The greatest poems by Seamus Heaney selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) was one of the greatest and most popular English-language poets of the late twentieth century, and he continued to write into the current century. He was also the best-loved of the group of Irish poets who came to prominence in the second half of the twentieth century. Any Heaney fan’s list of his ten best poems is going to be slightly different, but we hope the following top ten selection acts as a nice reminder of Heaney’s greatness, or as an effective introduction to his work.
This classic Heaney poem, published in his first published volume, the 1966 book Death of a Naturalist, is simultaneously about picking blackberries in August and, on another level, about a loss of youthful innocence and a growing awareness of disappointment as we grow up. Growing up is about reconciling ourselves, with our hopes and expectations, to the realities of the world, and ‘Blackberry-Picking’ addresses this theme. It’s a rite of passage that we all go through, though it’s sometimes difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when disillusionment begins to cloud our clear and sunny skies of hope. It’s undoubtedly one of Heaney’s best-known poems, and remains widely studied in schools.
Like ‘Blackberry-Picking’, ‘Death of a Naturalist’ – the title poem from Heaney’s first collection of poems – is a poem about a rite of passage, and realising that the reality of the world does not match our expectations of it. Here, specifically, it is sexuality which is the theme: the speaker is appalled and repulsed by the reproductive cycle of frogs. Heaney describes how any interest he had in becoming a keen scientific observer of nature (‘a naturalist’) was destroyed by his early experiences of frogs in the local ‘flax-dam’.
The poem might be summarised as having two clear parts: the first section focuses on the young Heaney’s collecting of frogspawn from the bog and sticking it in jam jars, taking it home and into school so he could watch the spawn develop into tadpoles; the second section shows Heaney’s earlier fascination with the spawn and tadpoles turning to horror and loathing as he revisits the flax-dam and sees the fully-grown frogs, viewing their behaviour as menacing and ‘obscene’. We have analysed this poem here.
‘Digging’ is about a poet-son’s relationship with his father and the sense that the working-class son, by choosing the vocation of the poet, is adopting a path very different from his father’s, and his father’s before him. Heaney resolves to use his pen as his digging implement, and to perform a different kind of excavation from that practised by his forefathers.
The poem’s structure is significant not least in the fact that it almost goes full-circle: Heaney begins with the pen in his hand, ‘snug as a gun’ – a suggestive simile, especially given the complementarity of ‘snug’ and the word it spells when reversed, ‘guns’. A gun is a weapon associated with ‘manly’ ideas of war (however misguidedly); a spade is associated with honest manual labour, such as that performed by the poet’s father and grandfather. But the pen is, by comparison, no weapon – yes, as the proverb has it, the pen is mightier than the sword (or the gun or the spade). We feature this poem in our pick of the best poems about work.
The American Declaration of Independence (1776) is well-known; so is the French Revolution which began in 1789. But the Irish Rebellion of 1798 does not loom so large in the consciousness – outside of Ireland, certainly. It is this uprising that Heaney’s irregular sonnet commemorates, where ‘Terraced thousands died’, only to be forgotten when the barley grew up over their unceremonious burial sites the following year.
One of a number of poems about Irish peat bogs which Heaney wrote, ‘Bogland’ is, for our money, the finest of these, from his second collection Door into the Dark (1969). The bog puts Heaney in touch with Ireland’s deep past, ‘more than a hundred years’ ago.
Tollund Man, the mummified corpse of a man who lived during the fourth century BC, had been found in a peat bog in Scandinavia in 1950. Given Heaney’s own interest in peat bogs, it is fitting that the Tollund Man inspired this three-part poem, which muses upon the ritual killings of the Iron Age and their latter-day counterpart in the religious and political conflict in Ireland.
Taking the form of a toast – with the glass raised in honour not only of the sloe gin but also the woman who made it – this poem beautifully captures the full-on sensory experience of drinking sloe gin, from opening the bottle to smell the ‘disturbed tart stillness of a bush’ to way the drink flames in the glass ‘like Betelgeuse’. Next time you drink a slog of sloe gin, remember this poem.
From Heaney’s 1996 collection The Spirit Level, ‘Two Lorries’ reveals what a master of poetic form Seamus Heaney was, as he offers his take on the sestina (where the words at the ends of the lines in each stanza are the same from one stanza to the next), a difficult form to pull off. The poem offers two snapshots (hence the title), one involving the poet’s mother in the 1940s when Heaney was a young boy, and the other a more recent scene, set in a time when the poet’s mother has died and Ireland has been torn apart by the Troubles. It’s not his best-known poem, but we think this is Seamus Heaney’s best poem. It also features in our pick of the best sestinas in English.
The first poem in the short sonnet sequence Heaney composed after his mother’s death, ‘Clearances’, this sonnet describes the stone thrown at the poet’s Protestant great-grandmother for marrying a Catholic man. Heaney has inherited this cobble, which was passed down from one generation of the family to the next – and so, once again, Heaney examines Ireland’s past through the lens of personal experience and family.
Like ‘Digging’, this early poem is about Heaney’s calling as a poet. He uses the childhood memory of gazing into wells in order to see his reflection and hear his voice echoed back to him, returning something dark and different from what is familiar. Now, as an adult, writing poems is a comparable act – enabling him to ‘see myself to set the darkness echoing.’ And how beautifully the darkness echoed.
For a good edition of Heaney’s poetry, we recommend the two Faber selections: New Selected Poems, 1966-1987 and New Selected Poems 1988-2013. Continue to explore the world of modern poetry with these classic Louis MacNeice poems and our pick of Sylvia Plath’s best poems.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.