The Swing


A sequence evoking a time, a place, a family group and an activity: the 1940s; a large open shed in the rural Heaney farmyard in Northern Ireland; brothers and sisters (the ‘herd life’ Heaney talks about in ‘Sofa in the Forties’) and their mother; using the swing in the family barn. The sequence moves back and forth between the extraordinary and the commonplace, the heavenly and the earthbound, idealized artistic representations and reality.

Learning to swing well is a metaphor for learning to lead a successful life.


Youngsters cannot easily use a swing; the poet sets out short-cuts that he and his siblings learned from each other: once launched little effort was required to maintain momentum: Fingertips just tipping you would send you /Every bit as far – once you got going -/ As a big push in the back. Swinging lessons were part the children’s journey out of ‘ignorance’ (Sofa in the Forties) with a sense of elation attached: Sooner or later,/ We all learned one by one to go sky high. He recalls the bodily movements required maintain momentum: Toeing and rowing and jackknifing through air.

  • Fingertips just tipping: the lightest change to the body position;
  • sky-high: as if reaching the sky; very high;
  • 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;


He considers painters who might best have caught the atmosphere ruling out both idealized visions (Not Fragonard) and earthy village scenes of medieval hardship (Nor Brueghel) in favour of something more spiritual and lyrical: the luminous warmth of Hans Memling’s light of heaven off green grass, / Light over fields and hedges.

Memling comes closest to capturing the Heaney shed-mouth on canvasses that depicted radiant times (Sunstruck), promise (expectant) and evidence of the farm animals that sheltered there: the bedding-straw / Piled to one side. The straw effects awaken memory of another cherished season: like a nativity/ Foreground and background waiting for the figures that stood in celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.

At centre-stage the swing itself: of this world, home-made and unsophisticated With an old lopsided sack in the loop of it; lying idle at this moment (Perfectly still); weightless (hanging like pulley-slack); an enticing invitation for the siblings to soar heavenwards: A lure let down to 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:  (c. 1525 –1569) was a Flemish Renaissance painter and printmaker known for his landscapes and peasant scenes (so called genre painting).
  • Memling: (c. 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;


No place yet for the otherworldly for the young Heaneys’ minds: we favoured the earthbound.

Their mother Margaret Heaney (not identified by name) watched on. Her sovereign status in their eyes (as majestic as an empress) was at variance with her actions: a hard-working farmer’s wife soothing her aching feet at the end of a taxing day (Steeping her swollen feet one at a time/ In the enamel basin).

The poet recalls the process : his mother warming the water in the bowl by feeding the basin … with an opulent/ Steaming arc (of boiled water) from a kettle on the floor / Beside her. He can still hear the splash of it: The plout of (it) was music / To our ears. Maternal approval of their activity freed the children from guilt: her smile a mitigation.

His mother’s unexceptional lifestyle deprived her of the privileges enjoyed by women of elevated status (he might have had in mind Boucher’s brightly lit painting Diana Leaving her Bath of 1742 in the Louvre in Paris): Whatever light the goddess (Boucher’s Diana) had once shone/ Around her favourite (Boucher’s nymph, Callisto) coming from the bath/ Was what (our mother) needed then.

She merited the trappings (Fresh linen, ministrations by attendants, Procession and amazement) but was restricted (from the sublime to the mundane) to pulling on a pair of unappealing medical stockings: she took/ Each rolled elastic stocking and drew it on. Yet she counted what she had as a blessed commitment (the life she would not fail) and did not covet what she did not know (the life she …was not/ Meant for).

On one occasion only, he recalls, did this mother (with standards of hygiene that ensured she scoured the basin) make as if to join in: came and sat to please us on the swing.

She was neither in nor out of her comfort zone (Neither out of place nor in her element) ; he feels that she softened briefly (Just tempted by it), released briefly (for a moment only) from her life of dignified domesticity by some faint memory of her own childhood: Half-retrieving something half-confounded.

This was not a moment for them to make comments: 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;

Speaking to DoD (p310) Heaney said of his mother: ‘The image I have of her in The Swing … is ‘photography’ but also, I hope, 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’


Heaney sets out the instructions for self-launch (To start up by yourself : they made use of the dangling rope (you hitched the rope / Against your backside and backed on into it), made a pause (when the rope tautened), gained as much extra height as they could (tiptoed), pushed off (drove off As hard as possible).

Over to the laws of aeronautics: mass plus velocity (You hurled a gathered thing/ From the small of your own back into the air) plus an aerodynamic shape (Your head swept low). The resultant energy was a test for the wood-built surroundings: 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 young siblings and parental aspirations swinging became the metaphor for personal achievement. They have all achieved: We all learned one by one to go sky high.

Other things were happening too: military armament before 1945 (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 have only gained from swinging high despite intial lack of courage and fear: So who were we to want to hang back there/ in spite of all? Whatever drawbacks threatened them (In spite of all) the Heaney siblings surpassed themselves in body and soul: we sailed/ Beyond ourselves and not just on the childhood swing in a farm shed over and above/ The rafters aching in our shoulderblades,/ The 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 to Homage 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 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, 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/ anger.