Author logo Poems by Seamus Heaney - study guide

Introduction
About the poet
Storm on the Island
Perch
Blackberry-Picking
Death of a Naturalist
Digging
Mid-Term Break
Follower
At a Potato Digging
The Early Purges
The Play Way
Comparing the poems
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Introduction

This guide gives detailed readings of poems by Seamus Heaney, with ideas for study.

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:

Main section headings look like this

Sub-section headings look like this

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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.

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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”.

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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”.

  • How in this poem does Heaney suggest the power of nature?
  • Does the poem suggest that extreme weather is frightening or enjoyable for people (or both, perhaps)?
  • What do you think is the meaning of the last line of the poem?

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Perch

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.”

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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”.

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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.

  • What is the poet's view of the perch?
  • In what ways are the perch like people?
  • How does the poet describe the river here?
  • Explain the way the poet contrasts ideas of movement and staying still in Perch.
  • How does the poet use sound effects in the poem?

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Blackberry-picking

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 half of the poem Heaney describes the picking - from the appearance of the first fruit to the frenzy of activity as more fruit ripens.
  • The second half of the poem concerns the attempt to preserve the berries - always a failure, as the fungus set in and the fruit fermented. (Now that many people in the west have freezers, this problem is solved. But do many young people still go to pick blackberries?)

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).

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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.

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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?

  • How far is this poem about something particular or about life in general?
  • Explain how the poem contrasts ideas of expected pleasure and disappointment.
  • Does this poem give the viewpoint of a child or an adult or both?
  • Can you explain why Heaney, in the last line, says that he “hoped” for something, even though he “knew” it would not happen?

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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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.

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Notes on the poem
  • Flax is an annual plant (it grows from seed) some one to two feet high, with blue flowers. A flax dam (traditionally called a lint hole), in Northern Ireland is not really a dam, but a pool where bundles (called “beets”) of flax are placed for about three weeks to soften the stems. The process is called “retting”. Those who used to do this work report that the smell is very strong and unpleasant. Heaney describes the flax as held down by “sods” (large clumps of earth or turf - a favourite word of the poet: count how often he uses it here and in other pieces). In some dams large stones would hold down the flax. Fibre from flax was cleaned and spun into yarn, woven into linen and bleached.
  • The townland is the smallest administrative area in Northern Ireland. They range in size from less than an acre to well over 2,000, while the average is some 300 acres. The boundaries between them are often streams or old roads.
  • Be careful how you write naturalist - keep the “al” in it, and don't mix it up with naturist, which is an old name for someone who takes off his or her clothes, to live in a “state of nature”!

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  • How would you react (as a young adult or as a child) to the sight of a horde of frogs invading a familiar place?
  • How far does this poem tell the truth about frogs and how far does it tell the reader about the power of imagination?
  • Is this poem comic, serious or both? How far does the poet invite us to laugh at him?
  • Heaney describes the frogs' heads as “farting”. As a boy he might have said this word to friends, but would not repeat it at home or write it in school work. How does it work in the poem?
  • Is it a good idea for teachers of the young to explain how animals live by describing them in human terms, like “mammy” (mum or mummy) and “daddy”?
  • How well does this poem fit in with your ideas of what poetry should normally be like?
  • How truthful is the title? Did Heaney really lose his interest in, and love of, nature. Or does the poem record only a dramatic change of attitude, or something else? (Note, for example, that the poem called Perch was published in 2001.)
  • Does this poem have anything in common with other poems by Heaney? How far does it fit into a pattern of poems that show him not to be a real country person (like his father and grandfather) - because he can't dig, he can't plough, he gets upset when the blackberries start rotting and he is frightened by a lot of frogs?

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Digging

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.

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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

  • food - “new potatoes”, and
  • fuel - “the good turf”.

Again there are

  • technical terms (“lug”, “shaft”) and
  • monosyllabic (“bog”, “sods”, “curt cuts”) or
  • colloquial terms: “By God, the old man could handle a spade.”

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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.

  • How does the poem explore ideas of heritage and family tradition?
  • What does the poem suggest about physical labour?
  • Explain in your own words the image in the last line of the poem.

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Mid-Term Break

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).

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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.

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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.

  • Contrast the reactions of the two parents - how does the reader react to this? With whom, do you think, is the mother angry?
  • How does the poem contrast the fuss of the homecoming with the calmness of the scene when Seamus sees his brother's body?
  • What do you think is the meaning of the poem's last line?

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Follower

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 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:

  • The father's shoulders are like the billowing sail of a ship.
  • The “sod” rolls over “without breaking” (like a wave).
  • The child stumbles “in his wake” and dips and rises on his father's back.
  • “Mapping the furrow” is like navigating a ship.

In these images the farmer is not shown as simple but highly skilled.

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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:

  • the father's control is effortless (“clicking tongue” or “single pluck/Of reins”) while the powerful horses (“sweating team”) strain, and how
  • the young Seamus “wanted to grow up and plough.” but all he “ever did was follow”.

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In thinking about the poem you might like to consider these questions:

  • What does the poem show of the relationship of father and son, and how time has changed this?
  • What does the last line of the poem mean? Does Heaney really want his father to “go away”?
  • Is this a poem about farming specifically or is it relevant to other skills and occupations? How does Heaney explore the idea of family tradition here?

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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).

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Small details are very telling, for example:

  • We note how the workers are able to stand upright for a moment, before stooping again. The image suggests the way in which people with natural dignity are forced to bow to their toil and humble themselves. The modern labourers may be free, but they may also still have something of the servile mentality.
  • We see, too, that the starving people live in wicker huts - a suitable material for the strong but light creels, yet somehow not substantial enough for a comfortable and fireproof home.

As in Digging, the labourers' work is a symbol - but of what?

  • Are they digging up their past, a folk memory or a grievance that will never be put right?

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Notes on the poem
  • “Drill”, in the first line, does not refer to a machine, but the row of potatoes - called a “drill” because the machine or person that plants the seed-potatoes (not really seeds, but sprouting tubers) drills a series of holes into which the seed-potatoes go.
  • “in 'forty-five” refers to the first year of the Irish Potato Famine - 1845. The significance of the date may depend on the reader. English readers may think of 1945 (the end of World War Two) and Scots may think of 1745 (the Jacobite uprising under Bonnie Prince Charlie). The omission of the first two digits also suggests the viewpoint of the people at the time (as we now talk of the Swinging Sixties, rather than the 1960s) who do not need to identify the century. By using the same form, Heaney suggests the way the memory has been passed on and kept alive in the oral tradition.

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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.

  • How, in this poem, does Heaney connect past and present?
  • What view does the poem give of man's relationship with the earth?
  • Does the poet really think (and want the reader to think) of the earth as a “bitch” and “faithless”?
  • Modern readers in the west may no longer have a sense of where our food comes from - does this poem challenge us not to take things for granted?
  • How does this poem explore ideas of religion, ritual and ceremony?

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The Early Purges

What is it about?

The poem is about how we lose innocence. It is ambiguous and ironic - Heaney appears to endorse the view that "sentiments" displaced by "living" are "false", but ends with an unconvincing cliché: "Pests have to be kept down", and a cheap jeer at townies. In fact the young Heaney's reaction seems to be the one the poet really approves.

The poem's argument

The poem recalls a particular incident (the "first" time Heaney, as a boy, witnessed the farmhand killing kittens) and how he (the poet) became used to this in time. Now, he writes, he has a similar indifference to the death of animals. Note how Dan Taggart justifies his action by suggesting kitten have no value ("scraggy wee shits") and the adult Heaney does the same, even swearing like Dan ("bloody pups"). We see an older person try to deceive a child to protect him from his compassion ("Sure isn't it better for them now?" - but the child is not convinced).

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Technique

There are some striking details. The title is a country expression for emptying one's bowels - this idea is developed in the reference to dung. There is a suggestion of the sound of drowning in "frail metal" and "tiny din", and onomatopoeia in "sickening tug". The kitten is likened (simile) to "wet gloves" (woollen gloves, which become waterlogged) and later to "dung" - they are put on the "dunghill" and become like dung.

Most striking of all is the oxymoron "glossy and dead" (a glossy coat is usually seen as a sign of animal health). There is irony at the end - sentiments are not "false" (and saying this doesn't make them so) and "it makes sense" is not true. Honest and direct language earlier in the poem is here replaced by cliché: "cuts ice" and "pests have to be kept down" - this would be inept if Heaney really thought the expressions persuasive. Tight and regular rhymed three-line stanzas (loosely terza rima) carry the argument clearly. Note: there is a comma after "still" (it works like "nevertheless" or "all the same"; it does not qualify "living").

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The Play Way

This poem presents a lesson in which children listen to classical music and write without any other direction. There is no sense of direct or didactic instruction from the teacher (no “writing frames” or “literacy strategy”). There is also no sense of judgement - or “assessment”. At the time of its publication (1966), the poem may have seemed to capture the spirit of the times - it is optimistic and positive, trusting the child to find his or her own truths and medium of expression. It also makes a daring connection between the sensual (but not primarily rational or intelligible) pleasure of listening to classical music and the more considered and reflective activity of writing. The teacher's “notes” (what today would be the lesson plan) describe the activity, but without any mention of “aims” or “targets”.

The poem is ambiguous: the poet sees that the children are unsure what to do, yet sees that something has happened - there are “new looks”. The teacher is comfortable with the idea that the children “have forgotten” him. The last line seems to apply both to the notes in the concerto and to the children.

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Over the time since Heaney wrote the poem, this liberal and humane approach to learning first became almost the mainstream practice, only to be attacked and rejected for a more explicitly didactic and systematic approach, driven by concerns (or fears?) about attainment and “targets”.

We note that the poet is present as the teacher - we will find this in other poems, such as Lawrence's A Snowy Day at School. (Seamus Heaney, like Lawrence, really did work as a teacher for a while.) He writes himself into the scene. Like many of the poets, he writes of the children generally. (In this small selection there seems to be a gender difference here - it is the women who name names and write of individuals. Is this typical of anything more widespread? Or is it merely a quirk of the selection of poems?)

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The poet uses no special lexis - though one contemporary neologism quickly passed out of the common register, and now helps us fix the date of the poem. This is the final verb in the question: “Can we jive?” Heaney writes as if he shares a common culture with his readers - so, for example, he refers to “Beethoven's Concerto Number Five”. He can suppose that, at the very least, they will know that Beethoven is one of the very greatest of composers. Perhaps he expects them to know, too, that the piece in question is the Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat, Opus 73, known as the Emperor Concerto. Some of them may even know what this concerto sounds like.

There is a more obscure reference in “mixing memory and desire”. Heaney may be using it comically - it comes from the bleak opening of T.S. Eliot's modernist poetic manifesto, The Waste Land. But the phrase “with chalk dust” is incongruous and fairly bathetic - not a very reverent use of this highly serious (but perhaps self-important and grandiose) line.

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Heaney expects the reader to share an interest in what fascinates him - the way these young learners and writers struggle to express themselves. He does not seem to seek credit for what nonetheless may appear admirable to many readers - his patience in not intervening, but allowing the children (in a safe and familiar environment) to work out their own solutions. In today's system preoccupied with levels, grades and targets, such confidence might be impossible. The title of the poem seems gently to mock this liberal approach - but it is ambiguous, and a trap for our prejudices. We may assume that “play” is somehow inferior to real study. But Heaney perhaps also thinks here of the old proverb about how all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy - and “dull” in the proverb carries its original sense of lacking intelligence. (We preserve this sense in its opposites “bright” and “brilliant”.) Any hint of mockery in the title is not sustained in the poem that follows.

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The poem, on closer inspection contains details that the poet sees as familiar to contemporary readers - but which now read like evidence for social history. “Milk-tops” are the tin-foil seals for the glass bottles (a third of a pint in capacity) filled with milk that were issued, at the expense of the British government, to schoolchildren. The “drinking straws” would be passed through a hole or tear in the foil top. The “record” is the vinyl disc - still a familiar sight in clubs, but increasingly rare in domestic music-playing systems. And the “pens” were perhaps still of the kind the writer would dip into an inkwell - these were in common use up to 1970. (The writer of this guide was using them in the year when Heaney published this poem.) The reference to “snares” may strike us now as archaic and bucolic - Heaney came from the country, and the children in the class would have seen snares, and probably set them. Today we may know that they are some kind of animal trap, but we maybe cannot visualize how they work.

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Comparing poems

You may be asked to do this in an exam. While you write about one poem, make brief references to another, if relevant. At the end of your work, try to bring the two together - exam boards gives marks for cross-references. GCSE examiners expect this for higher grades.

Follower and Digging are about Heaney, as a child, and his father (and grandfather). Both poems:

  • compare what Heaney has become, with his and his elders' expectations of him when younger
  • have a structure which relates past to present
  • develop a single central metaphor - which appears in the title
  • refer to real, recollected experiences from the writer's childhood
  • try to show the dignity in occupations which are often ridiculed by the educated

The Early Purges and Mid-Term Break are about death, but are very different in approach. Both:

  • are rooted in childhood experiences but the effect of one is much more harmful than the other
  • have similar three-line stanza, and (like Follower and Digging) have shift of view in latter part of the poem
  • quote direct speech which the poet recalls

But where one leads to an ambiguous and cynical conclusion, the other is open and honest, in the same way in which Follower is able to display emotion (love of a father) freely.

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© Andrew Moore, 2002, 2004; Contact me

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