With this poem, ‘The Blackbird of Glanmore,’ Seamus Heaney introduces a speaker that is able to reflect upon his views on life, his experiences with death, and his own pain through the simple observation of a blackbird. As the poem progresses, this blackbird comes to symbolize all that the speaker has loved and lost. The speaker watches the bird carefully, fearful of frightening it away.
The blackbird represents life and death all at the same time. Just as the blackbird is fleeting and easily scared away, the speaker believes that life is easily lost. Just as he loves the blackbird, the speaker loves and longs for death. To him, death represents all that is permanent and secure, while life represents the fleeting and the unknown. It is ironic, as most people view life and death in opposite terms from what the speaker describes here. However, it soon becomes clear that the speaker’s life experiences have led him to this way of thinking. The poem, ‘The Blackbird of Glanmore,’ can be read in full here and more Seamus Heaney poems here.
The Blackbird of Glanmore Analysis
On the grass when I arrive,(…)In the ivy when I leave.
The speaker arrives somewhere and sees this blackbird on the grass. He shares his experience with his readers in the first person, making ‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’ very personal and direct. He describes the blackbird as “filling the stillness with life”. Without the blackbird, it is as if the surrounding area is lifeless. But the bird is there, and its very presence fills the speaker with a sense of the life that surrounds him. But this sense of life is fleeting and may disappear at any moment. He describes the bird as “ready to scare off at the very first wrong move”. The speaker then notes that the bird is usually in the ivy when he leaves. He does not specify why that is important, but the reader can begin to see that the speaker has taken note of this bird before and that this bird is of great significance.
It’s you, blackbird, I love.
With this single line stanza, the speaker reveals just how significant this bird is to him. In fact, he speaks directly to the bird and tells it that he loves it. It seems a bit odd for a man to express his love to a blackbird. This causes the reader to ponder what deeper meaning this bird might hold in the speaker’s mind.
Stanzas Three and Four
I park, pause, take heed.(…)To the house of death, to my fatherUnder the low clay roof.”
With these stanzas of ‘The Blackbird of Glanmore,’ the speaker reveals that he longs for the bird to stay still, where he is. He watches the bird, and as he watches it, he begins to wish for something. The speaker decides to use another person’s words to express what it is that he wishes for. Those words say, “I want away to the house of death, to my father under the low clay roof”. It is clear that the speaker as the speaker watches the bird, he begins to long for death. He cannot bring himself to say that he wants death in his own words. He distances himself from this feeling by using another man’s words to express his own desires. He wishes, at times, to be dead. He does not reveal why. The reader becomes aware that the blackbird, somehow symbolizes death to the speaker. The irony is that the speaker has already said that he loves the blackbird. Normally, when something symbolizes death it is frightening and most unwelcome. This blackbird, however, though it symbolizes death, is welcome. Not only is it welcome, but he actually fears that it might fly away if he makes a wrong move. The speaker continues to leave the readers wondering why he welcomes death, and why he loves the bird that symbolizes death.
Stanzas Five and Six
And I think of one gone to him,(…)So glad to see me home,My homesick first term over.
With this stanza, the speaker bares his soul to his readers. He welcomes death and loves the blackbird that symbolizes death, because he has lost his brother to death. In this moment, as he watches the bird, he can see his brother “cavorting through the yard”. He describes his brother as “glad to see [him] home”. This implies that the speaker is referring to the loss of a younger brother, one who would have been glad to see him come home from being away at school for his first term. It would seem that he was sent away to boarding school, and his younger brother was delighted to see him when he came home for vacation. This picture reveals the relationship between the two brothers and allows the readers to feel the pain that the speaker felt at the loss of his brother. It suddenly becomes clear that the speaker longs for death because it might mean relief from the pain of his loss and a time of reuniting with his dead brother.
Stanzas Seven and Eight
And think of a neighbour’s words(…)I said nothing at the timeBut I never liked yon bird.”
Now, the speaker remembers something that a neighbor had said to him “long after the accident” which had taken the life of his brother. The neighbor had said that there was a blackbird on the roof of the shed that have been there for weeks. He then said, “I said nothing at the time but I never liked yon bird”. For some reason, these words stayed with the speaker. It may be that the speaker saw the bird as a symbol of his brother, and so it struck him when the neighbor said that he never liked the bird. For whatever reason, the speaker has remembered these words long after they were said to him.
Stanzas Nine and Ten
The automatic lock(…)A shadow on raked gravelIn front of my house of life.
This stanza of ‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’ suggests that the speaker had pulled up to the blackbird in a vehicle. He knew from the beginning that one wrong move would frighten the bird away. In this stanza, “the automatic lock clunks shut” and sends the bird into a panic. It is a “shortlived” panic, which suggests that the bird quickly took flight after being frightened. All at once, as the bird flies away, the speaker is able to see himself from “a bird’s eye view”. This suggests that for some reason, the speaker is able to see from the bird’s perspective, and he looks down at himself. He sees “a shadow on raked gravel in from of [his] house of life”. This is a very ominous vision. The speaker leaves the meaning somewhat ambiguous, but the fact that he sees a shadow cast over his “house of life” suggests that he has been given a vision, or at least a notion that his life is threatened by some sort of shadow. Perhaps this is a vision revealing to him that death is at his doorstep. Perhaps this is merely a symbol of the shadow of death which has already clouded out his light and house of life. Either way, it is clear that the speaker feels that death is close at hand. It is in the blackbird, and it lurks about his home like a shadow. He does not fear it, however. He welcomes it and even loves it.
Stanzas Eleven and Twelve
Hedge-hop, I am absolute(…)On the grass when I arrive,In the ivy when I leave.
With this stanza of ‘The Blackbird of Glanmore,’ the speaker returns from his bird’s eye view. He reveals this when he says, simply “hedge-hop” which is to fly an aircraft at a very low altitude. It would seem that the speaker is returning from his out-of-body experience. He returns to himself, and then he says, “I am absolute for you”. He then reveals that he is talking to his dead brother, and remembering what he was like. He refers to his “ready talkback” and his “stand-offish comback[s]”. Then he seems like he shifts to a description of the bird when he says “your picky, nervy goldbeak”. Then he says “On the grass when I arrive, in the ivy when I leave”. This makes it clear that the speaker has shifted from speaking to his brother to talk to the bird. It seems as if the speaker believes the bird to be a version of his brother. Perhaps this is why he loves the bird. While it is a symbol of death, it is not unwelcome or feared because it is a symbol of his brother in death.