• Main sources
  • Key dates in Heaney’s biography post 1969
  • Grounds for optimism
  • Attributed comments and reviews
  • Unattributed comments and reviews
  • The makings of a lyric poet
  • Talismans , portraits and concerns
  • The bricklayer’s spirit level
  • Heaney puts human spirit to the test
  • Living is not giving in
  • History and ignorance
  • All-seeing and in-between
  • Translation’ and other variations on the prefix ‘trans’
  • ‘So walk on air’
  • Water, earth, fire and air

The Poems: individual commentaries with footnotes and reflections on style and structure;


  • Heaney an extraordinary man in ordinary clothing
  • Heaney the cordon-bleu cook
  • Heaney the agent of change
  • Heaney the orchestral composer
  • Heaney the word painter
  • Heaney the meticulous craftsman (including phonetic information)
  • Subjects and Circumstances of individual poems
  • Formats and Rhymes of individual poems
  • Stylistic devices


The Spirit Level, published by Faber and Faber in 1996, is Seamus Heaney’s ninth collection. Heaney is in his late fifties. The totality of his collections over nearly half a century following Death of a Naturalist (1966) have confirmed Heaney’s place at the very top of the premier league of twentieth century poets writing in English. Heaney died on the 30th August 2013 after a short illness; he was 74.

Heaney was a translator, broadcaster and prose writer of distinction, but his poetry was his most remarkable achievement, for its range, its consistent quality and its impact on readers: love poems, epic poems, poems about memory and the past, poems about conflict and civil strife, poems about the natural world, poems addressed to friends, poems that found significance in the everyday or delighted in the possibilities of the English language. BBC Obituary of 30th August 2013

The textual commentaries that follow seek to tease out what Heaney’s poems are intimating in The Spirit Level. Of course, the poet’s ‘message’ will have started life as an essentially personal one not intended primarily for his reader and there are moments when some serious unravelling is required.

Thanks to the depth of Heaney’s knowledge, scholarship and the sincerity of his personal feelings his poetry is rich in content. Digging into background-materials is both essential and edifying.  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. In a very real sense Heaney both entertains and educates.

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.

The commentaries are enriched from the sources below; textual surveys and footnotes are largely personal. The approach is not calculated to promote any particular viewpoint.

Main sources

Seamus Heaney: The Spirit Level, Faber and Faber, 1996

Helen Vendler: ‘Seamus Heaney’ published by Harvard University Press 1998 (HV)

Neil Corcoran:  ‘The Poetry of Seamus Heaney’ published by Faber 1998 (NC)

Dennis O’Driscoll:  ‘Stepping Stones, Interviews with Seamus Heaney’ published by Faber 2008 (DOD)

Key events from Seamus Heaney’s  Biography from 1969

1969: first visit to the USA to read his poetry in Richmond, Virginia;

1970-71: year spent (with his family) at Berkeley University in California; their return to Northern Ireland coincided with the imposition of Internment without Trial by the British Government in response to increased ‘terrorist’ activity;

1972: January witnesses Bloody Sunday in Derry; it will have a lasting impact on Heaney’s consciousness. Heaney resigns from Queen’s University Belfast and becomes self-employed, changing his status from ‘Lecturer’ to ‘Poet’ and moving with his family to a cottage in Glanmore, Co Wicklow in the Irish Republic; initially the move remained a subject of some personal unease until Heaney came fully to appreciate its value first as a family home and later as a poet’s refuge;

1975: Helen Vendler to whom the collection is dedicated hears Heaney read for the first time at the Yeats International Summer School in Sligo, Republic of Ireland;

1976: Heaney is granted leave of absence from his post at Dublin’s Carysfoot College to return to Berkeley University, California; he is presented with the Duff Cooper Memorial award;

1977: visits Hugh McDiarmid to whom ‘An Invocation’ is dedicated in Biggar, Scotland;

1979: Field Work is published; spends the Spring Semester as  visiting lecturer at Harvard University accompanied by his family; his  friendship with Helen Vendler is cemented; he meets Bernard and Jane McCabe;

1980:  Selected Poems 1965 -75 and Preoccupations; Selected Prose 1968-78 are published; he co-judges the first Arvon Foundation Poetry Competition (35,000 entries) alongside Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin and Charles Causley;

1980-1: a period notorious for ‘hunger strike’ crises in Ulster. Heaney becomes a director of Field Day Theatre Company founded by Brian Friel and Stephen Rea in 1980; their joint endeavours aim to raise the level of debate over critical issues of culture and identity, politics and art throughout Ireland; his family holiday spent in France and Spain coincides with the culmination of IRA hunger strikes in Long Kesh;

1982: Heaney negotiates with Harvard University as regards a three-year spring-semester contract; he receives honorary degrees from Queens’ Belfast and New York’s Fordham University); he co-edits the Rattle Bag anthology with Ted Hughes, published to critical acclaim;

1983: An Open Letter from Heaney who holds an Irish passport takes a good-natured, satirical .. sideswipe’ at Penguin Books and breaks old inclinations ‘not to speak’ is published in response to Heaney’s inclusion as a ‘British’ poet in The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry; Sweeney Astray is published; first meeting in California with Czeslaw Milosz at a dinner with Robert Pinker and Bob Hass; spends the summer in San Francisco;

1984: Station Island is published; death of his mother, Margaret Heaney (v. the sonnet sequence at the heart of Haw Lantern); Heaney is elected Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard University located in Cambridge Massachusetts.

1986: his father Patrick Heaney dies;

1990: celebrates his Silver Wedding with wife Marie née Devlin

1994: in late August the IRA announces a ceasefire, followed later by similar move from Ulster Loyalists. Though the ceasefire does not hold it gives cautious hope that the recurrent cycle of political and religious murder and revenge might be broken;

1995: Heaney is visiting Greece and meeting Cynthia and Dmitri Hadzi to whom Mycenae Lookout is dedicated when news breaks that he has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past” (in the words of the Nobel citation).

1996: publication of The Spirit Level in the same year that Heaney renegotiates his contract with Harvard University;

1997: renewed ceasefire in Ulster subsequent to Labour’s victory in Britain’s General Election;

April 1998: The Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement provided Northern Ireland’s divided society with a political framework to resolve its differences. A model of governance based on ‘parity of esteem’ replaced the old divisive system of majority rule. The two political traditions of unionism and nationalism agreed to proportional inclusion of each group in government.

Grounds for optimism:

  • The IRA declaration of a ceasefire in late August 1994, rapidly followed by a similar move on behalf of the Ulster Loyalists (even though it did not hold was not renewed until a year after the publication of The Spirit Level) offered an unexpected ray of hope to the vast majority people on both sides of the sectarian and political divides who were heartily sick of conflict, murder and revenge.
  • Heaney welcomes the initiative in The Spirit Level, however cautiously: Flight Path refers indirectly to the gap between first steps and completion with its ‘distance still to go’; Tollund recognises that ‘Things had moved on’. Tenacious Mint ‘symbolises promise and newness ‘in the back yard of our life’. In To a Dutch Potter in Ireland Heaney reminds Sonja Landweer of Nazi occupation of the Netherlands: ‘The thing that nearly broke you’; Weighing In deplores the inability of one segment of political and sectarian society to balance ‘the intolerable in others’.
  • Lying dormant over time, the optimism and spiritual uplift generated by his father’s origami (‘a dove rose in my breast’) and the beauty of the Dordogne (‘somewhere a dove rose./ And kept on rising’) have waited for release;
  • Interviewed by DOD (p351) and commenting on his poetic responses to the cessation of 1994 Heaney conceded that his impulse In Mycenae Lookout was to give a snarl rather than sing a hymn’ because of the waste and loss of life of the previous twenty five years. For all that, the dramatization of episodes drawn from Greek classical literature culminates in a hymn of hope and renewal where ‘treadmill’ of conflict ‘turned water wheel’. Heaney reflected: ‘What we were experiencing, you could say, was hope rather than optimism’. He felt cautious rather than sceptical about the outcome: ‘I knew it would be crazy to expect a great change of heart on either side’.
  • ‘Something huge has happened; but after that event life must be sustained. The Spirit Level enquires into that sustaining of life in an Afterwards’ (HVp156);

The Spirit Level – attributed comments and reviews:

  • Faber blurb to the 2001 reprint: The poems in Seamus Heaney’s collection The Spirit Level keep discovering the possibilities of ‘a new beginning’ in all kinds of subjects and circumstances. What is at stake in poem after poem is the chance of buoyancy and balance, physical, spiritual and political (in) a poetry that never ceases to be fluid, alert and completely truthful;
  • ‘An irresistibly coherent book that celebrates the rising and the raising of the human spirit’. Michael Hofmann, The Times;
  • ‘If any poetry written today can have this “redemptive effect” … as Heaney in his critical writing has begun to claim it can … then this is it’. Mick Imlah in The Independent on Sunday;
  • ‘fractures and self-oppositions are elemental features of Heaney’s work. So, as all his previous collections have been, his dazzling new book, The Spirit Level, is an intricately doubled entity, a thing that strives to be both buoyant and sombre, cryptic and forthright, as it weaves back and forth across the line between myth and memory, lightness and heaviness, a “nowhere” and (Heaney’s own word-play) the “here” and “now”. The two-mindedness is perfectly captured in the book’s title’ … Nicholas Jenkins Walking on Air in the TLS of July 5th 1996
  • In looking forwards, he also find himself gazing back, revisiting his old subjects and writings, re-inscribing them into a historical setting, re-contextualizing them like the travellers who at “cruising altitude” fly back over the “same house / They’d left an hour before”. (ibid)
  • ‘If Seeing Things (1991), his last volume, adumbrated a poetics of charmed stillnesses, of “Omnipresence, equilibrium, brim”, The Spirit Level seeks out a more slippery and transitional state of being where, even in moments of balance, there are shivers of movement, where, on a loaded-down weighbridge, for instance, “everything trembled, flowed with give and take”. (ibid)
  • From the Introduction to the Noonday Press edition of June 1996: ‘The title of Seamus Heaney’s first collection of poetry since winning the Nobel Prize in 1995 is the term used in Ireland for a carpenter’s level, an earthy physical allusion to matters of spirit that is quintessential Heaney.’
  • ‘this volume deals masterfully with the finding of a level balancing point in ethical, moral, and spiritual affairs’ (ibid);
  • ‘Heaney has famously likened his craft to the farming activities of his childhood, comparing his pen to his father’s spade; here he extends that analogy: “the poem as ploughshare that turns time up and over” ‘(ibid);
  • ‘… a study in balance. Heaney reveals how simple things, such as a thimble or a swing, can hold the weight of history-and how history can alter the emotional weight of an object.’ (ibid);
  • ‘Heaney, at the peak of his career, is the fulcrum of two Irelands: one that is lyrical and lush with tradition and love; another that is ticking and can “catch the heart off guard and blow it open” ‘(ibid);
  • Comments by Bob Corbett, July 2012: ‘Seamus Heaney has a marvellous ability to go back many years in memory and catch the essence of everyday experiences. He reveals the feelings and how they linger in his heart, and he very often then uses those experiences to make an analogous point to some larger lesson in life’;
  • the poems seem mainly to be about language and sounds. I came away from the book with images of jazz musicians. They often take a very familiar tune, play it fairly straight for a few bars then go into a series of variations (ibid);
  • The Spirit Level” hints at weariness. In some of the poems this produces an exercise of the poet’s art more than art itself. In one or two it comes close to producing an exercise of his stature. (The five-part “Mycenae Lookout” faintly suggests a great poet discharging his responsibility to ancient Greece.) But in at least a dozen splendid poems, weariness emerges as only the latest of the realities that it has been Heaney’s lifelong calling to transmute. It saunters in green alleys. Richard Eder Los Angeles Times June 9 1996;
  • Art as the wizardry of style, on the one hand, and art as personal and public expression, on the other. Not many can fuse the two nowadays, and no one writing in English does it so well as Heaney. He employs poetry’s power to tell truth, and the artist’s power to make us know that it is a truth we need. His poems, elegant fountains, are also water; we realize it and grow thirsty. (ibid)
  • Richard Tillinghast: Seamus Heaney reprises some familiar themes of his earlier work while sounding new notes that will surprise readers. The title of the book refers to a carpenter’s level. Accordingly, “The Spirit Level” has much to say about balance, equilibrium, karma
  • So many of his poems have become personal lodestones for us that reading this new book is like awakening to an experience both fresh and familiar. From his earliest poems, he has presented the ordinary sensations of the physical world radiantly, causing us to hear the “clean new music” of a voice calling down into a well, showed us the “sloped honeycomb” of a thatched roof or the tactile wholesomeness of “new potatoes that we picked / Loving their cool hardness in our hands.” (ibid);

The Spirit Level – unattributed comments and reviews:

  • ‘Heaney never disappoints. He brings to quite small poems, such as his lyrical reflection on mint, the same intense gaze which illuminates his poems dealing with the more complex concerns of religious faith and history’;
  • ‘It is only after the second or third reading that the deeper complexities are absorbed’;
  • ‘Seamus Heaney has never shied away from the fact that poetry is craft as much as art- a duality neatly exemplified by the title of his latest collection. For Heaney, poetry itself is the spirit level, the tool with which balance is found, whether that balance be between his hatred of the troubles dividing Ireland and his own ambivalence about his role in them, or between the pleasures of reminiscence and the uncomfortable responsibilities of adulthood that transform reminiscence into idyll’;
  • ‘The sensuality of Heaney’s poetry is unavoidable and joyous, from the auditory fantasy of “The Rain Stick” through the ludicrous (sic) picture painted in “Keeping Going” to the gentle prod of “Postscript” for us to open ourselves to the wonderful in the everyday’;
  • ‘His portraiture is always accurately scaled; the minimalist charcoal sketch of “Sandymount Strand” is as appropriate to its subject as the Norman Rockwell painting that is “A Sofa In The Forties”. That Heaney is a master of both is no surprise- but it’s always a pleasure’;

Seamus Heaney – a memorable lyric poet:

In the Introduction to her monograph ‘Seamus Heaney’ (1998) HV sets out criteria common to the most successful writers of lyric poetry. Heaney fulfils all requirements.

What follow (my summary) are the ingredients HV sets out as essential:

  • Heaney has a strong ‘symbolic plane’ at his disposal (for example the bog bodies of North, the Lough Derg pilgrims of Station Island) around which to paint reality as he perceives it to be, and his responses to it;
  • Heaney possesses a wide-ranging, rich hoard of words and a comprehensive awareness of syntax adequate to express his themes and symbols; he has a poet’s way with words;
  • Heaney’s structures are expressive of his symbolic plane whether sequential, contrastive, dialogic, climactic;
  • Heaney’s language moves effortlessly between the simple and the elaborate, the everyday and the learned, the parochial and the expansive;
  • Heaney employs a rich variety of ways of arranging words and phrases to create effects: short and sharp or supple and fluid;
  • Heaney weaves internal structures beyond language and grammar that capture the emotions he wishes to express e.g. musicality of assonance and consonance; he instinctively manages metre; he has a sense of rhythms;
  • Heaney possesses a sensory focus enabling him to paint scenes he wants you to ‘see’ and ‘score’ poems he wants you to ‘hear’;
  • Heaney’s persona shines through his poems; they are unmistakably ‘Heaney’;
  • Heaney’s tone varies from objectivity to subjectivity, from impartiality to recognizable political sympathy or social position;
  • Heaney deals successfully with the tension between the emotional demands of experience (content) and its artistic design (form);
  • Heaney’s time and place brought a period of intractable social turmoil in his native Ulster that represented both a nasty shadow and source of inspiration beyond his immediate personal life: In his writing, the public and the private compete for space, and the tragic and the quotidian contest each other’s dominance (HVp5);
  • Heaney’s lyrics are each a stepping-stone to something further; the ‘history and ignorance’ of boyhood are amended and enriched by experiences honestly reflected in the work in progress; changes around him push Heaney to re-assessment or deserve re-iteration; each composition is unique to the moment when it was composed;

Talismans and portraits:

  • elements that contribute to the ‘symbolic plane’ (HVp6) judged an essential base for the writing of good lyric poetry and above which the poems of The Spirit Level are pitched: the warmth and security of his childhood and private memories, knowledge of classical mythic scenes, humble domestic objects – a whitewash brush, a sofa, a swing … endowed with talismanic significance;
  • portraits of friends and relatives are painted for their joie-de-vivre or their steadfastness; memories of an ageing father parent are things ‘the tide won’t wash away’ (The Strand);

The bricklayer’s spirit level:

Heaney selects a humble builder’s tool, the spirit level (from the text of The Errand), as the title of the collectionthe alert reader will look further than the simple reference to a tool used by a bricklayer to check the quality of work in progress: the poet, too, places his output under constant scrutiny. Heaney’s  ‘level’  acts as a measure, a check, a balance that will meet with the poet’s approval or generate rethink and amendment.

Heaney wants you to look further, opening up multiple lines of enquiry. He knows that ‘level’ points to a host of nuanced allusions and states: aim, stability, calmness, alignment, balanced expression of feelings essential to the lyric form, stage reached in a process, focus, amount, degree. Likewise ‘spirit’ can allude to courage, energy, morale, substance generated by mind, soul, mood, frame of mind as they feature in the uniqueness in time of each moment of poetic composition. His title is thoughtfully chosen!

Heaney puts human spirit to the test:

Hope associated with the ceasefire agreement of 1994, a truce that followed twenty five years of violent civil disorder in Northern Ireland, however frail it might prove to be in the short term, was influential on Heaney’s creative spirit as he sewed The Spirit Level together in the months surrounding its announcement.

Whose spirit? Initially Heaney’s own, of course. Beyond the extraordinary poetic figure he cuts both at home and abroad and world acclaim in the shape of his Nobel Prize for Literature of 1995 Heaney remains normal flesh and blood at heart, subject to the daily ups and downs of health and mood, with busy schedules to meet and bills to pay, responding in as balanced and open-minded a way as he can to events and situations that mark his existence, some of them fixed in the past, others changing as things unfold, some banging for attention, others relatively workaday, many of them attracting his lyric attention in the poems of The Spirit Level.

The collection itself opens with a phenomenon, repeatable at will, that lifts the poet’s spirits and ends with an experience that blows his mind; the two poems are separated by a series of lyrical variations on the theme.

The messages that emerge are clear: persistence and tenacity are required to oppose things that trample on the human spirit, issues to do with justice and injustice, civil turbulence and oppressive régimes. Heaney’s mental strength also finds ways to raise him above other obstacles and irritants that might merely dent his spirit: the human condition and the passing of loved ones, tradition overtaken by progress, sickness and incapacity. He lays his hands on a selection of appropriate exemplifiers, animal, vegetable and mineral.

Warmth, comfort and congeniality are Heaney’s hallmarks; things that restore the drooping spirit are in abundance and he finds them.  His poetry is on the side of life.

  • In The Rain Stick Heaney is uplifted by the ‘music he hears’;
  • To a Dutch Potter in Ireland: Heaney is buoyed by a nation’s refusal to capitulate to WWII fascism tramping on the spirit of its oppressed victims;
  • A Brigid’s Girdle identifies a woman beset with terminal illness who will be comforted, Heaney hopes, by the sincerity of his goodwill message designed to lift her spirits;
  • In Mint a common-or-garden herb growing in inhospitable ground sets an example of success, acting as a paradigm for a boy brought up in similarly modest conditions, for a Catholic in a majority protestant state, for a man sensitive to the perceived injustices of the Irish condition. Tenacity promises release;
  • A Sofa in the Forties reflects on events from the Heaney children’s early ‘den’ life pinpointing the source of an enduring positive spirit in both Heaney and his siblings;
  • Keeping Going features Heaney’s brother Hugh whose unquenchably positive nature evident from childhood antics marks him out as a survivor: Hugh’s God-given spirit, assailed by dispiriting social turbulence around him, has helped him through; Heaney’s spirit is uplifted by his brother’s tenacity;
  • In Two Lorries Heaney is buoyed by memories of sociable, non-sectarian figure his mother cut when he was a child; the nightmare of a lorry-bomb primed to wreck social cohesion is allayed by her survival and the determination of right-minded folk to keep body and soul together;
  • In Damson: the blood accident he witnessed as a child has become an emblem for those killed in the Troubles and those wandering the Underworld in search of outlet; Heaney’s spirit is lifted by two things: the memory of the post war bricklayer’s blood injury sustained in the interest of social regeneration and the damson fruit’s reminder of the pleasures associated with the family home;
  • Weighing In: his spirit in need of uplift, Heaney finds little inspiration in the entrenched views of sectarian opponents, neither side satisfying his thirst for fairness and justice; suddenly exasperated by his own perceived fecklessness he spurs his spirit into expressing more forthright responses;
  • In St Kevin and the Blackbird Heaney questions the single-mindedness of a legendary Catholic figure who allegedly demonstrated an indomitable spirit of compassion to the point where his bodily sensations ceased to function and his mind forgot he was alive;
  • In The Flight Path the poet goes through a series of spirit-altering experiences and emerges intact: the magic and security of childhood serves as an emotional launch-pad enabling him to resist later experiences that might have trampled on his spirit; the upward thrust of jet planes taking him abroad arouses cherished  memories of those left behind; subsequent movement around the United States and into the Irish Republic in 1972  created risks that were more than countered by his lyric enjoyment of his experiences; a factual attempt to turn him into a propagandist for the Republican cause unleashes the forthrightness he demanded of himself in ‘Weighing In’; unpleasant interchanges with the Protestant RUC vindicate his decision to move into the Irish Republic; a full-on moment of sheer pleasure engaging every ounce of his being confirms that his spirit will not be easily broken;
  • An Invocation introduces a literary figure who demonstrates in his own particular way the importance of poets and poetry to public life; though miles apart by nature they share a love of mankind; Heaney’s spirit is bolstered by what he saw and heard;
  • Mycenae Lookout uses a mythological story and a surrogate lookout: Heaney’s spirit, similarly the Mycenae watchman’s, is severely challenged by his silence in the face of tragic events, by the cycle of violence, the sight of men out of control, the absence of integrity amongst those who rule and the ethical bankruptcy evident amongst many ordinary folk; Heaney’s spirit finds solace in the cleansing effect of water not least the Irish water of home;
  • In The First Words Heaney is inspired by a poet who expresses his opinions with dogged determination in defiance of the repressive political regime in which he operates;
  • The Gravel Walks: for Heaney modernism and progress have been allowed to trample on the time-honoured; his spirit recovers at the sight of Nature’s primary treasures that cannot be debased and his spirit level check urges him to find a way of rising above what offends him;
  • In Whitby-sur-Moyola the farming scene has thrown up two models in one, the first local, known to him and musical, the second historical, literary and British; what they jointly represent provides Heaney with a shot in the arm;
  • The Thimble: Heaney’s capacity to respond to the stimuli of archaeology and art, to legend and superstition, to enjoy pleasure-moments and chuckle readily at outlandish unconventionality signal a receptive inner self;
  • in The Butter-Print the child Heaney’s relief at surviving a critical panic moment heralds the spirit required to overcome future challenges;
  • Remembered Columns: at a moment of vulnerability Heaney turns to a legend that has stood the test of time and revives his spirits;
  • ‘Poet’s Chair’: Heaney’s spirit level check affirms three gifts to posterity: the creative ingenuity of a public artist; a philosopher’s stoic relegation of his impending death below the things he still has time to say; a poet’s recognition of the positive power of his trade;
  • The Swing affirms Heaney’s spirit as buoyed and strengthened by cherished memories of his mother who provided him and his siblings in their beloved home environment with the foundations for personal success and enjoyed their unanimous respect and love in return;
  • The Poplar unveils Heaney in healthy, stoic spirit, reminding himself that nothing is forever, that finely balanced decisions are subject to powerful forces;
  • in Two Stick Drawings Heaney’s spirit level confirms the warm companionship of neighbourhood youngsters in a sometimes censorious grown-up world and celebrates the compassion shown by his family towards a simpleton enthused by prosaic items;
  • A Call: Heaney’s spirit was dented by his perceived inability to express the love he felt for his father when he was alive; his poem makes his true feelings clear;
  • The Errand: conscious of an awkward father/son relationship Heaney’s spirit is uplifted at a moment when the precocious youngster he was  gained respect by showing he was no fool;
  • A Dog Was Crying Tonight in Wicklow AIso: stoically if grudgingly Heaney acknowledges that lamenting the inevitability of death and the loss of cherished family and friends brings no solace;
  • ‘M’: Heaney’s spirit is elevated by a second much revered example of human tenacity in the face of a totalitarian régime intent upon destroying it;
  • An Architect: Heaney is cheered by memory of a renowned Irish architect recently deceased and composes a picture reflecting the artistry and magic within an alternative creative medium;
  • The Sharping Stone: a potentially distressing reminder of long-lost moments and vanished people is translated into an uplifting celebration of human relationships and confirmation that living is not giving in;
  • The Strand: a warm but potentially distressing memory of Heaney’s semi-disabled father leaves a spiritually uplifting, indelible mark;
  • The Walk the power of love gladdens the poet’s heart, both the controlling love of parents for a child and the unregulated, passionate love of man and wife;
  • At the Wellhead: a vital spark is ignited within the poet nourished by fond memories of childhood and by a blind musical friend of his mother’s whose sublime spirit made light of her incapacity;
  • At Banagher: a link with his Irish heritage lift Heaney’s spirits; he perceives an uncanny resemblance between a wandering tailor and the writer of poetry;
  • TolIund: the frail lifeline to peace on offer in Northern Ireland and Heaney’s return to a Danish source of significant poetic inspiration dangle the possibility of release from the tribalism at the root of his homeland’s problems and greater belief in what he stands for;
  • Postscript: Heaney’s spirits soar as his senses soak up all that it takes to create a perfect moment.

Living is not giving in

Heaney’s vital force hangs on the persistence, perseverance and stoicism required to stay life’s course, on maintaining his thirst for the positive whatever the challenges of the moment and despite the potentially depressive influences crowding in from the world around him. In musical terms Heaney needs the cheeriness of a fundamental background continuo like the one he ‘heard’ when his brother pretended to play the bagpipe (‘Keeping the drone going on … keeping going’) in their childhood days.

In his interviews with DOD (p345) Heaney felt that he was not reprising old themes, conceding that the poems were as much about middle age as about subject matter. Asked about how the poet kept himself going Heaney remarked: You want, naturally, to be led by what Lowell called ‘the incomparable wandering voice’ and you try to wait for a given note, but inevitably there are times when you go into overdrive. Personally, I don’t think that’s the end of the artistic world. It can be a way of riding the current until the next surge comes along.

Speaking to Henri Cole (in The Paris Review 75) Heaney gave a telling insight as he recounted the stresses of the Nobel moment: (it) was a bit like being caught in a mostly benign avalanche ….Nothing can prepare you for it. Zeus thunders and the world blinks twice and you get to your feet again and try to keep going.

  • Postscript identifies existence as a fleeting ‘hurry’; The Swing celebrates the success of the Heaney siblings ‘in spite of all’; he for one recognised that trials lurked ahead and that challenging them was a must. Heaney applauds the qualities shown by siblings who took life on;
  • faced with nazi occupation Sonja Landweer came out the other side ‘backlit from the fire through war and wartime’; ‘fighting back’ ensured that things returned to normal;
  • Heaney himself encourages Adele to fight against disease and ‘the ache of summer’;
  • mint sets an example of survival for humans to follow;
  • playing trains as a child revealed that ‘constancy was its own reward already’;
  • Hugh Heaney epitomises the ‘stamina’ and determination required to stay the course in Northern Ireland (Heaney himself could not ultimately cope with it) from an early bagpipe continuo (‘the drone going on interminably’) in a children’s performance, emerging unchanged by the Troubles, just  ‘keeping going’;
  • buoyed perhaps by a mild flirtation with the local coalman, Heaney’s mother returned stoically to her chores (‘black lead and emery paper’) in Two Lorries;
  • in Weighing In the bricklayer’s trowel shows the tradesman ‘mucking in’, rolling up his sleeves and getting on with the job despite injury; Heaney goes a step further, taking himself on angrily (‘the obedient one’ destined to remain ‘powerless forever’); he urges a feckless community to direct action;
  • St Kevin sets the ultimate example of forbearance, a figure bowing to a moral imperative that deprives him of life’s sensations; ‘he has forgotten self ’whilst yet alive
  • Heaney’s confrontation with Danny Morrison in Flight Path demonstrated the poet’s determination not to be painted into a political corner (‘I’ll be writing for myself’);
  • Hugh MacDiarmid would not compromise on what he believes (‘that pride of being tested hard liner’) and earns respect for keeping a poetic ‘weather-eye’;
  • note that Mycenae’s watchman survives but deplores his own bad faith (not a million miles from Heaney in his moments of self-doubt);
  • each in their own way Marin Sorescu and Osip Mandelstam are beacons of protest against totalitarian regimes;
  • the labourer (echoing Heaney himself at work) of Gravel Walks merits the same respect as the legendary St Kevin: ‘slow and steady …  stooping ( ) Into an absolution of the body’;
  • the hybrid Caedmon by ‘bogging in’ (cf. ‘mucking in’ of Damson) qualifies for ‘real thing’ status (a high Heaney accolade);
  • Socrates maintains his philosophical calling (‘has proved the soul immortal’) even as the poison administered to execute him takes effect;
  • The Swing portrays Heaney’s exhausted, long-suffering mother bathing her aching feet, steadfastly committed to the domestic life that is her lot;
  • in Stick Drawings the simpleton, Jim, remote from the rational evaluations and responses of all the other human figures in Spirit Level demonstrates, by his blissfully innocent emotional response to strikingly mundane circumstances ‘like a harness rod of the inexorable’, that the instinct not to give is extends to all;
  • M’s deaf phonetician, by overcoming what appear to be insuperable obstacles to his trade, embodies the efforts required from the irrepressible Mandelstam;
  • In Sharping Stone Marie Heaney’s father shrugs off all obstacles to the enjoyment of life beyond widower-hood ‘going at eighty on the bendiest of roads’);
  • the unwavering constancy of love is that of parents recalled ‘standing there not letting go’ in The Walk;
  • In Wellhead Rosie Keenan demonstrates that her outward gentility is bolstered by massive fortitude and sensitivity to her existence; Heaney considered her ‘a wonder’;
  • In Tollund the enduring spirit of the Heaney couple translates into a thirst to move on beyond the Troubles;
  • Postscript delivers a sublime moment, the reward for forbearance;

‘history and ignorance’

  • ‘Heaney read “A Sofa in the Forties,” a poem about a child’s game of turning a living room sofa into a train. Of the unintended (sic) juxtaposition of his childhood train with those of Auschwitz, he said, “We enter history in ignorance. You live long enough and then you realize what you are doing.” ‘… from Cornell Daily Sun Oct 29 2012;
  • the one choice we none of us have is to be born. Heaney’s birth and his place in ‘history’ were determined by his parents; as with all babes-in-arms he was thrust onto the scene unable at first to sustain himself;
  • on the journey from ignorance to knowledge, the five senses Heaney’s body was equipped with would enable him to establish contact with his world; his generous-minded, modest and sensitive nature (to the point of inhibition, he might have said) would serve him well; his fine intelligence would enable him to benefit fully from the classical education open to him in the 1950s and reach the highest levels of academic achievement; his creative talent would one day bring him a Nobel Prize for Literature – no mean feat for a child playing trains on a 1940’s sofa in a Mossbawn farmhouse!
  • Heaney’s precocious brain provided him with the power of discernment from a very early age; he was not about to be sent on a fool’s errand by his father (in The Errand), no doubt impressing his dad but also revealing that the youngster’s insight and intelligence had already taught him (as he awaited ‘ the next move’) that life resembled a game of chess;
  • the initial state of innocence that Heaney calls ‘ignorance’ was gradually replaced by literacy, awareness and judgment, by an developed sense of what is right and wrong and the power to discriminate between how things are and how they should be;
  • Heaney’s life is quickly overtaken by experiences that will leave indelible marks on his consciousness both positive and negative, and to which he will respond in his work;
  • from this come matters of conscience, dilemmas about how far to go as a public voice and whether to speak or to hold back: his Mycenae lookout/surrogate admits he is ‘exposed to what I knew’;
  • the rich gene-bank Heaney inherited would enable him to take increasing responsibility for decisions determining his subsequent development from childhood via successful independence into a position of strength;
  • in Two Stick Drawings Heaney paints with great compassion the portrait of a simpleton who does not enjoy the same privileges;
  • time passing provides a legacy of personal, local, national and global moments, present moments immediately consigned to the past; Heaney’s poems are unique to the moment in time when they were composed;
  • via the high quality of his poetry Heaney has even found a way to bequeath something of himself to the world.

Heaney all-seeing and ‘in-between’

  • The terms are linked: ‘all-seeing’ is an involuntary consciousness, a gift or a burden exposing Heaney to what he sees; ‘in-between’ places (some might say ‘ensnares’) him in the position of seeing both ways calling for unenviable decisions as to whether to favour one side or the other;
  • Heaney reveals the difficulty of trying to project an ‘Irish’ stance that straddled the north-south divide (to Henri Cole in The Paris Review 75): I am certainly a person with an Ireland-centred view of politics. I would like our understanding and our culture and our language and our confidence to be Ireland-centred rather than England-centred or American-centred;
  • the ‘all seeing’ comment comes to the poet in Poet’s Chair as he watches his father ploughing on the family farm; the moment exposes a much wider truth: that what his consciousness encounters, be it the sight of a farmer at work or knowledge of a burning national issue, exposes the gap between how things are and how he feels they should be; he has a task to do;
  • as a child Heaney looked down on world-changing developments from above (a lookout posted and forgotten) witnessing without comprehension the repercussions of pre-D-Day preparations of 1944 (In the Beech in Station Island of 1984); he reappears transformed by fifty years of ‘knowledge’ in The Spirit Level alongside his proxy, an all-seeing watchman ; he is still  posted and forgotten but by now he understands only too clearly;
  • the watchman in Mycenae Lookout confirms Heaney’s ‘ in-between time’, both of them in limbo witnessing unfolding tragedy, troubled by conscience and turned to stone;
  • Cassandra’s tragic circumstances have persuaded Heaney that there is No such thing/ As innocent/ Bystanding, only making his task more difficult; he feels tested by the distance between what he knows and what he can bring himself to enunciate;
  • the poet’s calling renders him more responsible than ordinary mortals to give voice to opinions that set out the gaps between how things are (‘reality’) and how he senses they should be (‘justice’); his aspiration to compose poetry as a ploughshare that turns time up and over seems destined to remain a ’work in progress’;
  • Whatever his recognisable all-Ireland sympathies (he carries an Irish passport) Heaney’s refusal to take sides and paint himself into a corner left him un-tarred by any brush and free to express his views as fairly, sensitively, angrily or temperately as he saw fit in poetry written ‘for myself’;
  • other themes were important, too, but less contentious, for example the collision between age-old Irish scenes he wanted to cling on to and the inexorability of post 1945 ‘modernism’ and ‘progress’ (in The Gravel Walks) that he only grudgingly accepts;
  • Heaney’s lyrical messages and the see-saw of his emotions in response to the Troubles caught the eye of the Nobel Prize panel many of whose previous laureates were in their time enmeshed in similarly thorny circumstances. With the award came global recognition and acclaim. There could be no greater affirmation of the integrity of Heaney’s poetry whatever his personal unease that as a member of the minority Catholic population he might have put his public voice to more forthright use;
  • He is the last of a trio of poets and friends to win the Nobel Prize over the previous nine years. Each had the particularity, in a literary age shaky about external reality, of transmuting something more than implications and combinations of language. Each found his material in an autobiography that was both personal and national. Derek Walcott’s nation is the West Indies, Josef Brodsky’s the nation of exile, Heaney’s is that of an Irishman wandering between his country and the world and imagining both Richard Eder Los Angeles Times June 9 1996;
  • The final words come from Heaney himself: (there are those who think) I’m not sufficiently in-between. Some people in Northern Unionist quarters, for example, might see me as a typical Irish nationalist with an insufficient sympathy for the Unionist majority’s position in the North. The in-betweenness comes into play more problematically in relation to the nationalist and republican traditions in Ireland … there are two strains of Irish politics … One is constitutional nationalism; that is to say, nationalist politics as they have been practiced by elected Irish representatives in the nineteenth century at Westminster, and then since 1921 at Stormont in the North and in the Dail in the Republic … On the other hand, there is the strain of republican separatism, a more uncompromising approach to national independence represented most notably by Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein and most atrociously by the IRA. Now people with a strong republican commitment would probably consider me to have been insufficiently devoted to their programme and policies and insufficiently vocal against what they see as imperial British activities in Northern Ireland Heaney in conversation with Henri Cole in The Paris Review 75;

‘Translation’ and other variations on the prefix ‘trans’

  • With reference to Heaney’s work across time Neil Corcoran (c.p186) fixes on the idea of ‘translation’ referring not only to the process of translating words or text from one language into another but equally to conversions from one form or medium into another. In the first instance one thinks of Heaney showcasing his talents with versions of Baudelaire, Rilke and Dante from other collections and JC Bloem (To a Dutch Potter in Ireland) and Marin Sorescu (The First Words) in The Spirit Level.
  • NC saw The Cure at Troy, a dramatized translation from the Greek performed at Derry Guildhall in 1990 during the build-up period for The Spirit Level as opening up allegorical and symbolic ‘translations’ in the second sense: the prominent inclusion of Northern Irish dialect; equiv­alences implied though not specified – ‘the conflict between political expediency and personal integrity … the revision of fixed, antagonistic positions into mobile co-operation … have their symbol continuity with the contemporary fate of Northern Ireland … In The Cure at Troy the desire for a rhyme between hope and history is expressed through the play’s own rhyme between antiquity and contemporaneity, the rhyme that is the act of translation itself. (p189)
  • NC pursues the idea of ‘translation’ across the texts suggesting for example that  In ‘St Kevin and the Blackbird’, one of the medieval legends developed around the figure of the 6th century Irish saint of Glendalough is translated into a parable of self-sacrifice and self­-forgetfulness which may also be read as a figure for the way the imagination can be totally possessed by its object.(p190)
  • the prefix ‘trans’ has a much broader application to The Spirit Level as Nicholas Jenkins proposed in his review Walking on Air published in the Times Literary Supplement of July 5th 1996, coinciding with the time of publication: The poet who once wanted to quicken himself into the intransitive, self-authenticating power of “verb, pure verb”, now searches for milder states of trans Indeed, simply to run through some of the variations that Heaney plays on the “trans-” prefix in The Spirit Level is to see how essential this fluid, relational, “give and take” activity has become for him. It is also to realize how many different kinds of boundary are crossed in the book, and how many eerie, George Herbert-like in-between moments of balance, rocking, counterweighting and reversal occur there. Besides the meditations on transience (his own and others’), there are transitions, transparency, transports, translations, and transformations. What was once “the music of what happens” is now “the music that transpires”. It probably isn’t stretching things too far to see the prefix’s shadow cast in both the hard material facts of the trains and the frail memory trances which abound in The Spirit Level.
  • extending both Corcoran’s and Jenkins’ comments, ‘transition’ (‘going across or over’) is evident but not confined to Dutch Poet and Poet’s Chair, ‘transparency’ (‘showing light through/ easily seen through’) is specifically referred to in Architect; ‘transport’ (mental elation/ conveyance) figures amongst others in Dutch Poet, Sofa in the Forties, Flight Path and Postscript; ‘translation’ (‘textual renderings/ relocating a saint’s remains/ transfer of meaning’) is specifically present or referred to in Dutch Poet (Bloem) First Words (Sorescu) Keeping Going , Flight Path, Remembered Columns and Sharping Stone; ‘transformation’ (shape-change) is to be found in one form or another in Dutch Poet, Flight Path, Thimble, Poet’s Chair, Two Stick Drawings, Architect, Banagher, Tollund; ‘transpire’ (‘breathe out in the form of a liquid’) is particularly appropriate to Rain Stick; ‘transliteration’ (word for word translation) occurs in Sharping Stone. ‘Boundary crossing’ referred to specifically in The Walk occurs on the many frontiers the collection features: between reality and magic, between time-honoured and modern, between conflict and peace. References to ‘balance’, weight and counter-weight appear in Weighing in, Mycenae Lookout in which the watchman balances ‘between destiny and dread’ and the loaded balances of Poplar. In this collection Heaney is on tenterhooks.

‘So walk on air’

                            Heaney’s grave in a quiet corner of Bellaghy Churchyard



  • ‘the most far-reaching “transition”/trend in the development of Heaney’s poetry  is the move from earth to air. He adds that HV … the book’s dedicatee, once aptly described it as a move towards a “poetics of ‘airy listening” Nicholas Jenkins Walking on Air in the TLS of July 5th 1996:
  • the notion of earthbound prevails in much of the poet’s earlier work from Antaeus who lost his strength when he ceased to have contact with it, via bog bodies retrieved from the earth or as sacrificial victims, … dragged down into the womb of the “dark mother (ibid).
  • if the downward trajectory lasted until North the journey upwards hit its stride around the time of Sweeney Astray and the twin-voiced poems of Sweeney Redevivus in Station Island (ibid);
  • at points in The Spirit Level, everything seems to be going upwards or seeking to relate itself, if only verbally, to the ether. On a swing, for instance, the Heaney siblings “all learned one by one to go sky high, / Backward and forward in the open shed”. A sofa, its “castors on tip-toe”, has “achieved / Flotation”. The “solid letters of the world” grow “airy” in a story where the Virgin’s house “rose and flew”. Credos are “light-headed”, time is a question of “light years”, and tunes, too, in this phase of Heaney’s imaginative history, are always on the point of turning into “airs” (ibid);
  • “walking on air” implies a poetry that can move on both directions … In The Spirit Level, Heaney’s ideal is more two-way, more fluctuating and dialectical. To walk on air is to be both mobile and suspended, free to soar or sink, to be able to move between the concrete and the immaterial, to be on both sides or in between. The setting for this serious play of shuttling and mediating – sometimes as subtle as the movement of the bubble sliding back and forth in the spirit level, sometimes as obvious as “Jet-sitting . . . . Across and across and across. / Westering, eastering, the jumbo a school bus” – is, initially, the poem. Nicholas Jenkins Walking on Air in the TLS of July 5th 1996:
  • Heaney uses ‘walk on air’ initially in the Gravel Walks, urging himself to make light of troubling issues and cheer up; it recurs in Sharping Stone to illustrate a person who did just that and found a new lease of life; the reward for sensual appreciation of the world comes with Postscript;

‘water and earth and fire and air’ (Sorescu)

  • air (including its musical connotation) is the prominent element in Spirit Level: almost breaths of air are part of the Rain Stick effect; Landweer’s pieces are accompanied by a diamond-blaze of air in Dutch Potter; wind is a feature of early home life in Sofa; Keeping Going recalls wind-heaved midnights; the bricklayer looks down on the world in Damson; St Kevin’s arm protrudes from the window upwards; air features hugely in the Flight Path sequence that includes air travel images and even extends beyond the earth’s atmosphere; the hermit’s eyrie stands above the world; MacDiarmid dwells in a wind-swept landscape; Mycenae’s rooftop lookout spends his time gazing down from aloft; the salacious  sounds of the mythical Gods filter down from above; Gravel Walks urges a lifting of the spirits (walk on air) and recalls the magical melodies of Irish music; surviving a traumatic event in Butter-Print is rewarded with airs from heaven; letters rise skywards in Remembered Columns; Swing is very rich in references and metaphors linked to an airborne activity; the human souls in Dog Was Crying fly through the air as birds before Chukwu’s final decision denies them the possibility of return to the house of the living; in Sharping Stone magical effects act as a launch-pad; The Walk is conducted in the Sunday air and smells that hover in the air generate emotional and physical responses; finally light effects contribute to the perfect moment in Postscript;

If air is the perceived trend (v. NC and HV above), then the three other classical elements still have life left in them:

  • water: the sea features in Dutch Poet as the favourite playground of the potter as a child and the image of constant recurrence in Bloem’s poem; love is reflected in a river in St Kevin; water is a cleansing symbol in Mycaene Lookout reminiscent of Mossbawn’s idyllic childhood; Moyula water flows through Gravel Walks and carries the floating tribute towards a magic land in Sharping Stone; hot water brings relief to a tired mother’s feet in Swing; Wellhead reflects the wells that Heaney was familiar with as a youngster and Tollund describes the Danish equivalent of the peaty bogs around Mossbawn; sea and lake contribute to the perfect moment of Postscript;
  • earth forecasts what is to come in Brigid’s Girdle and nurtures tenacity in Mint; people have their feet firmly on the ground in Sofa; St Kevin loses his bodily sensations and becomes rooted in underearth; the mythical accounts from Mycaene Lookout unfold on the ground; the Caedmon hybrid is earthbound; the Heaney siblings prefer mother’s material earthly existence to swinging; in Sharping Stone solid earth contrasts with airy make-believe and in Wellhead acts as the base clay from which Rosie’s silver shines out; Flaggy Shore contributes to the perfect moment of Postscript;
  • fire transforms clay into pottery in Dutch Potter (Hosannah ex infernis. Burning wells); fire and lava provide an appropriate background to the sacking of Troy and the subsequent violence in Agamemnon’s palace; cremation figures in A Dog Was Crying and fire symbolizes the passion of love in The Walk; ‘earthed lightning contributes to a moment of perfection in Postscript’.


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