St Kevin and the Blackbird

The diptych focuses on an event from medieval Christian legend centred round the sixth-century Irish saint of Glendalough  translated 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)

Images of St Kevin of Glendalough are plentiful.

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 he is remembered for made the reputation of humble Brother Kevin!

The poem picks up the blackbird event after a pause in a previous narrative (and then) with an image of Kevin on his knees (arms stretched out) in his cramped devotional space (cell), his iconic if constricted posture down to the narrowness of his room (one turned-up palm is out the window). The arm looks to have the physical build required (stiff as a crossbeam) to cope with a sudden unexpected occurence (blackbird landslays in it and settles down to nest). Kevin responds with Christian compassion (moved to pity) towards the visitation (warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked neat head and claws) viewing himself  as a chosen one somehow linked to evolution (network of eternal life).

Kevin is being tested and he knows it: his generosity of spirit and compassion create a long-term duty (hold his hand like a branch), whatever the elements (out in the sun and rain for weeks) to ensure no harm comes to his blackbird family (young … hatched and fedged 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;


Popular legend perhaps (imagined anyhow) but an ordeal deserving of empathy. Heaney empathises couching the issues thrown up by the situation in a series of questions.

How is Kevin able to succeed? Is it strength of mind (self-forgetful) over matter (agony all the time)?  In its initial stages is his growing muscular numbness a downward flow (neck through his hurting fore­arms) affecting hands (are his fingers sleeping) and leg joints (does he still feel his knees)? Or is it all the other way round, his body anaesthetized from below (shut-eyed blank of underearth) in an upward progression (crept up through him)? Has Kevin’s mind mastered the pain by switching off completely (distance in his head)? 

Faced with a solitary calling (alone) that has generated a profound compassion (mirrored clear in love’s deep river) he prays. He seeks no recompense (‘To labour and not to seek reward’) for the ordeal his whole being has adopted (prayer his body makes entirely) to the point where he is mentally and physically oblivious to his existence (forgotten self), to the reason for his condition (forgotten bird) and his circumstances (on the riverbank forgotten the river’

  • ‘to labour and not to seek reward’:  line from St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Prayer for Generosity
  • (1) 3 sentences in 4 triplets; irregular line length; unrhymed;
  • balance between punctuation and enjambed lines creates a smooth flow;
  • 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;
  • 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/ ang

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