Seamus Heaney - Human Chain - Poetry Analysis

Nov 092011

Seamus Heaney – Human Chain – 2010

Human Chain is Seamus Heaney’s thirteenth collection since Death of a Naturalist in 1966. His work over nearly half a century has lost none of its accessibility, erudition and vitality.

The textual commentaries that follow seek to tease out what his poems are intimating in Human Chain. 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 persevering are at once enriching, fortifying and hugely pleasurable. 

There are issues, too, beyond ‘the text, the whole text and nothing but the text’: there is the question of ‘style’, that is, the combination of language and poetic devices deliberately selected by the poet to carry his narrative forward; then there is the matter of Heaney’s appeal to the ear, the poem intended as a song to be heard and enjoyed or, to the mind’s eye, a picture to be ‘seen’ and felt. These issues are explored in individual commentaries and summarised at the end.

Fifty years on.

It is revealing to compare the challenges and dilemmas facing the apprentice-poet preparing his first collection after 1960 with the way the world presents itself to a poet now over 70 years of age, Nobel Laureate along the way, publishing his thirteenth collection.

In 1960, Heaney is 21 years of age; he is single and will marry five years later; in 2010 he is over 70 is surrounded by his family, married to the same wife since 1965 with three children and, currently, at least, two grandchildren.

His move to Belfast as an undergraduate in 1957 took him into a different world. He had been brought up in the rural Irishness of his 1940s and 50s farming background in deepest Ulster, first at Mossbawn then at The Wood near Bellaghy to which the family moved after the loss of brother, Christopher; in 2010 his memories of both this and subsequent periods are acute, sustained and voiced still with huge emotional and lyrical charge.

Thanks to enlightened education policies he had made best use of a privileged, largely ‘classical’ education (at school he was particularly successful at Latin); both his school and his awareness of languages and literature feature strongly in Human Chain.

In 1960 he possessed all the uncertainty of young men with bright futures seeking to make their way; he needed to earn a living and was interested in ‘teaching’; by 2010 teaching had proved to be a mere stepping stone to greater things; the risk he took in resigning his university teaching post and going ‘freelance’ has rewarded us with the evidence of a life’s journey of rare achievement. 

If ever Heaney needed in those early days to confirm the legitimacy of his own language, place and voice, there is no doubt that he has achieved it in full measure, acclaimed as one of the very best of twentieth century poets writing in English

From childhood Heaney possesses a deep sense of his Irishness, whilst belonging to the Northern Irish Catholic minority in predominantly Protestant Ulster; times would grow increasingly turbulent and dangerous for him during the so-called Troubles; by 2010, against all expectations, there have been 12 years of ‘peace’ following the major breakthrough of the Good Friday Agreement signed in 1998; As a result Heaney can be an Irish poet in Northern Ireland and carry an Irish ‘green’ passport without looking over his shoulder, unthinkable during those times of sectarian violence.

In the early 60s, Heaney was in need of friends and mentors, hopefully of all political and religious shades, who shared his interest in the creative arts and would help him along the way; by 2010 thanks to his poetic stature, his reputed good nature, optimism and generosity of spirit, Heaney can enjoy a long list of friends and people who matter, to whom he dedicates his poems.

Heaney in the four years since District and Circle.

District and Circle (2006) is published in the same year as Heaney suffers a stroke. Thanks to a number of factors, not least the proximity of medic friends, the ultimately mild nature of a condition that can easily deal a fatal blow, the strength of love of his immediate family, the effectiveness of the Irish medical services and intensive care, he recovers in about 6 weeks without suffering permanent disability.

He first spoke publicly and relatively light-heartedly about this issue in an interview with Robert McCrum, A Life of Rhyme, published in The Observer of Sunday July 9th, 2009. Heaney also sets out both his fright and his emotional responses in the immediate aftermath.

His decision, made in hospital, during initial convalescence to take time-out for a year, reflects the intense pressure of commitments that, over time, Heaney willingly accepted as part of his ‘territory’. He readily confesses in the same interview how difficult he finds it to say ‘no’ to invitations. To illustrate this intense activity, Heaney attended the Hong Kong Literary Festival and offered readings in Ireland, USA, Rotterdam, Stratford, Grasmere and Edinburgh in the few months before the August of his set-back.

In 2009 he reaches the age of 70. He confesses to some of the symptoms of the ageing process in In The Attic of Human Chain. Despite mortality’s ‘little warning’, Heaney’s mind and memory are intact; the important things he still has to say simply assume a greater urgency.

Heaney might have had free choice over his Appointments Diary but there was no cooling of his poetic spark. Within half a decade he has published the present collection with its 29 titles and 97 individual poems!

Heaney may have reached that stage in life when the funerals of people that matter happen more regularly, when there may be more Festschrifter to write in celebration of living literary celebrities but he has survived to memorialize them . Moreover, thanks to his ‘muse’ he shows no appetite to slow down.

Within the same period, two grandchildren were born, both girls: son Christopher and his wife Jenny produce Anna Rose, to whom Route 110 is dedicated.  Then second son Michael and his wife Emer produce Aibhín (pronounced Ay-veen) just in time for Heaney to add a final poem to the collection.  This is a time for great celebration: the Heaney chain is destined to continue!

The test of time.

Digging, the very first  poem of the very first collection, Death of a Naturalist, written at The Wood in 1964, sets out a kind of mission-statement :

Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests./ I’ll dig with it.

The final couplet of the last poem in the same collection declares a deeper quest:

I rhyme/ To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.

Half a century has elapsed and Heaney remains faithful to those aspirations. It is hard to imagine greater creative integrity than that! 

‘Had I not been awake I would have missed it’.

‘Had I not been awake I would have missed it’. Heaney describes the moment when Nature’s external show of energy kick-started his own internal engine. The poem recalls the aftermath of serious illness (the poet had suffered a mild stroke in 2006 in a Donegal guesthouse) also reflecting Heaney’s in-built uncertainty as to where his next poetic spark might come from. Sleep inducing treatment has perhaps made moments of consciousness more fleeting; this ‘reawakening’ generates a new-found impetus that replaces a mind-set of physical and mental frailty, even fear. Heaney recalls a moment pivotal to his recovery. ‘Had I not been awake I would have missed it’. He heard the sounds and felt the buffeting of Nature’s strength, sufficient for his sense-memory to picture the scene: a wind that rose and whirled … leaves  that are quick, a dual suggestion of uncontrolled staccato and aliveness.  Sufficient to stir Heaney from his sick-bed and […read more….]

The Conway Stewart

The Conway  Stewart At the time when Heaney turned 11, it was not uncommon for parents to offer children a gift to celebrate some important success, here passing entrance examinations and entering Secondary education as a boarder. So authentic are the markings he describes that Heaney might well be looking at the very pen of 60 years earlier: the nib’s Medium point; its 14 carat gold composition; the Conway Stewart branding of the screw-top and mottled barrel; the bubble at the nib’s tip for smooth script. The pen-gun of ‘Digging’ is recalled: the Conway Stewart has a barrel and pump-action (akin that of a shotgun); it requires to be manually loaded, not with cartridges, but treated to its first deep snorkel/ In a newly opened ink bottle . The process is not a clean one: ink can be ejected unpredictably, guttery, snottery; nor is it quick: letting it rest then at an angle/ To ingest.  The emblematic purchase and the process capture then deflect the […read more….]


Album ‘Album is a sequence of pictures painted in remembrance and with regret. A motif is introduced: a father-son relationship and the rueful recollection of ‘the Irishman’s reluctance to be too showy in affection, especially in affection between men’.  Thomas McCarthy writing in the Irish Examiner September 2010 i   Heaney’s world has shrunk to the size of the room in which he convalesces; he allows a modern domestic sound to act as catalyst to a fund of memories within him. He pays tribute to the nature of his own parents’ love for one other. As the heating boiler comes to life/ Abruptly, drowsily, its ignition sound sets off a memory-chain from early life, emerging like the timed collapse/ Of a sawn down tree . His focus is revealed: them, unnamed but requiring no introduction. Familiar neighbourhood and time-of-year follow, summer’s long days (echoed in it dawns on me);  the period, too: Grove Hill before the oaks were cut. Use of the modal auxiliary Could have been  may […read more….]


Miracle Heaney adapts a New Testament miracle as a tribute to those who came to his aid in crisis. Having described his impotence as a stricken stretcher-case he salutes the initial human support-chain of friends whose efforts helped bring about the miracle of recovery. He is commemorating not the beneficiary of a biblical miracle (the one who takes up his bed and walks) but, rather, his own ‘stretcher-bearers’ (the ones) whose solidarity took up the challenge however daunting of moving him: Their shoulders numb, the ache and stoop deeplocked/ In their backs … the stretcher handles/ Slippery with sweat.They spared no effort (without let-up) to deliver a sick man for healing despite the logistical problems: strapped on … made tiltable… raised… lowered. Heaney urges us to be mindful of those like those who ferried him who, their job done, could only stand and wait, their hands still suffering the burn of paid-out ropes, left with thelightheadedness of physical exertion and their incredulity at having managed […read more….]

Chanson d’Aventure

Chanson d’Aventure The epigraph, drawn from Donne’s Ecstacie, reflects on the inter-relationship of body and soul and the spiritual union between individuals: the body is the all-too vulnerable vessel within which the souls is said to repose; the soul is the area in which emotions are born. The soul seeks outward expression through the body, inhibited at this point in time by Heaney’s stroke-induced paralysis. i Crisis has brought a response from the Emergency Services in the form of an ambulance: the patient is Strapped on, wheeled out, forklifted,/ Locked in position for the drive. Since speed is of the essence the unevenness of the roads is exaggerated by the onrushing ambulance: Bone-shaken, bumped at speed. Clues and identities begin to emerge: The nurse a passenger with the driver, a second person (Marie Heaney, the poet’s wife) you ensconced in her vacated seat; and a casualty (Heaney himself) me flat on my back. There is no outward communication, however […read more….]


Uncoupled Heaney’s choice of title within the context of Human Chain, awakens multiple associations: his mother and father, so long a couple, no longer exist either as a pair or as individuals; two earlier links of a human chain have been disconnected as part of a human process to which Heaney himself will be subjected. The two vignettes are like short clips of moving film: the mother’s movement slow, dignified, inexorable and orderly; the father’s fast-moving, characterised by a kind of hyper-activity, and generating insecurity in the youngster watching. i Who is this ghostly appearance engaged in the domestic routine of a rural Northern Irish farm where even ashes have further use: it is the erect figure of a woman on en route to the ash-pit , walking at a steady pace as if in a procession. She is burdened with the slender pan  that she has just lifted from beneath the firebox. This is a discomfiting chore: the […read more….]

The Butts

The Butts In conjuring up fragments of existence from his past Heaney recalls two scenes relative to his father: the fully active man revealed by the contents of his dead-man’s wardrobe; the family’s shared care for the dying man.  Familiar odours trigger a set of involuntary memories in Heaney who sees himself ‘invading’ his father’s wardrobe and, thereby, his privacy. His father’s everyday wear reveals both his nature and his stature: suits… broad/And short; suits of familiar cut and slightly bandy-sleeved; hanging in orderly fashion: Flattened back/ Against themselves; clothes that reveal his father’s natural aloofness: A bit stand-offish. The tobacco and under-arm odours lingering in the enclosed space (Stale smoke and oxter- sweat/) Came at you, strongly, in a stirred-up brew.  Emboldened, Heaney reached in (the phrase’s full impact will be confirmed before the poem is over). His eyes take in the heavy, durable fabrics required for rough Irish farming environments: A whole rake of thornproof and blue […read more….]

The Wood Road

The Wood Road The poem provides a series of dramatic visual images that Heaney associates with the road outside his second family home running northwards from Bellaghy past Mullhollandstown. The Wood Road is as it is and was, maintained, perhaps, but unchanged: resurfaced, never widened. The first story recalls the 1950’s period prior to the so-called ‘Troubles’; a night scene: as when Bill Pickering lay with his gun … Nighwatching in uniform, a member of the infamous protestant  B-Specials. Heaney captures both scene and atmosphere as if filmed in black and white: Moonlight on rifle barrels… a van/ Roadblocking the road. He comments sardonically on the patrol’s self-important, toy-soldier mentality: Special militiaman … his staunch patrol/ In profile, sentry-loyal, depicting an ‘epic’ incident on a burlesque level: a whole unit of militiamen Harassing Mullhollandstown, a mere hamlet requiring little control. The scene rewinds to the well-ordered farming practices of Heaney’s childhood: me in broad daylight/ On top of a […read more….]

An Old Refrain

An Old Refrain Two poems akin to folk songs: the first celebrating the lush perennial vegetation growing in profusion along the byways of Heaney’s childhood; the second listing an array of images and sensations the poet associates with familiar dialect words. i The poem focuses on the vetch plant he knows from childhood as Robin-run-the-hedge. Its fading straggle/ Of Lincoln green is reminiscent of the legend of the eponymous Robin Hood, whose men ranged Sherwood forest dressed in their particular shade of colour. Heaney has observed how the plant’s runners and branched tendrils invade the undergrowth like English stitchwork/ Unravelling. For Heaney the vetch possesses the hey-nonny-no cheerfulness of the old refrain from English Elizabethan folk songs and midsummer night’s dreams. Back on the familiar territory of Wood Road he comments on the plant’s clinginess and its fragility, Sticky entangling/ Berry and thread, as it flourishes amongst the roadside tangle: Summering in/ On the tousled verge. Robin Hood (christened Robert) is a heroic […read more….]

Human Chain

Human Chain In this, the title poem of the collection, dedicated to Terence Brown, Heaney adapts the ‘shared burden’ theme of Miracle and marks the backbreaking work undertaken by aid workers dedicated to the survival of victims of Third World social and political disaster. In the final couplet Heaney reflects on his own dwindling potential as a link in the human chain. Heaney is reviewing footage of basic supplies being delivered in emergency aid, bags of meal passed hand to hand / … by the aid workers. He adds drama to news clips. The victims, driven mad by starvation, are subject to repressive control: soldiers/ Firing over the mob. A memory is sparked: Heaney is braced again, doubly braced: both mentally attuned to the shock he is witnessing before his eyes and physically poised for the act of loading heavy sacks as a farmer’s son. He breaks down the process: firstly securing grip on two sack […read more….]

A Mite-Box

A Mite-Box The poem renews and down-sizes the charity theme in Human Chain, from large-scale international aid to the poet’s experiences as a youngster carrying a collecting-box round the parish in search of donations towards ‘foreign missions’.  Despite the numbing effect of stroke the memory triggered from Heaney’s childhood is very much alive: But still/ to feel;  Heaney was skilled at the collector’s rôle adopting an entreating pose, with cupped palm, and feeling with a growing sense of achievement brought about by the chunk and clink of coins donated by willing if badly-off neighbours until his box was Full to its slotted lid with copper coins. The cheaply-made, self-assembly cardboard kit of the mite-box gave away its religious provenance: Wedge-roofed like a little oratory. The task of collecting brought with it the need for personal responsibility: yours to tote as you made the rounds. Children were used, it is implied, because indulged on every doorstep they were seen as more persuasive collectors; however income and […read more….]