I’m not as familiar with Seamus Heaney’s poetry as I ought to be. When he was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1995, I was beginning the final year of my BA in English, so I might have been expected to pay more attention to him than I did. I have a hardback copy of his New Selected Poems 1966–1987 (1990), which I may have bought around that time, certainly not much later. Two years after that, I was given a copy of The Spirit Level (1996) as thanks for a minor favour. These are the only books of his that I own. I dipped into both but didn’t immerse myself in either till just a few weeks ago.

2023 is the tenth anniversary of the poet’s death, so there has been a lot of coverage in the Irish media over the last few months. That, more than anything, is what made me start to look at his poetry with more attention than before. I learned things I was surprised not to have known already, such as that Fintan O’Toole is writing the authorized biography. These are some of the factors that made me think it was time that I remedied my neglect of a poet that everybody else seemed to be paying close attention to.

Heaney’s poetic career was relatively long, at least 45 years — his first collection came out in 1966 and he continued to write beyond the appearance of his last published collection in 2010. Over those years, there were several changes of style, of direction, of themes. I don’t want to attempt an overview: that’s been done often enough before: for a start, any of the critical works mentioned below under the heading, “Works cited” will give a much better summary than I could manage.

Instead, I’d prefer to focus in particular on one publication, a volume collected at one moment in time. The one I’ve decided on is The Spirit Level, for three reasons (in descending order of importance):

  1. I happen to have it to hand;
  2. It’s his first collection to be published after he’d won the Nobel prize;
  3. It appeared in the interval between the IRA ceasefire of 1974, which broke down after 17 months, and the conclusion of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

Writing about his previous collection, Seeing Things, (which comes between the two volumes that I have), Helen Vendler finds that in some of the poems in the sequence “Squarings” Heaney is able to capture “a mnemonic possession of past portent” by using “a poetry of the noun”. She quotes a poem from this sequence in which:

… we find sentences composed almost exclusively of nouns or noun phrases:
Deserted harbour stillness. Every stone
Clarified and dormant under water.
The harbour wall a masonry of silence.
Fullness. Shimmer. Laden high Atlantic
The moorings barely stirred in, very slight
Clucking of the swell against boat boards.
(Vendler, p. 43)

I’ve generally tended to find this kind of noun-litany in poetry very irritating, though it’s only in the last few years, since I learned about aphantasia and SDAM (sorry to go on about it), that I’ve come to understand why. Simply naming things, without the narrative movement provided by a verb, always appears to me as an attempt to evoke a visual image, and since such an attempt is inevitably going to fail with me, I can’t help being frustrated and annoyed by the effort.

Here, of course, the absence of verbs in part suggests stillness, a lack of movement. (That isn’t Vendler’s point, though. She refers to the mnemonic theory by which “memories should be placed in mentally visualized settings so that the mind’s eye can learn to recall its own contents in meaningful order.”) Luckily for my ability to read his poetry, Heaney doesn’t use this kind of “noun-trance” (Vendler, p. 45) very often.

One place where he does, but where the stasis of the noun “sentences” is broken up by the emergence of verbs among them is in “Tollund”, one of the poems in his next collection:

The low ground, the swart water, the thick grass
Hallucinatory and familiar.
A path through Jutland fields. Light traffic sound.
Willow bushes; rushes; bog-fir grags
In a swept and gated farmyard; dormant quags.
And silage under wraps in its silent mound. (The Spirit Level, p. 69)

Already, the past participle “swept” is hinting at activity, even if it’s past activity that has been reified or crystallized. Similarly, a standing stone has been “resituated and landscaped”. “Things had moved on.”

“Tollund” refers to a succession of poems in earlier collections, written after he read P V Glob’s The Bog People (1969) with its pictures of preserved Iron Age bodies of victims of ritual killing, probably sacrifice, buried in bogs in Denmark, Holland and Germany. Heaney had ended the first of these poems, “The Tollund Man” (in his third collection, Wintering Out (1972):

Out there in Jutland
In the old man-killing parishes
I will feel lost,
Unhappy and at home. (New Selected Poems, p. 32)

Heaney couldn’t avoid seeing a parallel between the millennia-old sacrificial victims and those slaughtered more recently in Northern Ireland. However, the later poem answers the final lines of “The Tollund Man” more hopefully:

  It was user-friendly outback
Where we stood footloose, at home beyond the tribe …

“Tollund” is dated “September 1994”, when the IRA had declared a ceasefire (which, as I mentioned above, broke down 17 months later).

Heaney had already been writing about bogs, apparently before he had read Glob’s book, and certainly before he introduced the burials into his poetry. In “Bogland”, the final poem in Door into the Dark (1969), he had noted the peat’s quality of preserving organic matter:

Butter sunk under
More than a hundred years
Was recovered salty and white.
The ground itself is kind, black butter … (New Selected Poems, p. 17)

The yielding, accommodating turf is …

Missing its last definition
By millions of years.
They’ll never dig coal here …

This characteristic feature of the Irish landscape is a paradox: at once ancient (old enough to have preserved the skeleton of the Great Irish Elk) and still unfinished, indeed unfinishable. Coal, which has spent unimaginably longer subjected to intense pressure under the ground, is somehow more modern. Early in the next collection, the same one which later introduces “The Tollund Man”, we encounter “Bog Oak”, in which a “rib” of an ancient tree is recovered from the bog and used for rafters in a thatched house. Again, the bogland points up the contrast with other lands, in this case the neighbouring island. Here, there are …

    no
“oak groves”, no
cutters of mistletoe
in the green clearings. (New Selected Poems, p. 19)

Instead, there is Edmund Spenser, an Englishman in Ireland, “dreaming sunlight” but in reality being “encroached upon” by starving Irish people. The quotation, “out of every corner | of the woodes and glennes” is from Spenser’s A View of the Present State of Irelande where he describes people so weak from starvation that their legs won’t hold them up, creeping along the ground to feed on carrion.

After “The Tollund Man”, Heaney’s poetry would return to the bog burials in several poems in North (1975), including “The Grauballe Man” and “Punishment”. Years later, as I’ve suggested, in “Tollund”, we find the Tollund Man breaking, or being broken, out of his burial place, released from the weight of ancient ritual and stasis. He will make a return appearance in District and Circle (2006), resurrected and largely freed from his association with the dead of the Troubles and with “punishment”, though there are still, of course, reasons to be less than satisfied with the state of the world, in its “newfound contrariness”.

I smelled the air, exhaust fumes, silage reek,
Heard from my heather bed the thickened traffic
Swarm at a roundabout five fields away
And transatlantic flights stacked in the blue.

“Tollund” is a hopeful poem, but as Roy Foster points out, the long poem that is central to The Spirit Level, “Mycenae Lookout”, is much bleaker and more violent, and more in tune with the poems of North (Foster, pp. 159, 161).

When I had the idea for this post, I intended to title it “Taking Seamus Heaney out of context”. I had hoped to be able to write about Heaney’s work as separate, individual poems, without too much reference to socio-political background against which many of them were written, the conflict in Northern Ireland usually known as the Troubles. But in that aim, I’ve clearly failed: the Troubles keep crowding their way in — for example in “Keeping Going”, about which I’ll write a paragraph or two below. I’ll admit to being disappointed in what I’ve got so far. Clearly, I don’t know his work well enough, haven’t spend enough time digesting it, becoming sufficiently familiar with it, to write the post I had in mind. Almost certainly, I need to return to it, to think again, and longer.

I’ve been tempted to scrap this post entirely and instead write something more general and abstract about why I think it’s important to take the work of poets out of context, to remove it from its “material conditions” — wars, crises, upheavals, economic relations — but that would take almost as long as to go back and write the post I originally intended. (In brief, not because I think the conflict is or was unimportant, but because there’s a danger of allowing it to dominate, to obscure the significance of other equally important themes, topics, influences and impulses.)

“Keeping Going” is subtitled “For Hugh”, dedicated to Heaney’s brother. It starts with the brother pretending to play the bagpipes, using an upside-down chair to imitate the instrument, “keeping the drone going on | Interminably, between catches of breath.” Interminably, i.e. not ending, though not continuous either because interrupted by breathing. Hugh is using an old whitewash brush to mimic a sporran. That prompts the poet to think about whitewashing walls and that, in turn, brings to mind “Grey matter, like gruel flecked with blood | In spatters on the whitewash”, after a part-time reservist has been shot against a whitewashed wall.

Part-time reservists were treated by the Provisional IRA as targets who were at once “legitimate” (because part of the security apparatus) and easy (because lone individuals going about their normal lives). They were mostly Protestant, so their murders were in effect sectarian killings that could be presented as something more “political”.

The poet wonders at his brother’s “good stamina”, his ability to keep joking, to get on with life, in the face of such horrors. But is that enough?

But you cannot make the dead walk or right wrong.
I see you at the end of your tether sometimes …
… wondering, is this all? As it was
In the beginning, is now and shall be?

This post, the 78th, marks the end of three years of Talk about books. I’ve tried something different this time. As I say above, I think the attempt is a failure: my apologies for that, and I hope I’ll know better in future. Next time, I’m hoping to look at three of Jane Austen’s novels, Emma and the two published on either side of it.

Works cited

Seamus Heaney, New Selected Poems 1966–1987, (Faber and Faber, 1990)

Seamus Heaney, The Spirit Level, (Faber and Faber, 1996)


R F Foster, On Seamus Heaney, (Princeton University Press, 2020)

Bernard O’Donoghue, “Introduction”, in The Cambridge Companion to Seamus Heaney, (Cambridge University Press, 2008), pp. 1–18

Helen Vendler, “Seamus Heaney: The Grammatical Moment”, in The Breaking of Style, (Harvard University Press, 1995), pp. 41–69