Seamus Heaney - north seamus heaney - Poetry Analysis

Navigating the ‘North’ Collection

Navigating the ‘North’ Collection Foreword Introduction Biographical ‘events’ between 1968-1975 Themes and issues Enrichment Dedications Lexical focus Comments contemporary to Publication Comments from main source authors (as below) Heaney’s further insights The structure of North The North Poems  individual commentaries with footnotes and reflections on style and structure Part I Act Of Union Aisling Antaeus Belderg Bog Queen Bone Dreams Come to the Bower Funeral Rites Hercules and Antaeus Kinship North Ocean’s Love to Ireland Punishment Strange Fruit The Betrothal of Cavehill The Digging Skeleton The Grauballe Man Viking Dublin: Trial Pieces Part II Freedman Singing School 1 The Ministry of Fear 2 A Constable Calls 3 Orange Drums 4 Summer 1969 5 Fosterage 6 Exposure The Unacknowledged Legislator’s Dream Whatever You Say Say Nothing The Seed Cutters Afterthoughts A historical timeline plotting the countdown to the ‘Troubles’ The ‘bog  poems’ and ‘political correctness’ Finding the blend; the  poet’s compositional […read more….]

Foreword (North)

Foreword North published by Faber and Faber in 1975 is Seamus Heaney’s fourth collection. Heaney was in his mid-thirties. The totality of his collections over more than half a century have confirmed Heaney’s place at the top of the premier league of poets writing in English. The textual commentaries that follow seek to tease out what Heaney’s poems are intimating in North. Of course, the poet’s ‘message’ will have started life as an essentially personal one not intended primarily for his reader; there are moments when some serious unravelling is required. Thanks to the depth of Heaney’s knowledge, scholarship and personal feelings, his poetry is rich in content; digging into background-materials is both essential and edifying. 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. In a very real sense Heaney both entertains and […read more….]


Sunlight The poem is a memorial to its central figure, a warm, nostalgic rural study from the poet’s past dedicated to his Aunt Mary. The first line introduces the motif and emotions of what follows: There was a sunlit absence. The phrase encapsulates: nostalgic feelings from childhood; the warmth of sunlight; warm relationships; irreversible time past; a scene and a person missed. We will follow the poet’s eye as it moves from farmyard into kitchen. The initial scene is narrated in the past. In the yard stood the helmeted pump as if on sentry-duty (Heaney often lends a military bearing to the cast-iron agricultural paraphernalia of his childhood); the poet evokes the subtle colour of water drawn from the peaty water-table (honeyed) as it sits within a slung bucket. What he is seeing is reminiscent of so many occasions (each long afternoon) dominated by the heat of the sun: like […read more….]

The Seed Cutters

The Seed Cutters A second ‘word-canvas’ depicts an age-old routine practised in Heaney’s Ulster farming community. He is perhaps inspired by a memory or a photo, even literally a calendar picture depicting rural practice. Such groups of farm workers would be recognisable back in Breughel’s time: They seem hundreds of years away. Heaney addresses the Flemish artist who painted rural scenes in 16c. Flanders; the artist would approve Heaney’s likeness, providing he, the poet, can find the words to do the scene justice: if I can get them true. This uncomfortable activity is taking place at ground level: the labourers kneel and are exposed to the elements behind an ineffective wind-break. Scene-setting precedes identification: only in line 5 do we learn that They are the seed cutters. Heaney takes up his fine paint-brush to pick out The tuck and frill of the leaf-sprout and the straw under which the tubers […read more….]


Antaeus A ‘giant’ figure from Greek/ North African mythology, Antaeus was invincible in combat as long as he retained contact with the earth that renewed his strength whenever he fell. Antaeus clarifies the myth but foresees the advent of a more skilful combatant who will find the means to bring him down. Antaeus knows that earth-contact renews his life-force: I rise flushed as a rose each day. He is a practised wrestler; in combat he cunningly contrives a fall in the (wrestling-) ring to replenish his strength; sand acts as a magic potion: operative/ As an elixir. This ‘child’ giant is suckled by Earth; he cannot, dare not be weaned/ Off, live separate from earth’s long contour and the living blood of her river veins. His environment is more Irish than African: a womb-like cave Girded with root and rock. The narrative is enriched with the vocabulary of child-rearing: wombed/ […read more….]


Belderg A specific historical site in Ireland provides Heaney with the catalyst for exploring, in congenial dialogue, the linkage between artefacts, peoples, myths, cultures and ancient languages; the piece tells of doggedness, roots and recurrence. The speaker cites a comment from a ‘local’ about objects that regularly came to light (just kept turning up); given lack of education no thought was originally given to historical linkage and they were written off as foreign. The stone’s central hole made it one-eyed but (unlike the classical one-eyed Cyclops, perhaps) harmlessly benign. The original finder simply kept them lying about his house just Quernstones out of a bog. Excavation of the bog, to Heaney, reveals layered evidence of the past; peat is the lid. The eye of the stone now unearthed becomes a pupil dreaming of its original function: grinding Neolithic wheat. Excavation removed the blanket of peat hiding the soft-piled centuries; the […read more….]

Funeral Rites

Funeral Rites A sequence of 3 poems; Heaney follows three lines associated with death and burial: natural causes; the result of sectarian strife; myth and legend. Ultimately the sequence seeks out a solution to the unbreakable cycle of murder and revenge. I The speaker describes one of a number of traditional Irish Catholic family funerals he has attended. These conferred a kind of manhood upon a young man not yet quite a ‘man’ as he shouldered the coffin both as physical weight and personal responsibility. He recalls the ceremonial: dead relations/ laid out in familiar rooms suddenly marred (tainted) by death; he picks out colours and textures: the pallor of dough-white hands; the glistening eyelids; the discernable changes that death visited on the corpse: puffed knuckles/ unwrinkled; nails/ darkened. The baptism-to-grave influence of the Catholic Church was present even after death, the body’s hands in rosary beads with wrists/ sloped […read more….]


North Wrestling with questions about his current status and mindset Heaney has felt the need for solitude; he would benefit in his uncertainty from the reassurance of a counselling voice. The speaker revisits a stretch of the Donegal coast, a shod of a bay. The sounds he is hearing recall the god Thor who in Viking mythology hammered to create land, sea and heavens. Conscious of his own sensitivities and temperament the poet has come to seek release from the build-up of inner tensions emanating from uncertainty about the way his poetry is presenting. The first forceful voice he hears is of this earth, not yet the counselling voice he seeks: only the secular powers of the Atlantic thundering. His gaze is carried northwards towards less enticing distant landfalls: the unmagical/ invitations of Iceland and the pathetic colonies of Greenland. The poetic charge comes suddenly conjuring up pictures of those […read more….]

Viking Dublin: Trial Pieces

Viking Dublin: Trial Pieces ‘Then there was the Viking Dublin exhibit in the National Museum, based on the dig being done by Brendán Ó Ríordáin at the Wood Quay site’ (DOD p.163); . Dublin was founded by the Norwegian Vikings in 841AD. A sequence of 6 poems; Heaney permits his imagination free rein in pursuit of Viking links with Dublin and by extension with Irish language and culture. I considers evidence offered by an early Norse record of its culture: the speaker reflects upon the significance of marks inscribed on a bone by a child of ancient Norse origins. II ponders the meaning of other exhibits and pictures bequeathed by the ninth-century arrival of Viking explorers on the Liffey river. III explores the retrieval of the inscribed bone from the Viking longship in which it has lain preserved for more than a thousand years. IV generates a drama of personal […read more….]

The Digging Skeleton

The Digging Skeleton Scholars and students have long set themselves the challenge of translation. Heaney show-cases his skills in this version after Baudelaire. Heaney is loyal to Baudelaire’s picture of human misery and his rejection of belief in a better life after death. I The speaker is strolling along the dusty quays of the Seine, past the stalls of Parisian ‘bouquinistes’ still to be found there more than 150 years later. He has chanced upon anatomical plates as he flicks the pages of books yellowed like mummies Slumbering in forgotten crates. The sight of the human body reduced to skeleton possesses an odd beauty, its illustrator deemed gravely sensitive to the sad Mementoes of anatomy; the plates represent a form of art: mysterious candid studies including shaded areas of soft tissue, red slobland around the bones; He selects an example for its particular subject matter: flayed men and skeletons Digging […read more….]

Bone Dreams

Bone Dreams Heaney shed light on the genesis of his six ‘dream’ poems in conversation with DOD (p 157) ‘That summer of 1972, the month before we moved (to Glanmore Cottage in County Wicklow)…we did a lot of driving in the south-west of England, saw the white horses carved into the hills, visited Maiden Castle in Dorset and the old earthworks in Dorchester. When we were in Gloucestershire staying in this lovely Tudor manor house where Marie’s sister was then living, I wrote Bone Dreams – the first of those loose-link ziggy-zaggy sequences that would eventually appear in North. At the time artist friend Barrie Cooke was doing a series of ‘bone boxes’; thinking about them brought up memories of bones I used to find around Mossbawn, so next thing a frolic of free association got started and ended up taking in the whole of Roman-Celtic Britain, from Maiden Castle […read more….]

Come to the Bower

Come to the Bower In this first of six titles referred to as the ‘bog poems’ in North the voice is that of the individual who has come upon the mummified corpse of a woman hidden beneath the surface of the the bog where it has been preserved. The initial ‘forensic’ examination of the mummy is overtaken by the finder’s reactions to what he is uncovering. The answers to many of the questions set by the piece, particularly the sexual connotations of the discovery, remain elusive. His hands come, touched (the sense of touch is paramount in the piece) by bog flowers, sweetbriar and tangled vetch, before trespassing beneath the surface of the bog, foraging past the burst gizzards/ Of coin hoards (valuables bagged and left as royal burial offerings) to the secret place where the dark-bowered queen lies awaiting discovery. Heaney reveals the techniques used to keep the bog-body […read more….]