Part II

In a 1973 conversation, Heaney said that the ideas behind Hercules and Antaeus led to Part II which was ‘an attempt at some kind of declarative voice’; In a 1975 article Heaney referred to ‘a need to be explicit about the pressures and prejudices watermarked into the psyche of anyone born and bred in Northern Ireland’; The language becomes more conversational, less poetically charged (MP p 144) The Unacknowledged Legislator’s Dream Whatever You Say Say Nothing Freedman Singing School 1 The Ministry of Fear 2 A Constable Calls 3 Orange Drums 4 Summer 1969 5 Fosterage 6 Exposure

The Unacknowledged Legislator’s Dream

I In his essay, ‘A Defense of Poetry’ (1821) English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley christened poets the ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’. He felt that their unique blend of observation, judgment and refined expression identified them as the ideal proposers of laws promoting societal evolution, development and improvement. That identifies Heaney as one of the breed and Heaney can picture an alternative!  Mindful perhaps of WH Auden’s contrary view that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ he voices his prose-poem to a spokesman (let us call him ‘Poet’) who tests the water and ends up in a kind of Kafkaesque nightmare (dream). In dialogue with DOD (p 181) Heaney had the following to say about his prose-poem: It’s a free-floating invention, that […]

Whatever You Say Say Nothing

Heaney once said that returning to Northern Ireland from his US part-year teaching commitments was like pulling on ‘an old dirty glove’. In 1974 after nearly two decades of sectarian and political turbulence things reached a very low ebb. By the end of the year 1281 murders directly associated with the Troubles period had been registered. Little wonder that the generally mild mannered Heaney, empathetic, certainly, as regards the minority Catholic cause but opposed to violence for whatever reason, was depressed and angered by what was unfolding and the way people responded. A poster put up during the ‘Troubles’ featuring a masked, uniformed paramilitary carrying a sten-gun bore the legend: ‘Loose-talk costs lives In taxis On the phone In clubs […]


Heaney has chanced upon a passage decribing the system within Ancient Rome that regarded outsiders/ vanquished races as second class and subservient but who, with exposure to what was civilizedly Roman and the right attitude, might be permitted freedom status. Heaney unites title, epigraph and narrative to introduce the transformation that liberated him from previous control: the undergraduate period that allowed him to cast aside both Protestant Unionist domination that usurped his sense of Irishness and the Catholic markings of tribe, caste and conditioning that dominated his upbringing. First the Orange Unionist sway to which the mild mid-Ulster Hibernian tradition exposed the Catholic minority (subjugated yearly under arches); then his personal search for academic corroboration (manumitted by parchments and degrees); […]

Singing School

A sequence of 6 poems grouped under a title borrowed from WB Yeats’ Sailing to Byzantium: ‘Nor is there singing school but studying/ Monuments of its own magnificence’. The 2 epigraphs compare contrasting roots: the first is from Wordsworth, reflecting on his gentle apolitical, ‘English’, Church-of England childhood; the second from WB Yeats reflecting much more aggressively his ‘politicised’ Irish Protestant childhood; The sequence of 6 poems explores some of the conditioning cultural circumstances of SH’s own biography (NC79); 1 The Ministry of Fear 2 A Constable Calls 3 Orange Drums 4 Summer 1969 5 Fosterage 6 Exposure

1 The Ministry of Fear

dedicated to Seamus Deane. Heaney identifies two systems that brought their repressive regimes to bear on him as an individual with a mind of his own. Such was the trepidation that their rules of conduct generated that in the poem he reprises the notion of incarceration in The Unknown Legislator’s Dream. Though the piece is bedded in Heaney’s real-life experiences in Ireland the title alludes to the bureaucracies of oppressive states in post WWII Eastern Europe. Sandwiched between them is a short account of Heaney’s red-blooded male frustrations! The initial interjection (well) announces that Heaney is poised to speak – of events from his personal biography – his important places borrowed from Patrick Kavanagh’s Epic of 1938. His first ‘monument’ […]

2 A Constable Calls

The poem is a tour de force – a simple and hugely atmospheric vignette depicting an incident in the life of a minority Catholic farming family in a Protestant-ruled province called Northern Ireland. What we know about the principal actors renders it unmistakably autobiographical – fly-on-the-wall boy Heaney senses his father might be attempting to deceive authority but gives him the benefit of the doubt. Heaney provides the ingredients of a compelling psychological drama: an atmosphere of threat; an attentive youngster; an interrogation; a father’s lie; a moral dilemma that tests the innocence of the listening boy; the threat receding. The ‘poet-film-director’ employs all the zooms, pans and slow-motions of cinematic technique. The boy’s eye is the camera, his ear […]

3 Orange Drums

Heaney paints a caricature in words of a figure prominent in a Protestant Unionist parade. The poet’s distaste for the tone and tenor of the event and for what its emblematic drummer stands for is immediately obvious. The lambeg drummer at the resembles an overpowering fusion, his size and mass doubled by the bulk and weight of his drum and evident in the lexis of obesity (balloons…belly … weighs … buckles). The sound he produces is part of the whole (lodging thunder), a bullying unsavoury emanation (grossly) from his groin area. He cuts a paradoxical figure – what boosts his psychology (raised up) is more than his physical frame can cope with (buckles under). As if each arm has a […]

4 Summer 1969

Heaney was in Spain at the very moment riots were exploding on the streets of Belfast. His personal discomfort (I was suffering only the bullying sun of Madrid) paled into insignificance when compared with RUC (constabulary) using firearms against Catholic communities (deemed mob) around the Falls Road. His personal daily schedule included some serious reading (life of Joyce) as he cooked slowly (casserole heat), unable to escape foul odours (stinks from the fishmarket) that reminded him of his Castledawson origins (reek off a flaxdam). Evening brought tastes of Spain (gules of wine), youngsters heard but not seen (sense of children), elderly widows (old women in black shawls) enjoying the freshness of evening (near open windows), the sounds of Castilian rising […]

5 Fosterage

For Michael McLaverty In Ancient Ireland young aspirants were fostered to other members of the clan for their education. Heaney recounts his earliest encounter with the Headmaster, coincidentally one of Ireland’s finest short-story writers, who took him on as a trainee teacher. Michael McLaverty fitted the ‘fosterage’ bill perfectly via the experience he offered a modest ‘rookie’ searching for both poetic voice and career. A quotation from Wallace Stevens extolling the use of description in creative writing (Heaney will follow his tip in this very piece), a timing (Heaney was 23 and recently graduated with a First Class degree in English from Queen’s University Belfast – newly cubbed in language), a meeting place in the smart administrative centre of the […]

6 Exposure

Exposure  is deliberately placed as the collection’s coda for reasons of emphasis, impact and confessional self-revelation. Heaney takes stock of changes to his personal circumstances, his role and function as poet and public voice, the immediate world around him and current events. The poem is all about whether he has stepped up to the mark or fallen short. In conversation with Henri Cole in Harvard University’s Paris review no 75. Heaney explained the emotional build-up expressed in his closing poem:  … leaving the north didn’t break my heart. The solitude was salubrious. Anxiety, after all, can coexist with determination. The anxiety in a poem like “Exposure” is about whether the work that comes out of this move is going to […]


Countdown to extremes of violence prior to the troubled period 1969 – 75. The following time-line seeks to set out some key dates before concentrating on the period during which North was taking shape. Whilst far from comprehensive it gives an idea of the tensions and fear that might exist on a day-to-day basis punctuated by the incidents listed below. 1801:Act of Union – Ireland and Britain formally united; 1905:Creation of Sinn Fein – a political party with the aim of freeing Ireland from British rule; 1913: Creation of Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) – formed of Protestants who opposed Irish Home Rule; 1916:Easter Uprising Irish Catholics proclaim an Irish Republic in Dublin, brutally suppressed by the British army. The Easter […]


  District and Circle, Seamus Heaney’s twelfth collection since Death of a Naturalist (1966), was published in April 2006 by Faber and Faber. There are 44 titles including 5 sequences – 68 poems in all. Many pieces had already appeared in some form or other in a variety of publications on both sides of the Atlantic. The volume includes some ‘Found Prose’ and a number of translations. Heaney’s work since 1966 has lost none of its diversity, erudition and vitality. In composing poetry Heaney set out to fulfil his writerly needs. The ‘messages’ that emerged were essentially personal ones, not expressed with his readers in mind – accordingly, there are moments when some serious unravelling is required.  In the case […]

The Turnip Snedder

In ‘Stepping Stones’ (p 407) Heaney acknowledges to Dennis O’Driscoll that District and Circle was a time for ‘pouncing’ on poems; the inspiration for this opener was a photograph the poet saw visiting  in an exhibition by modernist artist Hughie O’Donoghue to whom he dedicates the piece. Associated with Heaney’s rural Irish ‘territory’, this manually driven turnip-crushing machine, a piece of archaic agricultural machinery, comes to bear the hallmarks of a medieval war-machine and introduces more modern forms of violence implicit within the first dozen or so poems in the collection Heaney takes us back a good sixty years to a less sophisticated time before the liquidizer and other modern implements, to an age of bare hands/ and cast iron. […]

A Shiver

  The sonnet sets out at some length the physics and dynamics of wielding a hammer. The energy generated brings with it, however, an understanding of its destructiveness. What begins as a sense of physical reverberation affecting the person using a heavy tool ultimately evokes a shiver of fear when, as contemporary history demonstrates, extreme power falls into the wrong hands. The tool in question is the weighty sledge-hammer, commonly used by builders and labourers for demolition. Aware of the possible damage to the untrained operator it is clear that the poet/ farmer’s son has handled such an implement and been shocked by its potential. The poem sets out The way, ‘instructions’ for the safe use of the sledgehammer. Firstly […]

Home Help

  Heaney  recalls two aunts who were very much part of his family upbringing. Helping Sarah Heaney pictures a woman working in the garden: showing little sign of age (young again as the year); neat and demure with tuck and tightening of blouse; active and untroubled by stiffness of the joints (vigorous advance of knee); busy in the vegetable patch (weeding rigs); frugal (the same old skirt and brogues); both well-organised and in charge (on top of things) – in all, a person to be proud of and look up to (a credit) His eye focuses on her clothing: tweed skirt reflective of rurality (pinpoints of red haw and yellow whin), well used and characterful, its threadbare workadayness hard and […]


The poem focuses on an Boston fire-fighter’s headgear, symbolic of a breed regarded as god-like ‘supermen’ risking their lives for society especially after 9/11. It was presented ‘formally’ to Heaney in an informal ceremony in Boston. The poem celebrates heroism and  human solidarity. A helmet –  its owner; its provenance –  a Boston fireman’s gift, bearing the name printed boldly on its spread / Fantailing brim , an elongated shoulder-awning.  The eye is drawn upwards:  evidence of its energetic use (tinctures of sweat and hair oil) and its enduring  longevity (withered sponge and shock-absorbing webs); its dome not a civilian crown , but rather a proud classical symbol of ‘military’ prowess crest, for crest it is;  its particular strength (steel-ridged) […]

Polish Sleepers

The first of a sequence of poems alluding to boyhood during World War II. The sight of recycled railway sleepers transports the speaker back to the lost domain of wartime childhood. Within this context, references to Poland and the positioning of other key-words in the narrative provide a potential  link with the period’s more chilling phenomena: wartime concentration camps. Once: a time when Heaney’s local railway-line, now closed, was active. Railway-sleepers in situ were a common sight, block-built criss-cross and four-squared with a characteristic smell: We … breathed pure creosote, a common preservative still applied to raw timber. Time has passed; the sleepers have proved to be ideal for the garden, laid and landscaped in a kerb/… half skirting, half […]

Anahorish 1944

In a newspaper interview Heaney revealed how, as a boy, he watched American troops marching by from ‘up a beech tree’. The momentous preparations for D-Day  brought an international force to Britain which was to launch an assault on the Normandy beaches and free Europe from nazi oppression. Unusually Heaney, who would have been a small boy at the time, uses a speaker working in the local abattoir and the poem is in quotation marks. Subsequent  loss of life on Normandy beaches endorses the ironic juxtaposition of butchered pigs and soldiers –  at the very moment when American troops arrived we were killing pigs/ sunlight and gutter-blood/ outside the slaughterhouse, the animals squealing as they were bled, The voice speaks […]

To Mick Joyce in Heaven

A sequence of 5 sonnets, set at a time when Heaney was five or six years of age, is addressed to the memory of Mick Joyce. Heaney resurrects a figure from the past, recalling him with great warmth, affection and good-humour. The man was ‘demobbed’ at the end of WW2 and, it is suggested, became part of the post-war reconstruction programme. Personal pronouns are those of a shared relationship: you, your, we, I, me. In a sequence that will regularly allude to life-and-death issues, the final couplet of all clarifies Heaney’s subtle choice of title: Mick Joyce now in memoriam is depicted at a moment when, on leave from his duties and very much alive, he was ‘in heaven’ in […]

The Aerodrome

Heaney  recounts  the story of a wartime visit to his local airfield. The visit becomes a parable to do with a child’s insecurity generated, perhaps, by an awareness of temptation and resistance. The airfield is long since out of commission, first disused then re-developed (first … back to grass, then after that to warehouses and brickfields). Its iconic centre-piece (wartime grey control-tower) has retained its control status rebuilt and glazed into a hard-edged CEO-style villa.  Post-war changes in attitude and style introduced a new lexis; here the ‘hard edge’ of uncompromising money-making opportunities. The distinctive wartime features have disappeared. The aerodrome is a part of mid-Ulster’s history transporting the poet’s memory (Easter Monday 1944) and his senses (smell of daisies […]

Anything Can Happen

Of the outrages that occurred increasingly regularly in the 5 years following Heaney’s previous published volume, it was the ‘strike’ of 9/11 that persuaded him to write Anything Can Happen. He adapts Horace’s Ode I, 34  drawing implicit attention to the destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York. This act had brought Heaney to a ‘terrified awareness ‘that ‘the tallest things can be brought low’ and demonstrated that absolutely nothing was beyond the bounds of possibility. Both poems introduce Jupiter from classical mythology; sovereign God of the Romans, omnipotent, identified with the sky, storms and lightning. In the Heaney version Jupiter will mostly wait for clouds to gather head/ Before he hurls the lightning […]

Rilke: After the Fire

  Rilke – deemed Austrian, born in Prague  part of the German-speaking district of erstwhile Czechoslovak Prague , so  of insecure national identity – was at his most prolific between 1900 –1925. His watch-words are: ‘alienation’, ‘lyricism, ‘mysticism’, ‘spirituality’. Heaney show-cases a version of a Rilke poem from 1908. A man whose past has been destroyed overnight  is suddenly alienated from his environment. The poem is pervaded by uncertainty, unexpectedness and hostile forces that threaten the mental health of an anonymous individual. In common with Rilke’s early lyricism the poem starts with personification: startled early autumn morning hesitated taken aback by something unexpected shying at newness. Nature begins to take stock of a perceived gap in the landscape, an emptiness […]

Out of Shot

The poetic process in action: an item with poetic charge emerges on the periphery of a television sequence. The title is suggestive of things ‘seen’ by a poet which by-pass ordinary mortals. Cameras following news-pieces is also record the less obvious. What Heaney has spotted sets his creative spirit in motion. The sonnet links two sets of events involving shock and confusion: the first remembered from Irish history; the second in a contemporary newsreel from the war-stricken Middle-East. The speaker recalls the specific detail of an incident from the past close to Glanmore that provided poetic charge: the month, the time of day and the weather conditions (bell-clear Sunday). He relives the moment: his stance (elbows lodged strut-firm upon a […]

To George Seferis in the Underworld

  The epigraph is quoted from Roderick Beaton’s George Seferis, Waiting for the Angel. It sets off a number of lines of interest in Heaney: how a poet appears to observers, whether his thoughtfulnesses  and preoccupations are mistaken for absent-mindedness; how a poet retrieves information; the extraordinary associations that the ‘poet’ dreams up in response to objects (here Heaney responds to ‘spiky’ sharpness). One characteristic Heaney recognises he shares with Seferis is his reluctance to take political sides in public. The poem is addressed to Seferis. Heaney portrays Seferis standing in spiky asphodel which grows wild in Greece (the same immortal flower that grew in Elysium, the abode of the blessed after death in classical antiquity), a rightly appropriate setting […]