‘The Underground’ begins with the speaker, who is Seamus Heaney himself, embellishing a memory from his honeymoon. He describes trailing his wife through the London Underground system trying to make it to Albert Hall in time for the Proms. She is at first ahead of him and he watches her coat as it flaps around her. His wife loses buttons which later act as stones the speaker follows in order to find her.
Heaney concludes the poem by describing this version of himself alone in a dark, trainless tunnel determined to find his wife and never lose her.
Poetic Techniques in The Underground
‘The Underground’ by Seamus Heaney is a four stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines or quatrains. These quatrains do not follow a specific rhyme scheme, but there are examples of half and internal rhyme within the text. The former is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. There are examples throughout the poem, but a few include “me” and “reed” in the first stanza and “Honeymooning” and “moonlighting” in the third stanza.
Internal rhyme is also present in the poem. It is not constrained to the end of the lines but can appear anywhere. For instance, “japped” and “flapped” in the second stanza and “back” and “track” (then “back” again) in the third and fourth stanzas.
Other Poetic Techniques in The Underground
Repetition, alliteration and enjambment are some of the other poetic techniques Heaney makes use of in ‘The Underground’. The first, repetition, can be seen through the general use and reuse of specific words in the stanzas. For instance, “me” in the first stanza and “back” in the third and fourth, or “button” and “button” in the second stanza.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For instance, “god gaining” in the first stanza and “as”, “am” and “all attention” in the fourth stanza.
Another important technique that is commonly used in poetry is enjambment. This occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. It forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. It is used very effectively in ‘The Underground’ as the speaker describes moving through the underground tunnel. His movements are rapid, and the text reflects that as the lines begin and end suddenly. Lines two through four of the first stanza are all examples of how enjambment can be used to change the pace at which a reader moves through a text, as well as how they understand the actions occurring within it.
You can read the full poem here and more Seamus Heaney poems here.
Analysis of The Underground
There we were in the vaulted tunnel running,
Upon you before you turned to a reed
In the first stanza of ‘The Underground’ the speaker, who is certainly Seamus Heaney himself, describes a scene from his honeymoon. He was following his wife through the London Underground trying to get, as the second and third stanza explains, to Albert Hall for the Proms. The Proms are a series of daily summer concerts of classical music, as well as other events, that have occurred (mainly at Albert Hall) since 1895.
His wife is in front of him and he follows behind, watching as her “going-away coat” flies around. He feels in the third line as if he’s gaining on her, like a “fleet god” (“fleet” meaning swiftly moving). This begins a reference to the story of Pan and Syrinx. In Greek mythology, Pan, known for his sexual escapades and often unwanted advances on women, was chasing Syrinx. In order to save her from Pan, the other gods turned her into a reed. This detail is added in the fourth line.
From the start of ‘The Underground’ time is an immediate factor. It exerts different pressures over the couple as they try to make it to their destination in time. But, with the reference to Pan and Syrinx, there is a very obvious sexual undertone to the story.
Or some new white flower japped with crimson
Between the underground and the Albert Hall.
In the second stanza, the speaker offers another possibility. His wife might turn into “some new white flower japped with crimson”. This flower is new to the world, and when one considers its white color, it represents purity. This is furthered through the description of a stain of “crimson”, or red, on its otherwise bright white petals. Here, Heaney could be alluding again to sex and the loss of virginity.
From where he is behind her he can watch her coat flap wildly. The movement forces buttons to come off the garment. They fall to the ground, trailing out behind her. Later in the text, the trail of buttons acts as a path the speaker can follow as he searches through the Underground for her.
Honeymooning, moonlighting, late from the Proms,
Retracing the path back, lifting the buttons
In the third stanza, the speaker reveals that he and his wife are on their honeymoon. The use of the word “moonlighting” in the first line of the stanza alludes, again, to things done after dark, under the cover of night. While they race to “the Proms”, Heaney’s speaker is also racing to catch his new wife.
The scene quiets down somewhat in the second line. Their “echoes die” in the corridor, they just exited and now all the speaker has to follow are the “moonlit stones,” (the buttons) like Hansel (from the story of Hansel and Gretel first recoded by The Brother’s Grimm).
The tone darkens, becoming less of a rushed pursuit and more of a desperate hunt to find his way to his wife and their final destination. He lifts the buttons off the ground as Hansel did. With the enjambment of the fourth line, the reader is led into the fourth stanza.
To end up in a draughty lamplit station
For your step following and damned if I look back.
In the last four lines of ‘The Underground,’ the speaker describes how he ended up in “a draughty, lamplit station”. He finds himself completely alone. There are no significant sources of light and “the trains have gone”. But, there is still tension in the air. It mimics the stress and electricity inhabiting the speaker’s own body. He sees it as coming from the “wet track”.
The last line makes another reference to Greek mythology. This time to the story of Orpheus and his pursuit and rescue of Eurydice from Hades. In order to get Eurydice back to the living world Orpheus had to obey one command, don’t look back. In the story, he breaks this single rule and loses Eurydice. This version of Heaney in ‘The Underground’ is determined not to suffer the same fate. He concludes the poem by saying that he’s “damned if [he] look[s] back”.