Would They Had Stay’d

The five section sequence laments a clutch of Scottish poets all of whom have passed away in the period preceding Electric Light. ‘Deer’ emerges as a unifying motif. In  Station Island’s ‘On The Road’  the prehistoric deer inscribed on a Dordogne cave wall became Heaney’s emblem for the creative force that his quartet of elegised poets have undoubtedly bequeathed to Gaelic and Scottish literature and heritage. Shakespeare’s three witches from Macbeth melt in and out of the narrative in their capacity to prophesy. 1 A couple on a Scottish visit chance upon Highland wildlife. ‘His’ sharp eye has spotted a quartet of elusive creatures hiding in the heather, deer camouflaged against the Highland background. The sight will have allegorical consequences. […]


for Felim Egan Heaney composes a sequence featuring three static graphic art shapes: a two-dimensional Renaissance drawing that Heaney realizes he once once copied in three dimensions as a youngster at the seaside; a much earlier sacred mural revamped for the twentieth; finally a Dublin Bay ‘canvas’ capturing in words the painting of an abstract artist who lived and worked there and to whom the poem is dedicated. Old postcards of Portstewart reveal the natural deep pool in which boy-Heaney on vacation could immerse himself and did (waded in up to the chest), then found his floating balance (half-suspended) and adopted a Vitruvian pose: (legs wide apart … arms stretched sideways  buoyant to the fingertips), the sea level with his […]

Virgil: Eclogue IX

Heaney offers us his version of Virgil’s original.  He remains loyal to the original but weaves into his translation the subtleties of meaning he perceives, adding the alliterations, assonances, mood and rhythms that ensure that Virgil’s original ‘song’ remains pleasing to the ear. The inclusion of the eclogue form in Electric Light is meaningful. There is much in Eclogue IX of 37BC that chimes with Irish experience and Heaney’s inner preoccupations 2000 years on: dispossession and change of routine imposed on ordinary folk from above; the apparent  impotence of opposition and repression of the vox populi ; the role of poetry in this respect and the dangers this brings; the reluctance of poets–in-waiting to wade into the debate; the opposition […]

Turpin Song

The poem is built around an emblematic eighteenth century horse-pistol that sat on a wall in the Heaney family home, long an object of both mystery and interest to Heaney and his siblings. Heaney recalls the weapon in great detail: the intricate decoration of its grip (brass inlay smooth in the stock); its primed state (hammers cocked like lugs); the patterning (mottled) of its twin barrels; the evidence of discharge (sooty nostrilled) and its angled readiness for a duel (levelled). Deliberately placed beyond reach of young curiosity (bracketed over the door) in an upstairs room, it was viewed as an imitation weapon with weight and mass (ghost  heft) that children’s itchy fingers longed to feeI and could imagine themselves handling […]

To the Shade of Zbigniew Herbert

Heaney addresses the memory of a Polish poet he respected greatly for his ‘exemplary ethical and artistic integrity, his noble profile, solidarity with the victims of history and poetic and thereby political strength’; he became a bastion of resistance during turbulent periods of Polish occupation by the Russians. Active within the Polish Solidarity movement (one of those), of hyperborean giant status caught in the Polish ‘cold’ (from the back of the north wind), touched by creative talent (Apollo favoured), a poetic mouthpiece and spiritual strength when times were dark (the winter season), a popular (among your people) voice-in-waiting when his poetry was forbidden by the authorities (herald whenever he’d departed), when freedom of speech was repressed (the land was silent) […]

The Real Names

Heaney’s substantial ten-part sequence traces the twin development of his journey into Shakespeare and his journey into poetry. It ranges back and to in time and location. The ‘real names’ are the authentic individuals who were at school with Heaney and as members of St Columb’s Dramatic Society played the Shakespearean characters of annual school productions. The Shakespeare texts were set in stone, the lives of the young actors, including Heaney’s, anything but. In her review of Electric Light (Irish Times of  Mar 24, 2001,) under the heading ‘Heaney the survivor’,  Helen Vendler offers her own insights into the poet’s use of sequences:  ‘Exploring the mystery of the self has been a steady concern in Heaney’s work, but while the […]

The Loose Box

The title focuses on the particular compartment within the Mossbawn stable complex in which the animal was free to move about. In her review of Electric Light (Irish Times of Mon, Jun 3, 2019) under the heading ‘Heaney the Survivor’, Helen Vendler suggests that ‘the best vehicle for a memory-cluster is a poetic sequence. The Loose Box provides Heaney with the vehicle to grasp, explore and expand the bundles of associations that orbit his central focus. The sequence’s central motif is food … the fodder offered to the farm’s animals … the electric charge providing sustenance for the creative mind …  the single natural component of an underwhelming Christmas Nativity scene witnessed by child-Heaney … the sacrifices fed a monstrous […]

The Little Canticles of Asturias

Three snippets from a wider poetic travelogue recount stages along the roads of northern Spain that lead to Santiago de Compostela, the cathedral city and culmination of the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrim Way of St James. Heaney and his passengers are not pilgrims as such and Heaney only reaches Santiago de Compostela in imagination. Heaney’s canticles, traditionally hymns or chants, are composed as three short pieces. The first paints a real-life descent into a Dantesque hell; the second, the calm after the storm, focuses on the spiritual and emotional restitution of the soul; the third concentrates on bodily recovery before returning to the pilgrim theme. 1 Heaney presents an on-going (and then) chronicle at mid-point (in medias res). Driver […]

The Gaeltacht

  Background: In September 2013 the Derry Journal published a photo taken at Ros Guill  in 1960 (https://www.derryjournal.com/news/remembering-seamus-1- 5534865). It featured ‘Seamus Heaney … pictured with friends on a trip to the Donegal Gaeltacht at Easter 1960’. Some of them were still traceable 40 years on, at least one of them has died, others were off radar. According to the Journal ‘Those featured include Vera Rafferty, Paddy Simon Gallagher, Peter Gallagher, Margaret Conway, Patricia Bradley, Aoibheann Marren, and Noel Hamilton. Alongside Seamus Heaney in the foreground are Gerry Downey and Patsy Quigg’. The otherwise elusive reference to ‘Chips’ in the poem was clarified by the following contact: ‘Chips Rafferty refers to Michael Rafferty of Armagh City . I was a friend […]

The Fragment

Heaney presents two fragments, the first drawn from his translation of Beowulf and the second from his own post- Belfast chronology; both Beowulf’s swim and Heaney’s move to the Irish Republic were judged reckless. Poet and warrior join forces to rebuff their critics. An envious courtier, Unferth, has challenged Beowulf’s honour-code by implying that the latter’s exposure to a reckless swimming contest does not make for heroism. In rebuffing Unferth’s comments Beowulf celebrated (sang) his survival after ‘seven days in the icy waves’, swimming and fighting monsters at sea that now lay dead on beaches and would no longer attack passing ships. For this early Christian the rising sun (‘Light … from the east) is proof of the Almighty (bright […]

The Clothes Shrine

In praise of women. Heaney composes a poem at once crackling with sexual electricity and diffused with spiritual light. Composed in a single sentence hyphenated to offer three distinctive angles Clothes Shrine harks back on the one hand to the sexuality of Heaney’s and Marie’s early-days’ relationship (he found her sensationally attractive, as he explained in Twice Shy of Death of a Naturalist of 1965) and on the other the shining example of an Irish goddess turned saint; the strengths and qualities embodied in the final quartet apply to both and (unstated) to other strong female influences in Heaney’s life – his own mother and her sister Mary. Heaney chatted to Daljit Nagra in a BBC interview of March 2001 […]

The Border Campaign

for Nadine Gordimer Heaney alludes specifically to a guerrilla warfare campaign carried out between 1956 and 1962 by the Irish Republican Army against targets in Northern Ireland. Local knowledge confirms a direct link between the poem’s opening scene and an IRA attack on Magherafelt Court House on December 12th 1956, the day after the campaign was launched, at a time when Heaney was a teenage boarder at St Columb’s College in Derry. The poem contributes to a time-line of Irish politics and, via an Anglo-Saxon epic, the emotional response of a teenage boarder to unfolding events in the area where he lives and the city where he is schooled. The visual aftermath of explosion: the shell of a public building […]

The Bookcase

  A bookcase standing in the Heaney home indicates the joint tastes of Heaney and Marie and triggers layers of association in the mind of a widely read, aesthetically-sensitive and highly imaginative Irish poet. The piece is constructed to high specification and entirely fit for purpose – made of quality material (ashwood or oakwood); expertly prepared (planed to silkiness) and joined (mitred); each length of wood tested for straightness (much eyed-along) and naturally coloured (vellum-pale); shelves that have stood the test of weight and time (held and never sagged) – in short, perfection (virtue … from its very shipshapeness). Heaney’s memory-eye comes to rest on a book-spine that by its colour triggers a 1940s’/50s’association (rough blue paper bags loose sugar […]

Ten Glosses

  Glosses figure in the margins and between the lines of poems in composition or books being read, not just as a poet’s comment, explanation, interpretation or paraphrase of something penned, but equally a new layer of consciousness or a fresh association to be borne in mind or the germ of a new piece. In that respect Heaney’s Ten Glosses fascinate and absorb as the wider intent of each emerges. They are compact, to the point and poetic. Perhaps for this reason the background information required to get to grips with them can considerably outweigh the word count itself. 1 The Marching Season Ostensibly this first gloss draws together quotations and characters from Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ (I wait for Banquo and […]


in memory of Mary O Muirithe Poetic licence permits Heaney (who first attended Irish camp in his teens) to spend childhood camp time with Mary who was 4 years his senior. Mary and the breac-Gaeltacht are inextricably linked in his mind. She is dead and he wants to talk warmly to and about her – in this retrospective dramatization she is still very much alive. Mary will never leave the eternal present of the poem He hears Mary’s voice in the mountain cataract (sruth) that sang with the region’s blend of Irish and English (bilingual) – genuine, pure sound-water (truth) gushing (race … spilling) down from the iconic Donegal peak and landmark (Errigal), its flow a cascade (rush of its […]

Sonnets from Hellas

  Five colourful vignettes depicting a country acknowledged by many as the cradle of western civilisation and a land of milk and honey – five ‘diary entries’ in verse – a moveable feast for senses, spirit and intellect recalled in vivid and intimate detail. Heaney spoke to DOD of his 1995 holiday (369) … Marie and myself and Cynthia and Dimitri Hadzi. … long promised, long deferred, but finally it had become inevitable. I’d done the first Sophocles translation five years before  (‘Philoctetes’ premiered by Field Day Theatre Company as ‘The Cure of Troy’) and had just published a limited edition that included the ‘Mycenae Lookout’ sequence, with art work by Dimitri.  I’d got to know the Hadzis in Harvard. […]

Seeing the Sick

Heaney’s father, Patrick appears on a score of occasions in the Heaney collections between ‘Digging’, the very first poem of Death of a Naturalist (1966), and ‘Lick the Pencil’ from Human Chain (2010), the last published collection in the poet’s lifetime. Heaney covered every stage in their father-and-son relationship – from his childhood awe of the wheeler-deal cattle man and small farmer carrying his iconic ash plant walking stick – to his developing recognition of his father as a fellow mortal with strengths and weakness like himself. Heaney acknowledges and regrets the awkwardness they experienced in expressing their affection for each other, in, for example, a group of poems from The Spirit Level (1996) and later in Album iv from […]

Red, White and Blue

Revisiting moments from his and Marie’s past Red, White and Blue provides insights into the man Heaney has become. In her review of Electric Light (Irish Times of Mon, Jun 3, 2019) under the heading ‘Heaney the Survivor’, Helen Vendler suggests that ‘exploring the mystery of the self has been a steady concern in Heaney’s work, but while the young poems came fresh to that mystery, the new poems come to it with layers of memory that both obscure it further and reveal it newly; the best vehicle for a memory-cluster is a poetic sequence. Each of the three poems bears a distinctive colour marking associated with wife Marie at specific moments in their history. I  Red The magnetic attraction […]


Heaney’s trout of Death of a Naturalist (1966) possessed the lightning reactions of a missile. In complete contrast the indolent perch can be observed in the Bann’s clear waters lying stock-still on its water-perch, in its favoured location near the clay bank at a spot where light effects reflected in the water are never still: alder-dapple and waver. Heaney spells out their long-term presence in his consciousness and their ‘style’: known in his community as ‘grunts’; lumpy, misshapen water dwellers (flood-slub); of diminutive size (runty); ever putting off the next move (ready); at home in a home-from-home of God-like splendour: the river’s glorified body. In a water-zone where traffic should be fluid (passable through) the perch obstruct the way ahead […]

Out of the Bag

In her review of Electric Light (Irish Times of Mon, Jun 3, 2019) under the heading ‘Heaney the survivor’, Helen Vendler suggests that ‘the best vehicle for a memory-cluster is a poetic sequence. The most daring sequence in this collection, one about illness and health, begins with the childhood fantasies that attached themselves (in the precociously active imagination of the child Heaney) to the repeated arrivals of the doctor who “brought” a new baby in his bag’. How the myth was reinforced: Seamus Heaney was born in 1939, the first child of Margaret Kathleen and Patrick Heaney living on the family farm at Mossbawn. He was followed at regular intervals by Sheena (died 2002), Hugh, Patrick, Charles, Colm, Christoher (killed […]

On His Work in the English Tongue

in memory of Ted Hughes (mentioned by name in the dedication alone) In the introduction to his translation of Beowulf Heaney paid tribute to the first millennium author of  ‘a work of the greatest imaginative vitality, a masterpiece where the structuring of the tale is as elaborate as the beautiful contrivances of its language … which is today called Anglo-Saxon or Old English’. His use, in the title, of ‘tongue’ which is of a similar period might shed light on his anonymous third person pronoun and aim his poetic intention solely in the direction of the poet of Beowulf. However the poem’s dedication to friend and recently deceased Ted Hughes, a twentieth century English Poet Laureate of huge stature plus, […]


The poem explore a youngster’s hero-worship of a cow-man from a mysterious Irish Republic background, highly skilled in working with cattle around the farm spending his day off wagering his income. The ‘big country’ landscapes of the title  and the country music the cowman croons recall the silver-screen  relationship that grew between boy Joey Starrett and cowboy Shane in the 1953 western film .‘Shane’ was set in Wyoming, USA; Dologhan has ‘worked in Montana’, a neighbouring State. The poem is set in the early 1940s. Heaney deploys a series of cinematic effects … ‘Lights…Camera … action …’ Take 1: set in an Ulster farmyard with its characteristic double-panel stable doors – a youngster’s attention (I was five years old) is […]


The sight of majestic lupins producing spectacular spikes ranging from strong chromatic colours to delicate, soothing pastel shades somehow recalls a loving relationship. The lupins’ aesthetic properties and the aura they project suggest ‘think lupins, think of a woman I am close to’. The visual impact (they stood) is strikingly erect and upstanding, acting as a catalyst for memory (stood for something) simply by being there (just by standing), poised and dignified (in waiting), aloof (unavailable), unmissable (there for sure), solid and dependable (sure and unbending) with subtle colourings that last the whole day long (rose -fingered dawn’s and navy midnight’s flower). Lupins sown from seed packets with uninspiring images (pink and azure), thirsty for furtherance (sifting lightness), taking encouraging […]

Late in the Day

Drawn from his readings and personal experiences Heaney dips into recorded events, real and mystical individuals and landscapes on both sides of the Irish Sea. Heaney’s title alludes also to the creative spirit’s small-hours wait for inspiration. Heaney pulls out an episode recounted by an illustrious Irish medical figure of 1849 reviewing the antiquities and spiritual sites along the river Boyne. He picks out the story of a miracle that helped a humble monk along the road to sainthood: a scribe (monk of Clonard) … dedicated (working late) … suddenly plunged in darkness (candle burnt out) … a supernatural occurrence – writing implement turned torch (quill pen feathered itself) that produced the miraculous light enabling the cleric to fulfil his […]

Known World

In her review of Electric Light (Irish Times of Mon, Jun 3, 2019) under the heading ‘Heaney the Survivor’, Helen Vendler suggests that ‘exploring the mystery of the self has been a steady concern in Heaney’s work, but while the young poems came fresh to that mystery, the new poems come to it with layers of memory that both obscure it further and reveal it newly; the best vehicle for a memory-cluster is a poetic sequence. In this dramatic travelogue of May 1998 Heaney describes what he met ‘on tour’ in countries from the former Yugoslavian bloc. The responses generated range from the sheer joy of mixing with fellow poets at Struga to  the troubling evidence of ethnic cleansing, from […]