The Blackbird of Glanmore’ by Seamus Heaney
On the grass when I arrive,
Filling the stillness with life,
But ready to scare off
At the very first wrong move.
In the ivy when I leave.
It’s you, blackbird, I love.
I park, pause, take heed.
Breathe. Just breathe and sit
And lines I once translated
Come back: “I want away
To the house of death, to my father
Under the low clay roof.”
And I think of one gone to him,
A little stillness dancer –
Haunter-son, lost brother –
Cavorting through the yard,
So glad to see me home,
My homesick first term over.
And think of a neighbour’s words
Long after the accident:
“Yon bird on the shed roof,
Up on the ridge for weeks –
I said nothing at the time
But I never liked yon bird.”
The automatic lock
Clunks shut, the blackbird’s panic
Is shortlived, for a second
I’ve a bird’s eye view of myself,
A shadow on raked gravel
In front of my house of life.
Hedge-hop, I am absolute
For you, your ready talkback,
Your each stand-offish comeback,
Your picky, nervy goldbeak –
On the grass when I arrive,
In the ivy when I leave.
There are times in life you never forget and I have one that in its entirety, is immense. In 2000, my wife and I, along with 200 others of course, were privileged to have a sit down dinner with the late, great Seamus Heaney at the 2000 Whitbread Book Awards annual dinner and presentation of the book awards. Somewhere on this blog there is a poem called ‘Meeting Seamus’ and although he was sat on a different table to my wife and I, and because I was just too damned nervous to go up to him and say hello, I remember feeling that just the chance to be with the rich and famous is something was the best thing ever and is something that I will never forget. Read the poem and see what I felt and why I feel Heaney is one of the greatest writers we have ever produced. His poetry has an element of place in it throughout.
The first Heaney poem I ever taught was ‘Digging,’ where we feel the earth around us as we read. This poem is no different and as I remember this great man, I do so with a certain sense of pride. For this poem is set in a wonderful setting, hence its placing in the section of the anthology called Place. This is a poem that shares his love of nature from the very first line where we feel the “grass” underneath our feet as we share in his journey. As he arrives he feels the grass “filling the stillness with life.” It is as though the very essence of nature is all around him and when one considers his countryside background as a young man we see why he loved it so much. For him, this is a special place, but also a place of sadness, as we see later. He is viewing a blackbird as it goes about its business and is immediately aware of the fact that one “wrong move” will cause the bird to fly off. He shows his love for nature in the presence of this “blackbird,” that he loves to see. For him, this is a symbol of what is right in the countryside and in the towns. This is nature at its best. This place is a snapshot of heaven.
This is the returning young man being remembered when he returned from his first term or semester away from home. The poem shows how when he was younger he did not have the same kind of liking that he has now for that which we call home. As he returns, he parks and does what would be natural, to “park, pause, take heed.” It is that sort of moment when we return to somewhere in our past, where we pause and reflect on how that place has shaped us and made us into the person we are now. I live away from my home town now so I know what this is like, and for a long time, I hated going back, to see family, but the years have turned the wheel of my life and now I see how that town has shaped and moulded me into the person I am now. This is what Heaney is reflecting on, autobiographically sharing a moment in his life.
He breathes and sits in his car, pondering on this place of old and decides that he wants, in another man’s words, to be “away to the house of death, to my father under the low clay roof.” This is where his brother is now laying, in death, like a leader who lays in state for the people to come and mourn. In Heaney’s earlier life his brother died and this therefore, is a memory and a poem written to share the he feels as if there is a sense of loss as he remembers, like “a little stillness dancer,” his “lost” brother who used to cavort “through the yard” when he was always so “glad to see [him] home.” This is dated to the end of his first term at school when he was young so is a memory of place, something we do with places, where we associate good or bad things to a certain place.
By now the reader is aware of the structural aspect of this poem, the mixture of five line stanzas and one line stanzas but the reader automatically sees the poet as he reminisces on the cruelty of life. And the use of the blackbird, almost a symbol of the thing that separates humanity from the animal world, is brought together as we see that there was an “accident” that took the life of his brother. That blackbird “on the shed roof” in his memory is the symbol used to link place to life and also to death. In the past we see that he “never liked yon bird.” Whilst this is a factual moment in the poem it also shows how one person can hate something at one point in their life and then love something later on.
As the poem continues, we hear “the automatic lock” as it “clunks shut” and how “the blackbird’s panic is short lived,” We see how Heaney sees this as something that represents the finality of death as he remembers his brother. And the poet then adds that “for a second” he has a “bird’s eye view” of himself, as a “shadow on raked gravel In front of [his] house of life.” There is a romance in his words here, a magic that transcends normal language, a way of seeing the world through a unique set of eyes, helping him to paint this picture in our minds of both place and person. Thinking of that bird, he recounts how he was with his brother, as if the bird has almost taken the place of his brother in that moment as it does a “hedge-hop,” just like his brother when alive, how he was always ready with a riposte, as brothers are, a “talkback” and his “standoffish comeback.” It is clear that here, he is remembering the personality of the brother and sees elements of him in this blackbird.
What is clear here is that he misses the relationship he once had with his brother. He has seen the sort of pain that a young boy should not see and this has formulated itself into the words of this poem. This resonates so well with me, for I lost a Grandmother at the age of five and never got over the loss until when in my mid 40s I visited her grave for the first time. Maybe, if I had written a poem shortly after, my poem would sound similar as I use something in nature to remember my lost Grandmother? This is what is happening here. If we take this to be the truth behind the poem we see a man recollecting the life and impact of a brother, using something in nature to bring back to life once again, the brother he lost so long ago. This is the wonder of the words we speak and their ability to bring something long gone back to life. Such is the beauty of the English language.