Heaney an extraordinary man in ordinary clothing

Heaney the cordon-bleu cook

Heaney the agent of change

Heaney the orchestral composer

Heaney the word painter

Heaney the meticulous craftsman (including phonetic information)

Thumbnails of poems ‘Titles and elements’

Stylistic devices


an extraordinary man in ordinary clothes

Poets are a breed apart!  Unlike ordinary mortals such as you and I 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 that there were times poems ‘came on’ in torrents;
  • He said of the parable poems in ‘The Haw Lantern’ the parables … were unexpected and odd and a big excitement for a relatively short time, but then the excitement just went;
  • then, in almost the same breath, he confessed to periods of drought when he wondered where his next title might come from;
  • poems come on unexpectedly;
  • the catalyst might be something from a book or a photo … a gallery exhibit or a foreign place … a newspaper report or a dictionary… something televised or remembered from church… even a serious metaphysical conversation between poet and his inner self;
  • poets are ordinary humans who produce extraordinary work
  • no question of Heaney living in some ivory tower … inside the skin of this extraordinary poet lived a modest, practical man coping with the things everyday life threw at him –  a wife and children to support,  bills to pay,  publishing contracts to meet, the will to supplement his poetry royalties with a stream of activities (poetry readings,  radio programmes, chances to meet his contemporaries) that continued even as his estate grew post-Nobel;
  • he was so successful that as he grew older it became exhausting;
  • Heaney the generous spirit as a person who found it difficult to say ‘no’ Heaney was forever at a ‘beck-and-call’ of his own making;
  • once his global reputation was established, his life developed an almost unstoppable momentum – increased foreign travel, a constant flood of invitations, prestigious awards in the shape of a Nobel prize for Literature in 1995 and distinguished academic positions he held at Harvard and Oxford Universities;
  • Heaney rose head and shoulders above the others in the tribe and, like cream in milk, rose to the top of his profession;

Comparison with performers in other virtuoso roles might offer a few insights into what it takes for Heaney to weave his creative magic.

Heaney the cordon bleu ‘cook’

  • in common with the best chefs he strives to find the right blend;
  • he and they recognise and deal solely with the finest products – they are endowed with a talent that adds the individual flavours of spices, herbs and myriad ingredients in just the right amounts at just the right moment;
  • they produce unique, signature dishes capable of delighting and inspiring those who savour the result;
  • their ‘knowledge’ is gleaned from experience, experimentation and hard graft … their ‘talent’ is a gift granted only to very few;
  • Heaney is both wordsmith and ‘master-chef’ – inspiration is just a start – spontaneous ideas can only gain from being worked upon.

Heaney the agent of change 

he wants to transform poetic charge into mouth-watering dishes – each will involve a deliberate process of composition and revision that will determine the ultimate structure, vocabulary, verse-form and imagery of each poem.

  • Heaney’s copious ‘word hoard’ grants him access to a rich list of poetic devices available to all who write – he takes from it just what he needs –  to add an underlay… or ring a change … or carry an image through … or provide an echo;
  • he wants no more than to turn ordinary language into a culinary feast for the senses and his blend of ingredients, roughly translated as ‘style’, is the ‘mix’ he favours in each poem to carry his message forward.

Heaney the orchestral composer

  • in seeking to write poetry that is pleasing to the ear or reflects his mood and preoccupations (jubilant, sad or harsh, calm or furious, light or sweet or slowly dying away) Heaney shares much in common with an orchestral composer;
  • he starts at a slight disadvantage because scored music brings with it a code of expression marks that indicate the way in which a piece is to be performed be it volume, cadence, emphasis and so on;
  • without expression marks the music risks being monotonous and boring;
  • there is no such notation for Heaney – he leaves it to his words, phrasing and punctuation to suggest timbre, modulation, ‘tum-tee-tum’ so that the skilled reader can turn each poem into a linguistic ‘event’;

Heaney paints using words

  • Heaney was excited by artists and by Art Galleries around the world – ‘anything can happen in a gallery: that’s the joy of it’, he once enthused;
  • across his poetry he refers to countless named examples appropriate to his poetic moment from Renaissance Giorgione to 20th century Dutch abstract Piet Mondrian, from Breughel’s Flemish landscapes to Goya’s nightmare canvasses in Madrid’s Prado and in ‘The Haw Lantern’ an exhibit Heaney saw at the Guinness Stores Rosc exhibition in 1984a huge circle of muddy handprints that artist Richard Long made on a high wall’;
  • as a friend with Irish surrealist painter, Colin Middleton, he was able to observe the techniques, overlays and textures  of a creative act exercised within another medium; this  awakened the notion  that he could ‘outstrip the given’ and reflect visual scenes in word; ‘Electric Light’ pays tribute to Irish abstract painter Felim Egan who worked from Sandymount in Dublin;
  • Heaney’s magic word-brush works – his poem-canvasses generate individual textures and compositional balance – he sets emotional sensations, shapes and colours within the picture’s frame, even mimicking cinematic techniques of zoom and pan to add movement and focus.

Heaney is a meticulous craftsman

  • Heaney’s intention was simply to use the musicality of language to generate beautifully turned passages;
  • he wove strands of assonant vowel sounds into the text, sometimes as many as 14 separate ones within the same poem, either grouping them within specific areas to create internal echoes or reprising them at intervals;
  • these are reflected in the coloured-hearing section of each poem using standard phonetic icons – ‘same colour’ means ‘same sound’ so that regional differences in vowel pronunciation will still be accommodated; Heaney rarely leaves a vowel sound in isolation;
  • he had another trick up his sleeve- he used the alliterative effects of consonants to modify his assonant melodies with pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions;
  • consonants (with their phonetic symbols) can be classed according to where in the mouth they occur:


  • Front-of-mouth sounds voiceless bi-labial plosive [p] voiced bi-labial plosive [b]; voiceless labio-dental fricative [f] voiced labio-dental fricative [v]; bi-labial nasal [m]; bilabial continuant [w]
  • Behind-the-teeth sounds voiceless alveolar plosive [t] voiced alveolar plosive [d]; voiceless alveolar fricative as in church match [tʃ];  voiced alveolar fricative as in judge age [dʒ];  voiceless dental fricative  [θ]  as in thin path; voiced dental fricative as  in this other [ð]; voiceless alveolar fricative [s] voiced alveolar fricative [z]; continuant [h] alveolar nasal [n] alveolar approximant [l]; alveolar trill [r]; dental ‘y’ [j] as in  yet
  • Rear-of-mouth sounds voiceless velar plosive [k] voiced velar plosive [g]; voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] as in  ship sure, voiced post- alveolar fricative [ʒ]   as in pleasure; palatal nasal [ŋ]  as in ring/ anger.
  • Heaney’s thought processes and instinctive use of rhythm (the ‘tum-tee-tum’ method) work hand in glove, whether in phrases of bare simplicity or more complex ideas and emotions.

Titles and elements

Alphabets  commissioned at Harvard University … autobiographical steps up the educational ladder – language and script  – Heaney fondness for and expertise in English, Latin and Greek – settings from Mossbawn to outer space – things change and are replaced – neo-classical citation – voyage into poetry – final image of things set in stone

Terminus  autobiographical – mid-Ulster Mossbawn and Castledawson location – Incertus at work – confusion about demarcation and sense of diaplacement – second thoughts – trampling effect of progress – influences of teachers and parents – rigidity of Catholic church that left guilt feelings

From the Frontier of Writing  anonymous but autobiographical missive – army roadblocks in Northern Ireland –  release from real roadblock leading into poetic liberation in its virtual copy – cinematic – stylistic symmetry – Northern Ireland under occupation – passing the test –  clearing obstacles

From the Republic of Conscience  Amnesty International commission – ‘missive’ – allegory –anonymous’ I’ enters allegorical  land of conscience – self-scrutiny – control replaced by responsibility – principles apply globally and from top downwards – ‘anonymous’ Heaney passes the test

From the Land of the Unspoken  ‘missive’ –an anonymous Ireland lacking intellectual base of France – dispersed dispossessed race yet commonly held emotional dilation of belonging to the race –issue of Irish v anglophone language –  old Ireland Irishness under threat – rebuke of those who knowingly perpetuate it

The Haw Lantern  metaphysical parable – iconic berry representative of all Ireland  – classical citation – scrutiny by Diogenes – search for just one Irishman who holds up to the light of conscience – Heaney submits to the test – result for him inconclusive – Incertus confirmed

A Daylight Art  parable – multiple classical citation –  psychologies of megalomaniacs and empire builders make for victims – innocent Socrates practising the art– injustice based on trumped up allegations – Heaney urges do what you believe in, what makes you tick  – fishing and writing go well  together

The Stone Grinder  parable – rural tradition as repetitive, unquestioned  life-long trade – you end up doing what you know best – writer as stone grinder, printing press as stone – classical citation Penelope who juggled to achieve what she wanted  – not persisting in adversity is joyless  (like unfulfilled sex)

Parable Island  parable –fictional island in fact Ireland– Irish identity and culture in adversity  – competing discourses: unworthy power-brokers and their language  – agents of distortion: revisionists, religion since its advent, archaeology, politicos, language itself, backward Irish caricatures- finger-wagging warning –  duty of self-scrutiny by Irish folk and poet to determine just where they stand

Hailstones  metaphysical parable  – autobiographical – Castledawson/ Anahorish Primary School location – ice melts and stings hot  –  long-lost memory is re-born of its absence – literary analogy –  the emotional dilation of the hailstones urge Heaney to grasp the poetic nettle – purity turns quickly  to sludge

Two Quick Notes  autobiographical – absence of an influential figure – rural setting – anonymous elegy points towards father, Paddy Heaney – his dominant characteristics – his legacy – solid, silent protector of an old Irish sacred domain

The Stone Verdict   sonnet+1 – eulogy and elegy – seeking a suitable monument to father Paddy Heaney – classic citation using Hermes – cairn monument  based on the Hermes myth all that is required – grief will be triggered by vocal reminders of his disappearance

A Ship of Death  translation from ‘Beowulf’ – fable – provision of a suitable monument for a dead hero from Norse saga – symbolic  longship carries body and its artefacts of rich and powerful existence into its fateful elsewhere

The Spoonbait  sonnet length in coupletsmetaphysical allegory – Heaney’s loss of faith versus Catholic conditional promise  of immortality of  the soul – fishing imagery – spoonbait lure to re-engage with the Church of his upbringing  – Heaney rejects any idea of falling back on Catholicism 

In Memoriam: Robert Fitzgerald  sonnet elegy to a ‘giant’ of classical scholarship – secular depiction of the immortality of the soul via an allegorical journey to the core of his intellectual interests – a megalithic locality – Fitzgerald’s soul transformed into a projectile launched into the core of the universe where it will be eternally visible;

The Old Team  autobiographical – sonnet – elegiac picture of old-Irish Castledawson – football photo features father-in-law in his prime – Edwardian  age of Empire – local trades within a class structure – indirect hints  of modernism – corteges that unite all in death whatever the age  – soccer viewed as brutal and boring!

Clearances  intro  Sonnet – mother remembered as teacher, muse and inspirational force – metaphor of coal splitting – measure and method defeat brute force – Mossbawn The Wood locality

Clearances 1 sonnet – his mother’s  endurance and defiance – age-old sectarian confrontation – her grandmother who switched from Protestant to Catholic – deliberate, orchestrated brutal treatment by Protestants – not marked as such on headstone

Clearances 2  sonnet – Castledawson village –  mother’s parents – male-dominated household of quasi-military control  and discipline – beacon of cleanliness and schedule – child Heaney in training – mother and her father tenderly reunited in a celestial elsewhere – 

Clearances 3  sonnet – mother and son united in a chore – SH reflects on a poignant  memory – death bed scene – Catholic priest delivering viaticum  hammer and tongs – new kind of absence  imminent – The Wood location

Clearances 4 sonnet – new privileged education for the child of a rural parent – strong mother with definite views – potential cultural/ knowledge gap avoided –subtle psychological game they both play to avoid issues – home locality

Clearances 5  sonnet –  folding sheets – rehearsed and comp[lex choreography – fleeting physical contact – relationship more restrained than cuddly – mother a great recycler– home farm locality 

Clearances 6  sonnet – origin of Heaney’s ‘surfeit of Catholic training’ – mother’s strong devotional element – she needed it – he went  happily along with it – liturgy he hears replicated in bereavement that sapped his emotions – home locality 

Clearances 7  sonnet – sacred domestic  instant of death – Patrick Heaney released from a lifetimes silence – death irreversible – new reality/concept of absence/ space/ clearance – home locality

Clearances 8  sonnet  – SH coping with the new space of bereavement – chestnut tree/ mother parallel –destructive stages of a tree’s journey from health to demise – Mossbawn locality 

The Milk Factory  Castledawson village locality – lost domain of childhood –Mossbawn link – ecological angle  milk that sustains also pollutes – disappearance reality to sci-fi  image of ultra violet fluorescence – fluorine itself highly toxic

The Summer of Lost Rachel  elegy to a lost niece – Castledawson locality – bad omens – family grief – Catholic wake – irreversible death – water imagery –  dead girl becomes a grief-soothing water nymph –

The Wishing Tree  elegy to Eileen Devlin – carried to heaven as part the dead wishing- tree of Ardboe cemetery  – non religious assumption of the whole tree, root and branch – the teacher in Heaney’s mother-in-law all but telling the tree how to get there

A Postcard from Iceland  Heaney’s medieval interest in Icelandic/ Norse saga as pointer to Ireland’s development –  language and etymology confirm distant link – Icelandic hydrothermal handshake seals the link –

A Peacock’s Feather  Cotswold location, Gloucestershire, England  – celebration of a new-born niece– Heaney wrote the poem on site – a happy escape from the proceedings? – religious baptism –  double poet-unease: SH no longer has confidence in Catholic spiritual outcomes; he finds himself in an English stately home (with unpleasant connotations in Irish history) – future not in the child’s own hands – family will be the key – secular ‘prayer’ of hope for Daisy – secular memento for her –

Grotus and Coventina   love poem to Marie – Roman legionary serving on watery Hadrian’s Wall  – his graffito of devotion to a deity has survived time – location switch to Glanmore Cottage – water link – supply problem – greenhorns rescued by community – plea to Marie for them to do it all again –

Holding Course  expression of passion for Marie  – both present in his Dublin study – Marie’s presence ever a distraction  – what is she thinking – nostalgia of missing family and holidays – surviving events as per the Grendel threats in ‘Beowulf’  – Heaney knows exactly what he is thinking – sexual undertones and phallic symbolism to the fore –  Incertus questions his skills as a lover but does not ask Marie! –

The Song of the Bullets  reflections from the back door – unidentified rural location probably Glanmore – the uneasy observer – Troubles in his mind – new angle on the unabating cycle of murder and revenge –  talking tracer bullets – they speak their presence and intention to kill and  instil fear – pathetic fallacy of final omens promises further deterioration

Wolfe Tone  part of Heaney’s ‘loss’ preoccupations in the collection – here loss of faith in a figure incapable of uniting a divided nation – Tone’s revolutionary image, attitude and chicanery inappropriate  to persuade conservative  Irish communities to embrace storms of change – sea based narrative reflecting the historical moment  –  a ‘terrorist’ sponsored lukewarmly by alien France knows he will be sentenced to an ignominious death– Tone cuts his own throat –

A Shooting Script  a screenplay depicts the Ireland and Irishness Heaney knew and loved in danger – Irish language facing threat of extinction – new Irish popular culture  capitalist, opportunist, self-interested and anglophone – monolithic rigidity of a stonily impassive, all-male Catholic Church – call to arms issued urging Irish folk to protect against the increasing desacralization of irrecoverable Irish values –

From the Canton of Expectation  three poem sequence – metaphysical parable using verbal moods – missive letter – anonymous presentations  of the state of Northern Irish Catholic population over two generations – elder Catholic generation placed in Heaney’s Mid Ulster location – optative mood – lack of local Hibernian Catholic passion – no call to militancy over B Special harassment – new discourse introduced by Heaney’s  disputatious generation –  fed by ‘new’ educational opportunities, higher expectations and hyped capitalism  – young people riding roughshod over previous values  ‘stricken’ Heaney searching  for a figurehead tough enough to restore Irish identity and culture and deal with worrying sectarian and globalisation backdrop – the sounds Heaney hears identify an earthbound emblem of Norse origin … a Thor, not a Noah.

The Mud Vision  contribution to an Irish Hospices fund-raising book – metaphysical parable – dramatic monologue – unmistakeably Ireland –  old Ireland of religious symbolism set alongside a modernising new Ireland in full swing –Heaney rebukes his fellow countrymen for just taking things on the chin and reluctance to shape the path ahead –  he pitches a semi religious muddy visitation into the boglands of central Ireand – it creates its own sect of mudmen worshippers generating  self-belief – its disappearance however  leaves no visible change to the Irish landscape or public confidence – just surviving is not enough to change the world’s view of  a backward-thinking Irish nation incapable of fashioning its own future

The Disappearing Island   metaphysical parable – ironic blend of fancy and truth – search by a ’founding’ saint to put down roots – irony: settlement site chosen not an island at all – real island/Ireland will survive but only by the skin of its teeth and with sustained devotion-

The Riddle  ingenious extended metaphor- what riddles earth produces art – link between farming sieve and the challenges facing the poet – poet stand in-between – Heaney’s Catholic training evident in convenient spiritual headings concluding a study of self-scrutiny and value –

Stylistic devices

Translating ideas, notions, themes, that ‘something’ from the inner recess of the mind, into words involves first selection: words and phrases, the ‘mot juste’ and so on, then the weaving of these lexical items into the fabric of the piece. This weaving process is a means to multiple ends: flow, sound, rhythm, echo, emphasis and so on; part of the ‘tradecraft’ is drafting and redrafting text to achieve maximum impact in the finished product.

Published poetry, though not perhaps written for the reader, is there for the enjoyment and can be an intellectual challenge as well as a pleasure. Part of that enjoyment can legitimately include analysis of the style of the piece. What follows is a list of devices open to writers as part of their technique.

Whilst there might be no intrinsic value in spotting a particular device and knowing it by name, nevertheless it is good training. It helps the reader to be inquisitive and begs the question as to why the writer chose that particular device and to what end. We cannot always tease out the poet’s real intention but it is well worth trying!

‘a figure of speech is a way of talking or writing by which you say what you don’t mean and yet mean what you say. For example, ‘He blows his own trumpet’. You don’t mean he has a trumpet but you do mean that he blows it.  HUNT, Fresh Howlers (1930)

antithesis: an arrangement of contrasted words in corresponding places in contiguous phrases, to express a contrast of ideas;

chiasmus: the arrangement in parallel clauses of related terms in a reversed order, so AB BA as opposed to parallel order AB AB;

cliché: A phrase whose wording has become fixed, or almost fixed, as usage has given it a fixed meaning. Cliches commonly use a recognised literary device which eventually uses its power;

comparison: A statement that there is a likeness between things which can in fact be likened;

dual meaning: This when a word or phrase is used so as to be understood in two different meanings, both of which fit the sentence (e.g. a literal  and a symbolic meaning), and in order that the two meanings may be related with each other;

enjambment: The continuation of a sentence, in verse, into the following line. Traditionally an enjambement is permissible if the break is at the normal break in the syntax or at a normal break between breath groups. This happens more routinely outside those conditions in free verse;

enumeration: The arrangement of terms in succession, e.g. nouns in apposition, adverbs or adverbial phrases; economy of words is achieved. As a literary device enumerations can be used to add implications and rhythm to the subject matter, by grouping or gradation or even intentional incoherency;

euphemism: replacement of a distasteful by a more pleasant term, to refer to the same thing;

free indirect speech: the expression of what is spoken or thought without introductory words such as He said, ‘…’ or He said that.. In narrative FIS may be signalised by use of vocabulary appropriate to the character rather than the words of the author. Continuous FIS becomes ‘interior monologue;

hyperbole: the intentional use of an exaggerated term in place of the one more properly applicable, adding implications to the subject matter;

inversion: The reversal of the normal order of the members of a sentence, perhaps to avoid ambiguity or to bring certain words into stressed or key position or to modify the rhythm;

irony: The use of words containing a sufficient and apparently serious meaning in themselves, but conveying also, intentionally, to a more initiated person a further, generally opposed meaning; frequently the first meaning is laudatory or untenable;

litotes: intentional understatement inviting the reader to rectify. Frequently a negative expression;

metaphor: an expression which refers to a thing or action by means of a term for a quite different thing or action, related to it, not by any likeness in fact but by an imagined analogy which the context allows;

A simile uses words like ‘like’ or ‘as…as’. Metaphors and similes have 2 terms: the thing meant and the thing ‘imported’ as a means of expressing, by analogy, what is meant. Personification is a form of metaphor.

This substitution of words has wide uses: ornament, implication, overtone. Its use may be regarded as a special means of revealing hidden truth.

Apart from enriching the thought by a device of form and enhancing the reader’s contact with the author, metaphors and similes may be significant or characteristic because of their reiterated suggestion of a writer’s preoccupations or his processes of thought.

metonymy: the use of a word in place of another with which it is associated in meaning;

objective-subjective: ‘objective’ – expressing reality as it is or attempting to do so; the reality of events or things is regarded as ‘external’. The reality may mental or emotional experience, examined rather than evoked. ‘Subjective’- expressing a version of reality in which it is modified by emotion or preconceived belief; or expressing conscious or subconscious experiences of states of mind;

oxymoron: the juxtaposition of contradictory or incongruous terms, understood as a paradox;

paradox: a statement or implication expressed so as to appear inconsistent with accepted belief, or absurd, or exaggerated, but intended to be realised by the reader as an acceptable or important truth, in some respect; often placed as a conclusion; in a paradox there is often a word which  cries out for redefinition;

pathetic fallacy: ascribing human traits or feelings to inanimate nature, corresponding with those being experienced by a character or ‘voice’;

periphrasis: the expression of a meaning by more words than are strictly necessary or expected, so that additional implications are brought in;

porte-manteau word: a deliberate mixture of 2 words into one retaining both meanings: ‘’a bestpectable gentleman’, respectable guy wearing glasses!

preciosity: aiming at or affecting refinement or distinction in expression; avoiding vulgar phrases; visibly introducing greater care in expression; using this precision, formal arrangement of words, difficult combinations of ideas, allusions and puns in the hope of revealing truths not to be expressed in plain and simple terms; exaggerating this so that, for example an ‘armchair’ might become a ‘commodity for conversation’!

repetition: expressing a meaning or an attitude by implication, through the deliberate use of a word or phrase a second time;

symbol: a term for an object representing, conventionally or traditionally, an abstraction;

synecdoche: the use of a word denoting a ‘part’ in place of the word for the whole, so ‘100 sails’ meaning ‘100 ships’;

synesthesia: the representation of a sensation or image belonging to one of the five senses by words proper to another (‘loud tie’; Disney’s ‘Fantasia’);

zeugma:  providing syntactical economy of words by using one word with dual possibility so that two meanings are taken separately – ‘he took his hat and his leave’.

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