Foreword (Death of a Naturalist)

Foreword 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 Heaney provides an object lesson in transposing close observation into verse. Shop-window displays of regulation Christmas fare set up a chain of associations in the poet’s mind leading from the ‘v’ of the Diviner’s hazel stick in the previous poem to the ‘v’ of a turkey’s wishbone! Heaney laments the sorry sight of turkeys slaughtered in cold blood […]


Trout The rivers and streams close to his boyhood home are very much part of Heaney’s landscape. In this poem he takes advantage of his huge interest in Nature pausing on arched bridges to acquaint himself with life-forms in the stream below. The first 5 lines are composed around two contrasting verbs: one of inertia, the other of movement. At […]

Cow in Calf

Cow in Calf In an environment familiar to a farmer’s son, Heaney reflects on regeneration. The speaker weighs up the cow’s immense belly. The impression It seems is that, in pregnancy, she had swallowed a barrel her undercarriage: slung like a hammock from front to rear. He needs to be physical to shift a cow in her present condition from […]


Waterfall Observation of the power and shape of falling water presents Heaney with the challenge of transposing the visual turbulence and disorder of a waterfall into words. His poetic eye settles initially above the main fall, relative calm replaced as the pressure of water builds until the stream consumes itself as the burn drowns steadily its own downpour. Gravitational pull […]

Poor Women in a City Church

Poor Women in a City Church A study of inner city devotions is inspired by the sight of Catholic women in an unheated Belfast church. The poem creates a canvas that recalls classical paintings of groups of worshippers in like circumstances. Heaney concentrates, first, on light effects: small wax candles melt to light, casting varying shadows as they flicker in […]


Docker Heaney’s docker illustrates the sectarian stance adopted by bigoted unionist Protestant working-men towards the Catholic minority as the poet sensed it in the mid 20th century. He exposes the threatening prejudice lurking beneath the dour, uncompromising exterior of a dockworker.   The man sits silent and alone in the corner of a public bar staring at his drink. He […]


Gravities The poem precedes a suite of seven poems devoted to stages in his relationship with Marie Devlin. It acts as a preface that considers the force that draws objects inexorably together; it is about pull and resistance, freedom and restriction, seriousness and levity. The poet prepares the ground for the serious responsibilities that love and marriage entail. The apparent […]

Twice Shy

Twice Shy Heaney describes a walk, perhaps their very first, with the woman who would become his wife and to whom he has been married for forty years when District and Circle is published in 2006. The speaker is walking along a riverside with a woman whom he finds at once stylishly attractive, Her scarf á la Bardot yet practical: […]


Valediction Heaney chooses a title of classical derivation that stresses the idea of final ‘farewell’, ‘adieu’. The young ‘lover’ separated from his ‘lady’ fears her absence might be more than just au revoir. The hold that he confesses she has over him has a touch of medieval ‘courtly love’ about it, that of the male in thrall to his loved […]