The Plantation

Self is a location’, Heaney wrote in ‘The Aerodrome’ from District and Circle (2006), that one comes to recognize from ‘bearings taken, markings, cardinal points’. Written much later the poem describes a woman close to the poet (then a child) whose strength of character defeated temptation. What the poet drew from that incident opens a door into ‘The Plantation’ published nearly 40 years earlier and expressed as a kind of dream sequence.

The piece falls into the category of ‘meditative landscapes’ (MP84) featuring a discrete section of woodland, ostensibly a site of orderly trees planted for commercial gain used by ‘incertus’ Heaney as a mystical door into the as-yet-undiscovered, an interface between the literal and the allegorical, the lived life and make-believe, disorientation and self-revelation. Let us refer to Heaney’s voice as ‘Traveller’.  

Traveller’s specific location (that wood) possesses otherworldly properties. As if watchable via some form of thermal tracking, Traveller’s first steps from wherever he chooses(any pointa centre) and his itinerary (your bearings) are followed by watching trees (ghosting) which furnish fascinating emblems (improvising charmed rings) to embellish his every respite (wherever you stopped).

Traveller discovered that he could not guarantee solid navigation (straight line a circle you travelled) against the plantation’s film-like loop (repeating) of woodland effects – fairy-tale conceits (toadstools) or evidence of forestry (stumps) – leading to his confusion (did you re-pass them?).

As the only human presence, Traveller takes in nature’s bounteous ground-cover (bleyberries quilting the floor) interspersed with less respectful signs of human intrusion (black char of a fire) replicated over time (once again), akin to a limbo of absent presences (someone had always been there) that intensified his feeling of being on his own (always you were alone).

Some visitants came with a purpose (lovers, birdwatchers), others to sleep out (campers), or vagrants (gipsies and tramps) variously identified by their abandoned tools (some trace of their trades) or their detritus (excrement).

Screened from casual wayfarers (hedging the road) the site welcomed anyone (all comers) prepared to share its specific sensory properties – for the ears (hush), for the treading feet (mush) ; its calm continuum (whispering treadmill), perhaps wrongly (so they thought), seemed to deny it stand-alone status (limits defined from outside).

Feelings of anxiety were tempered (thankful) by sounds of the world outside (hum of the traffic) amongst those brave enough (ventured) to go beyond the Dantesque first circle (picnickers’ belt) or whose imagination evoked (began to recall) scary make-believe (tales of fog on the mountains).

Once experienced by Traveller the plantation became addictive (you had to come back) as a haven  (learn how to lose yourself) sufficient for all facets of his ‘me’ – the navigator in him (pilot), the Incertus yet to establish his own poetic voice (stray), fairy tale proxies – the evil individual who hurt others (witch) – the survivor resembling those who made it to the end of the journey (Hansel and Gretel) in short all that made up the sum of his parts (in one).

  • plantation: area in which trees have been planted, largely for commercial purposes; the label also carries a reference to Irish historical colouring not pursued here: colonization or settlement of emigrants, especially of English and then Scottish families were imposed upon Ireland in the 16th–17th centuries by the government in London thus displacing and dispossessing the indigenous Irish;
  • birch: slender hardy tree common to Ireland which has thin peeling bark and bears catkins;
  • ghost: watch over, witness like a spectre;
  • bearings: directions being followed:
  • improvise: create spontaneously;
  • ring: circular marking;
  • toadstool: dome topped fungus with coloured cap similar to mushroom; often poisonous;
  • stump: projection left in the ground after a tree has been felled;
  • bleyberry: alternative name for a bilberry – small dark blue edible berry;
  • quilt: warm, padded bed covering;
  • char: partially burnt remains;
  • trace: vestige, visible evidence;
  • trade: craft, occupation, activity;
  • excrement: waste matter, droppings’ humen mess;
  • hedge: girdle, enclose;
  • hush: silence, calm;
  • mush: soft wet mass;
  • treadmill: large wheel turned by people or animals reading on steps; long continuous moving belt; connotations of a challenging situation from which it is hard to escape;
  • hum: low pitched continuous sound perhaps from distance;
  • venture in: take the risk of going somewhere;
  • belt: specific strip or area;
  • tales: recounted stories, often fictitious;
  • fog on the mountains: mysterious remote conditions well known in children’s literature;
  • pilot: navigator, guide;
  • stray: homeless individual, waif;
  • Hansel and Gretel: reference to Brothers Grimm fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel; Hansel laid a trail of white pebbles so that he and Gretel could find their way home after being abandoned in the forest by a wicked step-mother;


  • For all the poem’s title the poet’s preoccupation is not with the political rumblings of the Tudor plantations imposed on Ireland by military occupation.
  • Across his work Heaney is happy to use references to fairy tale, for example the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice in ‘The Underground’ of Station Island’. Some time later in ‘Canopy’ from Human Chain Heaney will write of a Voice and Light installation in Harvard Yard, Cambridge Massachusetts which inspired references to Dante’s ‘Inferno’, Canto XIII, in which trees sprang to life
  • MP94 offers a different reading: Heaney’s 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’;
  • MP93 Michael Parker echoes the walk that starts but is never ending: as with the poetic necessity of peregrination in ‘The Peninsula’, Heaney seems to be echoing Eliot in asserting You will not arrive/ But pass through’;             
  • NC 21 outlines a specific stylistic device used in In Door into the Dark: so-called ‘self-inwoven simile’ or the ‘short-circuited comparison’ sometimes referred to as known as ‘reflexive imagery’ connects with the structural circularity or reflexivity … those epigrammatically reflexive lines in the reticent and difficult poem ‘ The Plantation’, ‘Though you walked a straight line / It might be a circle you travelled’, ‘And having found them once / You were sure to find them again’;
  • NC22 speaks of the unresolved tension between the literal and the metaphorical and a situation both desolation as well as a comfort, both envy and self-assertion: ‘Someone had always been there / Though always you were alone’.
  • There seems to me to be a link with Heaney’s psyche in Spirit Level’s Postscript in which the thrill of a landscape that created a beautiful lyrical moment forhim raised the more fundamental questions as regards the riddles of earthly existence and the self (you are neither here nor there … a hurry through which known and strange things pass);
  • Heaney was the Incertus of his early poetic nom de plume; his self-confessed moments of insecurity required that the nightmare of a babe in the wood or a Hansel and Gretel parable should have a happy outcome. One thinks of the poet’s insecurity in ‘The Underground’ of Station Island with its references to the Orpheus and Eurydice story and the threat of losing his beloved wife (DF);


  • 9 quatrains (Q) in 9 sentences (S) including a question; with a single exception line length of 5-7 syllables;
  • hints of rhyme in Q1 but no pattern;
  • the balance of punctuation and enjambment dictates flow and rhythm within the oral delivery potential,  governing pace or pause; overall the longer sentences are more heavily enjambed interspersed  with short sentences ; S7 is fully enjambed;
  • Q1 introduces the notion of ‘thermal imaging’ what cannot be seen/ is taking refuge; personification of trees as part of the make-believe underlay culminating in an actual Brothers Grimm reference in the poem’s final line;enter ‘you’ ‘your’ raise questions – the poet , those engaged in a similar journey as opposed to ‘they’ in Q7 suggesting all the others;
  • Q2 confirms the idea of uncertain location ‘any … wherever’ whether physical or a state of mind; opposites ‘straight’, ‘circle’; more magic underlay ‘toadstools’; the theme of a hidden journey ‘travelled’;
  • Q3 personal confusion couched in opposites ‘repeat’, ‘repass’; the longest line painting lyrical beauty of woodland left to itself is juxtaposed with human negligence;
  • Q4 introduces the notion of a repeated venture; the use of ‘sure’ is not full of confidence; ‘though’ links the two sides of a paradox strengthened by repeated ‘always’; repeated ‘them refers to both nature and man;
  • Q5 enumerates human sets with reference to human litter and absence of modern conveniences;
  • Q6 introduces the contrast of impenetrability ‘hedging’ yet open access ’all comers’; ’so’= ‘thus; alliteration of key plantation properties ‘hush…mush’ extended to include the constant natural growth ‘whispering treadmill’ (example of synaesthesia?);
  • Q7 completes S7 adding a caveat ‘ so they thought; repetition of ‘they’ appears to resolve the enigma of personal pronouns – ‘you, your’ insiders ‘they‘ outsiders; the latter never leave their objective world with its signs of life ‘hum…traffic’;
  • Q8 completes sentence 8 (totally enjambed); contrast ‘ventured … picknickers’ belt’ and hints of ghostly tales that prevent the wary from being adventurous;
  • Q9 unites the swirl of notions the poem carries: Heaney and his like-minded cannot keep away from a haven of refuge; the poet seeks a self that draws together his personal attributes and contradictions – responsible husband and parent ‘pilot’ – incertus who has not yet discovered his true voice ‘stray’ – guilt at his moments of unpleasantness ‘witch’ – finally those who made it to the end of the journey ‘Hansel and Gretel’… in children’s  fiction at least!


  • 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: sixteen 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;
  • the first stanza is dominated by alveolar plosives [t] [d ], nasals [n] [m] and sibilants [s] [z] alongside front of mouth sounds: breathy [w], alveolar [l], bilabial plosives [p] [b], labio-dental fricative[v]; these are supported by velar plosives [k] [g];

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