Time period: 1963-1966

Poet: Seamus Heaney

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


Back to top


Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Beneath my window, a rich rasping sound

When the spade sinks clean into gravelly ground:

My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds

Bends low, comes up twenty years away

Stooping in rhythm through potato drills

Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft

Against the inside-knee was levered firmly.

He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep

To scatter new potatoes that we picked

Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade;

Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more peat in a day

Than any other man in Toner's bog.

Once I carried him milk in a bottle

Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up

To drink it, then fell to right away

Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods

Over his shoulder, going down and down

For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap

Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge

Through living roots awaken in my head.

But I've no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I'll dig with it.

Back to top


All year the flax-dam festered in the heart

Of the townland; green and heavy-headed

Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.

Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.

Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles

Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.

There were dragon-flies, spotted butterflies,

But best of all was the warm thick slobber

Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water

In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring

I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied

Specks to range on window-sills at home,

On shelves at school, and wait and watch until

The fattening dote burst into nimble-

Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how

The daddy frog was called a bullfrog

And how he croaked and how the mammy frog

Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was

Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too

For they were yellow in the sun and brown

In rain.

Then one hot day when fields were rank

With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs

Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through the hedge

To a coarse croaking that I had not heard

Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.

Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked

On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:

The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat

Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.

I sickened, turned and ran. The great slime kings

Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew

That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.

Back to top


We are prepared: we build our houses squat,

Sink walls in rock and roof them with good slate.

This wizened earth has never troubled us

With hay, so, as you see, there are no stacks

Or stooks that can be lost. Nor are there trees

Which might prove company when it blows full

Blast: you know what I mean - leaves and branches

Can raise a tragic chorus in a gale

So that you listen to the thing you fear

Forgetting that it pummels your house too.

But there are no trees, no natural shelter.

You might think that the sea is company,

Exploding comfortably down on the cliffs

But no: when it begins, the flung spray hits

The very windows, spits like a tame cat

Turned savage. We just sit tight while wind dives

And strafes invisibly. Space is a salvo,

We are bombarded with the empty air.

Strange, it is a huge nothing that we fear.

Back to top


The place has gone down badly. Not like then.

Then it was all so very right, each room

Furnished so lovingly and in good taste

According to its function. All of us

Had a real weakness for good solid oak:

The loaded sideboard stood, a great carved bulwark,

In the dining room; mirrors, plates, and trays

Glinting in candlelight like silver shields.

And maids sailed in, tureens gulping like tides,

And thick delph rattled curtly as they served.

Father would say the grace with eyes cast down

Upon the stiff white cloth and then would nod

Permission to begin. The maids cleared off

Very punctually until the final course

When we withdrew into the drawing room.

They had prepared a grate of sputtering logs

And as we talked till ash began to fall

Grandfather, in oils, stared steady from the wall.

And it was all so thoughtfully arranged.

The scullery commodious, the larder deep,

Running water in the big enamelled sink.

Bedrooms were never shared - except for maids

Who had an attic room, a wide brass bed

And two hotwater bottles, if they wished:

Father insisted that maids know their place

But treated good ones as if they were his own.

And after dark the house would settle gently.

We lay and listened to he shunting trains.

But the place has gone badly.

We never thought, when the young men dealt with us,

Of things like this: the good room downstairs

Fitted with a foul electric stove, beds

In the kitchen, and other stoves reeking

On landings. There is a dull smell of grease

In father's room, the paper has been torn

And left hanging. Instead of hunting prints

They hang these ugly photographs of girls

Curling their naked bodies like she-cats.

No maids, no order, and no silent nights.

They come for one year, cook their wretched meals,

Swill beer from cans and in the noisy dark

Perhaps bring bad girls to our crumbling walls.

They come and go, each year they come and go,

Bringing no family, leaving only stains.

The place has gone down badly. Not like then.

Agents have no care: for them houses are

Houses, never homes. And birds of passage

Will dirty the nest, then just fly off again.

No neighbours, no respect, and no good name.

These new proprietors are much to blame.

Back to top


A humble master of two trades

Who keeps to his own room, evades

The market-place and the headline;

Teaching each child to use his eyes,

To tell small truths instead of lies

In big words that sound fine.

He hatches talent with his own;

Can breed a tenderness in bone-

heads, always helping them to look

With love at movement in the street,

To celebrate each joy they meet.

Reads every boy like a new book.

A week's a chapter in the tale

Where thirty boys drive towards the gale

Of living - once his lessons cease.

"His work says little that is new"

According to one slick review.

But the pupils are his masterpiece.

Back to top


From the mantel piece my lecture programme stares,

Five days all neatly chopped up into squares.

This timetable dictates the way I spend

Five nights a week and much of the weekend,

This single room I keep means that I cook,

Sleep and feed in one place. Here, too, I read my book.

I pad around the room as round a cage,

I fit the timetable as words a page:

Each moment regulated by a typed space,

Each day and night crammed in a single place.

And though these masters cramp my every move

I need the stricter discipline of love.

Back to top


Masons, when they start upon a building,

Are careful to test out the scaffolding;

Make sure that planks won't slip at busy points,

Secure all ladders, tighten bolted joints.

And yet all this comes down when the job's done

Showing off walls of sure and solid stone.

So if, my dear, there sometimes seems to be

Old bridges breaking between you and me

Never fear. We may let the scaffolds fall

Confident that we have built our wall.

Back to top