Time period: 1963-1966

Poet: Seamus Heaney

Permanent URL: http://pid.emory.edu/ark:/25593/17kjg


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Four times now I have seen you as another

Man, a grown-up friend, less than a father;

Four times found chinks in the paternal mail

To find you lost like me, quite vulnerable.

Twice it was your incredible distress,

Once your adult laughter, now your weakness.

There was the time when my child-brother died

And in the porch, among the men, you cried.

Again, last year, I was shocked at your tears

When my mother's plane took off: in twelve years

You had not been apart for one whole day

Until this long-threatened, two-week holiday.

I left you lonely at the barrier,

Was embarrassed later when you stood a beer.

The third time you made a man of me

By telling me an almost smutty story

In a restaurant toilet; we both knew

This was an unprecedented breakthrough.

Today, a sinner, and shy about it,

You asked me to drive up to church, and sit

Morose as ever, telling me to slow

On corners or at pot-holes that I know

As well as you do. What is going on

Beneath that thick grey hair? What confession

Are you preparing? Do you tell sins as I would?

Does the same hectic rage in our one blood?

Here at the churchyard I am slowing down

To meet you, the fourth time, on common ground.

You grunt and slam the door. I watch another

Who gropes as awkwardly to know his father.

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(Translated from Horace, Odes III, xxi.)

When Manlius was consul you were filled,

Venerable pitcher, and I was born.

Now we meet. For what? Regrets or laughter?

Rows or old maudlin loves or boozy sleep?

No matter. The rare Massic that you store

Is only to be savoured on a day

Like this: Corvinus is insisting on

A wine that is a wine. So down you come.

Corvinus will appreciate you, though he looks

The real ascetic and sounds so terribly

Socratic. Anyhow, even Old Cato's

Frosty precepts thawed in the heat of wine.

You are a sugared poison to the souls

Of puritans, a sweet forbidden fruit.

The canny man relaxes when you smile,

Unloads his worst fears, leaks his secret plans.

You'll flush a worried wretch with sudden hope

And boost the small man up into heroics:

Who will go brazen into royal courts

Or face the firing line after a glass.

Join us, then, to-night. Here's company! Bacchus

And the jealous Graces. Venus too.

The lamps flicker. Down you come. We'll drink

Till Pheobus, returning, routs the morning star.

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A shadow lurches on the sandy ring,

The crowd elbows and grunts. Coarse bodies sweat

all round the pit, obscenely twisting

For a better view; one thin veined hand claws

At the sand where it has flung a bet.

The yells burst loud as amplified applause.

And in the sun, their shadows a quick blur,

Two crested cocks, like hammers drawn back

On trigger legs, are crouched to spring: each spur

Fixed deadly, each beak honed as a saw's tooth.

A lust that's bred during the squawked attack

Freezes the eyes, contorts the bawling mouth

Of every sporty punter hunkered there.

A blind-eyed noble arbitrates. He rubs

A folded knee, ignores the surly bear

Who clutches at his ruff, the thugs who shout

And threaten with a crutch or whips or clubs.

The trapped hag gapes and chokes; a man with gout

Is howling to the air. Two ageing rakes

Pinch their elegant snuff excitedly.

As the cocks rear up to kill, the ringside aches

And battles furiously as a hot stud:

The blind, the maimed, the deaf dementedly

Easing the daily pain with daily blood.

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Salt off the sea whets

the blades of four winds.

They peel acres of locked rock,

pare down a rind of shrivelled ground;

bull-noses are chiselled on cliffs.

Islanders too are for sculpting.

Note the pointed scowl,

the mouth carved as upturned anchor

and the polished head full of drownings.

There he comes now,

a hard pen scraping in his head;

the nib filed on salt wind

and dipped in the keening sea.

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Late August, given heavy rain and sun

For a full week, the blackberries would ripen

At first, just one, a glossy purple clot

Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.

You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet

Like thickened wine: summer's blood was in it

Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for

Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger

Sent us out with milk-cans, pea-tins, jam-pots

Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.

Round hayfields, cornfields and potato drills

We trekked and picked until the cans were full,

Until the tinkling bottom had been covered

With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned

Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered

With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard's.

We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.

But when the bath was filled we found a fur,

A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.

The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush

The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.

I always felt like crying. It wasn't fair

That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.

Each year I hoped they'd keep, knew they would not.

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When Francis preached love to the birds

They listened, fluttered, throttled up

Into the blue like a flock of words

Released for fun from his holy lips.

Then wheeled back, whirred about his head,

Pirouetted on brothers' capes.

Danced on the wing, for sheer joy played

And sang, like images took flight.

Which was the best poem Francis made,

His argument true, his tone light.

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A mechanical digger wrecks the drill,

Spins up a dark shower of roots and mould.

Labourers swarm in behind, stoop to fill

Wicker creels. Fingers go dead in the cold.

Like crows attacking crow-black fields, they stretch

A higgledy line from hedge to headland;

Some pairs keep breaking ragged ranks to fetch

A full creel to the pit and straighten, stand

Tall for a moment but soon stumble back

To fish a new load from the crumbled surf.

Heads bow, trucks bend, hands fumble towards the black

Mother. Processional stooping through the turf

Turns work to ritual. Centuries

Of fear and homage to the famine god

Toughen the muscles behind their humbled knees,

Make a seasonal altar of the sod.


Flint-white, purple. They lie scattered

Like inflated pebbles. Native

to the blank hutch of clay

where the halved seed shot and clotted

these knobbed and slit-eyed tubers seem

the petrified hearts of drills. Split

by the spade, they show white as cream.

Good smells exude from crumbled earth.

The rough bark of humus erupts

knots of potatoes (a clean birth)

whose solid feel, whose wet inside

promises taste of ground and root.

To be piled in pits; live skulls, blind-eyed.


Live skulls, blind-eyed, balanced on

wild higgledy skeletons

scoured the land in 'forty-five,'

wolfed the blighted root and died.

The new potato, sound as stone,

putrified when it had lain

three days in the long clay pit.

Millions rotted along with it.

Mouths tightened in, eyes died hard,

faces chilled to a plucked bird.

In a million wicker huts

beaks of famine snipped at guts.

A people hungering from birth,

grubbing, like plants, in the bitch earth,

were grafted with a great sorrow.

Hope rotted like a marrow.

Stinking potatoes fouled the land,

pits turned pus in filthy mounds:

and where potato diggers are

you still smell the running sore.


Under a white flotilla of gulls

The rhythm deadens, the workers stop.

White bread and tea in bright canfuls

Are served for lunch. Dead-beat, they flop

Down in the ditch and take their fill,

Thankfully breaking timeless fasts;

Then, stretched on the faithless ground, spill

Libations of cold tea, scatter crusts.

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