In Memoriam: Robert Fitzgerald

Heaney composes a sonnet elegising a much respected member of the Harvard Senior Common Room (a ‘giant in the autumn of his reign’) whom the poet, on sabbatical leave in New England, first met in 1979. Fitzgerald died in 1985. Heaney particularly liked him for making him, the Irish rookie abroad, feel so much at home.

The first seven lines are solidly earth bound before erupting via a single line of surreal cinematic deconstruction into a cosmic journey – from prehistoric diagram to space odyssey.  Megalithic maze and arrow flight both end up at a single point, the first an inward journey saluting prehistoric erudition the second bearing the soul of Fitzgerald to a merited place amongst the stars.

The poetic charge generated by prehistoric weaponry (socket of each axehead) leads Heaney into an ancient monument (megalithic tomb) built in trabiated format for solidity and longevity (squared doorway) and labour intensive skills (slabbed passage). Film-like the path leads towards the innermost sanctum (keeps opening forward) through a second entrance of weight-bearing design (corbelled stone-faced door) and a third. Between him and the centre now no more than a skeletal construct (threshold stone, stone jambs, stone crossbeam) triple stone features expressing a quadruple welcome (enter, enter, enter, enter).

Then a special effect eruption of energy: megalithic building materials are torn from the ground (lintel and upright fly past in the dark).

A twanging sound is audible (bowstring sang a swallow’s note) launching an arrow bearing Fitzgerald’s soul into orbit (migration is its mark) leaving a perceptible vibration in its wake (whispered breath in every socket).

Fitzgerald’s hugely productive life has come to an end (great test over); his passing is still fresh on Heaney’s mind (the gut’s still humming); the American scholar is on a journey beyond human understanding (out of all knowing), both his giant stature and his scholarship perfectly aimed towards a heavenly space reserved for him (vacant centre).

  • Robert Stuart Fitzgerald (1910 – 85): American poet, critic and translator whose renderings of the Greek classics became standard works for a generation of scholars and students at Harvard University at Cambridge Massachusetts where he was a senior member of staff; best known as a translator of ancient Greek and Latin he also composed several books of his own poetry;
  • socket: the fashioned pocket into which a second piece is fitted;
  • squared: trabiated, built with posts and load-bearing lintel at right angles;
  • megalithic: reference to prehistoric monuments built of large stones;
  • slab: large, thick, flat pieces of stone;
  • corbeling: jutting pieces that support a structure above;
  • threshold: stone at the bottom of an entrance;
  • jamb: side post of a doorway;
  • crossbeam: lintel;
  • swallow: migratory swift-flying songbird with a forked tail; 
  • migration: seasonal movement between regions;
  • whisper: soft, breathy sound;
  • test: trial, check, challenge;
  • gut: fibre from which the bowstring is made;
  • hum: steady continuous sound, resonance;
  • knowing: comprehension;
  • aim: deliberately direct;
  • vacant: empty, not filled;
  • centre: point equidistant from all surrounding points;


Electric Light’s Sonnets from Hellas (3) written nearly 15 years later would provide a further tribute to the kindness and warmth of the Harvard Professor and teacher who brought the ancient legends to life: Robert Fitzgerald figured as Harvard Nestor akin to the wise old king of Pylos in Greek history. Heaney chose the name, he tells DOD (273) after Fitzgerald had taken him on one side at Harvard and pointed out the hidden demands of the Boylston chair of Rhetoric and Oratory, the contract Heaney had been offered and would take up in 1984.


  • sonnet (8+6) in 5 sentences ; volta in l.8; line length 9-11 syllables; unrhymed;
  • in the first section enjambed lines carry the momentum towards the inner sanctum of the megalith;
  • repetitions in section 1;
  • contrast in vocabulary of weight and weightlessness;
  • 8 acts as a catalyst for cinema-like special effects deconstruction and moves the narrative from earth-bound to heaven-sent;
  • the second section introduces a kind of phonetic onomatopoeia reflecting the silent thrum of space;
  • assonant effects: [i:] each…keeps…beam…repeating……leaves…every; [e] head…megalithic…threshold… enter…enter…enter…enter…every
  • …test…centre; [æ] axe…slabbed passage…sang…a…arrow; [i] megalithic…bowstring… is its…whispered… still humming; [əʊ] opening…stone…opens…stone…stone…stone…bow…arrow…over…knowing; [ai] upright…fly…migration…while; [ei] great…aimed…vacant;
  • alliterative chains: front of mouth [l] [w]; reprises of alveolar [t/d], bilabial [p/b], velar [k/g] nasals [m/n], sibilants [s/z/sh], labio-dental [f];
  • 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: thirteen 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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