From the Box: Seamus Heaney

(For an explanation of what ‘From the Box’ is about, click here)

I found this poem in Heaney’s ‘Opened Ground’ collection (though it’s originally from ‘The Haw Lantern’.) On the back of my edition there is this quote from the critic John Carey:

“More than any other poet since Wordsworth he can make us understand that the outside world is not outside, but what we are made of.”

I know it’s not exactly unexpected that Romanticism would make some kind of showing on this blog, but you have to admit that the whole romantic gang did a damn good job of finding strange and creative ways to talk about the “inner” (and yes, I guess my interpretation of what’s going on in the below poem might run the other way from Carey.)

Still, all that aside, this poem just hits me somewhere. Particularly the second half of the first verse.

Grotus and Coventina

Far from home Grotus dedicated an altar to Coventina                                                       Who holds in her right hand a waterweed                                                                                   And in her left a pitcher spilling out a river.                                                                               Anywhere Grotus looked at running water he felt at home                                                 And when he remembered the stone where he cut his name                                               Some dried-up course beneath his breastbone started                                                        Pouring and darkening- more or less the way                                                                          The thought of his stunted altar works on me.

Remember when our electric pump gave out,                                                                           Priming it with bucketfuls, our idiotic rage                                                                               And hangdog phone-calls to the farm next door                                                                       For somebody please to come and fix it?                                                                                    And when it began to hammer on again,                                                                                     Jubilation at the tap’s full force, the sheer                                                                                  Given fact of water, how you felt you’d never                                                                            Waste one drop but know its worth better always.                                                                 Do you think we could run through all that one more time?                                               I’ll be Grotus, you be Coventina.


2 responses to “From the Box: Seamus Heaney

  1. I loved reading this post – thank you! You’re so right, the ‘pouring and darkening’ beneath his breastbone when he remembers is wonderful… Heaney’s so good on water sources, memory sources, pumps… There’s this bit in one of his essays (‘The Sense of Place’) where he talks about the the pump in their back garden making a sound like the greek word ‘omphalos’ (meaning ‘navel’, the stone at the center of the world) being repeated over and over again. I like the idea of the pump being this source of water which supplies something from right at the ‘navel’ of things, the ‘innermost’ part, and how its supply registers as sounds: ‘the man pumped and pumped, the plunger slugging up and down, omphalos, omphalos, omphalos.’ (And ‘slugging up’ has to be my fix of word-fun for the day!!)

  2. This reminds me of how the tiger who came to tea drank all the water in the tap. Yuan said that was too scary for children, really.

    I find it interesting that it is running water that makes Grotus feel at home: water that, like the traveller, will be somewhere else tomorrow. Maybe that hints at Grotus having made his peace with travelling, perhaps having realised that yearning for and coming home is a wanderer’s privilege (a bit like yearning for and getting tap water). Which reminds me of Eichendorff’s “Sehnsucht” (, which is about the opposite: Fernweh (“far-sickness”) as a privilege of those who stay at home. (Also your post on respect and adaptive preferences is brilliant.)

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