Heaney the extraordinary man in ordinary clothes Heaney the cordon-bleu cook Heaney the agent of change Heaney the orchestrator Heaney the word painter Heaney the meticulous craftsman Stylistic devices an extraordinary man in ordinary clothes Poets are a breed apart!  Unlike ordinary mortals, such as you and me, 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 are alchemists Heaney was one of the tribe – he acknowledged […]


(from Dante, Inferno, xxxii, xxxiii) Heaney closes Field Work with passages translated from Dante’s original text. The following commentary does not provide detailed textual survey but provides definitions as a means to understanding the narrative plus coloured-hearing that showcases Heaney’s craftsmanship even in translation.  Further comments and references relate to Heaney’s decision to complete Field Work in this grisly way. In a collection that spends a deal of its time bolstering Heaney’s decision in 1972 to relocate with his family to the Irish Republic and sever his contacts the North this ‘black painting’ of the medieval Ugolino episode, though he might downplay it, provokes Heaney’s sense of outrage at political developments effectively triggered from Whitehall. He explained the twin intent […]

In Memoriam Francis Ledwidge

KILLED IN FRANCE IN JULY 1917 Heaney pays tribute to a poet whose life followed an enigmatic pattern and who though Irish through and through was killed in First World War action in Flanders fighting for the British. Heaney’s elegy falls into four parts: the ‘vigilant bronze’; the aspiring country boy; the white-faced Tommy; the poetic voice stifled. Part 1: in anticipation of Francis Ledwidge Heaney takes us back to his childhood and his first sight as a seven year old of the sculpture standing on Portstewart’s First World War Memorial. The effigy (bronze soldier) is adjusting his standard-issue uniform (hitches a bronze cape) textured (crumples stiffly) to mimic First World War conditions (in imagined wind) totally suited to the […]

The Harvest Bow

A harvest bow, said Heaney in conversation with Christopher Bigsby, is a little piece of wheat that is plaited and turned into a bow and my father simply made it without thinking every year. When I moved to Wicklow, when I was in my thirties, I thought I would like to have one of those and I got him to make me one. I wore it in my lapel and I thought that is a bit folksy for me to be wearing. I felt I had every right to it but at the same time it was just a wee bit heritagy and so I took it and pinned it up on the dresser and wrote this poem about it […]


Heaney is touring the English Midlands. What he sees from his car window ignites a poetic charge expressing just how his mind and personality respond to things left behind (leavings), from field stubble to the scars inflicted by the Tudor Reformation. The poet’s eye meets burning fields after harvest time. His mid-Ulster farming background has taught him all about air funnels in heat (soft whoosh), farmers’ timings (sunset blaze) and the combustible materials involved (straw on blackened stubble). He can talk proportions (thatch-deep), clean start (freshening), fierceness (barbarous) and evening fire glow (crimson burn). Feigning period transport (I rode down England) he uses the coincidence of stubble burning (as they fired the crop) to clarify his title (the leavings of […]


Eight lines produce an outstanding distillation of Irish landscape, Celtic mythology and the sounds and associations of language and music. The piece culminates in an expression of the pure joy of being alive and Irish, echoing the poetry of legendary Irish giant Finn McCool. The first tree Heaney espies (rowan) is female oriented, ideally shaped and coloured to house a Celtic wood nymph (like a lipsticked girl) growing alone at the junction of ancient and modern Ireland (between the by-road and the main road). Then trees with male associations (alder) braving the Irish climate (wet and dripping) distant and detached from humbler marshy flora (stand off among the rushes). Some Irish legends had it that the first woman came from […]

Field Work

The sequence navigates a route from imperfection to Heaney’s representation of perfection. The ultimate paragon will be his wife Marie. I Heaney was a vigilant close reader of what met his eye: willow leaves that bore differing tints above and beneath (sally tree went pale in every breeze), creatures ever on the qui-vive for danger (perfect eye of the nesting blackbird) the tiny idiosyncrasies of nature (one fern … always green). Close observation, too, of Marie (standing watching you ) on the occasion she picked up cleaning materials (pad from the gatehouse) on the other side of the railway track (crossing) and strained upwards (reach to lift) to remove an imperfection in nature (white wash off the whins). The circular […]


In yet another so-called ‘marriage poem’ the poet seeks to rebalance his relationship with a wife who has felt neglected. Analogizing the best of Dutch engineering in the light of his and Marie’s spits and spats on relationship issues Heaney portrays her as a stretch of reclaimed waterland (polder) ever susceptible to water, weather or, in poetic allegory, domestic moodiness (sudden outburst … squalls). His reclamation was the physical act of embracing her (hooped) mindful (remembered) of linguistic correspondences (what could be contained) between the wife in his tight supportive clench (caliper embrace) and words of Dutch provenance –physical closeness (bosom) and perfect fit (fathom) both its Old Norse meaning of ‘embrace’ and its measure and length (what the extended […]

A Dream of Jealousy

  Heaney made use of the dream trope across his poetry. As he well understands admitting us into his subconscious poses questions in search of answers. Dream narrative twists, turns and distorts but there is always an innate anxiety waiting to surface. The emotional pressures Heaney’s ‘absence’ from his relationship with Marie alluded to in An Afterwards remain centre-stage. In conversation with DOD (206) Heaney offered a strong pointer to the identity of the second woman as his poetic muse: Obviously, there were many times when I was under pressure to finish stuff for a deadline, and there were absences from home when I was doing broadcasts or readings, and there were the withdrawals and impatiences that are part and […]


Let us imagine that a poet who has returned from a lecture tour in the United States that he undertook on his own is facing the partner he left to cope with home and family alone. He presents himself as a housemartin returning from its long journey in early summer to reclaim its niche and its partner. He depicts her as the housemartin’s nest. I Heaney concentrates his eye-camera on the flight of the bird that becomes the focus of his own return to the nest. He barks out the first of his imperatives (fetch me the sandmartin). Here is a creature that flies alarmingly close to the watery surface (skimming) on a weaving flight path (veering) a mirror image […]

The Skunk

Heaney follows ‘The Otter’ with a second zoomorphic poem. Alone and cooped up in North Berkeley close to the University there were moments when Heaney felt five thousand miles from home. He uses the nightly presence of a creature not generally regarded as emblematic of love or desire to conjure up the beauty, intensity and sexual appeal of his wife Marie. Think creature think wife from the outset. A bobbing first impression (tail) triggered Heaney’s imagination – something proud and erect (up) with alternating black and white rings (striped), richly textured (damasked) like (a touch of irreverence perhaps from a man who has lost the faith) the Catholic clerical vestment at dire moment (chasuble at a funeral mass). The tail’s […]

The Otter

A man who adores his wife body and soul, cooped up on an American University campus five thousand miles from home is suddenly missing her acutely. Heaney relishes her beauty, intensity and sexual appeal as if she were there beside him before the poetic charge fades. He addresses his very personal message to her via an inventive zoomorphic picture using a creature not usually seen as a symbol of love or desire. Moments are memorable, catchable, describable, fleeting, retainable. Presence even in absentia has a permanence and intensity recreated and embedded in the eternal present of a poem. Pictures of Marie Heaney ‘skinny dipping’ (hence perhaps her ‘pelt’ of the final couplet) in a Tuscan pool trigger emotional and erotic […]

High Summer

The poem is set in the French Pays Basque region visited by the Heaney family in 1969 to fulfil the conditions of the Somerset Maugham Award. Heaney and Marie had their two young sons with them – Michael born in 1966 and Christopher born in 1968 who was cutting his teeth as they holidayed. The claustrophobia of gite accommodation in trying circumstances offered little respite to a man who was also a poet! Nothing was to be done to soothe Christopher (child cried inconsolably) when his crying most grated on parents in need of rest (at night). With his flowing locks the neighbours who mistook the ‘he’ for a ‘she’ (la petite) were treated to the endless wailing (him harrowing […]

An Afterwards

Seamus and Marie Heaney were strong individuals with differing personalities (‘our separateness’ of Glanmore Sonnet X), so the occasional contretemps is natural to a healthy relationship between two people faced with different priorities – his to make sure the bills were paid, hers to make sure their children enjoyed their fair share of father’s time. Marie Heaney has reached an emotional flash-point! Her husband’s constant withdrawal up the ‘narrow winding stair’ to his workroom to meet a deadline or inhabit the world where poets were his ‘next of kin’ is an abdication of responsibility. Heaney selects a scene from Dante’s Inferno to play out a dramatic exchange between man and wife. Once when Marie reached the end of her tether […]

September Song

Heaney acknowledges that like Dante then, he now is en el medio del camino, at the half-way stage of his ‘threescore years and ten’ (in the middle of the way). He and his family are faced with re-relocation from Glanmore to Dublin and nature is in tune with torn emotions: wateriness (wet of late September) low-pressure turbulence (ash tree flails). Even the household pet senses disruption (our dog is tearing earth). At the back end of the Wicklow year water mounts (rising ditches) and nature regresses (fern subsides). Downpours sit on both natural and man-made surfaces (rain-logged berries and stones are rained upon); fallen mast (acorns) reflects in the morning light (shine from grassy verges). Change is nigh (it’s nearly […]

Glanmore Sonnets – 10

x With all the twists and turns of Heaney’s subconscious dream the Glanmore Sonnets reach a positive conclusion. The poet’s imagination fired e when he was asleep (I dreamt we slept). His anxiety as regards a major relocation of his own doing has placed him and Marie alongside each other in an Irish Republic peatbog (a moss in Donegal) facing a night under the sky (turf banks under blankets), open to the elements (our faces exposed all night), in unfavourable conditions (wetting drizzle) and deathly pale (pallid) amidst the pathetic fallacy of empathetic nature (dripping sapling birches). There are comforting precedents: a couple with Shakespearean credentials (Lorenzo and Jessica) made it together, far from the warmth of Venice (in a […]

Glanmore Sonnets – 9

                                                                                                        IX The peace and stability of domestic life in Glanmore is disrupted by a dark force (black rat), in clear view (sways on the briar) and threatening well-being (like infected fruit). Marie Heaney builds to a paroxysm of revulsion – the creature’s audacity (It looked me through) and wilfulness (stared me out) as clear as day (I’m not imagining things)! She dispatches her liegeman husband on a rodent extermination mission (Go you out to it). How much did the drama, Heaney wonders, cast a cloud over the whole decision to move to the Republic (the wilderness for this?) when all else is positive: healthy natural greenery (burnished bay tree at the gate) Irish as Irish(classical) its pagan association replaced […]

Glanmore Sonnets – 8

                                                                                                   VIII Heaney’s routine is suddenly unsettled (thunderlight): signs of everyday Glanmore productivity (split logs) are marred by a warm summer downfall (big raindrops at body heat) that, as it changes colour (spattering dark) onthe wood-cleaving tool (hatchet iron), introduces a darkening mood (lush with omen).  The early-day portent of a lurching scavenger (magpie with jerky steps) looking instinctively for personal advantage (horse asleep beside the wood) is consistent with the damper (dew) of Ireland’s battles and bloody victims (armour and carrion). Questions betray increasing anxiety as to where threats lie (what … meet?) –  a gory animal corpse run over by a vehicle (blood-boltered, on the road?) or an evil Shakespearean ‘familiar’ (toad) haunting the cottage garden (deep into […]

Glanmore Sonnets – 7

                                                                                                     VII The counselling voice Heaney Incertus sought in the title poem of ‘North’ is replaced by Heaney’s own voice pronouncing his eureka moment, a single word that corroborates the benefits and protections Wicklow offers fishermen in a storm and the Heaney family re-located in Glanmore Cottage. A clipped BBC radio voice intones sea areas (most of them) adjacent to Ireland (Dogger, Rockall, Malin, Irish Sea). Heaney envisions the turbulence they share – the colour, swell and thunder of the ocean (green, swift upsurges, North Atlantic flux). Poetic charge has been triggered (conjured) by the BBC radio Shipping Forecast announcer (strong gale-warning voice), his intonation falling (collapse) into the hissing consonant sounds of the forecast’s final listing –‘Faeroes, Southeast Iceland […]

Glanmore Sonnets – 6

                                                                                              VI Perhaps Heaney is recalling his ‘wood kerne’ (one of those Catholic rebels who, during the earlier course of Irish history, took to the woods when defeated, to prepare for further resistance) in ‘Exposure’, the final poem of ‘North’. Sitting in his workroom the poet conjures up a mid-Ulster folk hero said to have ridden his motorbike daringly through extreme winter conditions in 1947, a ‘wild goose’ figure (a second group of rebels who supported the defeated Catholic cause). With this in mind the whole sonnet may be read as an allegory of minority Catholic repression in Northern Ireland challenged. Heaney introduces an anonymous man (He) the mirror image of himself who has lived tongue-tied in an Irish sectarian […]

Glanmore Sonnets – 5

                                                                                                         v Heaney examines the distinctive textures of the two languages and traditions that shaped his upbringing (MP 169) From his new-found Glanmore location Heaney explores in his mind the properties of a familiar tree first known by its mid Ulster name (boortree). He can still feel its vertically furrowed trunk (soft corrugations), recall its eagerness to grow (green young shoots) and its youngest branches (rods) shining molten silver with dark flecking (freckled solder). Once upon a time the Heaney siblings used it as a hideaway (our bower as children), now in retrospect a tad less appreciated (greenish, dank and snapping memory).  Background and education taught him a different name (elderberry I have learned to call it). Heaney had a […]

Glanmore Sonnets – 4

                                                                                                  IV Heaney vaults neatly over the recent past in Belfast to land in his rural surroundings at Mossbawn farm skirted by the Castledawson railway line. Precociously curious, the child-poet-to-be was interested in the messages of sound … if one knew how, the railway track (lie with an ear to the line), he was told (they said), would broadcast in advance (a sound escaping ahead) the metallic song (iron tune) of an express steam locomotive (flange and piston) speeding headlong by (pitched along the ground). Nothing so romantic happened in his case (I never heard that) – just the echoes of freight traffic (struck couplings and shuntings) from Castledawson marshalling-yard (two miles away) carried through space (lifted over the woods). […]

Glanmore Sonnets – 3

                                                                                            III Evening with the Heaneys … the poet watches from the window as night begins to fall: two different species of bird (cuckoo and … corncrake) (and in the back of his mind perhaps himself and his wife) are regaling in a surfeit (so much), nay, a superabundance (too much) of togetherness (consorted). He is in poetry-mode as regards both the language of light effects (all crepuscular) and the ‘tum-tee-tum’ of composition (iambic). New life in his eyeshot (baby rabbit), learning its way (took his bearings); images of shy creatures (I knew the deer) … instinctive (connoisseurs), danger-alert (inquisitive of air … careful), ever poised to make an escape (under larch and May-green spruce). There is no going back […]

Glanmore Sonnets – 2

                                                                                                    II The relocated wordsmith checks that his word-hoard is operational: involuntary charges (sensings) arising from a store-house in the depths of his mind (mountings from the hiding places) in distinct meaningful shapes (words) that he can almost hold in his hand (entering almost the sense of touch), words with a creature instinct of their own (ferreting themselves) and a yearning to be released into the light (out of their dark hutch). Heaney’s is not to reason why he possesses this gift, as he recalls from an insightful comment (‘these things are not secrets but mysteries’) offered by a creative spirit engaged in a parallel process (Oisin Kelly), an Irish sculptor he met once (years ago In Belfast) –  Kelly, […]

Glanmore Sonnets – 1

                                                                                                   I                                                                                  Totally at home with the farming calendar from his Mossbawn days but now a freelance poet Heaney sets out to test his muse against his new Glanmore surroundings. His mood could not be more determined: now is the moment to sow new poem seeds (vowels ploughed into other), to make optimum use of the gap established between his family in Glanmore and the rawness of life in Northern Ireland (opened ground). The weather omens are excellent: conditions for early germination are ideal (mildest February for twenty years) the family’s new Eden appeals to the senses with its lyrical visual opportunities (mist bands over furrows) plus the total absence of city noise – deep no sound broken (vulnerable) only […]