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

In the anonymity of Heaney’s ‘From the…’ world, somewhere can be anywhere … except that 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 routine and repressing personal feelings on both sides – survival. Only when the […]


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 […]