The Loaning

This sequence of three poems is inspired by an Ulster lane in a landscape very familiar to the poet. The poems share the sounds of nature or reflect the demeanour of rural folk in one form or another. The focus of the sequence shifts between fiction and reality: an initial surreal animation, then a scene of Ulstermen accustomed to each other’s company and finally a lament for things lost or threatening both to the ear and the soul.

The Loaning’ does not contain such certainties as grace or transcendence, only shadows; MP perceives in the sequence a number of binary oppositions – human silence/ stasis mortality versus natural ‘speech/ motion/ mutability … the poet’s apprehension of contemporary brutality has stained his perceptions of the natural world (p191);


The poem’s launch has the lilt of folk-song about it: As I went down the loaning; it establishes a correspondence between sound and life: in the first instance the wind has a human voice, shifting in the hedge … like/an old man’s whistling speech.

The speaker/ listener is transported into a Dantean location: I knew/ I was in the limbo of lost words. The piece takes on a kind of Disney-like cinematographic synesthaesia:a huge immigration of visual utterances from a variety of rural Irish settings, words that had flown there, drawn like homing bats from raftered sheds and crossroads/ from the shelter of gable ends and turned-up carts.

Sounds came streaming out of birch-white throats and, catching the emotions of the moment, hovered respectfully above iron bedsteads, waiting patiently for dead human souls to move on: until the souls would leave the body.

Then, as one on a day close as a stranger’s breath they rose in smoky clouds on the summer sky to add human language to Nature’s voice-box: the uvulae of stones/ and the soft lungs of the hawthorn.

Heaney’s frolic of free imagination, as was from the beginning, finishes with a very moving and lyrical illustration of the loaning’s emotional significance: it breathed on me, breathed even now, its delicate, trembling breath enhanced by light effects (a shiver of beaded gossamers) and set againstthe remnant reds of Autumn: the spit blood of a last few haws and rose-hips.

  • turned-up carts: farm carts out of use, the horses removed, sit on their rear boards, their shafts pointing skywards;
  • limbo: Dante’s place of the lost, the edge of hell populated by unredeemed souls;
  • close: word descriptive of a heavy atmosphere that is stuffy, lacks ‘fresh’ air;
  • uvula: part of the soft palate in the human mouth used to articulate certain sounds;
  • loaning: an Ulster word for a lane or track;
  • belief in ‘animism’ provided everything in Nature with a soul and by extension a persona; Heaney extends the notion to include utterance;
  • king Sweeney is beginning to stir;
  • The actual and emotional contact between the loaning and the speaker re-connects with the Catholic notion of insufflation; in Widgeon the man plucking the bird breathes spiritual life in to its voice-box; the situation is reversed in this piece, the breath of the loaning is of tangible benefit to the speaker;
  • the music of the poem: across poems 1 – 3 fifteen 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
  • : listen for [ɪ] wind/ shifting in/ whistling/ in limbo; [e] went hedge; sheds/ shelter/ ends bedsteads/ then/ breath/ settled; [ɒ] soft/ gossamers;[ʌ] fluttering/ above; summer; lungs; [i:] speech/ streaming; leave/ breathed/ breathed/ even/ beaded; [ei] gable/ day/ stranger’s [ai] I/ like; white/ like/iron/ sky/ uvulae; [əʊ] loaning/ old/ limbo; flown/ crossroads/ throats/ soul/ close/; rose smoky; stones/ rosehips; [ɔː] hawthorn/ haws;[ɜː] turned/ birch; [u] knew/ uvulae/ few;
  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies: V1 opens with bilabial [w] and nasal [n] working alongside alveolar fricative [s] and continuant [l]; V2 introduces a flurry of voiceless labio-dental fricatives [f] and alveolar [t] [d] and velar [k] [g] plosive pairings; bilabial nasal [m] and fricative [s] are added with final beats of alveolar [t]; V3 begins with nasal [m] [n] alongside bilabial plosives [p] [b] and ends with alveolar fricatives [s] [z];


From a film-like animation of words as flying objects to a memory of human communication: all-male preserves, country manners and minimal rural speech (Big voices in the womanless kitchen) big perhaps because they are being overheard by a youngster present.

The rural scene emanates from a frugal past: They never lit a lamp in the summertime their eyes adapting Like solemn trees to the fading light (the twilight as it came). Darkness did not put an end to these Ulster comings-together: They sat on (kept at it), pipes red in their mouths, their sparse conversation reduced to Aye and Aye again or to calming a restive dog There boy!

The emotional effects of such snapshots on the speaker are not to be underestimated: as the youngster dozes off picture in his mind is back-lit: I closed my eyes/ to make the light motes stream behind them.

He begins to dream: my head went airy, my chair rode/ high and low among the branches; the last echo of conversation is distorted in the dream: the wind/ stirred up a rookery in the next long Aye.

  • Aye: dialect alternative to ‘yes’;
  • boy: term of address to mail dog;
  • motes: particles of dust visible in shafts of light;
  • rookery: group of trees in which rooks have built their nests;
  • the legendary bird-king Sweeney is beginning to stir;
  • a single stanza of eleven lines in 4 sentences; line length between 8 and 11 syllables; unrhymed;
  • multiple enjambed lines alongside in-line punctuation including an exclamation as part of direct speech;
  • use of short words echoes the monosyllabic speech of the participants; the act of dozing off introduces a totally different lexis;
  • the music of the poem: across poems 1 – 3 fifteen 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 or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies: V1 opens with a pair of voiced labio-dental fricative [v] before alveolar [t], supersede by velar plosives [k] [g] then pairings of alveolar plosives [t] [d];


The reader is invited to concentrate on a single sense, shutting out the rest: Stand still. You can hear/ everything going on.

Heaney selects examples of traditional Ulster life swamped by repressive sound: high-tension cables/ singing above cattle … tractors, barking dogs drowned by juggernauts changing gear a mile away.

Beneath this cacophony the sounds of Nature are still perceptible: the speaker can detect always the surface noise of the earth barely heard until a twig snapped or a bird was sent into short-lived panic: a blackbird’s startled volubility stopped short.

The effects of fatigue and fear on the sensitive spirit send Heaney down into the Dantean underworld; your voice slips back into its old first place where it picks up the lament of the dead who are caught in limbo: the sound your shades make there.

The tortured soul trapped in Dante’s bleeding wood makes his presence heard: a voice that sighed out of blood that bubbled up hissing like sap at the end of green sticks on a fire.

Dante’s victim voices have their modern counterparts incarcerated by oppressive régimes: the click of a cell lock somewhere (be it Ulster or Eastern Europe or environmental threat or the Catholic church).

The speaker does not distinguish between different forms of tyranny: the interrogator steels his introibo, his blade of subjugation sharpened on a whetstone. Such forces use arc-lights and more primitive forms of torture: light motes blaze, a blood-red cigarette.

These images of violence and terror build up to a Hitchcockian ‘Psycho’-shriek: shades screeching and beseeching.

  • shades: souls of the dead descending into the Underworld waiting at the edge of Dante’s Inferno
  • introibo: the first word of Introibo ad Altare Dei: ‘I will go in the altar of God’, after making the Sign of the Cross, these are the opening words of Holy Mass in the Old Form – now called Tridentine.
  • green sticks: sticks freshly cut from living trees that burn badly and from which the sap drips when they are thrown into the heat of the fire;
  • ‘Hitchcockian Psycho-shriek’: the atmospheric sound-track music of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film ‘Psycho’ perfectly describes Heaney’s final line;
  • ‘The Loaning’ ends witha further reminder of the distance separating Heaney from the age of innocence and airiness as a result of his intellectual, literary, political and spiritual ‘enlightenment’(MP p192);
  • The poem presents a series of alarm signals, examples of ‘hampering stuff’ with which Heaney is struggling: individual freedoms threatened by extreme forces: the unstoppable advance of capitalist modernity and contingent environmental abuse; political repression: an Ulster under British rule or an Eastern European state under Communist sway; the ruthless control exercised by the Catholic church over the individual.
  • 3 stanzas of decreasing length; 17/18 lines of poetry in total composed in 7 sentences; the first 3 are short as they echo the instruction to listen; the fourth is a more lyrical celebration; the fifth and sixth are located in the Dantean Underworld; the final one builds to a strident climax; the vocabulary reflects changes of location and mood;
  • line length between 2 and 10 syllables; unrhymed;
  • the blend of enjambed lines and other punctuation provides a pleasingly variable ebb and flow of delivery; a dramatic pause separates the 2 halves of stanza 2;
  • initial lexis of sound; personification: cables sing; an allegorical wood bleeds;
  • use of archaic ‘shades’ for the dead; religious reference;
  • onomatopoeia in the sounds of hissing wood;simile compares bubbling blood and living wood on a bonfire;
  • emerging predominance of the colour red indicating violence;
  • the music of the poem: across poems 1 – 3 fifteen 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: listen for: [ɪ] still/ everything/ singing; didn’t/ till/ twig/ volubility; later: slips/ twig/ sticks/ click; interrogator/ cigarette; [ei] cables/ changing/ away; later: place/ shades; interrogator/ blaze; [æ] cattle/ tractors; snapped; a blackbird’s; later: snapped/ sap; [ɑː] barking/ startled; [ɜː] surface/ earth/ heard; [e/eə:] everything/ tension; later: terrified/ there/ end; cell/ where/ red cigarette; [ai] tired/ terrified; sighed/ fire; [i:] bleeding/ green; steels/screeching/ beseeching [ʌ] wood/ blood/ bubbled up; [ʊə] going/ know; later: old/ introibo/ motes;

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies: alveolar fricatives [s] [z] make a strong start in V1 alongside alveolar nasal [n] with velar plosives [k] [g] then bilabial counterparts [p] [b];V2 features alveolar plosive and fricatives [t] [s]; alveolar [d] is superseded by bilabial plosives [b] [b], then in V3 by velar counterparts [k] [g]; fricative [s] appears frequently in the remaining lines, intertwined with bilabial [b] and alveolars [t] [d]; fricative [s] dominates the final line;

One thought on “The Loaning

  1. I have come to an appreciation of poetry late in life, and a journey of discovery of my ancestral roots led me to Seamus’s work. What a treasury of beauty, which has been deepened by having this brilliant and helpful resource as my guide. I can’t say thank you enough.
    God bless.

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