Seamus Heaney's 'Human Chain'
See also the pages

Criticism of Seamus Heaney's 'The Grauballe Man' and other poems

The poetry of Seamus Heaney: flawed success
An introductory discussion of the multiple failures which accompany the many artistic successes

Seamus Heaney: ethical depth?
His responses to the British army during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, bullfighting, the Colosseum, 'pests,' 9/11, IRA punishment, the starving, the hunger strikers in Northern Ireland. Includes analysis of The Toome Road (Field Work), From the Frontier of Writing (The Haw Lantern), Tate's Avenue (District and Circle), The Early Purges (Death of a Naturalist), Anything can Happen (District and Circle), Punishment (North)

Seamus Heaney: translations and versions

from Dante, Horace, Rilke, Cavafy,
J M Bloem
, Jan Kochanowski, Sophocles

The Cambridge Companion to Seamus Heaney

Ireland and Northern Ireland: distortions and illusions

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Human Chain: the best
Human Chain: the worst
Human Chain: a relative disappointment
Human Chain: at its least rhythmical
The fascination of what's difficult

Human Chain: the best

The claims made for Seamus Heaney's poetry are frequently so great, the flaws and limitations of the poetry ignored so often, that my sceptical comments above will seem shocking to many people.

From my page, ''The poetry of Seamus Heaney: flawed success:' 'Shakespeare is less than magisterial in such works as 'Titus Andronicus' and 'The Comedy of Errors,' Wordsworth wrote vast quantities of mediocre poetry in the later part of his career (and vast quantities of 'Parnassian' poetry in his early work of genius, 'The Prelude.') Mozart wrote vast quantities of perfunctory music (alongside - but largely after - music which was anything but perfunctory) in the opinion of Donald Francis Tovey, and sometimes even 'bonus dormitat Homerus' ('the good Homer is drowsy') according to the Roman poet Horace. The supposition that Seamus Heaney's poetic career, early, middle and late is almost faultless has to be examined very carefully.'

Within its own sphere, which isn't a very narrow sphere, despite the vast areas of experience outside his scope, the poetry is sometimes magnificent, of course, but far less frequently in the later poetry. 'Human Chain' is a partial exception here. The general standard of the poems in 'Human Chain' is quite high. By the general standards of later Heayneyana (which in less receptive moods could be interpreted as 'Heayneyawna') this is an impressive volume.  'Human Chain,' the volume not the title poem, has consolidated and enhanced Seamus Heaney's reputation. Even so, most of the poems lack freshness. The adulatory reviews of the book which have been published - the ones I've seen - lack freshness themselves. They are routine and tired.

One of the best poems in the book is 'The door was open and the house was dark: in memory of David Hammond.' The first stanza is moving and its quiet dignity is sustained. The first line, but only the first line, recalls to an extent Wallace Stevens' 'The house was quiet and the world was calm.' Most of the imperfections in 'The door was open and the house was dark' seem surface imperfections, slight scratches rather than obtrusive flaws, but not all. The first stanza is

The door was open and the house was dark
Wherefore I called his name, although I knew
The answer this time would be silence

'Wherefore' is an obtrusive archaism. Also obtrusive are the unwanted associations of vagrancy in 'down and out' in the second stanza.

Not successful, even though it sounds well, is the ending of the poem:

... a not unwelcoming
Emptiness, as in a midnight hangar

On an overgrown airfield in late summer.

This isn't true to experience, surely. A disused airfield in late summer might seem 'not unwelcoming' at midday, whilst the sun is shining, but to be in an empty hangar on a disused airfield at midnight is far more likely to be an experience of extreme bleakness or of something sinister. Even places which are still in use often seem deeply unwelcoming unlit, by night.

The poem isn't successful in its use of rhyme. A much earlier poem with a truly chaotic rhyme scheme is Digging Showing unrhymed lines by ! the rhyme scheme for 'Digging' is is aa bbb !!!! ... with unrhymed lines to the end of the poem - except that the 17th line rhymes with the 21st and the 29th line rhymes with the 1st. This can't be claimed as an innovation in rhyme schemes: 'rhyme when you feel like it and if you can't find a rhyme, not to worry.'

The rhyme scheme for 'The door was open and the house was dark' is less chaotic but poor in its distribution and placing of sound linkages and sound contrasts:

abc bcd efg fgf f

The intensification of meaning by sound, the intensification of the overall impact of the poem, which an effective rhyme scheme can provide, is apparent in one instance only, the rhyming of 'stranger' in line 8 with 'danger' in line 10 (in the phrase 'there was no danger.) The ending of the poem is ineffective, and the ineffectiveness is emphasized by the pararhymes 'hangar' and 'summer.' The repetition in the rhyme scheme of 'f,' which may on paper appear to be promising, 'efg fgf f' isn't accompanied by any fruitful repetition in the lines. 'f' seems to dominate the rhyme scheme but what shouldn't be overlooked are the linkages by sound between occurrences of 'b,' 'c' and 'g.' These contribute nothing to the overall impact of the poem.

Metre has to have a high degree of regularity to be effective. The irregularities which are the source of so much vitality, power and subtlety in metrical writing need a background of regularity. In the same way, the linkage by sound which is rhyming needs a high degree of regularity to be effective. The irregularities which come from the use of pararhyme can be artistically very fruitful, but not so the use of a chaotic rhyme scheme. Seamus Heaney does have skill in the use of pararhyme, and generally more effectively than here.

'In the Attic' is superb, a much better account of the aftermath of his stroke than 'Chanson d' Aventure.'

Section IV begins,

As I age and blank on names,
As my uncertainty on stairs
Is more and more the lightheadedness

Of a cabin boy's first time on the rigging,

which recapitulates the wonderfully accomplished opening of the poem and completes an extended simile:

Like Jim Hawkins aloft in the cross-trees
Of Hispaniola, nothing underneath him
But still green water and clean bottom sand,

The ship aground, the canted mast far out
Above a sea-floor where striped fish pass in shoals -

The unsteadiness on the stairs, though, would have a much closer linkage with the cabin boy in the rigging when the ship is free to move on a rough sea, rather than when the ship is aground and not free to move.

The only phrase which is very weak in the entire poem is this, in section II, 'Airbrushed to and fro.' It appears in the clause

... a boy
Shipshaped in the crow's nest of a life,
Airbrushed to and fro ...

Seamus Heaney's rendering of the inner life is a poetic success in this poem, but even then, it's a wry look at his experience. It's not an exception to the claim that his poetry leaves generally unexplored shattering experience, very disturbing experience, tragic experience. These aren't marginal areas of experience in the least, of course. Human history is largely to do with experience of harshness.

Human Chain: the worst

The worst poem for extra-poetic reasons, for its lack of ethical depth, is the title poem, 'Human Chain.'

The opening verse-paragraph is:

Seeing the bags of meal passed hand to hand
In close-up by the aid workers, and soldiers
Firing over the mob ...

but we are back in familiar territory even before the end of the stanza:

... I was braced again

With a grip on two sack corners,
Two packed wads of grain ...

Seamus Heaney has such obvious strengths in the rendering of some aspects of physical experience, and such obvious weaknesses in the rendering of other aspects (not back-breaking work which ruins the health of the worker, for example). He can render the Great Famine in Ireland long ago, but not famine now, famine in a distant country. His compassionate imagination, his compassionate empathy, are limited. His imagination isn't wide reaching.

Noticeable in '... soldiers / Firing over the mob' is Seamus Heaney the Recycler. This is all too similar, of course, to 'Summer 1969' ('North'):

While the Constabulary covered the mob
Firing into the Falls ...

but far more importantly, the phrase ' ... soldiers / Firing over the mob' is disturbing. The obvious interpretation is that 'the mob' is made up of starving people or hungry people who are trying to get at the meal. The starving or hungry people are 'the rabble.' If it's now claimed that the callous soldiers viewed the starving or hungry people as 'the mob,' then I'd make the obvious point that there was a simple way of showing this:

Seeing the bags of meal passed hand to hand
In close-up by the aid workers, and soldiers
Firing over 'the mob' ...

See also my poems on The Great Famine in the page Ireland and Northern Ireland: distortions and illusions:'The Irish Famine: Doo Lough' and 'The Irish famine: Black and White.'

Human Chain: a relative disappointment

'Chanson d' Aventure,' describes the mild stroke Seamus Heaney suffered in 2006.

The poem is far from being a complete disappointment. The first line is very heartening:

Warm hand, hand that I could not feel you lift
And lag in yours throughout that journey
When it lay flop-heavy as a bellpull

The next two lines lack that wonderful simplicity, although of course the third line here is much better than the second. The third line deserved to be anticipated in a much better way.

The lines that follow are modern, more modern, superficially modern, than anything else in all his works, I think (but irredeemably prosy and Parnassian):

And we careered at speed through Dungloe,
Glendoan, our gaze ecstatic and bisected
By a hooked-up drip-feed to the cannula.

Seamus Heaney is archaic in technique and poetics, and would remain archaic in technique and poetics even if he chose to insert a reference to nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy into his poem. This comment isn't in the least to overlook the circumstances - Seamus Heaney in an ambulance, Seamus Heaney's plight - but it deserved a much better poem than this.

This poem gives further evidence that Seamus Heaney's strength is, with some important exceptions, in the rendering of externals - sometimes a strength so great that he seems to be rendering inscape - and one of his greatest weaknesses is in rendering the inner life. His failure to render the complexity, richness, baffling paradoxes and pathologies of the inner life is a comprehensive failure.

The rendering of externals in 'Human Chain' is quite often so accomplished that it has probably convinced many commentators that someone who can achieve this can achieve anything. But of course a poet can very easily be superb in some ways, deficient in others. This, from section IV of 'Route 110,' is evidence of great descriptive powers, but exercising such skills has entailed active neglect of human inner life.

Tarpaulin-stiff, coal-black, sharp-cuffed as slate,
The standard-issue railway guard's long coat
I bought once second-hand: suffering its scourge

At the neck and wrists was worth it even so
For the dismay I caused by doorstep night arrivals,
A creature of cold blasts and flap-winged rain.

This is very accomplished but minor poetry, and with each stanza, the section seems to become more and more obviously minor.

The rendering of externals in the other sections of 'Route 110' is generally impressive, but its use of triplets or tercets, which has been extravagantly praised, isn't in the least impressive. There seems to be no overwhelming artistic case for using triplets. It isn't at all clear that quatrains would have been less suitable. The form here, unrhymed triplets, is a very undemanding one. This is poetry which Robert Frost compared to playing tennis 'with the net down.' Once we discount the extravagant praise of the triplets, we can appreciate the poem more realistically.

Although novelists differ in their descriptive gifts and in the weighting they give to description, the rendering of externals is almost a 'duty' of the novelist, but not to the neglect of the inner life of their characters, their characters' complex motivations, inconsistencies, hopes, rationalizations and the rest. As for the emotions which follow the experience of a stroke, not every novelist has the penetration of a Dostoevsky, but novelists would be expected to convey much more of the emotions than Seamus Heaney is able to in 'Chanson d' Aventure.' Poets have less space than novelists to convey experience, but are generally expected to compensate by intensity. Intensity is lacking in this poem.

On another page, I give a quotation concerned with Beethoven's Heiliger Dankgesang, the 'Song of Thanksgiving of a Convalescent,' which is one of the greatest and perhaps the greatest rendering in art of sickness and recovery from sickness, but with the difficulty that, as music, it can't explicitly render sickness and recovery, even if Beethoven intended it to do so. And I give a quotation concerned with George Orwell and sickness. (on the page 'Smoking: a defence.') I follow it with comments of my own:

'All this will be incomprehensible to many anti-smokers, those who find any artistic or spiritual benefits of suffering impossible to conceive. I maintain that language isn't complete and is far from perfect, so that it's often necessary to use a word where another word, a replacement word would be far better. For lack of a better word, I use the word 'spiritual,' even though I'm an atheist. The contrast between the spiritual benefits of suffering and the humanitarian urge to reduce suffering, the understandable instinct to avoid personal suffering, is stark, but necessary.' Using the inadequate word 'spirituality,' Seamus Heaney's account in 'Chanson d' Aventure' is one without spirituality (either 'secular' or religious.)

To illustrate the {contrast} between the rendering of externals and the rendering of the inner life, it's unnecessary to have {restriction} to illness and recovery from illness. In Donne's poetry, 'Hymne to God my God, in my sicknesse' is a less instructive illustration than 'A nocturnall upon S. Lucies day, Being the shortest day.' In the 'Hymne' the metaphysical conceits are more prominent than inwardness, in 'A nocturnall' they allow the emergence of such magnificent statements of inwardness as these (or, better, they are the means by which they emerge):

... Whither, as to the beds-feet life is shrunke,
Dead and enterre'd, yet all these seeme to laugh,
Compared with mee, who am their Epitaph.

For I am every dead thing ...

... and I am re-begot
Of absence, darknesse, death: things which are not.

This is at great {distance} from a vivid description of a dark day.

However, the exceptions in Seamus Heaney are exceptionally important. Weaknesses in the rendering of the inner life in his poetry, for example, have magnificent exceptions, such as 'In the Attic' in this book.

Human Chain - at its least rhythmical

 'Human Chain' marks no advance in rhythmical energy or rhythmical subtlety on previous works and deciding which is the least rhythmical poem or passage isn't easy. I'd select these lines, perhaps, from 'A Herbal.' After 'Line Removal,' to make more clear their essential prosiness:

'We had enemies, though why we never knew. Among them, nettles, malignant things, letting on to be asleep. Enemies - part of a world nobody seemed able to explain but that had to be put up with. There would always be dock leaves to cure the vicious stings.'

The opening of 'A Herbal' is impressive and reads like poetry but only because diction is poetic rather than prosy and the use of capitalized letters at the beginning of the separate lines. The contribution of metre is negligible.

After Line Removal:

'Everywhere plants flourish among graves, sinking their roots in all the dynasties of the dead.'

This is succeeded by the poor

'Was graveyard grass in our place any different? Different from ordinary field grass?'

The distribution of material within the lines of 'poetry' in the original, before Line Removal, lacks any compellingly obvious reasons. For example,

Different from ordinary
Field Grass?

The line divisions often seem arbitrary in Seamus Heaney's poetry. They certainly seem so here.

The fascination of what's difficult

Like Geoffrey Hill's prose, Seamus Heaney's poetry makes demands, to a lesser extent and intermittently, but sufficient, sometimes,  to make many readers feel they are reading quite difficult material and can't possibly be lulled.

He writes, in 'Hermit Songs' V of 'Human Chain,'

Neque, Caesar says, fas esse
existimant ea litteris
'Nor do they think it right
to commit the things they know to writing.'

He writes in 'The Riverbank Field,'

... the grass so fully fledged

And unimprinted it can't not conjure thoughts
Of passing spirit-troops, animae, quibus altera fato
Corpora debentur ...

And, in the first line of the same poem, 'Ask me to translate what Loeb gives as ...' and readers know that 'Loeb' refers to the parallel text series which gives the Latin or Greek on the left and the English on the right, or they don't. If they don't, they may congratulate themselves for choosing to read a book as reassuringly difficult as this from a writer as reassuringly erudite as this.

Seamus Heaney sometimes undoes his  heartening insights into heartening humanity with his academicism. Not every poet-academic's poetry is the worse for involvement in university life but Seamus Heaney's is certainly the worse for it, I think. (There may be readers unaware of Seamus Heaney's academic employment and even readers who  imagine that he has spent a great deal of time digging peat and planting potatoes.) The first lines of 'Album V:'

It took a grandson to do it properly,
To rush him in the armchair
With a snatch raid on his neck.

But very quickly, academicism takes over:

Of whatever erat demonstrandum.
Just as a moment back a son's three tries
At an embrace in Elysium.

And in the last stanza, mention of 'the Latin stem itself' and more Latin allusion, 'Verus.'


he review of 'Human Chain' by Jon Ihle in the Irish newspaper 'The Sunday Tribune.


'If Human Chain were Seamus Heaney's first book of poems, it would be easy to praise ... But this is Heaney's 12th collection. For a poet of such stature, security and accomplishment, it is reasonable to expect some progress, formal invention and daring to emerge from his new work. Yet Human Chain might as well be 1966's Death of a Naturalist for all it yields on these counts.

'By the third poem, 'The Conway Stewart', we are already in over-familiar territory. The piece, a reprise of Heaney's iconic 'Digging', lovingly describes the fountain pen he received from his parents on the eve of his departure for secondary school ... its only hint of menace ... is notable less for its echo of an earlier work than for how impotent the threat really is.

' ... as Heaney circles back in Human Chain to old subjects, it seems as if he is brightening the same old corners without once peering into our darker crevasses.'

In 'Eyewear,' a 'Blogzine,' Todd Swift gives a preliminary look at 'Human Chain' not a full review, but one that is very thoughtful. Extracts:

'Of the poets of the last 110 years, who have ploughed his furrow, others have done better. He is excellent, others are, I think, superior. Indeed, Frost, Edward Thomas, Housman, Hardy, and Larkin, are to my mind greater. Ted Hughes perhaps, perhaps not: I am not sure. I do not find Heaney's poems as inviting, moving, or warm, as the best of lyric poetry in the great Frost-Thomas line. Rooted as they are in his memories, his politics, his reading of the Classics (all humane and intelligent) and his sense of the communicable values of language, experience and value - his poems grate on me, at times. They resonate with their intent. They telegraph their import, even, paradoxically, their modesty. How many poems about Virgil, about the underworld, do we need? How many carts, wagons, bails of hay, can any one reader stomach? I do not find Heaney's pastoral images, his tropes, in this new collection, universally engaging, as Frost's birches and boulders are, as the flowers of Thomas are.

... I feel that there is a ponderous, rhetorical, cultural-keeper-of-the-flame feel about this late work, this late style - so that the poetic that is emerging is both comfortingly sturdy, and solid, but not either surprising or entirely delightful.

'When do Heaney's new poems take us out of themselves, out of ourselves? When do his new poems rise beyond the scrupulous making and reflection on making that marked his very first well-staring and pen-gripping? ... if poets are beyond criticism, they are also beyond appreciation - which is different from adoration.'