A surge of utterance

A glimpse into Seamus Heaney’s inspiration, by Miriam Darlington

Driving along the south coast of Galway Bay in County Clare with his wife and friends, Brian and Anne Friel, Seamus Heaney caught what he described as a ‘sidelong glimpse of something flying past.’ The poem was written down speedily, in ‘a surge of utterance’.

In just two sentences it observes and maps a sense of rapture: in a windy journey, a connection to the world, a fleeting awakening, and an experience of a moment that is almost over as soon as it is revealed. ‘Useless to think you’ll park and capture it more thoroughly’ Seamus Heaney decides, as if a veil has been briefly lifted to show something beyond words.

Nevertheless, we are allowed into the poet’s experience of the ‘earthed lightning’ of a flock of wild swans, ‘white on white’, natural, in their element and yet transcendent. The repetition of ‘time’ in the first line links with the description of the experience of driving, where we become ‘a hurry through which known and strange things pass’.

The poem inhabits a moment where the change in season is manifested as a ‘big soft buffeting’, something much bigger than ourselves. It could be the wind coming off the wild Autumnal Atlantic, the beauty of the ruffled plumage of the swans on the water, or something else, a luminosity that can reach us momentarily and blow open the heart.

External and internal worlds are fused here, in what Wordsworth called ‘spots of time’. John Burnside named them ‘lit moments’. Whichever they are, Heaney has given us one of them in the form of a postcard, an afterthought sent to The Irish Times almost as soon as it was written, reminding us to go to a place like this one day, and to feel it all the way through.

Miriam Darlington is a poet, naturalist, author and academic. Her latest books are Otter Country and Owl Sense. She writes a regular column in The Times, the Nature Notebook.


Seamus Heaney

And some time make the time to drive out west 
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open. 


Seamus Heaney MRIA was an Irish poet, playwright and translator. In 1995, he received the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature, and was recognised as one of the principal contributors to poetry in his lifetime.

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