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Analysis of The Poetry of Seamus Heaney


Northern Ireland poet Seamus Heaney has written several poems dealing with the past, present, and future. This Nobel Prize winning poet was born in 1939 to a father who had been a farmer in Derry, Northern Ireland. His grandfather was also a farmer. This is worth mentioning because Heaney often writes as a backdrop or as the main subject of his poems, with farming. Although Heaney moved away from the family farm when he was young, the farm never left him and his time on the farm is quite obvious. a big impact on him. Many of his poems have him looking forward to what he can do when he grows up. He also writes on the Northern Ireland conflict and the events that have taken place. That poet often refers in his writings to his Gaelic heritage. He also was recently awarded the T.S. Elliot Prize for his poetry.

Heaney was the eldest of nine children. Heaney explains the conflict within himself as the quiet of his father and the outspokenness of his mother. As a Catholic family the Heaneys sent their children to a catholic boarding school where Seamus would watch American Soldiers prepare for D-Day in the fields (Frangsmyr, 1999). It is there that Heaney imagined himself as between “history and ignorance” (Frangsmyr, 1999).

Analysis of The Poetry of Seamus Heaney

The poems chosen here are examined for Heaney’s portrayal of the future. In some the future means years, others days, and in some the future is minutes away and the poetry’s anticipation is obvious. Heaney himself gives guidance as to how poetry is read:” excellent poems have two steps: first, they force the readers to concentrate on the ‘break from usual life’ described in the poem. Second, the readers are bringing the focus back on themselves.  As a consequence, the readers can grasp on a deeper level the question presented by the poem, thereby freeing them. (Heaney, 1996)

National Poetry Day this year is Thursday October 4th. Interestingly enough the theme chosen for this year is “Dream”. There are many Heaney poems and writings that deal with looking forward to the future. Dreaming about possibilties is also looking toward the future.  “The Poetry Society is pleased to announce their association with Forward Arts, who will be taking National Poetry Day forward in new and exciting ways. This is great news for poets, poetry and all those who are involved with it. “(The Poetry Review, 2007) The Seamus Heaney Center will help with the National Poetry Day. October by conducting a “Dream Poetry Tour”.

An Analysis

The poem “Rite of Spring” looks forward and describes the effects of winter and spring’s arrival as working free from a hand pump in order to get water. Like many Heaney’s poems, you can picture yourself working it openly with excitement when reading the poem at the pump. And, at the end of the poem, one may see the reward (water).

Seamus Heaney’s poem “Follower” looks to the future and to the past. This poem focuses on his father, Patrick, who often included Heaney while working about the farm. The poem describes a young Heaney watching his father manage his team of horses expertly while plugging into the fields. Young Heaney follows his father whilst plowing, sometimes falling and sometimes riding back on his fathers. Following his father Heaney the whole time dreams of doing the work on the farm itself someday. This poem has one imagining being that child and following the father all over the farm. The child worshiped his father and revered him and dreamt of being him. He expresses that he knew he was a nuisance to his father by constantly “yapping”. The poem ends with the tables turned. The father now follows the son around. The father is now counting on the son and is amazed at what his son can do.

“From the Borders of Reading” Heaney discovers at a Northern Ireland military checkpoint.  In this work he’s in the present and the future. The present consists of Heaney’s car being inspected by the soldiers as guns are being trained on the driver (Heaney). The future consists of the driver’s fear of what might happen and the possibilities of what could happen if something goes wrong. The driver is cleared and allowed to proceed through the checkpoint.  As he calmly proceeds through the checkpoint he is relieved and physically spent from the encounter. The driver finds himself back at the checkpoint as he prepares to write about it.  He relives the experience in his mind and conveys the experience in his writing.

“Limbo” is one of Heaney’s best works. It tackles a subject that most would avoid. It talks about how a mother discards her infant in the ocean and doesn’t leave until her hands are numb from the cold. The mother, so certain that the future with an illegitimate child would be unliveable, drowns her baby in the surf. The body is recovered when a fisherman retrieves his fishing nets and discovers more than fish in his catch (an infant). This poem shows how the present can dictate the future.  It shows how humanity can, and will, destroy life. This is something that will affect this woman for the rest of her life. Her future will be marred by the memory of ending her child’s life.

In his poem “Digging with a Pen” Heaney expresses his admiration of both his father and grandfather who are farmers. Heaney’s desire to be like them is great. He realizes that he won’t be farming like they do with a spade but promises he will farm, in a sense, with his pen and mind:

 But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I’ll dig with it.

(Kirsch, 2006)

“Heaney is always aware of being ‘ a Catholic native of Northern Ireland … born into one of the word’s most intransigent ethnic and religious conflicts? That heritage makes his rural Ulster “not a beautiful idyll, but the theater of shattering moral dramas.” “Casualty,” in one of Heaney’s most intimate renditions of sectarian violence, From Field Work (1979), he expresses his disappointment as a bystander when, according to Kirsch, the troubles say a man he had fished with, a drunkard, “who was killed by his fellow man Catholics when he violated an IRA curfew to go out to a bar”.”(Kirsch, 2006)  Heaney’s biggest problem expressed in this work was the knowledge of what was going to happen to this man and his inability to think of a way to help this man. The future, in this case, will be the death of this friend:

How culpable was he

That last night when he broke

Our tribe’s complicity?

“Now you’re supposed to be

An educated man,

I hear him say. “Puzzle me

The right answer to that one.”

(Kirsch, 2006)

“The Mid-Term Break” is a poem capturing both the sadness of death and a young man’s struggle between boyhood and manhood. There is a small portion of the poem that has this young man sitting for hours wondering about what’s next as he listens to his school go through the motions of its day. The young man sits in the sick bay waiting for his ride home:

I sat all morning in the college sick bay
Counting bells knelling classes to a close,
At two o’clock our neighbors drove me home. (PoemHunter.com)

The poem alludes to some of his thoughts while waiting in the sick bay, but it is the unknown thoughts that this young man was thinking that leave readers wondering.

“Testimony” is a poem about D-Day preparations and the freeing of France and Europe. The writer had no idea that these troops were destined for a major assault on German occupation in Europe. He couldn’t predict the future but probably look back on his observations when D-Day actually took place and made the connection between what he saw and the news he was hearing. These two excerpts from his poem support that the author didn’t know what was in store for the troops but realized the connection later.  It makes on wonder what the author thought these troops where there for. Did he think Ireland was being occupied? One can only speculate.


“’We were killing pigs when the
Yanks arrived…”

 “Hosting for Normandy.
Not that we knew then
Where they were headed, standing
there like youngsters
As they tossed us gum”(Guardian Unlimited, 2007)

The poem “Blackberry Picking” is a good example of how anticipation rules a child’s life. The children repeat the berry picking ritual every year with similar results. The berries invariably sour and stink after being left in the cans. The children know that this will happen but hope every year that the outcome will be different:

“We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.” (Blackberry Picking by Seamus Heaney)

Most of Heaney’s poems tell stories that took place in Ireland. The poems take the reader to Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. His poetry takes the reader to the farm where Heaney spent his younger years. It also takes the reader to war and conflict in The two Irelands. “The poetry of Heaney is based on actual, local facts, often in Derry’s memories or observation of his adopted home in the Republic of Ireland.” (Poetry Archive, 2007)

When Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1995 his acceptance speech contained much of his poem “Exposure”. This poem expressed Heaney’s self-doubt and fear of failing and explained his “vocation to be one of his own people, to articulate the losses and longings of the tribe to which he belongs.”(The Replenishing Fountain) Heaney expresses his dismay at others defining his move from Belfast to Eire as a move that had “provoked triumphant crowing from Protestant forces who wished good-riddance to a famous “papist””. (The Replenishing Fountain). Heaney’s desire was to remain a non-combatant.  His poetry simply recalled what he had seen and how it made him feel about the conflict in Northern Ireland. Heaney knew that if he had remained he would have been captured and held captive by “Republicans who wanted to hold Heaney captive as a kind of propagandist icon of struggle in the North.”(The Replenishing Fountain) Upon hearing of a friend that had been captured and held captive without trial, Heaney made the decision to move. His future in Belfast would be one of captivity and exploitation had he stayed.  That is what Heaney wished to avoid.  Heaney’s experience shows that one cannot be merely a spectator or non-combatant in a conflict because someone will decide for you what side you are on.

“And yet each drop recalls

The diamond absolutes.

I am neither internee nor informer;

An inner émigré, grown long-haired

And thoughtful; a wood-kerne

Escaped from the massacre,

Taking protective colouring

From bole and bark, feeling

Every wind that blows; “ (The Replenishing Fountain)

One of Heaney’s most interesting poems is “The Railway Children.”  In this poem he writes from the perspective of a child watching raindrops on a telegraph wire. The raindrops were assumed to be pouches carrying messages along the wire. The rain had filled the wire with many drops and the amazement of the child imagining where those words were going and coming from.

“Of the telegraph poles and the sizzling wires.

Like lovely freehand they curved for miles

East and miles west beyond us, sagging

Under their burden of swallows.

We were small and thought we knew nothing

Worth knowing. We thought words travelled the wires

In the shiny pouches of raindrops,

Each one seeded full with the light

Of the sky, the gleam of the lines, and ourselves

So infinitesimally scaled

We could stream through the eye of a needle”. (The Replenishing Fountain)

The children’s innocence may be described as their wisdom because they had been told that the words travel along the wires. This sparked their imagination and helped them come up with a plausible explanation for how the words traveled along the wire. The raindrops helped them develop their conclusion. This poem is a welcome departure from the war and conflict topics of many of Heaney’s works.

Heaney has described “The Forge” an anvil and its possibilities. He describes the anvil and its potential to make music:

The anvil must be somewhere in the centre,

Horned as a unicorn, at one end square,

Set there immoveable: an altar

Where he expends himself in shape and music.

Another theme in this poem is the anvil’s description and its association with Christ. “Heaney’s choice of words like “altar”, and “unicorn” (a symbol of Christ), carrying with them a sense of the sacred and numinous, allow the anvil “somewhere in the centre” of his poem to be both the particular anvil in the dark workshop of an Irish blacksmith, and also an emblem for that unknowable centre in the darkness beyond our perceptions, where our Creator expends Himself in shape and music.”(The Replenishing Fountain)

Heaney style of writing and his works have been the subject of many commentaries and journal articles. His ability to recount the past and picture the future in writing has allowed Heaney the opportunity to express his vision of how thing are. His writing, for the most part, consists of Hiberno English.  This is the English as spoken by the Irish. With English as the world’s language, and Heaney choosing to write in English, offers the author the opportunity to have a wide readership and popularity. Heaney’s writing offers a glimpse into the past that, in essence, warns of the possibilities that the future holds. Some argue that “Heaney’s real subject is how words give meaning to the random violence of the world we inhabit.”(Pratt, 2007)

Heaney’s ability to articulate the fact that we live in a dangerous present, and future, makes him a unique poet among poets. He has written several poems that deal directly with the conflict. In Voices From Lemnos Heaney addresses the belief that according to history there is no hope for the future. This poem voices Ireland’s frustration and hopelessness while also addressing the hope that justice will prevail. “Rhyme of Hope and History” says that although history repeats itself, history can rhyme without being a past repeat.

Voices From Lemnos 

History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.

Heaney’s hope for Northern Ireland is evident.  But Heaney also realizes the realities of war and how one must behave in order to make it through the conflict alive:

“‘What ever you say, say nothing’(how to behave in a violent society)” (Smyth), 2001)

His advice is brief and to the point as it should be in a society where conflict often leads to death.  There is value in saying nothing as it leads to life rather than death.

In “A Cure at Troy” Heaney positions himself as observer rather than participant.  He describes what going into battle might be like for the King.

Some people wept, and not for sorrow — joy
That the king had armed and upped and sailed for Troy,
But inside me like struck sound in a gong
That killing-fest, the life-warp and world-wrong
It brought to pass, still augured and endured.
I’d dream of blood in bright webs in a ford,
Of bodies raining down like tattered meat
On top of me asleep — and me the lookout
The queen’s command had posted and forgotten,
The blind spot her farsightedness relied on. (29)

And, in this piece Heaney puts himself in the shoes of the Mycenae and describes his future and his past:

If a god of justice had reached down from heaven

For a strong beam to hang his scale-pans on

He would have found me tensed and ready-made.

I balanced between destiny and dread

Heaney also takes pity on Cassandra in this poem:

No such thing
as innocent

“Cassandra, while being able to see into the future, is tormented with the curse that no one will listen to her, and her impotence as a marginalised spokesperson for her society, warning against forthcoming violence parallels the position of Heaney, the watchman and social commentator.” (Smyth, 2001)

Many see this as a connection between Heaney’s poetry and his reality. Thinking back to the poem where he goes through the checkpoint and to the poem where his friend is killed one can see the connection. There are no innocent bystanders.


In 1995, Seamus Heaney received the Nobel Prize. After accepting the award he headed home to Ireland. He was welcomed home as a famous Irish poet but, despite the fact that he wanted to be seen as a nonsectarian non-combatant, he was celebrated as being the symbol of Irish hope for the future and the hope for lasting peace in Ireland.

Heaney, in his many writings, has taken his readers on journeys into the past, the present, and the future. He has shown the inocence of childhood (The Railroad Children), the nastiness of death (Mid-Term Break), and the fear that accompanies one in a war zone (Fronteer of Writing).  Heaney has articulated a women’s fear of the future upon the birth of an illegitimate child. (Limbo)  This poem shows the lengths that humanity will go through to inforce conformity. Heaney has also provided an opportunity for the English speaking world to experience writings that he has translated from other languages. In addition Heany has shown the connection between past, present, and future.

Most often poets are only noticed when they have been long gone. Heaney offers the opportunity to see a poet in action and ask questions along the way as to what meant when he wrote a particular poem.

  • Books And Writers. (2007). Seamus (Justin) Heaney 1939-. Retrieved 2007-04-26 from  https://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/heaney.htm.
  • Frangsmyr, Tore. (1995). Les Prix Nobel. 1996. Retrieved  2007-04-25 From www.NobelPrize.org
  • Footnotes. (2007). New York Times, Retrieved Thursday, April 26, 2007 from the MasterFILE Premier database.
  • Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007.  Retrieved 2007-04-26 From https://books.guardian.co.uk/departments/poetry/story/0,6000,895621,00.html
  • Heaney, Seamus. The Cure at Troy. London: Faber, 1990.
  • —. The Government of the Tongue. London: Faber, 1989.
  • —. Lecture at Trinity College Dublin.  2 March 1995.
  • —. New Selected Poems 1966-1987. London: Faber, 1990
  • —. The Spirit Level. London: Faber, 1996.
  • Nottingham Playhouse. (2006). Wellington Circus Nottingham NG1 5AF Retrieved 2007-04-26 from https://www.nottinghamplayhouse.co.uk/files/The%20Burial%20at%20thebes.pdf
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  • The Poet of Work and Delight. (2007). Wilson Quarterly, Retrieved Thursday, April 26, 2007 from the Academic Search Premier database.
  • Poetry Archive. (2007) Retrieved 2007-04-26 From https://www.poetryarchive.org/poetryarchive/singlePoet.do?poetId=1392
  • Poetry Review, Spring 2007 issue.  Retrieved 2007-04-26 From https://www.poetrysociety.org.uk/content/homepage/
  • Pratt, W. ([YEAR]). District and Circle: Poems. World Literature Today, 81(1), 73-74. Retrieved Thursday, April 26, 2007 from the MasterFILE Premier database.
  • The Replenishing Fountain: Hope and Renewal in the Poetry of Seamus Heaney(1975). Retrieved 2007-04-26 From https://www.st-edwards-cam.org.uk/docs/fhp-session6.pdf
  • Smyth, Marie and Gillian Robinson. (2001). Researching Violently Divided Societies.  United Nations University Press. Pages 57 and 63.

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