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.


A child’s earliest memory of shape: the shadow of something familiar (rabbit’s head), projected onto the Mossbawn wall by his father (with joined hands and thumbs and fingers) to entertain his first born, comes to life (nibbles on the wall). The child is also sifting information (he understands) from what they talk about at home on the farm – he has a long learning road ahead of him (will understand more when he goes to school).

Skip to the first days at Anahorish Primary : initial play-school drawings on school slate (smoke with chalk the whole first week) are quickly replaced by letters resembling familiar objects- a forked stick linked to shape and sound of Y . Eureka – this is writing!  Introduction of the numeral 2 (swan’s neck and swan’s back) figured and recited (see now as well as say). This way of teaching, Helen Vendler suggests, introduces Heaney to the ‘first stirrings of the metaphorical

Upper case A resembles what he sees above his head (two rafters and a cross-tie) with its tricky double pronunciation (some call ahas in ‘can’some call ayas in ‘cane).

Learning aids surround him (charts…headlines) … he is taught to hold his pen properly (right way…wrong way).

Instruction is replaced in his head by a sense of discovery: terminologies change ‘copying out’ becomes ‘English’ (Heaney’s life will be dominated by it!) … his work is checked (a motif of the whole collection), not with a ‘tick’, rather with a sign resembling a farmyard tool (little leaning hoe).

Schoolroom sense data have a 1940s’ feel: smells of inkwells rise; sound, or rather its disciplined absence reflect school ethos (classroom hush); the Geography teaching-aid offering a gateway to the future (globe in the window) is itself alphabetic (like a coloured O).

  • English and Latin alphabets comprise 26 letters (A-Z), Irish twenty-three; Greek has twenty-four (Alpha [A] to omega [Ω])
  • nibble: take/ eat small amounts;
  • rafter: beam supporting roof construction;
  • cross-tie: hold and support for two parallel beams
  • slate: flat plate once used as a writing surface for schoolchildren;
  • chart: a map (maritime origin);
  • headline: top heading on a document;
  • hoe: long-handled gardening tool with angled metal head for weeding
  • inkwell: ink pot sitting in a hole in a desk;
  • globe: spherical object with map of the earth;
  • tilt: slightly inclined to mimic the earth’s orbit round the sun;
  • the whole written in third-person heroic quatrains with very loose associated rhyme scheme;
  • 4 quartets in 10 sentences; lines based on 10 syllables; loose rhyme on alternate paired lines;
  • present tenses of relived experience; short sentences and uncomplicated grammar (one simile) imitating childhood groupings;
  • no use of ‘I’ … life unfolds around the child;
  • not reported speech as such but one hears the voiced instructions of his Primary schoolteacher in the background;

assonant effects: [i] fingers…nibbles…rabbit’s…will; [u] thumbs…understands; [ɔː] draws…chalk…forked…call; [ai] tie…headlines…write; [ei] ‘ay’…way…a…way; [əʊ] hoe…globe…O

  • alliterations: sibilant [s/z/sh] shadows…makes…hands…understands… goes…school; alveolar [t] [d] rafters….tie…letter…charts…headlines; velar [k] [g] copying…marked correct…inkwells…globe…coloured;
  • progression from being told to having own thoughts, weighing up sense data


An exiled Heaney was handed on to surrogate parents (fostered) as an 11-19 boarder at St Columb’s College in Derry, its old religious foundation visible in the school crest (named for the patron saint of the oak wood).

Latin was a great love – classrooms echoing to the rote repetition of nouns and adjectives like hymns of praise (declensions sang on air like a hosanna), classical building blocks (column after stratified column) in his Latin Primer. Each declension nuanced (marbled) and recited to the class from memory (minatory) as part of a threatening routine (stricter school) where everything including lesson times was centrally controlled (switched to the pealing of a bell).

His Latin studies (forum) were replaced by a new calligraphy – the language of Irishness (felt like home) – its written forms (letters capitals lines of script) like a mid-Ulster Mother Nature’s illuminated manuscript (treesorchards in full bloombriars coiled in ditches).

Emanating from it an aisling vision of old Ireland (snooded garment and bare feet) in complete harmony with the sounds of the irish language (ringleted in assonance and wood notes), a woman longed for (poet’s dream) someone out-of-this-world, be it a fairy sidhe or a Marie Devlin, to take him over (stole over him like sunlight) with the promise of physical fulfilment (passed into the tenebrous thickets).

His desire to become a poet provides a further ‘alphabet’ to master (he learns this other writing) – akin to a scribe from a Dark Ages’ monastery he links the effort and skill of the Irish farmer ploughing his land with the virgin vellums the monk faced (drove a team of quills on his white field) … isolated like him from the busy world outside (round his cell door the blackbirds dart and dab) … sharing mutual doubt and privation (self-denial, fasting, the pure cold).

Heaney adds his own stamp recalling the austerity of the early days (rules that hardened the farther they reached north), his routine dissatisfaction with first efforts (bends to his desk and begins again), the Catholic instilled guilt of falling short (Christ’s sickle has been in the undergrowth), the drying up of inspiration (script grows bare), the disharmony between self and message (Merovingian).

  • declension: the variation of forms of nouns, pronouns or adjectives in Latin often recited by learners as a means of recall;
  • hosanna: religious expression of adoration praise or joy;
  • stratify: arrange or classify in different classes;
  • Elementa Latina; Latin lessons for beginners set out in book form for easy reference;
  • taught the rudiments of Latin at Anahorish Primary by Master Murphy who did not want his protégé to start at a disadvantage Heaney loved Latin from the start.
  • marble: hard crystalline metamorphic form of limestone, typically white with coloured mottlings or streaks, which may be polished and is used in sculpture and architecture;
  • minatory: expressing a threat; perhaps even increase in importance, protrude;
  • foster out: provide with an alternative set of ‘parents’, here boarding staff at St Columb’s College, Derry;
  • patron saint: sacred figure protecting a person or place
  • peal: loud ringing;
  • aisling Irish pronounced variously[ash-ling/ ash-lin/ ash-leen]: dream, vision;
  • calligraphy: decorative lettering especially of handwritten versions;
  • capital: upper case letters; also the head of a classical architectural column;
  • snood: hairnet embellishing the rear of a woman’s head;
  • ringlet: corkscrew-shaped curl of hanging hair;
  • sickle: light, short-handled farming tool with a semi-circular blade for cutting;
  • script: handwriting as distinct from print;
  • scribes: persons mostly monks who copied out documents for posterity before print was invented;
  • bare: basic, plain-and-simple;
  • Merovingian: reference to the Frankish dynasty founded by Clovis and reigning in Gaul and Germany between 500–750CE for whom, it was said, written documents were considered important by both literate and non-literate members of society; Merovingian art tended to abstraction so unlike things in the real world;
  • 6 quartets in 11 sentences; unrhymed; line length of 10 syllables;
  • Q2 enjambment is replaced by more staccato effect of Q3; overall flow governed by enjamed lines and punctuation;
  • past tenses replace Primary School presents;
  • more sophisticated classical vocabulary including grammatical references alternates with pictorial aisling approach to the Irish language, then the self discipline of the early scriptorium that morphs into Heaney’s work routines;
  • image if formality: declensions…stratified; vocabulary of strict routines;
  • rural imagery including personification ;
  • assonant effects: [æ] ..a hosanna…after stratified; [əʊ] rose…oak…home…notes…stole over…cold…growth…grows…Merovingian; [ai] like…lines…briars…scribe…white;
  • alliterations: sibilant [s/z/sh] and nasal [n/m] in Q1; bilabials [p/b] and alveolar [l] in Q2; labio-dental [f] bilabial [p/b] and alveolar [t/d] in Q3 and Q4; velar [k/g] and sibilants of Q5; velar [k/g] in Q6;


The final piece is expansive, urbane and cheerful. Time has come full circle (globe has spun) – the  one-time child, turned student and red-blooded young man now graces the world’s most prestigious lecture-theatres (stands in a wooden O) citing familiar British literary giants (Shakespeare … Graves).

Heaney’s Anahorish schoolroom has been torn down (bulldozed) including the window where the original globe of aspiration was sighted.

Both traditional farming practices and time-consuming handwriting in single text have been replaced by mechanised reprography (balers drop bales like printouts). Every memory is envisioned in Greek –the lambda  λ of stooked sheaveson the stubble once at harvest and the  Δ shape of potato trenches (delta face of each pit), so carefully designed by farmworker and poet (patted straight) and built to resist adversity (moulded against frost).

That world of yore is All gone its visual alphabet drained to the last letter, the Ω  omega-shaped  horse-shoe traditionally nailed over doors to bring good luck to those within.

The Irish language has sustained Heaney’s morale – shape-note language – the sounding board of utter Irishness (absolute on air), as huge to him as the message that changed the whole religious scene of the Graeco-Roman world (Constantine’s sky-lettered IN HOC SIGNO), a Gaelic tongue with clout (can still command him).

He knows of a late mediaeval ‘scientist’ seeking alignment between the individual life and the greater scheme of things: earth-bound necromancer Marsilio Ficino recreating a ‘universe’ beneath the vaults of his Renaissance dwelling (domed ceiling) with suspended globe and mobile of a solar system in which, he hoped, everything had its place (‘not just single things’) as he lived his own  life out (walked abroad).

The poem builds to once unimagined images of Man in orbit, staring, from his ‘cell’-like view-point (small window), his origins in the face (all he has sprung from) – the photograph from space that changed the way we see the Earth, itself in orbit (risen), predominantly ocean (aqueous), unique and remarkable (singular), bathed in the sun’s rays (lucent) – its O shape the triumphant (magnified and buoyant) first sound of the female reproductive cell (ovum) in which every human embryo was formed.

‘O’ heard finally in the locative ‘oh’ of the child we met in the very first quatrain, naïve and open- mouthed (my Own wide pre-reflective stare), mesmerised (all agog) by the tradesman rendering the Mossbawn wall (skimming our gable) and inscribing into the hardening plaster our name there as a record (letter by strange letter). Each and every poem the adult Heaney would one day write would be its own equivalent memorial.

  • allude: refer to, suggest, hint at;
  • Graves: Robert Graves: (1895-1985) English poet, novelist, critic, classicist and student of Celtic, Greek and Hebrew mythology; produced more than 140 works including novels, essays, poetry, drama, children’s books and reference works. Graves’s poems, together with his translations include innovative analyses and interpretations of the Greek myths; like Heaney and Levi one-time Professor of Poetry at Oxford; the Heaneys knew him and attended his 80th birthday celebration;
  • Anahorish School was replaced in 1954 by a new-build on a different site;
  • bulldoze: clear using brute/ mechanical force;
  • bale: large, bound bundles of hay;
  • baler: farm machine that turns out bales
  • printout: printed materials produced by a computer’s printer
  • stooked sheaves: bundles of hay or ceral stood on end in a field;
  • lambda: eleventh letter of the Greek alphabet (Λ, λ), transliterated as ‘l’;
  • stubble: cut ceral stalks left in the ground after harvest;
  • delta: fourth letter of the Greek alphabet (Δ, δ), transliterated as ‘d’;
  • pat: tap down gently with spade or hand;
  • mould; form, fashion;
  • omega: last letter of the Greek alphabet (Ω, ω), transliterated as ‘o’ or ‘ō’
  • shape-note: link between transliterated shape of letters and their sound;
  • absolute: complete, utter, unequivocal;
  • on air: when pronounced out loud;
  • Constantine: Roman emperor 306–37; known as Constantine the Great; first Roman emperor to be converted to Christianity and in 324 made Christianity a state religion;
  • In Hoc Signo: originally a pagan monotheist and devotee of the sun god Sol Invictus (the unconquered sun; On the eve of the Milvian Bridge battle against rival Maxentius Constantine and his army were said to have witnessed a cross of light in the sky above the sun with words in Greek that are generally translated into Latin as In hoc signo vinces (‘In this sign thou shalt conquer’). Constantine had the emblem of the cross marked on his soldiers’ shields and when the Milvian Bridge battle gave him an overwhelming victory he attributed it to the God of the Christians;
  • necromancer: ‘ magician’; a safe bet, HV suggests, that this refers to Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) Renaissance figure born close to Florence and familiar with the power-broker families of the time, particularly the Medicis; initially a medical student he was drawn to philosophy, humanistic disciplines and theology; he developed interests in magic seeing the planets as archetypal gods present in every area of life; regarded as the first astrologer to focus on the inner life of the individual believing that astrology should be used imaginatively to harmonise the individual life with the divine patterning of the cosmos; his single aim: to bring the soul close to God;
  • domed: covered with a rounded vault;
  • abroad: moving freely about (not necessarily in foreign countries);
  • spring from: originate, be triggered by;
  • aqueous; watery; of, from water;
  • lucent: giving off light;
  • buoyant: floating;
  • ovum: egg;
  • pre-reflective: reference to a time before experiences were assembled in patterns;
  • stare: intense gaze;
  • agog: eager, curious, excited;
  • plaster: mixture applied to walls, ceilings that forms a smooth hard surface when dried;
  • skim: lightly smooth into a finished surface;
  • gable: triangular end of building with a pitched roof
  • strange: as yet defeating his understanding;


  • 6 quartets in 9 sentences (5 in Q1!); line length of 10 syllables; beyond Q1 rich in enjambed lines;
  • rich in imagery and literary and historical reference;
  • tense variations;
  • third person speaker;
  • Greek language;
  • settings from rural field to outer space;
  • assonant effects: Q1 [əʊ] ..O…dozed; [ei] shake…grave…bale; [u] alludes…school…stook; Q2 [ɒ]once…of…was…frost…gone; Q3 [əʊ]note…absolute…signo…necromancer; [ai] Constantine’s sky; Q4 [i] ceiling…his…in it…figure…single things; Q5 [ɔː] walked abroad…small…astronaut…all; Q6 [ai] like my …wide; [ei] gable…name…strange;
  • alliterative chains: Q1/2/3 sibilants [s/z/sh]’ alveolar [t/d] bilabial [p/b]; Q2 nasals [m/n] velar [g/k]; Q4 sibilant [s], velar [k/g]. labio-dental [f/v]; Q5 [w], sibilant [s/z], labio-dental [f/v]; Q6 nasals [m/n], alveolar [l];

Views from Sources

  • HV It is language that underpins ‘Alphabets” the touching opening poem of The Haw Lantern, which narrates (in sixteen third-person heroic quatrains) the growth of the poet’s mind and sensibility as he internalizes successive languages: English, Latin, Irish and Greek. The charm of the narration lies in the protagonist’s passage from naive child-language to the self-conscious but also expansive buoyancy of adult expression (130);
  • Heaney in conversation with DOD: The Phi Beta Kappa poem, for instance, is meant to concern itself with ‘learning’, usually learning with a capital L. But when I got the idea of keeping it lower case, and writing about my progress from the desks of Anahorish School to the podium of Sanders Theatre in Harvard, I was up and away. The first stanzas came to me one morning in Adams House, while I was still in bed… Alphabets was prompted by Milosz’s poem, ‘The World’. ‘The World’ is written from the point of view of a child who’s just beginning to handle his pencil and open his primer. That agogness was exactly what I needed – if I hadn’t heard that note, I don’t know what would have happened (291)
  • MP “The most important thing that has happened to me in the last ten years” Heaney told Blake Morison in a recentinterview “is being at two death beds.”. The deaths of his mother in the autumn of 1984 and of his father in October 1986 left a colossal space, one which he has struggled to fill through poetry. Many of the finest lyrics in The Haw Lantern and Seeing Things – ‘Alphabets’, ‘The Stone Verdict’, the ‘Clearances’ sonnets, ‘Man and Boy’, ‘Seeing Things’, ‘Squarings’ – spring directly from this well of grief, and are a reflex action/vatic (describing or predicting what will happen in the future) reaction to it (MP211).
  • 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: fifteen 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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