Following Seamus Heaney’s death, I’ve been re-reading his work. Funny to think that I have studied him at every level of English, from GCSE through to A level, to degree and then I’ve spent many years reading students’ responses about his poems. I will confess that many of these poems are his ‘popular’ poems. But if you had to have ten poems that gave you an insight into Seamus Heaney’s work, these would be the ten I would choose.
#10 Bye, Child
Heaney has a couple of poems about children, sometimes children born illegitimately (like Limbo). This one is about a boy kept in a henhouse. I love Heaney’s metaphor of ‘a yolk of light’ and the way he describes the henhouse boy looking out on the world. He has such sad metaphors to describe him, ‘kennelled and faithful’, so that we can imagine this photograph Heaney saw in a newspaper article about a boy, Kevin Halfpenny, kept in such terribly sad conditions. I think many of Heaney’s poems about children can be very sad, and this is one of them.
Why read it? Because it’s one of the poems along with Limbo and Mid-Term Break that show Heaney’s voice about childhood and children. It captures a kind of sadness about how children are treated that it’s hard to think existed in ‘modern’ countries. Heaney was obviously haunted by the photograph he saw in the news and in the same way, the poem itself has many haunting images.
#9 Death of a Naturalist
Another poem about children – this time about Heaney himself. It includes a little child-like language when it raises the voice of his teacher, Miss Walls, when she talks euphemistically about ‘the mammy frog’ and ‘the daddy frog’, which lulls the young Heaney into a false sense of what nature is all about, when the overt sexuality of it is something quite frightening, when he finds ‘gross-bellied frogs, cocked/on sods’ and calls them ‘the great slime kings’.
Why read it? Because it encapsulates the idea of the loss of innocence, and how childhood is a safe cocoon from the realities of life. It’s also a reflective poem about Heaney’s own childhood and how nature has this whole other side that it is easy to gloss over. Read it with The Early Purges for another poem about the loss of childhood innocence in the country.
#8 Mid-Term Break
This poem is the one that can reduce me to tears in seconds. In it, Heaney reflects upon the funeral of his young brother, killed in a car crash. It is heavy with symbols, like the snowdrops and the poppies, but it is the little details about his father that are most evocative to me, when his father cries. It’s the heavy, monosyllabic, simple clarity of ‘a four foot box, a foot for every year’ that makes it so powerful.
Why read it? Because it’s a poem about loss. It’s a reflection on childhood and his family. It sums up very powerfully that time as a child where nothing makes sense, and the death of his brother is couched in misunderstandings and things he has never seen before, like grown men shaking his hand. It captures that view of death from a child’s eye, where nothing really makes sense.
This poem is another reflection on Heaney’s father. It shows his admiration of his father’s craft and describes a little about what a powerful presence Heaney’s father was. Whilst we get a short glimpse of Heaney’s father’s strength in Mid-Term Break, we see him here, ‘globed, like a full sail’ and ‘An expert.’
Why read it? Because it is an excellent depiction of Heaney’s admiration of his father, and the subsequent role-reversal. It is a prelude to Digging in that it fills in some of the blanks in Heaney’s description of his relationship with his father. It’s a combination of Heaney’s farming heritage with his own personal reflections. Beautiful use of caesura and enjambment to boot.
To build on Follower, Digging weaves in Heaney’s farming roots, his feelings about writing and his admiration of his ancestors. Perhaps the most quoted line regarding Heaney in his obituaries is the final couplet. ‘Between my finger and my thumb, the squat pen rests. I’ll dig with it.’ It sums up the way Heaney used writing as a tool to revisit the past as well as unearth his own roots. It sums up his own acceptance of his ‘craft’, writing.
Why read it? Because it is ties with Follower in recreating moments in his relationship with his father. It also explains a little his view on his own trade and skill. It also uses structure in a particularly thoughtful way, as each stanza digs a little further into the past, a little like the spade digging down into the earth.
#5 Personal Helicon
My personal favourite. This poem is a reflection on his youth and his love of looking down wells. It brings in a little of the classics with its reference to Narcissus, perhaps reflecting Heaney’s thoughts that he was a little self-indulgent and a little self-involved as a child. He uses the memory to remind himself why he writes and where he takes inspiration from: ‘I rhyme to see myself, to set the darkness echoing.” as he writes about inspiration and himself. It is a good example of how the past brings him inspiration, just as the bog bodies do – things that are brought up to the surface that are significant today. It has a kind of ghostly quality as he finds roots and sees himself reflected. I particularly like the way he describes the sky, ‘trapped’ in a well.
Why read it? It’s a thoughtful poem about expression and inspiration, drawing upon his own behaviour as a child. It explains a little about Heaney’s view of his past, of writing, of himself as a child. And it explains about his own personal source of inspiration: himself and his past.
Since I have picked out two poems about Heaney’s father, it seems only appropriate to pick out one about his mother. Clearances seems to be one of the poems Heaney preferred to read. Indeed, you can find many renditions on youtube and the likes where he reads this poem. Heaney picked out The Underground and A Drink of Water to exemplify his own works. Clearances is so gentle, far from being fraught with the complications he explains in his poems about his relationship with his father. Her voice is very clear as he describes her rituals: ‘don’t be dropping crumbs’ and ‘Don’t make noise when you stir’, but it’s also good because it defines those small moments people share that mean so much, like when you are peeling potatoes.
Why read it? Because it depicts Heaney’s relationship with his mother in ways we don’t see so clearly in other poems. It recreates their relationship after her death.
#3 Blackberry Picking
A poem about childhood again, this time revelling in the sumptuous pleasure of blackberry picking. It runs with the metaphor of nature and the Frost-like metaphor of decay, ‘Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.’ but describes also the childhood joy of picking ripe blackberries. It’s a truly delightful description of the berries, a ‘glossy purple clot’.
Why read it? Because it picks up on a very Heaney-like metaphor: natural decay. It’s also a poem that revisits his childhood and reflects with an adult mind on things learned as a child. It’s also got some very rich use of language in there.
I’ve only picked one of Heaney’s bog body poems which focuses on the bog bodies discovered from Denmark across to Ireland. He uses the bodies to represent issues and struggles in today’s time. It’s like they remind him of how little has changed. This one is based on assumptions about one of the bodies, and how it reminds him of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, particularly the ritual of tarring and feathering women. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Why read it? Because it’s a great representation of his bog body poems, along with Tollund Man. Again, like Bye-child, Heaney picks up on something newsworthy today and uses it as a springboard for something much more than that. It shows us the issues with which Heaney was preoccupied.
#1 Storm on the Island
My last poem is one recreating a night on an island when a storm takes place. It illustrates a feeling of helplessness and powerlessness when faced with the overwhelming forces of nature. Along with Lovers on Aran, it reminds me of Heaney’s own fascination with the world around him. In some senses, it’s very reminiscent of Romantic poetry.
Why read it? Because here, you get back down to nature at its most pure. It is a poem unaffected by man or by family. It’s nature at its most raw. There’s an appreciation of the power and awe of the world around.
I hope this helps give you a bit of an introduction to Heaney. You can find these poems easily on the internet or in anthologies. If you search for ‘reading’, you may also find videoclips of Heaney reading the poems. It’s a great way to get an insight into how he wanted them to be shared. He also wrote and talked about the inspiration and meaning behind his poetry, so it is often easy to find Heaney’s own comments on his words as well.
I also hope he brings you as much enjoyment, inspiration and reflection as he has brought me. I shall certainly be revisiting more of his poems in the coming weeks. We have lost one of the Twentieth Century giants of poetry – certainly one of the holy trinity of post-war poets: Heaney, Plath, Hughes. I’m sure his words will be studied for many years to come.