Skip to main content

The Walk (Seamus Heaney)

This poem was read aloud at Janet Campbell’s funeral in Hamilton in Victoria in December 2006. Janet was a great lover of poetry all her life, a great reader of poetry, and she read everything of Seamus Heaney. Indeed, when she worked in Melbourne or London bookshops Janet would grab hold of Faber pre-publication copies of Heaney if they came into the backroom, and disappear for days, copying lines onto postcards for her friends, transferring lines into her lifetime of diaries. Diaries that were also a lifeline. Janet read everything, but Heaney was one of the regulars.

Seamus Heaney keeps a tight line. He is rarely though completely opaque and the way into this poem is the word ‘longshot’. We only find in the second of the two poems that we are being asked to look at two photographs. Or, at least, poems that are like photographs. Or, better still, strong memories that have taken on in the mind the nature of longshots. The two poems in one are reminders of close relationships. One is in broad daylight, a positive image; the other is called ‘a negative’, the other side of a relationship, involving struggle and fire and survival. (Even this trope of the positive and negative photograph dates the poem and its subject, now when we live in the age of the digital camera.)

Although it is important to the poet who these people are, and it is important to us as readers in so far as we recognise our own experience in the words, it is not important who these people are. They live their relationships in the poem and we may see them through the simplicity and complexity engendered by the words.

It seems too easy to explain the poems as songs of innocence and experience, yet how else do we start? The poet is attending to the reality of what he knows now that he didn’t know then, or rather knows now and had only intimations of previously. The conclusion goes further, saying that it is not over yet and there will be more to know. Intimations are everywhere, and what are we to make of them? The adult relationship of the parents in the first poem will be played out again by the grown child in his own intimate life, depicted in the second poem. The adult, the poet, sees the child who will in turn become who he is now. There is even the knowledge that the love that “brought me that far by the hand” will be the strength he is given to meet the love demands of his adult life.

‘Longshot’ possesses too the meaning of chance, a fair amount of risk, a choice taken that no one at the time could be fully sure of success. A relationship that involves commitment will, one could say, always have at least an element of comedy. Some see marriage (and friendship and relationships generally) as indeed the source of the comedy of life. The poet here is saying that longshots work, against all the odds. The two poems play out the results of that commitment.

Another word that pitches the poem at a noticeable level is ‘glamoured’. We don’t usually associate the country roads of Ulster with glamour, nor generally those who live on those roads. Yet in the eyes of the boy seeing everything for the first time ‘everything’ is glamoured, possessed of charm and allure and wonder. Heaney is aware of the medieval sense of the word also, glamour as the temptations of this world, the wondrous illusions of temporality. When medieval moralists warn against glamour they are keen to help us to see through the false show of this world, to get toward self-knowledge. There is no way we are not going to be innocent at certain times of our lives, of the ways of this world, yet experience shows us to value our former innocence, even as we move on. The poet will learn to live with glamour, differentiating as he goes innocence and knowledge.

One photograph and one poem are filled with light and colour, though notice the poet never actually names a colour. Then, one photograph negative and one poem are filled with darkness and flame, the side of a relationship that is best appreciated at the survival end of the experience. In both poems Heaney is in his fabled pedagogical mode, by which I mean he presents us with the lessons and then leaves us to think about the bigger meanings, always in a manner that is gentle-voiced and caring of his listeners. 
The Walk

Glamoured the road, the day, and him and her
And everywhere they took me. When we stepped out
Cobbles were riverbed, the Sunday air
A high stream-roof that moved in silence over
Rhododendrons in full bloom, foxgloves
And hemlock, robin-run-the-hedge, the hedge
With its deckled ivy and thick shadows –
Until the riverbed itself appeared,
Gravelly, shallowly, summery with pools,
And made a world rim that was not for crossing.
Love brought me that far by the hand, without
The slightest doubt or irony, dry-eyed
And knowledgeable, contrary as be damned;
Then just kept standing there, not letting go.


So here is another longshot. Black and white.
A negative this time, in dazzle-dark,
Smudge and pallor where we make out you and me,
The selves we struggled with and struggled out of,
Two shades who have consumed each other’s fire,
Two flames in sunlight that can sear and singe,
But seem like wisps of enervated air,
After-wavers, feathery ether-shifts …
Yet apt still to rekindle suddenly
If we find along the way charred grass and sticks
And an old fire-fragrance lingering on,
Erotic woodsmoke, witchery, intrigue,
Leaving us none the wiser, just better primed
To speed the plough again and feed the flame.

Seamus Heaney


Popular posts from this blog

Why did Dante write The Divine Comedy?

This is one of two short papers given by Philip Harvey at the first Spiritual Reading Group session for 2014 on Tuesday the 18 th of February in the Carmelite Library in Middle Park. He also gave a paper on that occasion, which can be found on the Library blog, entitled ‘A Rationale for Purgatory’ . Nadezhda Mandelstam recalls in one of her books how her husband, the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, would say that when reading poetry we can spend a great deal of time discussing what it means, but the first and main question about a poem is not what does it mean, but why was it written. That is the place to start. Here are eleven reasons that I offer quietly to help us think about this poem: Why did Dante write The Divine Comedy? You may have other reasons and these are invited. We will spend most of our time today looking at meanings, but also at why. I wrote these out as they occurred to me, so there is no priority order. 1.      He wrote the poem because of Florence. Many o

The Poetry of Rowan Williams

Rowan Williams delivers the twelfth John Rylands Poetry Reading last year   This is a paper given by Philip Harvey in the Hughes Room at St Peter’s Church, Eastern Hill, Melbourne on Sunday the 6 th of December as one in an Advent series on religious poets. The original title of the paper was ‘The text that maps our losses and longings’. Everything Rowan Williams says and writes reveals a person with a highly developed sensitivity to language, its force, directness, instantaneousness, its subtlety, indirectness, longevity. A person though may speak three languages fluently and read at least nine languages with ease, as he does, and still not engage with language in the way we are looking at here. Because Rowan is unquestionably someone with a poetic gift. By that I don’t just mean he writes poetry, I mean he engages with the life of words, their meanings, ambiguities, colours, their playfulness, invention, sounds. We find this in those writings of his that deliberate