Wedding Day

Heaney harks back to his Wedding Day in August 1965 when he married Marie Devlin; they have been married for nearly fifty years when the poet dies in 2013. Heaney’s day of celebration is filled with anxiety: I am afraid. Silence reigns (Sound has stopped in the day), replaced by a cascade of wedding ‘visuals’ (the images reel over/ And over). Heaney is puzzled as to why (when the Devlin family had not so much lost a daughter as gained a son) his abiding memory should be of all those tears, as to why his father-in-law’s emotions as betrayed by his countenance (The wild grief on his face /Outside the taxi?) fail to differentiate between a short honeymoon and total […]

Mother of the Groom

A compassionate poem in which Heaney moves from decoding the thoughts and feelings of characters he knows less well in Wedding Day to a person he has known all his life. Mother of the Groom focuses on the poet’s own mother listening to the wedding breakfast speeches. He imagines her feelings as she sits silently through the proceedings. Heaney imagines that at this life-changing moment his mother is remembering him, first as a babe in arms, bath-water reflected on his glistening back then, once he has learnt to walk, as a kind of Baby Bear figure his small boots In the ring of boots at her feet. The hands that once held the child on her knee lie now in […]

Summer Home

The poet revealed to DOD that ‘Those little poems in ‘Summer Home’ come more from pressure of personal experience than from any literary influence’ (p147). Significantly, in 1969, the Heaneys had spent time in the Bas-Pyrénées region of France fulfilling a condition of the Somerset Maugham Award of the previous year. The cocktail of summer heat in a foreign clime, questionable accommodation, sheer fatigue and the company of two children under three years of age pushes an otherwise reasonable man over the top. Heaney dramatizes a traumatic domestic event for which he feels guilty responsibility: act 1 provides the catalyst that lights his fuse; act 2 depicts deep remorse and an act of penitence; act 3 confirms an as yet […]

Serenades

Following the domestic tribulations of ‘Summer Home’ the Heaney family back home; harmony has been restored, the children are sleeping soundly and love is renewed. The poet celebrates the Serenades to be heard, before inviting his wife to shut out the world and retire for the night with him. Heaney engages in a spot of leg-pulling – the Irish nightingale is a figment of Irish folklore imagination. ‘Their’ Irish version is a sedge-warbler, a bird noted for the unromantic din it makes (A little bird with a big voice/ Kicking up a racket all night) decidedly unemblematic of Irish musical culture: Not what you’d expect/ From the musical nation. Wherever the Irish nightingale is supposed to perform it has never […]

Somnambulist

Helen Vendler, long-term friend of the poet and author of books, articles and reviews of his poetry, provides a key to this cryptic, elusive piece: In this dream of guilt and repentance Seamus Heaney is a Wordsworthian boy robbing a nest of eggs (cf. The Prelude (1850), Book First, ll. 326-28). Placed close in the collection to ‘Summer Home’ which describes a holiday crisis in Heaney’s relationship with his wife, Marie Heaney, for which he suffers acute guilt feelings, Somnambulist provides a ‘psychological’ dream sequel in which he and his estranged wife take part. A crime against life (the theft of a mother bird’s egg) is exposed via a tragedian’s dramatic body posture: the somnambulist stares at the physical agents of theft […]

A Winter’s Tale

Referring to the period before his sabbatical in 1971 (spent at Berkeley University in California) Heaney revealed to DOD (p124) that ‘Earlier on, in 1969 and 1970, I’d written the group of poems about women in distress – ‘Shore Woman’, ‘Maighdean Mara’, ‘A Winter’s Tale’, ‘Limbo’. Heaney’s ‘more inward, broody’ mindset is present in A Winter’s Tale, an episode from the life of a lost soul linked via the title with Shakespeare’s Perdita (reference Latin ‘lost one’). Heaney knew the girl’s identity through the community grapevine. Offspring with mental health problems could be a feature of the ‘closed’ Ulster villages of and before Heaney’s time (see also ‘Stick Drawings’ of Spirit Level). The poet recalls a group that hunted down […]

Shore Woman

Heaney revealed to DOD(p124) that ‘the fishing scenario in ‘Shore Woman’ is in fact an amalgam of two Kerry occasions – one when we went out on Kenmare Bay with Sean O’Riada and actually caught a heap of mackerel; another, reported to us by a man in Dingle, who told how his wife panicked when their boat was surrounded by porpoises’. The poem, one of a series depicting women in distress, and its epigraph linking men with the land and women with the sea identify Shore Woman as the narrator. The piece paints all the themes, variations, dynamics and drama of a sea symphony in words. The first movement, calm, lyrical andante cantabile, introduces a storyteller sensitive to the sound […]

Maighdean Mara

For Sean Oh-Eocha The report of a drowning and its circumstances prompted Heaney to represent the happening as the action of a sea-spirit returning to her element rather than that of an unfortunate woman driven to despair and suicide by her narrow, hard-hearted judges. Heaney knew of associated mythology identifying female selkies, said to make excellent wives, but, because their true home was the sea, often be seen gazing longingly at the ocean. If she found her skin she would immediately return to her true home in the sea. Sometimes, a selkie maiden was taken as a wife by a human man and she mothered several children by him. In some stories it was one of her children who discovered […]

Limbo

Prompted by the story of a baby’s body dredged up by fishermen Heaney traces a path through the emotional, maternal, religious and spiritual ramifications of infanticide from within a confused mother’s experience. ‘The poem may be read as a parable for an Ireland in which ‘tribal taboos and laws can so easily outweigh ‘civilized’ humane values’ (MP114-5). Heaney suggests, without passing judgment on her himself that, rather than suffer the ostracism faced by unmarried mothers in the so-called ‘christian’ communities in which she lived, the mother has tried unsuccessfully to cleanse herself of sin by drowning her new-born.. A gruesome discovery, splashed as a news headline, Fishermen at Ballyshannon/ Netted an infant last night generates in the poet an image […]

Bye-Child

He was discovered in the henhouse/ Where she had confined him. He was incapable of saying anything. Articles in Ireland’s Mourne Observer of September and October 1956 outlined the extraordinary discovery of 7 year-old Kevin Murphy kept in isolation in an outhouse almost since birth and subsequently the conviction of his 45 year-old mother Margaret Murphy, imprisoned for 9 months for the wilful neglect of Kevin, her fifth child. Kevin was born illegitimate. ‘Although his short life-time has consisted of continuous physical and emotional deprivation, the child has been able to transcend his kennel prison and achieved a hard and bright lucidity of spirit … He has journeyed ‘beyond patience’ and beyond the limitations of human ‘love’, and identified in […]

Good-night

A vignette from Seamus Heaney’s past set as a play; an elegiac dramatization in memoriam of his mother’s purposeful character. No words are spoken; no words are necessary. The scene is a humble farmyard, the observer’s attention is grabbed by the familiar sound of a door latch lifting and he watches the sharply delineated rectangle of warmth and security revealed by the swinging door: edged den of light/ Opens across the yard. The contrast of external darkness and stage lighting produces striking effects. A watcher in the dark, he follows the action from a distance. There are two actors on stage quickly identified as the parents who provided the love and security of Heaney’s family home at Mossbawn. Initially silhouetted […]

First Calf

Hymn to a patient, lowly beast that accepts her lot unquestioningly unlike the poet who, we sense, is ‘wintering out’, biding his time, growing impatient for change. Heaney has returned to a lost domain after prolonged absence (It’s a long time since …) Early life alongside a father who dealt in and owned cattle has provided Heaney with first-hand knowledge: he can tell instinctively that this is the cow’s First Calf. The placenta that traditional farming practices did not waste (The afterbirth strung on the hedge) evokes the pain of delivery and the goriness of the birth: As if the wind smarted/And streamed bloodshot tears. Indifferent to precise location, the mother stands calmly Somewhere about, her disproportionate frame instantly recognizable […]

May

Heaney treads his way through his cherished Ulster landscape. He does not identify the location but Wintering Out features the Moyola of Heaney’s childhood and the bridge at Broagh both of which fit the bill admirably. His uncertainties suggest that he is far from home and dipping into his Irish memory bank. The narrative unfolds in May when springtime sets everything in motion, not least poetic emotions. The poet paints a post-card from snippets of memory: a place with a the bridge ; a spot where startled fish distorted reflections on the river’s surface Trout were flipping the sky / Into smithereens); a welcome point at which to stop a while (the stones/ Of the wall warmed me). His footsteps […]

Fireside

Heaney tells of intimate adult conversations by the Fireside and how, as a child, he would listen intently to the tales, sometimes losing himself in his imaginings. Without fail (Always) these fireside conversations would turn to unearthly stories of lights / hovering by bushes or at the foot of a meadow or scary animal figures (a goat with cold horns) in silhouette (pluming into the moon), or ghostly midnight presences betrayed by a tingle of chains on the ( )road. On occasion (Then, maybe) reports (word) would be circulating of local poachers engaged in the nocturnal lamping of fishes, to the narrator a blend of skill and black magic (watery art). The boy would suddenly become part of the action, […]

Dawn

Academics on tour and an overnight coach journey turn into personal ordeal. The marathon has reached a new Dawn and brought with it the urge to escape. Allegory is never far away: Heaney in 1969 is entering his ‘wintering out’ phase, biding his time and waiting for other things to come along. A travelling companion lets in the growing daylight: Somebody lets up a blind to reveal a shrub at the window, bright (Glitters), profuse and fresh (a mint of green leaves), buffeted (Pitched and tossed) by the currents of air. Progress through a town is halted by a traffic control (we stopped for lights/ In the centre). The narrative picks out the detail: pigeon-call (clucking); pigeons down /On the […]

Travel

A moment during a family holiday reveals a misnomer: thanks to the stultifying heat of the sun no movement is possible; siesta is the order of the day. Even the heavy-duty animals used to the climate are struggling to stay upright: Oxen supporting their heads/ into the afternoon sun. Only hot-climate fruit clearly visible on the opposing slopes benefits from the molten sunlight: melons studding the hill like brass. Human life has come to a standstill and anyone capable of mental activity (who reads into distances) is way, way ahead of the poet, his wife (us), their sleeping children and the tangible signs of desert conditions: the dust settling in scorched grass. oxen: bovines used to drag heavy loads; stud: […]

Westering

In this final piece (the only poem referring specifically to California) Heaney draws on a series of physical and metaphysical ‘spheres’: moon, earth, self, soul. He divulges his emotional responses to home and faith. He paints his narrative against bleak landscapes: the moon’s surface, Calvary (where Christ was crucified), Ireland in trouble. He uses the gravitational pull between objects, physical and spiritual, to illustrate things caught up in an inexorable clockwork. In this final piece, the poet admits he is ‘disposed ( ) towards origin and the inward path’(DOD142). If Heaney was ‘unhappy and at home’ in Tollund Man (in this collection), his sabbatical in America has taken him away from home but is not delivering much that cheers him […]

Afterthoughts

  Finding the blend The most successful poets share much in common with the best chefs; the latters’ knowledge of the finest products supplemented by a talent that adds the individual flavours of spices, herbs and sundry ingredients in just the right amounts at just the right moment produces the unique, mouth-watering experiences capable of delighting and inspiring those who savour the result. The ‘knowledge’ is gleaned from experience and requires hard work; the ‘talent’ is a gift granted only to very few. In these respects Heaney is a craftsman pursuing a similar goal. In Wintering Out he is the ‘master-chef’. Whatever the initial stages in the process, the moment a poem ‘comes on’ or ideas with a poetic charge […]