Poet’s Chair

The 3-poem sequence is dedicated to Carolyn Mulholland: born Lurgan, Co Armagh in 1944; studied at the Belfast College of Art from 1962 to 1966, where she won the Ulster Arts Club prize for Sculpture in 1965.

Heaney talked about her to DOD  ‘We knew Carolyn when she was an art student in Belfast; in I967 or I968 she did a head of me, a straightforward classical bust that has stood the test of time and has been in the house ever since … then the commissions started to come in for public pieces. The poem’ “Poet’s Chair” , is a response to one of them, a bronze chair with sprouting leaves she made for a little courtyard at the foot of George’s Street in Dublin. Unfortunately, the leaves proved too easy to pluck, too vulnerable to the vandals, so the sculpture had to be removed…  I did the first version of’ “Poet’s Chair”, quickly, to be read out at an exhibition of Carolyn’s work that I had agreed to launch. I was thinking about sculpture in a public setting, how it might centre the world for you, so the poem started from there. And from some­ thing in Leonardo’s notebooks that’s quoted in the opening lines: ‘The sun has never seen a shadow’.’ (p256)

Heaney quotes a learned truth from da Vinci’s notebook: the universal source of light casts no shade (the sun has never seen a shadow). This prepares us for Mulholland’s world of light, shade, and changing perspective – (Now watch the sculptor move) orbiting the composition at the centre of her solar system (full circle round her next work), intimately preoccupied (like a lover), dwelling on perspective (sphere of shifting angles) unquestionably involved (fixed love).


  • Leonardo: Italian Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519); painter/sculptor/ scientist/engineer and scholar; one of the Renaissance’s most celebrated; his insights into design, composition and general two- and three-dimensional theory include questions of light effects;
  • full circle: returning to the position from which an object departed;
  • sphere: field of operation; spherical object; domain, realm
  • shifting … fixed: opposites, the first fluid, the second unchanging;


Heaney is standing next to Mulholland’s chair weighing it up. The light-and-shade it projects (angling shadows of itself) identifies (your ‘Poet’s Chair’), defines (stands to and rises out of) and situates (sun-stalked inner-city courtyard). Its need to be noticed keeps it alert (on the qui vive all the time), its feet firmly grounded (four legs land on their feet) in a variety of styles selected  by the sculptress (catsfoot, goatfoot, big soft splay-foot).

Mulholland has pursued her imaginative concept, part chair (straight back) part tree (sprouts two bronze and leafy saplings).

This installation in its public setting has proved popular amongst Dublin’s city-centre goers: idle chatterers (every flibbertigibbet); the aged and inebriate (old birds and boozers); those tipped out by the pubs with full bladders or courting couples (late-night pissers, kissers) … no matter who.

Heaney’s imagination takes off: a fairy-like contagion will affect those who have perched there so that they walk away with the wind in their sails (air behind them’s winged and full) … somehow from the chair’s organic design rubs off on them (a graft has seized their shoulder-blades) and cheers them up (makes them happy).

Perhaps, when the spell takes hold (once out of nature), the tree magic will endure (they’re going to come back in leaf and bloom) and they trip the light fantastic (angel step).

Get real he tells himself (or something like that) – the people he has described are not sensitive to aesthetics or metaphor… they will see things literally (leaves on a bloody chair! Would you believe it?). 

  • stands to: is ready and prepared for;
  • stalk: sense of obsessive pursuit of an object/person; sun-stalked: also suggests the movement of the sun as it probes into every corner of the site;
  • qui vive: on the alert or lookout;
  • catsfoot, goatfoot … splay-foot: images of the chair are revealing of Heaney’s attempts to describe its feet; he settles upon a foot turned outward;
  • land on your feet: have a stroke of luck that changed your fortune
  • saplings: young trees;
  • flibbertigibbet: frivolous, flighty, or excessively talkative person; idle chatterer;
  • birds: informal reference to young women;
  • boozers: regular pub-goers, drinkers of large quantities of alcohol;
  • winged: creating an upward draught;
  • graft: living plant shoots transplanted into the human body;;
  • nature: inborn or hereditary characteristics;
  • angel: benevolent spirit;
  • bloody: a very mild swearword in common usage and intensifying the response;
  • Mulholland’s sculptures are often described as Giacometti-like, (stretched figures or tumbling acrobats in the act of performing), abstracted works that manipulate vertical, lateral and at times diagonal movement to achieve a feeling of tension; the chair to which Heaney is referring is more organic in its design
  • her ‘Tree Seat’ was one of a number of sculptures commissioned by Dublin City Council in June-July 1988 for the ‘Dublin Millennium Sculpture Symposium’. The full-sized work was originally located at the Dame Street end of South Great George’s Street in Dublin.


From Dublin courtyard to classical canvas (next thing I see) – from light-hearted consideration of a contemporary installation to a Heaney word representation of a deadly serious classical canvas set in Ancient Athens (chair in a white prison) depicting the death of Socrates clearly recognizable from the others present (bald as a coot). The philosopher continues to debate as if nothing were (discoursing in bright sunlight with his friends).

However the slow but inexorable poisoning process that will kill him has begun (his time is short).

Heaney recounts Athenian calendar complications (verdant boat sailed from Apollo’s shrine in Delos) and religious ritual  (annual rite of commemoration) that postponed trial, sentencing and execution. Until it reaches its destination (wreathed and creepered rigging re-enters Athens Harbour) there is a stay (city’s life is holy). There will be no putting to death (no executions) nor killing liquid (no hemlock bowl) nor emotional outpourings (no tears).

Those assembled to witness Socrates’ last hours are reconciled to the inevitable (poison does its work) and treated to a business-like briefing (expert jailer talks the company through the stages of the numbness).

Socrates who holds the floor (at the centre of the city and the day) claims he will live on (has proved the soul immortal). Incredulous (bronze leaves cannot believe their ears) the chair is taken aback by the lack of response (it is so silent) – the hemlock will soon complete its inexorable work (Crito will have to close his eyes and mouth).

The signals of early distress (everything’s an ache) form part of an ongoing process (deferred) already recorded in history (foreknown) hopefully dreamt up (imagined) … but beyond doubt (most real).

  • Socrates was born circa 470 BC, in Athens, Greece. His students included Plato. His so-called “Socratic method,” laid the groundwork for Western systems of logic and philosophy. In 399, Socrates was brought before a jury of around 500 Athenians on charges of not recognizing the official State gods, of inventing new deities and of corrupting the youth of Athens. An equally likely reason for this trial was Socrates’ close association with a number of men who had fallen out of political favour in Athens. Socrates was found guilty by a narrow margin and sentenced to death by hemlock poisoning. He accepted this judgment rather than fleeing into exile.
  • a painting of 1787 by French neo-classical artist Jacques-Louis David  (Death of Socrates) depicts the drama of the situation, showing Socrates rejecting death and continuing to discourse on the immortality of the soul with his disciples. His wife is seen in the distance leaving the prison.  Only Plato, at the foot of the bed, and Crito grasping his master’s leg seem in control of themselves.
  • bald as a coot: completely bald; coots are water birds whose heads have the appearance of baldness owing to their white markings;
  • discoursing: engaging in formal spoken debate;
  • verdant: lush, bright green in colour;
  • Apollo’s shrine/ In Delos: the Greek Olympian deity, son of Zeus, had an oracle site at Delphi;
  • wreathed and creepered: to do with flowers, leaves and stems and branches; reminiscent of the design of the original Mulholland’s chair;
  • rigging: system of ropes or chains employed to support a ship’s masts;
  • hemlock: highly poisonous plant of the parsley family offering a potion used to kill;
  • soul immortal: view that the soul does not die and eventually receive salvation;
  • Crito: a wealthy friend; shown in paintings alongside the Greek philosopher Plato;


Alongside a mid-Ulster landscape celebrating rural Irishness, family and love, the piece foretells the poetry that will become Heaney’s life. In its published form Heaney’s legacy, alongside the ‘poet’s chair’ that started life in a public place and the painting exhibited in a gallery, will outlive its creator.

Patrick Heaney is engaged in his daily labour (my father’s ploughing one, two, three, four sides of the lea ground) observed by his watcher-son (all-seeing at centre field) physically inactive (back to the thorn tree they never cut) – the detail is important – superstitious country folk saw pruning this tree as a bad omen so this one is auspicious.

Two details stand out in memory: the sheer size of the draught horses’ feet (all hoof) and their healthy, sweating coats (burnished flank).

The instant produced flashes of insight in the youngster (I am all foreknowledge) – that the creative power of poetry could stir up the world around (ploughshare that turns time up and over) – that the magic of imagination and imagery to link a sculptor’s work (the chair in leaf) and an organic structure (fairy thorn) leaves a joint legacy (for the future) – that Heaney will one day be ratified by the positive  personal mark he leaves behind (here for good in every sense).

  • lea ground: an open area of grassy or arable land;
  • white thorn tree: traditionally considered in Irish folk-lore bad luck to cut, being sacred to the fairies;
  • burnished: shining as if polished;
  • flank: (an animal’s) side section;
  • ploughshare: the main cutting blade of a plough (behind the vertical coulter blade fixed to the front of the plough) that digs under the surface and turns the earth over and creates a furrow;
  • in selecting the ploughshare as a metaphor for poetry Heaney is perhaps mindful of the etymology of ‘verse’ as associated with the Latin verb vertere which means to ‘turn over in the ploughing sense;
  • for good: (multi-purpose) forever; for pleasure; as a positive force; out of virtue;
  • 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.” Noonday Press edition of June 1996
  • the epigraph is a single italicized quatrain in 2 sentences; line length based upon 10 syllables; a very loose rhyme scheme abab; 3 lines of 4 enjambed;
  • the ‘solar’ citation attributed to Leonardo influences the lexis; light/shade; planets orbiting stars as artists walk around their work;
  • contrast: ‘shifting’ changes of position, ‘fixed’ set emotional commitment;
  • poem 1: 15 lines in 8 sentences; variable line length of 10+ syllables; unrhymed; plentiful use of enjambed lines;
  • the sun and changing light effects remain centre-stage; linear shapes; slightly sinister reference: ’stalked’;
  • poet addresses his sculptress;
  • an inanimate object personified (the chair has a mind on the qui-vive); organic references to growth (sprouts, graft);
  • vocabulary of furniture design;
  • warm picture painted of inner-city wanderers; hints of magical powers
  • comparisons: air ha swings; a branch can seize hold of a passer-by;
  • final question is down-to-earth; use of mild expletive of common street usage;
  • poem 2: 19 lines based on 10 syllables; unrhymed (1 exception);
  • 10 sentence structure; short sentences crowd the middle section alongside the repetition of negatives;
  • ‘Next thing’ suggests the speed with which a creative mind switches focus and the poet’s inability to control the direction his imagination takes him in;
  • elements reminiscent of the original chair present in the decoration of ships involved in the religious event (verdant, wreathed, creepered);
  • philosophical terminology (discoursing, proved the soul immortal) contrasts the obsessive pursuit of Socrates’ rhetoric with the impassive explanation of the death process already under way;
  • continuum of past participles in the final line explore the mental stages involved;
  • Poem 3: the third with an odd number of lines (11); line length based around 10 syllables; unrhymed;
  • 5 sentence structure; sparse punctuation and abundant use of enjambed lines;
  • the time the ploughing takes ticks away in the enumeration of the numbers; in later comparison the future seems eternal: ‘for good’
  • the superstitious/ magical elements from the previous poems in the sequence is reintroduced (never cut, chair in leaf, fairy thorn);
  • ever modest about his own gifts Heaney suggests here that he possesses a visionary dimension (all-seeing, all foreknowledge, future);repetition of ‘all’;
  • comparison (poem/ ploughshare) compare the ‘pen/ dig’ of his very first poem ‘Digging’;


  • the music of the poem: fourteen assonant strands are woven into the text;
  • Heaney  places them grouped within specific areas to create internal
  • rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text:

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies:
  • the epilogue, for example, stirs together abundant sibilant [s]sounds including voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] ‘shadow’ and voiceless alveolar fricative as in watch [tʃ] alongside nasal [m] [n] and alveolar approximant [l]; 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

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