The Walk


Two sonnets about love: the first photo-shot focuses on parental devotion within a pastoral landscape; the second ‘longshot’ contemplates Heaney’s married relationship that has lasted more than three decades. The first ‘photo’ has been fully processed, the second is a black and white negative, still a ‘work in progress’, as it were.

Fifty years on walks with his mother and father have not lost their alluring sheen: Glamoured the road, the day, and him and her/ And everywhere they took me. On those occasions Nature was hazy and enchanted: Cobbles were riverbed, the Sunday air/ A high stream-roof that moved in silence. He paints the flora of his rural Ulster neighbourhood in its summer prime, from the grandest free-standing shrub to the humblest hedgerow straggler: Rhododendrons in full bloom, foxgloves/And hemlock, robin-run-the-hedge; his mind’s eye still detects the feathered texture of invasive deckled ivy and discerns the light effects: thick shadows.

Reaching their Moyula destination revealed the riverbed and its characteristics: its floor Gravelly, its depth shallowly; the time of year summery with pools. At the age he was, the river formed a boundary beyond which he had been forbidden to venture: a world rim that was not for crossing.

The sonnet’s volta introduces the speaker’s debt of gratitude for theirlove: their protective devotion (Love brought me by the hand); solid security (without/ The slightest doubt or irony); unemotional parents (dry-eyed), sensible (knowledgeable) and sometimes tetchy (contrary as be damned).

The scene is fixed by the click of a camera’s shutter: love just kept standing there, not letting go.

Sofa in the Forties (in this collection) sums up the poet’s retrospective view of his early existence within the family; the first sonnet highlights the role his parents played in building the foundations, providing security and setting standards that influenced Heaney’s future development into the adulthood.

  • Glamoured: Heaney creates a verb from a noun suggestive in northern languages of magical beauty and alluring charm; glamour (n): 1720, Scottish, “magic, enchantment, spell” Old Norse suggests a similar notion;
  • cobbles: small round stones used to cover road surfaces;
  • stream-roof: oxymoron-like; underwater imagery;
  • rhododendrons: shrub or small tree of the heather family loved for the splash of colour of its flowers;
  • foxgloves: tall Eurasian plant with erect spikes of pinkish-purple (or white) flowers shaped like the fingers of gloves; source of the drug digitalis;
  • hemlock: European plant of the parsley family;
  • robin-run the-hedge: a creeping, straggling plant that attaches itself using small, hooked hairs;
  • deckled: with a decorative feathered edge; (of paper) untrimmed;
  • gravelly, shallowy, summery: ‘ish’, relatively, fairly
  • a world rim: the boundary of the youngster’s known world;
  • irony: offering a meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite;
  • dry-eyed: not crying, stoical, holding emotion back;
  • contrary as be damned: perversely inclined to disagree or to do the opposite of what is expected or desired;
  • not letting go: (word-play) both hand gripping hand; persistent by nature;


  • sonnet form, volta after line 10; 3 sentences; line length based on 10 syllables; unrhymed;
  • much use made of enjambed lines to create the legato flow of the first section;
  • personal pronouns hide (unmistakeable) identities;
  • botanical enumeration; colour implied rather than named;
  • stepped out’ contains connotations of pride;
  • triplet of adjectives ending in –y (‘ish’);
  • comparison: the limited area of childhood will one day offer huge potential: ‘world rim’;;
  • personification of love synonymous with parents;

The youngster has turned adult; love has translated into the grown-up version. Heaney is looking at a second study: another longshot. Black and white./ A negative. The colours of the previous print are replaced by a range of greys: on glossy celluloid (dazzle-dark), fuzzy with Smudge, unhealthily pale (pallor) and requiring effort to make out Seamus and Marie Heaney.

The poet undertakes a ticklish appraisal of two busy people with careers and hectic schedules upholding their vows to share a home – two creative people sometimes wrestling with themselves (The selves we struggled with and struggled out of); two ‘presences’ who have feasted on each other’s passion (Two shades who have consumed each other’s fire); at one moment strong personalities capable of hurting each other (Two flames in sunlight that can sear and singe), next minute lost in a ghostlike otherworld: like wisps of enervated air,/ After-wavers, feathery ether-shifts.

Not permanent ghosts, however: their appetites for each other still catch fire (apt to rekindle suddenly) when life scatters the aromas of old Ireland on their path: charred grass and sticks … fire-fragrance lingering on, aphrodisiacs that arouse the body (Erotic woodsmoke) or excite the interest (witchery, intrigue).

Head-scratching as to why their ‘longshot’ proved successful leaves them none the wiser; their time is better spent just continuing to be as they are, energizing and pleasuring onwards: better primed/ To speed the plough again and feed the flame.

  • HV(p153) ‘Yet though husband and wife are still alive ( ) they are also strangely ghostlike … resembling the shades that speak of Dante .. It is not, however , their destiny to remain static in this disembodied state’;
  • The seven poems of Death of a Naturalist that immediately follow Twice Shy (especially Scaffolding) divulge Heaney’s feelings as he marries Marie Devlin in 1965 (a year before the 1996 publication of this his first collection).
  • Marie Heaney was born in County Tyrone and followed a teaching Career in Northern Ireland. She moved to the Irish Republic with Seamus and her family in 1972 and lives in Dublin. Over Nine Waves was published in July 1995, a year before The Spirit Level was published. Marie Heaney ‘skilfully revives the glory of ancient Irish storytelling in this comprehensive volume‘ (publisher’s blurb). Seamus Heaney explores many of these themes in his own poetry;
  • longshot: a long-distance photograph that blurs close detail; used figuratively to denote a risk taken; the Heaneys’ longshot has been successful;
  • dazzle-dark: monochrome negatives retained the shine of the celluloid they were printed on;
  • smudge: smear, blur, indistinctness;
  • pallor: unhealthy pale appearance;
  • shades: shadowy figures somehow lacking substance; in both Dante and Virgil ‘shades’ referred to dead people wandering uncertainly around the Underworld; only a select few were exempted from this unhappy fate;
  • fire: passion;
  • sear: scorch with a sudden, intense heat;
  • singe: burn superficially;
  • wisps: insubstantial strands
  • enervated: drained of energy;
  • after-wavers: shimmers;
  • ether-shifts: tiny changes of rarefied atmosphere;
  • fire-fragrance: the after-smell of outdoor fires used by Irish itinerants;
  • witchery: the compelling power of magical practices;
  • intrigue: secret plotting often associated with love affairs;
  • primed: (word-play) prepared by experience; prepared for experience (re paint primer)
  • Heaney is aware of the medieval sense of the word : ‘glamour’ as the temptations of this world, the wondrous illusions of temporality. When medieval moralists warn against glamour they are keen to help us to see through the false show of this world, to get toward self-knowledge… In fabled pedagogical mode (Heaney) presents us with the lessons and then leaves us to think about the bigger meanings, always in a manner that is gentle-voiced and caring of his listeners.  Philip Harvey Monday, 10 September 2012


  • sonnet form; volta after 8 as past becomes present and future looking;
  • limited use of enjambed lines makes for a kind of finger-counted list of considerations;
  • 4 sentences; line length based on 10 syllables; unrhymed;
  • Vocabulary of greyness associated with a photo negative;
  • Prepositions of contrast: with/ out of;
  • Comparison : self – wisp of air;
  • absence of colour is replaced by other sense data: vocabulary of heat; the imaginative aspect of their characters uses vocabulary indicating lack of substance or make-believe; vocabulary of smell;
  • the music of the poem: eleven 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 beginning , for example, draws together alveolar plosives [t] [d] alongside voiced dental fricative as in the they [ð]; then bi-labial plosives [p][b];
  • 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.