Remembered Columns

Things that survive displacement and re-creation, Heaney seems to be saying, may confidently be regarded as true.

The poet’s writerly anxiety is to do with alphabet and by extension language – he imagines a film-like animation in which written characters fly away – his delivery and reassurance derive from a Catholic legend in which something similar is said to have happened with a felicitous outcome.

The components of language with which hitherto Heaney has felt secure (solid letters of the world) were suddenly unsteady (grew airy). The sturdy architecture of written letters (marble serifs clearly blocked uprights) that this seasoned wordsmith has underpinned (built upon rocks) and elevated (set upon the heights) suddenly took to the air (rose).

A legend from Heaney’s Catholic training (like remembered columns in a story) recalls a story in which the humble dwelling of the Mother of Christ (Virgin’s house) suddenly de-constructed (rose and flew) and came together again (landed) on a much more favourable site (hilltop at Loreto) now celebrated with a basilica.

The parable in which the body and relics of a saint are successfully re-sited (‘translated’) draws a quasi-religious pose of deference (I lift my eyes in a light-headed credo) and quells the poet’s language concerns (discovering what survives translation true).

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.

  • 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: TheVirgin 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”;
  • 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)
  • And one remembers poets with poems. So, Remembered Columns, about those things whose meaning doesn’t change too much across years, beliefs, circumstances, places… Clara Giuliani;


  • 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 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 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/ ang

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