17 pages 34 minutes read

Seamus Heaney

Whatever You Say, Say Nothing

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1975

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Poem Analysis

Analysis: “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing”

Heaney’s “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing” poses many thought-provoking questions. He artfully criticizes and condemns the socio-political and cultural ideologies that restrict freedoms in Northern Ireland during the late 20th century. Through a series of literary, cultural, social, and historical allusions, Heaney comments on the counter-productiveness of ideological epigrams used as fear-mongering tactics, like the titular “whatever you say, say nothing” phrase, which—although meant to encourage co-existence through silence—is mostly used to entrap citizens of Northern Ireland and ensure their continued compliance under both unfair regimes and extremely militarized sectarian factions. While Heaney makes many political and ideological references in “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing,” his ultimate focus, and the primary theme of the poem, is the importance and power of the word—spoken and written—particularly during troubled, war-torn times.

Heaney’s focus on words as vehicles of power is first made obvious in the first section of the poem, which begins with censure of the media and other political factions who use the suffering of Northern Ireland to line their own pockets or promote unrelated messages. The Northern Ireland that Heaney describes is a place where “bad news is no longer news, // Where media-men and stringers sniff and point, / Where zoom lenses, recorders and coiled leads / Litter the hotels” (Lines 4-7).