Seamus Heaney Reading

Presented as the Academy’s 4th Annual Christmas Lecture, December 12, 1987

Digitized Recording and Transcription of Seamus Heaney Reading

As part of the Academy’s previous monthly concert and lecture series, “Saturday Afternoons,” Seamus Heaney was invited to give a reading of his work at the Academy’s 4th Annual Christmas Lecture on December 12, 1987. Heaney chose to present his work with commentary alongside selected pieces from his forthcoming edition of The Essential Wordsworth. In 2019, the Academy arranged for the digitization of the audio cassette which recorded the event, which you may listen to below. A full transcription of Heaney’s reading also appears below, with timestamps for each poem.

Digitized Recording

See the player below to listen to the full recording of Seamus Heaney.

Audio file

If you prefer clips of only the individual poems, they are below with their transcription.


[recording begins, audience talks]

[microphone sounds]

[Joel Orlen]
I don’t know if the microphone is on. Can you hear me?


[Joel Orlen]
Can you hear me now?


[Joel Orlen]
Uh. [clears throat] I lost my voice this morning and it’s coming back slowly, so I apologize. Uh. Good Afternoon. Uh. My name is Joel Orlen, I’m the Executive Officer of the American Academy. And it’s, uh, my pleasure [clears throat] this afternoon, to welcome Seamus Heaney, who’ll read some of his verse and some of his favorite verse from other poets. This reading is the fourth in an annual series of Christmas Lectures here at the American Academy. Mr. Heaney was born in Northern Ireland [clears throat] in 1939, and he has lived there [clears throat], and is- is- is in the- I’m sorry- has lived in the Irish Republic. [clears throat] He now spends, uh, half of the year in Dublin, and half at Harvard as a Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory. His poetry explores autobiographical themes and the social and cultural history of Ireland. He is, we are pleased to say, a Fellow of the American Academy and without further ado I’ll present Mr. Heaney.

[audience clapping]

[Seamus Heaney]
Well I’m very honored to be invited to read to the Academy. And, ehm, I’m not going to do exactly what was promised. I’m going to read the verses from a favorite poet, uh, and, uh, some of my own - I make a distinction between them. [audience laughter] Uh. I’ve been, ehm, getting together, uh, rather too swiftly, but nevertheless getting together, eh, a small selection of William Wordsworth’s poetry, uh, to be entitled The Essential Wordsworth. [audience laughs]
It’s the nam- [chuckle] it’s the name of the series. But, ehm, I thought I would read a piece of, of, Wordworth’s, uh, Prelude, which, uh, is set just before Christmas, but doesn’t, mercifully, have too upbeat a seasonal spirit in it. And, uh, and proceeded with the, that, the famous passage where Wordsworth talks about- about the mysterious, uh, potency, and, uh, resource that there reside in these remembered, uncanny, uh, moments out of childhood. This is, uh, from Book 11 of the eighteen hundred and five prelude.

Audio file
Seamus Heaney reading William Wordsworth, “The Prelude XII” (1805), Lines 208-229/ Saturday Afternoon, Christmas Lecture/ December 12, 1987

[William Wordsworth- “The Prelude XII”(1805), Lines 208-229]
There are in our existence spots of time,
Which with distinct pre-eminence retain
A vivifying virtue, whence--depressed
By false opinion and contentious thought,
Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight,
In trivial occupations, and the round
Of ordinary intercourse--our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
A virtue, by which pleasure is enhanced,
That penetrates, enables us to mount,
When high, more higher, and lifts us up when fallen.
This efficacious spirit chiefly lurks Among those passages of life in which We have had deepest feeling that the mind
Is lord and master, and that outward sense
Is but the obedient servant of her will.
Such moments are worthy of all gratitude,- [corrects] such moments worthy of all gratitude,
Are scatter’d everywhere, taking their date
From our first childhood: in our childhood even
Perhaps are most conspicuous.
Life with me, as far as memory can look back
Is full of this beneficent influence.

Audio file
Seamus Heaney reading William Wordsworth, “The Prelude XII” (1805), Lines 344-388/ Saturday Afternoon, Christmas Lecture/ December 12, 1987

[William Wordsworth, “The Prelude XII”(1805), Lines 344-388]
One Christmas-time,
The day before the holidays began,
Feverish, and tired, and restless, I went forth
Into the fields, impatient for the sight
Of those two horses which would bear us home,
My brothers and myself.

(They were at the school in Hawk’s Head, in the countryside, waiting to be brought home.)

There was a crag,
An eminence, which from the meeting-point
Of two highways ascending overlooked
At least a long half-mile of those two roads,
By each of which the expected steeds might come –
The choice uncertain. Thither I repaired
Up to the highest summit. ‘Twas a day
Stormy, and rough, and wild, and on the grass
I sat half sheltered by a naked wall.
Upon my right hand was a single sheep,
A whistling hawthorn on my left, and there,
With those companions at my side, I watched,
Straining my eyes intensely as the mist
Gave intermitting prospect of the wood
And plain beneath. Ere I to school returned
That dreary time, ere I had been ten days
A dweller in my father’s house, he died,
And I and my two brothers, orphans then,
Followed his body to the grave. The event,
With all the sorrow which it brought, appeared
A chastisement; and when I called to mind
That day so lately past, when from the crag
I looked in such anxiety of hope,
With trite reflections of morality,
Yet in the deepest passion, I bowed low
To God who thus corrected my desires.
And afterwards the wind and sleety rain,
And all the business of the elements,
The single sheep, and the one blasted tree,
And the bleak music of that stone- [corrects] of that old stone wall,
The noise of wood and water, and the mist
Which on the- [repeats] on the line of each of those two roads
Advanced in such indisputable shapes –
All these were spectacles and sounds to which
I often would repair, and thence would drink
As at a fountain. And I do not doubt
That in this later time, when storm and rain
Beat on my roof at midnight, or by day
When I am in the woods, unknown to me
The workings of my spirit thence are brought.

I also like, uh, those, uh, riff of sonnets, or that riff of sonnets that Wordsworth wrote in 1802 when he w- was setting out to sea, just before he got married, uh, he set out to- to meet again, ehm, Annette Vallon, whom he had known, ehm, in, ehm, eighteen, was it seventeen ninety-two I think, in Bois, and, ehm, their child, uh, Caroline was, what, by then, she was ten years of age. So, ehm, when he went there, he passed- he passed Westminster bridge on the way. Then he landed in Calais. And, ehm, I just read two or three of those sonnets.

Audio file
Seamus Heaney reading William Wordsworth, “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802"/ Saturday Afternoons, Christmas Lecture/ December 12, 1987

[William Wordsworth, “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802"]
“Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September Third, Eighteen Hundred and Two”

(That must have been on the way backwards.)

Earth has not anything to show more far:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

I mean it’s a shame, to read that and- and leave out the word ‘now’ as I did.

“This City now doth like a garment, wear”.

One of the poems I like best at this moment is a sonnet which a- in which he recalls going, uh, through France on the first walking tour he did, eh, in I think it was his second or third vacation time at- as a student in Cambridge. He and his friend Jones walked through France just a year after the fall of the Bastille. And a tremendous sense, had a tremendous sense of- of possibility, uh, in the- in the air. And, ehm, then of course now, ten years later, eleven years later, uh, sort of disillusioned, he’s older, uh, France has gone through, lots of, uh, convulsions since then. But it’s a- it’s- it’s a sonnet that has a sort of trust that, ehm, that something might come through. It trusts that trust is all right. That’s about as far as it goes; doesn’t hope too much. It also has the most commanding and the most odd first word, I think, that any sonnet in English begins with. It begins with the vocative case of the word, “Jones!” [audience laughs]

Audio file
Seamus Heaney reading William Wordsworth, “Composed near Calais, on the Road leading to Ardres, August 7, 1802”/ Saturday Afternoons, Christmas Lecture/ December 12, 1987

[William Wordsworth, “Composed near Calais, on the Road leading to Ardres, August 7, 1802”]
“Composed near Calais, on the Road leading to Ardres, August Seventh, Eighteen Hundred and Two”

Jones! As from Calais southward you and I
Went pacing side by side, this public
Way Streamed with the pomp of a too-credulous day,
When faith was pledged to new-born
Liberty: A homeless sound of joy was in the sky:
From hour to hour the antiquated Earth,
Beat like the heart of Man: songs, garlands, mirth,
Banners, and happy faces, far and nigh!
And now, sole register that these things were,
Two solitary greetings have I heard,
"Good morrow, Citizen!" a hollow word,
As if a dead man spake it! Yet despair
Touches me not, though pensive as a bird
Whose vernal coverts winter hath laid bare.

This is, uh, I guess when he must- he would have returned from France.

Audio file
Seamus Heaney reading William Wordsworth, “September, 1802, near Dover"/ Saturday Afternoons, Christmas Lecture/ December 12, 1987

[William Wordsworth, “September, 1802, near Dover"]
“September, Eighteen Hundred and Two, near Dover”

Inland, within a hollow vale, I stood;
And saw, while sea was calm and air was clear,
The coast of France—the coast of France how near!
Drawn almost into frightful neighbourhood.
I shrunk; for verily the barrier flood
Was like a lake, or river bright and fair,
A span of waters; yet what power is there!
What mightiness for evil and for good!
Even so doth God protect us if we be
Virtuous and wise. Winds blow, and waters roll,
Strength to the brave, and Power, and Deity;
Yet in themselves are nothing! One decree
Spake laws to them, and said that by the soul
Only, the Nations shall be great and free.

Well I do know we’re verging towards the sonorous there and it may be time to pull back. There is, uh, uh, another sonnet, uh, just little earlier than this, which, uh, I like because its, uh, its in a s- essentially it’s, uh, a poem in praise of somebody who gave money to a poet at the right moment. Eh, its to Raisley Calvert, an it- it, uh, it expresses, that, uh, ever-, uh, welcome sensation, of a- of good fortune issuing from the issue of a check and, uh, prospect of, uh, imaginative endeavor and perhaps triumph even.

Audio file
Seamus Heaney reading William Wordsworth, “To the Memory of Raisley Calvert"/ Saturday Afternoons, Christmas Lecture/ December 12, 1987

[William Wordsworth, “To the Memory of Raisley Calvert"]
“To the Memory of Raisley Calvert”

Calvert! [laughs] [audience laughs]


[begins again] Calvert! it must not be unheard by them
Who may respect my name, that I to thee
Owed many years of early liberty.
This care was thine when sickness did condemn
Thy youth to hopeless wasting, root and stem--
That I, if frugal and severe, might stray
Where'er I liked; and finally array
My temples with the Muse's diadem.
Hence, if in freedom I have loved the truth;
If there be aught of pure, or good, or great,
In my past verse; or shall be, in the lays
Of higher mood, which now I meditate;--
It gladdens me, O worthy, short-lived, Youth!
To think how much of this will be thy praise.

Well I thought I’d read a couple of sonnets which have references to Wordsworth in them. Eh. Thanks to, various, uh, Calvert like, uh, generosities, I lived for a while in County Wicklow in a cottage, ehm, called Glanmore Cottage and, ehm, during that time I did actually a- a television program for the BBC, in a series called Writers’ Houses, I went to Grasmere and, ehm, stayed in an around Dove Cottage for three or four days, and came back to our stone cottage in the Vale in- in, ehm, Wicklow, uh, rather inflated, with a sense of- of a that- that- that Wordsworth in his cottage an, uh, with Dorothy and, my wife and myself, in our cottage with our enterprise, you know, there was something there to the equivalent, about, so on.
So I’ll read the three, eh, of these things called “Glanmore Sonnets”.

Audio file
Seamus Heaney reading "Glanmore Sonnets, II"/ Saturday Afternoons, Christmas Lecture/ December 12, 1987

[Seamus Heaney, “Glanmore Sonnets, II"]
Sensings, mountings from the hiding places,
Words entering almost the sense of touch
Ferreting themselves out of their dark hutch—
‘These things are not secrets but mysteries,’
Oisin Kelly told me years ago
In Belfast, hankering after stone
That connived with the chisel, as if the grain
Remembered what the mallet tapped to know.
Then I landed in the hedge-school of Glanmore
And from the backs of ditches hoped to raise
A voice caught back off slug-horn and slow chanter
That might continue, hold, dispel, appease:
Vowels ploughed into other, opened ground,
Each verse returning like the plough turned round.

Audio file
Seamus Heaney reading "Glanmore Sonnets, III"/ Saturday Afternoons, Christmas Lecture/ December 12, 1987

[Seamus Heaney, “Glanmore Sonnets, III"]
This evening the cuckoo and the corncrake
(So much, too much) consorted at twilight.
It was all crepuscular and iambic.
Out on the field a baby rabbit
Took his bearings, and I knew the deer
(I’ve seen them too from the window of the house,
Like connoisseurs, inquisitive of air)
Were careful under larch and May-green spruce.
I had said earlier, ‘I won’t relapse
From this strange loneliness I’ve brought us to.
Dorothy and William—’ She interrupts:
‘You’re not going to compare us two...?’
Outside a rustling and twig-combing breeze
Refreshes and relents. Is cadences.

Audio file
Seamus Heaney reading "Glanmore Sonnets, VII"/ Saturday Afternoons, Christmas Lecture/ December 12, 1987

[Seamus Heaney, “Glanmore Sonnets, VII"]
Thunderlight on the split logs: big raindrops
At body heat and lush with omen
Spattering dark on the hatchet iron.
This morning when a magpie with jerky steps
Inspected a horse asleep beside the wood
I thought of dew on armour and carrion.
What would I meet, blood-boltered, on the road?
How deep into the woodpile sat the toad?
What welters through this dark hush on the crops?
Do you remember that pension in Les Landes
Where the old one rocked and rocked and rocked
A mongol in her lap, to little songs?
Come to me quick, I am upstairs shaking.
My all of you birchwood in lightning.

I’ll just do a last one of these. There’s a superstition that its bad luck to see the moon through glass- or the new moon.

Audio file
Seamus Heaney reading "Glanmore Sonnets, IX"/ Saturday Afternoons, Christmas Lecture/ December 12, 1987

[Seamus Heaney, “Glanmore Sonnets, IX"]
Outside the kitchen window a black rat
Sways on the briar like infected fruit:
‘It looked me through, it stared me out, I’m not
Imagining things. Go you out to it.’
Did we come to the wilderness for this?
We have our burnished bay tree at the gate,
Classical, hung with the reek of silage
From the next farm, tart-leafed as inwit.
Blood on a pitchfork, blood on chaff and hay,
Rats speared in the sweat and dust of threshing—
What is my apology for poetry?
The empty briar is swishing
When I come down, and beyond, your face Haunts like a moo- [corrects] new moon glimpsed through tangled glass.

Now I verge towards the sonorous myself for a moment here. This is a- a poem called “Triptych”; it was written after the, eh, assassination the, uh, o- of the British Ambassador in the early seventies in the Republic of Ireland, a moment of enormous shock and outrage. He- he, uh, his car was blown up in a land mine. And, ehm, the evening, uh, that it happened, uh, we were going out, we got this babysitter, this little girl, she was only twelve- fourteen, we were, I suppose, child labor, uh, perpetrators at that time, but it was a very quiet countryside. She came in with, ehm, vegetables from her parents’ garden, and there’s something utterly, uh, innocent, and- and, uh, somehow solid about her. Little sturdy lass with the sturdy carrots and parsnips. And it seemed- seemed like an image of the good life at that moment. And, uh, so she appears in the poem, and she becomes in the second section, uh, a sibyl, she speaks far beyond her capacities, uh, she speaks a kind of prophecy, or about the condition of the country. Its called a triptych because I couldn’t think of anything else, its in three part put together. The first is, I call “After A Killing” which is just the, uh, registering of th -the strangeness and, eh, desolation of that, uh, day. Then it’s called “Sibyl”, she becomes a prophetess. And the third is called, uh “At the- at the Water’s Edge”.
There was a- an eyewitness report that somebody had seen two young fellows running along the hillside with rifles after this ex- explosion had occurred, which is one of the original founding image of the liber- the- the- the freedom fighters. Uh, a positive image in the national memory, until that moment when it had become a disgrace.

Audio file
Seamus Heaney reading “Triptych I: After a Killing"/ Saturday Afternoons, Christmas Lecture/ December 12, 1987

[Seamus Heaney, “Triptych I: After a Killing"]
“After a Killing”
There they were, as if our memory hatched them,
As if the unquiet founders walked again:
Two young men with rifles on the hill,
Profane and bracing as their instruments.

Who’s sorry for our trouble?
Who dwelt that we might dwell- [corrects] who dreamt that we might dwell among ourselves
In rain and scoured light and wind-dried stones?
Basalt, blood, water, headstone, leeches.

In that neuter original loneliness
From Brandon to Dunseverick
I think of small-eyed survivor flowers,
The pined-for, unmolested orchid.
I see a stone house by a pier.
Elbow room. Broad window light.
The heart lifts. You walk twenty yards
To the boats and buy mackerel.
And today a girl walks in home to us
Carrying a basket full of new potatoes,
Three tight green cabbages, and carrots
With the tops and mould still fresh on them.

Audio file
Seamus Heaney reading “Triptych II: Sibyl"/ Saturday Afternoons, Christmas Lecture/ December 12, 1987

[Seamus Heaney, “Triptych II: Sibyl"]
My tongue moved, a swung relaxing hinge.
I said to her, ‘What will become of us?’
And as forgotten water in a well might shake
At an explosion under morning

Or a crack run up a gable,
She began to speak.
‘I think our very form is bound to change.
Dogs in a siege. Saurian relapses. Pismires.

Unless forgiveness finds its nerve and voice,
Unless the helmeted and bleeding tree
Can green and open buds like infants’ fists
And the fouled magma incubate

Bright nymphs…My people think money
And talk weather. Oil-rigs lull their future
On single acquisitive stems. Silence
Has shoaled into the trawlers’ echo-sounders.

The ground we kept our ear to for so long
Is flayed or calloused, and its entrails
Tented by an impious augury.
Our island is full of comfortless noises.’

This is a list of, ehm, islands in this, which are islands on Lough Erne.

Audio file
Seamus Heaney reading “Triptych III: At the Water's Edge"/ Saturday Afternoons, Christmas Lecture/ December 12, 1987

[Seamus Heaney, “Triptych III: At the Water’s Edge"]
“At the Water’s Edge”
On Devenish I heard a snipe
And the keeper’s recital of elegies Under the tower.
Carved monastic heads
Were crumbling like bread on water.

On Boa the god-eyed, sex-mouthed stone
Socketed between two graves, two-faced, trepanned,
Answered my silence with silence.
A stoup for rain water. Anathema.

From a cold hearthstone on Horse Island
I watched the sky beyond the open chimney
And listened to the thick rotations
Of an army helicopter patrolling.

A hammer and a cracked jug full of cobwebs
Lay on the window-sill. Everything in me
Wanted to bow down, to offer up,
To go barefoot, foetal and penitential,

And pray at the water’s edge.
How we crept before we walked! I remembered
The helicopter shadowing our march at Newry,
The scared, irrevocable steps.

Ehm. Its, ehm, been a- a constant, uh, submerged attempt, sometimes not so submerged, alas maybe, to- to bring that kind of utter, uh, data and, uh, predicament of the Northern Ireland, uh, place somehow into consonance with, uh, with a more inward lyric-poetry poetry. And, ehm, I just read, uh, a poem where- where this, ehm, is attempted.
My God, I’ve come without the book. hmmm. Do I see a copy of The Haw Lantern there?
Thank you. hmm. This is called “From the Frontier of Writing”. Its both, uh, its both, uh, an account of something that’s very common in, uh, the North of Ireland for the last, uh, almost twenty years now. Just, uh, army roadblocks and police roadblocks, and, uh, depending on your affiliation, origin, disposition, political loyalties, political, uh, hopes, aspirations, religion, temperament, whatever, going through a roadblock, uh, can be either, a slight humiliation, or a slight, uh, confirmation. “Our security forces are in charge”, or [strains] “bow down and offer up”.
So its, uh, this- this poem uses the, uh, the crossing though, the, uh, the interrogation and, uh, and, the restitution of self after it. The little escape feeling that occurs at a roadblock. As, ehm, one emblem for that sense of coming through that we have when we do something. Could be a lyric poem, or something that’s well finished, something that’s rewarded by a sense of having been well done. And that lasts for about, uh, ten seconds. Well. Well. That’s it.


[Seamus Heaney, “From the Frontier of Writing”]
“From the Frontier of Writing”
The tightness and the nilness round that space
When the car stops in the road, the troops inspect
Its make and number and, as one bends his face

Towards your window, [clears throat] you catch sight of more
On a hill beyond, eyeing with intent
Down cradled guns that hold you under cover

And everything is pure interrogation
Until a rifle motions and you move
With guarded unconcerned acceleration--

A little emptier, a little spent
As always by that quiver in the self,
Subjugated, yes, and obedient.

So you drive on to the frontier of writing
Where it happens again. The guns on tripods;
The sergeant with his on-off mike repeating

Data about you, waiting for the squawk
Of clearance; the marksman training down
Out of the sun upon you like a hawk.

And suddenly you're through, arraigned yet freed,
As if you'd passed from behind a waterfall
On the black current of a tarmac road

Past armor-plated vehicles, out between
The posted soldiers flowing and receding
Like tree shadows into the polished windscreen.

I, uh, four- do four other short ones which are- in which they, ehm, the single autobiographical creature is comingled with other, uh, previous, uh, creatures or aspects or emanations. Eh. The first one is, uh, is part of a triptych but I’ll just read, uh, this section of it. Its- its about going on a pigeon hunt. It had- it is ghosted by the presence of the mad King of the Trees, called, uh, Sweeney, who was driven, uh, i- i- into the wilderness by a Saint called Ronan. But he- he- he is an image of, I suppose, withdrawal of, uh, retreat from the world of, uh, Society into the world of nature. Also withdrawal. And, eh, eh, he- this poem was written about the time when we moved from Belfast to Wicklow again, did our Wordsworthian Dove College Act.
Eh, the other, uh, three poems are from a sequence called “Sweeny Redivivus” written later, but again rhyming Sweeney with Heaney, rhyming, uh, the- the driven-mad creature, who flew off after a battle in Ulster into, uh, into his, uh, wanderings. Ehm. So th- there’s one called the “First Flight” which- which, uh, links, uh, Sweeney’s spasm after the Battle of Moira with, uh, Heaney’s- Heaney’s driftings after the Troubles in Ireland, uh, ending up in Wicklow.
Th- there’s- then there’s one called “The Scribes” which, ehm, again is a reminiscence of Sweeney’s, uh, tale. Sweeney, The Mad King, was, uh, as I say, cursed by a saint but then a saint, of course, with- with great, uh, symmetry, uh, called him back in. Uh, Saint R-, uh, Moling, and Saint Moling’s scribes took down, uh, Sweeney’s stories. And, of course, thanks to the Church that we have the tale of this, uh, pagan creature. Ehm. So- so- so I imagine the scribes during the day while Sweeney is off on his rambles, sitting, writing down the story. They were a notably ill-tempered lot, the scribes. Th- the third one is called “Holly”, uh, just “Holly”. So these are four, from this book called Station Island.
So this is the kind of pigeon-hunt, uh, quest poem. Pigeon shoot I should say.

Audio file
Seamus Heaney reading “The Pigeon Shoot"/ Saturday Afternoons, Christmas Lecture/ December 12, 1987

[Seamus Heaney, “The Pigeon Shoot”]
When I was taken aside that day
I had the sense of election:

They dressed my head in a fishnet
And plaited leafy twigs through the meshes<

So my vision was a bird’s
At the heart of a thicket

And I spoke as I moved
Like a voice from a shaking bush.

King of the ditchbacks,
I went with them obediently

To the edge of a pigeon wood -
Deciduous canopy, screened wain of evening

We lay beneath in silence.
No birds came, but I waited

Among briars and stones, or whispered
Or broke the watery gossamers

If I moved a muscle.
‘Come back to us,’ they said, 'in harvest

When we hide in the stooked corn,
When the gundogs can hardly retrieve

What’s brought down.’ And I saw myself
Rising to move in that dissimulation,

Top-knotted, masked in sheaves, noting
The fall of birds: a rich young man

Leaving everything he had
For a migrant solitude.

Audio file
Seamus Heaney reading “The First Flight"/ Saturday Afternoons, Christmas Lecture/ December 12, 1987

[Seamus Heaney, “The First Flight”]
“The First Flight”
It was more sleepwalk than spasm
yet that was a time when the times
were also in spasm -

the ties and the knots running through us
split open
down the lines of the grain.

As I drew close to pebbles and berries,
the smell of wild garlic, relearning
the acoustic of frost

and the meaning of woodnote,
my shadow over the field
was only a spin-off,

my empty place an excuse
for shifts in the camp, old rehearsals
of debts and betrayal.

Singly they came to the tree
with a stone in each pocket
to whistle and bill me back in

and I would collide and cascade
through leaves when they left,
my point of repose knocked askew.

I was mired in attachment
until they began to pronounce me
a feeder off battlefields

so I ma- [repeats] mastered new rungs of the air
to survey out of reach
their bonfires on hills, their hosting

and fasting, the levies from Scotland
as always, and the people of art
diverting their rhythmical chants

to fend off the onslaught of winds
I would welcome and climb
at the top of my bent.

Perhaps I read that again with this glass that, uh, I mean it- it drifts Sweeney’s story and, uh, and certain contemporary events -- the levies from Scotland, I mean, that’s- that’s not necessarily, uh, a code, but in fact British Army’s always full of, uh, Scottish regiments who’re- who are particularly exacerbating in Catholic ghettos of the north because these Scottish soldiers have themselves a terrific vindictive Orange sectarian energy to begin with, and then- then they have got the British, uh, Army, uh, uniform on them, which, is a second, uh, exacerbation. Uh. But anyway, and in- in- of course, in- in early Celtic times, or up to the late-Middle Ages, th- the relationship between Northern Ireland and Scotland, was, uh, wa- was intimate. The Kingdom of Dalriada existed in Antrim in the North of Ireland and in Western Scotland so it was the sea kept people together. Bonfires on hills, you know its kind of Orange bonfires, fasting, hunger strikes, all that sort of stuff still going on. Uh. The People of Art, well, al- they’re always a notably contentious lot, Irish, uh, poets, even in the old Breton days. They were a kind of guild of jealous, uh, bitches and wizards.
And of course certain books of poetry that appeared, one called North, uh, that I wrote myself, were accused of eating, uh, eating on the battlefield almost, you know. Of, uh, ex- exploiting tragedy. I don’t think it did, but you know, that was, well, some of these things were said.

Audio file
Seamus Heaney repeat reading “The First Flight"/ Saturday Afternoons, Christmas Lecture/ December 12, 1987

[Seamus Heaney, “The First Flight”]
“The First Flight”
It was more sleepwalk than spasm
yet that was a time when the times
were also in spasm -

the ties and the knots running through us
split open
down the lines of the grain.

As I drew close to pebbles and berries,
the smell of wild garlic, relearning
the acoustic of frost

and the meaning of woodnote,
my shadow over the field
was only a spin-off,

my empty place an excuse
for shifts in the camp, old rehearsals
of debts and betrayal.

Singly they came to the tree
with a stone in each pocket
to whistle and bill me back in

and I would collide and cascade
through leaves when they left,
my point of repose knocked askew.

I was mired in attachment
until they began to pronounce me
a feeder off battlefields

so I ma- [repeats] mastered new rungs of the air
to survey out of reach
their bonfires on hills, their hosting

and fasting, the levies from Scotland
as always, and the people of art
diverting their rhythmical chants

to fend off the onslaught of winds
I would welcome and climb
at the top of my bent.

I was actually very lucky to have Sweeney to speak for me there, I could not have had that kind of response to events at all.

Audio file
Seamus Heaney reading “The Scribes"/ Saturday Afternoons, Christmas Lecture/ December 12, 1987

[Seamus Heaney, “The Scribes”]
This is “The Scribes”.

I never warmed to them,

(says Sweeney)

If they were excellent they were petulant
and jaggy as the holly tree
they rendered down for ink.
And if I never belonged among them,
they could never deny me my place.

In the hush of the scriptorium
a black pearl kept gathering in them
like the old dry glut inside their quills.
In the margin of texts of praise
they scratched and clawed.
They snarled if the day was dark
or too much chalk had made the vellum bland
or too little left it oily.

Under the rumps of lettering
they herded myopic angers.
Resentment seeded in the uncurling
fernheads of their capitals.

Now and again I started up
miles away and saw in my absence
the sloped cursive of each back and felt them
perfect themselves against me page by page.

Let them remember this not inconsiderable
contribution to their jealous art.

Audio file
Seamus Heaney reading “Holly"/ Saturday Afternoons, Christmas Lecture/ December 12, 1987

[Seamus Heaney, “Holly”]
It rained when it should have snowed.
When we went to gather holly

the ditches were swimming, we were wet
to the knees, our hands were all jags

and water ran up our sleeves.
There should have been berries

but the sprigs we brought into the house
gleamed like smashed bottle-glass.

Now here I am, in a room that is decked
with the red-berried, waxy-leafed stuff,

and I almost forgot what it's like
to be wet to the skin or longing for snow.

I reach for a book like a doubter
and want it to flare round my hand,

a black letter bush, a glittering shield-wall,
cutting as holly and ice.

Well. I don’t want to overdo it on a Saturday afternoon. Perhaps “Hailstones” is a poem that goes after ‘Holly”.

Audio file
Seamus Heaney reading “Hailstones"/ Saturday Afternoons, Christmas Lecture/ December 12, 1987

[Seamus Heaney, “Hailstones”]
My cheek was hit and hit:
sudden hailstones
pelted and bounced on the road.

When it cleared again
something whipped and knowledgeable
had withdrawn

and left me there with my chances.
I made a small hard ball
of burning water running from my hand

just as I make this now
out of the melt of the real thing
smarting into its absence.

To be reckoned with, all the same,
those brats of showers.
The way they refused permission,

rattling the classroom window
like a ruler across the knuckles,
the way they were perfect first

and then in no time dirty slush.
Thomas Traherne had his orient wheat
for proof and wonder

but for us, it was the sting of hailstones
and the unstingable hands of Eddie Diamond
foraging in the nettles.

Nipple and hive, bite-lumps,
small acorns of the almost pleasurable
intimated and disallowed

when the shower ended
and everything said wait.
For what? For forty years

to say there, there you had
the truest foretaste
of your aftermath in that dilation

when the light opened in silence
and a car with wipers going still
laid perfect tracks in the slush.

This is a- an odd thing called “From the Land of the Unspoken”. Ehm. A lot of poems in this and other books of mine emerge from unspoken silences. I am not alone in this, I mean, I think that’s where poetry emerges from. Fills and re- goes back into it. But this is an- an odd thing called “From the Land of the Unspoken” it’s a s- it’s a number- its one of, uh, a number, four or five poems, which are made-up countries, frontier writing, the Republic of Conscience, the Land of the Unspoken.

Audio file
Seamus Heaney reading “From the Land of the Unspoken"/ Saturday Afternoons, Christmas Lecture/ December 12, 1987

“From the Land of the Unspoken”
I have heard of a bar of platinum
kept by a logical and talkative nation
as their standard of measurement,
the throne room and the burial chamber
of every calculation and prediction.
I could feel at home inside that metal core
slumbering at the very hub of systems.

We are a dispersed people whose history
is a sensation of opaque fidelity.
When or why our exile began
among the speech-ridden, we cannot tell
but solidarity comes flooding up in us
when we hear their legends of infants discovered
floating in coracles towards destiny
or of kings’ biers heaved and borne away
on the river’s shoulders or out into the sea roads.

When we recognize our own, we fall in step
but do not altogether come up level.
My deepest contact was underground
strap-hanging back to back on a rush-hour train
and in a museum once, I inhaled
vernal assent from a neck and shoulder
pretending to be absorbed in a display
of absolutely silent quernstones.

Our unspoken assumptions have the force
of revelation. How else could we know
that whoever is the first of us to seek
assent and votes in a rich democracy
will be the last of us and have killed our language?
Meanwhile, if we miss the sight of a fish
we heard jumping and then see its ripples,

that means one more of us is dying somewhere.

This is, uh, I’ll read three- three- three more sonnets and then two- five- five bits and we should be finished certainly bef- by four o’clock. I’m sure everybody in this room is attuned to the one hour stint. [audience laughter] This is, uh, a little speech that’s also, uh, the- the first one. The three sonnets from a sequence called “Clearances”, uh, in- in memory of my mother. This is number five, and I read number seven and number eight, the last two.

Audio file
Seamus Heaney reading “In Memoriam M.K.H., 1911-1984:5"/ Saturday Afternoons, Christmas Lecture/ December 12, 1987

[Seamus Heaney, “In Memoriam M.K.H., 1911-1984:5"]
The cool that came off sheets just off the line
Made me think the damp must still be in them
But when I took my corners of the linen
And pulled against her, first straight down the hem
And then diagonally, then flapped and shook
The fabric like a sail in a cross-wind,
They made a dried-out undulating thwack.
So we'd stretch and fold and end up hand to hand
For a split second as if nothing had happened
For nothing had that had not always happened
Beforehand, day by day, just touch and go,
Coming close again by holding back
In moves where I was x and she was o
Inscribed in sheets she'd sewn from ripped-out flour sacks.

Audio file
Seamus Heaney reading “In Memoriam M.K.H., 1911-1984:7"/ Saturday Afternoons, Christmas Lecture/ December 12, 1987

[Seamus Heaney, “In Memoriam M.K.H., 1911-1984:7"]
In the last minutes he said more to her
Almost than in all their life together.
'You'll be in New Row on Monday night
And I'll come up for you and you'll be glad
When I walk in the door...Isn't that right?'
His head was bent down to her propped-up head.
She could not hear but we were overjoyed.
He called her good and girl. Then she was dead,
The searching for a pulsebeat was abandoned
And we all knew one thing by being there.
The space we stood around had been emptied
Into us to keep, it penetrated
Clearances that suddenly stood open.
High cries were felled and a pure change happened.

Audio file
Seamus Heaney reading “In Memoriam M.K.H., 1911-1984:8"/ Saturday Afternoons, Christmas Lecture/ December 12, 1987

[Seamus Heaney, “In Memoriam M.K.H., 1911-1984:8"]
I thought of walking round and round a space
Utterly empty, utterly a source
Where the decked chestnut tree had lost its place
In our front hedge above the wallflowers.
The white chips jumped and jumped and skited high.
I heard the hatchet's differentiated
Accurate cut, the crack, the sigh
And collapse of what luxuriated
Through the shocked tips and wreckage of it all.
Deep-planted and long gone, my coeval
Chestnut from a jam jar in a hole,
Its heft and hush become a bright nowhere,
A soul ramifying and forever Silent, beyond silence listened for.

The last two things are elegies of sorts also. Two years ago this month, and just this week, the English poet Philip Larkin died, uh, and, ehm, he- he was a man who fled from, uh, majesty, but achieved it, [chuckles] now and again, in his poetry. He always- he was always trying to cut down the music and pretend that he wasn’t really a poet and even Larkin couldn’t quite manage to quell poetry in himself. It did come up quite often. So, uh, I thought that, uh, I- I might, uh, use about four lines of Dante in this, in this, ehm, elegy for him and then quell it, because he wouldn’t like too much of that sort of thing. I- I wrote, uh, a- a short essay for his sixtieth birthday in a festschrift, and he wrote back to me, uh, when- when the book appeared, he wrote and thanked me for this. I had mentioned Dante just to test him, and- and he wrote- he wrote in the letter and thanked me for the piece and said, “I was so glad you could treat me as a poet,” and he put poet in inverted commas. And this is just a little shot. The first five lines are from the second canto of The Inferno.

Audio file
Seamus Heaney reading “The Journey Back"/ Saturday Afternoons, Christmas Lecture/ December 12, 1987

[Seamus Heaney, “The Journey Back”]
He speaks:
Daylight was going and the umber air
Soothing every creature on the earth,
Freeing them from their labors everywhere.
I alone was girding myself to face
The ordeal of my journey and my duty
And not a thing had changed, as rush-hour buses
Bore the drained and laden through the city.
I might have been a wise king setting out
Under the Christmas lights -- except that

It felt more like the forewarned journey back
Into the heartland of the ordinary.
Still my old self. Ready to knock one back.

A nine-to-five man who had seen poetry

This is, uh, commemorative of, but not descriptive of, eh, Richard Ellman, who was a man of such dignity, generosity, goodness, thoroughness, calm, strong, attentive, wise. A mixture of- of a great liner and- and something much wider that just swept everything in front of it. H- his spirit was very big, I thought. Anyway, ehm, this i-is to commemorate him as I say, but not quite an elegy, he is- he is the occasion of it, but there are various other commemorative, uh, moments in it. Its quite short.
And I just realized it, before I came out, that it- it is somehow like the first piece I read, because its about- its about that, uh, that, uh, strange visitation feeling you have in the sound of rain. Wordsworth talks about the sound of wind and rain and how, somehow, the spirits seem to come to him through that.
This is called “The Sounds of Rain”. And, ehm, it really came- came about by living, for the first time, in a wooden house, this, uh, this year in Kirkland Place and hearing the- the heavy penalty of rain on a wooden veranda. Took me a while to get used to that.

“The Sounds of Rain”
An all-night drubbing over-

(Oh sorry, I’ll start again)

There’s a word here, ‘thole’, which was used in the country where I grew up and it’s the old Anglo-Saxon verb þolian - to suffer. And, uh, there’s also, uh, a very common, uh, expression, “To be steeped.” Its used, uh, in its abbreviated form in Ireland quite a bit, in the West of Ireland, “Oh you’re steeped,” That means steeped in luck, uh, very, very lucky.

Audio file
Seamus Heaney reading “The Sounds of Rain"/ Saturday Afternoons, Christmas Lecture/ December 12, 1987

[Seamus Heaney, “The Sounds of Rain”]
“The Sounds of Rain”
An all night drubbing overflow on boards
On the veranda. I dwelt without thinking
In the long moil of it and then came to
To dripping eaves and light, saying into myself
Proven, weightless sayings of the dead.
Things like He’ll be missed and You’ll have to thole.

It could have been the drenched weedy gardens
Of Peredelkino: a reverie
Of looking out from hospitable gloom
Lit by tangerine and the clear of vodka
Where Pasternak, lenient yet austere,
Answered for himself without insistence.>/p>

‘I had the feeling of an immense debt’
He said (it is recorded). ‘So many years
Just writing lyric poetry and translating.
I felt there was some duty … Time was passing.
And with all its faults, it has more value
Than those early … It is richer, more humane.’

Or it could have been the thaw and puddles
Of Athens Street where William Alfred stood On the wet doorstep, remembering his friend
Only sixty, when [ill.] stopped the clock.
‘There would have been a deepening, you know,
Something ampler … Like in Day by Day.’

The eaves a water-fringe and steady lash
Of summer downpour: You are steeped in luck,
I hear them say, steeped, steeped, steeped in luck.
And I stand uncovered in the truth of that as names
Brim up from faces eddying on a flood
That rises swiftly and in silence.

Thanks very much. [audience applause]

[Joel Orlen]
Thank you very much Mr. Heaney for a splendid experience. [clears throat] There are refreshments [clears throat] out in the atrium for everybody and Seasons Greetings to all. Thank you very much. [audience applause]