The Swing

A sequence evoking a mid-Ulster time, a place and a child-centred activity.  In the 1940s a large open barn in the Heaney farmyard at Mossbawn in Northern Ireland featured a swing that distracted Heaney and his siblings (the ‘herd life’ Heaney talks about in ‘Sofa in the Forties’ and his Nobel acceptance speech) and brought a mother’s presence to bear.

The sequence moves back and forth between the extraordinary and the commonplace, the heavenly and the earthbound, idealized artistic representations and sheer down-to-earthness.


Learning to swing well is a metaphor for all manner of things not a means to successful independence.

An early introductions to the laws of Physics: swinging was about maintaining impetus – the poet points out that almost imperceptible body movements (fingertips just tipping you) were every bit as effective (send you every bit as far) once you got into the swing (got going) as initial shock momentum administered by someone else (big push in the back).

Metaphor creeps in: swinging was just one small step on the journey out of ‘ignorance’ (‘Sofa in the Forties’) that included a short-term sense of elation (go sky-high) and longer term achievement for the siblings each at their own pace (sooner or later one by one).

He still remembers how they injected thrust: outstretched legs (toeing), feet tucked (rowing), bending and straightening (jackknifing through air).

  • fingertips just tipping: the lightest change of posture;
  • sky-high: as if reaching the sky; very high; achieving;
  • toeing: momentum achieved by stiff legs with outstretched feet;
  • rowing: momentum achieved by tucking the legs under the swing;
  • jackknifing: the bending and straightening movement of the body;
  • 2 couplets divided by hemistiches; full lines based on 10 syllables; 2 sentence structure; unrhymed;
  • frequency of present participles –ing supports the idea of on-going process;
  • contrast small/big: fingertips/ big push;
  • swinging movement reflected in lexis;
  • shared experience: you/ we;
  • the process of learning will be echoed in the final piece of the sequence as applying to life as a whole so that process leads to progress, leads to success;


Heaney thinks of painters who attempted to catch his farm-yard atmosphere. He rules out idealized visions (not Fragonard) or earthy village scenes of medieval life (nor Brueghel) settling on someone more spiritual (Hans Memling’s light of heaven), mid-Ulster-friendly (off green grass) and luminously warm (light over fields and hedges).

He imagines a Mossbawn composition in painterly terms: middle-ground opening (shed-mouth) … blessed (sunstruck) … awaiting human presence (expectant) … evidence of farm animals (bedding-straw) placed off-centre (piled to one side) … straw effects reminiscent of another cherished family season (like a nativity foreground and background) short only of those who celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ, say, in the primary school production (waiting for the figures).

After a pregnant pause (and then) … anti-climax – the main focus at centre-foreground (swing itself) totally rudimentary and unspiritual – a single rope scruffily weighted in the middle (old lopsided sack in the loop of it) lying idle (perfectly still), very farmyard (hanging like pulley-slack) but for all that the enticing invitation (lure let down) for siblings to soar heavenwards (tempt the soul to rise).

  • Fragonard: Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732 – 1806) was a French painter and printmaker whose late Rococo manner was distinguished by remarkable facility, exuberance, and hedonism.; his ‘L’Escarpolette’ of 1767 depicts a young man watching a woman on a swing, being pushed by an elderly man, almost hidden in the shadows, and unaware of his rival. As she swings the lady seductively lets the young man take a furtive peep under her dress;
  • Breughel: ( 1525 –1569) was a Flemish Renaissance painter and printmaker known for his landscapes and peasant scenes (so called genre painting).
  • Memling: ( 1430 –1494) was a German-born painter who moved to Flanders and worked in the tradition of  Early Netherlandish painting. He was made a citizen of Bruges , where he became one of the leading artists, perhaps best known for portraits, diptychs for personal devotion and several large religious works;
  • light of heaven: the religious convictions that emerge from his paintings;
  • expectant: generating an excited feeling that something good is about to happen;
  • nativity: picture, carving, or model representing Jesus Christ’s birth;
  • figures: Mary, Joseph, shepherds, angels, meek animals and kings;
  • ground: in painting, the different depths of a canvas;
  • lopsided: with one side lower than the other;
  • pulley-slack: a wheel with a grooved rim around which a cord passes was used to raise heavy weights; under pressure the rope would be tight; with no weight it would hang loosely;
  • lure: an object used as a bait to attract, entice an animal or a human;
  • 10 lines in a single verse; 4-sentence structure; line length based on 10 syllables; unrhymed;
  • sentence 3 enjambed in to a single flow;
  • vocabulary brings spiritual, lyrical warmth to a fondly remembered scene;
  • vocabulary of painting: -ground;
  • contrast between idealized paintings and spiritual scenes (nativity) with the ramshackle nature of the swing;
  • comparison: dangling rope/ fishing-line to raise human expectations;


Enter Margaret Kathleen Heaney. Speaking to DoD (p310) Heaney said of his mother: ‘the image I have of her in The Swing’ is ‘photography’… but also heart-mystery’; he confirms that the ‘swollen feet’ treatment and rolled stockings were a recurrent event in the home and concludes: ‘There was a real dignity and endurance in her at that time’.

For the young Heaneys at that stage in their lives there was no place for spiritual matters (we favoured the earthbound).

Their mother (not identified by name) watched them on the swing, her sovereign status in their eyes (as majestic as an empress) entirely in line with the actions of a hard-working farmer’s wife bathing her aching feet at the end of a taxing day (steeping her swollen feet one at a time in the enamel basin).

Heaney ennobles the liquid detail along the lines of Vermeer’s ‘Milkmaid’: his mother warming up (feeding) the water in the bowl (opulent steaming arc) has the materiality of Vermeer’s milk flow – here in its mid-Ulster container (kettle on the floor beside her). His senses recall the splash of it and the emotion it generated in the children (plout music to our ears). Watching them approvingly told them they were not misbehaving (her smile a mitigation).

His mother’s relentless lifestyle deprived her of the rewards and privileges enjoyed by women of elevated status. In a mid-section rich in classical canvases it is not difficult to notice a link with just such a woman – Diana Leaving her Bath of 1742, Boucher’s brightly lit painting in the Louvre in Paris. The glow (light the goddess shone around) Diana shed on her loyal nymph Callisto (her favourite coming from the bath) would have glorified this modest rural Irish foot-soak (what was needed then).

Their mother merited trappings (fresh linen), servants (ministrations by attendants), pomp and admiration (procession and amazement) but possessed only a pair of unappealing medical stockings (rolled elastic). She embraced this existence and would not fall short (life she would not fail); nor did she covet any alternative (the life she was not meant for).

On just one occasion did this mother, fastidiously tidying up behind herself (scoured the basin), go through the swing motions. Her reason seems clear (sat to please us) though it was not really her thing (neither out of place nor in her element), a sudden impulse (just tempted by it) however brief (for a moment only) some faint memory perhaps of her own childhood (half-retrieving) and a touch unnerving (something half-confounded).

This was not a moment for the siblings to make any comment (instinctively we knew to let her be).

  • steeping: soaking, immersing;
  • swollen: enlarged  typically as a result of an accumulation of fluid;
  • opulent: luxurious;
  • arc: with a curving trajectory;
  • plout: (of Scottish/Irish origin): splash; probably imitative;
  • mitigation: reduction the severity, seriousness, or painfulness of a situation;
  • favourite: a person preferred to all others;
  • ministrations: provision of assistance or care (religious overtones);
  • rolled elastic stocking: compressed hosiery worn to improve blood flow; period reference to rolled tops to stockings;
  • not meant for: would not be her destiny;
  • scoured: cleaned with hard rubbing;
  • (not) out of place: in her comfort zone;
  • in her element: in a situation in which she felt comfortable;
  • half-retrieving: sharpening her sense of recall;
  • half confounded: that had not totally met with her expectations;
  • let her be: leave her in peace, undisturbed;
  • 21 lines in a single stanza; lines of 10 syllables; unrhymed;
  • 7 sentence structure; copious use of enjambed lines;
  • search to compare figures of elevated and common status;
  • contrast between privileged and burdensome existences: majestic/ metal basin; attendants/ elastic stocking;
  • vocabulary from different sources: Scottish ‘plout’; slightly archaic words when referring to classical pictures: ‘minisrartions’
  • comparison: stocking/ life;
  • ‘even so’: despite what was set out previously; ‘whatever’ used adjectively;


Heaney dramatizes a user-manual for self-propulsion (start up by yourself): the dangling support rope was key: first one achieved a secure hold (you hitched the rope against your backside) then pushed rearwards with the feet (backed on into it), reached full tension (tautened), stole a few extra inches with effort (tiptoed), then went for it (drove off as hard as possible).

Over to the laws of physics: velocity (You hurled) plus mass (gathered thing) plus spring (from the small of your own back) equals lift-off (into the air). Thanks to an aerodynamic shape (your head swept low) the resultant energy was a test for the wood-built barn itself (you heard the whole shed creak).

  • hitched: attached;
  • drove: pushed hard;
  • gathered thing: an accumulation of strength;
  • small of your back: the area where back and buttocks meet;
  • creak: the sound made when wood is under strain;
  • a single sextet lines based on 10 syllables; unrhymed, heavy in enjambed lines;
  • shared experience: you; your;
  • stages accompanied by past participles; like a user manual in the past tense;
  • verbs move from quiet beginnings to an explosion of thrust;
  • ‘small’ links dual ideas: a bodily spot; they were small children;
  • Adverbial subordinate: as… as;


For Heaney siblings who entered ‘history and ignorance’ (Sofa in The Forties) swinging skills became the metaphor for personal achievement each at own pace and to individual level (we all learned one by one to go sky high.

History was very active: military preparations at Toome for D-Day in 1944 (town lands vanished into aerodromes); in 1945 the first atomic bomb dropped on Japan (Hiroshima made light of human bones); in 1969 the first supersonic airliner(Concorde’s neb migrated towards the future) .

He and his siblings caught the swing bug from each other (who were we to want to hang back there) however scary it seemed (in spite of all).

Whatever their humble prospects (in spite of all) they all surpassed themselves (sailed beyond ourselves) … achieving far higher (over and above) thanks to swinging in a farm shed (rafters aching in our shoulderblades) or climbing trees (give and take of branches in our arms).

  • town lands: (in Ireland) small territorial divisions;
  • aerodromes: airfields;
  • Hiroshima: Japanese city, the target of the first atom bomb, which was dropped by the United States on 6 August 1945 and destroyed a third of the city’s population of 300,000. Together with a second attack, on Nagasaki three days later, this led to Japan’s surrender and the end of the Second World War;
  • made light: (opening multiple lines of enquiry) the flash of an explosion that vaporized everything in its immediate area reduced the human body to insignificance;
  • Concorde’s neb: the ground breaking supersonic airliner able to cruise at twice the speed of sound produced through Anglo-French cooperation made its maiden flight in 1969 and was taken out of service in 2003; it was fitted with a long pointed aerodynamic nose that was drooped for landing and take-off;
  • neb: ‘a bird’s beak’ used in northern British dialect for ‘nose’
  • In spite of: without being affected by the factors mentioned, by ignoring associated implications;
  • give and take: push and pull of competing forces;
  • rafters: internal wooden beams;
  • branches: limbs of a tree and by extension the ligaments and muscles of a body part;
  • quintet and triplet linked by 2 hemistiches; complete lines based on 10 syllables; unrhymed;
  • ‘sky high’: metaphorical extension of the highest point reached when swinging used now to suggest aspiration and achievement;
  • ‘made light of’ (twin intent): the atomic explosion made light work of bones by vaporizing them;
  • comparison: plane/ bird: ‘neb’, ‘migrated’;
  • ‘hang back’: the youngsters showing reluctance were literally hanging from the swing;
  • vocabulary of excelling expectation: beyond, over, above;
  • The Spirit Level … is spotted with moments of release and freedom, when the worlds of the tribal and the individual, the natural and the cultural, seem to blur or to reverse their usual planes: “The rafters aching in our shoulder-blades, / The give and take of branches in our arms”. Nicholas Jenkins Walking on Air in the TLS of July 5th 1996:
  • The paradox that gravity can help you rise, that weights can lift each other in a tentative balance, was advanced both in Heaney’s contribution toHomage to Robert Frost (which he published in 1997 with Joseph Brodsky and Derek Walcott) and in such poems as ‘Weighing In’ and ‘The Swing’  John Kerrigan in London review of Books  of May 1999
  • … a study in balance. Heaney reveals how simple things, such as a thimble or a swing, can hold the weight of history-and how history can alter the emotional weight of an object. Noonday Press edition of June 1996
  • 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 tex

  • 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, stirs together sibilant sounds [s] [z][sh] alongside bi-labial plosives [p][b] voiceless labio-dental fricative [f] and voiceless alveolar plosive [t];
  • 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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