Seamus Heaney - Human Chain - Poetry Analysis


Slack Heaney’s picture from the 1940s and 50s era is all the richer for recollections of domestic detail. i Heaney cannot settle on the mots justes to describe the consistency of slack: Not coal dust, more the weighty grounds of coal. Slack was delivered by  lorryman … in open bags that he would tip: vent into a corner, A sullen pile indicative of gloomy times. One positive for a youngster faced with this specific chore was that slack was soft to the shovel, accommodating, easier to handle than the clattering coal. This was a period when people were used to shortage and setting-aside: days when life prepared for rainy days. Slack contributed doubly: dampen down (inhibit fast burn in the grate by sitting as a layer on top and depriving the fire of its oxygen) and lengthen out (economise on fuel by slowing the process). It developed, too, a deeper symbolism, by reining in Man’s excess via a check on mammon and by its promethean quality: in its own […read more….]

A Herbal

A Herbal A sequence of 19 short poems, the longest 15 lines, imitating the work of a 20th century Breton poet. The foreword’s after suggests that Heaney, in addition to the poetic shape and form of the genre, may be offering his version of lines from the original.  The sequence produces plants with human voices, emotions and characteristics operating in natural context. Heaney is intimately involved as translator and communicator.  1 Heaney stresses a paradox: Nature is eternally self-renewing, growing thick wherever it may Flourish; mankind is mortal and consigned ultimately to graves. The different strata of earth beneath cemeteries in general (Everywhere) are a kind of time-line of past generations, from whom the plants gain their nourishment, Sinking their roots/ In all the dynasties/ Of the dead. alliteration: dynasties/ Of the dead   2 Questions arise as to how different Irish cemeteries in particular, In our place, might be and whether churchyard grass, enriched by human remains, […read more….]

Derry Derry Down

Derry  Derry Down The title is taken from the refrain of The Keeper, a traditional song, ostensibly about a gamekeeper searching for female deer but loaded with the insinuation of sexual encounter. Heaney’s speaker uses a fairy-story atmosphere to describe a pleasure sequence from his own life. The two experiences hint at the deliberate sensuality of the original song. i  With innuendo at the discretion of his reader, Heaney selects a fruit, large and full: The lush/ Sunset Blush/ On a big ripe/ Gooseberry. His aim is to gather it, to enjoy of its promise and its plenitude. This daring task has some peril attached: I scratched my hand/ Reaching in. We know from The Butts that ‘reach in’ is an expression of intimacy. Then comes a further clue: in contrast to the ‘forbidden fruits’ of adolescent sexuality in the repressive atmosphere of the 50’s, this large, ripe object is Unforbidden. Heaney has permission to pluck it In Annie Devlin’s/ Overgrown/ […read more….]

The Baler

The Baler The solid, repetitive sound of a vital piece of agricultural machinery unearths deeper feelings in a convalescent Heaney: about mortality; about self; about a specific friend in memoriam. Heaney has hit upon something as familiar to him and as unquestioned as the heartbeat: the All day …Ongoing sound of the baler in operation; its clunk, like that of the heart we feel beating within us: cardiac-dull, So taken for granted.  He is still feeling the effect of illness and emerging from sleep; it was evening before I came to and recognised the sounds of an annual event from the farming calendar as of annual tradition he experienced it in summer’s richest hours. Memories of days spent haymaking are triggered: the actions and the after effects: Fork-lifted, sweated through; a feeling close to perfection, nearly rewarded enough, animated by the feverish hurry before nightfall halts the process: the giddied up … tractor…/ Last-lapping a hayfield. Beyond the visual memory, however, As […read more….]

Death of a Painter

Death of a Painter In his obituary for the painter, Nancy Wynne Jones, in the Guardian of Wednesday 29 November 2006 Seamus Heaney demonstrated his respect and affection for the deceased artist referring to her paintings as earthy and moist, with rich warm, subtle ochres and reds, “place and palette and spirit all equal”. In his poem Heaney describes what could be seen through the picture-frame the Wynne-Jones’ studio window: not a big sky tent of blue, rather a peek of gold/… A Wicklow cornfield in the gable window as observed from the painter’s favoured coign of vantage. With whom and what may Heaney compare her nature and appearance? Not, to his mind, with a visual artist, not Cézanne, for all his views, say, of the iconic Ste Victoire hill of Provence; rather compare her with a spirited, singularly dressed  figure from literature: Thomas Hardy, because he worked, like her, despite age and decline to the end and was recognizable In his […read more….]

The Riverbank Field

The Riverbank Field Heaney dips more deeply into literature, tracking back from 14th century Dante to Classical author Virgil around 30 BC. References to the Aenied provide Heaney with the opportunity to show-case his own translation. Heaney’s local riverbank field located firmly in County Derry is given a Virgilian mantle as the poet celebrates the similarities he perceives between his neighbourhood and Virgil’s Elysium. After consideration of a competing translation (what Loeb gives) Heaney indicates that his poem will be a fusion: I’ll confound the Lethe in Moyola. Chosen place-names are familiar to him:  Back Park … Grove Hill … Long Rigs. Virgil’s domos placidas are to be found in real-world Upper Broagh. The scene within his mind’s eye exudes all the serenity of the Elysian Fields where Aeneas came upon his father’s shade. Any differences between Italian and Irish worlds are down to climate: Moths/…It would have to be, not bees in sunlight/ Midge veils instead of lily-beds; […read more….]

Route 110

Route 110 A much admired sequence of 12 poems celebrating the arrival of first grand-child, Anna Rose, born to son, Christopher and his wife Jenny. Heaney collapses the distance between the mythical and the personal, setting out Aeneas-like on a journey of his own. I The journey begins in a dusty, down-at-heel (it smells of dry rot and disinfectant) haunt of schoolboys and students of Heaney’s youth. Its trading purpose is revealed by succeeding clues. An employee enters wearing a visibly grubby outer garment,a stained front-buttoned shopcoat; of dark dried-out sere brown, edged with crimson piping. This is a second-hand bookshop with a Classics bay.  Heaney adds further detail: she is single-minded (Eyes front); she is juggling money (absorbed in her coin-count within the slack marsupial vent/ Of her change-pocket); she is toying also with the price she should ask for the book-icon, a used copy of Aenied VI. The atmosphere is unhealthy: Dustbreath bestirred in the cubicle mouth/ I inhaled. Once […read more….]


Canopy Heaney reflects on a visual arts installation dating from May 1994. The title triggers instant thoughts of primeval forest and the sights and sounds of tree-tops, Heaney’s launch recalls the Spring-is-in-the-air suggestiveness of the most famous of the English madrigals, by Thomas Morley published in 1595 (Now is the Month of Maying).  Spring was in the air in Harvard Yard and with it a hush of anticipation: There was whispering everywhere. An English visual artist had installed a sound system in the tree-tops: Voice boxes in the branches; 1990’s technology disguised, wrapped in sacking/ Looking like old wasps’ nests, or (suggestive of the way they were suspended) like bat-fruit in the gloaming with the lumpy profile of Shadow Adam’s apples.  Heaney ‘paints a picture’ in sound whereby fitful amplification distorts utterances: sibilant ebb and flow/ Speech-gutterings, desultory/ Hush and backwash and echo.  What he hears opens imaginative possibilities: a spiritual dialogue in Nature (a recording/ Of […read more….]


Eelworks In his interviews with Denis O’Driscoll that make up ‘Stepping Stones’ Heaney reveals his fascination, as he grew up, with Lough Neagh (into which his local Moyola river flowed) and also his experiences of the eel trade (pp93-4). The title of this 6-poem sequence turns out to be the familiar name used to describe the Lough Neagh Fishermen’s Co-operative (revealed in vi) with which his future wife’s grandfather and father were connected. i ‘Getting ones feet under the table’: being invited into a girl-friend’s family home is seen as a significant stepping-stone in relationships.  In fairy-tales, as in Arthurian legend and Courtly Love, the male aspirants were challenged to show they were worthy of a damsel’s love Heaney’s task is reminiscent: To win the hand of the princess/ What tasks the youngest son had to perform! He suggests that an invitation into the bosom of a family was a privilege For me, the first […read more….]