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Seamus Heaney


Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1966

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Summary and Study Guide


Seamus Heaney published “Scaffolding” in 1966 as part of his collection Death of a Naturalist. Heaney wrote the poem after he had an argument with his (then future) wife, Marie Devlin, in hopes of mending their relationship following the fight. Written in the midst of the troubles in Ireland between the Northern Irish Protestants and Catholics over whether or not to remain a part of England, “Scaffolding” blends Heaney’s firsthand experiences with national, societal, and political context. “Scaffolding” can be described as a lyric poem, giving the speaker’s personal feelings and thoughts. Using extended metaphor, the poem parallels the work of masons using scaffolding as they construct a building with the work individuals must put into their relationships to make them strong and sustainable. While the poem represents Heaney’s relationship with his partner and encourages the reader to imagine their own relationships, it can also refer to the cultural relationship Irish people share, and their need to prioritize their collective experiences before their ideological differences.

Poet Biography

Seamus Heaney was born on April 13, 1939, in Northern Ireland to a Catholic family in a predominantly Protestant area. More specifically, he was born in Castledàwson in County Londonderry. Heaney’s father was a farmer and cattle-dealer, while his mother’s side of the family (the McCanns) worked in textiles. Heaney was the oldest child of nine (“Seamus Heaney Biographical.” The Nobel Prize). When he was 12 years old, Heaney attended St. Columb’s College boarding school in Derry on scholarship. While at boarding school, Heaney learned Irish and Latin, a precursor to his study of Anglo-Saxon which would come later in his life. He continued his education at Queen’s University in Belfast, graduating with a degree in English in 1961. Following graduation, Heaney held various positions as a secondary teacher and college lecturer. Heaney married his wife Marie Devlin in 1965 (“Seamus Heaney.” Biography).

During the 1960s, Heaney’s poetry began to garner public attention. He was considered part of a “Northern School” of Irish writing. Heaney and his fellow “Northern School” writers were “born into a society deeply divided along religious and political lines, one which was doomed moreover to suffer a quarter-century of violence, polarization and inner distrust” (“Seamus Heaney Biographical.” The Nobel Prize). This theme of political and societal strife continued in Heaney’s writings well beyond the 1960s. Heaney’s earliest publication, titled Death of a Naturalist, appeared in 1966, followed by Wintering Out in 1972, North in 1974, Field Work in 1979 Station Island in 1984, The Haw Lantern in 1987, and Seeing Things in 1991. Twenty-first century poetry publications include Electric Light published in 2001, District and Circle published in 2006 and Human Chain published in 2010 (“Seamus Heaney Biographical.” The Nobel Prize).

Heaney spent a year serving as a visiting lecturer at the University of California Berkeley in 1970 - 1971. This experience led him to eventually resign from his teaching position at Queen’s College and to move to County Wicklow where he decided to focus on his poetry and freelancing. Heaney then stepped into the position of English Department chair at Carysfort College. However, in 1982, Heaney became a visiting professor at Harvard University, and in 1985 he was made a full professor, one year after the university named him the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory. Heaney likewise taught as a professor of poetry at Oxford between 1989 and 1994 (“Seamus Heaney Biographical.” The Nobel Prize).

In addition to his poetry, Heaney was likewise renowned for his various translations. His first published translation, Sweeney Astray: A Version from the Irish, appeared in print in 1984 and was a translation of the Irish poem Buile Suibhne (“Seamus Heaney.” Poetry Foundation). Other translations Heaney produced include The Cure at Troy published in 1991 and The Midnight Verdict published in 1993. Perhaps his most famous translation, Heaney’s Beowulf hit bookshelves in 1999, followed by The Burial at Thebes in 2004. Besides poetry and translations, Heaney produced prose as well and published a number of collected works: Preoccupations: Selected Prose, 1968–1978 published in 1980, Finders Keepers: Selected Prose, 1971–2001 published in 2002, and The Redress of Poetry published in 1995 (“Seamus Heaney.” Britannica).

Seamus Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. The French Ministry of Culture also named Heaney a Commandeur de L’Orde des Artes et Lettres. During his life, he served various organizations, such as The Arts Council in the Republic of Ireland, the W.B. Yeats International Summer School, Aosdana (an organization of Irish artists), and as a Foreign Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Heaney passed away on August 30, 2013 (“Seamus Heaney Biographical.” The Nobel Prize).

Poem Text

Heaney, Seamus. “Scaffolding.” 1998. Poets.org.


Heaney’s poem opens with a description of masons beginning a construction project. As they start their work, the masons put up scaffolding and make certain it is stable. They must secure all ladders, boards, and joints. Despite the effort put into constructing the scaffolding, this apparatus comes down at the construction project’s conclusion, revealing the well-built structure beneath.

The speaker of the poem addresses their intended audience—a loved one. Using the discussion about masons, scaffolding and construction, the speaker reassures their loved one that even if it seems as though their relationship is a little unstable, or if their connection with one another weakens, they can both rest easy knowing the work they put into constructing their bond with one another. This work will provide stability and security despite hardships.