Rilke: After the Fire by Seamus Heaney

In the poem, a man whose house has burnt down revisits the place (we’re not sure whether it’s happened recently or not), where he presumably used to live. There is a crowd of children there and he tries to explain to them what the house was to him but struggles as he feels alienated and changed.

  1. Sentence to explain rationale of the poem (why it was written)

The poem was written to explore the themes of identity and loss as well as the significance of our past in shaping who we are and out own self-knowledge; it also explores our connection to society and feelings of alienation, possibly experienced by Heaney himself, as both a poet and an Irishman.

  1. Analysis of quotation calculated to strike the reader

“Scorched linden trees still crowding in around//The moorland house”

  • Personification of the trees
    • Representing society?
  • “crowding” – sense of eagerness, but also encroachment?
  1. Analysis of quotation which sums up Heaney’s overarching theme/concern

“And he was changed: a foreigner among them”

  • Sense of otherness
  • Theme of identity – what has changed him? How has he changed?
  • Theme of alienation, removed from society (reflection of alienation of Heaney? Or Rilke? They both share the “foreigner” identification Or the isolation/alienation of poets?)
  • Who is he a “stranger” to? Self-knowledge vs. how we are perceived by other
  1. Analysis of where the rhythm changes most obviously

“For now that is was gone, it all seemed//Far stranger: more fantastical than Pharaoh”

  • Previously lots of run on lines spanning stanzas, this one is relatively short
  • Colon creates caesura to contrast the established flowing-ness of the run on lines – reflects his sense of something having shifted, of a change to make the audience share his sensation
  • Caesura and run on line draw attention to the “stranger”, which touches on a key theme of the poem
  1. How does the poem fit into the collection?

The poem is a translation of a poem by Rilke, so not originally written by Heaney

Analysis of one quotation

The poem ends with “And he was changed: a foreigner among them”. The noun “foreigner”, considered literally, could be a reference to Heaney’s own status as an Irishman or it could be an allusion to Rilke and the German origins of the poem. Figuratively, however, it gives the sense of an individual who is different from those around him, usually in a physical sense but here it could mean mentally; this makes the audience wonder to whom the man is a foreigner. Has the “change” he has undergone brought about some fundamental difference between him and the rest of society, leaving him feeling removed and distant from those around him? Or is the author suggesting the destruction of this house, a symbol of his past, has destroyed something within the man and he feels he has lost his own identity, becoming a foreigner to himself? By causing the reader to ask these questions, the final line deals with the theme of alienation, exploring our ability to connect with others in society and what it is that shapes our identity.


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