Seamus Heaney Selected Poems

Seminar Paper, 2005

21 Pages, Grade: 1-



1 Introduction

2 Seamus Heaney Biography

3 Analysis of Poems: First in Form and Rhyme, then in Language and Subject
3.1 “Digging”
3.2 “Death of a Naturalist”
3.3 “Mid-Term Break”
3.4 “Bogland”
3.5 “Bog Queen”
3.6 “The Song of the Old Mother” by W. B. Yeats

4 Similar topics between Poems
4.1 Themes:
- Family Relationship (“Digging”/ “Mid-Term Break”)
- Emotions (all poems)
- The woman figure of Ireland (“Bog Queen”/ “The Song of the Old Mother”)

5 Conclusion


1 Introduction

In this work I will analyse six poems, all of them are from the same poet unless the last one, which will later be useful as a comparison between one of the poems. After analysing them in detail, I will focus myself on three topics and will try to find similarities within the analysed poems. However, to be able to understand the backgrounds of each poem, I will start with a little biography from Seamus Heaney, who is responsible (the author from) for the major poems that I will analyse.

2 Seamus Heaney Biography

Seamus Heaney was born in April 1939 in County Derry in Northern Ireland, as the eldest child of a family with nine children. His father, Patrick Heaney, was a cattle dealer and owned a small farm, which influenced Seamus very much. So much, that most of his poetry is centred on the countryside and farm life that he had known as a boy. His mother, McCann, was more linked with the modern world, she was a teacher, than with her husband’s traditional rural life.

Heaney grew up as a country boy and attended therefore, the local primary school. Later on with twelve years of age, he won a scholarship to the Catholic boarding school, St Columb’s College, and went to Derry, which lays about forty miles from his home. It was precisely Derry, which stayed strongly on his mind. There are two reasons why he could not let it go. First of all, since he has left his birth town (Mossbawn) in 1953, he felt certain ‘strangeness’ in his new town. Heaney even has described that feeling as a removal from “the earth of farm labour to the heaven of education”. No wonder that he focus that kind of feeling in his magnificent poem named “Digging”, the first poem that appears in his first book ever written before. The second reason is, when his younger brother Christopher died, Heaney was staying in Derry, which is described in “Mid- Term Break”, one of the poems that I will analyse later.

He studied at Queen’s University in Belfast, and spent some years teaching at St. Joseph’s College. In 1965 he married Marie Devlin and had three children. His wife, who came also like Heaney from a large family of writers and artists, has published an important collection of retellings of the classic Irish myths and legends named “Over Nine Waves” in 1994. After the marriage he went to lecture on poetry at his old university for six years.

During the ‘60s he belonged to a group of poets who, he said, used to talk poetry day after day. Those poets were also known as poets who represent something of a “Northern School” with Irish writing. He also served for five years on The Arts Council in the Republic of Ireland between 1973 and 1978 and has acted as judge and lecturer for countless poetry competitions and literary conferences, establishing a special relationship with the annual W. B. Yeats International Summer School in Sligo.

He has written many collections of poetry, the first book was entitled as Death of a Naturalist and was published in 1966 with great acclaim. This particular book, from which some of the poems, which I will in further motions, analyse, portrays his childhood in Ireland and how childhood innocence gives way to adult live. His other important poetry books are Door into the Dark, Wintering Out, North, Field Work, Station Island Seeing Things, The Haw Lantern, The Government of the Tongue and The Spirit Level. Heaney’s later works profit from his knowledge of Latin, Anglo-Saxon and Gaelic, where he explores words and their significance. Besides that, he translated The Aeneid, Suibhne Gealt in Sweeney Astray, Sophocles’ Antigone in 2004, and Beowulf. The latest is an Old English narrative poem, which was published in 1999.

In 1982 Heaney worked as a teacher for a year at Harvard University in the USA and worked since 1989 as Professor of Poetry at Oxford University. In 1995 his works were rewarded with the Nobel Prize for literature and in 1996 he was made a Commandeur de L’Ordre des Arts et Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture.

3 Analysis of Poems: First in Form and Rhyme, then in Language and Subject

3.1 “Digging”

The poem has nine stanzas, which vary between two and five lines in length. There is no pattern between the stanzas, possibly with the intention of no continuity with memories at all.

The poem does not have any conclusively rhyme scheme. The first stanza is written in an external rhyme. It starts with a confusable rhyming couplet (AA), but then, in the second stanza, the rhyme scheme is written as BBB. From here, the rest of the stanzas do not seem to follow any rhyme scheme anymore.

The title “Digging” is solid and direct. After a careful reading we can find out that three generations are involved in the poem. His grandfather dug “turf”, his father dugs up “potatoes”, and the poet himself is digging up his memories and his past. The poem starts in the present tense, when Heaney portrays his father “straining rump among the flowerbeds” (line 6). After that, he travels to the past when he remembers his father and his beloved grandfather at work. The last two stanzas return to the present, there he realises that his goal is writing. However, in the last line of the poem, Heaney has used the future tense to emphasise his determination of digging, “I’ll dig with it.”

Seamus Heaney remembers his own participation at work, while his father was digging. He and his friends, at that time still children, would gather the new potatoes that his father dug up hardly “He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep / To scatter new potatoes that we picked /…” (lines 12/13), and was responsible for carrying milk to his grandfather on Toner’s bog “My grandfather…man on Toner’s bog. / Once I carried him milk in a bottle…” (lines 17/18/19). This contribution of his side made it possible for him to observe his father and grandfather at work and to be able to describe in detail all their movements. His father was skilful at what he was doing. Heaney remembers him “Stooping in rhythm through potato drills” (line 8) and the description of his fathers boot and knee is more than appropriate for the context (lines 10/11). Through the poem words as for example “the lug and the shaft” (line 10) are technical and stress that the spade is a specific tool. Even if Heaney used a physical rudeness in one sentence “Loving their cool hardness in our hands.” (line 14) he follows with a loving exclamation of pride in the next one as it can be seen in line fifteen. Heaney’s father is not the only person who enjoys his appreciation; his grandfather belongs also to that group. His work (of the grandfather) was precise “Nicking and slicing neatly,…” (line 22), so precise that he even hardly stopped when Heaney brought him some milk “He straightened up / To drink it, then fell to right away…” (lines 20/21). This kind of work expected an enormous strength, which his grandfather, obviously, had “heaving sods over his shoulder” (line 21). The repetition of the term “old man” in the lines fifteen and sixteen is a clear reference to his grandfather, and is also an affectional way to show his love not only of himself (Heaney) for him (grandfather), but also of his own father for his man. The love of the three generations bonds them.

The first stanza is a metaphor, Heaney uses the expression “Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.” as a term for digging. It describes how wonderfully the pen fits in his hand, and how well it suits him to write. The poet describes it, like he does it in the fourth stanza, where he illustrates that his father’s work fits perfectly for him. The image of “the gun” shows also the strength and the power that a pen has, the pen is the right weapon for writing, as the spade is the perfect tool for digging and it is not to be mixed up with the “troubles” in Ireland, because this poem was published in 1966, before the dramatic historical happenings.

Between the second and the third stanza a surprisingly enjambment happens. First, Heaney looks down from his window, so that he is able to watch his father at work, then, suddenly the reader finds out that the poet is looking back twenty years. The purpose of the pause between the stanzas is to serve as a gap in time.

In the fourth stanza Heaney writes: “The coarse boat nestled on the lug,” Heaney means that his father was mighty and strong but now he is older, he is cute and cuddly, a shade of his old self. The first two lines in this fourth stanza Seamus again use technical writing. In this stanza, he is showing the reader that he and his father share their love of the land. “To scatter potatoes that we picked / loving there cool hardness in our hands.” (lines 13/14). This demonstrates that Heaney is using a lot of imagery and alliteration to show that he is just as good as his father.

In the fifth stanza, Heaney’s grandfather is brought into the poem for the first time. The stanza links his father’s job and his grandfather’s job and shows also to the reader the importance of the skill in the way he deals his spade, which links the generation of the family together. The language of this is full of one-character words and makes the speech sound real and convincing.


Excerpt out of 21 pages


Seamus Heaney Selected Poems
University of Wuppertal
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Seamus, Heaney, Selected, Poems
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Isabel Dionisio (Author), 2005, Seamus Heaney Selected Poems, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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