“Human Chain” by Seamus Heaney

Had I not been awake I would have missed it

Among the papers left behind by Seamus Heaney after his death was a translation, to which, seemingly, he had been putting the finishing touches right up to the end, of Book VI of The Aeneid. This book, in which Aeneas goes into the Underworld and meets with the dead – in particular, his dead – had been, as Heaney himself had put it, “a constant presence” in his life. And it is a constant presence also in his last collection of poems, Human Chain. Specifically, there is one poem in that collection, “Route 110”, itself made up of twelve shorter poems, that explicitly parallels the journey of bus number 110 – “Cookstown via Toome and Magherafelt” – to the journey of Aeneas into the underworld. But the presence of Virgil is apparent not just in this poem: throughout this collection, we see Heaney, like Aeneas, meeting with the dead, with his dead.

However, unlike Aeneas, we do not live in an age of mythology: we cannot, as Aeneas had done, converse with the dead. On our part, we have only memories of the deceased, but what the dead may have to say is not for our ears. In one poem, for instance, Heaney remembers his father in a cattle market, “not much higher than the cattle”. The cattle market, and the presence there of his father, are imprinted in the poet’s mind, and he animates the scene with attention to the solidity of the scene: there is nothing ethereal about the ashplant in his father’s hand, which he waves and with which he points, nor with the “lowing and roaring, lorries revving”. But his father “is calling something I cannot hear”: we, on our part, have memory, that wonderful thing that can bring back to our minds the past in all its solidity; but what the dead may have to say to us we can but conjecture, for we cannot hear. The poem ends with a sad march of monosyllables:

… So that his eyes leave mine and I know
The pain of loss before I know the term.

Does our faculty of memory redeem the loss, allowing us to re-live what is gone? Or does it make the pain of loss even keener? Heaney is too tactful to commit himself on that point.

The poem about his father is the second part of a two-part poem: the first part had been about his mother. Heaney remembers her emptying the ash from the fireplace, “bearing in front of her a slender pan”. She too is described with a strict attention to the reality of the scene: this, too, is no ethereal vision, but is as solid as any reality of the here-and-now. Heaney focuses on “the whitish dust and flakes still sparkling hot”, “the wind … blowing into her apron bib”, “hands in tight, sore grip”. We may, should we choose, look for symbolic meanings in these physical details, but that seems to me to be missing the point: these details are important simply for what they are; and that they are nothing more draws our attention to the fact that they are nothing less either. The poet’s mother, like the poet’s father, is no airy vision, but is real and solid. However, she “proceeds until we have lost sight of her…” Into death, yes, but, more prosaically, “where the worn path turns behind the henhouse”.

The two poems, the first about his mother, the second about his father, are together called “Uncoupled”. This could refer to the separate presentations of this couple, but there is, of course, another uncoupling: that which the memory can still see as real and solid is nonetheless uncoupled from the present, and from the son who remembers.

And yet there is a chain running through, a human chain. Heaney feels his own mortality. In one poem, “Chanson d’Aventure”, Heaney describes his being taken to hospital in an ambulance after suffering a stroke, accompanied by his wife. I must admit, my own recent experience in these matters lent a particular immediacy to this poem.

Our postures all the journey still the same,

Everything and nothing spoken,
Our eyebeams threaded laser-fast…

Yet, even in this state, memory is still at work. A stray memory, seemingly random, floats through the poet’s head, of when he had been a college bellman in Derry. And there are memories of poets too, as is to be expected from someone whose life had been immersed in poetry: Donne is explicitly mentioned, and Keats indirectly referenced twice:

Apart: the very word is like a bell
Which the sexton Malachy Boyle controlled…

And, a few lines later:

… my once capable

Warm hand …

But this once capable warm hand is now the “hand that I could not feel you lift”.

Immediately preceding this poem is “The Butts”, which had started with the poet looking at the wardrobe of his dead father, and describing his suits (as ever, Heaney insists on the physical details as significant in themselves), and ends with his remembering when “the last days came”:

And we must learn to reach well in beneath
Each meagre armpit
To lift and sponge him…

Memories of his dying father, the past reality, now merge into the present reality of his dying self, and he too will become decoupled from those he leaves behind. As he says in an earlier poem in this collection:

Too late, perhaps, for an apt quotation
About a love that’s proved by steady gazing
Not at each other but in the same direction.

But this collection is as much about the living as it is about the dead: it is about the human chains that bind them.

It is easy to see the parallels with the sixth book of The Aeneid, where Aeneas too visits, and speaks to, the dead. Virgil’s model, as is well known, is Book XI of Homer’s The Odyssey, but Homer, unlike Virgil, does not seem particularly interested in the geography of the Underworld. Certainly, there is no description of it. The spirit of Achilles famously tells Odysseus that although, in life, he had consciously chosen glory over longevity, now, being dead, he would rather be a slave to the most lowly of men on earth rather than be lord in the Kingdom of the Dead; but why he says this, why the Underworld is perceived as so terrible a place, he does not say. And we do not know either. Indeed, from the various translations I have looked at, it is not even clear to me that Odysseus actually does go into the Underworld to meet the dead: rather, the spirits of the dead are described as coming to him.

In The Aeneid, on the other hand, Aeneas, like Dante after him, actually journeys into the Underworld, and we are given very vivid descriptions – vivid even in translation – of the River Styx that the spirits must cross, the Elysian fields, and the shore where dead souls, now purified, await reincarnation and return to earth. In Virgil’s vision, the fates of souls after death reflect the lives they had led on earth. There are those who had died in infancy:

          At that moment, cries –
they could hear them now, a crescendo of wailing,
ghosts of infants weeping, robbed off their share
of this sweet life, at its very threshold too:
all, snatched from the breast of that dark day
that swept them off and drowned them in bitter death.

(translated by Robert Fagles)


At once a sound of crying fills the air, the high wails
And weeping of infant souls, little ones denied
Their share of sweet life, torn from the breast
On life’s very doorstep. A dark day bore them off
And sank them in untimely death.

(translated by Seamus Heaney)

Nearby are the Fields of Mourning, where dwell the souls of all who had suffered for love. And they suffer still.

Not even in death do their torments leave them, ever.

(translated by Robert Fagles)


                               Their griefs
Do not relent, not even in death.

(translated by Seamus Heaney)

Here, Aeneas encounters Dido, who he had not realised had died, and he speaks to her passionately: but she, in one of the most poignant moments in all literature, turns away from him without a word, as if she had not heard. (In Antony and Cleopatra, Antony imagines Dido and Aeneas sporting together in the Elysian Fields, but in this, as in most other things, Antony was wrong.)

Virgil’s representation of the underworld is, quite clearly, the inspiration for Dante, although Dante, while far from rejecting the classical world, was writing an essentially Christian epic, so elements such as reincarnation had to go.

And this representation of the land of the Kingdom of the Dead is also, quite explicitly, a constant presence in Human Chain, where, in the course of the journey of Bus 110, Heaney too confronts his dead:

It was the age of ghost. Of hand-held flashlamps.
Lights moving at a distance scried for who
And why: whose wake, say, in which house of the road …

He remembers the wakes he had attended, and people from his past, friends, now lost. But the encounters here are one-sided: on one side, there is only memory: wondrous though that memory may be in itself, it cannot bring the dead back to solid life; and on the other side, there is only silence.

But the scene Virgil had painted of the soul awaiting rebirth, the passage that had no place in Dante’s Christian poem, is not lost on Heaney:

As if we had commingled

Among shades and shadows stirring on the brink
And stood there waiting, watching,
Needy and ever needier for translation.

This leads us into the final section:

And now the age of births.

The poem ends with the birth of the poet’s grandchild. Heaney is not, of course, making the case for reincarnation; neither is he claiming the new life compensates for what has been lost. He is too tactful a poet to make any such brash statement. He is merely observing, with both sorrow and with wonder, the chains that bind the generations together.

The first poem in this collection had started with the line “Had I not been awake I would have missed it”. Here, he describes what he would have missed had he still been sleeping:

A wind that rose and whirled until the roof
Pattered with quick leaves off the sycamore

And got me up, the whole of me a-patter,
Alive and ticking like an electric fence

And then the opening line is repeated: “Had I not been awake I would have missed it.”

However, this sudden burst of animation that leaves him “alive and ticking like a electric fence”, proved transient: it had soon died down, “lapsed ordinary”. And the poem ends with a sense of loss, of emptiness:

But not ever
After. And not now.

But for all the sense of emptiness, he would not have wanted to have missed this, as he would have done had he not been awake. For all the sense of mourning and of loss in these poems, for all the dread about his own mortality, these are poems both of sorrow and of wonder, and are very much on the side of life.

7 responses to this post.

  1. Beautiful post. Thank you


  2. Human Chain is one of my favourite Heaney collections – although that can change on a daily basis! This is a really excellent post. Would you be happy for me to share it in my Reading Ireland Month link up?


  3. Posted by alan on March 14, 2020 at 2:40 pm

    Great writing.
    “He remembers the wakes he had attended”.
    I don’t know if the Irish still do this but I think it is something they got right.


  4. […] The Argumentative Old Git posted a really thoughtful and insightful reading of (my favourite) Seamus Heaney’s Human Chain […]


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