St Kevin and the Blackbird

A diptych picking out an event from medieval legend developed around the figure of the sixth-century Irish saint of Glendalough translates 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 NC p190

HV(p159) (one way of formally enacting veteran status or stoic endurance) ‘is to mimic the continuing steadfastness of the stoic stance … in his beautiful double poem of immobility in service’

Now here is another example …’ And then. Heaney is responding to an image of Kevin in which the saint is on his knees arms stretched out, inside/ His cell. The event with which the saint’s celebrity is synonymous gets off to a freakish start: the incongruous posture is down to the narrowness of his room so/ One turned-up palm is out the window. The arm will require its building-like resilience (stiff /As a crossbeam) to cope with what transpires when a blackbird lands/ And lays in it and settles down to nest. The incubation period, obvious to a countryman (the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked / Neat head and claws), assumes huge significance: the monk finds himself mentally and physically connected with the network of eternal life.

Kevin is being tested and he knows it: his generosity of spirit, compassion and will to do the right thing create a longer-term obligation to hold his hand/ Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks / Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.

  • cell: the small room in which a monk, sleeps, works and prays;
  • crossbeam: transverse beam or joist;
  • fledged: said of young birds that have wing feathers large enough for flight;


The fact that the whole story is popular legend (imagined anyhow) does not hinder reflection on Kevin’s ordeal and means of survival. Heaney empathizes.

Is it mind or matter? Self-forgetful or in agony all the time. In its initial stages the test is muscular; the poet investigates evidence of growing numbness From the neck on out down through his hurting fore­arms ( ) Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees? Was his body anaesthetized from below: the shut-eyed blank of underearth / Crept up through him?

Has Kevin’s mind mastered the pain by switching off completely, creating distance in his head? The image of his solitary devotion has lent him the status of cherished saintliness: Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river.

Kevin has committed totally (prayer his body makes entirely) to the message of ‘To labour and not to seek reward’ and reached the point of inanition. Physical shutdown has been superseded by mental paralysis, including the very reason for being in this state: he has forgotten self, forgotten bird / And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.

  • to labour and not to seek reward: a line from St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Prayer for Generosity that reads:

Lord, teach me to be generous. / Teach me to serve you as you deserve;/ to give and not to count the cost,/ to fight and not to heed the wounds,/ to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labour and not to ask for reward, /save that of knowing that I do your will.

  • HV (p163) ‘the close of the poem chooses (self- forgetfulness) in which stoicism turns into something almost indistinguishable from lyric death)’
  • In his published Lectures Heaney referred to the poem indirectly as an example of poetry’s “angelic potential” and of ‘its function as an agent of possible transformation, of evolution towards that more radiant and generous life which the imagination desires’. The man he describes has placed himself in testing circumstances. The event made the reputation of humble Brother Kevin!
  • (1) 3 sentences in 4 triplets; irregular line length; unrhymed;
  • balance between punctuation and enjambed lines creates a smooth flow;
  • generally present indicative;
  • initial description of the observed image is uncomplicated;
  • modern vocabulary of linkage: network juxtaposes the quotidian and the everlasting; link also between warm eggs and existence; a natural cycle a opposed to eternal life;
  • modal auxiliary of obligation;
  • HV p160: impression of simplicity is achieved not only by plainness of diction but also by the repetition of ‘and’ … the poem is strung on 7 ‘and’s
  • the initial ‘and then’ suggests that the poet is looking at a series of representations in book or gallery;
  • comparison: arm and building joist;
  • (2) four triplets in eight sentences explained by the flurry of questions;
  • Rich variety of words describing muscular discomfort leading to numbness; from ethereal spirituality in (1)to earth below;
  • Imagery links love with water; the elements are well represented; the only fire is muscular pain represented as agony;


  • 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: thirteen 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 triplet for example, brings together alveolar plosive [k], a cluster of sibilants [s] and alveolar nasal [n];
  • 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 sound: 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.