Seamus Heaney

Anything Can Happen by Seamus Heaney

‘Anything Can Happen’ depicts a contemporary anxiety while referring to a mythological past. The poem has four quatrains with no fixed rhyme-scheme.

Anything Can Happen is featured in District and Circle, and it was published in 2006. District and Circle is a poetry collection consisting of lyric verse poems composed in various forms. The poems in District and Circle develop themes that are essential and crucial to Heaney’s poetic vision. After its publication, this poetry collection won the T.S. Eliot Prize and the Irish Times “Poetry Now Award.”

District and Circle was thought of as a volume that centers on the act of remembering. The remembrance is emphasized by the juxtaposition of old elements and contemporary events.  For instance, the first poems featured in the collection reflect on elements, vocations, characters, and situations that are not common nowadays. Anything Can Happen also illustrates this, as Heaney rewrites topics found in the mythic Roman world.

Summary of Anything Can Happen

‘Anything Can Happen’ by Seamus Heaney is based on Horace’s Odes. In Book 1, poem 34, Horace accepts his erstwhile error and declares his belief in the gods.

He is especially interested in Jupiter and Fortuna after hearing thunder in a cloudless sky (“My prayers were scant, my offerings few,/While witless wisdom fool’d my mind;/But now I trim my sails anew,/And trace the course I left behind”). Heaney takes this particular mythical episode to write Anything Can Happen. However, the poem reflects not only on the present political possibilities that anything could happen but also on the potential found in memory, elegy, and art.

You can read the full poem here.

Structure and Form of Anything Can Happen 

Furthermore, the poem has four quatrains with no fixed rhyme-scheme. Nevertheless, many alliterations and assonances construct a particular sound throughout the stanzas. There is an emphasis on the title and its repetition to accentuate the semantic importance of it. Moreover, most nouns and adjectives provide images of movement and impact.

Literary Devices in Anything Can Happen

Heaney makes use of several literary devices in ‘Anything Can Happen.’ These include but are not limited to, examples of caesurae, allusions, and alliteration. The latter refers to the use and reuse of the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “resettles right” in the last stanza and “Swoops” and “Setting” in stanza three. There are numerous allusions to Greek/Roman mythology in this piece. In the first line, the speaker refers to Jupiter and his control of the weather.

Several lines use a caesura or a pause. This pause is created through the use of punctuation or meter. For example, line one of the first stanzas that read, “Anything can happen. You know how Jupiter,” or line one of the second stanzas, which reads, “Across a clear blue sky. It shook the earth”.

Anything Can Happen Analysis

First Stanza

This first stanza opens with the title of the poem. There is a mention of Jupiter, a god from classical mythology, which is omnipotent and identified with the sky and lightning (“You know how Jupiter/ Will mostly wait for clouds to gather head/Before he hurls the lightning?”). However, the lyrical voice emphasizes the action this mythical god is doing at the moment of the poem (“Well, just now/He galloped his thunder cart and his horses”). This seems to be unexpected and appears to be in contrast with the first lines of the stanza, which depict the god’s habit. As anything can happen, Jupiter’s activity can be transformed into something different.

There is no rhyme scheme, but there is a musicality that results from the stanza’s punctuation.  The tone of this stanza is thoughtful, as the lyrical voice characterizes Jupiter’s actions, but also, at the same time, reflects on the fact that they have already changed.

Second Stanza

The second stanza focuses on the portrayal of certain natural images. This stanza has the same structure as the first one, with one short sentence at the beginning and an enumeration of characteristics afterward. The lyrical voice describes “the earth,” “the clogged underneath,” “the River Styx,” “the winding streams,” and “the Atlantic shore.” Similarly, these are found under a “clear blue sky.” After this illustration, “Anything can happen” is repeated to deconstruct all these images portrayed in the first lines of the second stanza. In Anything Can Happen, the lyrical voice reflects the destruction of the twin towers at the World Trade Center, New York, when he states that “Anything can happen, the tallest towers/Be overturned.”

Third Stanza

The third stanza emphasizes the meaning of the title. The fact that anything can happen is explained in further detail by the lyrical voice (“Be overturned, those in high places daunted, /Those overlooked regarded”). The reference to mythology is used again when it says, “stropped-beak Fortune/Swoops, making the air gasp, tearing the crest off one,/Setting it down bleeding on the next.”

This stanza, like the ones before, has no rhyme scheme. Nevertheless, the structure is different, as it has longer sentences with different punctuation, which changes the poem’s musicality. According to the lyrical voice, there is an emphasis on the enumeration of things that can happen, as anything can happen. The use of the commas gives a more dynamic rhythm and a more dramatic tone to the stanza.

Fourth Stanza

The final stanza focuses on creating a vivid image. The lyrical voice builds a seismic effect (“Ground gives”) and depicts a catastrophic scene (“Capstones shift, nothing resettles right”). There appears to be a turning point, as the lyrical voice mentions that “Telluric ash and fire-spores boil away.” This gives a powerful ending to the poem and emphasizes the dramatic tone of the previous stanza. Moreover, the lyrical voice ends the stanza with a pessimistic view, which he/she has already acquired in the previous stanza. The lyrical voice wants to transmit that nothing good can be expected in this world as anything can happen.

The structure of the stanza is similar to that of the first two. The rhythm and the musicality of the punctuation of the first stanzas are restored. Nevertheless, the sentences seem to be shorter, contributing to the pessimism and the crisis of this last stanza.

Similar Poems

Readers who enjoyed ‘Anything Can Happen’ should also look into reading some of Heaney’s best-known poems. These include Death of a Naturalist,‘The Tollund Man,’ and ‘Exposure.’ The first of these is the title poem of his most famous collection. In it, Heaney conjures a richly evocative image of the countryside and a flax dam. The second, ‘The Tollund Man,’ is quite different and memorable. It uses the historical discovery of the Tollund Man to speak on the larger issues of violence during “the Troubles.”

About Seamus Heaney

Seamus Justin Heaney was born in 1939 and died in 2013. He was born in Northern Ireland, raised in County Derry, and then lived many years in Dublin. Seamus Heaney is recognized as one of the most important poets of the twentieth century. He wrote poetry, but he was also a playwright and a translator. Seamus Heaney wrote over 20 poetry collections, and he also edited several anthologies. He won the Literature Nobel Prize in 1995 because his works “had lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.” From 1981 to 2006, Seamus Heaney lived part-time in the United States. He died in Sandymount, Dublin.

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Julieta Abella Poetry Expert
Julieta has a BA and a MA in Literature and joined the Poem Analysis team back in May 2017. She has a great passion for poetry and literature and works as a teacher and researcher at Universidad de Buenos Aires.
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