Seamus Heaney Poetry

In Language and Lit. with Pato, we read about Seamus Heaney, and read and analyze some poems. We did an activity in groups. Then Pato gave us an activity to do individually.

Seamus Heaney biography:

  • Born in County Londonderry, Northern Ireland, on April 13, 1939,
  • Died on 30 August 2013 (aged 74) Blackrock, Dublin, Ireland
  • Won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995
  • Heaney taught at Harvard University
  • Themes he tackles: modern Northern Ireland, its farms and cities beset with civil strife, its natural culture, and language overrun by English rule
  • Naturalism
  • Catholic in Protestant Northern Ireland
  • At an early age, Seamus was a student of high intellect and a dedicated one, and at the early and astonishing age of twelve, he’s been awarded a scholarship to St. Columb’s College.
  • He received a scholarship to attend the boarding school St. Columb’s College in Derry and went on to Queens University in Belfast, studying English and graduating in 1961.
  • Heaney worked as a schoolteacher for a time before becoming a college lecturer and eventually working as a freelance scribe by the early ’70s. In 1965, he married Marie Devlin, a fellow writer who would figure prominently in Heaney’s work. The couple went on to have three children

Poems chosen:

  • Death of a Naturalist (BY ME)

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 dragonflies, 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 hedges
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.


The poem is about when Heaney was a kid and went to biology class. His teacher taught the class the way frogs reproduce. But she did not show them, she only explained it. But one day, while he was walking, he saw some frogs reproducing. He was so disgusted that he run away, almost vomiting.

Basically, the connection of Heaney’s life and the poem is its childhood. Heaney narrates in the form of a poem his disgusting incident.

The title: the title is a metaphor. No one dies, but his passion for science is gone, forever, at that moment, when he sees the frogs reproducing.

Elements of rite of passage:

An attainable object of desire →  More knowledge

Trespassing  the father figure/authority → He trespass the teacher’s lesson

A dare →  There is no dare

Understand the mischief → understanding of how babies are born

Accepting →  accepts his loss of innocence



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.


Poem understanding and title: ‘Digging’ reflects the strong feelings Heaney has for the land. He grew up on a farm, Mossbawn in County Derry, where his father worked the soil and sold cattle for a living. The tone is full of reflection and quite serious, as we can see how Seamus exhibits his family’s way of living and tradition: working the land. So, childhood and adolescent life explained in the aspect of family tradition, work and the environment that surrounded him.

Connection with background:
1)The Pen and the Spade: The pen is the spade, the speaker declaring that he will use the pen to dig with, leaving behind the tool of his forefathers, the farmer’s spade.
2)Legacy: Seamus’ father and his father before him had been working the land ever since, and it seemed as an obligation for Seamus to continue the working tradition he was to inherit. He wanted to tell his father that he desired to write, not to work the land; use the pen and not the spade.
3)Dig: Seamus uses this word for two meanings: the literal digging of land, as in working it like his father and grandfather have done, and digging into his heart and exhibiting his passion for poetry more than ever.

Elements of rite of passage:
An attainable object of desire → writing poetry
Trespassing the father figure/authority → not working the land, discontinuing the family tradition/legacy
A dare → say ‘no’ to his father
Understand the mischief → cutting the roots of the family, ending the family business
Accepting → his decision to go for his dream, even though he is conscious of him ending his family business


  • Personal Helicon (BY LUCAS CAMPION)

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 mulch
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.


«Personal Helicon» is a highly symbolic poem of Seamus Heaney. It is autobiographical but at the same time has universality in it. It is the story of every person; rather it is a journey from childhood to maturity. It also reflects the journey of a poet. The poem is not only about a single journey but about many journeys of life. This poem is evident that Seamus Heaney’s contribution to English poetry can never be underestimated.

Examine the title: in Greek mythology, Helicon was the name of the mountain where the Muses lived. The word is now used, like «Muse,» to describe a source of poetic inspiration. So in choosing this title, Heaney can be seen as setting out to describe, explore and explain his personal source of inspiration. In his childhood, the speaker (definitely the poet) wondered about the wells. They always attracted him but he was not allowed to go near them. He was curious to see what was inside them. The buckets, pumps, and windlass drew his attention.

Individual work:

Here is my text:

I can connect the three poems of Seamus Heaney. The connection I find between them is that the three of them (Death of a Naturalist, Digging, and Personal Helicon) is that all talk about Heaney’s life: his childhood and his country, Northern Ireland. As his biography says, he uses a lot of Naturalism in his poems. He talks about Ireland, the farms (also in this case his father’s farm in ‘Digging’: «To scatter new potatoes that we picked» ) and cities beset with civil strife, its natural culture. In the three poems, he basically talks about certain characteristic events in his childhood which marked his life. In ‘Death of a Naturalist’, he narrated how he discovered the way babies are born (astonishing for Heaney, who was a kid). In ‘Digging’, he decided that he wanted to be a writer, and not to continue with his family job (farming). And in ‘Personal Helicon’, he told us what was his inspiration when a child. All these events, and millions more made him the person he was: one, to not say the best writer in the history of the UK, and maybe, the world.

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