Magazine 2014
International Peer-Reviewed Journal  
Rajshree Trivedi  
I plan to discuss the interplay of temporal shifts between the spatial and the spiritual / incorporeal  
or psychological patterns, artistically and aesthetically blended with the Irish pastoralism in Human  
Chain , the last collection of poems by Seamus Heaney. Time is a liquid entity in Heaney’s poems that  
blends intricately with the functions of the mind of the entities “I/me,” and at times, the “We/us.” This  
paper will confirm the proposed premises by re-reading the images intertwined with the poet’s  
constant consciousness of the time- “In illo tempore” (in that time), “in the years to come” and in “all the  
dynasties /of the dead.” It will also study the role of the Classical and Irish myths in connecting the  
three temporal phases while drawing analogies between the human and environment . Simultaneously,  
the paper will make quite a few allusions to ‘Wraiths’, ‘Sidhe and other existing and non-existing  
entities in County Derry in Northern Ireland. The poems are catalogued into two types in this essay- the  
family poems and the County Derry poems in order to explore the timeline concomitant to the  
psychological movements of the poet/speaker in the poems.  
Keywords : temporality, space, psyche, family poems, County Derry poems , afterlife.  
Everywhere plants  
Flourish among graves,  
Sinking their roots  
In all the dynasties  
Of the dead.  
The dead here are borne  
Towards the future. (‘A Herbal’, 35 & 38)  
Presenting Ireland live, throbbing with her human chain, struggling to survive in the “sepulchral  
version of [a] paradise”( Lordon, n.p.) within the spatial and temporal grids calls for an unstinted  
effort to weave a web of words, especially when the poet chooses to structure his poems predominantly  
in his favourite crisp tercet -stanza patterns. A close analysis of each of the poems in the collection  
Human Chain (2010) reveal that Seamus Heaney(1939-2013) artistically blends the past and the present  
moments set in the County Derry in Ireland, with frequent shifts into a time zone that belongs to  
neither of the two phases, but somewhere in the “elsewhere world, beyond / Maps and atlases,/  
Where all is woven into/And of itself,”( ‘A Herbal’, 43). Not that it has been one of the unpremeditated  
styles of Heaney to tilt, balance and raise the lever of his time machine so as to capture the glorious  
past of the Celtic culture of the pre-Christian times, or the civic disturbance of the pre and post  
Troubled Times or the ‘living breath’ (Toibin, n. p.) of the present Ireland, but the metaphysical  
broodings into these terrains come with a fresh fervour and imagination especially, in the group of  
poems titled under ‘Loughanure’, ‘Route 110’, ‘A Herbal’ and ‘The Riverbank Field’ in Human Chain.  
A maiden reading of Heaney’s poems without sufficient understanding of the cultural, political,  
social, historical elements or for that matter the physical anthropology of Ireland certainly leaves the  
reader with an experience of ‘Hush, backwash and echo” (‘Canopy’, 44) The readings of the poems  
that apparently appear to be short, crispy and slightly incomprehensible promise the reader a journey  
across the County Derry as well as to the mythopoeic worlds of Virgil, Guillievic, David Ward, Colin  
Middleton and other artists whom the poet celebrates in his “Elysium”( Album,’8). While a few of the  
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poems are written in memory of his parents, artist friends and mentors , many of them are reminiscences  
of the plain, simple beings with ‘a kind of empty- handedness/Transpired….” or at times, “the  
disregarded” ones or “the up close” ones from the community around him. Amidst the rich texture  
of words taken from the register of the local natural order, there is a resonant presence of the ‘ineluctable’  
and the ‘indelible’ whose ‘ embrace’, the speaker/ poet is fervently waiting for – a theme recurring in  
many of the poems.  
The poems in Death of a Naturalist (1966), Heaney’s first collection announced the heralding of a  
new poet who will contribute extensively to the world of English poetry for the next forty five years to  
come. ‘Digging’, the first poem in the collection has the speaker/ poet contemplating on his ‘would  
be’ profession of writing- “the squat pen rests” - as against the strenuous job of digging the potato  
farm- the familial profession. The resting pen slips into the past while looking down at the “gravelly  
ground” as he remembers the father and the grand father digging “to cut more turf in a day” and his  
inability to do so – “ But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.” However, the commitment towards  
the end- “The squat pen rests/ But I’ll dig with it.”- is a promise that was seriously fulfilled in the coming  
years of the Nobel Laureate’s career. A similar kind of experiential situation resonates in the epiphany  
in Human Chain (2010). It is the pen again in ‘The Conway Stewart’( a branded pen) gifted by the  
parents – “Guttery, snootery,/ Letting it rest then at an angle/ To ingest……To my longhand/ ‘Dear’/ To  
them, next day.” Close to the end of the Human Chain, there seems to be a fulfillment of a mission  
long undertaken that finds its further destination- the “Wisdom keeps welling in streams” - in the  
poem ‘Colum Cillle Cecinit. The process of demystification nevertheless, ends on a more, concluding,  
positive and maturity note that appeared to be more constrained in the first collection.  
A macroscopic overview of the recurring images, metaphors, places- the roads of County Derry- or  
the mythic patterns may sound to be repetitive and at times, more of the plodding ones in Human  
Chain. However, John Wilson Foster has a different argument on this observation. While commenting  
on Heaney’s poetic marvels achieved at the age of fifty and thereafter, Foster argues :  
The incidence of marvels apart, a good deal of Heaney’s recent poetry has been a revisitation of what  
he has already versified. But the revisitation is also a revision, made necessary, it would appear  
through a recent accession of love or affection and what can ever seem like late middle aged nostalgia  
The ‘“revision” exercise that began in the early fifties and continued to remain till the next two and  
more decades again took interesting turns with the poems that now talk about death, existence,  
solidarities and union. Politics, a subject that has always been secondary but prevalent in Heaney’s  
earlier collections faintly appears in the backdrop. The present that has entered the advanced stage  
of life has attained the lightheadedness” as that of a cabin boy who feels “rapturous” on his first sea  
voyage- the voyage representing the journey to the unknown world after death (‘In The Attic’, 84)  
For the present paper I intend to classify the poems in Human Chain into two catalogues: the family  
poems memorializing the past and the County Derry poems glorifying the present, but at the same  
time demystifying and deconstructing the “afterlife” of its inhabitants by traversing into the unknown  
terrains -beyond the realms of death and graveyard. The purpose behind cataloguing the poems into  
two sections is to examine the poems and to group them thematically in order to avoid any overlapping  
of critical concepts.  
The poems belonging to the catalogue of family poems are ‘Album’, “The Conway Stewart’, ‘The  
Butts,’ ‘Uncoupled,’ and ‘A Kite For Aibhin’. ‘Chanson d’ Aventure’ is a poem that certainly falls into  
this category but it exceptionally operates on two other levels apart from its major thrust on the conjugal  
relationship - the worldly/ physical journey viz-a-viz the spiritual/ metaphysical journey. I shall discuss  
these aspects further in the article.  
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The family poems (except ‘Chanson d’Aventure’) oscillate across three generations – the speaker’s  
parents, son and the grand daughters Rose and Aibhin. The past is ubiquitously present in the world  
that does not any longer inhabit the dear ones but their memories do. Hitherto, driven around the  
repetitive turns , the retroscopic caravan travels further to future towards the end of the collection. A  
symbiotic view of place, people, objects and events that found a way in the earlier poems make an  
indelible mark again thereby, creating a poetic synergy’ in the five poems grouped under the title  
Album’ – the Grove Hill in Derry, the parents and the “airy Sundays (‘Album’, 4). The overpowering  
elegiac tone fills the “summer season” redefining “the apt quotation/ About a love that’s proved by  
steady gazing/ Not at each other but in the same direction” (4), thereby, seemingly referring to the  
solidarity that the family shared without being too expressive about it. The enchanted moments spent  
together by the trio – the speaker and his parents “Shin-deep in hilltop bluebells, looking out/ At  
Magherafelt’s four spires in the distance”- travel back to an earlier “winter at the seaside.” The mood  
is that of celebration - the clinking of dishes, chandeliers, the smell of cooking fish and “ a skirl of  
gulls” at “the wedding meal”- tantalizing the senses thereby, forming a “synesthesia,” a term borrowed  
from David Fawbert’s critical views on Heaney (Connecting with Seamus Heaney, n.p.). The sudden  
shift of mood to “Stranded silence. Tears.” brings him back to the present world from where he started  
the journey to the past, amidst the noise of the boiler at home “Too late, alas” in life- referring to may  
be, the later part of his life while convalescing on his bed after a mild paralytic attack in 2006.  
Quite essentially, the “ pain of loss” of the parents, especially that of the figure of the father augment  
the family poems with a recurring mode of sentimentality, not much propounded in the earlier poems.  
In an otherwise difficult or rather detached father-son relationship, atypical of the Irish culture- “the  
paperiness”- the poems express autobiographical elements –his reminiscences of the farm house  
where he and his father were brought up in “a place where the style was undemonstrative and  
stoical” (Heaney, Interview, 1997). In yet another interview when asked by the interviewer whether he  
had actually expressed his feelings to his father, Heaney responded,” That kind of language would  
have been much suspect. We knew love. It wasn’t a matter of declaring it. It was proven (Heaney, 2008)  
The fourth and the fifth poem in ‘ Album’ move ahead from the possibility of having “embraced him  
father) anywhere” and his failed maiden attempt to do so, to the second and the third successful  
events and eventually to the grandson’s unhesitant “snatch raid” on his neck. The transition is  
suggested metaphorically by comparing it with the use of the English adverbial that originates from  
the Lain word ‘Verus” which means ‘true’ and has lost its actual lexical connotation over the period  
of long usage. The father is compared to the “Latin stem” – the Latin noun or verb that remains  
unchanged when inflections are added to it. The crisis is resolved in the poem ‘The Butts’ where the  
speaker honestly admits “ And we must learn to reach well in beneath/ Each meagre armpit / To lift  
and sponge him.” (13)  
While the father is “Working his way towards (the son) through the pen in the poem ‘Uncoupled’ the  
exercise of “waving and calling” him once again seems to go futile in the twin poem ‘Uncoupled’. The  
voice goes unheard amidst the “lowing and roaring’ of the lorry drivers and dealers resulting into a  
gradual disappearance of the figure from the visible periphery. Contradictory to the description of the  
father, the mother is majestically silent - “Walking tall, as if in a procession (10). Losing the sight of  
the mother is what the speaker along with his siblings -”we”- feels whereas the loss of the father is  
experienced by the speaker alone, an emotion circumventing around the ‘antiphonal’ responses  
existing between the heard and the unheard sounds of father in the second poem.  
Time floats backward and forth in the family poems. In ‘Album I’, the sound of the boiler heard “now”  
is compared to that of the “timed collapse / Of a sawn down tree.” The time zone shifts to the “summer  
season” in past “before the oaks were cut”. The temporal zone is connected with the word “dawns”,  
an internal rhyme. The calendar is narrowed down to “Sundays” and leaps to the present with at regret  
Too late, alas, now’ bringing him back to where the poem began with “Now.” The “oak” reappears in  
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Album II with the time element now shifted to his school days when Heaney was about to enter the  
Junior House. The parting parents and the future possibility “A grey eye will look back” of sorrow soon  
shift to the present where he stands “Seeing them as a couple, I now see where the intensity of the  
loss of pain” is still as much it was felt then – the time when he “had to turn and walk away” for  
entering into his secondary school.  
Quite contradictory to the visual effect of “Seeing them (the parents) as a couple, is the diptych –  
Uncoupled.’ The twin poems begin with the common phrase- “Who is this” and proceed to drift to  
different ways. Both the parents walk into the present from the past and leave the scene quickly  
leaving a timeless effect. The mother- “proceeds until we have lost sight of her” - and the father – “his  
eyes leave mine’ – emerge as floating figures and are lost forever in the “lowing and roaring” laser-fast  
humdrums of the world. The lack of emotionality and communication is a result of the psychological  
barrier that has been reflected in the ‘Album’ poems but gets reconciled in ‘The Butts in the “sniffs”,  
lifts” and “sponges” that he offers to the ailing father from which what emerges is a “kind of empty-  
handedness / Transpired.” However, the reconciliation does not end there; there is a promise at the  
end of the poem “To keep working” for him.  
Locations and moments once again interplay on the spatial-temporal grid in ‘Chanson d’Aventure’.  
The past is recalled. The trigger word is “Apart” which the poet feels –”The very word is like a bell”(17)  
and then the memories shift to the times of illo tempore in the location of the cemetery where the  
knoll was rung by a sexton in Bellaghy, to the college in Derry where he offered his services as the  
bellman, to the ambulance drive through Dungloe and Glendoan, the midway halt at the museum in  
Delphi in Greece where the statue of Heniokos (410 BC) is preserved with one of its hands lopped.  
The stream of consciousness get folded at the corridor of the hospital where the physiotherapist is  
trying to bring back the sensation into the hand that “lay flop-heavy as a bellpull” (17). The physical  
journey by ambulance on “Sunday morning” is silent yet, eloquent of not only the fulfillment of the  
conjugal promises but also the spiritual union of the “body and soul.” The regret that the couple could  
have otherwise, on a Sunday morning “quote Donne/ On love on hold” seems to be compensated by  
the “gaze ecstatic” and their “eyebeams threaded laser-fast” while on their way speedily to the hospital  
for the treatment of Heaney’s paralytic attack in 2006.  
Quintessentially apart, one of the poems in Human Chain that may not be catalogued as a family  
poem – ‘Miracle’, could very well be treated as a poem that conveys universal feelings of brotherhood,  
care and solidarity. The title ‘Miracle’ and the word “healing” does not signify divinity but accentuates  
the solidarity shown by “those ones who have known him all along”- “Their shoulders numb, the ache  
and stoop deeplocked / In their backs.” The tone is imperative and beholden -”Be mindful of them as  
they stand and wait/ For the burn of the paid-out ropes to cool”- so as to underline the cooperation  
extended by the fellow beings.  
Often labeled as a ‘regionalist’, the catalogue of County Derry poems celebrate the locations such as  
Grove Hill, The Wood Road, Long Rigs, Back Park, Smithfield Market or Anahorish Hill. Webbed with  
the wefts of personal , spiritual or the political experiences and events, these locations weave around  
the “universe…..[B]etween heather and marigold/ Between sphagnum and butter-cup/ Between  
dandelion and broom” (‘A Herbal’, 43) that is alive, eloquent and personified as speaking the “Compliant  
dialect” that makes them “keep going”. The ‘ peaceful homes’ at Upper Broagh and the River Moyola  
in County Derry are mythologized as Virgil’s Elysium and the River Lithe in the poem ‘The Riverbank  
Field.’ Moths, midge, willow leaves and the “ grass so fully fledged” fill the “sequestered grove” as  
he sees the “spirits” passing by. Each of them are as if summoned here after one thousand years  
to drink river water/ so that the memories of this underworld are shed.” The magic of the place is so  
enchanting that the “soul is longing to dwell in flesh and blood/ Under the dome of the sky” ( 47)  
reminiscent of the Wordsworthian vision- “Our birth is but a sleep and forgetting.”  
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Lythe is replaced by Styx and the “spirits” by the men compared to the newly deceased lot of souls  
boarded on ‘Charon’s barge” in the poems grouped under the title ‘Route 110.’ The Smithfield  
Market held on Saturdays are crowded, flooded and fetid with the domestic and utility wares. The  
mechanical qualities of the marketers are modeled on the Greek mythological allusions of the souls  
ferried by the Man of Hades on Charon’s barge, thus transforming the mundane or ordinary into  
mystical. Alternatively, Venus’ doves are localized as Mr. McNicholls’ pigeons; and Aeneas’ journey  
into the underworld in search of his lost father in the Aeneid is contemporized as a journey from County  
Derry to Cookstown in County Tyrone, five to six miles away from Derry by bus. Although physically  
en route to Cookstown via Toome and Magherafelt, the journey transposes to temporal and  
psychological shifts in which the destination in the twelfth or the last poem is not Cookstown but the  
birth of the grand daughter. The interiors of the mind are unfolded on the way with two varied experiences  
the one of the coarseness of the tarpaulin coat in harsh winters in Ireland as against the the coat –  
a wedding guest’s bargain suit/ Of “finest weave, loose-fitting, summery, grey. “  
The fifth poem in ‘Route 110’ reveals a state of “silvered smattering”- gaining superficial knowledge  
but in this case offering “the wee alter a bit of shine”. Old Mrs. Nick’s handing over a flicker of light is  
not only a torch to reach home at night but an awakening of the self, the enlightenment that reappears  
in the last poem where he arrives with his “bunch of stalks and silvered heads like tapers that won’t dim  
” Thus the journey that began on “an isle/ Smelling of dry rot and disinfectant” ends in “Virgil’s happy  
shades in pure blanched raiment.”  
Being one with the universe by way of connecting with nature is the major concern of the nineteen  
poems grouped under the title ‘A Herbal’. The poems are written after the French poet Eugene Guillevic’s  
long poem Herbier de Bretagne. If “Brittany acts as a centre of gravitation in his (Guillevic’s)  
oeuvre”(Harvey, 2), County Derry does the same in case of Heaney. Although celebrating their respective  
regions in their works, both of them transgress beyond the elements of nature, topography and the  
inhabitants- ancestral as well as the contemporaries. There are political, spiritual and personal  
connotations to each poem. The juxtaposition of death-birth, decay-growth, inner-outer consciousness,  
universe-rat’s hole, graveyard grass-field grass creates a picture of omnipresence of self-”I had my  
existence, I was there,/ Me in place and the place in me.”(43). Nature possesses the quality of  
Not that the grass itself  
Ever rests in peace.  
It too takes issue,  
Now sets its face  
To the wind,  
Now turns its back (36)  
So does the soul in its process of birth, death and reincarnation found in the II Parking Lot in the  
sequence titled ‘Wraiths’. The timeline framed is that of the White night when the sky is completely not  
dark but twilit with “weird brightness” when the couple climb into a bus –”reboarded/ And were  
reincarnated seat by seat” (67). Again the couple referred to is formed by a man and “sidhe”- an  
unreal figure turned into reality. The cycle however, forms a complete chain in the last poem ‘A Kite  
For Aibhin’ that ends with the birth of Heaney’s second grand daughter. The kite is a metaphor of soul  
that glides from “Air from another life and time and place” (85). The struggle or the journey it undergoes  
before being born is expressed by the lines “And now it hovers, tugs, veers, dives askew/ Lifts itself,  
goes with the wind until/ It rises to loud cheers from us below.”(85). The cycle is complete, full and  
towards the real.  
Commenting upon how his personal experiences, be that of the regional, ancestral, temporal or  
historical transmute into a poetic or creative experience, Heaney quotes one of his poems- ‘A  
Shiver’- from the collection District And Circle. He states:  
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In my last book I did a poem about a sledgehammer hitting a post, but I think it wasn’t just a physical  
sensation I was trying to get at. It was about the full exercise of merciless, violent power. It was a poem  
written after Iraq. There were no Iraq references in it, but it is about the sense of transgression you have  
when you utterly, mercilessly use a sledgehammer, even when hitting a dead post. There’s a kind of  
unrestrained fury, an unforgiving brutality to it that I wanted to get. So I think that you can transmit  
sensation but hopefully suggest and effect a consequence as well (Heaney, 2008)  
Heaney’s poems can be read as “meta-poem(s)” ( Ozawa, 100). The sudden realization or enlightenment  
that “lapsed ordinary” was electrifying in the first poem ‘ Had I Not Been Awake’ in Human Chain.  
Announcing the breakthrough – “A wind that rise and whirled” (3), Heaney seems to ascertain that the  
rest of the poems were a result of the trigger point that was pulled - “And almost it seemed dangerously/  
Returning like an animal to the house”(3). There is a sense of narrow escape- “Had I not been awake  
I would have missed it” (3). The poetical emancipation of that experience results into what Heaney  
says in ‘ Colum Cille Cecinit’ (72):  
My small runny pen keeps going  
Through books, through thick and thin,  
To enrich the scholars’ holdings-  
Penwork that cramps my hand. (72).  
Heaney’s vast repertoire of poetry collections as well as prose works may offer varied research prospects  
for his readers. Nevertheless, one enjoys the simplicity and frequent conversational quality of his  
poems that may be read as independent readings but a plunge into the deeper realms of their registers  
would surely open up what could be borrowed from Human Chain as “a wind freshened and the  
anchor weighed” (‘In The Attic’, 84) for embarking on to a poetic journey to the “Poet’s imaginings/  
And memories of love” ( ‘Hermit Songs’,79).  
Fawbert, David. Connecting with Seamus Heaney at the blog on Web.  
Foster, John Wilson. ‘Creating Marvels: Heaney After 50" in The Cambridge Companion to Seamus  
Heaney. ed. Bernard O’Donoghue. Oxford University Press: UK, 2009. Print,  
Harvey, Stella. Myth And The Sacred In The Poetry of Guillevic . Faux Titre, The Netherlands, 1997.  
Heaney, Seamus. Human Chain. Faber and Faber: London, 2011. Print.  
Interviewed by Henri Cole in ‘The Art of Poetry No. 75’ in The Paris Review . Fall No. 1997, No. 144.  
Interviewed by Eleanor Watchtel for Brick 81, Summer 2008. This interview took place before just  
before the publication of Human Chain in 2010. Web.  
Lordon, Dave. ‘Book Review of Human Chain By Seamus Heaney’ in The Stinging Fly. Issue 18, vol.  
Two/ Spring 2011. Web.  
Ozawa, Shigeru. The Poetics Of Symbiosis: Reading Seamus Heaney’s Major Works. Sankeisha 2-  
4-1: Japan, 2009. Print  
Toibin. Colm. ‘Book Review of Human Chain By Seamus Heaney’ in The Guardian . August 21,  
010. Web.  
Rajshree Trivedi : Associate Professor, of English, Maniben Nanavati Women’s College, Mumbai