The Schoolbag


                                                 in memoriam John Hewitt

An elegy in sonnet form commemorating an emblem of his Primary School days – a cherished personal possession and  a thing of quality: My handsewn leather schoolbag.

Heaney builds in a tribute to a cultured Irish friend and a poignant reference to his mother and father. He addresses Hewitt not by name but by respected status (poet) at the age of forty, in mid-career, as  Dante put it in the opening line of the Inferno (you were nel mezzo del cammin) .

At that  moment Heaney was a pupil at Anahorish Primary School toting the schoolbag back and forth (shouldered it) with its contents (blue-lined jotters). Images of the school room leap out: arithmetical charts; nature study (the displayed bean); a wall map  spurting with maritime routes (spray of shipping lanes) in curved arcs across the blue North Channel.

In front of the school the neglected Ulster rural road to home: in the middle …  Ox-eye daisies and wild dandelions.

Heaney concurs with the Chinese proverb, Learning’s easy carried. however full it was with things to be learnt the bag is light, carrying the marks of use (scuffed), a pliant (supple) repository of almost magical capacity: unemptiable as an itinerant school conjuror’s hat.

Time to credit the schoolbag, he tells himself, as a symbol of poet-producing scholarship (take it for a word-hoard), as the generous gift (handsel) of loving parents. Picture yourself then, a neatly turned-out youngster (as you step out trig), turning and waving (look back all at once) as you shouldered the schoolbag on that first step towards successful independence (a child on his first morning leaving parents).

Both parents have since died and left Heaney ‘unroofed’; the depth of his feeling is palpable.

  • John Hewitt: 1907-1987; Irish poet, editor, critic and academic, born Belfast; Hewitt reached forty in 1947 Heaney was an eight year old schoolboy at Anahorish Primary School; the iconic schoolbag is his;
  • handsewn: not machine-made;
  • nel mezzo del cammin: in the middle of the (life’s) journey: the opening line of canto 1 of Dante’s Inferno;
  • jotter: exercise book for rough work
  • displayed bean: part of a nature studies display observing vegetable growth;
  • spray: lines of sprinkled water;
  • shipping lane: prescribed route;
  • describing arc: following curving trajectories;
  • North Channel: sea strait connecting north-east Ireland and south-west Scotland;
  • ox-eye: yellow-flowering variety;
  • Learningis weightless – a treasure you can always carry easily: Chinese proverb;
  • scuffed: scratched, marked with use;
  • supple: bendable;
  • itinerant: moving from place to place;
  • conjuror’s hat: from which by magic a rabbit would be produced;
  • word-hoard: lexicon, store of words one understands and uses;
  • handsel: a good-luck gift given at an outset;
  • trig: spick and span, neat and tidy (Ulster usage);


  • Heaney published an appreciation of Hewitt in theSunday Tribune upon his death in 1987. In the Ulster of the forties and fifties, he was something of a cultural and intellectual standard-bearer, combative and authentic, left-wing and puritan. (DOD (328 )  Denied promotion to the directorship of the Ulster Museum, Hewitt took up a post in Coventry, England
  • While Hewitt’s combative nature left some people cold, Heaney remarks that Hewitt is a poet to be thankful for. In September 1960 Hewitt became an elected member of the Royal Irish Academy, and in 1979 he turned down an OBE offered under Mrs Thatcher’s Conservative government;


  • a sonnet; volta after 8 lines shifts the poem from visual reflection into more wistful mode;
  • 6-sentence structure;10 syllable lines;
  • dynamic flow regulated by balance between punctuation and enjambed lines;
  • italicized citations from classical sources;
  • vocative form of address: ‘(Oh) poet’;
  • classroom displays are rich in geometrical markings;
  • Ulster neighbourhood individuals (‘conjuror’) and usage (‘handsel’, ‘trig’);


  • 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 interweave bilabial plosives [b][p], front-of-mouth sounds [f] [h] [y] [w] and sibilant variants [s] [z] [ts];
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;