Remembered Columns


Sensing that words, meanings and the world outside have come under threat Heaney simulates a cinematographic animation technique in which things come apart and are reconstructed.

What he felt secure with is suddenly fragile: The solid letters of the world grew airy. The sturdy constructions of written letter and word that a seasoned poet has elevated (The marble serifs, the clearly blocked uprights / Built upon rocks and set upon the heights) are suddenly flimsy. The constituent parts rise like remembered columns in a story that (despite Heaney’s lapse of faith,) offers him a ray of hope: the legendary miracle of the Virgin’s house that rose and flew / And landed on the hilltop at Loreto.

Reassured that things can transfer from one context to another the speaker adopts a quasi-religious pose of belief (I lift my eyes in a light-headed credo); via a combination of reason and imagination he has found a way of restoring authenticity: Discovering what survives translation true.

  • airy: delicate, as though made of air;
  • serifs: letters bearing a a slight projection to finish off the stroke that formed it;
  • blocked uprights: following a design; both the vertical strokes of letters and the shape of pillars;
  • Virgin’s house: The Virgin Mary’s House of Loreto is one of the most revered shrines in the world. Since medieval times, the Holy House has been believed to be the very home in which the Virgin Mary lived, conceived and raised the young Jesus. The small shrine is now surrounded by a large basilica;
  • Loreto: on the Adriatic coast of Italy south of Ancona;
  • light-headed: dizzy and slightly faint;
  • credo: beliefs or aims which guide someone’s actions;
  • translation (n.)  mid-14c., “removal of a saint’s body or relics to a new place,” also “rendering of a text from one language to another; “a carrying across, removal, transporting; transfer of meaning”;
  • Heaney, the etymologist, experiments with the varied uses of ‘translation’ including one of its less well known applications: ‘the removal of a saint’s or highly revered holy person’s bones or relics to another place’. At a moment of vulnerability the wordsmith recalls a religious story (however improbable he may find claims of miracles) that helps restore his sense of security; his poem has to do with seeking continuity, ‘keeping going’ in testing circumstances.
  • In ‘Remembered Columns’ a legend about the Virgin Mary becomes a parable of the poet’s ‘Discovering what survives translation true’, where ‘translation’ is displacement as well as linguistic re-creation. (NC p191)


  • a parable in 2 quatrains; line length based on 10 syllables
  • 3 sentences, the first hinting at a confused mental state, the second, conspicuous for the use of enjambment, a visual film-like animation, the third, a couplet, setting out a kind of spiritual lesson;
  • vocabulary describing contrast: things ‘airy’ and ‘light-headed’ as opposed to things ‘solid’: ‘marble’, ‘blocked’, ‘rocks’;
  • vocabulary of spiritual elevation: ‘heights’, ‘columns’, ‘rose’, ‘hilltop’, ‘lift’;
  • simile preceded by ‘like’;
  • words with religious connotation: ‘lift my eyes’, ‘credo’;
  • an existing holy site is included;
  • the music of the poem: in an eight-line piece eleven 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 first couplet of ‘Remembered Columns’, for example, stirs together sibilant [s][z]sounds with nasal [m] voiceless alveolar plosive [t] and voiceless velar plosive [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/ anger.


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