Time period: 1966-1972

Poet: Seamus Heaney

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


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(For the fishermen)
1. Vision

Unless his hair was fine-combed

The lice, they said, would gang up

Into a mealy rope

And drag him, small, dirty, doomed

Down to the water. He was

Cautious then in riverbank

Fields. Thick as a birch trunk

That cable flexed in the grass

Every time the wind passed. Years

Later in the same fields

He stood at night when eels

Moved through the grass like hatched fears

Towards the water. To stand

In one place as the field flowed

Past, a jellied road,

To watch the eels crossing land

Re-wound his world's live girdle.

Phosphorescent, sinewed slime

Continued at his feet. Time

Confirmed the horrid cable.

2. The Coming

A gland agitating

mud two hundred miles in-

land, a scale of water

on water sperming up

estuaries, he drifted

into motion half-way

across the Atlantic,

sure as the satellite's

insinuating pull

in the ocean, as true

to his orbit.


ebb, current, rock, rapids

a muscled icicle

that melts itself longer

and fatter, he buries

his arrival beyond

light and tidal water,

investing silt and sand

with a sleek root. By day

only the drainmaker's

spade or the mud paddler

can make him abort. Dark

unsheathes him hungering

down each undulation.

3. Bait

Lamps dawdle in the field at midnight.

Three men follow their nose in the grass,

The lamps' beam their prow and compass.

The bucket's handle better not clatter now:

Silence and curious light gather bait.

Nab him, but wait

For the first shrinking, tacky on the thumb.

Let him re-settle backwards in his tunnel.

Then draw steady and he'll come.

Among the millions whorling their mud coronas

Under dewlapped leap and bowed blades

A few are bound to be rustled in these night raids,

Innocent ventilators of the ground

Making the globe a perfect fit,

A few are bound to be cheated of it

When lamps dawdle in the field at midnight,

When fishers need a garland for the bay

And have him, where he needs to come, out of the clay.

4. Setting

A line goes out of sight and out of mind

Down to a soft bottom of silt and sand

Past the indifferent skill of the hunting hand.

A bouquet of small hooks coiled in the stern

Is being paid out, back to its true form,

Until the bouquet's hidden in the worm.

The boat rides forward where the line slants back.

The oars in their locks go round and round.

The eel describes his arcs without a sound.


The gulls fly an umbrella overhead,

Treading air as soon as the line runs out,

Responsive acolytes above the boat.

Not sensible of any kyrie,

The fishers, who don't know and never try,

Pursue the work in hand as destiny.

They clear the bucket of the last chopped worms,

Pitching them high, good riddance, earthy shower.

The gulls encompass them before the water.

5. Lifting

They're busy in a high boat

That stalks towards Antrim, the power cut.

The line's a filament of smut

Drawn hand over fist

Where every three yards a hook's missed

Or taken (and the smut thickens, wrist-

Thick, a flail

Lashed into the barrel

With one swing). Each eel

Comes aboard to this welcome:

The hook left in gill or gum,

It's slapped into the barrel numb

But knits itself, four-ply,

With the furling, fat, slippy

Haul, a knot of back and pewter belly

That stays continuously one

For each catch they fling in

Is sucked home like lubrication.

And wakes are enwound as the catch

On the morning water: which

Boat was which?

And when did this begin?

This morning, last year, when the lough first spawned?

The crows will answer, "Once the season's in."

6. The Going

In ponds, drains, dead canals

she turns her head back,

older now, following

whim deliberately

till she's at sea in grass

and damned if she'll turn so

it's new trenches, sunk pipes,

swamps, running streams, the loch,

the river. Her stomach

shrunk, she exhilerates

in mid-water. Its throbbing

is speed through days and weeks.

I don't know if she knows

Her depth or direction;

She's passed Malin and/Tory, silent, wakeless,

a wisp, a wick that is

its own taper and light

through the weltering dark.

Where she's lost once she lays

ten thousand feet down in

her origins. The current's

a slick of orphaned spawn.

7. Coda

The lough will claim a victim every year.

It has virtue that hardens wood to stone.

There is a town sunk beneath its water.

It is the scar left by the Isle of Man.


At Toomebridge where it sluices towards the sea

They've set new gates and tanks against the flow.

From time to time they break the lost journey

And lift five hundred stone in one go.


But up the shore in Antrim and Tyrone

There is a sense of fair play in the game.

At two miles out, they coax them one by one,

These fishermen who've never learnt to swim.


"We'll be the quicker going down," they say -

And when you argue there are not storms here,

That one hour floating's sure to land them safely -

"The lough will claim a victim every year."

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