Heaney: Alphabets

Seems to be an autobiographical poem tracing Heaney’s life from childhood to adulthood with regards to education, especially language and orthography.

I – his childhood, learning how to write

II – his teenage years in secondary school – appreciates the beauty of the language

III – as an adult literary scholar, he uses the language in illuminating ways

  • The letter O (and the globe) is a reoccurring symbol
  • Symbolises Heaney’s view of reality
  • The earth and the universe
  • First, the childlike ‘coloured O’ which reminds him of the globe
  • Second, the ‘wooden O’ which could be a lecture theatre or the Globe theatre
  • “The risen aqueous singular lucent O” which represents how in adulthood he fully realises the beauty and complexity of the world in which he lives
  • It is described as an ovum, all that he had sprung from
  • He progresses from the farming life to the academic life


  • “All gone” – shift from farming to education
  • The 3 people to whom he alludes, Constantine, Marsilio Ficino and the astronaut, all made changes in their lives, and never looked back
  • It gave them a new way of seeing the world, and they did not wish to return to the old way that was so inferior


  • Shift to first person from third person in the last stanza creates tension, and also cyclical nature
  • He is reminiscing on his childhood


  • He first learns the alphabet
  • Draws smoke with chalk, shadow figures with hands
  • Recognises letters by relating them to objects
  • “swan’s neck and back” – 2; “forked stick” – Y; “Two rafters and a cross tie” – A; “leaning hoe” – a tick


  • From Latin to Ogham (Irish script)
  • He appreciates the beauty of the education and the language and the alphabet
  • Describes letters as ‘trees’; ‘orchards in full bloom’; and ‘briars coiled in ditched’
  • He still associates letters to his environment


  • After some time, he becomes an adult
  • A scholar, a poet, a lecturer
  • Shows maturity and mastery of the English language – alluding to Shakespeare and Graves, master playwright and poet, respectively
  • Instead of associating letters with objects, he now associates FARMING objects with letters
  • “Bales and sheaves” as lambdas; potato pits as deltas; lucky horseshoe as omega
  • This reinforces how academia has supplanted farming in his life
  • The revelations of Constantine, Ficino and the astronaut show how once you have been shown a better way of doing things, you stick with it
  • Education changes his view of the world, just as Constantine’s Labarum, Ficino’s hanging of the globe and the astronaut’s extra-terrestrial image of the Earth in all its glory from space


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