The poem is written in simple, easy-to-read language that stands out among some of Seamus Heaney’s other far more complicated poems. It’s composed of tercets, or three-line stanzas, that use very short lines (as short as one word) mixed in with longer lines (the longest is still only seven words long). ‘The Conway Stewart’ may not be Heaney’s most commonly read poem, but it is highly relatable and worth analyzing.
Explore The Conway Stewart
In the first part of the poem, the speaker, commonly considered to be Heaney himself, describes the physical pen he received, its medium nib, the gold details, and how the shopkeeper demonstrated how to use it. The second part of the poem is more emotional. It focuses on how the pen served as a way for him and his loved ones to ignore his departure the evening before he left. The last stanza depicts the speaker using it to write a letter home.
You can read the full poem here.
The main theme of this poem is separation. The speaker focuses on the pen because he doesn’t want to focus on the loss he’s about to, or did in the past, suffer. Although the details of where he’s going and who he’s leaving behind are unclear, what is clear is that the speaker focuses on the pen in order to ignore some of the many unpleasant feelings he’s experiencing prior to his departure.
Structure and Form
‘The Conway Stewart’ by Seamus Heaney is a six-stanza poem that is divided into sets of three lines, known as tercets. These stanzas are written in free verse. This means that the poet did not use a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern.
There is a noteworthy shift between the fourth and fifth tercets. At this point, the poet changes from detailing a purchase—the Conway Stewart pen, to describing his emotional connection to the option.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Caesura: a pause in the middle of a line of verse. This usually occurs due to the poet’s use of punctuation. For example, “Medium,” 14-carat nib.”
- Anaphora: the repetition of the same word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “In,” which begins with two lines, and “To,” which begins three others.
- Enjambment: occurs when a poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two of the second stanza.
- Imagery: the use of particularly effective descriptions that should inspire the reader to imagine a scene, feeling, experience, and more, in great detail. For example, “In the mottled barrel a spatulate, thin.”
“Medium,” 14-carat nib,
In the mottled barrel a spatulate, thin
In the first stanza of ‘The Conway Stewart,’ the speaker begins by detailing the pen he received as a gift. The pen is of the Conway Stewart brand, has a “medium” sized nib, and is created with 14-carat gold. It’s a high-quality, expensive item with “Three gold bands” on top.
The pen also has a clip on the top, allowing someone to fasten it to a pocket or group of papers. The central part of the pen, or the barrel, is “mottled.” It’s made of different shades of color that add to how expensive it looks.
The second stanza is very short and simple. It is also focused on important details about the pen. You use it by activating a “pump-action lever” that the shopkeeper demonstrated when the speaker received it. The poet does not provide any more details than what’s evident on the surface within these three lines.
The only thing that readers can really interpret is how expensive the pen was if a shopkeeper feels the need to show a customer how to use it.
Stanzas Three and Four
The nip uncapped,
Letting it rest then at an angle
The third and fourth stanzas are the last devoted to simple descriptions of the pen. The speaker describes taking the cap off the pen and dipping it into its first “newly opened ink-bottle.” This is an important moment to the speaker, one that he devotes a whole stanza to.
The fourth stanza uses the unusual words “Guttery, snottery” that stand out due to their alliterative qualities among the rest of the lines. He’s using these words to describe the way the ink flows from the pen. He imagines the way the pen fills up with ink and then how it distributes the ink on the paper.
Giving us time
From our parting, due that evening,
The final six lines of the poem change tone, becoming more emotional and less analytic. He refers to “us,” perhaps a reference to his family or to someone else who gave him the pen (or who he is separating from). The pen is something to talk about and think about on the evening before they parted. It’s a distraction that brings them together but is, despite their best effort to ignore it, a reminder that they’re going to part soon.
To my longhand
To them, next day.
In the last three lines, the speaker notes that his pen is immediately put to use. The separation from his family is not as complete as it might initially feel like it is, and he writes a letter them, beginning with “Dear,” on the day after they part.
The tone is analytical and descriptive and then, in the final six lines, more emotional. The speaker is going away from a person or group of people that he cares about, and the pen represents their affection for one another as well as the fact that they are no longer going to see one another as often.
Heaney wrote this poem to explore a specific time in his life. Scholars have speculated that it was written about the days before his departure to St. Columb’s College in Derry. It defines a period in his life through simple language that reads as both analytical and emotional.
The message is that a simple object, like a pen, can form a connection over time and distance with those we love and are separated from. It reminded Heaney of a time in his life when he worried about separating from his family but also acted as a way for him to ignore the feelings of loss and focus instead on something beautiful.
‘The Conway Stewart’ is a free verse poem. It is made up of tercets, or stanzas of three lines, that do not use a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The poem uses very short lines, some as short as one word and others that are longer, stretching to seven words.
Readers who enjoyed ‘The Conway Stewart’ should also consider reading some other Seamus Heaney poems. For example:
- ‘A Drink of Water’ – a poem about the poet’s nostalgia of an old woman who comes to fetch water from his well every day.
- ‘Bogland’ – speaks on the history and landscape of Ireland through the metaphor of a bottomless bog.
- ‘Blackberry-Picking’ – recalls a recurring scene from his youth: each August, he would pick blackberries and relish in their sweet taste.