Seamus Heaney

The Railway Children by Seamus Heaney

‘The Railway Children’ by Seamus Heaney is a beautiful poem about the imagination of children. Specifically, Heaney conveys and experience from his youth.

The poem is fairly short, stretching to only thirteen lines. It describes, through one specific example, how expensive the speaker’s imagination was when he was a child. He had a very different type of knowledge when he was young. This is something that he’s lost as he’s aged, ‘The Railway Children’ suggests. 

The Railway Children by Seamus Heaney


Summary 

‘The Railway Children’ by Seamus Heaney is a poem about youthful imagination and how it changes as one ages. 

The speaker is looking back on his youth and describing how he, and those around him, perhaps his siblings or friends, imagined the world. They believed that words, or telegraph messages, traveled along telephone lines in raindrops. These drops of rain come to represent the depth of imagination that a young person, and not an adult, is capable of. This is something that the speaker knows he’s lost as he’s aged. The poem concludes with a reference to a New Testament story about passing through the eye of a needle. 

You can read the full poem here

Theme 

The main themes of this poem are childhood innocence and imagination. The speaker is looking back on their youth and how, as a child, they and their companions, perhaps brothers and/or sisters, believed that words, meaning telegraph messages, were carried in raindrops along telephone wires. The youthful imagination that he had then no longer exists, and while he knew less practical facts than he knows now, as an adult, he’s missing something of who he was as a child. 

Structure and Form 

‘The Railway Children’ by Seamus Heaney is a five-stanza free verse poem that is divided into four tercets, or sets of three lines, and one single-line stanza. The poem is written in free verse and does not use a metrical pattern but is generally between seven and ten syllables. 

Literary Devices 

  • Repetition: can be seen when the poet repeats any literary element. For instance, the poet uses collection pronouns like “we” and “our,” suggesting that he was not the only one who saw the world this way. The speaker is talking about all children, not just those around him in his youth.
  • Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “climbed” and “cutting” in line one of the first stanza and the “w” sound in “Worth knowing. We thought words traveled the wires.” 
  • Imagery: is seen when the poet uses a particularly effective description that triggers readers’ senses. For example, “We thought words traveled the wires / In the shiny pouches of raindrops.” 
  • Caesura: a pause in the middle of a line of verse. This usually occurs through the poet’s use of punctuation. For example, “East and miles west beyond us, sagging.” 


Detailed Analysis 

Stanzas One and Two 

When we climbed the slopes of the cutting

We were eye-level with the white cups

Of the telegraph poles and the sizzling wires.



Like lovely freehand they curved for miles

(…)

Under their burden of swallows.

In the poem’s first stanza, the speaker describes climbing the “slopes of a cutting.” That is a passage that’s been excavated for a railroad. They climbed to the top until they were eye to eye with the “white cups” of the “telegraph poles.” That is the cables that are strung above the railroad. 

The young people climb up high and above the normal boundaries of their day-to-day life. This provides them with a unique vantage point of the railway. They’re so close to the telephone while, and they add that they can hear the wires “sizzling.” This unusual sound is evocative of how their environment changed as they climbed up the slope.

Stanza Two

Like lovely freehand they curved for miles

(…)

The speaker describes the curving wires as cursive that flowed “like lovely freehand” for miles. It was strung out in two directions, east and west, and sagged with the “burden of swallows.” This incredibly poetic and beautiful image depicts endless telephone wires, likely a symbol of the young people’s potential, strung out and covered with swallows; it is a real-world example of adulthood and how a very mundane image may be elevated in a child’s mind to fantastic proportions.

The telephone wires also represent what the children understand or lack thereof. The wires carry information, and young people have a great deal of learning to do as they age. 

Stanza Three

We were small and thought we knew nothing

(…)

The speaker considers what it was like to be a child (indicating that the speaker is looking back on their youth, not directly narrating a scene they’re observing). At the time, the young children felt similarly about their understanding of the world. They felt that they were too young to truly understand everything that is out there, adulthood and all of its very experiences being represented by the telephone wires.

But, the poem presents something very different. The children have something unique to their age, powerful imagination. At the time, the children thought that words, or telegraphs, traveled on the wires, “shiny pouches of raindrops.” This child’s-eye view of the world is meant to stimulate the reader’s own imagination and connect vaguely, other children see the world with reality. 

Stanza Four

(…)

So infinitesimally scaled

Each raindrop, the young children thought, was filled with the “light of the sky.” This, in combination with the gleaming raindrops on the telephone wires and the children themselves, represented the limited but infinitely expansive view the children have of life. 

The speaker is looking back on his youth and is capable of remembering what he used to believe about the world. But, today, he has the view of an adult. Although he is technically more knowledgeable, he lacks the knowledge and imagination that used to flourish when he was a child. 

Stanza Five 

We could stream through the eye of a needle.

The final stanza of ‘The Railway Children‘ conveys a lesson that the children likely learned in church. That is, if they were good and followed God’s path, they would be able to pass through the eye of a needle and enter the Kingdom of Heaven. 

It seems that Heaney is implying that the young people in this poem truly believed that their reduction in size was possible and that one day they’d be as small as the raindrops on the telephone wires. He ends the poem with this line to leave readers with an idea of the power of their imagination. They saw the world so differently that they truly believed that this act was possible. 

FAQs 

Who is the speaker in Seamus Heaney’s ‘The Railway Children?’ 

The speaker is a young person, one in a group of several who are likely all brothers and sisters. This person is exploring their neighborhood, specifically a railway line.

What is the tone of ‘The Railway Children?’ 

The tone is wistful and nostalgic. The speaker recalls a long-ago time that they depict in beautiful language. They look back on their childhood with a positive feeling and even a longing for a simpler time.

What is the theme of ‘The Railway Children?’ 

The main theme is imagination. Specifically, the imagination of a child. It takes a child’s innocence and brings imagination to see the world uniquely. The speaker recollects the many imaginative explanations he had for how the world worked in this poem.

What type of poem is ‘The Railway Children?’ 

The Railway Children’ is a free verse poem. It’s made up of a total of thirteen lines that are divided into four sets of three and then one single-line stanza. 


Similar Poetry 

If you enjoyed reading ‘The Railway Children,’ consider exploring some other Seamus Heaney poems. For example: 

  • Personal Helicon’ – inspired by Heaney’s rural carefree childhood and his love for nature.
  • The Strand at Lough Beg’ – was first published in 1979 and describes themes of violence and family. 
  • The Ministry of Fear’ – describes themes of memories and Irish life in a contemplative tone. 

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
About
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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