Extract: Human Chain by Seamus Heaney

Poems from the TS Eliot prize-shortlisted collection Human Chain

Seamus Heaney was born in 1939 in County Derry, Northern Ireland. His first collection, Death of a Naturalist (Faber) was published in 1965, and since then he has published nearly 100 books, including District and Circle (Faber, which won the 2006 TS Eliot Prize) and Sweeney Astray (1984). Heaney was Professor of Poetry at Oxford from 1989 to 1994, and in 1995 he received the Nobel prize for literature. He won the 2010 Forward prize for best collection for Human Chain.



Who is this coming to the ash-pit
Walking tall, as if in a procession,
Bearing in front of her a slender pan

Withdrawn just now from underneath
The firebox, weighty, full to the brim
With whitish dust and flakes still sparkling hot

That the wind is blowing into her apron bib,
Into her mouth and eyes while she proceeds
Unwavering, keeping her burden horizontal still,

Hands in a tight, sore grip round the metal knob,
Proceeds until we have lost sight of her
Where the worn path turns behind the henhouse.


Who is this, not much higher than the cattle,
Working his way towards me through the pen,
His ashplant in one hand

Lifted and pointing, a stick of keel
In the other, calling to where I'm perched
On top of a shaky gate,

Waving and calling something I cannot hear
With all the lowing and roaring, lorries revving
At the far end of the yard, the dealers

Shouting among themselves, and now to him
So that his eyes leave mine and I know
The pain of loss before I know the term.


Not the one who takes up his bed and walks
But the ones who have known him all along
And carry him in –

Their shoulders numb, the ache and stoop deeplocked
In their backs, the stretcher handles
Slippery with sweat. And no let-up

Until he's strapped on tight, made tiltable
And raised to the tiled roof, then lowered for healing.
Be mindful of them as they stand and wait

For the burn of the paid-out ropes to cool,
Their slight lightheadedness and incredulity
To pass, those ones who had known him all along.

Human Chain

for Terence Brown

Seeing the bags of meal passed hand to hand
In close-up by the aid workers, and soldiers
Firing over the mob, I was braced again

With a grip on two sack corners,
Two packed wads of grain I'd worked to lugs
To give me purchase, ready for the heave –

The eye-to-eye, one-two, one-two upswing
On to the trailer, then the stoop and drag and drain
Of the next lift. Nothing surpassed

That quick unburdening, backbreak's truest payback,
A letting go which will not come again.
Or it will, once. And for all.

Seamus Heaney

The GuardianTramp

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