Death of a Naturalist published by Faber in 1966 is Seamus Heaney’s inaugural collection. His early poems demonstrate accessibility, erudition and vitality. Subsequent collections over more than half a century will confirm Heaney’s place at the very top of the premier league of 20th century poets writing in English. The textual commentaries that follow seek to tease out what […]

Turkeys Observed

Turkeys Observed Providing a master class in transposing close observation into verse Heaney laments the sorry sight of turkeys slaughtered for Christmas. Shop-window displays of traditional festive British fare generate a chain of associations in the poet’s mind linking the ‘v’ of the Diviner’s hazel stick and the ‘v’ of a turkey’s wishbone (poor forked thing)! He paints a pitiful […]


Over time Heaney will write of the rivers and streams close to his boyhood home in a variety of moods. In Trout he takes advantage of an opportunity to pause on arched bridges and acquaint himself with life-forms in the stream below. The poet offers a master-class on how to translate visual observations into words; The first quatrain is formed […]

Cow in Calf

Picturing himself in a location familiar to him as a farmer’s son, Heaney composes a sonnet about birth and renewal. The poet weighs up the signs of pregnancy evident in the first instance (It seems) from the cow’s sheer bulk (as if she had swallowed a barrel) and from her sagging undercarriage (slung like a hammock) from front (forelegs) to […]


The power, texture and formats of flowing water present Heaney with the challenge of transposing the visual turbulence and disorder of a waterfall into words. Feel and finish are important in a poem that deploys a wide range of sense data. Heaney clarifies the process in the final triplet. The poet’s attention has followed a water course (burn) to a […]

Poor Women in a City Church

A second vignette of Belfast life portrays the devotions of Catholic women in an unheated Belfast church. The poem forms a pictorial canvas recalling classical paintings of groups of worshippers in similar circumstances. Heaney focuses first on light-source and temperature effects: small wax candles melt to light, then on movement and reflections: shadows on smooth surfaces (flicker in marble); centred […]


Heaney read Docker to the Belfast ‘Group’ led by Philip Hobsbaum in late 1963. He had been invited to join the group as an undergraduate and expose his poems to a small non-denominational assembly of poets. The poem exposes the prejudice lurking behind the dour, uncompromising exterior of a dockworker in mid twentieth centure Belfast. To Heaney’s mind the man’s […]


The poem precedes a suite of seven poems devoted to stages in his relationship with Marie Devlin. It acts as a kind of foreword reflecting on the force that draws objects inexorably together. It is about pull and resistance, freedom and restriction, seriousness and levity of manner. The poet prepares the ground for what the coming together of two people […]


Following the first walk described in Twice Shy the relationship between Heaney and Marie Devlin has moved on; they are living together. Heaney chooses a title of classical derivation (saying ‘farewell’, ‘adieu’) betraying his fears that her temporary absence might be more than just au revoir and signal final separation. The need Marie has kindled within him has a touch […]

Twice Shy

A relationship is born. The so-christened ‘Devlin poem’ is first of a series of lyrics that celebrate their ties, recognising Marie’s place in Heaney’s development as a poet. His title invites us to complete the idiom ‘once bitten … twice shy’: those who have been hurt are doubly careful the next time round (especially in matters of love). Heaney describes […]