|Seamus Heaney - study guide|
This guide is written for students and teachers who are preparing for GCSE exams in English literature. It contains detailed readings of the poems by Seamus Heaney in the AQA Anthology, which is a set text for the AQA's GCSE syllabuses for English and English Literature Specification A, from the 2004 exam onwards.
For a general introduction to poetry in the Anthology with extensive guidance for students and teachers, then please see the Introduction to the Anthology by clicking on the link below.
On this page I use red type for emphasis. Brown type is used where italics would appear in print (in this screen font, italic looks like this, and is unkind on most readers). Headings have their own hierarchical logic, too:
About the poet
Seamus Heaney was born on April 13, 1939, on a farm in Castledawson, County Derry, Northern Ireland, the eldest of eight children. In 1963, he began teaching at St. Joseph's College in Belfast. Here he began to write, joining a poetry workshop with Derek Mahon, Michael Longley, and others under the guidance of Philip Hobsbaum. In 1965 he married Marie Devlin, and in 1966 year he published his first book of poetry, Death of a Naturalist. His other poetry includes Door into the Dark (1969), Wintering Out (1972), North (1979), Selected Poems 1965-1975 (1980), Station Island (1984), The Haw Lantern (1987), New Selected Poems 1966-1987 (1990) and Seeing Things (1991). In 1999 he published a new translation of the Old English heroic poem Beowulf.
Seamus Heaney is a Foreign Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He was Professor of Poetry at Oxford from 1989 to 1994. In 1995 he received the Nobel Prize in Literature. Heaney has lived in Dublin since 1976. Since 1981 he has spent part of each year teaching at Harvard University, where he is a Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory. Writing about Heaney in 1968, Jim Hunter, said:
His own involvement does not exclude us: there are few private references, and the descriptive clarity of his writing makes it easy to follow...Heaney's world is a warm, even optimistic one: his tone is that of traditional sanity and humanity.
You can see whether, and how far, this is true of all the poems in the Anthology, some of which were written after these words.
Storm on the Island
The poem considers the ideas of isolation and living so close to nature. But mainly it depicts the destructive powers of nature, amplified for the island-dweller. Heaney refers to three of the elements - earth, water and air. The poem challenges the idea that island life is idyllic - the sea is not company but like a cat, seemingly tame, yet apt to turn savage and spit. At the end of the poem comes the irony - we are fearful of empty air, or a huge nothing. So the poem appears to question whether our fears are real or imaginary (of course, physicists and meteorologists know that air is not a huge nothing). Heaney uses a series of military metaphors: the wind (like a fighter-bomber) dives and strafes while space is a salvo and air bombards (a metaphor from artillery or, more aptly here, naval gunnery).
The poem is written in iambic pentameter lines - mostly blank verse, but with half-rhyming couplets at the beginning and end. The poem opens confidently, explaining why the island dwellers trust in their preparations - but when the storm breaks, they can do nothing but sit tight.
The poem begins by showing how the island dwellers adapt their outlook to their situation - so the fact that there is no hay becomes an advantage (no stacks/Or stooks that can be lost). But soon the disadvantages appear - the absence of trees means both that one cannot hear the sound of wind in leaves and branches, nor is there any natural shelter. On the other hand, the violence of nature can exceed what we expect to happen. We might have a picturesque idea of the sea crashing against the cliffs - spectacular, but not really threatening. But the wind is so strong that the spray hits the very windows of people's houses. Heaney explains this with the simile of a cat - much of the time one expects it to be company and tame (safe and predictable). But in the storm it turns savage and spits.
This seemingly simple poem shows how the perch lives up to its name - keeping its place while the river and everything else moves past or around it. Heaney uses the metaphor of holding the pass (like soldiers defending a strongpoint) to show how the perch remain unmoved. They may seem to sleep, as they are adoze (=dozing; Heaney makes up the word which is like asleep, alive and adrift in its form) but they rely on their muscle to guzzle the current. We see the fish from the human viewpoint, looking down into the clear river, but also from their own viewpoint - under the water-roof. The metaphor here, like a riddle, is of a kind popular in Old English poetry; it is called a kenning (Old English examples include helmet-bearer for warrior and whale-road for the sea).
Heaney says of this poem:
...these perch, although they are actually in the river, they are very much in a kind of fifty-five year old memory lake of my own...I think that water is immediately interesting. It's just as an element it is full of life. It is associated with origin, it is bright, it reflects you.
The poem has a simple form - five couplets with half-rhyme (assonance rhyme, which uses a different vowel sound in each rhyme word). The metre is mostly anapaestic, with some iambic feet, especially at the ends of the lines - this works because the stress falls on the last syllable, whether of two or three. The pattern is also varied at the start of some lines, which open with a stressed syllable - Perch, Near and Guzzling. (In terms of the metre this syllable serves as a poetic foot on its own.)
The poem is striking for the number of monosyllabic words the poet uses, and for groups of words with the same vowel: grunts...slubs...runty.
Heaney also indulges in wordplay - the two senses of perch in the first line and the pun on finland (not to be confused with the country of Finland) which is echoed by fenland.
Note: The Lower Bann river, which drains Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland is celebrated for its coarse fishing, and is probably the river mentioned here.
This poem gives a vivid account of picking blackberries. But it is really about hope and disappointment (how things never quite live up to our expectations) and blackberry picking becomes a metaphor for other experiences.
In the first section Heaney presents the tasting of the blackberries as a sensual pleasure - referring to sweet flesh, to summer's blood and to lust. He uses many adjectives of colour (how many can you find?) and suggests the enthusiasm of the collectors, using every available container to hold the fruit they have picked. There is also a hint that this picking is somehow violent - after the blood comes the claim that the collectors' hands were sticky as Bluebeard's (whose hands were covered with the blood of his wives).
The lusciousness of the fresh fruit contrasts with what it quickly becomes fur and rat-grey fungus, as lovely canfuls smell of rot.
The poem is set out in iambic pentameter couplets with half rhyme. Like many of Heaney's poems it is full of monosyllabic nouns: clot, knot, cans, pots, blobs, pricks, byre, fur, cache, bush, flesh and rot (there are others). The poem has a clear structure - the two sections match the two stages of the poet's thought.
This poem is ambiguous in its viewpoint, too. We see the view of a frustrated child in I...felt like crying and It wasn't fair, but a more detached adult view in the antithesis of Each year I hoped they'd keep, knew they would not. The poem looks at a theme that is as old as poetry itself - the transitoriness of pleasure (how good things do not last), and relates it to a familiar childhood experience.
Heaney suggests that what is true of blackberries may be true of good things generally. But this is argument by analogy. Nowadays we can preserve our fruit by freezing it - so does this mean that hopes are not disappointed after all?
Death of a Naturalist
This poem is similar to Blackberry-Picking in its subject and structure - here, too, Heaney explains a change in his attitude to the natural world, in a poem that falls into two parts, a sort of before and after. But here the experience is almost like a nightmare, as Heaney witnesses a plague of frogs like something from the Old Testament. You do not need to know what a flax-dam is to appreciate the poem, as Heaney describes the features that are relevant to what happened there - but you will find a note below. Click here to see this explanation.
The poem's title is amusingly ironic - by a naturalist, we would normally mean someone with expert scientific knowledge of living things and ecology (what we once called natural history), someone like David Attenborough, Diane Fossey (of Gorillas in the Mist fame) or Steve Irwin (who handles dangerous snakes). The young Seamus Heaney certainly was beginning to know nature from direct observation - but this incident cut short the possible scientific career before it had ever got started. We cannot imagine real naturalists being so disgusted by a horde of croaking frogs.
The poem has a fairly simple structure. In the first section, Heaney describes how the frogs would spawn in the lint hole, with a digression into his collecting the spawn, and how his teacher encouraged his childish interest in the process. In the second section, Heaney records how one day he heard a strange noise and went to investigate - and found that the frogs, in huge numbers, had taken over the flax-dam, gathering for revenge on him (to punish his theft of the spawn). He has an overwhelming fear that, if he puts his hand into the spawn again, it will seize him - and who knows what might happen then?
The poem is set out in two sections of blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter lines). Heaney uses onomatopoeia more lavishly here than in any poem - and many of the sounds are very indelicate: gargled, slap and plop and farting. The lexicon is full of terms of putrefaction, ordure (excrement or faeces) and generally unpleasant things - festered, rotted, slobber, clotted water, rank/With cowdung and slime kings.
In the first section, the poet notes the festering in the flax-dam, but can cope with this familiar scene of things rotting and spawn hatching. Perhaps, as an inquisitive child he felt some pride in not being squeamish - he thinks of the bubbles from the process as gargling delicately. He is confident in taking the frogspawn - he does it every year, and watches the jellied specks become fattening dots then turn into tadpoles. He has an almost scientific interest in knowing the proper names (bullfrog and frogspawn) rather than the teacher's patronizing talk of daddy and mammy, and in the idea of forecasting the weather with the spawn. (Not really very helpful, since you can see if it is raining or sunny by direct observation - no need to look at the frogspawn.)
The second section appears like a punishment from offended nature for the boy's arrogance - when he sees what nature in the raw is really like, he is terrified. This part of the poem is ambiguous - we see the horror of the plague of frogs, obscene and gathered...for vengeance, as it appeared to the young boy. But we can also see the scene more objectively - as it really was. If we strip away the effect of imagination, we are left with a swarm of croaking amphibians. This may bring out a difference between a child in the 1940s and a child in the west today. The 21st century child knows all about the frogs' habitat and behaviour from wildlife documentaries, but has never seen so many frogs at close range in real life. The young Heaney was used to seeing nature close up, but perhaps never got beyond the very simple account of mammy and daddy frogs. The teacher presents the amphibians as if they were people.
The arrival of the frogs is like a military invasion - they are angry and invade the dam; the boy ducks through hedges to hide from the enemy. Like firearms, they are cocked, or they are poised like mud grenades (a grenade is a hand-bomb - the frogs, in colour and shape, resemble the Mills Hand Bomb, used by British soldiers from the Great War to modern times).
The poem has some echoes of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner - in a shorter and more comic version: the would-be naturalist is, like the mariner, revolted by slimy things; the Ancient Mariner learns to love them as God's creatures. Heaney indulges in a riotous succession of disgusting descriptions: gross-bellied, slap and plop, obscene threats (suggesting swear words), farting and slime kings.
Wordsworth suggests that poets should use everyday language. In this poem, Heaney uses terms we do not expect to see in poetry, and presents nature as the very opposite of beautiful.
Notes on the poem
This poem is like Follower, as it shows how the young Heaney looked up to his elders - in this case both father and grandfather.
Seeing his father (now old) straining to dig flowerbeds, the poet recalls him in his prime, digging potato drills. And even earlier, he remembers his grandfather, digging peat. He cannot match men like them with a spade, but he sees that the pen is (for him) mightier, and with it he will dig into his past and celebrate them.
Heaney challenges the stereotype of Paddy with a spade. The stereotype contains some truth - Irishmen are justifiably well known for digging, but Heaney shows the skill and dignity in their labour. We see also see their sense of the work ethic - the father still digs in old age, the grandfather, when he was working, would barely stop to drink.
Note: the pen is snug as a gun because it fits his hand and is powerful. Heaney is from County Derry (Northern Ireland) but the poem was published in 1966, before the troubles, and this is not a reference to them.
This poem has a looser structure than Follower and looks at two memories - the father digging the potato drills, the grandfather digging turf, for which he was famous as the best digger on the peat bog. The poet celebrates not so much their strength as their expertise. The digger's technique is exactly explained (The coarse boot nestled on the lug...). Each man dug up what has real value
Again there are
The onomatopoeia (where the sound resembles or suggests meaning) is obvious in rasping, gravelly, sloppily, squelch and slap.
There is a central extended metaphor of digging and roots, which shows how the poet, in his writing, is getting back to his own roots (his identity, and where his family comes from). The poem begins almost as it ends, but only at the end is the writer's pen seen as a weapon for digging.
The poem is about the death of Heaney's infant brother (Christopher) and how people (including himself) reacted to this. The poem's title suggests a holiday but this break does not happen for pleasant reasons. For most of the poem Heaney writes of people's unnatural reactions, but at the end he is able to grieve honestly.
The boredom of waiting appears in the counting of bells but knelling suggests a funeral bell, rather than a bell for lessons. The modern reader may be struck by the neighbours' driving the young Seamus home - his parents may not have a car (quite usual then - Heaney was born in 1939, and is here at boarding school, so this is the 1950s) or, more likely, were too busy at home, and relied on their neighbours to help.
The father, apparently always strong at other funerals, is distraught (very upset) by his child's death, while the mother is too angry to cry. Big Jim (apparently a family friend) makes an unfortunate pun - he means to speak of a metaphorical blow, of course. The young Seamus is made uneasy by the baby's happiness on seeing him, by hand shaking and euphemisms (evasions, like Sorry for my trouble), and by whispers about him. When late at night the child's body is returned Heaney sees this as the corpse (not a person).
This contrasts wonderfully with the final section of the poem, where he is alone with his brother. Note the personal pronouns him, his, he - as opposed to the corpse. The calm mood is beautifully shown in the transferred epithet (Snowdrops/And candles soothed the bedside - literally they soothed the young Heaney). The flowers are a symbol in the poem, but also in reality for the family (a symbol of new life, after death). The bruise is seen as not really part of the boy - he is wearing it (a metaphor), as if it could come off. Heaney likens the bruise to the poppy, a flower linked with death and soothing of pain (opiates come from poppies). The child appears as if sleeping (a simile). We contrast the ugly corpse, stanched and bandaged, which becomes a sleeping child with no gaudy scars - dead, but, ironically, not disfigured. The last line of the poem is most poignant and skilful - the size of the coffin is the measure of the child's life. We barely notice that Heaney has twice referred to a box, almost a jokey name for a coffin.
Overall, we note the contrast between the embarrassing scenes earlier and the final section where, alone with his brother, Heaney can be natural.
The poem has a clear formal structure, in three line stanzas with a loose iambic metre. There are occasional rhymes but the poem's last two lines form a rhyming couplet, and emphasise the brevity of the child's life. Many of the lines run on - they are end stopped only in the last line of a stanza, and in three cases the lines run on from one stanza to the next. As in much of Heaney's poetry, there is no special vocabulary - mostly this is the common register of spoken English.
The title of this poem is ambiguous - it shows how the young Heaney followed his father literally and metaphorically.
The child sees farming as simply imitating his father's actions (close one eye, stiffen my arm), but later learns how skilled the work is. He recalls his admiration of his father then; but now his father walks behind (this metaphor runs through the poem). Effectively their positions are reversed. His father is not literally behind him, but the poet is troubled by his memory: perhaps he feels guilt at not carrying on the tradition of farming, or feels he cannot live up to his father's example.
The poem has several developed metaphors, such as the child's following in his father's footsteps and wanting to be like him. The father is sturdy while the child falls - his feet are not big enough for him to be steady on the uneven land.
There are many nautical references:
In these images the farmer is not shown as simple but highly skilled.
Heaney uses specialized terms (a special lexicon or register) from ploughing - terms such as wing, sock and headrig. There are many active verbs - rolled, stumbled, tripping, falling and yapping. There are lots of monosyllables and colloquial vocabulary, frequently as the rhyme word at the end of line. Some of these terms sound like their meaning (onomatopoeia), like clicking, pluck and yapping.
The metre of the poems is more or less iambic (in tetrameters - four poetic feet/eight syllables to each line) and rhymed in quatrains (stanzas of four lines). We see a phrase without a verb written as sentence: An expert. The poet uses contrast - apart from the general contrast of past and present we note how:
In thinking about the poem you might like to consider these questions:
At a Potato Digging
In this poem Heaney looks at man's relationship with the land - the cultivation of the potato is a way into Ireland's social history. The first and last of the four sections depict the digging and gathering in of the potato crop today. The second section looks more closely at the potato, and the third is an account of the great Potato Famine of 1845-1850. We sometimes associate the gathering in of food crops with offering thanks to God (as in the Harvest Festival) but here Heaney suggests that the Irish labourers have a superstitious or pagan fear of a nature god (the famine god) whom they must appease with their offerings.
Although the farmer uses a mechanical digger to turn up the soil in which the potatoes lie, the job of gathering in the potatoes still relies on human workers. The machine turns up the roots and the labourers, in a line, bend down to fill their wicker creels (baskets). As they fill their baskets, they leave the line to drop the potatoes into the pit, where they will be stored. Though the work is hard, and makes the workers' fingers go dead in the cold, they work almost automatically (mindlessly) made tough by their Centuries of/fear and homage to the famine god. The folk memory of the great famine makes them ready for almost any hardship, in pursuit of full stomachs.
The potatoes come in different colours (according to the variety). The second stanza explains how they sprout and grow in their native soil. Although the great famine, caused by blight, happened more than 150 years ago, still each year the potato harvest can be an anxious process, as the workers smell the potatoes and feel them for firmness - making sure they are free of the blight. (A fungus-like organism, called Phytophthora infestans, causes the disease. This organism harms only the potato and, to a lesser extent, the tomato, a member of the same plant family.) In this account, they come out, exuding good smells and undamaged by the digger - a clean birth, to be piled in pits. They resemble skulls, but are alive. They have eyes (sprouting points) but these are blind - they have not yet sprouted.
In the third stanza, Heaney uses exactly the same phrases - Live skulls, blind-eyed - but this time referring to the people who suffered in the great famine of 1845. Poor people (that is most people) in Ireland at this time relied almost wholly on the potato as their staple food. This explains why they would even eat the blighted root - but there was no real crop to speak of, and the blighted potatoes could not feed the people. The new potato, which seemed sound as stone, would rot within a few days of being stored - and millions rotted along with it. The phrase is ambiguous - it means that millions of potatoes rotted, but makes us think of the people who died. (The population of Ireland dropped from 8 million before the famine to 5 million afterwards. Perhaps a million died, while others left for England or the United States of America.)
Those who survived were famished - Heaney likens this to the sharp beaks of birds snipping at people's guts. The people are shown as desperate and demoralized - hungering from birth - and cursing the ground, the bitch earth. As this section moves back in time at the start, so it ends by returning to the present, where the potato diggers are and you still smell the running sore - as if the blight opened a wound that has never healed.
In the fourth and final section, the workers take their lunch break - they no longer depend on the potato for their own food (though they earn their pay by digging it). Instead they have brown bread and tea, and their employer serves it, while there is no shortage, and they take their fill. But they are not taking any chances - the earth is not to be trusted (faithless ground). As they throw away the dregs of the tea and their breadcrumbs, they make their offerings - libations - to this god whom they fear and must appease.
The poem has a clear formal structure - the four sections go together rather as the movements in a symphony. In presenting the main subject, the Potato Digging of the title, Heaney makes two excursions - to inspect the marvellous food plant in close-up, and to recall the terrible history with which it will always be associated in Irish memory.
The first and last sections have a loose iambic metre (a mix of tetrameters and pentameters) and a clear ABAB rhyme scheme - which breaks down only in the poem's final line. (Why might Heaney do this?). The second section has fewer rhymes in an irregular pattern, so the effect is not very obvious to the reader. But the third section uses rhyme in pairs: AABB and so on. Here the rhyme words are emphatic, an effect made stronger by the trochaic metre. (The stress usually falls on the first syllable of each pair. This metre works well for bitter political verse - Shelley uses it in his Mask of Anarchy.)
The poem abounds in images. Heaney uses natural metaphors - of rock (flint, pebbles and stone), of bodies (skulls and blind-eyed), or of animals (bird and bitch) - to describe things. There are many images that suggest religious belief or ceremony - but no mention of the established Christian faith: processional, god (note the small g), homage, altar, thankfully, fasts and libations (liquid offerings, usually poured onto the ground or an altar, in many ancient religions). Alliterative effects are everywhere - grubbing and grafted or pits and pus. And the Anglo-Saxon vocabulary, which is often monosyllabic, makes use of technical or dialect words, as well as sound effects (like onomatopoeia).
Small details are very telling, for example:
As in Digging, the labourers' work is a symbol - but of what?
Notes on the poem
This poem dates from the late 1960s. Perhaps farming methods have changed in Ireland since, but in most of the world still the work is done by human labour - and, just as in 19th century Ireland, many people's lives depend on a single crop.
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