Seamus Heaney's "Whatever You Say, Say Nothing"

Updated on September 20, 2017
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Seamus Heaney



The title, "Whatever You Say, Say Nothing," originates with the secretive activity of Northern Ireland's rebel paramilitary that admonished its members with this demand.

Its purpose was to advise members to be extremely careful with what they say. If they speak to "civilians" at all, they should make their talk so small that it would reveal nothing about their activity.

Seamus Heaney reading "Whatever You Say, Say Nothing"

First Part

In Part I, the speaker reports that he is being harassed by reporters. They seek information about how the Irish feel about their situation. The intrusive reporters shove cameras and microphones into the faces of the locals. They "litter" the localities and disturb the peace.

The speaker then describes the chaos of the political situation. He claims that he leans more toward religion than politics, but because he is also a citizens he has to pay some attention to current events.

The speaker portrays the situation as fractious and obstreperous. As the citizens discuss the chaos, each has his own opinion. But this speaker/observer notes that certain phrases keep popping up as the folks wonder how all the fighting and back-biting will end.

They all agree that the situation is disagreeable even full of disgrace.

The speaker even hears his neighbors complaining and keening cries about murderers. They seem to have no recourse to keep themselves safe. There seems to be no one around them who possesses a healthy attitude.

The speaker's attitude runs the gamut from amusement to sheer philosophical angst as he looks on the chaos. He becomes Yeastian at times as he marvels, condemns, and pontificates.

Second Part

The speaker is, however, also capable of spouting the same jeremiads that the Irish have spouted for centuries of residing in a war zone.

Understandably, they have become hardened and discouraged seeing people dying around them as homes are bombed and streets are littered with fire power and debris.

The speaker claims that a common sound is the explosion of "gelignite." He seems fascinated by the term "gelignite," which he continues to spread liberally throughout his passages.

The speaker is also, however, dramatizing the socialist nature of the crowd and manages to fling off a worked over cliché: "cold as a witch's tit" becomes "hind tit / Cold as a witch's"—his colorful way of dramatizing the angst.

The speaker's colorful portrayals lurch the poem forward, even if the politics gives it a decided lag, as he confounds the papal intrusion with emptiness.

The continued explosions, however, rip the night and rattle the people's minds and hearts as well as the windows of their houses.

Of course, the reader is aware that eventual outcomes depend totally upon which side one is shouting for.

The speaker philosophizes that all the citizens could find the correct solution given enough time and space. They would likely be better at cutting through the bigotry and fake political posturing than those seeking personal gain at the expense of others.

Enough time and anything could be accomplished, the speaker wants to suggest.

Third Part

In Part III, the poem's title appears, warning that the members of the resistance should take great care not to tip their hand. If they speak to anyone, they must keep their conversation as neutral as possible.

They must be quiet, so quiet that a smoke-signal would sound louder. They must keep their talk to a level of mum. They must not reveal their plans to anyone lest some authority figure get hold of them.

Fourth Part

In the final part, the speaker describes what he has seen. He saw a crater in the middle of an internee camp. The bomb has carved out the crater and the fresh clay has been spewed all over the trees and the road.

The speaker then sums up his report with a statement filled with questions. He wonders if there is life before death. He also questions the notions of pain and competence.

It seems that life is filled with contradictions, that misery can be coherent stands in his mind as a blind trust.

If they are to enjoy their dinner, they must grasp their own destiny repeatedly as they wait for each bit of knowledge that will eventually lead them out of chaos.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes


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    • Maya Shedd Temple profile image

      Linda Sue Grimes 6 months ago from Spring Hill, TN

      Thank you, Louise! Yes, Heaney has offered some very forceful pieces over his career. And the poet reading his own poem is a welcome addition to any poetry experience.

      Blessings for the day!


    • Coffeequeeen profile image

      Louise Powles 6 months ago from Norfolk, England

      That's a lovely poem, and powerful too. Reading your articles always helps me understand the poetry more, and the video is always helpful too with being able to listen to it.