Human Chain by Seamus Heaney | Poetry review

Seamus Heaney's latest collection muses upon heredity and absent friends with restraint and rich imagery, writes Kate Kellaway

Human Chain is about inheritance – in the fullest sense of the word. If it were a poet such as Philip Larkin writing, human chain would mean "man hands on misery to man". But what makes Seamus Heaney's writing so fortifying is, partly, his temperament: his human chain is tolerant, durable, compassionate and every link is reinforced by literature. In more than one poem he makes this plain, recalling the moment in his younger life (in "Route 110") in an Irish bookshop when a woman in brown overalls with a "marsupial" pocket (a perfect, unexpected adjective) sold him a "used copy of Aeneid VI" in a "deckle-edged brown paper bag". What follows is a poem in which the Aeneid co-exists with autobiography. Heaney reminds you that this is what literature is: another life.

This beautiful and affecting collection includes Heaney's own not-so-distant brush with death. "Chanson d'Aventure" describes a Sunday afternoon ambulance ride (during which, he reflects, he might have quoted Donne, but was not fit to quote anything). This is followed by "Miracle" which is, on the face of it, a religious salutation to miracle workers, "the ones who have known him all along/ And carry him in". But it also indirectly celebrates the workaday help of everyone good enough to help with a recovery – the human chain.

The prevailing tone is retrospective, clear and unflustered – as if written from the vantage point of a small hilltop. The poems are filled with assorted bygones: antique fountain pens, piles of coal, ancient boilers (the better to conjure old flames). The wardrobe is of tweed, linen and calico and tends to the sere. Many poems are tender and welcoming but Heaney was never one for false consolation.

There are bracing elegies here too. "The door was open and the house was dark", in memory of David Hammond, is especially arresting because it refuses the dead man even the briefest afterlife in poetry. Instead, Heaney explores the silence after a death. It is a wonderful idea that silence should develop a life of its own, journeying through the second stanza and retiring into the street. The strangeness rings emotionally true, a reaction to a new relationship with silence. And the last line is an extraordinary release: "On an overgrown airfield in late summer."

Heaney looks steadily at emptiness elsewhere too. In his superb poem, "The Butts", he considers a dead man's suits (his father's?) that hang "slightly bandy sleeved" and "a bit stand-offish" and swing like "waterweed disturbed". And at the end he pulls off – a typical Heaney success – a complete shift of direction. The owner of the suits is alive again and in need of nursing:

And we must learn to reach well in beneath

Each meagre armpit

To lift and sponge him.

So many of these poems are labours of love.

Heaney is conversational and welcoming, often present in his writing as a relaxed host. He never overdresses his poems. "A Herbal", an adaptation of the Breton poet Guillevic, is an example of this restraint – a devotional piece about graveyard plants with secretive bracken and independent grass:

Not that the grass itself

Ever rests in peace.

It too takes issue,

Now sets its face

To the wind

Now turns its back.

It is a last line that echoes another favourite poem from this masterly collection in which the turning of a back brings tears to the eyes. In "The Baler", Heaney remembers Derek Hills who preferred not to face the sunset:

… asking please to be put

With his back to the window.

To order Human Chain for £9.99 with free UK p&p, go to or call 0330 333 6847


Kate Kellaway

The GuardianTramp

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