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 memory, a group of four ‘From the …’ narratives that resemble missives from writers in mysterious ‘elsewhere’ locations and a clutch of metaphysical parables that break the Heaney mould.

The Haw Lantern plus his six previous collections since 1966 and subsequent volumes will help catapult Heaney to the very top of the premier league of 20th century poets writing in English and provide a hugely rich legacy and archive.

Seamus Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. He suffered a sudden and untimely death in August, 2013 at the age of 74.

The textual commentaries that follow seek to tease out what Heaney’s poems are intimating in The Haw Lantern. It is generally appreciated that he wrote to fulfil his writerly aspirations at different stages of an eventful life and that his ‘messages’ started life as essentially personal ones not intended primarily for his reader. Accordingly, and especially in the case of The Haw Lantern there are moments when some serious spadework is required to provide the inquisitive reader with quick and ready access to otherwise time-consuming research. In the case of a poet as accomplished, complex and focused as Heaney, the rewards for persevering are at once enriching, fortifying and hugely pleasurable.

There are issues, too, beyond ‘the text, the whole text and nothing but the text’. There is the question of ‘style’, that is the combination of language and poetic devices deliberately selected by the poet to carry his narrative forward. Then there is the matter of Heaney’s appeal to the ear, the poem intended as a song to be heard and enjoyed or, to the mind’s eye, a picture to be ‘seen’ and felt. These issues are explored in individual commentaries and summarised at the end.

Introductory notes, textual surveys and footnotes are largely personal. The approach is not calculated to promote any particular viewpoint.

In support of students whose first language may not be English, definitions are designed to be as helpful as possible.


Seamus Heaney The Haw Lantern Faber and Faber 1987 (HL/ SH)

Michael Parker Seamus Heaney The Making of a Poet Macmillan 1993 (MP)

Neil Corcoran The Poetry of Seamus Heaney, Faber 1998 (NC)

Helen Vendler Seamus Heaney Harvard University Press 1998 (HV)

Dennis O’Driscoll Stepping Stones, Faber and Faber 2008 (DOD)

Selective Chronology

  • Heaney’s mother Margaret Kathleen Heaney (née McCann) passed away in 1984
  • his father Patrick ‘Paddy’ Heaney died in 0ctober 1986
  • the period after Station Island (1984) was an immensely productive one for Seamus Heaney:
  • three poetry collections emerged: The Haw Lantern (1987), New Selected Poems 1966-1987 (1990) and Seeing Things (1991);
  • 1982 Heaney visits Orkney for the first time (reference From The Republic of Conscience);
  • 1983 Heaney publishes an Open Letter objecting to his inclusion as a ‘British’ poet in The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry;
  • 1986 Heaney delivers ‘Villanelle for an Anniversary’ celebrating the 350th anniversary of the founding of Harvard University to a convocation of 20,000 students and guests;
  • 1988 The Government of the Tongue, a collection of critical essays,
  • 1988 Heaney elevated to Professor of Poetry at Oxford University;
  • 1990 a play, The Cure at Troy;
  • working in America for four months of the year, travelling around the world and reading widely have brought Heaney into contact with Eastern European writers (Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert, Miroslav Holub); he develops a special friendship with the Russian poet, Joseph Brodsky.
  • the situation in Northern Ireland remained grim during the period leading up to The Haw Lantern:
  • 1981 witnessed IRA hunger strikes in Long Kesh prison where up to 10 Republican prisoners starved themselves to death;
  • October 1984: the very heart of Conservative British government was attacked in Brighton, England;
  • November 1987: Remembrance Day bombing in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland;

Heaney in the 1980s

  • Helen Vendler comments on the bleakness of Heaney’s bereavements: between the composition of Station Island (1984) and the appearance of The Haw Lantern in 1987 Seamus Heaney’s parents, both in their seventies, died – Margaret Kathleen (McCann) Heaney in 1984 and Patrick Heaney in 1986. These deaths caused a tear in the fabric of Heaney’s verse, reflecting the way in which an inalterable emptiness had replaced the reality that had been his since birth. HV 111
  • events in Northern Ireland and England in the years leading up to the publication of The Haw Lantern only served to increase Heaney’s inner doubts and distress: Incertus (the pseudonym Heaney adopted in the early days) never really left. At that time he was living through the eighties, which was a decade of considerable dismay in Ireland – and in myself. It began with the hunger strikes; and, as it proceeded, the stalemate in the North showed no signs of being broken, nor did the violence show any signs of abating; DOD 289
  • he noted a harmful ‘spin’: revisionists … positing a progressive cosmopolitan narrative opposed to a ‘narrowly sectarian  viewpoint’. In some respectable quarters, ‘green’ became a term of abuse. Romantic Ireland died Or rather it was put to death because of the crimes of the Provos and the crimes of the patriarchy. I felt unmoored from much that I had grown up with. (idem)
  • despite his Incertus what spurred Heaney’s poetic conscience was his need to address Deep down, the question about obligation in relation to the Troubles … The old Miloszian challenge was unavoidable: ‘What is poetry which does not save / Nations or people?’ This is echoed in the parables and anonymous allegories.
  • Heaney’s sense of being adrift drew his attention to the boundaries and borderlines he was used to: memories of the world-marking power of a dividing line, such as the first furrow ploughed in a field, or the laying out of house foundations, or even the marking of a pitch for football. Not to mention a deeply ingrained notion of ‘sanctuary’ in the space behind the altar rails; the boundary between the graveyard and the road;
  • Heaney regretted a wider loss of Irishness and with it the disappearance of ‘sacred’ spaces in which he felt at ease and secure; he perceived old Ireland superseded by an invasive modernity and generational aspirations that rode roughshod over previous values;
  • he threw light on what he meant: something that my generation experienced in all kinds of ways: faith decaying and the turas – the turn around the holy well or the Stations of the Cross – ‘fairy rings’ being archaeologized into ‘hilltop forts’ (i.e. the loss of Irish make-believe); central heating grates being removed from living rooms and kitchens, hearths blocked up – the Irish taking their eye off the ball resulting in loss of focus. DOD 309
  • this chimed with the notion of the desacralizing of space, the combination of half sacred – half profane set out in a book Heaney had read by Mircea Eliade (Romanian historian of religion, philosopher, professor at the University of Chicago and leading interpreter of religious experience).
  • Heaney explained what struck a note with him: Eliade’s book gave all those disparate awarenesses a credible frame of reference; he helped you to see the accidentals of your autobiography and environment as symptomatic of spiritual changes in your world.
  • referring to the perceived ‘learnedness’ in the work NC commented: the congruence between the 1980s’ poetry of The Haw Lantern and this mood of literary criticism and theory (deconstruction) may be measured in at least two ways. Firstly, there is Heaney’s willingness to appear a doctus poeta, a learned poet in. the classical sense. That he is, from the first, learned is apparent to anyone who recognizes the allusions, intertexts and analogies in the work; but previously the learning has usually operated from well below the surface of the poems, informing and generating rather than explicitly declaring. NC 137

towards a title

  • Heaney revealed (DOD290) he had considered the river in the trees of the Dedicatory couplet as the collection’s title later discarding it for being ‘too soothing’ ; from this we may safely infer that The Haw Lantern will not be a place of peace and quiet!
  • The Stone Verdict was a definite favourite for a while, scotched by the publication of a competing title
  • So, suggests DOD what you offered the troubled times was an image of the haw as ‘a small light for small people’. SH clarified his choice: The haw is wintry, wee, often wet from the rain, sweetened by the frost, an image of subsistence, and it contains within itself its own little stone verdict. I liked those associations, but I also liked the poem because it was requiring strict self-examination from everybody, be they poets, pundits, priests, party political jabberwocks whatever.
  • It discovered a bedrock disappointment; it couldn’t not admit the stuntedness and small-mindedness that prevailed in Northern Ireland, but at the same time it allowed for a flicker of light. And it was also, happily, a bit odd. DOD 290
  • MP The title poem haw serves as a composite emblem for the poet’s ‘people’, ‘their exacting influence on his art (the ‘blood-prick’), and the art itself. Despite the fact that it is displaced in time (‘burning out of season’), despite its humble pedigree and low-wattage, it fulfils its function and is a source of illumination. Translated and personified, the haw embodies strength, persistence, maturity, integrity, becomes a classical, golden mean against which the poet measures himself. MP 214

from ‘Station Island’ to ‘Seeing Things’

  • Heaney commented on collection and moment: It’s a light craft… and tacks and veers along but I think of it as a recovery book – recovery of writing ‘for the joy of itI enjoyed the real lift of the stanzas of ‘Alphabets’ … felt happily off the beaten track when I started  ‘From the Republic of Conscience’ (DOD 291)
  • Mindful perhaps of the generational changes Heaney alludes to in HL, Helen Vendler commented on Heaney’s poetic trajectory: What happens – after The Haw Lantern – to the empty space, the realm of the virtual, the geometric structures and the genre of parable? One answer is that they generate Heaney’s ‘squarings’ – poems of four pentameter tercets in ‘Seeing Things’ … Another answer can be found in the enigmatic, teasing poem ‘The Thimble’ in The Spirit Level … parabolic, but in historical close-up…. it argues that every object is (as we might say today) an ‘absent centre’ around which every culture weaves a different text of meaning. (HV 133)

‘The Haw Lantern’  – collection overview

The Haw Lantern places Heaney on the road between Station Island that had enabled him to examine matters of conscience and discard a whole load of what he called ‘hampering stuff’ … and Seeing Things of 1991 that will satisfy a new writerly need – that of sifting through primary experience and crediting the marvels Heaney failed to see first time round.

Heaney identified loss of faiths as one of the main concerns of the book, particularly religious faith – whilst Catholicism retained its rigid, monolithic presence … the priest administering viaticum to Heaney’s dying mother went at it hammer and tongs, the senior Catholic cleric of ‘The Shooting Script’ stood stonily impassive – unsurprising then that the fishing lure Catholicsim dangled to entice Heaney to re-adopt his faith in ‘The Spoonbait’ meets with an emphatic ‘ no’.

Heaney has lost confidence, too, in finding a patriotic figure capable of uniting very divided Irish communities, either historical figurehead as in ‘Wolfe Tone’ or a future saint of ‘The Disappearing Island’.

Heaney perceives Irish identity being undermined from both inside and out, and he hates it. However he does accept that, like the boundary god of the poem ‘Terminus’, he stands in mid-stream tasked with keeping speech alive between contending parties and discourses.

‘Terminus’ replaces the ponies and traps of old Castledawson  with the age of steam. ‘The Stone Grinder’ regrets the passing of age-old rustic practices. ‘The Old Team’ depicts Edwardian Castledawson soccer players now just memories. ‘The Milk Factory’ alludes to a polluting mid-Ulster business now closed. ’A Shooting Stick’ presents a screenplay mourning the decline of Gaeltacht Irish in the face of anglophone, opportunistic Irish capitalism.’From the Canton of Expectation’ suggests that generational and global changes made it all irresistible.

A cluster of poems indicates Heaney affected by disappearance –  the terra firma of ‘The Disappearing Island’ , Robert Fitzgerald’s elegised soul  travelling ‘out of all knowing’, sand messages in Irish threatened by the tide in ‘A Shooting Script’, the soul of his mother-in-law Eileen Devlin carried up to heaven as part of ‘The Wishing Tree’.

Above all the deaths of both parents, Heaney’s mother Margaret in 1984 and father ‘Paddy’ in 1986, left him marked by the loss of those who had shared his life since the day he was born …  ‘Clearances’ comprises eight cathartic sonnets celebrating his mother’s strengths and principles and commemorating the sacred, domestic moment of her death … Her passing created a new sense of absence and revealed to the family their father’s rarely-expressed devotion … in his turn Paddy Heaney’s taciturn down-to-earthness is elegised in ‘The Stone Verdict’.

Heaney excels at family moments of elegy, birth or love: ‘The Summer of Lost Rachel’ transfigures brother Hugh’s daughter, killed in a childhood accident, into a beckoning mid-Ulster water-spirit; the birth of his niece Daisy to religious parents is celebrated with a very secular memento in ‘The Peacock’s Feather; two love poems are dedicated to wife Marie – ‘Grotus and Coventina’ extends the devotion of a Roman legionary soldier on Hadrian’s Wall to a water-supply issue at Glanmore cottage; in ’Holding Course’ Heaney’s self-doubting nature questions his skills as a lover!

Entirely novel to the collection are 4 narratives each beginning ‘From the’, resembling missives from ‘foreign correspondents’ in mysterious or dangerous elsewhere locations.

In ‘Frontier of Writing’ the humiliated, angry Catholic poet caught in an army roadblock requires the ‘squawk of clearance’ to take his life forward; symbolic of the stages he goes through to clear away the rubbish obstructing his artistic creativity.

‘Republic of Conscience’, commissioned by Amnesty International, imagines a place where examination of personal conscience cannot be avoided … where restrictions and control from above have no place … where leaders are humble and accountable … where involvement in a cause equals total commitment to it.

‘Land of the Unspoken’ compares an enlightened country (unmistakeably France ) with an Irish heritage cherished by Heaney but violated, past and present, by leaders seeking to foment division,  to impose narrow political imperatives and enrich themselves … quite content to prolong Irish dislocation.

‘Canton of Experience’ uses a succession of verbal moods to follow the passivity of the Northern Irish Catholic community Heaney lived in as a child into his own generation which benefitted from educational opportunity, rode roughshod over the old values and was seduced by hyped promises of gratification. Heaney’s search for a restorative figure settles on an earthbound Norse model – a Thor not a Noah.

To my mind The Haw Lantern’s most notable feature is a clutch of metaphysical parables, moral and spiritual lessons visible to Heaney’s enquiring hindsight.

The parables generate a wealth of classical citations – not aimed to show off high-brow scholarship,  but for their own contextual sake. The title-poem adapts the ripened fruit of the hawthorn to legendary Greek Diogenes in his search for a single honest Athenian. ‘Do I meet the criteria of true Irishman’, Heaney wonders … an optical trick allows the fruit-lantern to shine in his face, its thorn to test his blood. Heaney submits to scrutiny … the results … are not conclusive.

Heaney understands the workings of inner doubt. ‘A Daylight Art’ juxtaposes classical philosopher Socrates, facing death by poisoning and a contemporary Irish poet who has devoted a lifetime to creating works of art … both wonder whether they are in the right trade!

In ‘Parable Island’ Heaney yearns for a romantic Ireland that others may have placed beyond recovery … from the post Celtic centres of learning and early Christianity … to archaeologists …  and to the Irish people from leaders to  intellectually challenged.

‘The Disappearing Island’ observes an anonymous St Brendan landing on a homonym for  Ireland seeking to establish a settlement only to discover it wasn’t an island at all. Heaney provides an ironic blend of fancy and truth in search of the real thing.

‘Hailstones’ ponders the memory of ice pellets that melted to nothing in a youngster’s chapped hand and created a burning absence – in retrospect the first welling up of sensibility in a child destined, one day, to become a Nobel laureate.

‘Alphabets’ commissioned at Harvard makes a major contribution … rotating around the stages of Heaney’s personal development from Anahorish Primary school and St Columb’s College to the most prestigious lecture theatres in the world …  underlining his gift for languages … accepting his footling significance in the wider awesome but impersonal scheme of things … and refreshing the childhood memory of a message trowelled into a Mossbawn gable that set him on the road to poetry.

To my mind the star of the whole show is ‘The Mud Vision’, a dramatic monologue embedded in memories of an old Ireland and gesturing to an Ireland still in the making, reporting the collision between images of devotion and the trappings of modernity, rebuking the Irish for growing apart from themselves – for being ever too cautious to forge ahead.  

Heaney throws in a semi-religious visitation to compete with the miraculous appearances claimed by awe-struck Catholic women and hyped up by the local media. His spinning mud wheel takes on its own aura, imposes itself on everything it touches and creates a mud-man sect that reinforces the need for penitence and worships around the muddy places.

The mud vision disappears as suddenly as it arrived. What lasting impact does it leave behind? None … everything is the same as before … the same rural Irish dilapidation … the same mind-sets that condemn Ireland to its global reputation for stubborn short sightedness.

So to the coda … Heaney has cleverly prepared his ground for ‘The Riddle’ …  the concluding and conclusive metaphor for the finely balanced challenges he faces in producing works of Art … the accrued wizardry of six collections, the alchemy of transformation  … in short the handwork that produces the handiwork.

locations and settings

  • the settings of the poems are more or less visible according to Heaney’s intention to reveal or hide them. He is however a poet who feeds from the lived life so he leaves clues inviting the reader to solve the riddles he poses.
  • the section ‘titles and elements’ in ‘Afterthoughts’ offers a wider indication;
  • more specifically the weave includes Mossbawn farm, hints at the Ancient Order of Hibernians hall that once stood next door and the original Anahorish Primary school both since since demolished, the wider Castledawson area and sites in Co Tyrone  and Co Antrim;
  • Heaney told DOD where the poems were composed: Most of them would have been written at home, in the attic of the Strand Road house in Dublin … ‘Alphabets’ in Adams House, in Harvard in response to a commission to do the Phi Beta Kappa poem for 1984 DOD 286
  • settings are of course conflated for narrative purpose: The Mud Vision’ is set in the Irish midlands where peats and bogs fit so well with the spinning mud visitation but remind Heaney of the thronged roads and gardens around a housing estate in County Tyrone in the late I950s, when the Virgin Mary was supposed to have appeared to a woman in Ardboe.

Gaps – ‘absence’, ‘space’, ‘clearance’

  • it comes as no surprise that, as a result of Heaney’s twin bereavement and its associated mind-set of loss, plus the feeling of being cast adrift by a perceived loss of Irishness in general, the poet weaves the motifs of gaps and absences and what brought them about into the fabric of The Haw Lantern.
  • Helen Vendler signals the profound effects on Heaney’s work of losing both parents: the deaths of his parents – natural deaths, not deaths of violence – introduce a new strain into Heaney’s art. An absence … becomes realer than presence … Heaney reverses himself: his aim is now to turn the crystalline, or virtual, absent realm into a material one – to make it visible by metaphors so ordinary as to be indubitable. The outline of the chestnut tree (‘Clearances 8’) before it was felled is all the more ineradicable for being invisibleand once the mid­point in life has passed, one is as likely, in the surrounding landscape, to ‘see’ the vanished as the verifiable HV 114
  • Neil Corcoran helps contextualize the associations of ‘clearance’, ‘space’ and ‘absence’: There is the ‘squawk of clearance‘ at the frontier of writing; ‘the blood-prick that you wish would test and clear you’ in ‘The Haw Lantern’ … and the ‘clarified place’ in ‘The Mud Vision’. In these instances, ‘clearance’ is both the freeing from an obstruction and the giving of permission. In the title of the sequence, these senses are allied to others: a clearance is the settlement of a debt or claim, and it is a piece of cleared ground … sonnet 7 the moment of the mother’s death is imagined like this … the final sonnet, 8, elaborates this image of a double emptiness, a space erupting into a space (echo of the Lough Derg Stations of Station Island) ‘walking round and round a space/ Utterly empty, utterly a source / Where the decked chestnut tree had lost its place NC 155
  • Heaney recounts the story in ‘The Government of the Tongue’ of the chestnut tree planted in front of the family home by an aunt in 1939, the year of his birth – SH Then, all of a sudden … I began to think of the space where the tree had been or would have been. In my mind’s eye I saw it as a kind of luminous emptiness, a warp and waver of light, and once again, in a way that I find hard to define, I began to identify with that space just as years before I had identified with the young tree … Except that this time it was not so much a matter of attaching oneself to a living symbol of being rooted in the native ground; it was more a matter of preparing to be unrooted, to be spirited away into some transparent, yet indigenous afterlife. The new place was all idea, if you like; it was generated out of my experience of the old place but it was not a topographical location. It was and remains an imagined realm, even if it can be located at an earthly spot, a placeless heaven rather than a heavenly place NC 156
  • The Wishing Tree takes the tree metaphor a stage further: Heaney imagines those assembled for Eileen Devlin’s funeral in Ardboe cemetery watching her carried up to heaven part of the uprooted wishing-tree itself.
  • NC reflects ‘on clearance’ in the sense of ‘luminous emptiness’ … the mother’s death is translated deeply into the consciousness of the family she leaves grieving, but it is translated there not mereIy as grief. The ‘clearance’ in sonnet 7 is a sudden opening, the space of ‘a pure change’ and therefore another kind of dilation … grief is transformed into a new kind of outwardly directed energy. Death is luminous as well as negative, a ‘bright nowhere’ in which a soul ‘ramifies’ … (‘to branch out’, used of the growth of a tree). It is a richly apt metaphor for the ways in which the death of parents may be understood, accommodated, contained and transformed as part of the inevitable process of a mature human existence. NC157
  • sonnet 8 originates in lines already published in ‘Station Island’ III, on the death of the child: ‘1 thought of walking round / and round a space utterly empty, / utterly a source, like the idea of sound’, and the connection of that space with the ‘ring of walked-down grass’ where the rotten corpse of a family dog was once discovered. ‘Clearances’ therefore finds, in its concluding symbol, a way of moving beyond the sense of death … absence ( ) is as a result, at once both desolating and consolatory. NC15Z
  • reflecting on Heaney’s use of ‘absence’ NC creates a link with 1980s’ deconstruction theory that Heaney was conscious of but never espoused:
  • NC 139 language is a system in which human subjectivity is itself inscribed, results, in deconstructive or post-structuralist criticism, in a conception of the literary text as the site in which original experience is not so much re-created as replaced. Consequently, the word ‘absence’ is a significant one …figuring in, for instance, ‘Sunlight’ in North (‘There was a sunlit absence’), ‘Gifts of Rain’ in Wintering Out (where ‘I cock my ear at an absence’, that of the Irish language) and ‘Station Island’ …  a meditation on the death of a child provokes the sense of an empty space, ‘like an absence stationed in the swamp-fed air’);
  • In ‘Hailstones’ the word occurs once more, but now probably more self-consciously in relation to the post-structuralist linguistic model (Heaney might have said ‘I was conscious of people like Derrida but not influenced by him’), since in this poem a childhood experience – that of being hit by hailstones – is likened to the making of the poem itself, which replaces the experience: I make this now / out of the melt of the real thing/ smarting into its absence … many other Heaney poems ( ) vividly locate sensation in language, identifying with lucid accuracy the feeling of suspension in the aftermath of a hailstorm. What it also does, however, is to associate that childhood sensation with others in the context of a later, mature emotional life. (idem)

classical citation

  • NC Many poems in the book bristle with classical citation. These include ‘The Stone Verdict’ which is dependent on some relatively esoteric information about Hermes … ‘Alphabets’, which contains references to the Renaissance Neo-Platonist Marsilio Ficino and to the Roman Emperor Constantine … ‘The Haw Lantern’, which depends on a story about the Greek Cynic philosopher Diogenes … ‘A Daylight Art’, which takes off from Plato’s account in the Phaedo of the philosopher Socrates’s dream that he may have practised the wrong art all his life, and of his therefore choosing to versify Aesop’s fables in his death-cell; and ‘Grotus and Coventina’, which draws on a Roman iconic stone inscription. These references, usually having a strong narrative element, act as the initiation of poems in a way quite different from the mode of image and metaphor in the earlier work. NC 137
  • Heaney was a touch frosty in response to any suggestion that his classical references were somehow learned:

I don’t think there’s anything highly cultured about them. Poetry inheres in other poetry, and to that extent it is literary; I have nothing against the literary per se: it is a category of knowledge, of reality, of human understanding, of durable value. DOD 292

  • he was, he said, one of the last generation for whom a rigorous ‘classical education’ was possible in addition to which his own ‘surfeit’ of Catholic training as a boy provided him with the genuine choice of opting in or out of religious practice: we have lost the overall, ordering Christian myth of ‘down there, up there, us in between’ … its place in Western culture has been taken by general awareness of classical myths … I don’t think of my cultural baggage as ‘learned’. I just happen to belong to the last generation that learned Latin, that read Virgil, that knew about the descent into the underworld. DOD 293
  • DOD wondered why allusions to classical literature and myth cropped up at this stage: … SH when I met up with Robert Fitzgerald and started to reread his Odyssey and Iliad … general availability of the classics in translation in Cambridge (home of Harvard and its book shops) … where I read about the relationship between herm and Hermes. A herm was a standing stone – in many senses: a stylized representation of Hermes erect; and Hermes, as god of travellers and marketplaces and suchlike, was connected with cairns at crossroads and stone­heaps of all sorts. Through all that, I began to connect him with my father, and so you got ‘The Stone Verdict’. DOD 293
  • DOD asked Heaney about Greek rather than Latin references: SH I sense a far greater closeness between the lived life and the official pomps in Greece than in Rome. It’s the vitality of that ritual and romance at ground level that attracts me as much as the big earth-moving machinery of the literature and the myths. (idem)
  • Heaney explained why he chose Roman history as inspiration for ‘Grotus and Coventina’, set partly amidst the waterlogged landscape of Hadrian’s Wall: it was a poem of love written not as a vehicle to show off his scholarship but for its own sake, for Coventina’s sake, for the sake of our Glanmore life. NC158

Religion – a divisive force

  • neither Catholicism nor Protestantism comes out well in The Haw Lantern:
  • Heaney pulls out examples of his direct Catholic experience: the overstated viaticum of the priest in Clearances 3, the posed impersonal rigidity of the clerical eye-into-the-soul of Shooting Script designed to keep its populace in trained order and promote the ‘awe-inspired gaze’ of its congregations;
  • MP comments on Alphabets: the Northern Catholic variety of Christianity is depicted as a destructive influence, likened to a sickle lashing through the luxurious, luscious undergrowth of the imagination. MP 213
  • Heaney suggests that over generations Protestant zealots have relayed the aggression of Northern Irish domination as in Clearances 1: ‘the first stone / Aimed at a great­grandmother’s turncoat brow’ refers to a maternal ancestor of the poet’s who has converted from Protestantism to Catholicism. The poem provides a new perspective on the poem ‘The Other Side‘ in Wintering Out, since it reveals how the ‘mother’s side’ was, once, ‘the other side’ too. These accidents of personal history complicate what a certain kind of Irish nationalism would wish to read as a single narrative of identity; NC 152

the dwindling and doubleness of Irish experience

  • Harvard scholar and friend of Heaney Helen Vendler offers insights into the dilemmas Heaney faced given his time, place and moment:  ‘the question arises as to how he should write : as someone who is culturally Irish, attached to a historical and anthropological identity that predates, in its beginnings, the Christianization of the country? Or as ‘a ‘Catholic’, a spokesperson for an ‘ ethnic group sharing a certain culture of which one strand is the childhood practice of Catholicism that may well be abandoned, in adult life? As an English speaker, reader and writer? Or as a transmitter of an Irish literary tradition? ‘(HV114)
  • there are many moments in The Haw Lantern when Heaney presents as a complex man examining his complex roots. The tangle of origin stems from the following: he is born and brought up in an English-speaking Northern Irish minority Catholic family within a society increasingly riven with discord and separated by history from the neighbouring Republic of Ireland; his academic qualifications fall under the banner of English; he earns his living as a poet writing and publishing in English;  he refuses to be and is not politically engagé retaining the freedom to look around, judge for himself and comment.
  • Heaney’s sympathies however are clear: he and his wife moved the family from Northern Ireland to the Irish Republic in the 1970s; he carries an Irish passport;
  • as Irishman, historian and anthropologist he is drawn to and loves the shared legacy of ‘Irish’ nationhood; as a responsible poet he would like to do something to help the Irish forward without them betraying their heritage; he recognises there is a paradox involved and goes as far in The Haw Lantern as to rebuke his fellow Irish for behaviours and attitudes that only contribute to Ireland’s stuttering, stunted development.
  • ‘A Shooting Script’ belongs in a clutter of poems … about the doubleness of Irish experience at any moment: on the one hand there is the sensation, as in ‘Wolfe Tone’, that Ireland is ‘dwindling’, that ‘what might have been origin’, as the people say in ‘The Mud Vision’, gets ‘dissipated in news’; on the other hand there is the constant possibility of renewal, as … in the last line of ‘The Disappearing Island’: ‘All I believe that happened there was vision.’
  • HV 117 In The Haw Lantern things are variously disappearing (terra firma in the Disappearing Island’), ‘assumed into fluorescence’ (the country boy scene in The Milk Factory’) … or (Irish messages) written on the sand (‘A Shooting Script’), they are almost invisible, or soon to be.
  • SH Loss is one of the main concerns of the book: call it loss of faith – or rather loss of faiths, of all kinds. Religious faith, as in ‘The Mud Vision’ or in the one called ‘The Spoon bait’. Faith in patriotism in ‘Wolfe Tone’ and ‘The Disappearing Island’. Loss of faith, to a certain extent, in language itself, or at least doubts about the ‘real presence’ behind it, as in ‘The Riddle’ … DOD 287
  • NC 143 ‘Alphabets’ is … in part an elegy which focuses on a vanished child, a bulldozed school, a disappeared rural way of life, and a language in danger of extinction, the ‘other writing’ of Irish.
  • MP 213 ‘Alphabets’ … so much has ‘gone’, he strives through shapes and sounds to create his own figures of the universe, to make’ his pen catch up with his soul’;
  • NC148 In ‘Alphabets’ the act of writing carries, as we saw, a submerged political signification: the nearly vanished alphabet of the Irish language is a lost or destroyed ‘home’, an index of dispossession; and the plural of the poem’s title is a refusal of single linguistic or cultural identity.
  • ‘From the Land of the Unspoken’ – the testimony of implicit recognitions – where even the spoken word is unnecessary – among ‘a dispersed people whose history / is a sensation of opaque fidelity’. This need not be limited to, but would certainly include, the members of the Irish diaspora, the Irish abroad. The poem regards them as in imminent danger of losing this kind of fidelity and solidarity by being dispersed irretrievably. NC 148

symptoms of loss – Irish as a spoken language

  • Neither Heaney’s English-speaking upbringing nor his education gave him the Irish he might have liked to possess; he spent time on courses and residentials in the Donegal Gaeltacht as a student;
  • … in Alphabets acquiring Irish is viewed as a journey home; MP 213  
  • Heaney’s poetry is written and published entirely in English … he accepts the irony and knows he cannot get round the fact; however I’ve come through to an un-anxious state I still believe that my English is inflected, perhaps better say by Ireland than by Irish. DOD 315
  • Heaney is tested on the issue: DOD Do you see any Justification for the view that Irish people, in speaking English, are somehow out of step or out of sync with their experiences? He salutes efforts to maintain Irish-speaking communities and literature written in Irish; the old concerns arose from drastic historical experience, and there was something magnificent and redemptive about the whole effort to reverse the Anglicization of Ireland and regain respect for indigenous literature and traditions. (idem)
  • DOD I wonder if you think (Irish) is (as the final stanza of  ‘A Shooting Script’ suggests) mere writing in the sand?SH the writing in the sand will go on … I don’t believe that faith in Irish as a language and a value is misplaced; the evidence suggests that it now inheres in the cultural imagination of anglophone Ireland as a vital element. The TV slogan does express a common enough attitude: it’s ‘part of what we are’. This isn’t to say that the demographics are about to change in its favour; but a line will be held, I am sure, and there will continue to be a small, small Irish-speaking population DOD 315
  • NC142 ‘Alphabets’, appropriately, a poem about educational achievement … opens with the young schoolchild learning to read and write in various classrooms … a Northern Irish Catholic education in which the growing ‘Child assimilates, or is assimilated into, the different scripts of the English and Irish alphabets. The latter is prominently the one ‘which felt like home’, the one in which this poet, who writes now in the alphabet of English, first discovers ‘the poet’s dream’; which is the Irish language appearing like the figure of an aisling, a dream-vision, in an eighteenth-century Irish poem.

parables (ethical … metaphysical) – allegory

  • The poems of ‘The Haw Lantern’ offer a rich menu of fable, parable and allegory often in combination.
  • Fable (e.g. the St Brendan ‘journey’ of ‘The Disappearing Island’ and the Beowulf extract) places emphasis on the narrative; a parable provides a story that offers a moral or spiritual lesson or suggests a juxtaposition that compares and contrasts; allegory is a work that conceals a hidden meaning, providing clues that reveal, suggest or clarify other issues via oblique language. Heaney spins them all together.
  • Though treated separately the four ‘From the…’ poems fit broadly into this category;
  • SH: It didn’t feel so much like pushing boundaries, more like sliding open partitions, or Japanese screen doors. Like trespassing in strange rooms, in a new light, especially in the parable-type poems … the parables … were unexpected and odd and a big excitement for a relatively short time, but then the excitement just went. DOD 286 SH, tongue in cheek, makes the format sound just like his ‘Mud Vision’!!
  • SH: the allegorical poems of ‘The Haw Lantern’ were not all that different from Station Island’s ‘Sweeney Redivivus’ series. You adopted a posture of the voice, or a posture of the voice adopted you, and you went with it. … there was a lightheadedness to the writing of them, they got nicely free of subjectivity (DOD 293)
  • NC Haw Lantern, inheriting the mode of ‘Sweeney Redivivus’, prominently figures both secret meanings and the act of interpretation. The book’s parable poems encode, in cryptic or allegorical ways, a set of ethical and political attitudes and responses; in these, the lyric ‘I’ disguises itself more than it declares itself … Their forms (are) almost like translations from another language … Station Island’sMaking Strange’ gives us clues to unravelling the parable … the poet is in transition: when the New world meets the Old things collide …  the voice of poetry must move on…The speaker is at the interface of old and new as if separating irreconcilables… inventing a cunning middle voice/ … out of the field across the road…Far from encouraging him to choose, it recommend convergence of new experiences and the rich inheritance of the old: ‘Be adept and be dialect’ … parables  too act as a kind of mask, persona or alternative self, an alibi or alias. As a consequence, the lyric becomes what it has never been in Heaney’s work before: abstract, diagnostic, analytic, dispassionate, admonitory, forensic, post-mortem. NC 136
  • MP From its outset The Haw Lantern employs parables to trace stages of growth, phases in the learning process, and is concerned with the recognition and evaluation of shapes and spaces, the balancing of losses and gains. MP 212
  • HV Heaney’s metaphysical parables ( ) range over a wide display of discourses. Among these, the most autobiographical, ‘From the Canton of Expectation’, sets a plaintive elder generation – resignedly carrying out ritual nationalist practices of oratory, dance and song – against a younger generation (Heaney’s own) infinitely better educated, focussed on rights, demanding change. …. its three parts nationalist exhausted optatives, youthful imperatives and the yearning for an indicative – sketch the state of the Northern Catholic population, and its competing discourses, without ever mentioning it by name. …demonstrates, centrally a matter of conflicting styles; HV 123
  • ‘From the Land of the Unspoken’ Turning the material world of politics into the immaterial world of cultural habit is one of the strategies of these poems; but an equal strategy, as I have said, is Heaney’s discovery of material equivalents for his virtual realms – the electric light of the unmannerly intelligence, the wooden ark of indicative integrity. (idem)
  • HV 125 In ‘Parable Island’, a poem dealing with the metaphysics of naming… place where all appellation is contested: … no reliable directions in this island: … To find out where he stands the traveller has to keep listening … but himself remain unseen …at ground-level, be among those to whom he Listens …
  • 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 HV 125
  • ‘Parable Island’, for all the title’s alignment of ‘Island’ and ‘Ireland’ and the geographical clues identifying the Causeway Coast its inhabitants and visitors, is presented in Heaney’s four-piece sequence as dealing with a fictional place. He revealed to DOD that ‘a good bit of ‘Parable Island’ was done in Iceland, in I985’.
  • recognizing that Heaney is on his home ground helps one to understand his deeper messages about the destructive influence of unworthy power-brokers more widely plus the language that transmits their messages.
  • Ultimately Parable Island regrets the erosion and disappearance over time of what Heaney yearns for most in his every sinew, his concept of an utter Irishness that he senses ‘others’ may have placed beyond recovery.
  • NC indicates his personal take on the poem: ‘Parable Island’ becomes a text which is differently interpreted depending on the ideological preconceptions of those who study it; and ‘island’ of course is a near-homonym for ‘Ireland’. The final island-interpretation, that of the elders (Panama Canal) manifests an absurd fear offering a certain kind of Irish nationalist insularity or economic and cultural protectionism … In this parabolic fiction an insular territoriality preposterously banishes the fear of geopolitical apocalypse. NC 152
  • NC offers his take on ‘The Mud Vision’: the strongest and strangest poem … in which the inhabitants of an anonymous country are the witnesses of the paradoxical vision of the poem’s title… ambiguous vision is alternately honoured and wished away, rendered the object of religious veneration and resented; NC 153
  • NC if ‘The Mud Vision’ cautiously celebrates the bitter knowledge of endurance and survival, it also apportions the sting of rebuke. self-directed too, since the poet is prominently included in the poem’s first person plural; the condemnation of satire is relieved by the self-recrimination of confession. NC 155
  • ‘The Mud Vision’ places the ‘awed gaze’ of Irish folk subjected to and trained by the power of the Catholic Church under Heaney’s beady eye; in that respect it is entirely in tune with ‘The Haw Lantern’s consistent imagery of scrutiny, ‘presumed … a test / that would prove us beyond expectation’…The poem is, therefore, an allegory of optimisms and pessimisms, expectations and betrayals, moods of hope and despair, emotions of guilt and survival in modern Ireland. NC 153
  • In the title poem Heaney alludes to the story of Diogenesthe Cynic, who spent most of his life chilling in his barrel outside the city-state of Corinth. He was the original Cynic because he believed that men and women lived a life dictated by rules and taboos and therefore no one was really truthful or honest … he shone his lantern in the faces of random Athenians in his search for a single example that disproved his theory.
  • HV Heaney takes on, in The Haw Lantern, the job of exploring the use, to a secular mind, of metaphysical, ethical and spiritual categories of reference. So in the wintry title poem of the volume the thorn tree’s red ‘haw … burning out of season’ is transmuted by the poet into an ethical object (bearer of a moral message) HV 117
  • The lantern is carried by Diogenes as he seeks one just man. The small haw, in a trick of focus, is made to grow and diminish according to its function in the poem. At first it is its natural vegetative self, wanting no more than to be ‘a small light for small people, / … not having to blind them with illumination’, admonishing the poet against the grandiose, the oracular and the prophetic … The poet flinches before the haw’s substantial integrity, its diagnostic needle-prick, its exemplary preservation of ripeness in spite of wounds, and its laser-scan of morality (idem) DF prefers ‘scan of personal integrity’.
  • HV If the ethical category of justice is interrogated in ‘The Haw Lantern’, it is the metaphysical category of value that is explored in ‘The Riddle’. Here the poet describes the large mesh sieve used (before his time) for sifting, with something or other retained, something else falling through. Which was the valuable stuff – what was kept inside the sieve or what dropped down? Who can recall? … the interior strain that Heaney experiences at the conjunction of his past inclination to the sensuous (stuff, hopped, mesh, clods, buds, dust, dribbles) and his present inclination to abstraction (what would be better, choice, create, value). (idem)

Four  ‘From the …’ poems

  • NC In ‘The Government of the Tongue’ Heaney has a great deal to say about parable poems, whether the radically politicized kind of post-war Eastern Europe – notably those of the Czech Miroslav Holub, and the Poles Zbigniew Herbert and Czeslaw Milosz … In ‘The Impact of Translation’ he discusses the significance of the Penguin Modern European Poets series of the 1960s and 1970s (NC 146)
  • Heaney finds in the Eastern bloc poets an analogous case for the Irish writer. There is, he says, ‘an unsettled aspect to the different worlds they inhabit, and one of the challenges they face is to survive amphibiously, in the realm of “the times” and the realm of their moral and artistic self-respect, a challenge immediately recognizable to anyone who has lived with the awful and demeaning facts of Northern Ireland’s history over the last couple of decades’. … that Polish parable is particularly relevant to Heaney in its combination of issues of territoriality and ‘unsettlement’ with an endemic Catholicism strongly associated with a subversive politics (idem)
  • Heaney felt that commentators might have overplayed his connections with poets whom he much admired from the Eastern bloc, not least their support of basic human rights and social justice and their survival of repressive post WWII political régimes and tyrannies … All of that did point generally in the direction of the parable mode. I don’t think there was anyone poem or poet or fable that set me off, but there’s a plainspoken, translated feel to those ‘From the … ‘ poems that tells me and you and everybody else that their provenance is likely to be found in the Penguin Modern European Poets series – and, conceivably, in Borges. DOD 293.
  • Helen Vendler plumps for the link between the parables of ‘The Haw Lantern’ and the allegorical and parabolic poetry (invented in part to defy Communist censorship) by Eastern European writers. HV 117
  • however she points out the differences: Heaney’s allegories are not written to escape the censor; they are written to escape the topicality of political journalism, on the one hand, and to define the realm of the invisible, on the other …The invisible, in Heaney’s upbringing, was the prerogative (right or privilege claimed and promoted by particular institutions) of either nationalist politics or the Catholic religion. (idem)
  • The quartet comprises ‘From the Frontier of Writing’, ‘From the Republic of Conscience’, ‘From the Land of the Unspoken’, ‘From the Canton of Expectation‘ voiced to first person pronouns, bearing anonymous labels that are readily teased out via the clues Heaney throws in;
  • NC suggests a neat correspondence: they could be called strange letters too, letters here in the sense of fictional missives or messages from a foreign correspondent travelling in mysterious and dangerous places. NC147
  • Helen Vendler indicates the challenge Heaney when he used the ‘we’ pronoun thereby identifying himself as expressing a shared view: The collective is the most difficult of discourses for a modern poet, precisely because of the modern conflict between the individual and the communal… the satirical edge that keeps showing itself in these parabolic poems suggests that all group diction becomes self-parodic over time. HV 126

‘From the Frontier of Writing’

  • Helen Vendler waxes lyrical: The Haw Lantern’s insistence on the equality of presence between the material and the immaterial is brought to geometrical demonstration in the famous poem ‘From the Frontier of Writing’. Its four opening tercets – in which the poet is stopped by a police road-block – are exactly matched by four appended and almost identical tercets, in which the poet is self-halted, while writing, at the frontier of conscience. We understand our invisible inner motions, Heaney implies, only by analogy with our experience in the material world … ‘From the Frontier of Writing’ opens around a ‘space’ utterly empty and stilled, but this time the space is one of minatory ‘nilness’. Its material hellishness and its spiritual purgation are emphasized by its rendition in a version of Dantesque terza rima: HV 115
  • NC focuses on the poem’s link with the notion of ‘clearance’: the army roadblock is a transitional zone where clearance involves scrutiny and inspection. The poem’s interrogation, although it is not specifically located, clearly has its origin in that made of the driver of a car in Northern Ireland by a member of the security forces. … it elegantly pivots about its centre, where the actual ‘pure interrogation’ and the obedient subjugation it compels turn into their own sensation or memory in the act of writing: NC 148
  • HV 116 The army roadblock was what Northern Irish folk faced (HV) in material existence. And in Heaney generated innerlife … though the only significant word that is exactly repeated in the second, ‘invisible’ half of the poem is guns the inner scene of self-doubt is made to duplicate the scene outside: the frontier, the soldiers, the guns, the interrogation. When permission to pass is given, in the form of an inner liberation into writing, suddenly everything flows into a current, and the surface of things can once again be reflected in the ‘polished windscreen’ of inscription … The final freedom here is not yet that of Dante coming into upper air: the soldiers are still shadowing the mental windscreen, but they are gradually metamorphosing, almost into the organic form of trees HV 116
  • NC The Frontier of Writing becomes the place or space in which you free yourself from repression or subjugation … the frontier post at which you are ethically and aesthetically cleared. … writing acts as the agency of personal reIease ( ) as the initial experience is remembered and re-presented … it becomes a way of getting ‘through’ … the signal that clearance has been effected: writing moves you across a frontier to freedom; … its further use of a modified Dantean terza rima, ‘From the Frontier of Writing’ may also be urging at the formal level the conception of writing as the place where you may move from an inferno of political subjection to a paradiso of imaginative enablement. NC 149
  • MP 215 ‘From the Frontier of Writing’ takes place at the intersection of the real and the surreal, the concrete and the abstract, public and private spheres. Moving quickly, quietly, with sinister intent, it actualises a whole field of force and fear … Previously Heaney had employed myths and metaphors as a way into examining political realities; here he turns that process on its head, using political realities as metaphors for the troubles faced by the writer. Heaney confirmed this: “Once the words are set down, the book published, the author has to endure the prospect of ‘marksman’ critics ‘training down’ on him, has to await the ‘squawk/ of clearance’.
  • the ‘marksman’ image seems entirely germane to the messages transmitted by the talking tracer shells of ‘The Song of the Bullets’;
  • MP 214 The notion of being subjected to scrutiny and ‘earning the right to proceed lies at the heart of ‘From the Frontier of Writing’. The first of a series of ambitious experiments using other voices, written over a three week period, it owes much to his readings in Eastern European poetry.

‘From the Republic of Conscience’

  • DOD Heaney responded to a request from the Dublin Amnesty International group; he set out his reactions to: Amnesty had sent me some reports about the injustice and suffering endured by prisoners of conscience in different parts of the world and all I could do at first was quail before that evidence. No cry I could have made in verse could have matched what was crying out in the dossiers. DOD 290
  • DOD: SH ‘From the Republic of Conscience’ was prompted by a  Richard Wilbur poem where he makes an allegory of shame by turning it into a small cramped country. ‘From the Republic of Conscience’ set out to make up an imaginary country to represent a particular state of mind or feeling …  a place of silence and solitude where a person would find it hard to avoid self-awareness and self-examination, which is what made me think of Orkney DOD 292
  • the ‘I’ of the narrative journeys wittingly to a place with a mysterious abstract name. The traveller is a calm individual normally caught up in a maelstrom of activity, sensitive to Nature surrounding him, and family-minded. He vividly recalled a visit to Orkney that provided him with the setting;
  • the locals ‘I’ has to deal with go about their business gently, unaggressively but know the kind of visitor who is most welcome to their land;
  • The poem will provide a tick list of criteria of good leadership;
  • NC ‘From the Republic of Conscience’ sets a nation-state in which conscience and ethical probity inform public life as (echoed in the public votive oath) …the persona returning to his own place as ‘a representative / … to speak on their behalf in my own tongue’ … a concept of poetry as the place of conscientiously responsible speech and action NC 150

‘From the Land of the Unspoken’

  • Heaney’s nameless ‘foreign correspondent’ reports back from one unnamed land and its people to compare it with a second … for all the anonymity we recognise the ‘I’ as ‘Heaney’s and his principal focus as his own land, the island of Ireland.
  • His exploration concludes that the Irish people have allowed themselves to be shaped as they are. The poem’s despondent climax is built round a fish metaphor … Irishness is in imminent danger … please hurry to witness, recognise and credit the fish of Irish nationhood – if you are hearing the fish’s splash and watching its ripple, then the opportunity has already gone.
  • NC alludes to testimony of implicit recognitions – where even the spoken word is unnecessary – among ‘a dispersed people whose history / is a sensation of opaque fidelity’. This need not be limited to, but would certainly include, the members of the Irish diaspora, the Irish abroad. The poem regards them as in imminent danger of losing this kind of fidelity and solidarity by being dispersed irretrievably into the absorptive processes of ‘a rich democracy’, presumably the irresistible force of American money and power. NC 150 DF feels that Heaney is not focussed uniquely on the USA.

‘From the Canton of Expectation’

  • Heaney uses a series of verbal moods to explore the expectations of minority Catholics in Northern Ireland from his early days at Mossbawn when, to his mind a passive elder generation was cowed into living in the shadow of the Protestant majority (optative ); his own generation was better educated and as a result more demanding, more disputatious, more global, generating a grammar of imperatives (indicative mood).
  • traditional cultural and religious values were superseded by upward mobility and ‘what’s-in-it-for-me;
  • Heaney yearns for a unitive figurehead somewhere between the passive resignation of the elder Catholic minority and the iconoclastic mentality of his own generation; his triptych features in the left panel the passive Hibernians; in the right panel – the newly educated harnessing global capitalism; in the centre panel a figure of unmistakeable Norse appearance … a Thor not a Noah.
  • ‘From the Canton of Expectation’ … encodes another view of Irish historical experience, now specifically that of Northern Irish Catholics since the I960s, as a grammar of verbal moods. Very much a poem that regards subjectivity as a construction of language, it reads recent Northern Irish history as a movement from the ‘optative’ of initial fatalistic resignation and desire, to the ‘grammar of imperatives’ of a generation newly empowered by education, which ‘would banish the conditional for ever’. NC 151
  • The final section views the progression from the one to the other – by way of ‘intelligences / brightened and unmannerly as crowbars’ – as a move from reprehensible Catholic-pietistic passivity to dangerous or malevolent menace. (idem)

The Haw  Lantern – commentaries


  • to Bernard and Jane McCabe, particular friends of the Heaneys. Bernard McCabe (1923-2006), academic and writer, was Professor of English at Tufts University before retiring to England. Heaney’s poem ‘The Birch Grove’ is set in the McCabes’ garden in Ludlow.
  • Heaney remembers handing the completed manuscript to the McCabes in the summer of I986. We were on a drive though England, had stayed the night in a hotel in Lincoln, and later on that day would visit Tennyson’s house in Somersby. The book was dedicated to the McCabes; the two-line dedicatory verse is about a moment Marie and I enjoyed with them on another holiday, when we stopped at a little Saxon church in Gregoryminster in Yorkshire. DOD 286

‘The riverbed, dried-up, half-full of leaves.

Us, listening to a river in the trees’.


  • The opening words build a bridge from the ‘dried-up source’ at the end of Station Island to Heaney’s urgent search for recovery and pleasure latent in the act of writing. The voice of replenishment is within reach thought not yet visible; aridity will be replaced by a volume that ponders, measures, selects and judges.


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