The Journey Back


Heaney introduces the first of a number of literary and artistic celebrities, poet Philip Larkin who had passed away in December 1985. He explained the poem’s provenance to DOD (below) and how, to his surprise, the poet’s shade (his dead persona), whom he met in imagination on the streets of London, quoted Dante. The poem ponders the ‘truths and mysteries’ of the soul’s post-mortem onward journey and pays a warm hearted, tongue-in-cheek tribute to a popular 20th century poet.

Larkin quotes the opening lines of Dante’s Inferno II in which the serenity of evening (the umber air/  Soothing every creature on the earth now at rest after the daily toils) contrasts with the ordeal and duty  of Larkin’s imminent journey: I alone was girding myself.

Heaney places Larkin’s post-mortem trek amidst the fatigue and bustle of his lifetime (rush-hour buses/ Bore the drained and laden through the city) and the unmistakable signs of the Advent period.

Larkin is quick to make a link and express a disappointment: I might have been a wise king setting out / Under the Christmas lights but the glittering epiphany he might have prepared for (forewarned) has turned into an underwhelming London-scape (journey back Into the heartland of the ordinary); he is just as before (Still my oId self), on the look-out for his evening drink: ready to knock one back.

A quoter of Dante, Larkin provides a self-deprecating epiphany: ‘A nine-to-five man  who had seen poetry‘. 

DOD (337): What prompted the poem in the first place was an invitation to con­tribute to a memorial volume being edited by George Hartley of the Marvell Press. I didn’t know Larkin well enough to write a personal reminiscence so a poem seemed the way to go … Dante was at the back of my mind once I’d introduced his name in the conclusion of my tribute. I make his shade set out for the land of the dead on a bus in a pre-Christmas rush hour. It’s as if he’s going home from work one more time.

  • Philip Larkin (August 9, 1922-December 2, 1985): eminent writer in post WWII England; popular poet commonly referred to as “England’s other Poet Laureate” ; Larkin achieved acclaim on the strength of an extremely small body of work—just over one hundred pages of poetry in four slender volumes that appeared at almost decade-long intervals.  Larkin employed the traditional tools of poetry—rhyme, stanza, and meter—to explore the often uncomfortable or terrifying experiences thrust upon common people in the modern age.
  • umber: shade of brown;
  • soothe: gently calm, relieve pain;
  • gird: encircle with a belt; put on one’s armour to face the unknown;
  • rush-hour: time of heaviest traffic;
  • drained: deprived of strength, exhausted by a day’s work;
  • laden: weighed down, heavily loaded;
  • fore-: prefix indicating ‘in advance’;
  • heartland: central part, most important centre of support;
  • ordinary: unexceptional, commonplace, normal;
  • knock one back: take a drink;
  • nine-to-five: relative to typical office hours, predictable routine;


  • NC (164-5): Heaney is always, as we have seen, a very allusive (suggestive rather than explicit) poet who embeds quotation and reference in his work; but this volume lucidly and explicitly engages with the work and reputations of other artists;
  • ‘The Journey Back’, however, also finds a resonant phrase for the origins of all such poetry: ‘the heartland of the ordinary. If this is not as dramatic, or as self-dramatizing, as Yeats’ ‘foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart’ in his poem about the loss of inspiration, ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’, it is continuous with it, nevertheless, in its insistence on the usual, quotidian world that is always prelude to poetic transformation or trans­lation (id);
  • Seeing Things is a volume that sees things with the pellucid clarity which turns them into something other than themselves; …  the close act of attention, which is always firstly the manifestation of descriptive capacity, is extended beyond itself into an excess or superabundance in which the initial object or image becomes vision(id);


  • unusual sonnet form wrapping 5 lines of a Dante journey within Larkin’s modern routine; the italicized  language reflects the style of a 14th century Dante (umber/ Labours/ girding) compared with Larkin’s casual workaday  20th century approach  (‘knock one back’);
  • the traditional ‘volta’ of standard sonnets would indicate a change of mood or direction; this sonnet does not follow that standard pattern
  • 14 lines of poetry of largely 10 syllables; no thyme scheme;
  • six sentences; some midline punctuation with enjambed lines suggesting the rhythmic dynamic;
  • oxymoron: ‘forewarned journey back’
  • Larkin is dead and introduced as an otherworldly Dantean ‘ shade’;
  • Twin voices: Larkin shares the first person narration with Dante;
  • contrasts: the Dante background is a calm (‘soothing’, ‘freeing’) London is bustling (‘drained’, ‘laden); Dante has a formal  ‘duty’ to perform Larkin the same old  routine as when undead (‘heartland of the ordinary’ … ‘nine-to-five man) and a visit to the local pub;
  • contrast: the extraordinary – the magi of Jesus’ birth ; the humdrum ‘ordinary;
  • 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: thirteen 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:

  • 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;
  • for example, the first lines assembles labio-dental fricatives [f] [v] velar plosives [k] [g] sibilant variations [s] [z], bi labial nasal [m] alveolar nasal [n] and alveolar plosives [t/d];
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;