Seamus Heaney, “Bone Dreams,” III

III (from “Bone Dreams”)
Seamus Heaney

In the coffered
riches of grammar
and declensions
I found ban hus,

its fire, benches,
wattle and rafters,
where the soul
fluttered a while

in the roofspace.
There was a small crock
for the brain,
and a cauldron

of generation
swung at the centre:
love-den, blood-holt,


The raid killed the older monks, leaving only not-quite-teenage youth as the only scribes and scholars in the region. They hotly debated ban hus (“bone house”): were the people right to use the term? One of the more reclusive lashed out in the name of Creation’s majesty. “This does no justice even to concupiscence; it fails to explain why the flesh would even tempt. A bone house is a cage of despair, nothing more.” You could almost detect a hint of tenderness in his argument, if it were not for the fact that he declared everyone else he knew a nihilist, except himself.

Against his sophistication, one had to sound smart, otherwise all the youth would turn on their homeland for a trifle. Literal details and metaphorical meaning mattered less than carving out a space for humility. So another found a story, one resembling the sort told by an elder versed in everything except the Gloss. God — you could almost hear gods — made us as we make, housing our spirit in bones just as we settle our bodies in houses. Our bodies have “fire, benches, wattle and rafters, where the soul flutter[s] a while in the roofspace.” This prompted groans from the other youth. Fire, they said, was certainly lower, reaching to “wattle” and “rafters.” But benches? There were multiple people inside one of us?

He continued as if they had said nothing, quickly speaking to the seat of intelligence — “there was a small crock for the brain” — and then he moved to the mystery, one almost divine for those entering adulthood. “A cauldron of generation swung at the centre: love-den, blood-holt, dream-bower.” No one snickered, as they heard their adolescent longings turned into mystical science. They quietly understood how ban hus sustained their ancestors, how their dreams, rationality’s reaches, were at stake.

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