A Peacock’s Feather

Spurred by his wife Heaney extemporized the poem (dated 1972) on the day his and Marie Heaney’s niece Daisy Garnett was christened. The child was the middle daughter of Marie’s sister Polly Devlin and her well-connected old-Etonian husband Andrew Garnett living in their stately home in Gloucestershire, England. Polly Devlin describes it as ‘profound and delicate, strong and sub-texted, glowing with observation and truth’ (Writing Home). The circumstances might actually have presented Heaney with moments of unease hidden in his carefully worded narrative: he is in a stately home that would have held different connotations back in Ireland not least for a modest farmer’s boy like himself. He knows the Devlin family very well (so must be careful to govern […]

A Postcard from Iceland

As both medievalist and Irishman Heaney took an interest in the Nordic and Icelandic sagas as pointers to his Celtic legacy. He refers to the ‘unmagical invitations of Iceland’ in the title poem of ‘North’ (1975) and will in his next collection picture himself sharing an outdoor hydrothermal bath in the presence of Snorri Sturluson (1179 –1241), Icelandic historian, poet, and politician (Seeing Things, Settings xxiii , 1991). DOD dates Heaney’s only recorded visit to Iceland with piper Liam O’Flynn to 2001.  In a poem of ‘postcard’ length space demands that each word counts. The poet-linguist in Heaney uses the ploy to unite his deep consciousness of being alive with words that echo a distant language link and secure a […]

The Wishing Tree

On the road out of Ardboe in Co Tyrone down towards Loch Neagh on a sharp right-hand bend, headstones are planted around a ruined church once a monastery. Views over the lough are awesome. At the entrance to the cemetery stands an impressive 10th century High Cross and behind it the site of the ‘Pin Tree’ that blew down on Christmas Eve 1997. It had been poisoned by myriad metallic objects hammered into its ‘wishing tree’ trunk. Heaney was thinking about his wife Marie’s mother Eileen Devlin (the wishing tree that died) when he wrote the piece though he never names her. The Devlin family home was little more than two miles away from the cemetery. Eileen and Tommy Devlin […]

The Summer of Lost Rachel

Heaney responds to the tragic loss of his niece, Rachel, elegising her in the eternal present of his poem. Rachel was the daughter of his brother Hugh who continued to live on the Heaney family property at The Wood. The abundant rain that irrigates the mid-Ulster landscape plays a role in a disastrous accident; the child who was lost is retrieved in the poetic imagination as a water nymph gracing the local landscape. Heaney sets out the prequel to catastrophe:  annual signs of seasonal growth around Rachel’s Bellaghy home (your back door) – crops, like Rachel, not yet mature but well on the way (potato … flowering … hard green plums on damson trees) – the fruitfulness of blackberry or […]

The Milk Factory

On the face of it boy-Heaney, roaming the Castledawson locality with his pals, becomes fascinated by the milky effluent draining into the Moyola from the Nestlé factory, as if a newly discovered feature of the landscape. Linking the milky concoction that discoloured the river waters and its mysterious source releases Heaney’s imagination. Both factory and youngsters who looked on become actors in a kind of sci-fi narrative. Playmates on a riverside walk are drawn to the lumpy, bubbly liquid (scuts of froth) eddying into the river Moyola (swirled), visual evidence of directed leakage from the Nestlé factory (drainage pipe). The cocktail brew (milky water) generates in the poet’s imagination a Crucifixion image of sullied goodness (the pierced side of milk […]


Heaney’s moving, celebratory eight-sonnet sequence picks out moments from a lifetime spent close his mother Margaret Kathleen Heaney née McCann who died three years before the publication of ‘The Haw Lantern’. Heaney set himself the challenge of expressing his love for her and his debt to her in the sensitive ways of which only he is capable. To this end he added the demands of the sonnet form. He commented (DOD312): When my mother died, my own thing was easier to complete. I actually enjoyed writing those sonnets, and did them quickly. And quickest of all was the one about folding sheets, which also turns out to be the most intricate and most playful. Heaney dips into the maternal line […]

The Old Team

Heaney considered himself a ‘Castledawson boy’ – the village was close to his home at Mossbawn, his mother hailed from there and his maternal grandparents lived at 5 New Row. The soccer pitch on Bridge Street overlooked by Christ Church is still part of the Castledawson village landscape. Both figure in a sonnet inspired by an archive photograph of the local football side that pictured his grandfather as a young man. The sonnet elegises not just grandad McCann. It focuses poignantly on that whole cohort of young men who turned out on Saturday afternoons in all weathers, indeed, on a whole mid Ulster era with its class structure from the local landowner down to those spent a lifetime tied to […]

In Memoriam: Robert Fitzgerald

Heaney composes a sonnet elegising a much respected member of the Harvard Senior Common Room (a ‘giant in the autumn of his reign’) whom the poet, on sabbatical leave in New England, first met in 1979. Fitzgerald died in 1985. Heaney particularly liked him for making him, the Irish rookie abroad, feel so much at home. The first seven lines are solidly earth bound before erupting via a single line of surreal cinematic deconstruction into a cosmic journey – from prehistoric diagram to space odyssey.  Megalithic maze and arrow flight both end up at a single point, the first an inward journey saluting prehistoric erudition the second bearing the soul of Fitzgerald to a merited place amongst the stars. The […]

The Spoonbait

As part of what Heaney called a ‘surfeit’ of Catholic training as a youngster the Catechism sought to teach him that the human soul is immortal. Though he is lapsed Heaney’s faith still resonates, sometimes testingly. His metaphysical parable asks whether the immortality of the soul is dependent on faith. Using an extended fishing metaphor Heaney resists the temptation to re-engage. Grappling with his faith brings the need for fresh comparison (a new similitude is given us). Heaney couches his attempt to find a tangible material equivalent of a metaphysical notion (soul) in archaic Old Testament language (compared unto) building the narrative round something he caught unexpected sight of as a school-age youngster: a fishing accessory (spoonbait) that a classmate […]

A Ship of Death

Heaney presents a short section from his much admired ‘Beowulf’, the anonymous epic of the first millennium written in Anglo-Saxon/ Old English which he is translating over time and will publish in its entirety in 1999. The poet remains faithful to the original text using his creative talent and rich store of vocabulary to create a version that is both intellectually competent and pleasing to the ear. Scyld was still a strong man when his time came and he crossed over into Our Lord’s keeping. His warrior band did what he bade them when he laid down the law among the Danes: they shouldered him out to the sea’s flood, the chief they revered who had long ruled them. A […]

From the Land of the Unspoken

A nameless ‘foreign correspondent’ –let us call him ‘Correspondent’ – reports back on an unnamed land.  For all its anonymity, however, we recognise the voice as ‘Heaney’s and his unspoken nowhere as his own land, the island of Ireland. As it develops the poem will reflect deeply and emotionally on the notion of Irish nationhood. Heaney very much regrets that those who would might have wished to change the face of Irishness failed and still fail to change the ‘language’. Correspondent reports first on a neighbouring ‘elsewhere’ (I have heard of) – read ‘France’ – where something ‘absolute’ emerged from its scientific thinking: a unit of length fixed in a durable bar of platinum, accurate to within a few millimeters […]

The Stone Verdict

Heaney indicated that he had strongly considered The Stone Verdict as a title for the collection (DOD290). Elegising his father Patrick Heaney, the poet imagines an alternative memorial to the headstone which stands in Bellaghy churchyard. In a collection that bristles with classical references he turns to a classical source and builds a burial monument that elevates his father to divine status. Heaney places the ‘shadow’ of Patrick Heaney in the judgment place,  not in ‘particular judgment’ before God post mortem but before a ‘jury’ of his mid-Ulster peers, instantly recognisable to those who lived or worked with him with his iconic ash-plant (stick in his hand) and head-gear (broad hat) – the same acutely sensitive Patrick Heaney (maimed by […]

Two Quick Notes

Heaney addresses twin obituaries to an anonymous someone who played a fundamental role in his development. Retrospective clues identifying  his father Patrick Heaney will appear in the next collection, Seeing Things:  ’a solid man, a pillar to himself and to his trade …can sprout wings at the ankle …fleet as the god of fair days ‘ (Crossings xxvii) and, reflecting on the house Patrick designed and built at The Wood, plain, big, straight, ordinary…a paradigm of rigour and correction, rebuke to fanciness and shrine to limit (Crossings xxxiii), finally the quoted judge who suffered no fool gladly (The Ash Plant). I Heaney tells of his long-standing closeness (old…friend) to an uncompromising figure (hard) – someone who at times actively looked […]


As early as Blackberry Picking with his family in Death of a Naturalist (1966) child-Heaney discovered perishability In the world around him, laws of mutabilty that reduced stored treasure to decomposition, pleasurable blackberries to ‘rat-grey fungus’. The experience offered him two lessons, firstly that nothing remains in its perfect state for long and secondly that moments of poetic charge from whatever source can and do spark an involuntary welling up of emotional consciousness within him. The heart-on-ones-sleeve responses of that early poem are replaced, in the metaphysical parable of Hailstones, by the outcome of a childhood experience in which ice melted into nothing and how its nothingness in the mind of a child destined to become a poet became an […]

From the Republic of Conscience

An anonymous first person ‘I’, let us call him Traveller, journeys wittingly to a place with a mysterious name. Traveller is an individual normally caught up in a maelstrom of activity, sensitive to Nature surrounding him and family-minded. I Heaney accepted that the poem was set in a remote island off the north-east coast of Scotland: I imagined the Republic of Conscience as a place of silence and solitude where a person would find it hard to avoid self-awareness and self-examination, which is what made me think of Orkney (DOD292); The airplane carrying Traveller has arrived at its scheduled destination – an allegorical somewhere bearing an unusual name (republic of conscience). Traveller is met with conducive silence (noiseless when the […]

Parable Island

For all the title’s alignment of ‘Island’ and ‘Ireland’ Heaney presents his four-piece sequence of 1985 as a fictional place in which he is a silent listener. The clues he feeds into the narrative reveal, however, that he is on home ground. Helen Vendler’s view that the importance of these poems of competing discourses lies in the poet’s conviction that the person who owns the language owns the story, and that he who wishes to change the story must first change the language (HV125) is at the very source.  Parable Island regrets the seeming impossibility of what Heaney yearns for in his every sinew: he senses that from the way they communicate with each other the Irish themselves have placed […]

A Daylight Art

for Norman MacCaig In this fascinating poem Heaney seeks to shed light on tantalizing questions. What is self-doubt?  What is ‘art’? Where does it begin and where does it end? Is there a place alongside ‘art’ for ‘art form’? Where does he stand? He shines his lamp on what makes people tick – historical or classical figures or characters in tragic drama  – and finally what makes him tick. He claims his ‘light’ is generated from pursuits he follows, the ‘art’ writing poetry and the ‘art form’ of catching fish! Jacques Louis David’s canvas of Socrates pictures him on his death couch (day he was to take the poison), holding forth to friends, supporters and gaolers. Heaney is perplexed that, […]

The Stone Grinder

He who composes the poem provides the key to understanding (‘ordained opacities’ line 9).  If we are to enter The Stone Grinder easily then sifting the clues Heaney provides is key. On the one hand legendary queen Penelope of Homeric legend with a mission to achieve (some guarantee of a plot) in challenging circumstances; by cunning construction and deconstruction of her shroud (she unweaved at night) she engineers a successful outcome for herself advance it all by a day), defeating unworthy male intrusion in the process; her story and her ‘plot’ are memorialised in Homer’s classic. Alongside queen Penelope an unpretentious figure of old Irish pedigree – a tetchy stone grinder who has laboured at the same job throughout his […]

From the Frontier of Writing

Beyond Heaney’s metaphysical assertion that (for creative spirits at least) ‘somewhere can be anywhere’ one comes to understand that in stark reality the poet is rarely just ‘anywhere’: we recognise a road block mounted by the British Army somewhere in Northern Ireland in the post 1972 period, acknowledge that Heaney is the man behind the wheel of his car and that, similar to the fate of a nation under occupation, this poet’s life and career have undergone humiliating stresses and strains of others’ making. The piece’s first 12 lines adopt a kind of ‘cinéma vérité’ approach – portraying threatening subject matter, exposing an unpleasant reality that so many Irish people suffered at the time, reducing military scrutiny to its basic […]


Heaney sets out the tangle of contradictions and demarcations with which his brain was confronted from an early age. The poet tells Neil Corcoran just how confusing he found Mossbawn boundaries following the commentaries below. The frontman Heaney selects for the title of his triptych is the Roman god of boundaries able to look in both directions, something Heaney feels a poet should aspire to. Perhaps also, as history has recorded, the position reached by Heaney’s earl character in the final couplet was equally a ‘terminus’ point for Irish unification. The first two parts of the poem set out the doubleness of young Heaney’s experience, conflicting sets of evidence arranged in left-right fashion and organized within the framework of lived […]


Alphabets commissioned by the exclusive Phi Beta Kappa Society of high-performing undergraduates and friends at Harvard University was delivered in the Sanders Theatre in 1984 The sets of letters that represent the sounds and glyphs of language as a child first hears it form the basis of its written and reading forms critical both to basic skills and more refined long-term uses. Learning the alphabet underpins the first stage at school. First language comes from home and school; subsequent ones out of interest or study. Heaney runs us through his range of English, Latin, Irish and Greek from modest Anahorish Primary to the most prestigious lecture theatres in the world. I A child’s earliest memory of shape: the shadow of […]


Seamus Heaney’s The Haw Lantern is the poet’s seventh collection published by Faber and Faber in 1987. By that stage Seamus Heaney is a highly cultured, sensitive, northern Irish Catholic approaching fifty settled in the family home in Dublin. He has a part-year Professorship at Harvard University and receives invitations from around the globe. His nature is modest, sociable and self-questioning; he is a magician with words and the subtle shades of meaning they enclose and is gifted with a photographic memory. ‘The Haw Lantern’ is intellectually demanding, thoughtful and innovative … it ponders, measures, selects and judges. The book demonstrates the erudition and vitality of his earlier work adding a sequence of eight cathartic sonnets addressed to his mother’s […]

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 […]