18 pages 36 minutes read

Seamus Heaney


Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1985

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Summary and Study Guide


When Seamus Heaney died in 2013, he was among the world’s best-known poets. Heaney’s work—including “North”—centers on his attempts to grapple with his Irish heritage and cultural past. Nevertheless, his voice reaches beyond these local concerns to a global audience. Though Heaney’s works share aspects with those of modernist poets like T.S. Eliot, his use of simple language and uncomplicated poetic forms sets him apart from this earlier movement. Instead of the abstraction and obscuration that many modernists aim towards, Heaney reveals simple connections that have previously gone unnoticed.

“North,” published in the 1975 collection of the same name, is a strong example of Heaney’s ability to navigate connections between the present and the past. North is one of Heaney’s more controversial collections, despite the titular poem’s strength and popularity. The poem, told in a series of unrhymed quatrains, takes an approach similar to Eliot’s “The Waste Land” in letting resonances, images, representations of the past to coexist with the speaker’s present experience. While Eliot’s poem focuses on the mind, however, Heaney’s “North” focuses on the body and its connection to place.

Poet Biography

Seamus Heaney was born April 13, 1939, in Tamniaran, near Castledawson, Northern Ireland. Heaney was the oldest of nine children. Heaney’s father Patrick worked as a farmer and cattle dealer, and his mother Margaret’s family worked in a linen mill. The different backgrounds of Heaney’s parents often caused subtle conflicts and tensions within the family. Much of Heaney’s later work explores his father’s traditional Gaelic lifestyle and his mother’s industrial upbringing.

From 1957 to 1961, Heaney attended Queen’s University Belfast, graduating with a First Class Honours degree in English Language and Literature. During his studies there, Heaney came across the work of Ted Hughes, Patrick Kavanagh, and Robert Frost, which inspired him to write poetry. He was particularly taken by the way these poets created works from their personal backgrounds and experiences.

Heaney’s rural upbringing is reflected in his first poetry collection Death of a Naturalist, published in 1966. The collection contains some of Heaney’s most well-known poems and has won several awards. Shortly after the publication of Death of a Naturalist, Heaney was appointed as lecturer of Modern English Literature at Queen’s University Belfast. Heaney continued to write and publish poetry while working as a lecturer, and completed three volumes between 1969 and 1975, when North was published.

Heaney held various academic positions throughout his career but is perhaps best remembered for his tenured positions at Harvard, where he was Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory between 1985 and 1997 and the Ralph Waldo Emerson Poet in Residence between 1998 and 2006. During this time, Heaney’s popularity was such that there were queues to buy tickets to his readings. Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995.

Heaney continued to write and work until his death in 2013. Within days of his death, bookstores around the world sold out of his works. Heaney’s Dublin funeral was broadcast live on Irish radio and streamed internationally.

Poem Text

Heaney, Seamus. “North.” 1975. Fawbie.


Seamus Heaney’s “North” blurs the boundaries between narrative and lyric forms. It is sometimes difficult, therefore, to determine whether the speaker is speaking of their contemporary experience or whether they are channeling an image, impression, or voice from the past. While there may be minute shifts in the speaker’s orientation in time and space, it is useful to think of the poem as having two speakers. The first speaker gives voice to the poem from lines 1 to 21. The second speaker, the “longship” (Line 20), concludes the poem from lines 22 to 40.

The first speaker has “returned to a long strand” (Line 1), where they found the “secular / powers of the Atlantic thundering” (Lines 3-4). From the poem’s title, the references to “Iceland” and “Greenland” in the second stanza, and later references to “Dublin” (Lines 6, 8, 10), it can be presumed that the speaker is standing on a “bay” on the northern coast of Ireland (Line 2).

The speaker moves from the geographic imagery of the first two stanzas to an image of “fabulous raiders [...] lying in Orkney and Dublin” in the third stanza (Line 10). The third and fourth stanzas feature an image of the raider’s “long swords [...] in the solid / belly of stone ships” fossilized in “the gravel of thawed streams” (Lines 12, 13-14, 16). The speaker states that these “hacked and glinting” artifacts are “ocean-deafened voices” that speak to him (Lines 15, 17).

The “longship’s swimming tongue” becomes the dominant voice of the poem’s second half (Line 20). First, the earlier speaker paraphrases the ship in relating the history of “geography and trade, / thick-witted couplings and revenges” (Lines 23-24), and other motivations and histories relating to the Nordic ship’s place in the north of Ireland. Then, in the 8th stanza, the ship is quoted verbatim to the reader.

This last section is a directive from the ship that instructs the reader and speaker to perform a number of actions, including to “Lie down / in the word-hoard” (Lines 29-30), to “Compose in darkness” (Line 33), and to “trust the feel of what nubbed treasure / your hands have known” (Lines 39-40). These instructions complete the poem.