Don’t be afraid: “Seamus Heaney & the Music of What Happens” (Arena, BBC2; dir. Adam Low)

This splendid documentary was released in 2019 on what would have been Seamus Heaney’s eightieth year. It was repeated on BBC4 last St Patrick’s Day. For various reasons, I’ve had a hiatus from Heaney’s work since reading Stepping Stones, a book of interviews with another late Irish poet, Dennis O’ Driscoll, considered his unofficial autobiography. (The writer Fintan O’Toole is said to be working on an authorised life of the poet). Heaney is never far from my mind, though, and this seemed like the perfect invitation back into the world of his work.

The documentary opens with his daughter, Catherine, talking about his death and in that sense is structured like a traditional obituary. She recounts that his final text to her mother (his wife, Marie), ended, Noli Timere. Don’t be afraid (a Latin phrase that comes down to us as a kind of refrain in the Gospels). It’s now painted in huge letters on a gable-end wall in Dublin.

This programme achieves a sense of closeness with the poet, and therefore a sense of loss, largely through interviews with his loved ones. As well as his immediate family, three of his brothers appear, as do his friends, Michael and Edna Longley, and his protege, Paul Muldoon. Each poem starts with someone close to him reading, and merges into sound recordings of the poet himself, which both lifts the poems and creates a sense of Heaney as a kind of revanent, haunting the living – a theme which runs through his own late work. An exception is the short poem, ‘Song’ where old footage from the 1970s shows Heaney introducing the poem’s origins in Irish mythology, then reciting the poem which ends, “And that moment when the bird sings very close/ To the music of what happens.” Later, Helen Vendler, his friend and Harvard scholar Emerita, explains that it serves as a manifesto of sorts for his work as a whole: a capsule or miniature.

The documentary then follows the contours of his life, his widow reading an early love poem, ‘Tate’s Avenue’, which locates their relationship in pre-Troubles (“locked-park Sunday”) Belfast; then back in time: his youngest brother Dan Heaney reads from a late poem, ‘Out of the Bag’ in which the child Seamus takes literally the story his mother tells him that the family doctor brings his brothers and sisters. He imagines them being carried in in doctor Kerlin’s leather bag. One of his most famous poems ‘Digging’ follows, then the wonderful ‘Mossbaun: Sunlight’ in dedication to his aunt Mary, about her baking bread, which his brother Charlie names his favourite poem: “Here is love/ like a tinsmith’s scoop,” it ends, “sunk past its gleam/ in the meal bin.” This is followed by ‘Midterm Break’, about the tragedy of his four year old brother Christopher dying in a road accident in the early 1950s. “You don’t forget things like that,” Charlie Heaney recalls.

The programme then moves to his Belfast years, meeting his wife, Marie, and friend, Michael Longley. She reads ‘Twice Shy’ (an early love poem); he ‘Personal Helicon’, dedicated to Longley, who recalls going on civil rights marches with the Heaneys who he says were their first Catholic friends. He describes the first five years of the Troubles (1968-72) as “almost unendurable to remember.” Marie Heaney tells a similar story; Belfast really was in flames, she says. It was at the end of this period, in 1972, that the Heaneys moved from the city to Glanmore Cottage in County Wicklow, which became for Heaney what Dove Cottage in Cumbria was to Wordsworth. Old footage runs of Heaney’s television work in 1970s in which he describes the place as “an elemental power-point plugged into the landscape”. It is clear that he is also describing his own relationship with Glanmore Cottage. Marie Heaney reads from ‘Glanmore Sonnets: III’, in which he sets them up as ‘Dorothy and William’, and “She interrupts:/ You’re not going to compare us to…?”, keeping him grounded, or as he might have said himself, ‘earthed’.

There is still debate about why the Heaneys left the North. They are on record saying that they were looking for a place in Northern Ireland when they were offered Glanmore by Ann Saddlemyer for a peppercorn rent (she later sold them the place). Probably the reasons were mixed. Their oldest son, Michael Heaney comments that “a four year-old and a six-year old had registered that the place was going to hell in a handcart”. My feeling is that Heaney needed the distance to really start writing about the North with his characteristic humane, but clear-eyed precision. His landmark collection, North was published in 1975. Paul Muldoon reads ‘Punishment’, and Marie Heaney, ‘Exposure’, which she describes as one of his most important poems. A poem about his leaving the north, in which there’s a brilliant flash of self-portraiture, “an inner-emigre, grown long-haired/ And thoughtful; a wood-kern escaped from the massacre.” The director, Adam Low (or perhaps his editor), expertly synchronises images from the troubles with the lines of the poem, so that “feeling/ Every wind that blows” and “blowing up these sparks” accompanies documentary footage of a huge car bomb exploding, or “what is said behind backs” is matched with small children throwing stones at soldiers on patrol.

The section on the Troubles ends with Heaney’s elegy for his second cousin, Collum McCartney, killed returning from a football game in the Republic. Night-time shots of the border roads segue into those of Cambridge, Massachusetts to cover Heaney’s years at Harvard. Two prominent African-American poets, Kevin Young and Tracy K. Smith talk about his influence on their work and read a poem each, ‘The Skunk’ and ‘Alphabets’. If this film has shortcomings, it would be difficult to name them without descending into quibbling. If anything, it would have been nice to have seen a longer film, but then this would change the shape and rhythm of the piece. There is nothing on his translations, but then the film is essentially a personal one by those who knew and loved him, and it’s more affecting for it. There’s a good balance of the personal lyrics and more public poems, although there is plenty of evidence for Heaney’s vocation, “when I do write something,/…I’ll be writing for myself” (‘The Flight Path’).

There are gifts to be gathered that sometimes seem to have a life of their own beyond the poems. The apprehension that opens his poem ‘Wedding Day’, “I am afraid”, becomes his exhortation, noli timere: don’t be afraid. The tragedy of his cousin Collum McCartney returning from a football match becomes transposed into a standing ovation at the all-Ireland final at Croke Park on 1st September 2013. “I can think of no other country where a football crowd will have a minute’s silence and cheer a poet,” his wife says. A poet born fit for it.

I have previously written on Heaney here:

Known and Strange Things: Two poems by SH:

Exposure: the personal and collective voice in SH’s poetry:

The Translations of Seamus Heaney, edited by Marco Sonzogni is out in hardback (Faber, 2022)

© Benedict Gilbert 2023

‘Like a root in arid ground’: what poems about trees might tell us

Walking in south-east London last weekend, I found myself looking up at a magnificent Dutch elm tree. I’ve been looking for elms for years. Mature elms are rare in the UK, of course, having been all but wiped out by the Dutch elm disease of the 1960s and 70s – said to have destroyed around 20 million trees. Seeing this living tree, I thought of the lost medieval town of Dunwich, which W.G. Sebald describes disappearing into the sea in The Rings of Saturn. Like the lost bell of the church ringing outwards into our present.

A Dutch or possibly white elm

Recently, I’ve been reading the twentieth-century Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova. Looking back on her youth, she wrote:

“Man’s voice held no sweetness for me,
but I understood the wind.
I loved the burdock and the nettles
But above all the silver willow. […]
Strange – I outlived it.
A stump grows there now…”

Anna Akhmatova, ‘Willow’ (1940)

This put me in mind of other poems about trees. In her poem, ‘The Black Walnut Tree’, the late American poet Mary Oliver debates with her mother whether to sell their old walnut tree to the lumberman. For the sake of their “fathers out of Bohemia/ filling the blue fields/ of fresh and generous Ohio,” they can’t bring themselves to have it felled, “so the black walnut tree/ swings through another year/ of sun and leaping winds […] and month after month, the whip-/ crack of the mortgage.”

Seamus Heaney, in the sonnet cycle ‘Clearances’ – written after his mother died in 1984 – describes an old chestnut he had grown from a jam-jar as a child: “…the crack and sigh/ And collapse […]/ the shocked tips and wreckage of it all” (‘Clearances 8’). In a visionary poem ‘The Wishing Tree’, from the same collection, he imagines his mother as a tree lifted into heaven:

“Trailing a shower of all that had been driven

Need by need by need into its hale
Sap-wood and bark: coin and pin and nail
came streaming from it like a comet tail

New-minted and dissolved…”

Heaney, ‘The wishing Tree’ from The Haw Lantern (1987)

If it dies, it brings forth much fruit’:

What might we learn from these poets? From Akhmatova (the most tragic, and in some ways romantic of the three), a sense of the hard cycle of her own life set against the tree; from Mary Oliver also, independence and doggedness of spirit. And from Heaney, his great gift for elegy. From all three, the restorative power of the landscape; a love of the natural world for its own sake. All seem to prefer to see a tree standing, but should one fall, it will deliver up certain secrets, a full measure shaken together and pressed down, in proportion to the gifts of each poet.

At times it seems there’s a certain synchronicity or grace that sustains us – the way trees are not entirely singular, but essentially live in communities. It is now known, for instance, that groups of trees can feed each other through their root systems.

This poem is for my sister on her birthday.   


After Anna Akhmatova

Strange – I outlived it.

You came back, all seemed
re-arranged. Familiar cherries
no longer standing. The reddish

glossy bark – a brief synaptic-
flash. Where you moved –
the mirror was heavy, but not the light.

The North Sea is not the Atlantic.

Still, a child now is dreaming | through
the face you held at five.

The saplings we planted
in late-adolescence – the birch
and mountain ash – are thick-

set now, less easily swayed. Though

the Atlantic is not the Pacific:
the mirror is heavy | not the light.


I previously wrote about Seamus Heaney here:

Anna Akhmatova, Selected Poems, Trans. Richard McKane (Penguin, 1969)
Mark Strand & Eavan Boland (Eds.), The Making of a Poem (Norton, 2000)
Seamus Heaney, The Haw Lantern (Faber, 1987)

Further reading: Elaine Feinstein’s excellent biography, Anna of All the Russias (2005), is well-worth reading.

You can find the tree here:

© Benedict Gilbert 2020


‘Known and strange things’: two poems by Seamus Heaney

I. Postscript:

“I always felt you earned your living,” Seamus Heaney has said, “and your poetry was a grace” (Out of the Marvellous). The poem ‘Postscript’ is the final in his first collection written after being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. It seemed to come as a gift to the poet: “Now and again a poem comes like that, like a ball kicked in from nowhere. […] before I knew where I was, I went after it” (Stepping Stones, p. 366). The poem opens as if mid-thought, the tone gently assertive:

“And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October when the wind
And the light are working off each other…”

‘Postscript’, The Spirit Level, 1996

He seems to catch the ‘speedy feel’ (Stepping Stones) of the wind, the lake, the Irish west-coast (“wild with foam and glitter”), the swans (“their feathers ruffed and ruffling, white on white”). The opening eleven lines, of what is essentially a poem in blank verse, form a single sentence in which Heaney opens up his gift for marrying the lyrical and the vernacular. His metaphors are so effortless as to seem almost organic, and to grow out of his physical descriptions: “The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit/ By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans.” The poem shifts and becomes weightier at the point at which he pauses to counsel:

“Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass…”


The very physicality of words is at play here like the plosive sibilance of the Atlantic – the soft boom and wash. As is his gift for idiomatic language slipping and losing traction in the mouth, even as it is spoken. In seeking out new meanings, the often throw-away phrase neither here nor there is given new life. The self he addresses is both emptied, then filled, with the experience of the natural world. The poem ends as Heaney describes the “big, soft buffetings” that “catch the heart off-guard, and blow it open.”

II. The Blackbird of Glanmore:

A decade later Heaney wrote another poem in which his experience of the natural world is mediated from inside a vehicle. The closing poem of his collection District & Circle (2006), ‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’ describes a more domestic setting (the Heaney family home of Glanmore cottage in County Wicklow). He addresses the blackbird directly: “On the grass when I arrive, filling the stillness with life… It is you, blackbird, I love.”

The poet moves effortlessly from the present moment (“I park, pause, take heed./ Breathe. Just breathe and sit”) into the past of his own writing-life:

“And lines I once translated come back:
‘I want away to the house of death, to my father

Under the low clay roof.’”

‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’, District & Circle (2006)

This association then allows him to remember his four year-old brother, Christopher, killed in a road accident in the early 1950s when the young Seamus was away at grammar school. “And I think of one gone to him,/ A little stillness-dancer…” The allusion ‘I want away to the house of death’ is to his translation of Sophocles’ Philoctetes, although Heaney may have also been thinking of his own on-going translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, in which Aeneas visits the spirit of his father in the underworld:

“Let me take your hand, my father, O let me and do not
Hold back from my embrace. And as he spoke he wept.
Three times he tried to reach his arms around that neck.”

Aeneid, Book VI, lines 940—42, p. 38

Heaney’s own father died in 1986, and the poet describes his life-long love of Virgil’s poem as intensifying from this time onwards.    

Again, he moves effortlessly through time. This time from the past back to the present by remembering the superstitious words of a neighbour about a bird on the shed roof, ‘I said nothing at the time/ But I never liked yon bird.’ This archaic voice from the past (and with it the bird as ill-omen) are silenced in a near-cinematic moment: “The automatic door clunks shut.” Back in the present, the speaker gets out of the car and describes the aerial or ‘bird’s-eye view’ of himself as “a shadow on raked gravel/ In front of my house of life.” The poem, then, is one of life and death. Of breath and shadows. But far from an ill-omen, the blackbird is a sign of life and renewal.

Interestingly, when Aeneas enters the underworld, he does so at a place called Avernus, ‘place without birds’ (Aeneid, Book VI, lines 320—21). It seems natural that Heaney would associate birds with life. But we don’t need the classics to tell us this. In a strange moment of synchronicity, it is Sunday afternoon and a blackbird appears down among the cobble-stones and gravel as I’m writing. And again this morning after a heavy summer storm last night. A bird I’ve not seen here before. Or perhaps I’ve not been paying close enough attention. Heaney’s lines come back with their undaunted bird-like animation:

“Your ready talk-back,
Your each stand-offish come-back,
Your picky, nervy goldbeak –
On the grass when I arrive,

In the ivy when I leave.”

‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’

References in this post:

Seamus Heaney: Out of the Marvellous (Produced by Charlie McCarthy), An Icebox films production for RTE, Ireland.
Stepping Stones: Interviews with Dennis O’ Driscoll (Faber & Faber, 2008)
Seamus Heaney, The Spirit Level (Faber, 1996)
S.H., District & Circle (Faber, 2006)
Virgil, Aeneid, Book VI (SH. Trans., Faber, 2016 – published posthumously)
Sophocles’ Philoctetes, The Cure at Troy (SH, trans., Faber, 1990)
Heaney wrote about his brother in the poem ‘Mid-Term Break’, in Death of a Naturalist (1966), his first collection

NB. I previously suggested that Heaney’s father died in 1987. However, a haiku the poet wrote entitled I.I.87, suggests that he died in 1986.

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Blog content: © Benedict Gilbert 2020