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Seamus Heaney


Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1987

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Summary and Study Guide


Seamus Heaney’s “Terminus” first appeared in the London Review of Books (1984). The poem later appeared with an added couplet in The Haw Lantern (1987), Heaney’s first book of poetry published after the deaths of his parents. The poems—especially the “Clearances” sonnet cycle—meditate on Heaney’s own mortality and identity.

“Terminus” is a lyric poem that uses colloquial dialect from Heaney’s childhood in County Derry, Northern Ireland to express his identity in relation to his parents and ancestors. The poem features farming imagery to define Heaney’s relationship to his father’s ancestry, for instance. His father was a farmer and a descendant of the Ulster Irish, who farmed the land for generations. Heaney also mentions industrial images—such as a factory chimney—to represent his mother’s side of the family and its connection to the linen industry in Northern Ireland.

Heaney established himself as a member of the Belfast Group in the 1960-1970s, where he studied and then taught poetry at Queen’s University. His work fits with other writers of the Northern School like Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, Paul Muldoon, Ciarán Carson, and Maeve McGuckin. He also worked closely with English poet Ted Hughes, whom Heaney credits with inspiring him to publish his early poetry. Other poetic influences include W. B. Yeats, Robert Frost, and Patrick Kavanaugh.

“Terminus” is a poem about borders, boundaries, and the liminal space between them that each person navigates to form their own identity. Heaney’s childhood memories of his family farm comprise the setting and landscape of the poem. Natural and synthetic symbols—for example, an acorn and a rusted bolt—help orient the speaker and the reader to the perennial tensions in Northern Ireland.

Poet Biography

Seamus Heaney was born in April 1939 in Moyola district County Derry. His father owned a 50-acre farm called Mossbawn and was a cattle dealer with a rural Catholic background. His mother’s family was from the nearby linen mill town of Castledawson. Because her family lived in the town, they had more of an industrial background with Protestant cultural ancestry from her great-grandmother (Heaney references this in the first sonnet of “Clearances” as the “exogamous bride”).

As the eldest of nine children, Heaney spent much of his early childhood working on the farm with his father. He received a scholarship to St. Columb’s College and moved away to the boarding school at age 12. At St. Columb’s, Heaney learned both Irish and Latin. Then he moved on to study at Queen’s University Belfast, where he took a serious interest in writing poetry after reading the contemporary work of Ted Hughes. At Queen’s, Philip Hobsbaum mentored Heaney in poetry, and he studied the Anglo-Saxon language.

Heaney’s skill with language appears later in his translations of Sweeney Astray: A Version from the Irish (1984), Beowulf (2000), and The Aeneid (posthumous, 2016) and is a hallmark of his writing, which often sounds in between different poetic language traditions.

In 1965, Heaney married Marie Devlin (author of Over Nine Waves, 1994), whom he met while training to be a teacher at St Joseph’s Teacher Training College. He published his first significant volume of poetry, Death of a Naturalist, in 1966 and started teaching at Queen’s University. From 1971-72, Heaney taught as a visiting professor at the University of California Berkeley. The countercultural and civil rights movements in San Francisco had a profound effect on his writing.

After his return to Ireland, Heaney left his lectureship at Queen’s and moved with his young family to a cottage in the Wicklow mountains to take up writing full time. The Heaneys later moved to Dublin city, where Heaney balanced his time between teaching in Dublin, England, and the United States.

While Heaney was the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard (1985-97), he wrote The Haw Lantern (1987). His mother died in 1984, shortly before he took up this tenured position at Harvard. His father died two years later while Heaney was already abroad in Massachusetts. The death of both his parents in such a short timespan influenced his writing during this period, including “Terminus.”

The title of this poetic volume references the fruit of the hawthorn tree (haw fruit in Heaney’s dialect), a tree with otherworldly associations in Irish mythology. The lantern in the title references the Lantern of Diogenes the Cynic. Diogenes was an ancient Greek philosopher who wandered the streets of Athens with a lantern that he used to search for an honest man. This title gestures to syncretism, combined in Heaney’s classical education in philosophy and his knowledge of Irish folklore traditions.

In 1995, Heaney won the Nobel Prize in literature for his writing on the political situation and peace process in Northern Ireland. Heaney was awarded many major literary awards (including the prestigious T. S. Eliot Prize) and received honorary doctorates from several universities throughout his career.

Heaney had a stroke in late 2006 and had other health issues for the rest of his life. He documents this time period in his volume of poetry Human Chain (2010). In 2013, Heaney passed away at the Blackrock Clinic in Dublin, and his funeral was broadcast live on RTÉ (the Irish national broadcaster). He left a large body of work behind him, including 20 books of poetry, translations, and critical essays. Today, Heaney is widely regarded as the greatest Irish poet of his generation.

Poem Text

Heaney, Seamus. “Terminus.” 1984. London Review of Books. (This is the original text without the second stanza’s added couplet.)


The poem opens with a speaker, Seamus Heaney himself, reflecting on memories from his childhood. This adolescent world is both natural and industrial; he finds both “An acorn and a rusted bolt” in the ground (Line 2), and he remembers hearing “an engine shunting” and “trotting horse” simultaneously (Lines 5-6). Because of these tensions between past and present, the speaker asks: “Is it any wonder when I thought / I would have second thoughts?” (Lines 7-8).

The speaker’s anxieties carry over into the second stanza, where he recalls two conflicting stories he learned in childhood. One focuses on the ethos of saving what you earn to accumulate wealth; the other asserts that such frugality is unjust. The speaker acknowledges that it is possible to hold two different viewpoints at once, but there are times when these views may be at odds.

In the final stanza, the imagery is more attuned to balancing the contradictions in the first two stanzas.