District & Circle by Seamus Heaney


District & Circle – Title Poem

“I would re-pocket and nod / …he… would also nod.”

  • Form of sonnet collapses fully (after quite a few cracks)
  • The conclusiveness of the rhyming couplet is shattered – especially as the rhyme is undermined (“nod” and “nod”)
  • This mutual nod is at the heart of the poem:
  • Mutual recognition
  • Respect – one artist for another
  • Implicit acceptance of the social situation – everyone is selfish
  • Failure to communicate?
  • Refusal to pay or be paid
  • The ambivalence at the heart of the poem comes back to haunt the speaker later
  • To what extent is this nod an agreement / acceptance i.e. a “yes”?
  • “trigger” implies that the money has a danger attached: paying might be somehow demeaning
  • “accorded passage” implies that the speaker has been granted access to the “underworld” – to maybe gain insight like Dante (Divine Comedy)
  • The concern re. “betray” that crops up later – has this interaction been misunderstood / in some failed?

In contrast to Dante’s journey of discovery in The Divine Comedy, this poem’s speaker fails to gain any insight into their journey in the underworld, either of their vocation as a poet or their identity as a person. With the collapse of the sonnet form at the end of the first of the five sonnet sequence the rhyming couplet is undermined by the repetition of “nod” at the end of the final two lines. However, the sonnet form is undermined before this too, but not so catastrophically: raising the point that this sonnet fails to reach a conclusion. The “nod” on which this poem ends, as well on which the sonnet fails, is at the very heart of the poem: what does the speaker’s encounter mean? The reader is left unsure by the end of this sonnet, as well as by the end of the sonnet sequence. When the question of the meeting’s significance is questioned latterly, the poet begins to doubt whether there was any mutual recognition. When the poet speaks of “triggering” a coin to pay the busker, the reader is left to wonder, what might such a payment go on to mean. Regardless of the ambivalence that stymies this poem, the meeting still has almost mythic significance for the speaker: who is he and who was this busker? What parts are either of them playing in what drama?

Tollund Man

“And to a sixth-sensed threat”

  • Follows a caesura – first in sonnet – rhythm upset
  • Second sentence in the sestet – where the TM is recalling his death / old world – sense of threat in the new world – raises a question
  • Piling up of sibilance and fricatives – causing the rhythm of the poem to be stymied
  • “sixth-sense” – supernatural – Heaney respects the supernatural perspective – a kind of insight we are lacking in the modern world
  • Sets up the sense of threat that caused his sacrifice (which made his world good)
  • As well as casting a shadow over the malign sense of our world / society
  • Reader left asking: what is this sense of disquiet – accentuated by the upsetting of the rhythm – which leads to a false rhyming couplet (half rhyme cheats us of the conclusiveness and neatness of a rhyming couplet)
  • Are we less in tune with the world / our world / nature?
  • Heaney’s overall point – things are a little broken / flawed / crap in the modern world “stacked flights” – anxiety – fraught-ness of modern life – illness of the modern world (TM – purged of his own time’s illness by his sacrificial death)


Heaney is ambivalent about the quality or nature of the modern world, the texture of modernity: is it an essentially diseased existence, fraught with causes for anxiety as well as unnatural lures and traps, where the person is estranged and condemned to be always disaffected and ill-at-ease? In order to explore it he has resurrected Tollund Man in this collection: what would such a creation of Heaney’s make of it all? Though looking at Tollund Man emerging from his past world at the end of the first sonnet of this sequence, Heaney still manages to create a profound disquiet in the reader. Following after the sonnet’s first caesura, mid-way into a regressing sestet the phrase “And to a sixth-sensed threat” strikes a discordant note; the piling up of sibilant and fricative sounds grate against the ear, and the reader will necessarily trip over herself in the reading, thereby setting up this sonnet’s distorted conclusive rhyming couplet against an expectation that we are heading in the wrong direction, that things are, as the poem suggests “going awry”. This “sixth-sensed threat”, with the past tense suffix adding to its dissonance, will hang over the rest of the sequence like a malign presence, making us see the Tollund Man, recently resurrected and cleansed (by his own life being sacrificed much like a latter-day Christ) as a pure spirit passing though the dark period we find ourselves in, where “stacked planes” are always precariously teetering and queues of “far-faced smilers” wind interminably. It is clear which side Heaney is on: the world of 400BC is pure, our modern world somehow sickly and unnatural.




Poet to Blacksmith 

In ‘Poet to Blacksmith’ Heaney presents the idea that perfection is something that can be laid out in instructions and met in certain criteria, this is shown in the poem’s form as the poem itself is translated instructions and in the use of the imperative verb “make” that suggests that this process of achieving perfection is possible and can be done, as the speaker expects his blacksmith to do so. The regular three quatrain structure of poem adds to the methodical feel, furthering the idea that perfection can be laid out simply to be achieved.

Heaney also parallels the creation of a hammer with the creation of a poem through the simile “sweet as a bell” as the “ring” of the hammer is unimportant, hence why the poem can be seen to be about the pursuit of absolute perfection, however, the sound or “ring” of a poem is important which suggests that the creation of this hammer symbolically represents the creation of a poem. This idea and simile is emphasised as it features on the final line of the poem and causes the rhythm of the verse to break down.

 Midnight Anvil

In ‘Midnight Anvil’ Heaney contrasts the old and the new through his use of concrete nouns, “the cellular phone” and the “medieval smiths”, and presents this as a beautiful moment as the blacksmith smiles to himself and, despite not being there, the moment still resonates with him shown in the fact the speaker can “still hear” the blows of the hammer. Furthermore, Heaney’s use of the preposition “for” when writing about the twelve blows struck at the turn of the millennium suggests that this interplay of the continuity of the old and the evolution into the new is not only beautiful but also the tone defining the new millennium.

 Anything can happen

Dedicated after Horace, Odes, the roman poet has inspired Heaney’s work. Essentially lyrical, they contain political elements; in ‘Anything can happen,’ Heaney juxtaposes incidents from classic mythology with recent history, here he realigns an incident from ancient times with the modern tragedy of the twin towers. The use of “Jupiter,” a reference to classical mythology and sovereign god of the romans whom was identified with the skies. This metaphor is graphic as given that Jupiter is god of the skies, 9/11 occurred against a backdrop of cloudless azure. This creates an overtone of the sinister processes which drove the 9/11 attack. Through concentrating on the pathetic fallacy, the poem is cast into feeling somewhat haunting, the heavy cloud of that day clearly holds some importance to Heaney.

Anything can happen

Surrounded by short sentences which vividly describe the staccato effects of nature’s impacts, “the tallest towers… Be overturned,” falls on a broken line; drawing emphasis to the second part of the phrase. The loaded verb reiterates that anything is possible and is specific to the tragedy of 9/11 itself. It suggests that other than people on the streets looking up to the panic in the skies, there may be a more unspeakable, yet feasible explanation. This being that 9/11 is a warning that the whole of humanity is at risk from the power of nature rebelling against mankind- even the tallest towers can be brought to the ground.  It creates an intimation of danger, through using ‘tallest’ and ‘overturned.’ Through being indirect and not saying the obvious- this being that the towers were blown to pieces- Heaney intricately weaves the extent of the disaster and the damages that were felt.


A poem paying homage to the fire fighters who fought in the attacks of September 2001, ‘Helmet’ celebrates those who risked their lives. Concentrating on the fireman’s helmet, rather than the fireman himself takes an abstract approach, suggesting that it is the helmet, rather than the person that is the real hero. The headgear is symbolic of the breed that was seen as ‘godlike,’ with the helmet being a symbol of the solid and self-sacrificial mind set: ‘of the tribe.’ Heaney brings the readers focus to the fact that whilst the fire fighters appeared to be supermen, they were/are in fact just people like the rest of us. This is expressed through the metaphor, “ til’ the hard-reared shield wall broke,” reminding us that whilst the helmet and its wearer are determinedly resistant, sadly, they are not indestrucatble.

A Shiver

In the sonnet entitled ‘A Shiver’, Heaney presents the physics and dynamics of wielding a hammer. In the first octet, it is simply instructions of how to use a hammer and it is extremely methodological, whereas in the second Volta there is a change in the theme and it is much more meaningful and really portrays Heaney’s message behind the piece. When Heaney writes ‘does it do you good’ after a caesura, it is strongly emphasised as it also is the only word in the entire piece that doesn’t rhyme with anything else and therefore our attention is drawn to it. Heaney’s reason for this could be because he is using the hammer as symbolism for power and the idea that extreme power may seem ‘good’ and the holder may feel powerful, but as soon as you enjoy the power, it becomes destructive. Furthermore, it suggests that once you think power is ‘good’, you’re ruined. Heaney uses the danger of a heavy tool to evoke reader in the audience and the energy generated with it brings a sense of destructiveness.

Polish Sleepers

The sonnet ‘Polish Sleepers’ is the first of eight poems alluding to boyhood during WW2. In this poem Heaney is looking back on his childhood and there is almost a sense of guilt as he realises that whilst he was having a pleasant childhood, he was unaware of the war and how bad people’s lives were at the time. He juxtaposes his evocative childhood with mass murders to try and put his childhood into perspective, yet he can’t quite do it comfortably. Heaney ends his piece with ‘And afterwards, rust, thistles, silence, sky.’ This could symbolise what the war was like and the idea that everything was damaged-the sibilance of the soft sounds also creates the idea that he is looking back on the situation with sympathy and that even though he may have not understood what was going on at the time, he now does.

Polish Sleepers

The sight of recycled use of railway sleepers transports the speaker back in time to their childhood and the war which was going on yet they were oblivious to. In ‘Polish Sleepers’ we explore Heaney’s innocence as he attempts to understand how something so big had such a little impact on him. Heaney uses a military semantic field of ‘half-stockade’ and ‘bulwark’ to create the image of the war and a dried up river creating a sense of anxiousness in the reader. He portrays the severity of the war to the reader and we therefore feel sympathy for those involved as we transport to the past, however we also feel an element of sympathy for Heaney as he is almost punishing himself for not knowing what was going on the time and we see the innocence in him. Heaney could also be implying that as a bigger message- the things that we may be currently blind to may actually turn out to be big moments in history and it therefore forces the reader to reflect.


Heaney’s poem Anahorish is about his experiences as a child in Ireland during World War Two. The poem is a description of American troops marching through county Derry, where Heaney grew up, which is a reference to the D-day preparations that occurred in Ireland before the assault on the Normandy beaches. Heaney describes the Irish citizens “killing pigs when the Americans arrived”, which is an ironic juxtaposition of the loss of lives on the Normandy beaches that followed soon after. However Heaney has been criticized for such references, for example Tobias Hill argues that Heaney only ever takes “sideways glances at conflict”. This is true in the way that Heaney uses the verb “killing” in line with a semantic field of war that reflects the context of the poem, yet he fails to explicitly reference the ongoing Nazi oppression, as other perhaps more revolutionary poets might.

The Aerodrome

The Aerodrome is a poem about a visit to an out-of-use airfield, which becomes a parable for the loss felt by British communities after World War Two. Heaney makes a biblical reference with the phrase “sparrows might fall” about God knowing all but allowing death and suffering to happen in the world. More literally this is a reference to British pilots being shot down in the Second World War, the resulting deaths and the consequent suffering. Here Heaney is taking issue with how modern society justifies and explains suffering, implying that human nature is inclined to resort to religion and other such unrealistic explanations, rather than have to face the morbid truths about the world we live in. Tobias Hill criticizes Heaney’s work for being as oblivious to real world issues as Heaney’s own evaluation of society. In other words, while Heaney criticizes society for being unable to face up to the reality of events, he himself fails to take direct issue with current affairs in his poetry, but rather his poems have “a ghost of an presence”, in the words of Hill, as with Heaney’s implicit reference of World War Two in The Aerodrome.

Anahorish 1944  – “Unknown, unnamed, // Hosting for Normandy.”

The use of ‘unknown’ and ‘unnamed’ creates the implication that the soldiers have no identity when they have put on their uniform, despite them fighting for their country and helping other countries, once they die, they become history; nameless heroes. Heaney placed ‘unknown, unnamed’ on line 9 right after the Volta highlights the change from direct observations from the speaker to the anonymity as it reinforces the irony of the soldiers walking in all mightily not knowing they were about to be slaughtered like the pigs in the ‘slaughterhouse’. ‘Hosting for Normandy’ again reinforces that the soldiers are acting upon orders rather than their own thoughts because they are simply performing duties from their commander.

Anahorish 1944 – “We were killing pigs when the Americans arrived.” (Anahorish 1944)

The juxtaposition butchered pigs and Americans arriving shows the ironic subsequent loss of life on Normandy. This also foreshadows the death of the naive soldiers that will be dead during battle. The short sentence make the situation seem very normal, as the soldiers arrive on a ‘Tuesday morning’ when everything seems to be going the way it normally does, but by creating normality within the octet makes the mention of Normandy more chilling because it makes the reader realise the fate of the soldiers.

The Aerodrome – “Sparrows might fall”

‘Sparrows’ have a connotation of love and bonding as they always come in pairs or a clan which suggests Heaney is telling the reader how he and his guardian is always together and he is remembering the good times they had together. However, the use of ‘might fall’ suggests the pair of ‘sparrows’ may no longer a pair, instead they could be an individuality which in Biblical times, it is representing deep loneliness and sorrow. This conveys how much the speaker misses the guardian and also telling the reader nothing lasts forever, there will come a day where we part ways and becomes lonely.

 The Clip

‘Half sleeveless surplice, half hoodless Ku Klux cape.’ Heaney grew up towards the end of the white supremacist era in America (that ended in the late 1940’s). He had a very sheltered childhood and grew up in Ireland so was distanced and almost protected from this. The ‘half hoodless’ suggests that Heaney knew what was going on when he was a child but didn’t  realise its severity or impact on people’s lives. The repetition of ‘half’ is syntactic parallelism which puts emphasis on his message along with the sibilance present in the words ‘sleeveless’ and ‘surplice’ and the plosive sounds of ‘ Ku Klux cape’. A ‘surplice’ is a garment worn mainly by clergy workers in Western Churches and was also worn by the KKK; surplices, hoods, and capes are all used to hide oneself. This could suggest that even though they wanted to hide themselves they didn’t do so well because their intentions were still visible. The poem reiterated the idea that conflict is everywhere and even though Heaney’s reality was being in a barbershop other people’s realities were a lot harder.

Edward Thomas on the Lagan’s Road

‘He’s not in view but I can hear a step.’ opens the poem very dramatically and gives the poem a fast pace, the use of presence tense leads to the actuality of Heaney’s memory making it more likely for the reader to believe it. In this poem Heaney is talking about feeling the presence of Edward Thomas, a famous WW1 poet who died during that war but Heaney’s poem is set at the end of WW2. The poem contains a sense of nostalgia as he is remembering the poet who is long gone. The assonant effect of the ‘e’ sounds throughout the opening line exaggerates the presence of Edward Thomas.

Edward Thomas on the Lagan’s Road

‘Demobbed ,’not much changed’, sandy moustached and freckled’. – Demobbed was a term used by the army when they honorably released soldiers from the army in WW1 and WW2, usually when they were broken and shell shocked. They also used to tell their families that that not much had changed as a means to try and relieve them. But most of the soldiers that returned from the war suffered from PTSD and other psychological injuries. These were ignored because they were not physical and so could not be seen, so by using that phrase Heaney is trying to mock that fact. Heaney also then describes their physical appearance to emphasise that


‘Moyulla’ is a poem which expresses environmental issues but has an intimation of political views.                             This four poem sequence contrasts the ecological decline with its former glory, this is portrayed when it says: ‘’let them cry if it suits them’’. Here Heaney uses a voice of protest to get his point across that it is only Moyulla that has the lamentation and the feeling of grief and sorrow and no one else. It reinforces how she is no longer tainted and chaste. However, Heaney does not convey this lyrically but more as a warning for people. Furthermore, this is reinforced by an enforced vowel shift: ‘’Moyulla to Moyola’’. The poet clarifies the change of speakers, by doing this he is representing the darkening of ecological climate as the river had become polluted and also has been poisoned due to agricultural. This had led to the river’s identity to have suffered from ‘’muddying’’ because of the pollution and so had to remove all purity of her vowels and forced a greater vowel shift to emphasise that she is not clean anymore.

Planting the Alder

’Planting the Alder’ is a poem about a tree he has planted in his younger years. Heaney provides a lyrical version of what might have been found in botanical book about this tree. Heaney refers to the colour green twice through other objects to convey the importance of the Alder tree; ‘’Smelted, emerald, chlorophyll’’. The use of the word ‘’smelted’’ is interesting as it means to extract, it could convey how he wants to extract the emerald gemstone to its purest form. Moreover, the colour green is associated with nature and symbolizes growth. The phrase ‘’smelted emerald’’ may suggest how the tree was precious to him and so this may cite compelling reasons for planting the Alder as it may have a strong correspondence with safety during his childhood. An Alder is associated with shielding and protection and maybe this is what Heaney needed after his brother passed away. Heaney also referred to the word ‘’Chlorophyll’’ which is interesting because it is a pigment in leaves which absorbs light and eventually helps a plant to grow. This further reinforces his desperation for the tree to continuously grow and protect.

Planting the Alder

In my opinion, Heaney is trying to encourage ‘’Human Geography’’. This is how human activity influences the Earth. He could be trying to emphasise positive in-built relationships people should have with the environment and nature around them to ensure that there is no harm caused to the Earth’s surface. The main message could be that looking after the environment and its habitants is what initially makes the world works.

The Lift

The Lift follows a coffin’s final journey fixing on the instant immediately preceding interment. Initially, Heaney juxtaposes death with a “hawthorn half in leaf”. This initial paradox immediately causes the reader the question Heaney’s approach to death, as it appears he find death to be of something to celebrate, not to dwell over, as death does not affect the surrounding world, evidently as signs of spring are created through his use of natural imagery. Heaney views funerals as being full of pretention and disingenuousness as suggested by his use of pathetic fallacy, yet this weather is false, it is just a fake reflection of people’s sadness. Heaney then draws back to nature in his final line in which he repeats ”hawthorn” suggesting that that should be the most significant feature of the day, not falsely reminiscing on the life of a woman whose life had lesser impact.

Nonce Words

Similarly, Nonce Words follows a physical journey, yet of an ageing man who is, only now, slowly coming to terms with his life due to his previous ignorance. Heaney describes a man on a journey through “Derrylin” in his car before deciding to take a break on his journey to let his mind explore his current situation, as up to now, his mind has been preoccupied with his fear of death suggested by Heaney’s use of “Requiescat”. Once he steps outside of his car, he stands at the “frozen shore gazing at rimed horizon”. Heaney’s use of “frozen” suggests the man to have put everything else in his mind to have been aside to help him understand what lies past the “horizon”, as prior to this he has been too ignorant to understand the privilege of being alive.

Nonce Words

Heaney also touches upon the importance of savouring life and the moments that fill an individual’s life. Heaney explains that after taking time to take in his surroundings, the man begins to count his blessings as he is gradually understanding that he should focus on the good in his life and the “happenstance” that makes up his life. Life is filled with coincidences that, as Heaney suggests, should be treasured as this is what makes your life personal and exciting due to the inability to plan or predict what lies past the present. As seen in the ultimate line, the man finally comes to terms with the inability for humanity to plan life, as he states “So be its”. Therefore, the decision to stop on his journey held much significance in his life by the end he appreciates the importance of fatalism, which prior to this, humanity had been ignorant towards, seeing it as a negative rather than a positive and fundamental part of human life.

Nonce Words

In a world that is seemingly overshadowed by war, the poem’s speaker is reminded of his fatalistic views on the future. Heaney describes himself with the metaphor to be “gazing” at a “rimed horizon”, suggesting that his future and outlook on the world is permanently fixed and unable to change. This acceptance of the fact that the future is already circumscribed highlights the restrained insight that has become the outcome of a post 9/11 world. Whilst people in the past were far more aware of the conflict that seemed to be surrounding them, people now seem to believe that their future is inevitable and therefore, they are unsure of what to be afraid of. Heaney is savouring the privilege of being alive, as everything post 9/11 has become so tentative, he is unsure of what will come next.

The poet’s speaker confronts the face of mortality in ‘Nonce Words’, by reaching for a celebration of his life. The poem’s speaker seemingly rejects religion, as the line “in the name of the nonce” takes the form of a religious blessing. The reader should recognise the familiarity of the line; therefore when Heaney rejects the idea of blessing himself in the name of God and, instead, in the “name of the nonce”, the reader realises that Heaney is appreciating his existence, rather than thinking about where he will end up after death. Heaney takes advantage of his poetic licence by presenting three interrogative phrases “the Who knows/ and What nexts/ and So be its” to his audience as compound nouns. In doing so, Heaney forces the reader to think about the trivial nature of what could possibly come of life within the next few years and instead, makes them too think about how they should savour the moments they live in.

The spirituality of the moment, whilst Heaney describes the seasonable weather that he can see before him, is captured by “the bridge-iron cast”. Although Heaney sees this in a literal sense, the “bridge-iron cast” can also be seen to mould Heaney’s appreciation of the beauty before him. The use of the run-on line “white floss/ on reed and bush” creates a certain lyricism to the poem, which is emphasised by “Sun on ice” and “Advent silence”. Heaney is creating a certain magic surrounding these, otherwise insignificant, objects through the softness of the stanza and this highlights Heaney’s deep appreciation for the moment he is living in.

The Lift

The heart of the poem is exposed through the line “of a helicopter crossing”. The reader is reminded that violence and conflict in fact dominate everything around us, as the “helicopter” described within “The Lift” is insinuating that there is a military presence watching over the funeral. Heaney is vocalising a troubled time in Irish history, when all gatherings gave grounds for suspicion. Due to sectarian division, the Catholic population would have felt that these security patrols were an act of Protestant intrusion. The run-on line “the throttle and articulated whops/ Of a helicopter crossing” speeds up the line and creates a sense of danger amongst the people at the funeral, which is exaggerated by the use of the onomatopoeic word “whops”. The helicopter is portrayed as violent and aggressive due to the use of onomatopoeia.

Heaney offers a mulled insight into the intimation of danger for the people at the funeral, particularly as he describes the people to be “aware” of the “sound of [their] own footsteps”. ”Footsteps” could easily be interpreted as symbolism, representing not only the consciousness of the people’s restrictions in that moment, but also their awareness of limitations throughout the rest of their life. This is further articulated with the caesura that follows “the life behind those words/ ‘Open’ and ‘air’”, as it forces the audience to focus on the words before it. Heaney is looking at conflict from a sideways glance here; he is exploring the entrapment and suffocation the Catholic Irish people felt in any situation and how importance “open air” actually is to them in a time of suffering.


In Irish Gaelic, “Sugan” refers to a kind of straw rope and in the poem Heaney follows the traditional weaving method used in its production. The raw materials used are portrayed in a series of sibilants, “The fluster of that soft supply”, which could imply that it is a dexterous task and that it requires a gentle hand, emphasised by Heaney use of the verb “coaxed”. The alliterative quality of “soft supply” could be used to convey the mechanics of the process. Heaney uses alliterative groupings several times in the first stanza, with “Turned and tightened” and “rickety-rick, to rope”, which creates an aural imagery of the mechanical sounds involved in the process and this could, perhaps, further emphasise the care and endurance that is necessitated. Though unstated, a parallel is drawn to the composition of a poem which is as complex and demanding of energy, skill and commitment as the practice being described.


In the second stanza, Heaney begins to take a much more physical role in the poem, bring the whole process together, blending assonants and alliteration together with “By snag and by sag” and “To make ends mesh”. This suggests the idea of a finished product and if the process is a metaphor for writing a poem, then this could convey the worth and sense of achievement that comes with hard work and commitment. However, “To make ends mesh” is a clever use of wordplay on the idiom ‘to make ends meet’, which instantly draws the reader’s attention. The idiom holds connotations of everyday survival, and the fact that Heaney uses this to describe an age-old process could mean that the poem itself is a comment on modern values and a regression in perseverance and hard work in everyday life.

The Nod

This disturbing sonnet, set in Heaney’s adolescence, during the 1950s, recalls a time at which local reserve police were installed in Northern Ireland as a result of the IRA border campaign. Heaney takes a sideward glance at this conflict, asking just what it is being ‘recognised’ when a community is unstable and requires a para-military presence in troubled times through the eyes of a young boy in that era. This is perhaps best captured through the way in which the meat purchased from the butchers has its “bow-tied neat and//clean //But seeping blood.” This could convey the mistrust that many people felt toward the “local B-Men” without explicitly referencing the fact that they were almost exclusively protestant and were, therefore, suspected by many Catholics of potential revenge plots. The list that precedes “bow-tied” almost connotes a plan of action, similar to how the government in Ireland saw the problem of the IRA border campaign and decided that the necessary solution was to have armed militia patrolling the area. The idea that this would be the correct decision is ultimately flawed, expecting people to be content with a generally mistrusted group that has been given authoritative, and is conveyed best when “neat and clean” is juxtaposed and contrasted to “But seeping blood.” The latter suggests the mistrust that many felt, but were unable to express freely. The specific use of “blood” could, perhaps, be directly referencing the several revenge killings that did take place. Prior to this the poem begins with a mellow and sentimental tone, the reader likely expecting a simple recollection of Heaney’s experiences. However, the caesura after “But seeping blood”, and the way in which the line stands on its own, signifies a shift toward an ominous tone, to an idea of an underlying violence, which then leads on to the semantic field of war and casualties in the next stanza.

District and Circle by Seamus Heaney Review

Violence and conflict dominate the latest collection in Seamus Heaney’s 40-year career, and now his reach has become truly global. Tobias Hill salutes District and Circle

In his 12th collection of poetry in 40 years, and his first in five, Seamus Heaneydescribes a world overshadowed by war, a place in which both the power and the horror of violence seem inescapable. Conflict is everywhere in District and Circle, sometimes as the intimation of danger in the gloom of the London Underground, sometimes as a ship’s light out at sea echoed by a Star Wars satellite, even as a bunch of bog-rushes from Tollund carried through customs like a bomb in a holdall.

From first to last, in fact, the poems in District and Circle are weighted down with arms and armour. In the opening poem, ‘The Turnip-Snedder’, the farmyard ‘snedding’, or chopping, machine becomes an armoured monstrosity – ‘Breast-plate/ standing guard/ on four braced greaves’ – whose purpose is violence, even torture or genocide: ‘Its clamp-on meat-mincer … dropping its raw sliced mess,/ bucketful by glistering bucketful.’ In the final poem, ‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’, a peaceful garden is disturbed by ‘the automatic lock’ of the poet’s car door as it ‘clunks shut’, recalling not only the same door in Heaney’s superb Nineties poem ‘Postscript’, but the mechanism of a gun being loaded, an overtone that was only the ghost of a presence in the earlier, more meditative poem.

This is not the collection of a mature poet making peace with the world, a Nobel laureate resting on his greens. Instead, it is a kind of proposal. Heaney is, after all, a poet versed in conflict and, in District and Circle, he asserts that position. His territory expands to examine a world that lacks peace. In past collections his district has grown cautiously, encompassing first northern then Mediterranean Europe. In District and Circle, he has gone global. Many poems are still anchored in Ireland – a bricklayer’s trowel in the hand of a local demobbed soldier is wielded ‘to sever a brick’; the Irish word for ‘sedge’ is a ‘dialect blade’: but the latter is suggested to the dead poet George Seferis in a Hellenic underworld, and an American fireman’s helm is the relic of one who has broken the hoplite ‘shield-wall’ of a burning building.

Several of the finest poems are at the heart of this thematic movement. ‘A Shiver’ describes the way a man swings a sledgehammer in terms of great allure, then questions the value of that allurement (‘Does it do you good/ To have known it in your bones, directable,/ Withholdable at will,/ … The staked earth quailed and shivered in the handle?’). In ‘Anything Can Happen’, the human geography of the central conflict in District and Circle becomes clear: ‘Anything can happen, the tallest towers/ Be overturned, those in high places daunted,/ Those overlooked regarded.’

Heaney is very good on violence, and not only on its horror, but on its lure, as in the withholdable swing of that sledge. None of this is new territory; quite the opposite. In its forms and pace Heaney’s poetry is cautious, not violent, but strands of violence have always run through it, responses to the conflicts that have surrounded him, both private and political. Describing the reticence with which he had written of the conflict in Ireland, Heaney once described his instincts as ‘an early warning system telling me to get back inside my own head’. The imagery of arms and armour have occurred before, there as elsewhere. What is new is the breadth of Heaney’s territory, the global jurisdiction he claims.

Technically, the new poems tend to favour the longer line Heaney has used more often in recent years. Many of the poems – more than a dozen – are sonnets in spirit if not always in form, the psychological heart of the sonnet-form there in their use of the volta. There is also a lovely sequence of prose poems, three pieces of memoir. Towards its end the collection becomes a little slighter as poems peel off to examine incidental themes, but the interest of the book lies in its many sideways glances at conflict.

It is four decades to the year since the publication of Heaney’s first collection, Death of a Naturalist, which Faber is re-releasing to accompany District and Circle. ‘How fine a poet Heaney can be when he isn’t trying to show us what a clever fellow he is,’ one critic wrote at the time. That was a harsh observation to make, certainly, the cuff of an older poet reviewing a debutant. Yet cleverness has always been a hallmark of Heaney’s poetry, and it is what distinguishes his work from, say, that of Ted Hughes. Hughes wore his learning lightly: Heaney chooses not to do so. He is an academic poet, and for some readers, his use of erudition remains a stumbling-block, an obstacle in the way of his poetry.

In this regard District and Circle is typical Heaney, its poems as slippery and erudite as any that have come before it. Heaney has written of his own poetry as being ‘like an eel swallowed/ in a basket of eels’, and this feels right. At its best – and in District and Circle it reaches its best as it has not done since The Spirit Level in 1984 – his poetry is intricately woven, rich in meanings that resist intellectual reduction and are more powerful because of that. At less than best, the same intricacy can seem merely elusive, the poems seeking out safety in subtlety.

Like it or not, this cleverness – call it eelishness – is one of the most consistent elements of Heaney’s work, and on the whole it is one of his great strengths. In District and Circle, it allows him to study a worldful of wars, and to do so on his own terms. Heaney’s command of language remains as powerful a tool as ever. This is not the war on terror so much as the terror of war, and not so much the terror – or not only that – but the allure of it. District and Circle takes no sides, so that those who have overturned the high towers in ‘Anything Can Happen’ are ‘regarded’ – a typically slippery, double-edged blade of a word, in a book full of double-edged blades.

From cattle to battle

Whitbread prize winner in 1996 and 1999, Nobel laureate in 1995, and Harvard poetry professor, Seamus Heaney remains unaffected by the acclaim heaped on his work. As Heaney gets closer to his 70th year, he reports a desire to take stock. District and Circle returns, like the poems in his celebrated 1966 debut Death of a Naturalist, to memories of his Northern Ireland childhood, the farmer’s son with traditional lyrics beating within his head. These recollections of lost time are set against snapshots from a dangerous, troubling and sometimes scarcely intelligible new century. It’s a measure of his anxiety at the international crisis that Heaney’s frame of reference is now America and the world as much as it used to be Derry and the Saturday morning cattle market. After his debut, Heaney was seen as a standard-bearer for a ‘Northern Renaissance’, but he has never been comfortable with labels. During the murderous decades of the Troubles, Heaney found it taxing to position himself vis-à-vis local politics. After the publication of his fourth volume, North, he moved to Dublin. Now, in a mood that’s at times valedictory, he writes with a new freedom, and a new engagement.

The new book, he told me recently, contains a pressing sense of menace. ‘What we are all conscious of, from the American point of view, is the breaching of the walls and the total trauma of the security gone.’

This new poetic vision is by no means entirely pessimistic. Heaney seems to relish the lyric boost he’s had from recent events. Ireland is no longer the country he knew as a young man, and he obviously derives a welcome stimulus to his continuing creativity from the transformation of the world. When I ask him about ageing, he concedes: ‘The problem as you get older is that you become more self-aware. So you have to be alert to your own ploys. At the same time you have to surprise yourself, if possible. There’s no way of arranging the surprise, so it is tricky.’ He adds that he continues to find himself ‘either obsessed, or surprised. There’s no halfway house’.

Robert McCrum – https://www.theguardian.com/books/2006/apr/02/poetry.seamusheaney

Poem by poem analysis of Heaney’s District & Circle poems…