Seamus Heaney, “The annals say…” (Squarings: Lightenings viii)

triptych, central panel

“The annals say…” (Squarings: Lightenings viii, in Poetry)
Seamus Heaney

The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.

The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,

A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
‘This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,’

The abbot said, ‘unless we help him.’ So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.


A supernatural happening. Monks in prayer, visited by a ship flying, but for an anchor. The crewman sailing it wishes to be free. The monks obediently release him, told by their abbot he will otherwise drown.

Grief tells what is necessary. Fear almost acts the same, showing at least the destructive power of the imagination. Hope must exist, if only for the fact that a world drowning in sorrow may not always be so. The monks hope for a vision, a revelation. A ship appears, wondrous to them, the fulfillment of their longings?

The ship seems to have one crewman, normally floating above. The ship is the poetic imagination. I hasten to add that this is not a slap at belief. A divine order must translate into images; the anchor is the distance from us and those images. We could not believe without that distance.

What exactly is the value of belief? Here, its gentleness, its willingness to admit it is not knowledge. The abbot sees exactly what is happening. To make belief the literal fact of our world is to render it unintelligible, to destroy its value for everyone. What is marvellous for one sailing among truer images, perhaps a realm where all is revealed, is a realm where we can admit, perhaps even know, our ignorance.