17 pages 34 minutes read

Seamus Heaney

Whatever You Say, Say Nothing

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1975

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Free Speech

The primary message of Heaney’s “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing,” directly refutes the statement made in the poem’s title. Sections I, II, III, and IV of the poem all offer powerful refutations of the idea that it is understandable to “say nothing.” Whether the phrase is issued as a threat or is being taken as advice for how to safely and happily conduct life in a sectarian state, Heaney takes umbrage with it. The main theme of the poem “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing,” is in the power and necessity of free speech.

Part III of the poem opens with a series of platitudes from citizens, empty and used to discourage free discourse: “‘You know them by their eyes,’ and hold your tongue. / ‘One side’s as bad the other,’ never worse. / Christ, it’s nearly time that some small leak was sprung” (Lines 54-56). Here, Heaney explicitly calls for free speech. He acts directly against the idea that you can know someone’s identity “by their eyes,” and the belief that “holding your tongue” is the answer to fighting inequality based on nationality or religion. Heaney calls out for a “leak” to be sprung in the dam of threat and fear that withholds meaningful speech and dialogue.