Seamus Heaney - District and Circle - Poetry Analysis

Foreword (District and Circle)

Foreword  (District and Circle). District and Circle is Seamus Heaney’s twelfth collection since Death of a Naturalist (1966), published in April 2006 by Faber and Faber. There are 44 titles including 5 sequences of more than one poem; 68 poems in all. Many had already appeared in some form or other in a variety of publications on both sides of the Atlantic.The volume includes some ‘found prose’ and a number of translations.   Heaney’s work since 1966 has lost none of its accessibility, erudition and vitality. The textual commentaries that follow seek to tease out what his poems are intimating in District and Circle. Of course, the poet’s ‘message’ will have started life as an essentially personal one, not intended primarily for his reader; accordingly, there are moments when some serious unravelling is required. In the case of a poet as accomplished, complex and focused as Heaney, the rewards for […read more….]

The Turnip Snedder

The Turnip Snedder   In ‘Stepping Stones’ (p 407) Heaney acknowledges to Dennis O’Driscoll that District and Circle was a time for ‘pouncing’ on poems; the inspiration for this opener was a photograph the poet saw visiting  in an exhibition by modernist artist Hughie O’Donoghue to whom he dedicates the piece. Associated with Heaney’s rural Irish ‘territory’, this manually driven turnip-crushing machine, a piece of archaic agricultural machinery, comes to bear the hallmarks of a medieval war-machine and introduces more modern forms of violence implicit within the first dozen or so poems in the collection Heaney takes us back a good sixty years to a less sophisticated time before the liquidizer and other modern implements, to an age of bare hands/ and cast iron. The emblems chosen to illustrate the moment (fully recognisable to those who lived through the post-war period) hold a clue to the design of the snedder: […read more….]

A Shiver

A Shiver   The sonnet sets out at some length the physics and dynamics of wielding a hammer. The energy generated brings with it, however, an understanding of its destructiveness. What begins as a sense of physical reverberation affecting the person using a heavy tool ultimately evokes a shiver of fear when, as contemporary history demonstrates, extreme power falls into the wrong hands. The tool in question is the weighty sledge-hammer, commonly used by builders and labourers for demolition. Aware of the possible damage to the untrained operator it is clear that the poet/ farmer’s son has handled such an implement and been shocked by its potential. The poem sets out The way, ‘instructions’ for the safe use of the sledgehammer. Firstly the ‘stance’: the posture required to swing this heavy tool: your two knees locked, your lower back shock-fast (recalling the ‘braced’ snedder), reminiscent to Heaney of a classical […read more….]

Home Help

Home Help   Poems recalling the memory of two of Heaney’s father’s sisters. Helping Sarah   A woman working in the garden in springtime: ageing, perhaps, but annually rejuvenated at this moment in time, young/  Again as the year; neat and demure with tuck and tightening of blouse; active and untroubled by stiffness of the joints: with vigorous advance of knee; busy weeding rigs; frugal In the same old skirt and brogues; both well-organised and physically strong, on top of things; in all, a credit to her kind Her clothing: tweed skirt With pinpoints of red haw and yellow whin; well used and fit-for-purpose: Its threadbare workadayness hard and common. The woman herself: her decisive quick step; her dry hand; her organisation and efficiency: all things well sped; her uncompromising views about creation: Her open and closed relations with earth’s work. Heaney leaves us, who do not know her, to […read more….]


Helmet   The poem focuses on an Boston fire-fighter’s headgear, symbolic of a breed seen as god-like ‘supermen’ risking their lives for society. It was presented ‘formally’ to Heaney in an informal ceremony in Boston. The poem celebrates human solidarity. A helmet; its owner; its provenance: a Boston fireman’s gift; the name printed boldly on its spread / Fantailing brim / … shoulder-awning. The eye is drawn upwards. The helmet shows evidence of its energetic use and design: Tinctures of sweat and hair oil /… withered sponge and shock-absorbing webs; the dome of the helmet: not crown (civilian) but crest, for crest it is (proud classical symbol of ‘military’ prowess) with its very particular construction; above all strong, steel-ridged and individual: hand-tooled, hand-sewn. It is held together at the top with a reminder of military armour of the past: a little bud of beaten copper. A badged helmet ceremoniously presented […read more….]

Polish Sleepers

Polish Sleepers   The first of eight poems alluding to boyhood during World War II. In this first poem the sight of recycled use of railway sleepers transports the speaker back in time to the lost domain of wartime childhood. Within this context, reference to Poland and the positioning of other key-words in the narrative open the way to the period’s more chilling phenomena: wartime concentration camps. Once: a time when Heaney’s local railway-line, now closed, was active. Railway-sleepers in situ were a common sight, block-built criss-cross and four-squared with a characteristic smell: We … breathed pure creosote, a common preservative still applied to raw timber. Time has passed; the sleepers have proved to be ideal for the garden, laid and landscaped in a kerb/… half skirting, half stockade, overtaken by the garden growth, perhaps, but ever strong and weathered: bulwark bleached in sun and rain/ And the washed gravel […read more….]

Anahorish 1944

Anahorish 1944   In a newspaper interview Heaney revealed how, as a boy, he watched American troops marching by from ‘up a beech tree’. The momentous preparations for D-Day  brought an international force to Britain which was to launch an assault on the Normandy beaches and free Europe from nazi oppression. Unusually Heaney, who would have been a small boy at the time, uses a speaker working in the local abattoir. Subsequent  loss of life on Normandy beaches endorses the ironic juxtaposition of butchered pigs and soldiers at the very moment when American troops arrived: We were killing pigs/ sunlight and gutter-blood/ outside the slaughterhouse and pigs squealing as they were bled, The voice speaks as a witness (note the poem’s speech marks), one of those engaged in the slaughtering process, in our gloves and aprons, coming face to face with the American troops. Their equipment standard military but worn […read more….]

To Mick Joyce in Heaven

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. 1. Transition from ‘soldier’ (the use of inverted commas is revealed in the narrative) to craftsman: Kit-bag to tool-bag/ Warshirt to […read more….]

The Aerodrome

The Aerodrome   Before moving away from his WW2 theme, the poet retells the story of a particular wartime visit to his local airfield. The visit becomes a parable about insecurity, temptation and resistance. The airfield is long since out of commission, first disused then re-developed : First … back to grass, then after that/ To warehouses and brickfields/ … Its wartime grey control-tower rebuilt and glazed/ Into a hard-edged CEO-style villa. Post-war changes in attitude and style were accompanied by a new vocabulary; here the ‘hard edge’ is associated with uncompromising money-making opportunities. Toome aerodrome is a part of history; the poet transports his memory and his senses to a smell of daisies and hot tar/ On a newly-surfaced cart-road, Easter Monday/ 1944. The compelling reasons for a boy of his age to be elsewhere were sharpened by the circumstances: The annual bright booths of the fair at Toome/ […read more….]

Anything Can Happen

Anything Can Happen. Of the outrages that occurred increasingly regularly in the 5 years following Heaney’s previous published volume, it was the ‘strike’ of 9/11 that persuaded him to write Anything Can Happen. He adapts Horace’s Ode I, 34 to focus on the destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York. This act had brought Heaney to a ‘terrified awareness that ‘the tallest things can be brought low’ and demonstrated that absolutely nothing was beyond the bounds of possibility. Both poems introduce Jupiter from classical mythology; sovereign God of the Romans, omnipotent, identified with the sky, storms and lightning. In the Heaney version Jupiter will mostly wait for clouds to gather head/ Before he hurls the lightning but on this occasion and totally unexpectedly, galloped his thunder cart and his horses / Across a clear blue sky. The metaphor is graphic: no-one who witnessed 9/11 […read more….]

Rilke: After the Fire

Rilke: After the Fire. Heaney show-cases a version of a Rilke poem from 1908. The theme is of a man whose past has been destroyed overnight and is suddenly alienated from his environment. Early lyricism introduces personification: startled Early autumn morning hesitated,/ Shying at newness. Nature is conscious of a profound overnight change, an emptiness behind scorched linden trees (the phrase introduces both the fire element and a Germanic context using ‘linden’ for ‘lime’). Whether out of curiosity or concern or for concealment the trees are still crowding in around a home reduced to a shell, now just one more wallstead. Despite its remote location, there are children present: a rabble gathered up from god knows where; uncivilised and wild in a pack. Their presence is not explained. Are we invited to associate them with arson or simple curiosity? They are reduced to silence by the arrival of the son […read more….]

Out of Shot

Out of Shot   The poetic process is illustrated: a poem ‘comes on’ during a leisure activity. The title of the sonnet is suggestive of things ‘seen’ by the poet that by-pass ordinary mortals. Cameras following news-pieces also record what is less immediate or obvious. This sort of fringe detail is what the poet spots; it sets his creative spirit in motion. The poem provides a stepping-stone between two sets of events: the first to be remembered from Irish history; the second brought on by current reports from the war-stricken Middle-East. The speaker recalls the context in which an incident took on poetic charge: outdoors; a time of year; the weather conditions; bell-clear Sunday. He recalls himself with elbows lodged strut-firm upon a gate and remembers the pretext for being there: inspecting livestock (first of a string of ing participles suggestive of sequential thoughts). The development of language distracts him, […read more….]