Mycenae Lookout

Heaney’s mini-epic in 5 parts showcases his scholarship as a classicist and translator (what he modestly describes as ‘a certain amount of book work’) and his creative talent. Following the end of the Trojan War Heaney’s watchman follows the return to Mycenae of Agamemnon and his murder at the hands of his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus.

The fineness of the writing, the density and sustained intensity of the narrative, the richness of its symbolic plane and allegorical possibility, its shifts in structure, tone and style place the sequence at the very highest level of late twentieth century poetry.

Background to its composition: in conversation with DOD (pp349-50) Heaney revealed the event that triggered the sequence; in doing so he invited us to watch the narrative unfold against the backdrop of contemporary Northern Irish problems; though the poem  was written after the 1994 cessation (see Foreword), the impulse was to give a snarl rather than sing a hymn …  It wasn’t a matter of what was happening just then, more a rage at what had gone on in the previous twenty-five years …  I remember coming back from the Melbourne Writer Festival in October I994, going upstairs to the attic a few days later and starting in with the couplets the way a construction worker starts in with a pneumatic drill. Call it a rage for order.

Classical Greek tragedy generally depicted high-ranked individuals brought low by their failure to recognise driving passions within or around them, here principally lust and its aftermath. The sequence centres round episodes recounted in the Oresteia by Aeschylus (Athenian tragedian alive around 500BC). Heaney’s protagonists are drawn from the Greek version – Agamemnon: king of Mycenae (close to Argos) who led the Greek expedition that besieged, entered and sacked Troy following the abduction of Helen by Trojan prince, Paris; Clytemnestra: wife of Agamemnon who took Aegisthus his cousin as her lover during his absence then murdered Agamemnon after his return from the war; Cassandra: daughter of Priam, defeated king of Troy taken by Agamemnon as a concubine following the sack of Troy; Cassandra had been granted prophetic powers by the God Apollo in return for sexual favours, but broke the commitment and was punished in that that the truth she prophesied would not be believed; she perished with Agamemnon at the hands of Clytemnestra.

Heaney’s Mycenae Lookout poems are voiced to the watchman on the roof of the royal palace at Mycenae, at once Chorus, conscience, witness, commentator, analyser, confident, and insider – a man riven with anxiety, recognising his disloyalty, caught between Clytemnestra’s adultery and duty to Agamemnon. His nature, conscience and sense of falling short bear an uncanny resemblance to Seamus Heaney caught up in the context of the Northern Irish ‘Troubles’.

So … think Mycenae, think Northern Ireland. The sequence is Heaney’s way of speaking out: a truly great poet cannot and will not look away’ Martina Evans

The ox is on my tongue

The epigraph’s metaphor drawn from the original tragedy represents the inert dead-weight that seeks to prevent a person from speaking out, revealing what he knows … here a moral duty to Agamemnon the watchman’s master. Its subtext outlines the quandary of a twentieth century poet caught in similar struggles of conscience.

1 The Watchman’s War

Hot on the heels of the abduction of Helen the will of the Mycenaean populace to go to war (some people wept, and not for sorrow  –  joy), was shocking to a man conscious of the cycle of murder and revenge that would result from the urge to avenge Paris’s misdeed.  Agamemnon, the leader, wasted not a moment (armed and upped and sailed for Troy).

The watchman felt (inside me like struck sound) the enduring percussive reverberation of conflict (gong): the bloodlust of fighting-men out of control (killing-fest); the distorted existences of those caught up in conflict (the life-warp); the crimes against humanity (world-wrong); the unfinished matters (augured) and distress and hardship beyond the war’s end (endured).

He suffered vivid nightmares of blood-letting (blood in bright webs in a ford) mass killing (bodies raining down) and butchery (like tattered meat) sucking him in (on top of me) as he slumbered at his post (asleep – and me the lookout) deployed aloft and disregarded (posted and forgotten).

His presence was the flaw in the queen’s insidious long-term plans (a blind spot her farsightedness relied on), except that his duty to warn Agamemnon would stick fast in his throat (ox lurch against the gong  and deaden it).

The weight on his tongue is suited to the cattle metaphor (like the dropped gangplank of a cattle truck) depicting the stampede and stress of cattle delivered to the slaughter-house Heaney was familiar with as a boy (trampled and rattled, running piss and muck). The watchman presents his swirling nightmare vision (all swimmy-trembly) – an end of a war and its victor returning home to be slaughtered (lick of fire victory beacon in an abattoir).

Awkening brought no end to his confusion (at a loss) as to his role (for all the world a sheepdog stretched in grass), unable to un-know what he was aware of (exposed to what I knew), conscious of his moral duty (still honour-bound), looking out as commanded (concentrate attention out) beyond Mycenae and the Pelopponese (the city and the border) to the point from which a beacon would announce Agamemnon’s victory (blaze leap the hills when Troy had fallen) and signal his return.

The lookout’s whole dilemma was predestined (my sentry work fate); this was his existence (a home to go to), a neither-one-thing-nor-another role shared with a poet caught between opposites (an in-between-times that I had to row through).

Long service (year after year) brought welcome exposure to landscape (mist off fields and inlets) not least in the early light of day (morning light would open like the grain of light being split).

Reawakening never failed to refresh (day in, day out, I’d come alive again) … his metabolism kick-started by solar energy (silent and sunned as an esker on a plain) with plenty to observe (up on my elbows), focused (gazing), patient (biding time) and on top of the world (outpost on the roof).

The decade-long conflict (ten years’ wait that was the war) tarnished (flawed) his world view (black mirror of my frozen stare). A divine arbiter (god of justice) seeking a solid framework (strong beam) from which to weigh factors against one another (hang his scale-pans on) would have ideally suited this watchman ideally (tensed and ready-made).

A far-sighted lookout (saw it coming) who shuddered at the prospect (balanced between destiny and dread) – initially the fall of Troy triggering the ransacking of the city (clouds bloodshot red of victory fires), signalling carnage (raw wound of that dawn) and unleashing (igniting and erupting) a cataclysmic chain of events (bearing down  like lava) on defenceless Trojans (fleeing population).

On the qui-vive (up on my elbows, head back) on his Mycenaen rooftop he cannot escape the sounds of another fate in the making  – a disloyal wife (agony of Clytemnestra’s love-shout) – ear-piercing cries of sexual pleasure (rose through the palace) that will be echoed by the clamour of a returning husband (yell of troops hurled by King Agamemnon from the ship).

  • upped: jumped to his feet;
  • (killing-)fest: festival or gathering of a specific kind …That ‘killing-fest’, as the poem calls it … Sometime in the 1970s I’d heard the writer Alan Garner give a lecture with that same title to a conference of English teachers, and it stayed in my mind. Then, when I was reading dif­ferent translations of Aeschylus, wondering if I mightn’t have a go at the whole trilogy, the phrase kept developing a stronger and stronger magnetic field around itself. Who’s to say where a poem begins? There was a certain amount of book learning involved; more important was the sensory depth charge contained in the phrase itself. Heaney talking to Henri Cole in The Paris Review 75
  • (life-)warp: cause to bend or twist out of shape, typically as a result of heat or damp but in this case violence
  • world-wrong: unjust, immoral act of global scale;
  • augured: an event’s occurrence and impact foreseen;
  • webs: filmy networks;
  • blind spot: a point at which one’s view is obstructed so that nothing is visible;
  • farsightedness: the ability to see events or objects at a great distance;
  • gangplank: a removable means of getting into or out of a farm vehicle;
  • Who’s to say where a poem begins? … The splatter of cow’s feet on the floor of a byre in Mossbawn, the charge of bullocks up the ‘tripper’ of a cattle lorry, the child’s register of the weight and danger of those clattering beasts. Slaughterhouse panic. It all added the necessary irrational charge and kick-started a couplet attack on the subject. Heaney talking to Henri Cole in The Paris Review 75
  • abattoir: a place where animals are slaughtered;
  • honour-bound: morally obliged (to do something);
  • blaze: (metonymy) beacon fire;
  • in-between-times: an interim task between other actions; an interim position;
  • row: navigate (using an oar to guide a boat);
  • esker: a winding ridge of gravel and other sediment deposited by melt-water from a retreating glacier or ice sheet;
  • flawed the black mirror: left an indelible imperfection on his retina;
  • frozen: fixed coldly in one position;
  • beam: sturdy length of squared timber used to support a roof;
  • pans: bowl-shaped containers into which counterweights may be placed;
  • ready-made: available immediately; not needing to be specially created or devised;
  • bloodshot: (of eyes) inflamed by fatigue;
  • love-shout: the outburst of sound made by a person reaching a paroxysm of physical pleasure;

2 Cassandra

Heaney introduces the Trojan princess taken as a concubine by Agamemnon in the original Greek play. He portrays her as an anti-establishment, unkempt, heavily made up, underfed, aggressive and monosyllabic 1970s stereotype.

Her opening salvo: just watching on does not absolve from guilt (no such thing as innocent bystanding) might readily refer to the poet’s inner conviction that he does not deploy his public voice more actively in support of his own political sympathies and remains silent when he should speak out.

Her dishevelled appearance is sheer punk: filthy (soiled vest), gender-neutral (little breasts), ill-cut hair (clipped) ravaged complexion (devastated) with skin disorders (scabbed), heavy mascara (char-eyed), undernourished lifeless stare (famine gawk) … a girl used as a communal sexual commodity (camp-fucked and simple).

Onlookers failed to register her knowing look (missed trueness), pensiveness (focus) and the hint of defeated resignation at being there (homecoming) concealed behind her injured posture (dropped-wing), hint of wilfulness (half-calculating) and bemused expression (bewilderment). She could have told them that people en masse are equally guilty of her initial proposition (no such thing as innocent)

As Cassandra sees it the testosterone-fuelled alpha male (old King Cock­ of-the- Walk) has returned from Troy – guilty previously of the sacrifice of his own daughter Iphigenia and latterly the slaughter of innocent Trojan children (King Kill­-the-Child)­, too ready to accept his fate (Take-What-Comes), all virility (drum- balled) and swagger (old buck’s stride).

Cassandra depicts herself as an innocent (lamb at lambing time) overtaken by the burden of her fate (clair­voyant dread); she will go unheard because the anger of divine Apollo (gene-hammer roused god) commanded that the truth she spoke would not be believed.

She was thrown to the sexual appetites of the men present (resultant shock desire in bystanders) subjected to gang rape (do it to her there and then) and mutilation (little rent cunt of their guilt).

Cassandra is led unresisting (in she went) to the fate she has foreseen (the knife the killer wife) captured like an animal (net over) alongside her master and war-hero (slaver Troy reaver).

She shrugs it off: what people stand for can easily be expunged (a wipe of the sponge, that’s it). When the Fate that governs existence (shadow-hinge) goes against you (swings unpredict­ably) you are doomed (the light’s blanked out) and a black world awaits.

  • char-eyed: with heavy black charcoal-pencil make-up around the eyes;
  • famine gawk: (a conflation of ideas) ‘wearing the fixed dazed stare of exhaustion or deprivation of food’;
  • camp-fucked: exhausted by repeated sexual abuse;
  • dropped-wing: the appearance of birds worn out by long exposure to trying conditions;
  • Cock-of-the-Walk: dominant ‘alpha’ male figure; ‘king of the castle’ with a lust connotation;
  • drum-balled: within this context Heaney seems to go for a description that combines the shape of pendant male testicles with the a taut skin that covers them;
  • clairvoyant: said of a person with a supernatural ability to perceive events in the future or beyond normal sensory contact;
  • gene-hammer: (elusive) the heavy tool for driving in nails becomes a metaphorical means of insemination to create the next generation in one’s own image;
  • roused god: reference to Apollo’s sexual desires in the original Cassandra story;
  • rent: mutilated (‘forcibly torn’ p.p. of OE verb ‘rend); an alternative idea of ‘for sale’ is also possible given the shocking response of male bystanders; perhaps both sex-for-sale and vaginal disfigurement;
  • cunt: a crude and shocking reference to female genitalia;
  • reaver: plunderer
  • shadow-hinge: an elusive metaphor juxtaposing the everyday piece of hardware that connects linked objects (door and frame) and notions of fate playing with the monochrome shape of a body cast by the sun;
  • blanked out: replaced by darkness, snuffed out (of light, of life);
  • Fellow commentator Andrew Grant who particularly admires Heaney’s ‘reworking of ancient material’ offers a number of very insightful responses to the ‘Cassandra’ poem, especially, perhaps the deep psychologies involved and what Heaney might be telling us in respect of the self-perpetuating turmoil of Northern Ireland, even down to the real names at loggerheads with each other in the search for political progress and enduring peace: “King Kill-the-Child-and-Take-What-Comes” surely has to be a reference to the sacrifice of Iphigenia, who is, it seems to me, a shadowy presence (as in “shadow hinge”- she opened the door to all this) and counterpart to Cassandra throughout this section.  Cassandra is a sort of defiled and dangerous version of the daughter he killed 10 years earlier – also a bystander whose innocence failed to save her… There’s more than one gene-hammer and roused god at work here – Apollo and Artemis – and a (sacrificial) lamb at lambing time for each of them. You can’t escape the implication of inherited familial punishment in the phrase “gene hammer”.   Cassandra is one such; Orestes and Electra will be another… These are the unpredictable consequences of the shadow-hinge that Agamemnon set swinging when he sacrificed his daughter in response to a god’s prophecy. Who knew what would come through the door?… Is it too fanciful to suggest that the parallels between on the one hand, the two women and the part they play in the unfolding of the enduring chain of revenge and on the other, the torn loyalties of the lookout being emblematic in the first case, of the Hegelian tragedy of Northern Ireland during the Troubles and in the second, of the internal tensions in Heaney himself, require us to cast Gerry Adams, Iain Paisley and Tony Blair as the Eumenides? 
  • Heaney revealed that “Cassandra” was written very quickly. It came out like a molten rill from a spot I hit when I drilled down into the Oresteia bedrock that’s under “Mycenae Outlook.” When I went home from Harvard in 1994, the really big shift—big at all levels, personal and public—was the IRA ceasefire the following August. That was a genuine visitation, the lark sang and the light ascended. Everything got a little better and yet instead of being able just to bask in the turn of events, I found myself getting angrier and angrier at the waste of lives and friendships and possibilities in the years that had preceded it. It was 1994 and we had got no further, politically, than we had been in 1974. Had slipped back, indeed. And I kept thinking that a version of the Oresteia would be one way of getting all of that out of the system, and at the same time, a way of initiating a late-twentieth-century equivalent of the “Te Deum.” Heaney talking to Henri Cole in The Paris Review 75
  • from the generalized violence of the opening section, with its panoramic perspectives and the epic feel of its heroic couplets, we move to close-up. In the ‘Cassandra’ section (with its terse, short-lined ‘artesian’ triplets) as in the earlier ‘Punishment’ poem from North, the bystander-poet acknowledges his own complicity in brutality ( ) even more disturbing is his awareness of the shocking fact that the sight of the girl’s suffering stirs, not feelings of pity, but violent sexual responses (com)
  • Cassandra represents a complete contrast in form with short, sharp rhyming triplets, abrupt and clipped tones;
  • the section is heavy with demotic references to sex, possibly because of Cassandra’s supposed history of sexual favours.
  • The Spirit Level has a gritty, tough, bricks-and-mortar side. This makes itself felt in several ways: for instance, in some of Heaney’s most verbally truculent work to date – “piss”, “shite”, “fuck”, “fucked”, “cunt” and “balled” all crop up at various points (with just a sense of dutiful coarseness). But the outspokenness is more than merely linguistic. Nicholas Jenkins Walking on Air in the TLS of July 5th

                      3  His Dawn Vision

Twin sites caught up in extraordinary events – Troy in modern Turkey (cities of grass. Fort walls) – Mycenae in the Greek Pelopponese, reduced at this point  to silence (dumbstruck palace). From his post on the palace roof (night wind on my face), refreshed by a night’s sleep (agog, alert again) the lookout acknowledges he is compromising on his own standards (far, far less focused on victory than I should have been).

Think Greek mythology, think Northern Ireland …  both watchman and poet are faced with personal questions of complicity or dissent particularly as regards unworthy  personalities and ideologies (isolated in my old disdain of claques) who hogged the headlines (always needed to be seen and heard) claimed sole authority to determine the right way ahead (the true Argives).   

Entrenched groups like this are denounced as peddlers of ideology (mouth athletes) using every mechanism open to them (quoting the oracle and quoting dates), swayers of public opinion (petitioning, accusing), fixers (taking votes), refuters (no translate) of counter-views (element that should have carried weight) or previous disastrous precedent (out of the grievous distance), of having built conflict on incoherence (our war stalled in the pre-articulate).

All around them the natural blessings of the world vie for attention (little violets’ heads bowed on their stems pre-dawn gossamers, all dew and scrim star-lace).

From this has emerged an enduring sense of devastation (beating of the huge time-wound we lived inside), despair of humanity (my soul wept in my hand) threatening ruination of delicate beauty (when I would touch them, my whole being rained down on myself).

Historical settings eroded by time (cities of grass) are memorials of unfulfilled human aspirations and sacrifice (valleys of longing, tombs) bathed by the elements (wind-swept brightness).

A Troy look-alike (far-off  hilly, ominous place),  not a million miles away from streets of Northern Ireland, plays out a final scene of Man’s shocking capacity for and acceptance of premeditated murder.

The seemingly senseless action unfolds in front of a complicit audience (small crowds of people watching) – an unnamed human being enters the stage over a barricade (jumped a fresh earth-wall); a second follows the first ostensibly to embrace him as a fellow human being (amorously, it seemed) but in fact to kill him (strike him down).

One thinks of Heaney’s dreadful oxymoron – ‘neighbourly murder’ – from Funeral Rites in the North collection.

  • dumbstruck: shocked so as to be unable to speak;
  • agog: eager to hear or see something;
  • claques: sycophantic followers, ‘yes’-men;
  • Argives: one of a series of names for Greeks, here specifically from the Argos area;
  • oracle: priest or priestess acting as a medium through whom advice or prophecy was sought from the gods in classical antiquity and regarded as an infallible authority; the place where this happened;
  • grievous: very severe or serious;
  • pre-articulate: before a time when the ability to communicate fluently and coherently had been developed;
  • gossamer: a thin, insubstantial and delicate substance consisting of cobwebs;
  • scrim: a thin and delicate gauze fabric;
  • star-lace: a fine open fabric of cotton or silk, its more substantial knots resembling the heavenly constellations;
  • time-wound: (whether applying to the Trojan War or the Northern Irish Troubles) an event that scarred the onward progress of humanity;
  • rained down: fell as a deluge;
  • amorously: relating to love;
  • the watchman decries the inadequacy of existing discourse, mocking the politicians and ideologues; What he recognizes are the dark, unspoken erotics of violence that seem to underlie the whole of human history, from Paris’s lustful abduction of Helen which triggered the Trojan War, to Clytemnestra’s orgasmic cries, to the violation of Cassandra which only excites the bystanders’ violent sexual urges, and finally Romulus’s ‘amorously’ fratricidal killing of his brother Remus … in (this) spectacularly beautiful but horrific vision of the future ( ) is a premonition of eternal civil and fratricidal conflict, simultaneous love and hate, not just at Troy, or Mycenae, or Athens, but further away in distance and time (at the founding of Rome where Romulus kills his boundary-crossing brother Remus. Nicholas Jenkins Walking on Air in the TLS of July 5th 1996;

4 The Nights

The watchman seeks to salve his professional conscience: he was invited to counsel Clytemnestra and Aegisthus (they both needed to talk) who feigned they needed guidance (advice). Separately (behind backs) they confessed that it all came down to physical addiction (sexual overload every time they did it) – a fact obvious to everyone in the palace (a child could have hardly missed it) –  and time spent in her boudoir (their real life was the bed).

The watchman’s is burden of knowledge (the king should have been told) condemns him (who was there to tell him if not myself?)  In hope (I willed) he sought their abstinence (them to cease); it would have let his errant conscience off the hook (break the hold of my cross-purposed silence) –  but to no avail (kept on) rendering him doubly complicit (all smiles to Aegisthus every morning) opting for immediate advantage (much favoured) however much he hated himself for it (self-loathing).

Whilst the sounds of adultery below were magnified (roof  …  like an eardrum) the ‘ox’ within rendered him lay on his tongue (ton of dumb inertia  … head-down  …  motionless as a herm).

He can think of a kindred spirit (Atlas, watchmen’s patron), a mythological Titan sentenced like him to work incessantly (up at all hours), silenced (ox-bowed) by the inert weight of Earth (his yoke of cloud) in perpetuity (world’s end).

Atlas, too, witnessed sexual activity emanating in his case from above (loft-floor) – divine lechery (gods and goddesses took lovers) on an industrial scale (made out endlessly/ successfully).

Atlas became complicit (thuds/ and moans through the cloud cover wholly on his shoulders).

Heaney’s watchman can imagine himself and the Titan memorialized by the goddess of love herself (apotheosized to boulder called Aphrodite’s Pillars). The rhythms of sexual activity filtering down from Olympus and up to the Mycenaean palace roof (high and low in those days) became synchronized (hit their stride together).

The trick that triggered the fall of Troy might have failed owing to the testosterone fuelled minds of  the hidden Greek leaders (captains in the horse). When they imagined sex-object Helen making up to the horse (hand caress its wooden boards and belly ) it was all they could do to keep their lustful hands off each other (they nearly rode each other).

Ultimately it was the womenfolk who paid (Troy’s mothers bore their brunt) wherever they were cornered (alley, bloodied cot and bed). Male sexuality went berserk (war put all men mad), those cuckolded by their wives back home (horned) or cavalrymen (horsed) or sentries (roof-posted), braggarts or losers (the boasting and the bested).

Heaney’s watchman was isolated with his conscience (my own mind a bull-pen) –  his cuckolded master (horned King Agamemnon) had paid him in advance (stamped his weight in gold) yet when the beacon signaling his return was lit (hills broke into flame) at the very instant of the queen’s orgasm (wailed on and came) the watchman betrayed his master (it was the king I sold) rendered himself guilty of mauvaise foi (beyond bad faith)

Agamemnon’s dividend from what he had invested (his bullion bars) his reward (bonus) was a loser’s death (rope-net   blood-bath).

Heaney employs savage irony as he parts company with Aeschylus’s trilogy (And the peace had come upon us). The cycle of murder and revenge will continue in the Oresteia but the hope is that so-called cessation of 1994 in Northern Ireland will lead to a lasting peace.

  • they: Clytemnestra and Aegisthus; ‘she’ the wife of Agamemnon who had remained in Argos during the ten years her husband was away at war with the Trojans; ‘he’ a cousin with whom she was conducting an affair;
  • overload: excess;
  • willed: urged;
  • cross-purposed: leaning in neither direction, ambivalent, hypocritical;
  • dumb inertia: combination of silence and immovability;
  • herm: squared stone pillar with a carved head on top (typically of Hermes), used in ancient Greece as a boundary marker or a signpost
  • Atlas … patron: a Titan, punished for his part in their revolt against Zeus by being made to support the heavens; images depict him bearing the earth’s globe on his shoulders;
  • ox-bowed: stooping beneath the immovable weight of the ox;
  • yoke: oppressive or restrictive burden on the shoulders;
  • world’s end: where the heavens begin;
  • loft-floor: room above the domestic living quarters used metaphorically to refer to the ‘bed chamber’ of the gods of classical mythology;
  • made out: Heaney finds a neat Americanism ‘engaged in sexual activity’;
  • apotheosized: raised to divine status;
  • boulders … Aphrodite’s Pillars: Aphrodite was the Greek goddess of love and beauty; her mythical birthplace was on the island of Cyprus; two pillars of an ancient temple dedicated to her stood on the site until the 18th century
  • horse: the wooden Trojan horse containing Greek warriors and allegedly dragged into Troy as a gift from the Greek besiegers was said to have led to the city’s downfall;
  • rode: had sex;
  • brunt: worst part or chief impact of a specified action;
  • horned: cuckolded by an unfaithful wife;
  • bested: outwitted;
  • bull-pen: (Americanism) large cell in which prisoners are held before a court hearing;
  • came: reached orgasm;
  • bad faith; borrowing from French existentialism (J-P Sartre); ‘mauvaise foi’ describes the state of a person under pressure from societal forces who adopts false values and thereby loses innate freedom;
  • bullion: gold or silver in bulk, valued by weight;
  • rope-net: such as might be thrown over gladiators to immobilize them;
  • bloodbath: (pun) death whilst in the bath; people killed in an extremely violent way;


  1. His Reverie of Water

Heaney links his hopes for peace (reverie) with the cleansing effect of water.

On two famed classical sites (At Troy, at Athens) Heaney’s sense-memory is fed (what I most clearly see and nearly smell) by a symbol of renewal (fresh water).

Back in Mycenae a bath as yet uncontaminated by the bather (still unentered and unstained) awaits (behind housewalls) resounding to the screams of the Trojan massacre (far cries of the butchered on the plain).

The mighty Agamemnon (hero), is anticipated, trusting in his star, bursting in unguarded (surging in incomprehensibly) expecting to be pampered (attended alone). He still bears the marks of battle (stripped to the skin, blood-plastered) and fatigue (moaning and rocking) is prepared for a long soak (splashing, dozing off). The murder that follows is glossed over euphemistically (accommodated as if he were a stranger).

Heaney turns to his second source of refreshment (well at Athens) or more precisely access to it via the concealed path (old lifeline) linking with the highest point in the city (up and down from the Acropolis) – a frail, vertiginous flight (timber steps slatted in between the sheer cliff face), defendable (covering spur of rock), of huge importance (secret staircase) according to who controlled it (the defenders knew and the invaders found) during the wars fought between the City states (where what was to be / Greek met Greek) and from which the Greek nation was born: (ladder of the future and the past, besieger and besieged).

The ancient conveyor-belt of fighting-men seeking to climb up unseen (the treadmill of assault) became a water-source during the peace (turned waterwheel). Once secretive rungs (stealth) became a regular chore (habit) for those on water-duty (bare foot extended, searching).

Heaney’s coda returns him to his mid-Ulster home ground: the excavation of the well at Mossbawn (this ladder of our own) and its engineering (well-shaft being sunk in broad daylight).

The labourers who pinpointed fresh spring-water (men puddling at the source) re-emerged wet and dirty   (through tawny mud) but edified by the experience (deeper in themselves for having been there) … not unlike fighting men released from war duty (discharged soldiers) still cautious about secure footing (testing the safe ground) miracle workers (finders, keepers),  magical diviners (seers of fresh water), uncoverers of the element that brings life to the whole community (bountiful round mouths of iron pumps gushing taps).

Despair gives way to hope founded on the image of men working together. Those excavating for peace in Northern Ireland will discover the means.

  • reverie: a state of being pleasantly lost in thought, daydream;
  • dying into: do not carry as far as the bathroom; also connotations of death;
  • lifeline: a rope or line used for life-saving, typically one thrown to rescue someone in difficulties in water, by extension athing on which someone or something depends;
  • Acropolis: the ancient citadel at Athens upon which are built the Parthenon and other notable buildings, mostly dating from the 5th centuryBC;
  • slat(ted): image created around the idea of thin, narrow pieces of wood, especially one of a series which overlap or fit into each other, as in a fence, a Venetian blind or as here a narrow pathway;
  • treadmill of assault: a large wheel turned by the weight of people or animals treading on its internal steps; used to describe an unending flow of attackers;
  • puddling: wallowing in mud and shallow water;
  • tawny: orange-brown or yellowish-brown in colour; peaty Irish groundwater is slightly discoloured;
  • finders, keepers: Heaney’s juxtaposition echoes the informal ‘finders keepers’ the claim that those who find things by chance are entitled to keep them;
  • seers: persons of supposed supernatural insight who see visions of the future;
  • bountiful: generous, abundant;

Dedication for Cynthia and Dmitri Hadzi: Heaney spoke to DOD of a 1995 holiday around Classical Greece (p.369) … Marie and myself and Cynthia and Dimitri Hadzi. … long promised, long deferred, but finally it had become inevitable. I’d done the first Sophocles translation five years before  (‘Philoctetes’ premiered by Field Day Theatre Company as ‘The Cure of Troy’) and had just published a limited edition that included the ‘Mycenae Lookout’ sequence, with art work by Dimitri.  I’d got to know the Hadzis in Harvard. Being Greek-American, Dimitri spoke some modern Greek; and being a sculptor in stone and bronze, he was an ideal guide to the sites. Cynthia had travelled the route with Dimitri several times before – Ancient Corinth, Mycenae, Epidauros, Arcadia, Sparta – so she was our driver. The couple will feature again in Sonnets from Hellas in the Electric Light collection (2001). Coincidentally it was during the holiday in 1995 that news broke of Heaney’s Nobel Prize for Literature and created the drama of contacting him with the news!

Comments from the wings:

  • One of the memorable aspects of the sequence is the way the events of a remote place and time are absorbed into the poet’s own experience, perceptions, and idiom … Heaney allows private and public, past and present, the classical and the contemporary, the epic and the vernacular, to merge imperceptibly, or play off each other tellingly. IU Review, 2009
  • ‘Mycenae Lookout’ ends on ( ) a moment of liberation but only after the hard work of the diggers has been done; only then can the poem begin to establish the ground of hope for the future. IU review 2009
  • well projects nourish the human spirit, do not debilitate; men must rise above the inexorable driving forces which maim them individually and collectively … the watchman, torn between conflicting allegiances, burdened with the gift of prophetic vision, and filled with guilt for not acting to avert the tragic course of events that are about to unfold, is, like other lookouts, watchmen, voyeurs, witnesses, and bystanders in Heaney’s poetry, a figure of the artist–of any of us–silenced by ‘the ox’s tons of dumb / inertia’ Poems that Matter, Irish Universities’ Review;
  • In contrast to the viciousness which the bystanders discover in themselves, the diggers have penetrated to their true selves, and found the true source of their being in communal work and a renewed relationship with sacred nature. (ibid)
  • flowing water is Heaney’s recurrent image for the dynamic flow of the spirit ( ) the pure source ( ) manifests itself in the dynamic form of lyric poetry, in the poet’s magical transformation of language into art, his summoning of an ideal of harmony and justice against which the actual can be judged. (ibid)
  • Introducing selections from the work of Seamus Heaney inThe Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing III, Seamus Deane writes: “His poetry is excavatory in every sense, reaching down into the ground and back into the past.” And so it is especially in “Mycenae Lookout.” From Archaeology Archive of Mar/Apr 2000
  • The Spirit Level’s main sequence, “Mycenae Lookout”, placed at its solid centre, is far less sanguine, far more bloody … Ostensibly, “Mycenae Lookout” is Heaney’s investigation of the “peace” wrought after the fall of Troy. The Irish parallels, though, jut out like bones in the grass. The speaker is a familiar Heaneyan observer, at times a voyeur, a tongue-tied prophesier, so indecisive that finally, almost self-parodically, he even moves “beyond bad faith Nicholas Jenkins Walking on Air in the TLS of July 5th 1996;
  • DOD (p349) In a radio programme to mark your sixtieth birthday, Helen Vendler said that she found ‘Mycenae Lookout’ one of the central poems in The Spirit Level – ‘shocking’ when she first read it. SH I can’t remember when exactly Helen first saw it; it could have been at the manuscript stage, The shock element was in the crudity of the language in the ‘Cassandra’ section, ( ) and in the rendering of the cruelty of that Mycenaean world. But I always had confi­dence in the sequence, and whatever revision I did was done with-­ out advice. Even though the poem  was written after the 1994 cessation, the impulse was to give a snarl rather than sing a hymn.
  • … in the lengthy sequence ‘Mycenae Lookout’, which is unpredictably quite unlike anything else in Heaney’s work, the watchman who opens Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, the first play in the trilogy of the Oresteia, meditates on episodes from the gruesome story of the house of Atreus and the ten-years’ Trojan war in a way that has manifest, if tangential, relevance to the history of Northern Ireland since 1969. In addition, the watchman himself, a kind of supernumerary chorus who in the original plays nothing like the large role Heaney assigns him here, has congruence with the figure of the poet himself at a time of violent inter-familial civil war. This is foregrounded when the watchman describes himself as ‘the lookout / The queen’s command had posted and forgotten’, the very terms in which the Sweeney figure – that free translation of the poet – in ‘Sweeney Redivivus’ represents himself in the opening line of ‘In the Beech’: ‘I was a lookout posted and forgotten.” In both cases, the point is that the figure, posted and forgotten as he may have been by the significant actors in the political drama, is taking it all in and now, in the end, articulating it all for everyone’s attention. NC 191

Why Mycenae Lookout is a poem that matters to the Irish:

  • For many who have lived in Northern Ireland over the last forty years or so, the ‘spirit that plagued us so’ isn’t just imaginary. Far from merely playing shivery mind games, many people have known first-hand the hard realities of crisis, alienation, apocalypse, and desperation … a poem born out of personal experience, but personal experience that has been distanced and ritualized …a poem which reacts against the apparently tragic pattern of history and the inhuman assumptions of the current cult of desperation and extremism … Heaney searches for some kind of understanding of a phantasmagorical violence, some principle of order and meaning in the face of death, loss; Poems that Matter  IU Review 2009
  • The text itself represents a principle of form and order which redresses its powerful evocations of the chaos resulting from lust, revenge, and the abuse of power … Without insisting, he juxtaposes actual circumstances and the transcendent ideal which, he implies, is what we all long for … Against the pressure of history and politics, Heaney reasserts eternal values of order, meaning, and beauty. (ibid)
  • It is a poem with the power to do good, to encourage, and to heal. This power derives from the poet’s faith, not religious faith in any conventional sense, but faith in a transcendent, ethical order of being which is anterior to, independent of, our-all-too fallible human models of reality and meaning … Heaney refuses to give up on the possibility of truth and meaning, however difficult they may be to come by. He re-works an old-fashioned vocabulary of the sacramental and the mystical which he first absorbed through his Catholic upbringing and education. (ibid)
  • “Mycenae Lookout’ is a great poem because it succeeds in making that faith real and convincing (at least for the duration of the poem), even for readers who may not think of poetry in terms more usually associated with religion–as redemption, solace, healing, redress, transcendence. ‘Mycenae Lookout’ …The transcendence which the poem finally affirms is rooted in earthly realities, in history, in communal experience, in an inclusive human vision which takes the poet beyond tribal and nationalistic pieties, beyond ideology, beyond the oppositional calculus of ‘us’ and ‘them’. (ibid)
  • The attraction of classical myth is that it liberates Heaney from a sectarian politics of Catholics and Protestants, it creates aesthetic distance from the difficult facts of everyday life and grants him larger perspectives on present realities …’Mycenae Lookout’ rebalances the actual and the ideal, envisioning a new place which is not just ‘all idea’ but one which is generated out of the memory of the old place in better times, transformed by an act of communal re-imagining into a vision of a hopeful future. (ibid)
  • ‘Mycenae Lookout’ may thus be seen as a meeting ground of the earthly and the transcendent, a point of intersection between demoralizing historical reality and the suggestion of spiritual possibility, a liminalspace between what is and what might be (ibid)
  • By insisting on its own values, poetry refuses to take sides in the immediate conflict and resists the rigid monoliths of ideology … the poem occupies the in-between ground where the actual (‘what is going to happen’) meets the ideal (‘what we would wish to happen’). It is not partisan, and it does not blame or criticize, but creates the space where we can imagine an alternative scenario founded on notions of co-operation, work, fellowship, and inclusiveness. (ibid)
  • Ultimately, the voice we hear is a truly inclusive voice, freed and controlled at the same time, capable of transcending the subjective and the immediate, the parochial and sectarian, the merely accepting and the profoundly sceptical. In the end, it is not merely acceptance and resignation that Heaney settles for: the climax of the poem is a triumphant proclamation of new visionary possibilities, an assertion of the perennial human capacity to imagine a better world. (ibid)
  • The uneasy, disrupted, episodic narrative of the watchman’s inner drama, shifting through five different sections and a range of stanza shapes, line-lengths, metres, and rhyme-schemes of varying degrees of formality and complexity, comes to a close with his acquisition of a loose, informal, mellifluous style of long, open vowel sounds, variable line-lengths and flexible patterns of assonance and consonance in place of predictably recurring end-rhyme IU Review 2009
  • (1,i) 22 lines in a single verse; regular 10 syllable lines; rhymed abab/cdcd etc save the emphatic final couplet that is unrhymed;
  • four-sentence construct; copious use of enjambed lines makes for a smooth flow;
  • unusual verbal use of up’, more often adverb or preposition;
  • use of simile; three compound nouns linking reality and non-reality: life-warp, killing-fest;
  • metaphor of webs/ nets will recur;
  • lexis referring to liquid substances is introduced and will recur: blood, ford, raining sailed;
  • deliberate anacoluthon: ‘queens’ forget, ‘commands’ have no memory;
  • ‘ox’ metaphor repeated from epigraph;
  • farmyard mayhem brings huge contrast in vocabulary and mood;
  • invention of ‘verbal’ adjectives ending in ‘y’;
  • (1,ii): 23 lines in a single strophe; irregular line length 9-11 syllables;
  • rhyme becomes sporadic; 5-sentence construct; many enjambed lines;
  • use of simile, like/ as;
  • repetitious nature of life echoed in time references: year after year; Day-in, day-out; biding time; foreseen/ pre-planned future: fate/ destiny;
  • synesthetic effect: sound thrown of ‘yell … hurled;
  • conditional clause ‘if’;
  • comparisons:: light/cereal; watchman/arctic landscape; mirror/gaze; weather feature/ soft tissue; victory/ molten lava;
  • cluster of present participles
  • (2) 21 triplets + 1 concluding line; irregular line length between 1 and 5 syllables; unrhymed; 9 sentence structure;
  • vivid description of punk stereotype; monosyllables dominate;
  • use of coarse, demotic language: direct as in ‘fuck’; less obvious: ‘cock’, ‘do it to her’, ‘gene hammer’ ‘roused’; Old English ‘reaver;
  • comparisons: posture/ injured bird, girl/ lamb to slaughter; man/ male animal buck;
  • pun: ‘rent’; emphatic presentation of the sexual drive in men;
  • inventions: ‘char-eyed’, ‘famine gawk’
  • multiple use of compounds adjectival, verbal, nicknames, as nouns;
  • (3) eight triplets in 9 sentences; regular 10 syllable lines; fair balance between punctuation and enjambed lines;
  • initial aaa/bbb/ccc rhyme scheme loosens later; only the final emphatic line does not rhyme;
  • the activities of lobbyists expressed in present participles ‘ing’;
  • synesthetic effect ‘mouth athletes’ heard and watched; ‘grievous distance’ emotion/ space
  • adjectival compound ‘pre-articulate’, noun omitted; others juxtapose contrasting notions, for example to create personification ‘wind-swept’;
  • shocking irony ‘Amorously, it seemed;
  • (4) six sections (4×9; 1×12; 1×1); line length typically 6-8 syllables; unrhymed;
  • sixteen sentence construct; copious use of enjambed lines;
  • simile roof/ eardrum; sexual allusions, cuckold wearing horns; watchman’s’s mind/ in a cell
  • pun: on his shoulders Earth/ burden of responsibility;
  • compounds used to mental, emotional physical effects: cross-purposed; self-loathing, ox-bowed;
  • comparisons: ox preventing speech/ classical columns decorated with heads; domestic space/ Olympian abode of classical gods and goddesses;
  • compromising one’s values: recurring allusion to the competition between intense passion and beacon fires;
  • return of ‘net’ motif;
  • irony: peace breaking out;
  • (5) twelve unrhymed triplets in 5 sentences; irregular line length between 5-11 syllables;amole use made of enjambed lines;
  • last three triplets set in Heaney’s familiar Irish landscape;
  • references to water take different forms: water, surging, splashing etc; similarly the contamination of clean water by ‘soiled’ man;
  • ‘dying’ pun: people perish, sounds fade
  • unusual juxtaposition ‘nearly smell’;
  • use of simile ‘as if’ ‘like’; cluster of present participles ‘ing; compound phrases are a neat and economical  way of weaving ideas together: blood-plastered, free-standing; personification and apotheosis: pumps have mouths and are generous;
  • ’metaphors associated with ‘ladder’ and its component parts; history, time past and present, war and peace, Irish well-digging;
  • 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: seventeen 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:

alliterative effects allow pulses or beats, soothings or hissings or frictions of consonantsound to modify the assonant melodies:

  • for example, the first lines of Cassandra with its terse, clipped versification are rich in ‘negative’ sounds: alveolar nasal [n] bilabial and alveolar and velar plosives [p/b], [t/d], [k];
  • it is well worth teasing out the sound clusters for yourself to admire the poet’s sonic engineering:
  • Consonants (with their phonetic symbols) can be classed according to where in the mouth they occur
  • Front-of-mouth sounds voiceless bi-labial plosive [p] voiced bi-labial plosive [b]; voiceless labio-dental fricative [f] voiced labio-dental fricative [v]; bi-labial nasal [m]; bilabial continuant [w]
  • Behind-the-teeth sounds voiceless alveolar plosive [t] voiced alveolar plosive [d]; voiceless alveolar fricative as in church match [tʃ]; voiced alveolar fricative as in judge age [dʒ];  voiceless dental fricative  [θ]  as in thin path; voiced dental fricative as  in this other [ð]; voiceless alveolar fricative [s] voiced alveolar fricative [z]; continuant [h] alveolar nasal [n] alveolar approximant [l]; alveolar trill [r]; dental ‘y’ [j] as in  yet
  • Rear-of-mouth sounds voiceless velar plosive [k] voiced velar plosive [g]; voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] as in ship sure, voiced post- alveolar fricative [ʒ]   as in pleasure; palatal nasal [ŋ]  as in ring/ ang


2 thoughts on “Mycenae Lookout

  1. In Canto 2, isn’t “King Kill-the-Child-and-Take-What-Comes” a reference to the sacrifice of Iphigenia, who is a shadowy presence and counterpart to Cassandra throughout this section? There’s more than one gene-hammer and roused god at work here and more than one (sacrificial) lamb at lambing time. This is the unpredictable consequence of the shadow-hinge that Agamemnon set swinging when he sacrificed his daughter in response to a god’s prophecy.

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