Glanmore Sonnets – an Introduction

Glanmore was the fortuitous outcome (hence the dedication to Ann Saddlemyer  who first rented then sold the cottage to the Heaneys) of a couple’s shared agreement to change direction and move on and away from suburban Belfast steeped in pain and turbulence. Heaney was not of a mind to remain in Belfast out of provincial loyalty; his resentment of the way minority Catholics were treated added to the attraction of a move to the Irish Republic. The move however was fraught with complications at a domestic level, not least his children’s educational needs and family income – he had resigned his University post and the family was now dependent on his freelance work to pay incoming bills. Most importantly perhaps […]


Heaney pens his farewell to American poet Robert Lowell. He had become familiar with Robert Lowell’s poetry as early as the Group led by Philip Hobsbaum in the poet’s undergraduate period at QUB around 1963, via meetings in which Heaney was able to share his rookie poems with like-minded fledgling poets. Heaney acknowledged that Lowell’s poetry (‘all through the sixties I was reading him, constantly’) was to his liking as he was searching for his own poetic voice. Heaney first met Lowell in 1972 at a party thrown for the American poet and his second wife Elizabeth Hardwick in London: he sums up their first conversation (DOD217) ‘he was well clued into the Northern Ireland situation. It was a genuine […]

In MemoriamSeán Ó’Riada

Heaney pays tribute to Seán Ó’Riada’s contribution to Irish musical culture. Ó’Riada died suddenly at the age of forty in 1971. Heaney had admired the different thrusts of O’Riada’s talent from the classical podium to the craich of Irish traditional songs on the stage or in the pub. In contrast he hints that he and his fellow creative spirit were poles apart in personality. DOD 225 his posturing irked me … interrogating rather than conversing … I admired him even if I didn’t get too close … his change of life, from Dublin bohemia to Gaeltacht dachas (home), was an example that was there to be followed. As with all the poems preceding the Glanmore Sonnets it is worth considering […]

The Guttural Muse

At first sight Heaney’s title seems light-heartedly appropriate to himself – with his rootsy, gravelly Gaelic articulation of mid-Ulster village names like Broagh the poet would be recognized by many Irish people as their ‘guttural muse’! Heaney has an emotional narrative to grapple with and falls back on his poetry to offset feelings of loneliness, exclusion and middle age. He placed the poem in the same set as ‘The Singer’s House’ and ‘The Harvest Bow’ acknowledging in retrospect ‘a renewed sense of the value of poetry itself as a consolidating element, the writing of which took me to the bottom of something inside myself, something inchoate but troubled … the Troubles, you might say, had muddied the waters but I […]

The Singer’s House

Heaney reflected on the double preoccupation that produced poems such as  ‘The Singer’s House’ in Field Work: living up to my neck in complication, resident in Dublin but feeling called upon by what was happening in the North plus a renewed sense of the value of poetry itself as a consolidating element (DOD 195). On the occasion of David Hammond’s memorial service in August 2008 The Irish Times reported that the proceedings included Heaney’s poem  ‘The Singer’s House’ about Hammond’s holiday home in Gweebarra near Glenties, written in 1979 to encourage him to keep singing and to remind him of the importance of his art at a time when the Troubles were sucking out the joy of song  … The […]

The Badgers

Heaney spoke to James Randall: There is a poem called “The Badgers” which I’m very fond of—a kind of bridging of the inner and outer life. It’s literally badgers, but they began in my mind to stand for the night-self, the night part in everybody, the scuttling secret parts of life. Just as in a sense the Provisionals are the nightlife of the Catholic community (Issue 18 of Ploughshares, Emerson College). As regards the poems of ‘Field Work’ preceding the Glanmore Sonnets it is worth considering how each individual lyric, elegy and meditative piece contributes to Heaney’s barely veiled relief at having severed his ties with Belfast. In this introspective piece Heaney addresses himself (you). A swirl of associations is […]


Background: Heaney talked about O’Neill with DOD (214) Louis O’Neill was a regular customer in my father-in-law’s public house in Ardboe: a small farmer and eel fisherman. The kind of level-headed, low-key, humorous countryman I always feel at home with. Sometimes I’d be on the outside of the counter with him and his friends, as a customer, and sometimes, as the public saw, I’d be on the inside, doing barman. My friendship with Louis was special because of that unforgettable summer morning when I went out on Lough Neagh with him and another companion to lift the eel lines. So when he was killed in that explosion, I knew I would have to write something, but wasn’t sure how it […]

A Postcard from North Antrim

IN MEMORY OF SEAN ARMSTRONG Heaney revealed the background to his relationship with Armstrong (DOD 221-3): Sean was at Queen’s when I was there and edited the rag magazine… in October 1962 he was giving a party and had asked me. I’d actually met Marie a couple of nights before, on the Tuesday of that week, and had arranged for her to drop back the book she borrowed on the Thursday. So when she arrived to deliver it, I suggested we go down to Sean’s jamboree; she agreed, and the thing took off from there. Sean then disappeared from the scene and turned up again in the early seventies. He had spent time in communes of one sort or another […]

The Strand at Lough Beg

By any measure The Strand at Lough Beg makes a substantial contribution to the collection with its very personal subject-matter, its contrast between intensity and calm, its alternation between violence and peaceableness, between brutality and final restorative gestures. As with all the poems of ‘Field Work’ is worth considering how each individual lyric, elegy and meditative piece contributes  to Heaney’s barely veiled relief at severing his ties with Northern Ireland and his eagerness to ratify the family move to the Irish Republic. DOD221 SH When I read the passage at the start of Dante’s Purgatorio 1 (from line 100) describing that little lake and rushy shore where Virgil and Dante find themselves once they emerge from the murk of hell, […]

A Drink of Water

When he received the David Cohen Prize in March 2009 Heaney had been asked to recite two poems that represented his Lifetime’s Achievement! As his second choice he plumped for A Drink of Water recalling a moment from his childhood when an old woman who drew water every morning revealed herself later as a muse of sorts to him. Heaney remarked that it was ‘about receiving a gift and being enjoined to remember the giver’ … something, the old charmer added, that underlined the value he placed on the Cohen Prize and the evening’s reception. As with all the poems of ‘Field Work’ is worth considering how each individual lyric, elegy and meditative piece contributes in a positive or negative […]

The Toome Road

If part of the intention of Field Work is rooted in Heaney’s subliminal desire to validate the decision to move lock, stock and barrel from Belfast to the Irish Republic in 1972 and thereby to draw a line under his relationship with the ‘dirty old glove’ that Northern Ireland had become, then The Toome Road provides an illustration of the frustrations suffered by an essentially fair-minded young man who spent his teenage years on The Wood Farm in Castledawson Heaney responded to DOD’s questions on the matter (p.212): whilst he might have understood the need to deal with IRA outrages, the British Army were no better – ultimately at a personal level he felt it ‘ an affront to the […]


I After a Killing Heaney explained what prompted the first stanza to DOD (211): the assassination of Christopher Ewart-Biggs wasn’t so much personal grief as shock … that knocked me and everybody else sideways … The news that morning on the radio mentioned two men with rifles running up the hill from the site of the explosion … it stayed with me as a kind of dream image: it was as if the ghosts of those Old IRA men of the West Cork Flying Column – ‘the unquiet founders’, the ones who’d fought and ambushed the Black and Tans – it’s as if they were coming back to haunt the state they’d fought to establish … but in my old-fashioned […]


The first poem of Field Work immediately distances Heaney from the rueful words of time lost and missed opportunity in Exposure the final poem of North. Heaney’s direction has changed: he has discovered the first person plural and a snatch of pleasure in the company of friends. He is not yet sure whether the line he has drawn under Northern Ireland and Belfast will hold good but the omens are favourable beyond the Province’s borders. In the poems preceding the ‘Glanmore Sonnets’ it is worth considering how each individual lyric, elegy and meditative piece contributes to Heaney’s barely veiled relief at having severed his ties with Northern Ireland. The title offers a vital clue to the activity in which Heaney […]


Foreword Main sources Biographical details A creative spirit on his ‘journey of the soul’ Field Work a summary overview Misleading boundaries Drawing a line under Northern Ireland Aspects of relocation to Glanmore The Dante factor The Lowell Factor The Yeats Factor Post ‘Exposure’ Heaney The ‘narrow winding stair’ factor Field Work published by Faber and Faber in 1979 is Seamus Heaney’s fifth collection. Heaney was forty years of age. 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. Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. He died suddenly in August 2013. The textual commentaries that follow seek to tease out […]


Contents Foreword Main sources Key dates in Heaney’s biography post 1969 Grounds for optimism Attributed comments and reviews Unattributed comments and reviews The makings of a lyric poet Talismans , portraits and concerns The bricklayer’s spirit level Heaney puts human spirit to the test Living is not giving in History and ignorance All-seeing and in-between Translation’ and other variations on the prefix ‘trans’ ‘So walk on air’ Water, earth, fire and air The Poems: individual commentaries with footnotes and reflections on style and structure; Afterthoughts Heaney an extraordinary man in ordinary clothing Heaney the cordon-bleu cook Heaney the agent of change Heaney the orchestral composer Heaney the word painter Heaney the meticulous craftsman (including phonetic information) Subjects and Circumstances of […]


Heaney an extraordinary man in ordinary clothing Heaney the cordon-bleu cook Heaney the agent of change Heaney the orchestral composer Heaney the word painter Heaney the meticulous craftsman (including phonetic information) Thumbnails of poems ‘Titles and elements’ Stylistic devices   an extraordinary man in ordinary clothes Poets are a breed apart!  Unlike ordinary mortals such as you and I their consciousness is constantly tuned into things that give off a poetic charge and their vocation compels them to pounce on such sudden, involuntary moments before they fade away. Poets are constantly on the qui-vive; they have a way of recording these unpredictable, involuntary instances – poets are never far away from composition mode which transforms  electrical impulse into verse; poets […]

The Riddle

This ingenious little poem (Helen Vendler judges it ‘exquisite’) enables Heaney to pull out of the hat the metaphor that describes the finely balanced challenges he faces in composing works of art – the handwork that produces the handiwork. The key to solving the riddle may well lie in the words of Vaclav Havel, Czech dissident turned President, whose optimism impressed Heaney: ‘Hope is a state of mind, not a state of the world … not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out because it is good’.  Heaney’s clever title says ‘think riddle think pun’: he juxtaposes difficult questions that require the poet’s personal responses and […]

The Disappearing Island

The story bears similarities to a snippet from the medieval account (traced back to 500 AD) of the ‘Voyage of St Brendan’ later Abbot of Clonfert. Heaney clarified what led to the poem in conversation with DOD (289): I ( ) came to realize that much of what we accepted as natural in our feelings and attitudes was a cultural construction … The second last poem in the book, for example, ‘The Disappearing Island’, is still a form of aisling, a vision poem about Ireland, even though it is an aisling inflected with irony. The story is told of a particular occasion (once) when a group of missionary sailors with the common quest (we) felt they had discovered St Brendan’s […]

The Mud Vision

Heaney pursues the anonymity of his parable format but let it be known via his contribution to an Irish Hospice Foundation book published a month after his death in 2013 that The Mud Vision is a poem embedded in memories of life in an older Ireland but it also gestures towards an Ireland that is still coming into being. It has its origins in certain incidents in my personal past and has its meaning in intimations of what seems to be happening in the national psyche, at present and for the future. The circumstances and triggers that led to the poem, Heaney’s further responses, the thoughts of other commentators and press reports are fascinating. This commentary is followed by a comprehensive Background […]

From the Canton of Expectation

Heaney’s much admired triptych attracted comments from high-flying politician and revered academic alike: Irish President Mary McAleese commented on the educational aspect: ‘Heaney describes the changes wrought when education became available to those whose destiny had been to be second best, and to make a virtue of stoically, even pathetically, putting up with it’; Helen Vendler remarked on the ‘metaphysical parable’ schematic: its three parts – nationalist exhausted optatives, youthful imperatives and the yearning for an indicative – sketch the state of the Northern Catholic population, and its competing discourses, without ever mentioning it by name. The ‘Canton’ from which Heaney speaks to us is a unit in time and space as big or as small as he wants it […]

A Shooting Script

Heaney employs a kind of poetic software package to produce a feature regretting the ‘dwindling’ of the Irish experience and the replacement of Old Ireland including its Irish language and Gaeltacht by a modern culture that is capitalist, self-centred and anglophone. The narrative includes a sideswipe at the Catholic Church but finally wishes it to be known that there is still time to protect old values – the scribbled message in the sand sure to be erased by the tide is preserved in the eternal present of his poem. The Shooting Script is aimed at the Irish-minded, providing imagery and scene directions bristling with specialist vocabulary. Setting 1 presents the Irish ‘cultural imagination’ of a previous  age – characters fixed […]

Wolfe Tone

Heaney voices his poem to the late 18th century Irish revolutionary whose tenacious personal ambitions for Ireland were scuppered amidst the political and religious storms of late 18th century Irish and European events. It contains elements of parable to do with the difficulty of uniting behind a single banner what are effectively two Irelands, as elusive in the 1790s as it is in the year Wolfe Tone was written. In the first panel of the triptych Tone’s shade adopts Heaney’s boating metaphor to appraise his performance: I ought to have stayed afloat, he suggests, but came to naught; I was at best a one-man operative (light as a skiff) nimble and agile in traffic (manoeuvrable) but let down by circumstances […]

The Song of the Bullets

Heaney’s Song of the Bullets predicts dark times around the corner for Northern Ireland. Heaney’s title suggests a musical setting. In fact sound accompaniment will be provided not by musicians but by agents of death personified to utter their own message of predominance and power. On the face of it a long-time rural observer of events as they develop around him watches from his personal space (yard). The situation appears reassuringly stable – the distant firmament is unchanged (usual stars) whilst closer to the Earth the comforting presences of the solar system (still and seemly planets) shed their light, albeit frail (lantern-bright), above familiar ground at dusk (our darkened hill). Suddenly his radar is disrupted: an abnormal signal (star that […]

Holding Course

In a collection bristling with self- scrutiny  Incertus, the pen-name Heaney gave himself in his earliest work, never really deserts him. He is sitting in his workroom on the top floor of the family’s Dublin home. His wife’s distracting presence and the ways she arouses him after more than two decades of marriage bring into question his own contribution the steady-as-she-goes course of their relationship. The piece is intimate, tender, erotic. Initial memories of a night ferry journey that he and Marie have made allegorize the things life throws up: the constant tremors (propellers underwater) the relentless sound (cabins drumming), the unrelenting artificial lighting. If not a specific journey then ferries, so life,  in general – not always at the […]

Grotus and Coventina

Heaney composes a love poem to Marie years after they visited Hadrian’s Wall in England’s Northumberland. His particular interest in the architectural remnants and artefacts of Roman presence uncovered a two-thousand year old story bristling with poetic and emotional charge. Water is very much the unifying factor. Personal exile added to the intensity of the poem: Heaney fulfilled a series of part-year contracts at Harvard University in the United States that took him away from wife, home and family for prolonged periods. Heaney weaves the tale of a legionary soldier living at the northern limit of the vast Roman Empire (far from home) whose pain of exile and loneliness drove him to construct a sanctuary dedicated to a Romano-Celtic water […]