To Mick Joyce in Heaven

A sequence of 5 sonnets, set at a time when Heaney was five or six years of age, is addressed to the memory of Mick Joyce. Heaney resurrects a figure from the past, recalling him with great warmth, affection and good-humour. The man was ‘demobbed’ at the end of WW2 and, it is suggested, became part of the post-war reconstruction programme.

Personal pronouns are those of a shared relationship: you, your, we, I, me.
In a sequence that will regularly allude to life-and-death issues, the final couplet of all clarifies Heaney’s subtle choice of title: Mick Joyce now in memoriam is depicted at a moment when, on leave from his duties and very much alive, he was ‘in heaven’ in an altogether different sense.


Transition from ‘soldier’ (the use of inverted commas is revealed in the narrative) to craftsman: Kit-bag to tool-bag/ Warshirt to workshirt; a man unused to his particular relocation, out of your element, related now to rural farmer-in-laws (an evident rhymed play on ‘father-in-law’).

Coping with country tasks in a conspicuously clumsy way (The talk of the country) Mick was, however, a builder in a class of his own and happy in his own company: out on your own/ When skylined on scaffolds.

Heaney borrows the identity of a Trojan War super-hero to tease the memory of an ex-‘soldier’ who never actually fought: A demobbed Achilles/ Who was never a killer, a mere ex-stretcher-bearer Turning your hand/ To the bricklaying trade on civvie-street (the contemporary reference to civilian life).

  • A sonnet; lines based around 6 syllables sometimes using enjambment to vary the rhythms; no rhyme scheme;
  • single compound sentence with 2 dashes;
  • the first couplet uses the assonance of repetition; [ai] skylined; [ɪ Achilles/ killer/ instead; [e] instead/ stretcher-bearers; [ei] bricklaying trade;                 
  • alliterative effects: prominent [t] sounds are  echoed in later narrative; [sk] scaffold/ Achilles/ killer; [st] instead/ strongest/ stretcher;


Heaney pursues his good-natured references to classical history: as Achilles was a warrior-prince so Mick has presence on the building-site: Prince of the sandpiles. Achilles was a great military leader; in contrast Mick resembles classical Greek military ‘heavy’ Hod-hoplite commander, more adept at building: Keeping an eye/ On the eye of the level.

He is back home, a humble Medical orderly,/ Bedpanner, bandager/ Transferred to the home front. The spit-and-polish of army life and its uniform might have been replaced by a different, less demanding routine but Forces’ habits cling on: he gets up promptly and smartly Rising and shining/ In brass-button drab.

  • Building materials and techniques are strongly represented: sand used to make cement; hod: a shoulder-carried container for bricks that are to be carried up ladders in quantity; plumbing: not mending pipes in this context, rather ensuring that bricks are laid square and level and walls straight (a plumb-line of weighted string is used); pointing: removing and smoothing excess cement that emerges between courses of bricks as they are tapped level; pegged out: the shape of the building is laid out with pegs and strings at the very start of construction; foundations: these are dug out as a base for building and concrete footings are poured in to stabilise the ground; a spirit-level with a bubble in a banana-shaped glass cylinder ensures that surfaces are vertical or horizontal; cornice: the point where wall and roof line meet; medical references:
  • bedpanner refers to the orderly who deals with the toilet needs of bedridden soldiers; the bandager dressed wounds;
  • rise and shine was the characteristic awakening call of repressive Regimental Sergeant Majors. Drab refers to the dull brownish uniform worn by medical orderlies;
  • home-front described the organisations and groups keeping Britain going at home while the WWII was being fought by soldiers abroad;
  • hoplites were the citizen soldiers of Ancient Greek city states;


  • A sonnet; lines based around 6 syllables sometimes using enjambment to vary rhythm and pace; no rhyme scheme;
  • frequent use  of mainly paired alliterations: Hod-hoplite ; watching/ wall; plumbing/ pointing/ pegged; course/ cornice; cement/ set; bedpanner, bandager; brass-buttoned drab;
  • assonances: [ai]  eye/ eye; rising and shining; [au] out/ foundation; [e] cement set/ Medical;       


Heaney recalls conversations (You spoke) but gently challenges Mick’s accounts of the war, his pretences of hardship, of having served in the desert/ Been strafed and been saved; Mick, the medical orderly, enjoyed a softer option: saved from being shot By courses of blankets/ Fresh folded and piled/ Like bales on a field./ No sandbags that time.

Heaney compares the ‘give’ of the blankets that sapped the energy from the bullets with the man’s nature: A softness preserved you.

Despite their considerable age difference, Mick’s relationship with the speaker was based on mutual respect and confidentiality: You/ Took me for granted. Other ‘man-to-man’ (man-to-boy, strictly speaking) confidences included talk of sex when Mick took opportunities to mock the ‘outrageous’ albeit un-Christian sexual habits of the English, who you said/ Would do it on Sundays/ Upstairs in the daytime.

  • Wartime references: all men of conscription age were expected to serve in Army, Air Force or Navy, referred to collectively in conversation as the forces; strafed: low-flying aircraft sprayed battle zones with bullets and shells; sandbags were used as a defence because they acted as a shield against bullets;
  • ‘to take someone for granted’ is to assume via familiarity that anything is permitted; here the suggestion is that Mick felt safe to pass on adult confidences to a boy;


  • sonnet, break at line 8; lines based between 4 and 6 syllables; four consecutive enjambed lines; no rhyme scheme; 5 complete sentences;
  • assonant effects: [əʊ] spoke/ folded/ No; spoke/ also [ei] strafed/ saved; bales; [ai]  piled/ time; [æ] blankets/ sandbags/ man to man;
  • alliterative use of [k] courses/ blankets/ like; [f] Fresh-folded; sexual allegations are whispered in a flurry of sibilants;


The boy reveals he was awed by Mick’s strength: The weight of the trowel/ … surprised me; by his dexterity, too, as a bricklayer able To sever a brick/ In a flash, and then twirl the trowel/ Fondly and lightly. Sent to wash the trowel during a break, the youngster needed two hands to handle the tick-spanned/ daunting implement.

  • A sonnet; lines based on 6 syllables; three complete sentences; break after line 7 contrasts their relative strengths;
  • sound effects: alliterative [w] weight/ what; [l] lift/ lozenges/ blade/ flash/ twirl/  -Fondly/ lightly; assonant:[ei] weight/ shaped/ Blade; [e] sever/ whenever/ sent, [æ] either nasal or not: had/ angle handle/ spanned/ hands;
  • In a flash offers a dual possibility: instantaneously; as if by magic        


We are suddenly next to Heaney as his poem takes shape: he has found a title for the sequence and explains his choice.

The distance his memories have had to travel leaves some of them hazy: his friendship, the day when Mick was first seen at the Heaney home on his first leave is blurred: started/ If not quite from nowhere,/ Then somewhere far off.

However he recalls the visual instance in great detail, focussing on a time and a place, on those involved, on the ambient conditions, the particular circumstances and finally the relief and pleasure that war-leave brought to soldiers: A bedroom, bright morning/ a woman’s company your first leave/ A stranger arrived/ a house with no upstairs.  Heaney addresses the final lines to his subject: for Mick, now dead (euphemistically ‘in heaven’) that moment was heaven enough/ To be going on with.

  • A sonnet; lines based on 6/7 syllables; three complete sentences; break after line 9 brings the sequence full circle;
  • In Heaven: in one sense ‘things could not be better’;
  • before the colon the alveolar [t] sound is frequent followed by the [ɑː] [ɒ] combination of far off. The middle section brings a sonic weave of [æ] bilabial plosive [b] and alveolar plosive [d]: bedroom, bright/ A man and a woman/ backs/ bedhead;
  • Heaney reveals some  aspects of his childhood setting: a house with no upstairs;                 
  • Characteristically, Heaney balances violence with healing. The fifth poem, “To Mick Joyce in Heaven”, affectionately recalls a demobbed soldier who served as a stretcher-bearer. The next considers the post-war erasure from the landscape of an aerodrome, while the following poem returns to destruction with a version of Horace echoing the attack on the World Trade Center: “Anything can happen, /the tallest towers / Be overturned.” An example of Heaney’s care in shaping a book, this strategy replaces surprise with deliberation. Stephen Knight in the Independent Sunday, 9 April 2006