Seamus Heaney - Seamus Heaney appreciation - Poetry Analysis

Foreword (The Spirit Level)

Seamus Heaney – The Spirit Level Contents Foreword Main sources Key dates in Heaney’s biography post 1969 Grounds for optimism Attributed comments and reviews Unattributed comments and reviews The makings of a lyric poet Talismans , portraits and concerns The bricklayer’s spirit level Heaney puts human spirit to the test Living is not giving in History and ignorance All-seeing and in-between Translation’ and other variations on the prefix ‘trans’ ‘So walk on air’ Water, earth, fire and air The Poems: individual commentaries with footnotes and reflections on style and structure; Afterthoughts: finding the blend; the poet’s compositional skills; the poem as a ‘music pleasing to the ear’; the music of the poetry; using assonance: ‘coloured sound’ is an attempt to highlight recurrent sounds in the poems using phonetic symbols and colour shades; ‘same colour, same sound’; standard English vowel sounds and their phonetic symbols; using alliteration; standard English consonant sounds […read more….]

The Rain Stick

The Rain Stick for Beth and Rand First published in the New Republic in 1993 Heaney describes the ‘music’ produced by a cactus stalk. He recounts a moment of unexpected pleasure that may be repeated at will; in so doing he introduces the message of the collection’s final piece (Postscript), that of opening the heart and the senses to the simple delights that the world has to offer. The rain stick acquires the symbolic quality of an instrument of divine transmission.  To play this ‘instrument’ only one lesson is required: Upend the rain stick . The result of doing so is unexpected and miraculous: the cactus ‘instrument’ produces a music that you never would have known / To listen for. From this ‘ordinary’ product of an arid wilderness comes something extraordinary: a concerto on the sound of rain, its first movement a powerful inundation with flood and overflow: Downpour, sluice-rush, […read more….]

To a Dutch Potter in Ireland

To a Dutch Potter in Ireland for Sonja Landweer The poem is dedicated to Sonja Landweer, born in 1933 in Amsterdam, resident in Ireland since the late 1960s; a creator of ceramics, jewellery and sculpture, Landweer exhibited in Ireland and internationally. She and Seamus Heaney shared a mutually inspirational friendship over many decades including a joint exhibition in Kilkenney entitled ‘Out of the Marvellous’. Heaney dedicates a two-poem sequence to her, celebrating creativity, resurrection and indomitable human spirit adding a version of a short poem written by a Dutch poet who described the agonies of nazi repression in WWII and the jubilation of freedom. Heaney’s history of creative writing and his cautious hopes that the current truce will lead to peace in Ulster are continuous with the final phrases of Bloem’s poem. The poems are preceded by an italicized epigraph describing a visit to a potter’s storeroom. The picture is […read more….]

A Brigid’s Girdle

A Brigid’s Girdle for Adele The poet communicates with a friend he has known from Harvard days offering her a gift that he hopes will help alleviate a condition that is threatening her; the poem’s increasingly elegiac tone is ominous. The poet has been in contact with Adele before, in early Spring as he sat in a garden at a rustic table /Under magnolias in South Carolina/As blossoms fell on me. He recalls the vivid imprinted on his memory: what he could see – a sharp Spring light against which a gable /As clean-lined as the prow of a white liner/Bisected sunlight in the sunlit yard; what he felt: respite from a busy schedule that such a moment permitted: I was glad of the early heat and the first quiet/ I’d had for weeks; what he heard: both the sounds of nature (the mocking bird} and of music practice (a […read more….]


Mint Heaney admires the survival instinct of a herb that, for all its lowly appearance, graced the family’s Sunday lunch table. As an adjunct he points out the danger of radicalizing groups who see themselves as marginalised. Mint might not be anything to look at (like a clump of small dusty nettles) just an invasive plant Growing wild at the gable of the house established at the frontier between garden and rubbish heap: Beyond where we dumped our refuse and old bottles; a plant of unattractive coloration (Unverdant ever), and whilst not beneath contempt, yet insignificant to the eye: almost beneath notice. But Heaney insists upon fair assessment of mint’s promise / And newness whatever its lowly presence in the back yard of our life (on the farm at Mossbawn). However lowly its image mint held its head up high: something callow yet tenacious, a leisurely presence in green alleys […read more….]

A Sofa in the Forties

A Sofa in the Forties A sequence of four poems is set in the living area of the Heaney family’s farm at Mossbawn. Heaney reflected on this early period of his life in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: In the nineteen forties, when I was the eldest child of an ever-growing family in rural Co. Derry, we crowded together in the three rooms of a traditional thatched farmstead and lived a kind of den-life. Make-believe required specific individual contributions that led to family solidarity: The children are all positioned on the sofa In a line, kneeling/ Behind each other. Whilst there is already a hierarchy (eldest down to youngest) they all demonstrate a common, energetic purpose: Elbows going like pistons, for this was a train. In real terms the game was restricted to a small area between the jamb-wall and the bedroom door in but in the childish imagination things […read more….]

Keeping Going

Keeping Going for Hugh A ‘sandwich’ of six poems dedicated to the poet’s younger brother Hugh. Whilst the top and the tail are warm, compassionate and palatable pieces, the ‘filling’ is disturbing. HV(p164) ‘the poem is in part an investigation of the qualities that go to make up that sort of emotional stamina (remaining equable/ living in peace with his neighbours), in part an overview of the atrocious conditions which make the stoic response an heroic one’ Heaney’s views of brother Hugh were formed in childhood: In the nineteen forties, when I was the eldest child of an ever-growing family in rural Co. Derry, we crowded together in the three rooms of a traditional thatched farmstead and lived a kind of den-life (Heaney reflecting on the early period of his life in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech). The poem begins with an episode from that ‘den-life’. Brother, Hugh, is the […read more….]

Two Lorries

Two Lorries In this virtuoso lyric Heaney adds the challenge of the sestina form (see note below) to a creative lyric routine that establishes a symbolic base, builds a structure that expresses the message it carries, makes appropriate choice of vocabulary and syntax, weaves together an interplay of senses and emotions that are essentially his own, scores the music of the poetry with assonance and alliteration and adds a ‘musical’ dynamic of light and shade, loud and soft to enhance the spoken word. Heaney creates two short screenplays, the first a cheerful harmless flirtation in the 1940s featuring his mother in her prime, the second a horror nightmare with ghosts and images of death and destruction, requiem for a mother now passed away and a local town blown to smithereens by an IRA bomb in the 1960s; black and white cinema incorporating the ‘dust’ and ‘ashes’ of the burial service; […read more….]


Damson For Heaney-as-a-boy the bricklayer was king of the post-war building site and therefore a giant of the world. In ‘Sandpit’ (from Station Island, 1984) he referred to his ‘demobbed bricklayer’, to the ‘merriment in the spirit level’s eye’ and the ‘song of his trowel’; he will return to the figure in ‘District and Circle’ of 2006: Mick Joyce is like a ‘demobbed Achilles ( ) Prince of the sandpiles’. In Damson Heaney likens him to a kind of altruistic ‘Odysseus in Hades’. The sequence is an interweave of people, circumstances and myths, triggered by the homely smell of damsons being simmered to make jam to which he will return at the end. The boy-watcher’s attention has been caught by sight of a wound: its heraldic blood-red colour (Gules); building-site effects (cement dust); its texture: matte tacky blood; where it is: on the bricklayer’s knuckles; what it resembles: like the […read more….]

Weighing In

Weighing In The title is teasingly equivocal: contestants ‘weigh in’ before a contest; ‘weighing in’ suggests ‘actively taking sides’; ‘weighing’ has to do with balancing one force against another, adding force to an argument so as to tip the balance. Often troubled by his placatory responses to events, there were moments when Heaney’s customary urbanity, generosity of spirit and sense of fair play were tested to the limit. In ‘Weighing In’ he appears to have reached just such a moment. Heaney invites us to envision a 56 lb. weight, an unyielding, inflexible block of solid iron. The Unit of negation is a metaphor for denial and contradiction, bigotry and extremism. Its cast-iron shape (moulded) is generally recognizable: Stamped ( ) With an inset, rung-thick, ( ) short crossbar / For a handle. Despite its innocuous build (Squared-off and harmless-looking) efforts to shift it will be all but beyond human strength: […read more….]

St Kevin and the Blackbird

St Kevin and the Blackbird A diptych picking out an event from medieval legend developed around the figure of the sixth-century Irish saint of Glendalough translates into a parable of self-sacrifice and self­-forgetfulness which may also be read as a figure for the way the imagination can be totally possessed by its object NC p190 HV(p159) (one way of formally enacting veteran status or stoic endurance) ‘is to mimic the continuing steadfastness of the stoic stance … in his beautiful double poem of immobility in service’ ‘Now here is another example …’ And then. Heaney is responding to an image of Kevin in which the saint is on his knees arms stretched out, inside/ His cell. The event with which the saint’s celebrity is synonymous gets off to a freakish start: the incongruous posture is down to the narrowness of his room so/ One turned-up palm is out the window. […read more….]

The Flight Path

The Flight Path Heaney’s title opens multiple lines of enquiry: the planned course of an aircraft acts as a metaphor for the journey linking his early life with academic positions that took him to and from the USA, with his exodus from Ulster to the Irish Republic in 1972, with an unpleasant confrontation involving a nationalist figure in 1979 and an equally disagreeable happening with the Unionist protestant forces of order during the Troubles. The title suggests movement in space, movement in time, guided movement, movement determined by outside forces. The metaphorical implications of ‘taking flight’ are also represented, not least the spiritual uplift expressed in the final line. The six-poem sequence is dedicated to Donald Davie, fellow poet and critic who died in 1995. 1 Heaney unveils a ‘miracle’ from childhood: a boy watches his father perform magical trick using origami to transform a blank sheet of paper into […read more….]