An analysis of the context, form and structure of Seamus Heaney’s Storm on the Island

The second of the 20th Century poems in the Power and Conflict section of the AQA GCSE English Literature anthology, this poem is by one of my favourite modern poets, Seamus Heaney.

Yesterday, I read an article in the Washington Post documenting terrorism in Europe since 1970. I imagine most GCSE students will be surprised to see that very heavy cluster of red over Northern Ireland. Somehow, ‘The Troubles’ as they came to be known, seem to have faded in significance compared to other threats, and there will be many sixteen-year-olds who will have no idea who Tim Parry or Johnathon Ball were, or why a post box in Manchester is a permanent reminder of the conflict over Northern Ireland. If you ask most of today’s students who was responsible for the biggest bomb on mainland Great Britain since the second world war, I’m pretty sure the image of the IRA has all but faded.

Seamus Heaney’s life saw both the escalation of conflict over Northern Ireland at the end of the 1960s and a tentative peace in 1998. In Northern Ireland at this time, politics mattered. Politics and religion. Heaney manages to by-pass most of that in his poetry, yet it’s a theme that very much touches his work. There are poems that tackle issues around the conflict, and in many I find a sense of conflict, an uneasy tension, even if they are not about the Troubles themselves. Storm on the Island very much fits into that tradition. To me, Heaney manages to avoid the conflict, and not avoid it, if you like. It seems to hover over a lot of his poems like a shadow. Some are more overtly about politics, like Requiem for the Croppies and the collection, North, This collection was Heaney’s most controversial: people wanted him to be more political. Some people wanted him to use less violent images. Some people wanted him to write about the present, not the past, or not blend the two. For me, I think the past was very much tied up with the present for Heaney, and with his mixed heritage (he was both Catholic and and an Ulster-man, who then moved into the Republic of Ireland proper) and I think he must have felt profoundly uncomfortable to be expected to be political. What mattered to him was Ireland itself, a place with no boundaries, a place as old as the earth, the landscape of the place, its eternal qualities. But that’s just one English Teacher’s opinion.

Incidentally, I met Seamus Heaney once in the bar in Stratford, during the intermission of Julius Caesar. I told him I was his groupie, which made him laugh. When you have studied Heaney at GCSE, A level and degree, and then spent 20 years teaching it in successive GCSE specifications, those lines stick in your head. He asked me what my favourite poem of his was. It’s Personal Helicon, by the way, but I think he found it funny that I knew it by heart. For me, those final lines, “I rhyme/ to see myself, to set the darkness echoing” sum up much of his own poetry. It’s intensely personal. It’s a story of himself. But it’s also a story of how he looks into the land to find himself, how he looks to the past as a source of inspiration. A poet, for me, who writes to see himself, to reflect upon himself and see the ripples.

You may be right to ask, then, if the Troubles in Northern Ireland had anything to do with Storm on the Island. Isn’t it just a “conflict of man and nature” poem like Exposure or Stealing the Boat? Isn’t it just a reflection on how pointless our best-laid plans are, the way nature and the landscape will always triumph? Of course it is. But I’d be interested to read any interpretation of how it comes to have this dark shadow of Ireland’s Troubles. Ironic, indeed, that the Troubles themselves were a metaphorical ‘storm’ on the Ireland. When he published North in 1975, some critics thought he should have steered clear of politics altogetherI find that there’s a deep sense of discomfort in Heaney’s work. The land of Ireland seems to give him roots, make him strong, remind him of who he is, like the house itself in the poem, but at the same time, how can you be a poet of the time and NOT be influenced by all those red dots on the Washington Post article? It feels sometimes that Heaney is avoiding the huge, great elephant in the room which in itself has a lot to do with who he is.

Heaney, by the way, did an in-depth interview with another Seamus, Seamus Deane, which you can read here if you are very, very interested in what Heaney thought about poetry and politics, or you’re a world-class geeky curious-mind like me. What I particularly like about what he said is this: “Poetry is born out of the watermarks and colourings of the self.” – it’s like a way of seeing yourself. I like to think of Storm on the Island as part of that tradition, that he reveals a lot about himself in the poem. I also think that ‘home’ for Heaney is always tied-up with a sense of conflict. In another poem, Tollund Man, he finishes by saying how much the Iron Age Scandinavian human sacrifices feel familiar to him: “I will feel lost, unhappy and at home” – that internal conflict about home life is something that we see often in Heaney. You know, the kind of conflict you feel about your home town, your family… how you love it because it’s who you are, but at the same time, it often makes you unhappy.

I think it’s important to understand the role of all this internal conflict for Heaney before you start reading Storm on the Island.

Storm on the Island comes from Heaney’s earliest published collection, Death of a Naturalist. This collection seems very much about how he realises that nature is not some gentle, lovely thing, but it has its moments when you realise that we put a real gloss on it. The title poem tells about him being told in school about the “Mammy Frog” and the “Daddy Frog”, which is all very lovely and sanitised, only for the young Heaney to end by feeling that “the great slime kings” were an “obscene threat” and he feels like the frogspawn would grab his hand and pull him into the water if he tried to steal any of it, as if it was some scary B-movie monster. I think that sums up Heaney’s ambivalence about nature. It’s not this lovely, pretty thing. Do a Google Image search for ‘Nature’ and you’ll see how people view it… waterfalls and lovely forests, sunshine and trails. And then do a Google Image search for ‘Scary nature’ and you’ll see what Heaney’s suggesting Nature can be. For him, it’s not one or the other. It’s both. As a whole, this collection is very much about the issues that Nature brings for Heaney, how blackberries ‘rot’, how farmhands drown kittens. The world in itself is a place that gives Heaney not only a sense of wonder and joy, but also a sense of terror and fear, just like the young Wordsworth.

The poem itself makes an easy comparison with Stealing the Boat, especially when you look at the form of the poems.

The poem in itself is one single, solid block. 19 unrhymed lines of 10 or 11-syllables ended by a half-rhyme couplet. The form in itself echoes the “squat” houses, the solidity in the way that they are built to bear the brunt of the Atlantic weather fronts. It also does something else, capturing the storm as one single event, the lines themselves reflecting the unrelenting storm. Like Stealing the Boat, this too is free verse, apart from that final half-rhymed couplet. It seems to bring the poem to an end. Shakespeare often used the rhyming couplet to draw an end to a scene, but also to encapsulate an idea. Those words, “air” and “fear” echo each other, but not quite. It is not harmonious, but not completely dischordant. It serves to bring attention to those lines, but also to give a kind of finality to the lines. They are set apart from the blank verse of the rest of the lines. It heightens the build-up to the content of these lines. Like Wordsworth, Heaney is not bound or restricted by the syllabic length of the lines, and his words do not adhere to the ‘one-TWO’ stress of iambic pentameter. They’re pretty free-ranging.

He also uses the enjambed lines and the caesura to break up and fragment the poem in parts, and to build to a crescendo in others. Like the Duke in My Last Duchess who loses control of his emotions which spill out over several lines and then are broken up by caesura, Heaney is also using enjambment in places where there is a crescendo of emotion, but what marks this poem for me is the use of caesura, not enjambment. Look at the way he takes all those words and dumps them at the beginning of a line before stopping, disrupting the rhythm…

We are prepared:
or stooks that can be lost.
But no:
Turned savage.
And strafes invisibly.

19 lines, and 6 of them include a caesura that picks up some ideas from a previous line and dumps them on the next.

We should, of course, be asking Heaney’s purpose in doing this. What is the reason for all this caesura? That abrupt stop, particularly on those hard, stressed monosyllabic words ‘blast’ and ‘lost’, really gives the poem some force. Or, rather, it gives the storm itself some force. It’s an uneven rhythm, like the storm itself, picking up ideas in one place and dropping them in another, like a storm picking up trampolines and dumping them in a garden down the road. That pause also makes us stop a moment and adds emphasis and importance to those words. Why does Heaney want us to think so much about that word, “blast” or the word “savage”? Remember that in poetry in particular, the punctuation and line breaks are about where you breathe, and it’s interesting to me how Heaney is playing with the way we breathe here. It’s not a coincidence to me that he’s using these caesuras to drop words onto the next line so frequently.

One of the places in the poem where Heaney uses enjambment very effectively is in the ‘growing’ idea of:

You might think that the sea is company,
Exploding comfortably down on the cliffs
But no: when it begins, the flung spray hits
The very windows, spits like a tame cat
Turned savage.

What you get here is a sentence that runs over five lines of the poem, spilling out over those lines, a crescendo in itself, just like the sea. You’ve got some very interesting monosyllables there too, with the “the flung spray hits” and “down on the cliffs”. In fact, with “like a tame cat”, you’ve got three lines there that finish with a very staccato four-word group, and the assonance of the “i” in “cliffs” and “hits” which also adds to that staccato effect. Lots of short vowel sounds, the “uh” of “the” and “flung”, the “i” of “cliffs” and “hits”, the internal rhyme of “spits” and “hits”… lots of things going on here with the words, with the sounds. Short sounds are hard, mitigated by the occasional “ay” or “oh” in “down”, “spray” and “tame”. Couple that with the monosyllables and what you’ve got is words with a very staccato effect. They’re brief, strong and articulated clearly, the words detached from one another in “FLung SPRay HIts”… I’ll write more about this in the next post, looking in more depth at those words, at the way Heaney describes the house, the storm, the wind, the sea. But what the form gives us is this unrelenting, unstopping sentence that keeps coming at you with a wordy assault. P.S. if you know someone who enunciates like Gary Oldman in Friends, stand a good few feet back when they read these lines.

Those plosives and sibilants do have a remarkable spitty effect if you know someone who enunciates like that!

Now why might Heaney want all of those sounds in there?

In terms of the structure, we start with the poet and his use of “we”, which compares well with Exposure, suggesting a sense of community maybe. We notice another thing, too, about the structure, as to why there are no stanzas or verses. Not only does it help create that ‘squat’ effect on the page as I mentioned before, but we realise this is one single moment: there is no structural need for breaks. It helps emphasise once again that sense of relentlessness. Still, as it goes, it provides an internal commentary at first, that they are prepared, a justification for the way they build the houses, a commentary on the landscape and its barren tree-less, feature-less appearance, It moves on with the thoughts, in “you might think”, where I get the impression almost that this is a conversation between poet and reader, that he places us inside the cottage on the island alongside him almost. It takes on properties not unlike My Last Duchess, where we are given a role to play as reader. We’re very much ‘inside’ this poem with Heaney, listening to the wind outside. The poem finishes also with a final reflection:

Strange, it is a huge nothing that we fear

For me, the voice of the poet, the position of the reader, it’s like we’re the “we” together, like we’re with Heaney listening to the wind outside. It finishes as it starts with a kind of commentary on the wind. Much of the poem is focused on us and on our reactions, despite the title being “Storm on the Island”. Apart from the earlier bits where we had the enjambment and the monosyllabic words about the sea, and a few lines about the wind, it is glued together with a kind of personal reflection on them, a commentary if you will, as if the poet is justifying or explaining things to us. It is not so much about the storm as it is about the preparations of the community, the way the community live to counteract the storms, which sound like a regular occurrence.

In the next post, I’ll look at the way that Heaney uses language and imagery in this poem, exploring how he uses words, sounds and ideas as well as the effect that they have.

If you are interested in a one-to-one lesson with me to find out more about the AQA GCSE English Literature Anthology, please send me an email via the website or Facebook and get in touch. Skype sessions start from £15 for one hour. You can have as many sessions as you feel like you need.



A brief analysis of Seamus Heaney’s “Follower”

Often shared as one of Heaney’s seminal poems, Follower finds itself once again the study of subject for AQA GCSE English Literature. Perhaps why it has become such a classic might the emotional intensity of the poem. At A Level, I called this poet the “bogs and frogs guy” and it was only Follower and Digging that really resonated with me. Its accessibility and powerful commentary on the relationship between a child and their parent is the main focus of exploration.

At first glance, there’s a neatness to the form: Heaney has chosen a six-stanza, four-line structure. There is nothing rule-breaking or revolutionary about the four-line stanza; it is perhaps the most common of forms, the most traditional. It is the form of the ballad, the poetic story, and it is the form of lyric poetry. It is the form of hymns and the form of heroic poems. The ABAB rhyme scheme is evocative of the ballad, although not quite. The half-rhyme of ‘plough’ and ‘furrow’, of ‘eye’ and ‘exactly’ give it an off-kilter sound, something less harmonious and more dischordant. At a glance, it looks like a traditional poem; when reading, it becomes evident that there is something a little off.

The big question is why Heaney does this. Why choose such a traditional form? Why have half-rhyme rather than no rhyme or a full rhyme? In what ways is he using form and rhyme to say something about the content of the poem? These are questions we will revisit once we’ve explored the content.

The title is immediately ambiguous. At first we know that Heaney is the eponymous Follower, “I stumbled in his hob-nailed wake”, with the roles reversed by the end of the poem, “But today/it is my father who keeps stumbling behind me…” and so the title clues us in to the changing roles and the cyclical nature of the poem. He once followed his father, and now his father follows in his wake.

From the first line we see a statement: “My father worked with a horse plough” and we might wonder about the past tense – a state that is no more. There’s a formality too, to ‘father’, not ‘Dad’ or anything more intimate. You could read this with a sense of pride too, “My” father, that is especially evident when Heaney reveals his admiration for his father’s work: “An expert”. The wonderful simile on line two, “his shoulders globed like a full sail strung/between the shafts and the furrow” gives us a sense of his father’s size and power. Sails are not small things; one at ‘full sail’ would be filled out with wind, straining, and it adds a real sense of how strong and efficient his father is, cutting through the soil with the plough like a ship cutting through water. He makes it sound so very easy. A boat at full sail is smooth, fast and effortless. There is a roundness to full sails as they harness the wind’s power to propel themselves forward: we have the same idea here. He continues it when he mentions his father’s “broad shadow”.

The way that his father manages the horses also suggests effortlessness. One click and the horses are “straining”, and he moves them with “a single pluck of reins”. Heaney calls them “a sweating team,” which ambiguous and renders his father and the horses as moving in synchronicity as if they are one, his father sweating with effort as well as the horses. Driving the horses is not his father’s only skill, and Heaney creates an image of him, “mapping the furrow exactly” The linebreak prior to verse two, and then the caesura to follow, “An expert” makes his point perfectly. His father is an artist, “his eye/narrowed and angled at the ground”. Even the enjambement drives the lines, turning into the next just as his father “turned round/and back into the land. The lines are syllabically neat, with eight or nine syllables, and more often iambic tetrameter (da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM) than not, which mimics exactly the neatness and efficiency, the ‘flow’ of his father’s work. Ironic indeed that Heaney says he cannot do what his father does with the plough, and yet he replicates it beautifully with words, syllables, metre, rhyme and rhythm. Technically, he does exactly what his father does, in a controlled, effortless ‘flow’.

Even though Heaney is conversant in the language of ploughing, the “furrow”, the “wing”, the “steel-pointed sock” and “the head-rig”, it is something he cannot do himself. Although he paints a picture of himself as a youngster, literally falling in the wake of his father, it works on a metaphorical level too: he could never seek to emulate his father.

Where the first three stanzas are dedicated to describing his father, the turn comes in stanza four, where the focus shifts from his father as the subject to “I” and my favourite bit of the poem, where his father picks him up and “sometimes he rode me on his back/dipping and rising to his plod.” which is a strange arrangement of the words. “He rode me” would imply his father still in control, the son being ridden, but in this case, even though the boy is sitting on his father’s back, he is certainly not in control. The role-reversal here, where the young boy assumes the mantle of the ploughman, mocks the later role-reversal. But it does something much more powerful: it shows us the closeness of the father and son, the way his father guides his son and helps him to ‘master’ the ploughed fields. Without needing to say so, we can see how Heaney’s father encourages him to step into his shoes, metaphorically. Not having the skill to follow in his father’s footsteps, nor the desire, is a theme of several of Heaney’s poems, most notably Digging. Here, we see the very gentle encouragement of a father trying to aid his son’s ability to follow in his footsteps. More than that, we feel Heaney’s desire to follow in his father’s footsteps. His tone is assured and factual when he says, “I wanted to grow up and plough,” and we see that this desire to mimic his father’s path in life is driven from Heaney’s own admiration of his father and his craft. When he writes, “All I ever did was follow” we see his disappointment. The very definition of following means “to come after”. You can never equal, rival or supercede the person you are following. It is a role that is filled with frustration and disappointment. There is another sense of the word, “follower”, as in someone who believes in something, we can be religious followers or even followers of fashion or a football team. A follower is a person who supports and admires someone or something, as well as meaning “someone who comes after” and the way Heaney explores the relationship here makes both meanings relevant.

You will notice a lot of technical things in this poem, in the way Heaney manipulates words and the sounds that they make. For instance, the consonance of the ‘f’ sound, “father… full… shafts… furrow…” the fricative effect both focuses our attention on these sounds and makes a soft, airy sound which could add to the sense of his speed as he cuts through the land. They don’t fall next to each other in an alliterative way, but if you listen to the first verse, you hear the sounds strongly. If you add the other fricative sounds from the first stanza, the ‘th’ sounds in “father… with… THE shafts… THE furrow” uses consonance to create that airy, light effect. F and TH are voiceless, gentle sounds. We also notice sibilance, in “sail strung… strained” which also adds to the effortless sound and smooth effect of some of those early sounds in stanza one that recreate the sound and image of his father at work. I like how Heaney uses these technical effects – it’s evocative of the same technical control his father has with the plough and horses and turns both activities into an art-form.

Heaney does the same thing with the stresses of the words and uses iambic tetrameter in many places:

“An EXpert. HE would SET the WING/And FIT the BRIGHT steel POINTed SOCK”

and you see the iambic tetrameter most obviously in the parts that recreate the smoothness of his father’s work. Where the iambic tetrameter fails, we see that the tone changes:

“I was a nuiSANCE, TRIPPing, FALLing/YAPPing alWAYS, but toDAY”

where the rhythm changes and the words need more focus to read aloud, where you cannot depend on the regularity to carry you.

Heaney uses enjambement and caesura in two ways too. One way is to show how his father turns round “and back into the land”, showing the continuousness and the lack of hesitation in the turn. We especially see this between stanza two and stanza three. Here the enjambement mimics his father’s actions. The caesura emphasises the statement, “An expert.”

Between line 19 and 20, we also see some noticeable enjambement as a sentence is split up. “All I ever did was follow/in his broad shadow round the farm” where the word follow is left dangling at the end of the line. Syllabically, it is the point to stop, since the lines have the ballad-style eight syllables but the iambic tetrametre doesn’t work here and the way “follow” is left dangling makes us think about it, pause a little before thinking about his father’s “broad shadow”. The enjambement emphasises the word “follow”, especially in conjunction with the repetition of “Follower” from the title.

Heaney is not a man to use fancy, high-fallutin’ words where simple ones will do; often I find that he uses a very Germanic language and that there are relatively few Latinate words, in this case “globed”, “expert” and “polished”.  What is perhaps surprising are the number of Old English words in the poem, from “horse-plough” and “shoulders” to “sail”  “strung” and “tongue” in the first stanza. These are our ‘heart’ words, the roots of our language, the basics, the most akin to our linguistic history. Interesting that he should choose such ‘functional’ and historical words rather than the perhaps more elevated additions of latinate words. Heaney makes something beautiful, evocative and poetic without resorting to elaborate vocabulary or complex diction. This is certainly ‘the language of our fathers’, without being decorated and sophisticated. For me, this is the appeal of it. The linguistic simplicity, the controlled techniques of pace and sound, the sparse diction… it is just perfectly in keeping with the subject of the poem.

You will notice too that it is thin on poetic devices other than those to complement sound and pace; we see few figurative devices. Of course, we have the simile of the sail in the first stanza, and the extended metaphor of ‘following’ but other than this, the use of figurative or poetic language is very sparse. There is nothing flowery or abstract about this poem – it’s not complicated or confusing, layered with symbolism or complexity. In this way, the use of figurative language is very fitting with the content, with the technical and practical skill exhibited by his father. We are left to puzzle out what the final metaphor means, with his father who stumbles behind him, “and will not go away” – where we see a shift to the future tense and we are left with a few puzzling questions – in what way does his father stumble behind him? Is this the near future or a certain ‘forever’ future? We go from “today” and the present tense to a sense of the future, where he sees the same frustrations reversed: he saw himself as a “nuisance” even though his father did not seem to, riding his child “on his back”, but we are not in any doubt that Heaney finds his father’s “stumbling” to be a nuisance. In what way does his father stumble? It only seems to work to me on a metaphorical level, that the son has now surpassed his father in terms of technical skill (if not in ploughing!) but feels haunted by his father, conscious that his father is lurking there in his subconscious and he cannot escape the feeling that his father is there. Perhaps too, the young boy has become a master in his own right and his father does not have his capability with words, but then the final line is redundant, in the “and will not go away” which is meaningless if there is a sense that his father is now following in his son’s footsteps, in terms of writing skill. This is why I just have this sense of a man who is haunted by his relationship, that he can’t escape from his father and the poem is, ipso facto, a method of expressing this sense of being unable to leave his father behind completely. That’s my take on it. However, it is true to say that the only complex or ambiguous part of this poem is the ending and to what it refers. In what sense is Heaney being “followed” by his father, and why won’t he “go away?”

Other questions we are left to ponder include Heaney’s use of the technical, his use of layout and his word choice. Why choose such a traditional form? Why have half-rhyme rather than no rhyme or a full rhyme? In what ways is he using form and rhyme to say something about the content of the poem? Why choose such a non-poetic range of vocabulary? Why stick with the one simile? What is the power of the one simile? What can be said about his use of enjambement and caesura?

These questions are your starting point to think about your own interpretation of this poem and what you think it means. Make sure you root your response in the text and in what you know, so that you can justify your answers.

If you are interested in a one-to-one lesson with me to find out more about Follower, please send me an email and get in touch. Skype sessions start from £15 for one hour. You can have as many sessions as you feel like you need.

My ten favourite Seamus Heaney poems

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.

#7 Follower 

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.

#6 Digging

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.

#4 Clearances

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.

#2 Punishment

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.