Seamus Heaney - Seamus Heaney Poetry - Poetry Analysis

Foreword (Wintering Out)

Foreword Heaney – selective biography Heaney in 1972 The call of ‘pastures new’ Ulster before Berkeley – Heaney biding his time The Berkeley experience – Heaney on the move Post Berkeley – Heaney burning bridges Tipping point ‘Wintering Out’- publication and reactions ‘Wintering Out’ – the title Style … ‘inward broody’ The ‘languagey’ poems The religious divide of Heaney’s upbringing Sectarianism – the difficulties of remaining neutral place and rôle of the poet in times of social distress Finding ‘common ground’– the Glob effect Irish ‘underlay’ – identities and territory, history, tongue Historical links: pre-Christian > colonial > post-colonial> contemporary symbols , spirits , parables, the elements Wintering Out the poems: individual commentaries and notes Afterthoughts Finding the blend; the poet’s compositional skills The poem as a ‘music pleasing to the ear’ Summary of settings, themes, pathways and moods Stylistic devices: labels and definitions Foreword Wintering Out, published by Faber […read more….]


Fodder ‘What the Californian distance did was to lead me back into the Irish memory bank’ (DOD142). The first poem of Wintering Out introduces a series of pieces in the collection that identify closely with beloved locations by featuring the sounds of and associations with Irish/ Ulster diction and pronunciation. Heaney refers to them as ‘languagey poems’ (DOD126). Recalled at a restless moment and from a huge distance, Mossbawn is a sacrosanct place of Heaney’s childhood, a blessed legacy ‘ forever part of his inner landscape’ (HV 21). The poet spotlights an age-old, traditional feed for livestock as it winters out: Fodder (required when, seasonally, grass has ceased to grow and provide renewable natural pasture); he identifies with the phonetic version he grew up with (Or, as we said, fother) and offers an emotional welcome to the returning memory: I open my arms for it again. Heaney records and dramatizes […read more….]

Bog Oak

Bog Oak ‘What the Californian distance did was to lead me back into the Irish memory bank’ (DOD142). Ulster dialect and pronunciation are woven into the first piece (‘Fodder’) as a shared inheritance of Irish people whatever their religious denomination. The image of a recycled Bog Oak, preserved by the peat bogs that surrounded Heaney’s childhood home, is presented as further ‘common ground’; the poet adds Irish identity, climate and history to the mix. The peat bogs, ‘sacred places’ (MP94) for Heaney, stored and preserved what was deposited in them also acting, layer by layer, as a historical archive. Heaney acknowledges the aged Bog Oak as a usable wood retrieved from the peat and source of recycling income. Sight of it transports his poetic imagination back in time. He pictures it carried back, finders-keepers, in triumph, (A carter’s trophy) to be prepared as a building material (Split for rafters). He […read more….]


Anahorish The first of three place-name poems: ‘Anahorish’, ‘Broagh’ and ‘Toome’ are existing communities within a 2 or 3 mile radius of Mossbawn where the poet’s happy childhood unfolded. Heaney attended Anahorish Primary School and featured the townland in a number of pieces. Enigmatically Anahorish does not appear by name on current Ordnance Survey maps yet its identity is memorialized by Heaney and jealously guarded by its inhabitants. Heaney sings the music of a name that became part of his essence (Anahorish), celebrating a topographical inheritance founded in the distant past and shared by people of all persuasions. He offers an anglicized transliteration of the Gaelic etymology: My ‘place of clear water’. Anahorish is Heaney’s Garden of Eden, his pastoral paradise, his Arcadia of earliest memory (the first hill in the world) enriched by the lush inter-reaction of life source and nature (where springs washed into the shiny grass), where […read more….]

Servant Boy

Servant Boy Heaney’s poem, based on the experiences of a childhood neighbour Ned Thompson, makes a powerful statement about Irish dispossession at the hands of anglo-scottish invaders and their descendants. The deteriorating circumstances he witnessed upon his return from his sabbatical year at Berkeley served only to confirm the seemingly unchanging fate of the Catholic minority. Heaney portrays a male servant of indeterminate age, averse to his subservient status (boy) left with little choice but to turn the other cheek and bide his time in the hope of improved circumstances: wintering out/ the back-end of a bad year. The young male goes about his menial routine (swinging a hurricane-lamp through some outhouse): an unskilled hand like countless others over the centuries (a jobber among shadows); working all hours and meeting demands that earn him a pittance and do nothing for his self-respect (Old work-whore); typical of his race past and […read more….]

The Last Mummer

The Last Mummer Heaney revealed that his ‘last mummer is, like the servant boy (of the previous poem), an alter ego of sorts, He, too, is ‘resentful and impenitent’(DOD130). The narrative interlaces themes of dispossession, endangered tradition, ‘progress’, superstition, remnants of Scottish New Year ‘good luck’ custom and symbols of Catholic communion set against a landscape literally as old as the hills of Ireland. The poem moves from action to elegy. If Heaney’s servant boy symbol of Irish subjugation was disgruntled but placid by nature, his last mummer, portrayed as the last survivor of an age-old Irish mystery-play tradition, is driven beyond ‘patience’ and ‘counsel’. I The representative of Old Ireland has come prepared for direct action: a stone in his pocket,/ an ash-plant under his arm. Emerging furtively and unseen out of the fog he moves stealthily towards the twentieth century equivalent of the Big House, of the sort […read more….]


Land Heaney’s 3-poem sequence approaches the title from different angles: a man steeped in country practices announces his intention to go; the effigy he intends to leave behind will transmit the messages of home to him; creatures natural to the Irish landscape-home are under threat from lurking, man-made dangers. A disastrous future for Ulster is on the cards. Land is all-encompassing: the ground beneath the poet’s feet; the extent of the family farm; his Ulster homeland; Irish territory. I The voice is that of a countryman by instinct (first person and barely anonymous) setting out his routines: measuring his personal domain in age-old units (I stepped it, perch by perch); separating and selecting natural growth that will serve many purposes (Unbraiding rushes and grass); re-staking his claim (I opened my right-of-way); dealing with a mixture of terrain (old bottoms and sowed-out ground); recycling stones off the ploughing to mark his […read more….]

Gifts of Rain

Gifts of Rain Widely regarded as one of the collection’s major pieces, the title introduces the element at the source of all life (Water is certainly a ‘shape-changer’ MP99), dominant feature of Irish climate, determinant of landscape and symbol of cleansing and renewal. Heaney wrote the poem in Berkeley: images, descriptions and associations stem from his Irish memory bank. Allegory is in-built: Heaney’s Ulster is under threat of political and social inundation and he is in ‘inward, broody’ mode. He returns to his home-ground especially the cherished Moyola river of his neighbourhood . I Prolonged rainfall associated with bounty (the Gifts of rain) becomes a recipe for flooding: whether full spate (Cloudburst) or continuous steady downpour now for days. Enter a living creature into this bleak landscape, defined only by its generic name Still mammal, unbalanced by such extreme conditions (straw-footed on the mud); growing consciousness of a problem he […read more….]


Toome Heaney’s second of three ingenious place-name poems contains a phonetic energy that identifies the poet’s specific Ulster background and alludes to the ‘Irish underlay’ of place, time and language that he explores in Wintering Out. As Heaney points out in the notes that follow the ‘languagey’ poems bridged the gap between his working language (English) and his Ulster Irish origins. The poet rehearses the pronunciation of a village that lies within an emotional stone’s throw of his childhood home at Mossbawn: Toome. He describes in words the oral gymnastics required to produce the genuine Ulster sound: My mouth holds round/ the soft blasting (the burst of compressed air from the throat released by consonant plosive [t]). Distance lends enchantment: Toome, Toome. Mouth becomes metaphor: his tongue a dislodged slab of stone at the mouth of an underground souterrain of passageways; he himself an archaeologist panning through the layers of […read more….]


Broagh Wintering Out features three ingenious place-name poems; this third piece provides the phonetic evidence that distinguishes those with a genuine Ulster background from outsiders; the poem alludes to ‘Irish underlay’, the common factors shared by Ulster folk for which Heaney searches in Wintering Out. The poem ‘acts as the linguistic paradigm for a reconciliation beyond sectarian division’(NC46-8). The poet confessed that the ‘languagey poems’ (DOD124) eased his professional conscience by bridging the gap between his working language (English) and his Ulster Irish origins. The village landscape that backed on to the river Moyola provides words planted into the Ulster vernacular by historical English and Scots occupation: trenches for vegetable growth (long rigs), wide-leaved docks (broad docken) and a tree-fringed track leading down to the river crossing point: canopied pad/ down to the ford. Thus the Ulster dialect is not pure. Natural matter was just as easily blemished (The garden […read more….]


Oracle In a poem that foretells (Oracle) of a poet-in-the-making Heaney relives a childhood moment that demonstrates his strong spirit of independence, his sensitivity to the world around and his busy imagination. Once upon a real time, child Heaney’s eagerness to wriggle free of parental control, run ahead and play hide-and-seek in the hollow trunk/ of the willow tree provided a passport to a secret spirit world in which he could commune with Nature (its listening familiar). This moment of first communion was immediately disrupted by intrusive, repetitive calls: as usual, they/ cuckoo your name/ across the fields. He recognized the sounds of family closing in, navigating the barriers separating them from him: You can hear them/ draw the poles of stiles / as they approach urging him to give himself away (calling you out). Child Heaney is reluctant to leave his hide-out and break the spell: small mouth and […read more….]

The Backward Look

The Backward Look A complex variant of Heaney’s ‘languagey’ poems, the piece explores linguistic impurities that have crept into the spoken word and adulterated the Irish language. The poet’s principle concern is linguistic dispossession. By use of a kind of Audenesque ‘verbal contraption’ he reflects on the wider erosion of the Irish domain. The landscape might have changed little but the language that describes it has suffered from crossbreeding. In his Backward Look, the poet measures the impact of repeated invasion and incursion. His message is carried by the emblematic Irish snipe. Heaney recognizes changes in the sounds and movement of the startled snipe, pretending all is well (sleight of wing) but under closer scrutiny showing signs of injury: A stagger in air as if a language failed. The native snipe is speaking with a different, pleading voice (bleat); it no longer feels at home: fleeing its nesting ground. Its […read more….]