waterfall’) and ‘leggy birds stilted on their own legs’ from ‘Peninsula’ – the key to something’s ‘own resemblance’ seems revealed by the adjective ‘own’ (DF). Seeing Things xxxii describes the house that Patrick Heaney built at The Wood as standing ‘firmer than ever in its own idea;
  • Q4 returns to the deflated spirit that admits the paradox (‘nothing to say except’); allusion to the business of poetry writing – presentation of lyrical beauty is only one part of the task of writing ‘good’ poetry; another self-inwoven simile (‘own shapes’); coda – the world and life both have their moments of rawness
  • the following unattributed opinion offers the kind of framework within which any student might reflect: the difference in pace …possible allusion to writer’s block or a depressive episodecontact with nature rejuvenates the senses. … His use of imperatives (‘just drive’, ‘Now recall’) establishes a direct connection with the reader …Heaney draws on a range of images and metaphors to present the peninsula as an inspirational landscape that will reinvigorate the imagination … an expansiveness through images connoting limitlessness  … connotations of flight, suggesting a sense of freedom …  Heaney uses personification …  a place full of spirit whose charms will fire any tired imagination … offering perhaps to purify one’s powers of perception by purging their tired assumptions and encouraging them to relate to the natural world afresh … Heaney’s use of direct address and the adverb ‘just’ in the opening line creates a relaxed and conversational tone, as though he is casually offering a piece of advice to a friend.


  • 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]
  • the use Heaney seeks to make of assonant effects can be judged and measured in the ‘coloured hearing’ that follows;

  • 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;
  • S1 and S2 are particularly marked with front of mouth sounds: gentle, airy [w] [y], alveolar [l], bilabial [p] [b], labio-dental fricatives [f] [v], supported by alveolar plosives [t] [d], nasals [m] [n], sibilants [s] [z];


2 thoughts on “The Peninsula

    1. Hi Noor,
      You have reached David. Thank you for contacting me.

      If you take a peek at the Foreword for each collection you will discover that the initials refer to my my main sources: Michael Parker, Neil Corcoran and Dennis O’Driscoll who all wrote books on Seamus Heaney.

      I can particularly recommend ‘Stepping Stones’ (DOD).

      best wishes, David

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