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Seamus Heaney Poems

One: 1966–1969

‘Digging’
From Death of a Naturalist

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

 

Copyright © The Estate of Seamus Heaney, 1966. Used by permission of Faber & Faber Ltd. All rights reserved.

‘The Peninsula’
From Door into the Dark

When you have nothing more to say, just drive
For a day all round the peninsula.
The sky is tall as over a runway,
The land without marks, so you will not arrive

But pass through, though always skirting landfall.
At dusk, horizons drink down sea and hill,
The ploughed field swallows the whitewashed gable
And you’re in the dark again. Now recall

The glazed foreshore and silhouetted log,
That rock where breakers shredded into rags,
The leggy birds stilted on their own legs,
Islands riding themselves out into the fog,

And drive back home, still with nothing to say
Except that now you will uncode all landscapes
By this: things founded clean on their own shapes,
Water and ground in their extremity.

 

Copyright © The Estate of Seamus Heaney, 1969. Used by permission of Faber & Faber Ltd. All rights reserved.

Two: 1970–1975

‘Anahorish’
From Wintering Out

My ‘place of clear water’,
the first hill in the world
where springs washed into
the shiny grass

and darkened cobbles
in the bed of the lane.
Anahorish, soft gradient
of consonant, vowel-meadow,

after-image of lamps
swung through the yards
on winter evenings.
With pails and barrows

those mound-dwellers
go waist-deep in mist
to break the light ice
at wells and dunghills.

 

Copyright © The Estate of Seamus Heaney, 1972. Used by permission of Faber & Faber Ltd. All rights reserved.

‘Punishment’
From North

I can feel the tug
of the halter at the nape
of her neck, the wind
on her naked front.

It blows her nipples
to amber beads,
it shakes the frail rigging
of her ribs.

I can see her drowned
body in the bog,
the weighing stone,
the floating rods and boughs.

Under which at first
she was a barked sapling
that is dug up
oak-bone, brain-firkin:

her shaved head
like a stubble of black corn,
her blindfold a soiled bandage,
her noose a ring

to store
the memories of love.
Little adulteress,
before they punished you

you were flaxen-haired,
undernourished, and your
tar-black face was beautiful.
My poor scapegoat,

I almost love you
but would have cast, I know,
the stones of silence.
I am the artful voyeur

of your brains exposed
and darkened combs,
your muscles’ webbing
and all your numbered bones:

I who have stood dumb
when your betraying sisters,
cauled in tar,
wept by the railings,

who would connive
in civilized outrage
yet understand the exact
and tribal, intimate revenge.

 

Copyright © The Estate of Seamus Heaney, 1975. Used by permission of Faber & Faber Ltd. All rights reserved.

Three: 1976–1984

‘Song’
From Field Work

A rowan like a lipsticked girl.
Between the by-road and the main road
Alder trees at a wet and dripping distance
Stand off among the rushes.

There are the mud-flowers of dialect
And the immortelles of perfect pitch
And that moment when the bird sings very close
To the music of what happens.

 

Copyright © The Estate of Seamus Heaney, 1979. Used by permission of Faber & Faber Ltd. All rights reserved.

‘The Underground’
From Station Island

There we were in the vaulted tunnel running,
You in your going-away coat speeding ahead
And me, me then like a fleet god gaining
Upon you before you turned to a reed

Or some new white flower japped with crimson
As the coat flapped wild and button after button
Sprang off and fell in a trail
Between the Underground and the Albert Hall.

Honeymooning, mooning around, late for the Proms,
Our echoes die in that corridor and now
I come as Hansel came on the moonlit stones
Retracing the path back, lifting the buttons

To end up in a draughty lamplit station
After the trains have gone, the wet track
Bared and tensed as I am, all attention
For your step following and damned if I look back.

 

Copyright © The Estate of Seamus Heaney, 1984. Used by permission of Faber & Faber Ltd. All rights reserved.

Four: 1985–1991

III, from ‘Clearances’
From The Haw Lantern

When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.

So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives –
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.

 

Copyright © The Estate of Seamus Heaney, 1987. Used by permission of Faber & Faber Ltd. All rights reserved.

xliii, from ‘Squarings’
From Seeing Things

Choose one set of tracks and track a hare
Until the prints stop, just like that, in snow.
End of the line. Smooth drifts. Where did she go?

Back on her tracks, of course, then took a spring
Yards off to the side; clean break; no scent or sign.
She landed in her form and ate the snow.

Consider too the ancient hieroglyph
Of ‘hare and zig-zag’, which meant ‘to exist’,
To be on the qui vive, weaving and dodging

Like our friend who sprang (goodbye) beyond our ken
And missed a round at last (but of course he’d stood it):
The shake-the-heart, the dew-hammer, the far-eyed.

 

Copyright © The Estate of Seamus Heaney, 1991. Used by permission of Faber & Faber Ltd. All rights reserved.

Five: 1992–2001

‘The Errand’
From The Spirit Level

‘On you go now! Run, son, like the devil
And tell your mother to try
To find me a bubble for the spirit level
And a new knot for this tie.’

But still he was glad, I know, when I stood my ground,
Putting it up to him
With a smile that trumped his smile and his fool’s errand,
Waiting for the next move in the game.

 

Copyright © The Estate of Seamus Heaney, 1996. Used by permission of Faber & Faber Ltd. All rights reserved.

‘The Clothes Shrine’
From Electric Light

It was a whole new sweetness
in the early days to find
light white muslin blouses
on a see-through nylon line
drip-dying in the bathroom
or a nylon slip in the shine
of it’s own electricity –
as if St. Brigid once more
had rigged up a ray of sun
like the one she’d strung on air
to dry her own cloak on
(hard-pressed Brigid, so
unstoppably on the go) –
the damp and slump and unfair
drag of the workday
made light of and got through
as usual, brilliantly.

 

Copyright © The Estate of Seamus Heaney, 2001. Used by permission of Faber & Faber Ltd. All rights reserved.

Six: 2002–2010

‘Anything Can Happen’
From District and Circle

Anything can happen. You know how Jupiter
Will mostly wait for clouds to gather head
Before he hurls the lightning? Well, just now
He galloped his thunder cart and his horses

Across a clear blue sky. It shook the earth
And the clogged underearth, the River Styx,
The winding streams, the Atlantic shore itself.
Anything can happen, the tallest towers

Be overturned, those in high places daunted,
Those overlooked regarded. Stropped-beak Fortune
Swoops, making the air gasp, tearing the crest off one,
Setting it down bleeding on the next.

Ground gives. The heaven’s weight
Lifts up off Atlas like a kettle-lid.
Capstones shift, nothing resettles right.
Telluric ash and fire-spores boil away.

 

Copyright © The Estate of Seamus Heaney, 2006. Used by permission of Faber & Faber Ltd. All rights reserved.

‘Human Chain’
From Human Chain

Seeing the bags of meal passed hand to hand
In close-up by the aid workers, and soldiers
Firing over the mob, I was braced again

With a grip on two sack corners,
Two packed wads of grain I’d worked to lugs
To give me purchase, ready for the heave –

The eye-to-eye, one-two, one-two upswing
On to the trailer, then the stoop and drag and drain
Of the next lift. Nothing surpassed

That quick unburdening, backbreak’s truest payback,
A letting go which will not come again.
Or it will, once. And for all.

 

Copyright © The Estate of Seamus Heaney, 2010. Used by permission of Faber & Faber Ltd. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Seamus Heaney was born in County Derry in Northern Ireland. Death of a Naturalist, his first collection of poems, appeared in 1966 and was followed by poetry, criticism and translations which established him as the leading poet of his generation. In 1995 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature and twice won the Whitbread Book of the Year, for The Spirit Level (1996) and Beowulf (1999). Stepping Stones, a book of interviews conducted by Dennis O’Driscoll, appeared in 2008; Human Chain, his last volume of poems, was awarded the 2010 Forward Prize for Best Collection. He died in 2013. His translation of Virgil’s Aeneid Book VI was published posthumously in 2016 to critical acclaim, followed in 2018 by 100 Poems, a selection of poems from his entire career, chosen by his family.

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