From the Republic of Conscience

An anonymous first person ‘I’, let us call him Traveller, journeys wittingly to a place with a mysterious name. Traveller is an individual normally caught up in a maelstrom of activity, sensitive to Nature surrounding him and family-minded.


Heaney accepted that the poem was set in a remote island off the north-east coast of Scotland: I imagined the Republic of Conscience as 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 (DOD292);

The airplane carrying Traveller has arrived at its scheduled destination – an allegorical somewhere bearing an unusual name (republic of conscience). Traveller is met with conducive silence (noiseless when the engines stopped) that includes a reassuringly familiar sound (curlew high above the runway).

No uniforms or guns to greet him at this border, nor autocratic staff; the official who met him was a gentle character (the clerk was an old man). Traveller was not required to prove his identity – the old man knew of him in advance (wallet from his homespun coat) welcoming him as a member of the human family (a photograph of my grandfather).

The woman on duty was interested less in scrutiny of Traveller’s luggage than hearing what he had to say … the narrative he brought with him (traditional cures and charms) for endorsing freedom of speech (heal dumbness) and resisting oppressive regimes (avert the evil eye).

The republic of conscience was quickly recognised as a place for scrutiny of the self (No porters), for untrammelled expression (No interpreter) for an individual journey of the soul (No taxi). Traveller is having to expose his past baggage to self-scrutiny (your own burden) without let or hindrance (symptom of creeping privilege disappeared).

  • land: arrive by airplane;
  • republic: a state based on democratic power exercised by elected representatives; a group/ community members are nominally equal;
  • conscience: the moral sense of right and wrong that guides behaviour; inner voice;
  • curlew: large wading bird with a distinctive two-note call;
  • immigration: border check-in desk;
  • clerk: modest administrator;
  • homespun: simple, coarse handwoven fabric:
  • customs: incoming luggage and traveller check;
  • cure: treatment that restores health, by extension solution to a problem
  • charm: talisman like object carried to ward off negative forces;
  • dumbness: inability, unwillingness to speak;
  • evil eye: curse transmitted by a malevolent glare;


  • 4 triplets (T) in 3 sentences; line length 10-12 syllables; unrhymed;
  • assonant effects: [ɒ] conscience was…stopped…was…wallet from; [ʌ] republic…could…above…woman… customs…dumbness; [əʊ] old…homespun coat…showed…no…no… no…own; [i] immigration…his…interpreter…symptom of creeping privilege disappeared;
  • alliterative chains: reprises of alveolar [d/t], bilabial [p/b] labio-dental [f], sibilant variants [s/z/sh]


Traveller learns quickly that the republic of conscience is made up of diverse phenomena and superstition each worthy of investigation: Orkney-like fog either masker of the way ahead or deliberate screen to blur peoples’ vision is a dreaded omen; lightning is reputed a good omen dispelling the darkness (spells universal good) yet leads to risky superstitious practices amongst civilisations that suspended swaddled infants in trees during thunderstorms to turn them into honest individuals.

Salt is lauded as a precious mineral critical in small quantities to human health. To oceanic communities seashells, the great amplifiers of sound and eternity, were celebrated as rites and rights of passage (held to the ear during births and funerals).

What indeed would freedom of speech have become without salt (base of all inks and pigments is seawater) that enabled hieroglyphic representation (their sacred symbol) shaped into a vehicle of free expression – a figurative craft (stylized boat), a collector of messages (sail an ear), a nib poised to compose responses (mast a sloping pen), a published ‘voice’ (hull a mouth-shape) reporting vigilantly on all appropriate matters (keel an open eye).

Traveller promotes a tick-list of critical ‘musts’ for public leaders: a transparent public investiture (inauguration) … an oath (swear) against which performance may be judged … a commitment not to replace custom and practice by diktat (uphold unwritten law) … a personality test in which naked political ambition is replaced by open humility (weep) at being considered worthy of selection (atone for their presumption to hold office).

Finally Heaney throws in a killer condition that disqualifies organised Churches: the leader of his republic of conscience will embrace an atheist creation theory  recognizing that the earliest humans and animals were produced by an evolutionary process deriving from some distant African salt-pan (affirm their faith that all life sprang from salt). He links it figuratively to the grief of the classical deity (tears which the sky-god wept) who yearned to be close to human existence rather than some numinous invisible supremo (dreamt his solitude was endless).

  • swaddle: wrap in a garment;
  • pigment: natural colouring;
  • seawater: contains the saltiness alluded to in this section
  • stylised: designed figuratively;
  • hull: main body of a ship;
  • keel: lengthwise timber acting as a base for the construction;
  • inauguration: swearing-in;
  • weep: shed tears;
  • atone: make amends
  • presumption: (over)confidence;
  • sprang: derived;
  • hold office: assume a powerful position
  • sky-god: Zeus figure;
  • 5 triplets (T) in 7 sentences including dash; line length 9-12 syllables; unrhymed;
  • assonant effects: [e] dreaded omen there…spells…precious…shells…held…wept…dreamt…endless; [i] is…universal…infants in…inks…pigments…symbol…inauguration…public…written…office; [ei] sacred…sail…shape…faith; [əʊ] boat…sloping…open…uphold…hold;
  • alliterative chains: reprises of alveolar [d/t], bilabial [p/b] labio-dental [f], sibilant variants [s/z/sh], velar [k/g];


As if converted by the plain and simple message of his experience (frugal republic) Traveller no longer considers it necessary to take home fancy gifts (my two arms the one length).

The woman checking him nods approval: the insights Traveller is taking back through customs are his ‘duty-free’ (my allowance was myself). That he and the Controller can look each other in the eye (the old man rose and gazed into my face) is corroboration that Traveller has passed the test (official recognition) and is acknowledged as bearing a privileged qualification (dual citizen).

Traveller accepts the on-going responsibility (consider myself a representative) of making his voice heard on behalf of the republic of conscience using his own unfettered language (my own tongue).

His public voice is especially needed when the organs of individual states (embassies) never speak with a united voice (were everywhere but operated independently) and official spokespersons are obliged to keep to the official line (no ambassador would ever be relieved).

  • Andrew Grant offers a persuasive alternative reading of the final lines: every “dual citizen” i.e. person of conscience, is an ambassador of the Republic wherever they are, and have a lifelong obligation to the Republic of Conscience (will never be relieved or recalled). Though they are many, each must represent the Republic (i.e. public truth) independently. Sincere thanks Andrew.
  • frugal: thrifty, cautious; the original Latin suggests worthy, honest;
  • my two arms the one length: Eleanor Methven offered this compelling clarification: ’the phrase … is actually native to Ulster, it means I brought nothing (physical object) with me. I think … it is Heaney honouring the promise to speak in his own tongue. We use this phrase entering a house to apologise for not having brought a gift…usually a bottle of something! People normally bring back duty-free from journeys abroad. I’m fairly confident this is what the phrase denotes, and honours.’ Thank you Eleanor.
  • allowance: what a person can bring through customs duty-free
  • dual citizenship: status of a person belonging to more than one country under its laws:
  • my own tongue: the poet’s voice of conscience;
  • embassy: residence of an ambassador whose job it is to promote his country’s policy;
  • relieved: free to express his own views;


  • 4 triplets (T) in 4sentences including dash; line length 10-12 syllables; unrhymed;
  • assonant effects: [əʊ] old…rose…home; [u:] frugal…two…dual; [ei] gazed…face; [e] length…embassies… everywhere…independently…ever; [ʊ] customs woman; [i] insisted..into…official recognition…citizen
  • alliterative chains: : reprises of alveolar [d/t], bilabial [p/b] labio-dental [f], sibilant variants [s/z/sh], velar [k/g];

Background: In August 2013 Colm O’Gorman, then Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland recalled the commission that resulted in The Republic of Conscience: In 1985 Mary Lawlor, then the chairperson of a local Amnesty International group in Dublin who would go on to become Executive Director, approached Seamus and asked him to write a piece to mark International Human Rights Day. Mary gave Seamus a dossier filled with the stories of Prisoners of Conscience, women and men who had suffered torture, imprisonment and silence, the kind of women and men on whose behalf our movement has worked for the past fifty-two years.

Heaney responded to DOD (290): 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.

Source comments:

  • DOD/ SH The idea of being scrutinized and tested runs through the poem and could be regarded as the leitmotif of the whole collection (290);
  • Heaney indicated to DOD that he enjoyed the challenges of ‘commission’ here an Amnesty International request. To get started he turned to a Richard Wilbur poem. Wilbur makes an allegory of shame by turning it into a small cramped countryit occurred to me that I could ask myself to do the same thing: make up an imaginary country to represent a particular state of mind or feeling … the element of play entered and I was able to cross the frontier of writing, able to shift out of the ‘doldrums of what happens’ (or, in this case, the actual cruelty of the conditions). I had to recover and ‘by indirection find direction out’ (ibid);
  • NC The four poems whose titles begin with the word ‘From’ could be called strange letters … in the sense of fictional missives or messages from a foreign correspondent travelling in mysterious and dangerous places … That they appear scattered throughout the book, and not in a single sequence, disseminates their tonal influence and effect: their strict moralism seems very much the air this volume breathes (NC147);
  • ‘From the Republic of Conscience’ sets the international jet-traveller persona in a republic of filial and familial piety and figures the concept of a nation-state in which conscience and ethical probity inform public life … ‘From the Republic of Conscience’ ends with the persona returning to his own place as ‘a representative / … to speak on their behalf in my own tongue’. This concept of poetry as the place of conscientiously responsible speech (ibid 149);


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

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


4 thoughts on “From the Republic of Conscience

  1. Hello, your commentary and analysis is very helpful, thank you. If I may, however, give a constructive suggestion…the phrase ‘with my two arms the one length’ is actually native to Ulster, it means I brought nothing ( physical object) with me. I think therefore, rather than regaining inner balance as you have it, it is Heaney honouring the promise to speak in his own tongue. We use this phrase entering a house to apologise for not having brought a gift…usually a bottle of something! People normally bring back duty-free from journeys abroad. I’m fairly confident this is what the phrase denotes, and honours.

    1. Eleanor,
      I’m delighted that my notes are useful to you. The great thing about blogs is that they permit review and redrafting in the light of the knowledge and wisdom of those who seek to enlighten.
      It will not be straight away but I shall return to ‘Republic of Conscience’ and, if I may, include your comments.

  2. A lovely interpretative text, followed by a courteous and informative note. I wonder if anyone can help me travel te the Richard Wilbur poem about the ‘ allegory of shame’, which Heaney refers to elsewhere as being one of his inspirations. Thanks.

    1. Could this be the one you are alluding to of 2003 ‘Shame’?
      It is a cramped little state with no foreign policy,
      Save to be thought inoffensive. The grammar of the language
      Has never been fathomed, owing to the national habit
      Of allowing each sentence to trail off in confusion.
      Those who have visited Scusi, the capital city,
      Report that the railway-route from Schuldig passes
      Through country best described as unrelieved.
      Sheep are the national product. The faint inscription
      Over the city gates may perhaps be rendered,
      “I’m afraid you won’t find much of interest here.”
      Census-reports which give the population
      As zero are, of course, not to be trusted,
      Save as reflecting the natives’ flustered insistence
      That they do not count, as well as their modest horror
      Of letting one’s sex be known in so many words.
      The uniform grey of the nondescript buildings, the absence
      Of churches or comfort-stations, have given observers
      An odd impression of ostentatious meanness,
      And it must be said of the citizens (muttering by
      In their ratty sheepskins, shying at cracks in the sidewalk)
      That they lack the peace of mind of the truly humble.
      The tenor of life is careful, even in the stiff
      Unsmiling carelessness of the border-guards
      And douaniers, who admit, whenever they can,
      Not merely the usual carloads of deodorant
      But gypsies, g-strings, hasheesh, and contraband pigments.
      Their complete negligence is reserved, however,
      For the hoped-for invasion, at which time the happy people
      (Sniggering, ruddily naked, and shamelessly drunk)
      Will stun the foe by their overwhelming submission,
      Corrupt the generals, infiltrate the staff,
      Usurp the throne, proclaim themselves to be sun-gods,
      And bring about the collapse of the whole empire.

Join the Conversation - Leave a comment