Week 430: Glanmore Sonnets, VII, by Seamus Heaney

I have been thinking about exactly why this poem gives me such a frisson of pleasure every time I read it. Partly, I think, it is that it evokes for me that curious feeling of comfort I had as a child, lying snug in bed on a winter night listening to the wolf wind outside huffing and puffing round our house on the hill. Also because it conjures for me the words of that 9th century Irish monk whose ghost haunts the poem, who liked winter nights, and the wilder the better, because it meant that the seas would be too rough even for the hardy Vikings who were terrorising the coasts of Ireland at that time: ‘Bitter is the wind tonight/It tosses the ocean’s white hair./Tonight I do not fear the fierce warriors of Norway/Coursing on the Irish sea’. Then there is the nod to these same Norsemen in the skaldic kennings, the compound names that it uses for the sea: ‘eel-road, seal-road, keel-road’.

But perhaps most of all I like it because, like so many of Heaney’s poems, it is part of his program to recognise and celebrate the ‘marvellous and actual’, being what I call a primary poem, one that faces outwards to life as much as it faces inwards to literature, matching the resonances of the past with the music of a unique present.

Glanmore Sonnets, VII

Dogger, Rockall, Malin, Irish Sea:
Green, swift upsurges, North Atlantic flux
Conjured by that strong gale-warning voice
Collapse into a sibilant penumbra.
Midnight and closedown. Sirens of the tundra,
Of eel-road, seal-road, keel-road, whale-road, raise
Their wind-compounded keen behind the baize
And drive the trawlers to the lee of Wicklow.
L’Étoile, Le Guillemot, La Belle Hélène
Nursed their bright names this morning in the bay
That toiled like mortar. It was marvellous
And actual, I said out loud, ‘A haven’,
The word deepening, clearing, like the sky
Elsewhere on Minches, Cromarty, The Faroes.

Seamus Heaney


8 thoughts on “Week 430: Glanmore Sonnets, VII, by Seamus Heaney

  1. Thank you for keeping on keeping on doing this David Sutton.
    Glad I stumbled across you.
    Just thought it was time I said so.

  2. Oh, I love this one, David. Your critiques are a gift in my inbox. I reset my alarm clock to listen to the shipping forecast every morning on Radio 4, as it’s a very zen way to wake up, and this has so many echoes of this, both literally and in the imagery Heaney uses. Thanks for posting! xx

  3. I like your concept if a ‘primary poem’ and see why you would apply it to this one. It certainly looks out at the world around, with an intensity of feeling. It is also exquisitely crafted!

  4. “keen” [noun] – a lamentation for the dead uttered in a loud wailing voice or sometimes in a wordless cry. “behind the baize” – the baize curtains? “closedown” – closedown of the radio station for the night.

    • Yes, it was the custom in rural Ireland to have hired mourners called ‘keeners’ at a funeral; in Scotland they were called ‘saulies’. See also week 81, in ‘The Broken Girth’: ‘It was Fenians bore the unshriven corpse away/For burial, keening’.

  5. “Wicklow” – Wicklow Town – “The name of the town comes from the days of the Vikings who established a seaport here in a sheltered bay beneath Wicklow Head.”

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