"Small dreamself in the branches": Seamus Heaney's birds

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Heaney often reflected on the relationship between the freedoms of the creative imagination and the restrictions imposed by conditions on the ground, describing this tension as one ‘to which all artists are susceptible, just as the children of temperamentally opposed parents are susceptible. The child in this case is the poet, and the parents are Art and Life’. The broad trajectory of his oeuvre is evident enough: initially painting the life of his native world in ‘thick and faithful pigments’, his art became increasingly impressionistic and etherial as it climbed away from earthly matters (‘art’, writes Heaney in his essay ‘The Government of the Tongue’, ‘improvises an inspired sketch’ of ‘a better reality’), before returning to reappraise familiar ground in late volumes such as 'Electric Light'. Following the movement of birds as they migrate through this body of work is as good a way as any of tracking how the ‘appetites of gravity’ so characteristic of Heaney’s early writing were transformed into an imaginative mastery of ‘new rungs of the air’ (‘The First Flight’) in the transcendent impulse of middle-period work, before the birds come home to roost in late intimations of mortality.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Life of Birds in Literature
EditorsMarie-Luise Egbert
Place of PublicationTrier
PublisherWissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier
Number of pages25
ISBN (Print)9783868216059
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - Nov 2015


  • Seamus Heaney
  • poetry
  • birds


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