A Northern Hoard

And some in dreams assured were/ of the Spirit that plagued us so

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner of 1798 provides the epigraph to the sequence. Coleridge’s long fable deals with the consequences of an aberrant act upon both the sinner and those around him; it weaves together matters of conscience, danger, serenity, the supernatural, mental health and salvation; it introduces spirits that come to haunt the mariner’s conscience; it picks out the sad fate of ordinary people caught in a vicious circle; it condemns the mariner to wander the earth re-telling his story in an attempt to leave people sadder and wiser.

  • hoard: stock, store; for the poet his store of words.

Heaney presents a five part sequence, a shifting series of phantasms, illusions and dream-like appearances created by the imagination but triggered by deteriorating circumstances in Northern Ireland. The poet’s need to make a decision about change becomes urgent. His chosen epigraph interlinks political circumstances and poetic aspirations.


The opening piece, addressing an enigmatic ‘you’, springs from a déraciné’s insomniac fixation on roots.

At a time when normal people are asleep (Leaf membranes lid the window/ In the streetlamp’s glow) restless thoughts have focused on ‘something’ caught up in a clockwork (moonstruck), on images of lifelessness (a man-made burial site/ drifted barrow) and cold, bleak beginnings (sunk glacial rock). Heaney is the restless soul; the second troubled identity is beginning to emerge.

His restlessness is dominated by painful associations: all shifts dreamily as you keen / Far off; the commotion of outrages (the din/ Of gunshot, siren and clucking gas) that unfold in dark corners (Out there beyond each curtained terrace) and augur social earthquake: Where the fault is opening.

The ‘you’ is his native Ulster and its divided, troubled capital, Belfast.

A single note begins to reverberate through the poem’s musical dynamic: initially a faint pianissimo, unvarying, increasingly persistent, gradually increasing in volume until it comes to dominate the jumble of subconscious thoughts and reaches its climax in the final ‘scream’.

Attuned to the early rumbles of seismic activity (The touch of love,/ Your warmth heaving to the first move) the narrator judges his devotion as powerless to oppose human wickedness: our old Gomorrah.

He starts from sleep in a flash of decision: We petrify or uproot now … paralysis or direct action is called for. The emphasis has leapt from ‘root’ to ‘uproot’ with all the ramifications of moving on.

His aim to concoct a solution before he wakes (I’ll dream it for us before dawn), bolstered by intruding images of paramilitary hostility that is part of Ulster’s problem (When the pale sniper steps down and the curfew is temporarily lifted) emerges as metaphor.

To encapsulate the forces opposing upheaval Heaney selects the mandrake: it has been subjected to daily doses of violence (tidal blood); it is tenacious and deeply rooted (lodged human fork), a native (Earth sac) symbol of scary forces (limb of the dark). It must be exorcised.

He will wrench it from the earth … whatever repercussions it might generate amongst those he will be leaving behind in unfulfilling academic or poetic circles (wound its damp smelly loam) and whatever the risk of its supernatural power to put a curse on his aspirations: stop my ears against the scream.

  • membrane: pliable leaf lining;
  • lid: removable, hinged top by extension eye lid;
  • moonstruck: prevented from thinking normally (for example by love);
  • drifted: be led/ carried by a stronger force;
  • barrow: earth piled over a place where people were buried in ancient times;
  • keen: make grief-stricken noises for a dead person;
  • din: loud unpleasant noises;
  • clucking: low hen-like sounds repeated staccato
  • fault: a geological break in a rock formation. Often the site of earthquake;
  • Gommorah: Old Testament (Genesis) city destroyed by fire sent by God to punish the wickedness of its inhabitants:
  • petrify: to paralyse with fear; also turn to stone;
  • uproot: tear from the ground;
  • sniper: hidden sharpshooter;
  • mandrake: plant said to resemble human form; in one superstition, people who pulled up this root would be condemned to hell , and the mandrake root would scream as it was pulled from the ground killing anyone who heard it; ; the root is hallucinogenic and narcotic. In sufficient quantities, it induces a state of oblivion. It was also used internally to treat melancholy, convulsions and mania. When taken internally in large doses, however, it is said to excite delirium and madness.
  • fork: sharp pronged instrument used to separate and lift;
  • sac: (Biology) pouch-like cavity within a membrane containing air or liquid ;
  • 5 quartets of variable line length (5-10 syllables); constructed in 7 sentences;

  • rhyme scheme aabb ccdd; some loose rhyme;

  • present tense narration;

  • personal pronoun: you’, ‘your’ applying to 2 people;

  • place: anonymous but likely to be Belfast where the Heaneys were living; personification: window has eyelids;

  • oxymoronic contrast: ‘dreamily … keen’;

  • poetic license of preposition ‘to’ suggesting adherence, inability to move things on;

  • comparisons: geological ‘glacial rock’, earth tremor ‘fault’; man-made ‘barrow’, civil turbulence;

  • expression of need to change short and sharp;

  • Biblical reference to God-given purity tainted by man-made sin;

  • dual intention: ‘petrify’ live in fear or do something about it;

  • for alliteration and assonance see below;

No Man’s Land

The ‘spirit’ plaguing Heaney is of his own shortcomings: he sees himself lying as if paralysed in a no man’s land separating entrenched sectarian forces. He accuses himself of cowardice (I deserted) and acknowledges his craven inability to face up to the current casualties of street violence, as striking as Jesus on the Cross (shut out/ their wounds’ fierce awning, those palms like streaming webs).

His unanswered questions point him towards ignominious U-turn: crawl back now, a contemptible spirochete, knowing witness to butchery (abroad between shred-hung wire and thorn), his reputation in tatters (my smeared doorstep) haunted by the lumpy dead. Coleridge refers to each of those who died alongside the ancient mariner as a lifeless lump.

He rebukes himself: his innate slowness to condemn the mutilation taking place (infected sutures/ and ill-knit bone) is tantamount to connivance.

  • no man’s land: the bare wasteland between entrenched armies littered with shell craters, barbed wire and dead bodies;
  • desert: run away; the illegal act of a soldier, regarded as cowardice;
  • awning: material stretched over a frame;
  • spirochete: bacterium producing mainly unpleasant conditions in the human body;
  • smeared: coated with dirt;
  • lumpy: bump, growth with connotations of disease;
  • sutures: stitches holding together two edges of a wound;
  • ill-knit: badly set (of bones) and visible to the eye;
  • 1 triplet + 1 nonet; 3 sentence construct; line length 5-7 syllables; no rhyme scheme but some assonant line ends;

  • the past tense of personal spinelessness replaced by present tenses of facing up and telling the self how it is; these couched as questions;

  • drama played out in WWI landscape; visually disturbing; vocabulary of open wounds and infection;

  • first person targeted: ‘I’, ‘my’;

  • borrowing from Coleridge: ‘lumpy’;

  • for alliteration and assonance see below;


The recurrent vision of a fractured society is a source of torment: I am riding to plague again: standing in a post-apocalyptic scenario; hidden amongst the suffering; looking out from the charred ruins of an incinerated home (sooty wash/ From the grate in the burnt-out gable); witnessing the pitiful consequence – homeless survivors trying to organize themselves: I see the needy in a small pow-wow.

The state of paralysis alluded to in ‘Roots’ has reached the moment of truth: to be challenged by those he watches will require him, published poet and public voice, to respond (What do I say if they wheel out their dead?)

He already regards himself as shamefully tongue-tied; his silent response to social and political outrage in Ulster has left him in an untenable position: I’m cauterized, a black stump of home.

  • stump: the projecting remnant of a felled tree; remnant of an amputated arm or leg;
  • soot: black residue left by incomplete burning of organic matter;
  • pow-wow: originally American First Nations ceremony; by extension get-together of members of a similar group;
  • cauterize: burn the flesh around a wound to stem blood-flow and prevent infection;
  • 1 sextet in in 4 sentences; 4 lines of 8 syllables;1 couplet of 10 syllables; unrhymed;

  • first person narration in present tense save for the final passive ‘I’m cauterized’;

  • vocabulary that paints a bleak, nightmare, film-like, socially apocalyptic landscape;

  • vocabulary of bedraggled survival;

  • Coleridge’s plague not the first example Heaney has lived through: ‘again’;

  • question encapsulates Heaney’s constant soul-searching;

  • comparison: desensitized poet, tree remains after forest-fire;

  • for alliteration and assonance see below;

No Sanctuary

Heaney can find no refuge from the spirit plaguing him, least of all on the eve of the ancient Celtic festival of Hallowe’en frequented by demons.

An unearthly, bodiless icon of primitive superstition (The turnip-man’s lopped head) looms up in the flaring candlelight through split bottle glass and swirling smoke, symbolizing the forces luring society onto the rocks of self-destruction (swims up like a wrecker’ lantern).

The grimacing face distorts into an evil Death mask contemptuous both of the annual bounty of the living (harvest) and of the dead (mocker at All Souls), fearsome nightmare spectre (red dog’s eyes in the night) portending hellish conflagration (scorching smells).

Huddling in a protective circle will bring narrator and community (we) no refuge from the unholy horror that threatens: We ring and stare into unhallowed light.

  • Hallowe’en: night of 31st October, eve of All Saints Day, when ghosts and spirits were said to be moving freely around; also associated with Celtic festival of Samhain (1st November) marking the beginning of winter;
  • turnip-man: associated in superstition with peat bogs and alluding to the traditional carved turnip head with a candle inside that provides a weird flickering light (akin to the pumpkin jack o’lantern);
  • wrecker: person on the sea-shore waving a lantern to lure ships onto the rocks so as to plunder the cargo;
  • unhallowed: unconsecrated, not formally declared sacred;
  • Heaney recog­nizes how on his and on the other side, centuries of indoctrination have bequeathed a legacy of intolerance and fear, and fostered the tribal mentality which now expresses itself in bombings, shootings and arson. These ‘adult’ activities are the source of the ‘unhallowed light’ that hangs over both Protestant and Catholic alike … Within each Christian commu­nity there are those who seem more at home with the Old Testament philosophy of “a life for a life, an eye for an eye, burning for burning, wound for wound” ‘ (MP103-5);
  • 2 triplets in 2 sentences; unrhymed; 10 syllable lines;

  • enjambment and punctuation combine to establish the breath groups of oral delivery;

  • fact (‘Hallowe’en’) followed by imaginative, impressionist association;

  • vocabulary of pagan icons (‘turnip-man’) and murderous forces undermining community (‘wrecker’);

  • plays upon light distortion: ‘split’, ‘fumes’, swims’;

  • decline: turnip head > ‘Death mask’;

  • sulphurous hellish smells;

  • hints of a godless future: ‘stare into unhallowed light’;


His school lessons introduced young Heaney to the link between pre-history and the area where he lived; he learnt about flints discovered in the Bann valley and handled them in Primary school; he recounts the size and texture of the Stone Age artefacts: We picked flints, Pale and dirt-veined,/So small finger and thumb /Ached around them.

In Heaney’s imagination the shards of rock were transformed into rosary-like emblems (Cold beads of history and home/ We fingered), the alleged source of fire for Ireland’s first nation: a cave-mouth flame/ Of leaf and stick … an exciting notion for the youngsters’ undeveloped intellects (Trembling at the mind’s wick).

In fact the expectation (We clicked stone on stone) that sparks that would be produced (a weak flame-pollen) led only to self-injury our knuckle joints/ Striking as often as the flints.

Only later would the scientific truth emerge: the need for fine dry starting materials (tinder), the excellence of charred linen for catching and nurturing the spark and iron without which no sparks could be produced by youngsters Huddled at dusk in a ring, frustrated by failure: Our fists shut, our hope shrunken.

What is there now, he asks, to warm the twentieth century body after the earth’s magma cooled into rock: What could strike a blaze / From our dead igneous days?

The post-apocalyptic scene returns to plague him: incendiary fires have burnt out leaving folk chilled and dispirited (we squat on cold cinder) weeping with fatigue (Red-eyed) in the silence that follows the flames’ soft thunder. Optimism is choked: our thoughts settle like ash.

Heaney issues a warning: if prospects seem bleak now for Ulster then the future is even bleaker: We face the tundra’s whistling brush/ With new history. Civil chaos will produce arctic winds alien to survival; people will have to survive like the earliest peoples with next to nothing (flint and iron, Cast-offs, scraps) and by whatever means: nail, canine.

The ancient mariner’s/ Heaney’s wish to leave men ‘sadder and wiser’ will not be achieved any time soon in Ulster.

  • flints: flakes of a hard rock fashioned to form tools or implements;
  • vein: a crack, split in the textured surface of rock;
  • arched: curled;
  • beads: glass or stone pellets threaded in a string; used in a rosary to count prayers or devotions;
  • wick: strip of material in the centre of a candle which feeds the flame;
  • flame pollen: fine matter produced metaphorically to cross-fertilize;
  • tinder: dry flammable materials (paper or wood) required to ignite a fire;
  • charred: blackened, partly-burnt;
  • dead igneous: link to lava thrown up by the earth’s molten magma that has cooled and solidified into rock; igneous: from Latin igneus ‘of fire’;
  • tundra: Arctic regions where the subsoil is permanently frozen;
  • cast-offs: something, especially a piece of clothing, that is no longer required;
  • canine: pointed tooth, enlarged in carnivores; nail, canine is Heaney’s version of the expression ‘(fight) tooth and nail’ i.e. very fiercely;
  • 12 couplets in 5 sentences (2 of them pitched as questions); no formal rhyme scheme but a number of rhymes and end-of-line assonances;

  • shared experiences: ‘we’;

  • symbol of the search for warmth and wish to progress: ‘flint’;

  • the past tense of the first 9 couplets indicates repeated action; thereafter present tense;

  • synecdoche: ‘small finger and thumb’/the child that was;

  • religious overtones: ‘cold beads’, ‘fingered’;

  • metaphor: ‘mind’s wick/ the intellect as a source of light;

  • compounds, adjectival or used as a noun: ‘dirt-veined’, ‘cave-mouth’, ‘flame-pollen’;

  • vocabulary of frustrated ignorance: ‘fists shut’, ‘hope shrunken’; of sharing an uneducated landscape: ‘huddled’

  • remains of an un-evolved childhood: ‘dead igneous days’;

  • fire has become a destructive force to property (‘cold cinder’) to aspiration (‘thoughts settle like ash’); frustration is ‘now’ tears (‘red-eyed);

  • oxymoron: ‘soft thunder’;

  • what lies ahead: polar landscape now polar; evidence of modern hardships including disposable body parts;

  • 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: fifteen 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 lines of ‘Roots, for example, bring together alveolar [l], a cluster of plosives (alveolar [d] [t], velar [k] [g], bilabial [p] [b]) interspersed with nasals [n] [m];
  • 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.
  • In ‘A Northern Hoard , Heaney actu­ally asks himself the question about poetry more directly: ‘What do I say if they wheel out their dead? / I’m cauterized, a black stump of home.’ … scarred or seared into insensibil­ity, incapable of feeling or responding, having nothing to ‘say’. Wintering Out attempts to find a voice for this abjection, and to find images of suffering, endurance and resistance which will not seem already seen’ (NC29);
  • ‘… subtly responsive and alert to present conflict, but concerned to be poetry ( ) the poems themselves hover intric­ately between the literal and the symbolic, realism and allegory, politics and philology. … they feel tentatively along the lines that bind an Individual to his people and a people to their history’ (NC29);
  • both parts share exemplary or emblematic figures of suffering or endurance… having a genuine role in establishing the chilly, disconso­late mood of the book’ (NC50);
  • In order to understand Heaney’s work at this stage in his career and since, it is essential to try to define his complex and ambivalent attitudes towards Catholicism and Christianity… if Christianity and Christian allusion did indeed possess neither relevance nor moral force, why would it feature in such major poems as ( ) ‘A Northern Hoard’… Clearly Catholicism permeates both his poetic consciousness, with its weighty emphasis on ritual supplication, on awe, grace, guilt, humility, responsibility, discipline, and its burdened and burdening vocabulary’ (NC114-5);
  • whereas the repetition of his crime ultimately becomes a redemptive act for the Ancient Mariner, in Heaney’s poem there seems no prospect of redemption. Crimes multiply, and the ‘new history’ promises merely a revival of ancient tribal savagery’ (MP103-5);
  • Readers are put through their paces, dodging the ‘clucking gas’ in ‘old Gomorrah”, avoiding the opening of an Audenesque ‘fault’ only to encounter Yeatsian ‘tidal blood’, glimpsing victims of the plague huddled in a ‘pow-wow’. In addition, there seems an undue emphasis on the poet’s personal burden of guilt ‘ (MP103-5);
  • in ‘No Sanctuary’ and ‘Tinder’, ( ) attention turns from the self-condemning ‘I’ to the collective ‘we’ and its culpability (MP103-5);
  • these flints are transformed into ‘Cold beads of history and home’, a rosary consisting of the martyrs and disasters in Nationalist mythology recited in Catholic households along with the Our Fathers and Hail Marys. Obsessively fingering the shards of the past has been spiritually disabling, and in trying to raise a spark, the boys inflict wounds upon themselves, “our knuckle joints/ Striking as often as the flints” ‘ (MP103-5);
  • On the heels of this holocaust comes a nuclear winter, a new Age of Ice. The survivors squat like animals, eyes red from sleeplessness, guilt or blood-lust. They prepare to defend this ‘cankered ground’ (‘Veteran’s Dream’), with anything that comes to hand’ (MP103-5);

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