Seamus Heaney

District and Circle by Seamus Heaney

‘District and Circle’, written by Seamus Heaney, depicts parts of a journey, or of several journeys, on the London Underground.

‘District and Circle’ is part of a poetry collection, named after the poem, published in 2006. The collection explores the world´s difficult times and celebrates poetry´s ability to give pleasure and delight. Sentence shape, metrical complexity, and the evocation of small satisfactions are emphasized rather than international bloody wretchedness.

For ‘District and Circle’, Seamus Heaney won the T. S. Eliot Prize and the Irish Times “Poetry Now Award”. After these, and other great accomplishments, Seamus Heaney confirmed his reputation as one of the best Irish poets of all times. Heaney’s poetry is known for the way in which it is beautifully crafted and how it expresses its present truthfully.

‘District and Circle’ presents a sequence of five sonnets. Apparently, these are based on Heaney’s memories of early-days’ vacation work in London. The poem reflects the anxiety after a terrorist attack in the London transport and, furthermore, it depicts the notions of the underworld and of underground tunnels and levels between life and death in a Dantesque/Virgilian way. ‘District and Circle’ was composed after subtracting a sequence from “Tollund Man”. According to Heaney himself, he wanted to form “a separate diptych”.

 District and Circle by Seamus Heaney


District and Circle Analysis

Section One

This first section depicts a meeting (“To where I knew I was always going to find/My watcher on the tiles”).  This figure moves around the underground space, among the ‘shades’ of it, and he/she appears to meet the lyrical voice regularly (“I was always going to find”). The lyrical voice describes his/her movements down the underground and how this figure observes him/her (“His fingers perked, his two eyes eyeing me/ In an accusing look I’d not avoid”).  This meeting shows its regularity in the way the lyrical voice explains the movement between him/her and this mysterious figure (Or not just yet, since both were out to see/ For ourselves”).  The following stanza of the section offers a description of the actions of the lyrical voice in this underground scenery (“As the music larked and capered/ I’d trigger and untrigger a hot coin”). At the end of the stanza, the meeting with this figure is mentioned again with the recognition of this particular figure in the scene described (“And he, still eyeing me, would also nod”).

The section has a sonnet form with a break halfway through. There is a relaxed rhyme scheme that culminates dramatically in the final couplet with a similar rhyme (“nod/nod”). The use of enjambment and the mid-line commas evoke the movement down the underground. Furthermore, there are recurrent vocal and consonant sounds, which construct a particular musicality in the poem.


Section Two

This second section of ‘District and Circle’ constructs a portrait of the underground scene. The lyrical voice describes the constant movement and the continuous motion of this subterranean world. There is an emphasis on constructing the underground as a place full of senses; from sight (“Posted, eyes front, along the dreamy ramparts”) to audition (“Rumbled, quickened, evened, quieted”). This results in a lively characterization that portrays the image of the underground very vividly. This description is, then, opposed to that of the outside (“Parks at lunchtime where the sunners lay”). The lyrical voice anticipates the return to the life above by mentioning the “resurrection”.

The section has, also, a sonnet form with a break half-way through. The break, as in the previous section, accentuates the semantic difference between the descriptions of the two stanzas. Again, there is no fixed rhyme scheme and there are assonances and sibilant sounds that continue to provide musicality and vividness to the picture depicted.


Section Three

This third section continues to describe the subterranean world in which the lyrical voice is submerged. The lyrical voice continues to go deeper and deeper into the underground (“Another level down, the platform thronged”). There is a description of the crowd of the underground and how it moves in that particular space (“Like a human chain, the pushy newcomers […] On their marks to be first through the doors”). The underground is, therefore, perceived as a chaotic place in which the masses move frantically. This characterization will conclude at the end of the stanza with the mention of the figure of the first section (“Had I betrayed or not, myself or him”). That “him”, the mysterious figure, is a constant presence that appears to be following the lyrical voice while he/she descends into the underground. The tone shifts with this line and the lyrical voice reflect on the situation with the figure while he waits.

Similar to those before, the section has a sonnet form. There is no fixed rhyme scheme, but there are recurrent assonant effects and there is a repetition of certain consonants.  Notice, also, the repetition of “always” and “(un)repentant” at the end of the section.


Section Four

This fourth section depicts the lyrical voice’s usage of the underground. The lyrical voice describes in detail how he enters the subway and the experience of taking this kind of transport (“Stepping on to it across the gap,/On to the carriage metal, I reached to grab/The stubby black roof-wort”). The lyrical voice positions him/herself in the habit and dynamic of departure and movement. His/her body is also affected by the motion of the underground and time seems to stop for a moment (“That long between-times pause before the budge/ And glaze-over, when any forwardness/Was unwelcome and bodies readjusted,/Blindsided to themselves and other bodies”).

The section has a sonnet form with an AAAA rhyme at the beginning, but then it transforms to free verse. There are new sound effects, other vowels, and consonants, that enable the reader to experiment with the same feelings as the lyrical voice. Notice the final couplet and how it summarizes the theme and the rhythm of the section.


Section Five

This final section of ‘District and Circle’ concludes the description of the underground. The lyrical voice emphasizes on the scenery of the underground by stating that he/she is “So deeper into it”. Moreover, the lyrical voice depicts the feeling to be “crowd-swept, strap-hanging” and the moment of stopping at each station (“Again the growl/Of shutting doors, the jolt and one-off treble/ Of iron on iron”). In the final lines of the section, the lyrical voice reflects more deeply about his/her travel routine and shifts the tone of the poem (“And so by night and day to be transported/Through galleried earth with them”).

The final section has an unusual sonnet form of 4 half lines. There are several assonances and repetitions of sibilants to continue with the same musicality as in the previous sections. However, the uncommon structure of the section increases the dramatic tone of this last part of the poem, as it culminates emphatically with the last word.


About Seamus Heaney

Seamus Justin Heaney was born in 1939 and died in 2013. He was an Irish poet, playwright, and translator. During his lifetime, he was an important figure in poetry and it is believed to be one of the best Irish poets of all times. Robert Lowell said he was “the most important Irish poet since Yeats”. Seamus Heaney received several awards, including the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize (1968), the E. M. Foster award (1975), the PEN Translation Prize (1985), the Nobel Prize in Literature (1995), the Golden Wreath of Poetry, the T. S. Eliot prize, among others. From 1981 to 2006, Seamus Heaney lived part-time in the United States. He worked as a professor and was a “Poet in Residence” at Harvard University. One of his most well-known works is “Death of a Naturalist”. “Death of a Naturalist” was issued in 1966 and was Heaney’s first major published collection. The book won several awards, including the Gregory Award and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, and consists of 34 short poems. “Death of a Naturalist” depicts childhood memories, family relations, and rural life. His very well-known poem “Digging” is featured in this collection.

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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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