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 sensual kinship.

Visiting a hydrothermal area Heaney stooped (dipped) to check the temperature (test the stream) close to a hot spring. It was, however, the sounds from within the glossy sediment that captured his attention (the whole mud-slick muttering and boiling).

His guide, tuning his commentary to his client’s background and current preoccupation (I think you’d want to know), intervened to clarify ‘Lukewarm’ and teach him something new (luk was an old Icelandic word for hand’).

Little could his guide know, the poet-academic avers in kindly fashion, that etymology was taking second place at that instant to the emotional feel of water on the hand that he had left in the stream (that waft and pressure felt) figured in the poem as the warm handshake between Icelandic water and Irishman’s hand (inner palm of water found my palm), between Heaney and his sense of distant roots.

  • dip: stoop, bow;
  • mud-slick: mud with a smooth, glossy surface;
  • mutter: make barely audible grumbling sounds;
  • lukewarm: tepid, neither too hot nor too cold:
  • waft: gentle movement;
  • pressure: perceptible physical force;
  • palm: inner hand surface between wrist and fingers;


  • 3 triplets in3 sentences: 1 investigation, 2 guide input, 3 deeper emotional response;
  • line length 9-12 syllables; plentiful use of enjambment; unrhymed;
  • assonant effects: [i] dipped…spring…slick muttering and boiling…think…Icelandic; [ɒ] from a hot…want…waft; [ai] my guide behind ..I…Icelandic; [ʌ] could…mud…muttering; [u:] lukewarm…luh… you…you…usual;
  • alliterative chains: front of mouth [l] [w][h]; reprises of alveolar [t/d], bilabial [p/b], velar [k/g] nasals [m/n], sibilants [s/z/sh], labio-dental [f/v];


  • Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to.
  • the music of the poem: fourteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text;
  • syllables without highlight are largely the unstressed sound as in common, little [ə]

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats, soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies; this is sonic engineering of the first order;
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;

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