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March 17, 2018


#Poetry Seamus Heaney

by N@ncy

  • Author: H. Vendler
  • Title: Seamus Heaney
  • Published: 1998



  • Trivia: Seamus Heaney  died following a short illness
  • on August 30, 2013 at the age of 74.
  • Heaney’s last words were in a text to his wife Marie were:
  • “Noli timere“, which means “Do not be afraid.



  1. It took me a week to read this
  2. excellent overview of Seamus Heaney’s poems by
  3. American literary critic Helen  Vendler.
  4. I could only manage 1 chapter day.
  5. There was so much to learn.
  6. so much detail…that my mind
  7. could absorb no more after 3 hours of reading.


Ch 1:   Death of a Naturalist (1966)  Door Into the Dark (1969)  Wintering Out (1972)

  1. Early poems rooted in the Irish landscape.
  2. Heaney’s  pastoral poems were not always idyllic.
  3. Midterm Break was heartbreaking
  4. ….about the death of his 4 yr brother.
  5. And of course Digging is one of his most famous poems.
  6. Heaney wanted to measure the pen against the sword
  7. “Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests; snug as a gun”.
  8. Summer Home is a marriage-poem.
  9. It is a chilling account of a quarrel finally mended.
  10. But one of my favorites is ….Sunlight.
  11. I get ‘goosebumps’ when I read it.
  12. This is memorial to the central figure Aunt Mary.
  13. It is a warm, nostalgic rural sturdy.
  14. I can see my mother with her floured hands, whitend nails
  15. …rubbing her hand s  on her apron while she taught me how to make an apple pie.
  16. I imagine ‘honeyed water’ in a bucket warmed by the sun.
  17. Heaney truly brings you into a poetic state
  18. …dreaming while you are awake!

Ch 2:   North   (1975)

  1. This collection was the first that
  2. …dealt about the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
  3. Heaney looks frequently to the past for images and
  4. …symbols relevant to the violence and political unrest.
  5. The Bog poems are a symbolic representation of history.
  6. The poem should sound like the subject.
  7. Heaney tried to  pull language as close as possible to the thing itself
  8. — so that a bog poem sounded boggy or a
  9. — Viking ship poem sounded lithe.


Ch 3:  Station Island (1984)

  1. The title  refers to Station Island also known as
  2. St. Patrick’s Purgatory Co. Donegal.
  3. It is a site of Christian pilgrimage for many centuries.
  4. In this long Dantesque fiction of the poem the ghosts of Heaney’s past come
  5. crowding thick and fast around him in twelve episodes.
  6. One of my favorites poems in this collection is:
  7. The Old Icons – Heaney  contemplates old pictures he
  8. …cannot bear to throw away.
  9. ” Why when it was all over, did I hold on to them?”
  10. SH cannot throw them out because they are NOT outdated.
  11. Everything has altered but nothing has changed.
  12. There will always be a  huddled Catholic minority, a patriot and traitor.


Ch 3:   Field Work (1979)

  1. Field Work is a record of Heaney’s four years (1972-1976)
  2. …living in rural County Wicklow in the
  3. …Republic of Ireland after leaving the violence of The Troubles.
  4. Field work is less political.
  5. 50% elegies (deliberate choice to remain on the everyday level)
  6. 50% domestic life with his wife (love poems)  and friends.
  7. Heaney calls it the ‘music of what happens’.
  8. “It was still a proof that I could write poetry in my new situation.” (S. Heaney)


Ch 4:     Alter Egos 

  1. Alter-egos are people Heaney…might have become.
  2. These alter-egos were agriculturally timeless ones,
  3. …single artisans, seed-cutters, the thatcher, blacksmith and …the digger.
  4. Station Island is a long autobiographical poem-of-alter-egos.


Ch 5:   The Haw Lantern (1987)

  1. Between 1984-1987 both parents died
  2. ….this caused a tear in the fabric of Heaney’s verse.
  3. Emptiness had replaced reality.
  4. The Haw Lantern is an intellectual volume.
  5. It ponders, values, chooses, judges and
  6. …examines the poet’s tendency to ‘second thoughts’.
  7. The title of the collection refers to the haw fruit.
  8. The fruit is an important symbol of defiance against winter
  9. It is a a symbol of the dignity of the Northern Irish in the face of violence and trouble.
  10. The image of the lantern is a reference to the traditional account of
  11. …philosopher Diogenes of Sinope.
  12. According to the story, Diogenes carried a lantern
  13. …through the streets in search of an honest man in the light.


Ch 6:  Seeing Things (1991)

  1. What does the world look like seen through the eyes 
  2. …approaching  death?
  3. It erases senses and memory alike.
  4. Such a given entails and an alteration of style.
  5. These poems did not have the rich sensuality of Death of a Naturalist
  6. These poems did not have historicized thickness of the bog poems in North
  7. …or folk-quality of The Haw Lantern
  8. But rather the Shaker simplicity.
  9. Heaney uses the higher senses of sight and hearing
  10. …to make contact with objects without touching them.

Ch 7:   The Spirit Level (1996)

  1. Heaney’s  poetry in The Spirit Level is social.
  2. It is connected to the possibilities of hope, trust and mutual help.
  3. The Spirit Level  looks into sustaining of life in an Afterwards.
  4. The poems are grounded in the doings of every day:
  5. — the poet as a child and his siblings are playing ‘train’ on the sofa,
  6. — Caedmon is a hardworking yardman,
  7. — Heaney’s mother ‘steeping her swollen feet’,
  8. — a blind neighbour, childhood playmate Rosie Keenan playing the piano,
  9. — Mary Heaney’ father after the death of his wife,
  10. becoming more and more adventurous  as he
  11. ‘took out the power mower in his stride
  12. / Flirted and vaunted…/ Learned to microwave.’
  13. Stoicism is the virture of old age, when one’s progress is a best horizontal.
  14. It is a matter of living with and within the choices one has made
  15. ….like the old couple in A Walk.
  16. Two sonnets: first about parental devotion in a pastoral landscape
  17. second about Heaney’s married relationship that has lasted more than three decades.



  1. Helen Vendler is not  easy to read.
  2. She is an important literary scholar
  3. …and her vocabulary is challenging.
  4. But this book was worth every minute I spent reading it
  5. Every minute.
  6. It is the first book I’ve read about
  7. …the changes in a poet’s writing through the years.
  8. Heaney started as an anonymous narrator in his early collections.
  9. He became political  because of
  10. …his experiences during The Troubles.
  11. Later he turned to the everyday-ness of life.
  12. As he says…the music of what happens.
  13. As the American poet Christian Wiman said in his essay
  14. Take Love (Poetry Ireland Review, 27 September 2104):
  15. Seamus Heaney   “…could take the edge of existence and
  16. give it actual edges.
  17. He could bring the cosmic into commonplace.
  18. #MustRead


Read more from Nobel Prize, non-fiction, poetry
9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Mar 18 2018

    This is such a great overview of his work Nancy!


    • Mar 18 2018

      It was a book I needed to read before beginning with Heaney’s poems.
      As I said ….not an easy read but filled to the brim with information that makes SH’s poems come aive! Thanks so much for hosting #ReadIreland18… it is one of the best challenges because it brings me back to my roots!


  2. Jun 16 2018

    Thanks this is great!! I’m about to teach some high school students about his poems. Just wondering, the poem titles in blue, are these meant to hyperlink to a post/ the poem? Blessings!


    • Jun 16 2018

      So glad you can use my thoughts about Helen Vendler’s book while preparing to teach some of Heaney’s’ poems! No the blue is not a hyperlink to the poem….just a highlight. Thanks for leaving your comment!


      • Jun 17 2018

        Ok. Do you know the best place to access them easily on line? (Sorry if you have already given such a link and I have overlooked!)


      • Jul 15 2018



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