The Song of the Bullets

Heaney’s Song of the Bullets predicts dark times around the corner for Northern Ireland.

Heaney’s title suggests a musical setting. In fact sound accompaniment will be provided not by musicians but by agents of death personified to utter their own message of predominance and power.

On the face of it a long-time rural observer of events as they develop around him watches from his personal space (yard). The situation appears reassuringly stable – the distant firmament is unchanged (usual stars) whilst closer to the Earth the comforting presences of the solar system (still and seemly planets) shed their light, albeit frail (lantern-bright), above familiar ground at dusk (our darkened hill).

Suddenly his radar is disrupted: an abnormal signal (star that moved, I thought) is confirmed (something moved indeed) rising into his line of vision from behind the massed skyline, a fast-moving, glowing projectile (ardent silent speed) on a path that at its highest point (zenith) intersects a second on a parabolic trajectory (swung up) ominously reminiscent of a farm practice that sliced down living grass (scythe-point through its swathe).

These are tracer bullets – the first risoluto con calma (one began to sing) talks ballistics and destructiveness: there are plenty of us (sky at night is full of us); we traffic doom (slugs of lead lie cold and dead); we fly towards you (our trace is on the wing); our discarded components (casings … blunted parts) lie around (gathered up below).

We are not answerable – justice stands aghast and stares as powerless as sun on arctic snow; we are not directly accountable (our guilt was accidental); hold us responsible if you insist (blame, blame because you must) – to do so would be as pointless as censuring male lust (young men for semen) or arid surfaces for lack of moisture (the moon for moondust).

The first voice runs out of steam: acoustics change (ricochets that warble close) accompanied by rallentando then morendo (die away on wind) – via the lowest female frequency (hard contralto sailed across) to complete silence (stellar quiet reigned).

The second tracer (the other fireball) picks up the refrain bellicoso, declaiming the paramilitary hard-line (iron will); its purpose to impose a new order (hoop and cooper worlds) by whatever means (beyond the killer and the kill).

Irrespective of all that religious ‘blessings’ guff (Mount Olivet’s beatitudes) –says the aggressive tracer – and wheedling principles of decent-minded folk (soul’s cadenced desires), bullet and sniper rule (cannot prevail against us).

You can see it in the all-consuming glint of the sniper’s stare (marbled fires) and his routine (steady eyenarrowed, sighted, pausedfire), hell-bent on splintering the status-quo (glaze the shape of things) until a new normal is in place (the shape’s imposed).

Jolted from his reverie (now wind was blowing) the speaker no longer has a good feeling: the sky overcast (clouds blanked the stars), those comforting lights no longer visible (still and seemly planets), storms in the making (our darkened hill).

Twelve years earlier Heaney’s poem ‘Whatever You Say – Say Nothing’ (North – 1975) was predicated on an IRA warning to people: refrain from unguarded political or religious comments or risk a violent response. Between then and The Haw Lantern the cycle of murder and revenge has ebbed and flowed at the hands of military and paramilitary groups on both sides of the sectarian divide.  Man-killing weaponry has become more sophisticated.

In his later collection Seeing Things (1995), Settings xxi Heaney describes his one and only experience of firing any kind of ‘bullet’. Taking his one and only potshot represented a new music (the bullet’s song) and awakened the sense of its destructive potential (sense of what rifle meant). The Song of the Bullets is its imaginative prequel.

  • yard: piece of land closely adjoining a building
  • seemly: fitting, proper
  • lantern: lamp in transparent casing with a carry-handle’ producing a dim light compared with electric versions;
  • massed: forming a single body
  • skyline: point at which land meets sky;
  • ardent: burning, glowing;
  • zenith: highest point/ intensity;
  • cut across: move directly from one side to the other
  • curve: follow a parabolic path:
  • scythe: long-handle farm implement with a curved, pointed blade for cutting grass;
  • swathe: strip left clear after scything;
  • slug (US): bullet;
  • trace: fiery mark of passage emitted for example by a tracer bullet;
  • on the wing: of bird in flight:
  • casing: metal sheath from which the live bullet is projected;
  • blunted: made less sharp;
  • aghast: filled with horror;
  • ricochet: rebound, bounce, or skip off a surface, in the case of a projectile; the force of the deflection decelerates the projectile;
  • warble: soft birdsong with constant change of notes;
  • contralto: lowest female singing voice;
  • fireball: applied to meteors
  • iron will: burning, unstoppable determination;
  • hoop: bind, encircle
  • cooper: make a container
  • killer/ kill: object killed, prey, quarry;
  • Mount Olivet: Mount of Olives in eastern Jerusalem scene of Christ’s Ascension forty days after the Resurrection;
  • Text of the Beatitudes according to the gospel of Matthew:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven – Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted – Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the Earth – Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled – Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy – Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God – Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God – Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven – Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me – Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

  • soul: spiritual part of human being regarded as immortal;
  • cadence: what marks the end of a musical phrase so to do with endings e.g. ‘Amen’
  • prevail: prove more powerful, win through;
  • marbled fires:
  • steady: balanced; stable;
  • narrow: half close eye in concentration;
  • sight: take precise aim;
  • glaze: overlay with a different finish, put a different gloss on
  • imposed: fixed, made definite
  • blank: cover over; make on forget;


  • 11 quartets in 14 sentences including 2 colons; steady beat 8 syllables then 6 syllables;
  • rhyme on even lines -a-a -b-b; flow regulated by abundant use of enjambed lines;
  • different speakers: interior monologue then personified bullets that speak, one of them with biblical knowledge!
  • allegory: observer of his local landscape easily applied to Northern Ireland dimensions where trouble is brewing;
  • assonant effects: [i:]seemly…indeed…speed…reached…because…semen… we…beatitudes…prevail…seemly… disappeared; [ai] time…eye…bright…I… skyline… silent… light…like…scythe…sky…night…fireball…iron… desires…fires…sighted; [ʌ] above…something… cut…swung… up…full of us…slugs…blunted…up…justice… sun…must…young; [au] like jabs of pain .. our…our…our… now…clouds; [a:] yard…stars…darkened… star… ardent…parts…arctic…hard…contralto… stellar…yard; [əʊ] cold… below…snow…ricochet… contralto…spoke…soul…narrowed…blowing; [u] usual… who…through…moved… moon…moondust… hoop…cooper; [e] when…zenith…lead…dead… accidental… then…men…dwell…every steady…ever [i] still…hill…is…sing…is…wing…casings…justice…arctic… accidental…ricochet…killer…kill…things until…imposed…wind…blowing… still; [ei] swathe…trace…casings…blame…blame…ricochet… sailed… cadenced…prevail against…glaze…shape’s;
  • alliterative chains: front of mouth [l] [w][h]; reprises of alveolar [t/d], bilabial [p/b], velar [k/g] nasals [m/n], sibilants [s/z/sh], labio-dental [f/v];


  • 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;

Join the Conversation - Leave a comment