Seamus Heaney - Selected Poems (1/2)

—from Death of a Naturalist (1966), Door Into the Dark (1969), Wintering Out (1972), and North (1975)

The Otter
The Skunk
—from Field Work (1979)
—from Station Island (1984)

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Poems from The Haw Lantern (1987) and Seeing Things (1991)
The Milk Factory
Seeing Things
The Ash Plant
The Settle Bed
The Sounds of Rain
The Fosterling

See full-text copy of “Clearances” - as attached.

from The Spirit Level (1991)

from Electric Light (2001)

from Human Chain (2010)
A Herbal


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.

—from Death of a Naturalist (1966)


Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.

—from Death of a Naturalist (1966)

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“Death of a Naturalist”
All year the flax-dam festered in the heart
Of the townland; green and heavy-headed
Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring
I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied
Specks to range on window-sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst into nimble-
Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
In rain.

  Then one hot day when fields were rank
With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs
Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through the hedge
To a coarse croaking that I had not heard
Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.
Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
I sickened, turned and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.

—from Death of a Naturalist (Faber 1966)

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“Personal Helicon”

As a child, they could not keep me from wells
 And old pumps with buckets and windlasses.
 I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells
 Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss.

 One, in a brickyard, with a rotted board top.
 I savoured the rich crash when a bucket
 Plummeted down at the end of a rope.
 So deep you saw no reflection in it.

 A shallow one under a dry stone ditch
 Fructified like any aquarium.
 When you dragged out long roots from the soft
 A white face hovered over the bottom.

 Others had echoes, gave back your own call
 With a clean new music in it. And one
 Was scaresome, for there, out of ferns and tall
 Foxgloves, a rat slapped across my reflection.

 Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,
 To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring
 Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme
 To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.

—from Death of a Naturalist (1966)

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Bespoke for weeks, he turned up some morning
Unexpectedly, his bicycle slung
With a light ladder and a bag of knives.
He eyed the old rigging, poked at the eaves,

Opened and handled sheaves of lashed wheat-straw.
Next, the bundled rods: hazel and willow
Were flicked for weight, twisted in case they'd snap.
It seemed he spent the morning warming up:

Then fixed the ladder, laid out well honed blades
And snipped at straw and sharpened ends of rods

That, bent in two, made a white-pronged staple
For pinning down his world, handful by handful.

Couchant for days on sods above the rafters,
He shaved and flushed the butts, stitched all
Into a sloped honeycomb, a stubble patch,
And left them gaping at his Midas touch.

—from Death of a Naturalist (1966)

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“The Peninsula”

When you have nothing more to say, just drive
For a day all around 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 then 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.

—from Door into the Dark (1969)

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“A New Song”

I met a girl from Derrygarve
And the name, a lost potent musk,
Recalling the river's long swerve,
A kingfisher's blue bolt at dusk

And stepping stones like black molars
Sunk in the fjord, the shifty glaze
Of the whirlpool, the Moyola
Pleasuring beneath alder trees.

And Derrygarve, I thought, was just:
Vanished music, twilit water -

A smooth libation of the past
Poured out by this chance vestal daughter.

But now our river tongues must rise
From licking deep in native haunts
To flood, with vowelling embrace,
Demesnes staked out in consonants.

And Castledawson we'll enlist
And Upperlands, each planted bawn -
Like bleaching-greens resumed by grass -
A vocable, as rath and bullaun.

—from Death of a Naturalist (1966)

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“Bogland” (for T. P. Flanagan)

‘We have no prairies
To slice a big sun at evening -
Everywhere the eye concedes to
Encrouching horizon,

Is wooed into the cyclops’ eye
Of a tarn. Our unfenced country
Is bog that keeps crusting
Between the sights of the sun.

They’ve taken the skeleton
Of the Great Irish Elk
Out of the peat, set it up
An astounding crate full of air.

Butter sunk under
More than a hundred years
Was recovered salty and white.
The ground itself is kind, black butter

Melting and opening underfoot,
Missing its last definition
By millions of years.
They’ll never dig coal here,

Only the waterlogged trunks
Of great firs, soft as pulp.
Our pioneers keep striking
Inwards and downwards,

Every layer they strip
Seems camped on before.
The bogholes might be Atlantic

The wet centre is bottomless.

—from Door into the Dark (1969)

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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. 
—from Wintering Out (1972)

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Riverbank, the long rigs
ending in broad docken
and a canopied pad
down to the ford.

The garden mould
bruised easily, the shower
gathering in your heelmark
was the black O

in Broagh,
its low tattoo
among the windy boortrees
and rhubarb-blades

ended almost
suddenly, like that last
gh the strangers found
hard to manage.
—from Wintering Out (1972)

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“The Tollund Man”

Some day I will go to Aarhus
To see his peat-brown head,
The mild pods of his eye-lids,
His pointed skin cap.

In the flat country near by
Where they dug him out,
His last gruel of winter seeds
Caked in his stomach,

Naked except for
The cap, noose and girdle,
I will stand a long time.
Bridegroom to the goddess,

She tightened her torc on him
And opened her fen,
Those dark juices working
Him to a saint’s kept body,

Trove of the turfcutters’
Honeycombed workings.
Now his stained face
Reposes at Aarhus.

I could risk blasphemy,
Consecrate the cauldron bog

Our holy ground and pray
Him to make germinate

The scattered, ambushed
Flesh of labourers,
Stockinged corpses
Laid out in the farmyards,

Tell-tale skin and teeth
Flecking the sleepers
Of four young brothers, trailed
For miles along the lines.

Something of his sad freedom
As he rode the tumbril
Should come to me, driving,
Saying the names

Tollund, Grauballe, Nebelgard,
Watching the pointing hands
Of country people,
Not knowing their tongue.

Out here in Jutland
In the old man-killing parishes
I will feel lost,
Unhappy and at home.

—from Wintering Out (1972)

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“Mossbawn: Two Poems in Dedication for Mary Heaney”
I - Sunlight  

There was a sunlit absence.
The helmeted pump in the yard
heated its iron,
water honeyed

in the slung bucket
and the sun stood
like a griddle cooling
against the wall

of each long afternoon.
So, her hand scuffled
over the bakeboard,
the reddening stove

sent its plaque of heat
against her where she stood
in a floury apron
by the window.

Now she dusts the board
with a goose’s wing,
now sits, broad-lapped,
with whitening nails

and measling shins:
here is a space
again, the scone rising
to the tick of two clocks.

And here is love
like a tinsmith’s scoop
sunk past its gleam
in the meal-bin.

II: The Seed Cutters
They seem hundreds of years away. Breughel,
You’ll know them if I can get them true.
They kneel under the hedge in a half-circle
Behind a windbreak wind is breaking through.
They are the seed cutters. The tuck and frill
Of leaf-sprout is on the seed potatoes
Buried under that straw. With time to kill
They are taking their time. Each sharp knife goes
Lazily halving each root that falls apart
In the palm of the hand: a milky gleam,
And, at the centre, a dark watermark.
O calendar customs! Under the broom
Yellowing over them, compose the frieze
With all of us there, our anonymities.

—from North (1975)

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“Funeral Rites”

I shouldered a kind of manhood
stepping in to lift the coffins
of dead relations.
They had been laid out

in tainted rooms,
their eyelids glistening,
their dough-white hands
shackled to rosary beads.

Their puffed knuckles
had unwrinkled, the nailes
were darkened, the wrists
obediently sloped.

The dulse-brown shroud,
the quilted satin cribs:
I knelt courteously
admiring it all

as wax melted down
and veined the candles,
the flames hovering
to the women hovering

behind me.
And always, in a corner
the coffin lid,
its nail-heads dressed

with the little gleaming crosses.
Dear soapstone masks,
kissing their igloo brows
had to suffice

before the nails were sunk
and the black glacier
of each funeral
pushed away.

Now as news comes in
Of each neighbourly murder
We pine for ceremony,
customary rites:

the temperate footsteps
of each cortège, winding past
each blinded home.
I would restore

the great chambers of Boyne,
prepare a sepulchre
under the cupmarked stones.
Out of side-streets and by-roads

purring family cars
nose into line,
the whole country tunes
to the muffled drumming

of ten thousand engines.
Somnabulant women,
left behind, move
through emptied kitchens

imagining our slow triumph
towards the mounds.
Quiet as a serpent
in its grassing bouelvard,

the procession drags its tail
out of the Gap of the North
as its head already enters
the megalithic doorway.


When they have put the stone
back in its mouth
we will drive north again
past Strang and Carling fjords,

The cud of memory
allayed for once, arbitration
of the feud placated,
imagining those under the hill

disposed like Gunnar
who lay beautiful
inside his burial mound
though dead by violence

and unavenged.
Men said that he was chanting
verse about honour
and that four lights burned

In the corner of the chamber:
which opened then, as he turned
with a joyful face
to look a the moon.

—from North (1975)

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The Grauballe Man

As if he had been poured
in tar, he lies
on a pillow of turf
and seems to weep

the black river of himself.
The grain of his wrists
is like bog oak,
the ball of his heel

like a basalt egg.
His instep has shrunk
cold as a swan’s foot
or a wet swamp root.

His hips are the ridge
and purse of a mussel,
his spine an eel arrested
under a glisten of mud.

The head lifts,
the chin is a visor
raised above the vent
of his slashed throat,
slashed and dumped.

that has tanned and toughened.
The cured wound
opens inwards to a dark
elderberry place.

Who will say ‘corpse’
to his vivid cast?
Who will say ‘body’
to his opaque repose?

And his rusted hair,
a mat unlikely
as a foetus’s.
I first saw his twisted face

in a photograph,
a head and shoulder
out of the peat,
bruised like a forceps baby,

but now he lies
perfected in my memory,
down to the red horn
of his nails,

hung in the scales
with beauty and atrocity:
with the Dying Gaul
too strictly compassed

on his shield,
with the actual weight
of each hooded victim

—from North (1975)

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Kinned by hieroglyphic
Peat on a spreadfield
To the strangled victim,
The love-nest in the bracken,

I step through origins
Like a dog turning
Its memories of wilderness
On the kitchen mat:

The bog floor shakes
Water cheeps and lisps
As I walk down
Rushes and heather.
I love this turf-face,
Its black incisions,
The cooped secrets
Of process and ritual;

I love the spring
Off the ground,
Each bank a gallows drop,
Each open pool

The unstopped mouth
Of an urn, a moon-drinker,
Not to be sounded
By the naked eye.
Quagmire, swampland, morass:
The slime kingdoms,
Domains of the cold-blooded,
Of mud pads and dirtied eggs.

But bog
Meaning soft,
The fall of windless rain,
Pupil of amber.

Ruminant ground,
Digestion of mollusc
And seed-pod,
Deep pollen-bin.
Earth-pantry, bone vault,
Sun-bank, embalmer
Of votive goods
And sabred fugitives.

Insatiable bride.
Casket, midden,
Floe of history.

Ground that will strip
Its dark side,
Nesting ground,
Outback of my mind.
I found a turf-spade
Hidden under bracken,
Laid flat, and overgrown
With a green fog.

As I raised it
The soft lips of the growth
Muttered and split,
A tawny rut

Opening at my feet
Like a shed skin,
The shaft wettish
As I sank it upright
And beginning to
Steam in the sun.
And now they have twined
That obelisk:

Among the stones,
Under a bearded cairn
A love-nest is disturbed,
Catkin and bog-cotton tremble

As they raise up
The cloven oak-limb.
I stand at the edge of centuries
Facing a goddess.
This centre holds
And spreads,
Sump and seedbed,
A bag of waters

And a melting grave.
The mothers of autumn
Sour and sink,
Ferments of husk and leaf

Deepen their ochres.
Mosses come to a head,
Heather unseeds,
Brackens deposit
Their bronze.
This is the vowel of earth
Dreaming its root
In flowers and snow,

Mutation of weathers
And seasons,
A windfall composing
The floor it rots into.

I grew out of all this
Like a weeping willow
Inclined to
The appetites of gravity.
The hand-carved felloes
Of the turf-cart wheels
Buried in a litter
Of turf mould,

The cupid’s bow
Of the tail-board,
The socketed lips
Of the cribs:

I deified the man
Who rod there,
God of the wagon,
The hearth-feeder.
I was his privileged
Attendant, a bearer
Of bread and drink,
The squire of his circuits.

When summer died
And wives forsook the fields
We were abroad,
Saluted, given right-of-way.

Watch our progress
Down the haw-lit hedges,
My manly pride
When he speaks to me.
And you, Tacitus,
Observe how I make my grove
On an old crannog
Piled by the fearful dead:

A desolate peace.
Our mother ground
Is sour with the blood
Of her faithful,

They lie gargling
In her sacred heart
As the legions stare
From the ramparts.
Come back to this
‘island of the ocean’
where nothing will suffice.
Read the inhumed faces

Of casualty of victim;
Report us fairly,
How we slaughter
For the common good

And shave the heads
Of the notorious,
How the goddess swallows
Our love and terror.
—from North (1975)
“The Otter”

When you plunged
The light of Tuscany wavered
And swung through the pool
From top to bottom.

I loved your wet head and smashing crawl,
Your fine swimmer‘s back and shoulders
Surfacing and surfacing again
This year and every year since.

I sat dry-throated on the warm stones.
You were beyond me.
The mellowed clarities, the grape-deep air
Thinned and disappointed.

Thank God for the slow loadening,
When I hold you now

We are close and deep
As the atmosphere on water.

My two hands are plumbed water.
You are my palpable, lithe
Otter of memory
In the pool of the moment,

Turning to swim on your back,
Each silent, thigh-shaking kick
Retilting the light,
Heaving the cool at your neck.

And suddenly you’re out,
Back again, intent as ever,
Heavy and frisky in your freshened pelt,
Printing the stones.

—from Field Work (1979)

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The Skunk

Up, black, striped and damasked like the chasuble
At a funeral Mass, the skunk‘s tail
Paraded the skunk. Night after night
I expected her like a visitor.

The refrigerator whinnied into silence.
My desk light softened beyond the verandah.
Small oranges loomed in the orange tree.
I began to be tense as a voyeur.

After eleven years I was composing
Love-letters again, broaching the word ‘wife’
Like a stored cask, as if its slender vowel
Had mutated into the night earth and air

Of California. The beautiful, useless
Tang of eucalyptus spelt your absence.
The aftermath of a mouthful of wine
Was like inhaling you off a cold pillow.

And there she was, the intent and glamorous,
Ordinary, mysterious skunk,
Mythologized, demythologized,
Snuffing the boards five feet beyond me.

It all came back to me last night, stirred
By the sootfall of your things at bedtime,
Your head-down, tail-up hunt in a bottom drawer
For the black plunge-line nightdress.

—from Field Work (1979); see note.

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He would drink by himself
And raise a weathered thumb
Towards the high shelf,
Calling another rum
And blackcurrant, without
Having to raise his voice,
Or order a quick stout
By a lifting of the eyes
And a discreet dumb-show
Of pulling off the top;
At closing time would go
In waders and peaked cap
Into the showery dark,
A dole-kept breadwinner
But a natural for work.
I loved his whole manner,
Sure-footed but too sly,
His deadpan sidling tact,
His fisherman’s quick eye
And turned observant back.

To him, my other life.
Sometimes on the high stool,
Too busy with his knife
At a tobacco plug
And not meeting my eye,
In the pause after a slug
He mentioned poetry.
We would be on our own
And, always politic
And shy of condescension,
I would manage by some trick
To switch the talk to eels
Or lore of the horse and cart
Or the Provisionals.

But my tentative art
His turned back watches too:
He was blown to bits
Out drinking in a curfew
Others obeyed, three nights
After they shot dead
The thirteen men in Derry.
PARAS THIRTEEN, the walls said,
BOGSIDE NIL. That Wednesday
Everyone held
His breath and trembled.

It was a day of cold
Raw silence, wind-blown
Surplice and soutane:
Rained-on, flower-laden
Coffin after coffin
Seemed to float from the door
Of the packed cathedral
Like blossoms on slow water.
The common funeral
Unrolled its swaddling band,
Lapping, tightening

Till we were braced and bound
Like brothers in a ring.
But he would not be held
At home by his own crowd
Whatever threats were phoned,
Whatever black flags waved.
I see him as he turned
In that bombed offending place,
Remorse fused with terror
In his still knowable face,
His cornered outfaced stare
Blinding in the flash.

He had gone miles away
For he drank like a fish
Nightly, naturally
Swimming towards the lure
Of warm lit-up places,
The blurred mesh and murmur
Drifting among glasses
In the gregarious smoke.
How culpable was he
That last night when he broke
Our tribe’s complicity?
‘Now, you’re supposed to be
An educated man,’
I hear him say. ‘Puzzle me
The right answer to that one.’

I missed his funeral,
Those quiet walkers
And sideways talkers
Shoaling out of his lane
To the respectable
Purring of the hearse …
They move in equal pace
With the habitual
Slow consolation
Of a dawdling engine,
The line lifted, hand
Over fist, cold sunshine
On the water, the land
Banked under fog: that morning
I was taken in his boat,
The screw purling, turning
Indolent fathoms white,
I tasted freedom with him.
To get out early, haul
Steadily off the bottom,
Dispraise the catch, and smile
As you find a rhythm
Working you, slow mile by mile,
Into your proper haunt
Somewhere, well out, beyond …

Dawn-sniffing revenant,
Plodder through midnight rain,
Question me again.

—from Field Work (1979)

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In Illo Tempore

The big missal splayed
and dangled silky ribbons
of emerald and purple and watery white.
Intransitively we would assist
confess, receive. The verbs
assumed us. We adored.
And we lifted our eyes to the nouns.
Altar-stone was dawn and monstrance noon,
the word ‘rubric’ itself a bloodshot sunset.
Now I live by a famous strand
where seabirds cry in the small hours
like incredible souls
And even the range wall of the promenade
that I press down on for conviction
hardly tempts me to credit it.

—from “Sweeney Redivivus”, in Station Island (1984)

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The vowel shift mentioned in the poem is probably from ‘wife’ to ‘whiff’ (viz, smell) - an alteration supported by the Old English wif for Mod. English wife - here echoved the ‘-if’ sound in ‘whinnied’ and ‘California’.

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