Navigating the ‘North’ Collection

Foreword Introduction Biographical ‘events’ between 1968-1975 Themes and issues Enrichment Dedications Lexical focus Comments contemporary to Publication Comments from main source authors (as below) Heaney’s further insights The structure of North The North Poems  individual commentaries with footnotes and reflections on style and structure Part I Act Of Union Aisling Antaeus Belderg Bog Queen Bone Dreams Come to the Bower Funeral Rites Hercules and Antaeus Kinship North Ocean’s Love to Ireland Punishment Strange Fruit The Betrothal of Cavehill The Digging Skeleton The Grauballe Man Viking Dublin: Trial Pieces Part II 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 Whatever You Say Say […]


North published by Faber and Faber in 1975 is Seamus Heaney’s fourth collection. Heaney was in his mid-thirties. The totality of his collections over more than half a century confirmed Heaney’s place at the top of the premier league of poets writing in English. He died suddenly in August 2013. The textual commentaries that follow seek to tease out what Heaney’s poems are intimating in North. Of course, the poet’s ‘message’ will have started life as an essentially personal one not intended primarily for his reader; there are moments when some serious unravelling is required. Thanks to the depth of Heaney’s knowledge, scholarship and personal feelings, his poetry is rich in content – digging into background-materials is both essential and […]


The poem is a memorial to its central figure, a warm, nostalgic rural study from the poet’s past dedicated to his Aunt Mary. The first line introduces the motif and emotions of what follows: There was a sunlit absence. The phrase encapsulates: nostalgic feelings from childhood; the warmth of sunlight; warm relationships; irreversible time past; a scene and a person missed. We will follow the poet’s eye as it moves from farmyard into kitchen. The initial scene is narrated in the past. In the yard stood the helmeted pump as if on sentry-duty (Heaney often lends a military bearing to the cast-iron agricultural paraphernalia of his childhood); the poet evokes the subtle colour of water drawn from the peaty water-table […]

The Seed Cutters

A second ‘word-canvas’ depicts an age-old routine practised in Heaney’s Ulster farming community. He is perhaps inspired by a memory or a photo, even literally a calendar picture depicting rural practice. Such groups of farm workers would be recognisable back in Breughel’s time: They seem hundreds of years away. Heaney addresses the Flemish artist who painted rural scenes in 16c. Flanders; the artist would approve Heaney’s likeness, providing he, the poet, can find the words to do the scene justice: if I can get them true. This uncomfortable activity is taking place at ground level: the labourers kneel and are exposed to the elements behind an ineffective wind-break. Scene-setting precedes identification: only in line 5 do we learn that They […]


The mythical content of the North collection opens with a North African child-of-the- earth living in an ‘Irish’ habitat. Allegory is in the making: the confrontation between Antaeus and Hercules is announced; they will meet in combat in the final poem of Part I.  As the end of the story is already known we are reconciled to the inevitable defeat of Antaeus and whatever he stands for. Heaney himself  spelt out both the allegory and its irony: ‘elevation’ is impossible for Antaeus and, by extension, for Ireland’. A ‘giant’ figure from Greek/ North African mythology was invincible in combat as long as he retained contact with the earth that renewed his strength whenever he fell. Antaeus describes what makes his […]


A 3000 year old site in County Mayo, Ireland acts as a catalyst for exploring in congenial dialogue the linkage between artefacts, peoples, myths, cultures and ancient languages. The piece centres the doggedness, roots and recurrence critical to the development of Irish nationhood around an ancient artefact. Heaney is said to have pinned the poem to the door of Patrick Caulfield’s house (see below) as a thank you note after they exchanged views in 1974 (DODp163). The speaker tells of a ‘local’ with whom he discussed objects that regularly came to light (just kept turning up) but were dismissed by the uneducated as beyond their comprehension (foreign). Each stone’s central hole made it one-eyed though, unlike the classical Cyclops, harmlessly […]

Funeral Rites

In a 1962 commentary Heaney referred to Funeral Rites as a dream of forgiveness, the dream of the possibility of forgiveness; His three panneled sequence pursues angles associated with death and burial moving from family wakes via the uncontrolled violence of the Troubles into myth and legend. Ultimately the sequence yearns for a solution to the unbreakable cycle of murder and revenge and suggests that a Norse hero might hold the key. In a sense Heaney ‘s vision is prophetic: history will demonstrate almost twenty years later that the road to peace and reconciliation will by definition require that some acts remain unavenged and that irreconcilable factions talk together. I Heaney reflects on his presence at traditional Irish Catholic family […]


Incertus, the pen name Heaney gave himself in the early Belfast days of poetry writing never really goes away. The poet has come to seek release from a build-up of inner tensions, be they generated by the depressing state of Northern Ireland or his nagging uncertainty about the way his poetry is presenting. To help him cope with troubling issues Heaney has felt the need for solitude in which to receive the benefit and reassurance of a counselling voice. The speaker is standing on a sandy beach (strand) along the rugged Donegal coast (shod of a bay). The sheer power of what he is hearing brings to mind the god Thor who in Viking mythology hammered to create land, sea […]

Viking Dublin: Trial Pieces

Heaney feeds on poetic charges triggered by a cultural event: ‘Then there was the Viking Dublin exhibit in the National Museum, based on the dig being done by Brendán Ó Ríordáin at the Wood Quay site’ (DOD p.163). An exhibit Heaney sees arouses his curiosity and sparks off subsequent associations. Heaney gives his imagination free rein in pursuit of Viking links with Dublin and by extension with Irish language and culture. I A museum exhibit invites questions as to its provenance … something human maybe (jaw-bone or a rib) or part of something more substantial (sturdier). Poised to move on (anyhow) the observer’s interest is captured by an original marking (a small outline) scratched into the bone (incised) a squared, […]

The Digging Skeleton

Scholars and students have long set themselves the challenge of translation. Heaney show-cases his skills in this version  after Baudelaire. He is loyal to Baudelaire’s picture of human misery and his rejection of belief in a better life after death. In questioning the poetic charge generated in Heaney’s mind by a French poem from 1875 it is perhaps enough to suggest that he was only too conscious of the Irish labouring to dig up potatoes that would poison up to a million of them during the Great Irish Famine only a decade before Baudelaire’s poem was published. The poverty and starvation of a whole race is not curtailed, both poets suggest, by death. I The speaker is strolling along the […]

Bone Dreams

Heaney shed light on the genesis of his six ‘dream’ poems in conversation with DOD (p 157): ‘That summer of 1972, the month before we moved (to Glanmore Cottage in County Wicklow)…we did a lot of driving in the south-west of England, saw the white horses carved into the hills, visited Maiden Castle in Dorset and the old earthworks in Dorchester. When we were in Gloucestershire staying in this lovely Tudor manor house where Marie’s sister was then living, I wrote Bone Dreams – the first of those loose-link ziggy-zaggy sequences that would eventually appear in North. At the time artist friend Barrie Cooke was doing a series of ‘bone boxes’; thinking about them brought up memories of bones I […]

Come to the Bower

In this first of six titles referred to as the ‘bog poems’ in North the voice is that of the individual, whoever he is, who has come upon the mummified corpse of a woman hidden beneath the surface of the bog in which it has been preserved. An initial ‘forensic’ unwrapping of the mummy is overtaken by the finder’s ultimate focus on what it might confirm to him about Iron Age civilisation. Citations that follow the commentary suggest some uneasiness. The searcher’s hands come, touched (the sense of exploring fingers is paramount in the piece) by the bog-side flowers (sweetbriar and tangled vetch) before dipping beneath the surface (foraging) ignoring the possibility of valuables bagged and left as royal burial […]

Bog Queen

Heaney allegorizes an event recorded on the Moira estate (in Co Lisburn) in the Autumn of 1780 or Spring of 1781 at a time of Anglo-Scottish ‘occupation’. He voices the poem to the first bog body dug up in Ireland. The Bog Queen’s body lies dead yet sleeping (waiting) at the interface between the peat bog (turf face) in which it is preserved and the boundary of Anglo-Scottish landownership (demesne wall), between Irish peat deposits (heathery levels) below and the non-Irish ‘Keep Out’ signs (glass-toothed stone) above. Her body bears the marks and messages of Nature’s unseeing trespassers (braille for the creeping influences), the extreme effects of temperature – groped then cooled by the orbiting sun – consumed (through my […]

The Grauballe Man

The bog-body was found by peat-cutters in April 1952 near Grauballe in Denmark. Providing stunning close description of an iconic ‘bog body’ on show in the Moesgaard museum near Arrhus the poem reveals Heaney’s emotional responses to a piece of anthropological history. Struck by the barbaric treatment revealed by the mummified remains Heaney turns up the volume on links between the fate of Grauballe Man and contemporary internicene violence in Northern Ireland. The body might have emerged from a mould (as if …poured in tar).  It is displayed recumbent in a bog-land setting (lies on a pillow of turf) with an expression of inner sadness (weep the black river of himself). The poetic eye moves up and down the body […]


Conflicting loyalties, pity and guilt, private and collective, supply ‘Punishment’ with its emotional charge… Heaney is looking for a tenable position (MP p. 137). Heaney measures the sense of injustice generated by an iron-age community’s brutal intolerance of rules perceived to have been violated. It leads him to articulate a troubling irony: iron-age justice that puts an adulteress to death is not so far removed from elements in contemporary Northern Irish society that mete out punishment when sectarian rules are seen to be breached. Prompted perhaps by graphic images of a bog body Heaney creates a scenario in which his first person speaker (let us call him ‘Observer’) attends the iron-age execution of a young woman accused of adultery. Observer […]

Strange Fruit

In his creative imagination Heaney stands alongside anthropologists engaged with the bodiless head of a young woman similar to one retrieved (exhumed) from the Roum Fen in north Denmark in 1942. He showcases the head with a sweep of the hand (Here is) and lists the physical properties that label it a strange fruit: large and hard skinned (gourd); oval in shape; epidermis wrinkled as a dried plum (prune-skinned), teeth retaining the stained appearance of the same fruit (prune- stones). He watches as the hair is carefully disentangled (unswaddled … wet fern) and reset as for display (exhibition of its coil) and her features (leathery beauty) exposed to life-restoring air in preparation for display case or museum. The waxy surface […]


Heaney’s exploration of his Irish heritage in all its twists and turns is mightily important to him. The six-poem sequence explores selected lines of connection, correspondence and closeness and the pieces sit in a landscape of which Heaney feels himself very much a part. In the first 5 poems kinship describes affinity, fellow feelings, at-oneness from the landscape’s beginnings via Celtic myths and rituals to Heaney’s lost domain of mid-Ulster childhood. The sequence’s grim finale acknowledges that, as Heaney composes, the cycles of murder and revenge evident in Northern Ireland in the name of religion and politics are simply the latest version of an earlier inhumanity driven by distant tribal and ritual instincts. I The first piece is triggered by […]

Ocean’s Love to Ireland

Heaney summarised the sequence of 3 short poems and the two that follow in a response to DOD (p 169): an allegory involving the Elizabethan armies entering Gaelic Ulster (Smerwick below is in fact in Munster) and the ground being possessed by the planters – the whole ‘Aisling’ scenario – England being the male conqueror, Ireland the ruined maid and wee ‘no surrender’ Ulster being the product of the union … The ‘speaker in the poem’, whoever he is, is deeply aware of his implication in being ‘imperially’ male. The poems plot a crucial moment in political history pointing to the desolation that will be the outcome for Ireland; The title requires a preposition. Heaney’s unexpected choice of to suggests an […]


An Irish poetic genre – a classical myth – a  ‘he’ and a ‘her’ appropriate to allegory – merited punishment. The Ralegh figure (see ‘Ocean’s Love to Ireland’) whose historical acts would result ultimately in the social and secular violence of the Troubles gets what he deserves in Heaney’s succinct Irish dream poem. Unlike Ocean’s rape of the maid of Ireland Actaeon’s attempt to possess Artemis (he courted her) is based on arch flattery (decadent sweet art) but judged equally unworthy. Peeping-Tom is given away by Nature (wind’s vowel blowing through the hazels) whispering the forbidden question that seals his fate (‘Are you Diana . . . ?’) Classical Actaeon or figure of allegory, Heaney warns all abusers of Ireland, […]

Act Of Union

Allegorizing on the pun of ‘union’ as an act of sexual as well as political ‘congress’, Heaney reflects on a historical enactment imposed upon Ireland by the British government in 1801 and the gap between what was anticipated in Westminster at the time and the turbulent reality it has delivered. Heaney offered insights to DOD (p 169-70): The ‘speaker in the poem’, whoever he is, is deeply aware of his implication in being ‘imperially male’. He lies like the island of Britain beside an expectant mother island who has her back turned to him. He’s experienced a certain guilt at having caused the pregnancy. Far from creating a bond, the child born of union forced upon the maid of Ireland […]

The Betrothal of Cavehill

A formal engagement ceremony is about to be celebrated; a young couple wish to get on with the important things in life despite the backdrop of divided Ulster. Heaney and fiancée Marie Devlin, both from mid-Ulster rural backgrounds spent their undergraduate lives in Belfast. In the troubled Belfast of the 1960s sectarian stand-offs seeking ‘ownership’ of locations were common (gunfire barks its questions off Cavehill). The hill’s napoleonic nose shape (profiled) looks down unerringly (maintains it stare) over the religious and political make-up of wards to its south: hard (basalt) and all things Unionist – self-satisfied (proud)  dominated by non-Catholics like himself (protestant), part of the United Kingdom (northern), run by men (male). Heaney takes a good natured poke at […]

Hercules and Antaeus

As predicted in the very first poem of the collection Hercules has invaded Antaeus’ space. They meet in single combat: superman versus child of earth, brain versus brawn. Legend has already ordained that Antaeus (Ireland’s ‘champion’ figure in Heaney’s eyes) will be no match for Hercules as the poet pointed out in his Birthday Speech. Hercules the golden boy with the god-sponsored future (sky-born and royal) enters Antaeus-space fresh from Labours fulfilled – snake-choker (the nine-headed hydra); dung heaver (the Augean stables) and preoccupied (his mind big) with his next mission (to steal the golden apples of the Hesperides from the north-African Atlas range) – he is destined to succeed on all counts (his future hung with trophies). Hercules has […]

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 […]