Week 307: Song, by Seamus Heaney

No doubt we all have our favourite Seamus Heaney collections (and while ‘Collected Poems’ are very satisfying and serviceable, is there not an excitement that a ‘Collected’ can never quite replace about reading a poet’s collections as they come out?). For me, it has to be ‘Field Work’, which I think shows the poet in his prime, in full relish of his mastery. This week’s choice is a relatively simple lyric from that collection, compared with some of the complex and demanding (but very satisfying) poems that it contains. I have to say that I’m not too sure about the image in the first line. It seems to me that a girl would need to be wearing an awful lot of lipstick in a lot of unusual places to look anything like the berry-laden rowan trees I’ve seen. But I do like the second stanza. Appropriately for an Irish poem, the last line echoes the answer given by the legendary hero Fionn mac Cumhaill, who when asked what he thought was the best music of all said ‘The music of what happens’.


A rowan like a lipsticked girl.
Between the by-road and the main road
Alder trees at a wet and dripping distance
Stand off among the rushes.

There are the mud-flowers of dialect
And the immortelles of perfect pitch
And that moment when the bird sings very close
To the music of what happens.

Seamus Heaney

5 thoughts on “Week 307: Song, by Seamus Heaney

  1. I found this quote online: “… And in his closing line, he [ Heaney ] recalls the legend of Finn Mac Cool, who challenged the warriors of the Fianna—accomplished poets, all—to name the finest music in the world. The music of the lark over Dingle Bay, suggested one. The laughter of a young woman, suggested another. The bellowing of a stag, suggested a third. No, replied Finn Mac Cool. The finest music is “the music of what happens.” “

    • Yes, there are various versions of this because the tales of Finn and the Fianna belong as much to the Scots Gaelic tradition as to the Irish. There is a rather charming Scots Gaelic one in which Oisean taxes his father Fionn with having no music in his soul. Finn answers ‘I have music in me that you do not hear, because my music is the best music in the world’. ‘Prove it’, says Oisean, so Finn goes away to the island of Staffa and sets up the basalt columns there at the edge of the sea that make a musical sound as the tide comes in, and Oisean is forced to concede: ‘Uill, ’s e an ceòl as fheàrr anns an t-saoghal air fad a th’ ann, le cinnt, oir ’s e ceòl nàdair a th’ ann.’ (Well, that is the best music in all the world, for sure, because it is the music of nature).

  2. “… that moment when the bird sings very close /
    To the music of what happens” – this was Heaney’s goal (as the bird) when he wrote poetry? I like to think that “the music of what happens” is simply the unfolding of events (in the natural world or in human affairs).

    • Not quite the way I’ve always taken it – I thought it was particularly about those moments when you feel a oneness with nature, when you are part of the song, as it were, rather than a discordant outsider. What the French writer Romain Rolland calls an ‘oceanic feeling’.

  3. Hi David, “very close / To” is ambiguous? Apparently Heaney said in an interview: “So I used it [Fionn MacCool’s answer about the best music in the world] as the basis for a little declaration about poetry”. I think he was talking about “Song”.

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