17 pages 34 minutes read

Seamus Heaney

Whatever You Say, Say Nothing

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1975

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Summary and Study Guide


Seamus Heaney’s “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing,” published originally in his 1975 North collection, explores the nuances of “the Irish thing” (Line 3). “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing” details the Troubles, or what was also called the Northern Ireland Conflict, of the late 20th century. This poem, like many published in Part II of North, explicitly addresses the conflict by condemning the intense media and political attention given to the Troubles, while also providing an honest view of the situation in Northern Ireland from the point of view of a native who has lived and experienced the realities of it.

Heaney was the Poet in Residence at Harvard University (1988-2006) and as the Professor of Poetry at Oxford (1989-1994) and was once titled by poet Robert Lowell “the most important Irish poet since Yeats.” Heaney’s poetry is known for its intense focus on place, specifically Northern Ireland. His work often describes Northern Ireland’s natural landscape and the history of its people. Like many other people who grew up in Northern Ireland, Heaney was deeply affected by the political upheaval in his home country, and his poems consistently are drawn to the violence of the Troubles.

“Whatever You Say, Say Nothing” is sharp in its condemnation of the media and the anti-Catholic, anti-Irish socio-political system at work in Northern Ireland, but it is also just as critical in its attention to all other parties associated with the conflict. Heaney’s criticisms are various and multi-faceted; he at once castigates himself and other moderate Irish Catholics for not doing more for the cause, while at the same time denouncing with disgust the acts of violence perpetrated and the lack of freedom to speak out and protest. Vivid descriptions of bombings and shootings punctuate the poem—in essence, the landscape of “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing” is the Troubles itself, more than the natural imagery that appears in some of Heaney’s earlier work. Ultimately, Heaney’s primary criticism is established in the poem’s title: “whatever you say, say nothing,” which highlights the long-lived, insidious nature of sectarianism in Northern Ireland and laments the threat sectarianism poses to free speech, art, community, and openness of thought.

Poet Biography

Seamus Justin Heaney was born on April 13, 1939 at the Heaney family’s farmhouse. Heaney spent his childhood at the Mossbawn home, which was located somewhere near the villages of Castledawson and Toomebridge in Northern Ireland. In 1963, Heaney moved with the rest of his family to Bellaghy, a local village, and at 18 began his study of English Language and Literature at Queen’s University, Belfast.

In 1961, he graduated with honors from Queen’s University, Belfast, and then went on to gain his teaching certification from St. Joseph’s Teacher Training College. During this time in his life, Heaney worked as a teacher in Belfast and made many lifelong friendships with other writers. While attending St. Joseph’s, Heaney also met Marie Devlin, whom he married in 1965.

Eleven Poems, Heaney’s first book, was published soon after his marriage. In 1966, Heaney published Death of a Naturalist, and he and his wife welcomed the first two of their three children in the late 60s. The 70s were a time of great change and progression in Heaney’s career. He worked briefly as a lecturer at the University of California, Berkely, before returning to Belfast. Heaney then moved to Wicklow in the Republic of Ireland to write full time. In the 70s, Heaney published two of his most well-known poetry collections, Wintering Out (1972) and North (1975). While publishing and writing consistently, Heaney also returned to teaching. In 1981, when the Irish Arts Council Aosdána started up, Heaney was elected as a member and eventually became an elder in 1997.

In the 80s, Heaney worked as a visiting professor and tenured member of the faculty at Harvard. In 1995, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Although Heaney is typically recognized for his poetry, during his lifetime he also wrote prose, drama, and translation. His verse translation of Beowulf (1999) is held in particularly high esteem. Heaney was 74 years old when he passed away in 2013 at a clinic in Dublin. His last known words were “Noli timere” or, in English, “Be not afraid.”

Poem Text

Heaney, Seamus. “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing.” 1975. The Evergreen State College Archive.


“Whatever You Say, Say Nothing” is broken into four sections, indicated by roman numerals. The first section, broken into six quatrains for a total of 24 lines, focuses on the first of four critical observations Heaney makes about the Troubles and their effect on life in Northern Ireland. The opening of the first section begins with an open condemnation of British media, based upon an encounter the speaker has with a journalist. Heaney then asserts that “bad news is no longer news,” (Line 4) implying doubly that he finds the barrage of focus on “the Irish thing” (Line 2) by the British media to be exploitative, while also indicating that the season has been one of bad news for the people of Northern Ireland.

The speaker elaborates upon the atrocities of the media: “Where media men and stringers sniff and point, / Where zoom lenses, recorders and coiled leads / Litter the hotels” (Lines 5-7) and states definitively that he holds more with the religious doctrines of hope and belief in peace than false sympathy and exploitative news headlines meant to garner attention for the wrong reasons (Lines 7-8). However, from there Heaney pivots to a second, more cutting criticism of himself and other moderates who fail to get involved in the conflict in a meaningful way, instead choosing to remain “Expertly civil tongued with civil neighbors” (Line 17) by offering empty platitudes.

Part II explains the poem’s setting by describing the points of views from either side of the conflict. This section of the poem in particular sets the stage for the critique of socio-political strife in Northern Ireland. Part II is arranged similarly to Part I, in quatrains, but an additional quatrain is added to the end, to make this section of the poem 28 lines long, rather than 24.

Heaney details the plight of the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland clearly in this section of the poem, but he also comes to the point of commenting upon the sectarianism more directly: “On all sides 'little platoons' are mustering,” (Line 50) ending with a pronouncement that claims “I believe any of us / Could draw the line through bigotry and sham / Given the right line” (Lines 51-52). This section concludes with the Latin phrase, “aere perennius,” (Line 52) which means “more enduring than brass,” indicating that there is a line for an enduring peace that could and needs to be found in order to end the fighting.

Part III of the poem continues the societal indictment began at the end of Part I with an attack on some of the useless platitudes themselves and the restraint of those living in Northern Ireland who have grown used to a way of life that encourages both silence and sectarianism. Ultimately, the speakers comes to the poem’s central point, the “famous / Northern reticence” (Lines 60-61) and the loss of free speech on the issues at hand—whether because of the threat associated with the “whatever you say, you say nothing” (Line 64) message or the pressure to maintain social and financial standings in a place beset by violence between sects.

Part III is again styled in six quatrains and 24 lines. The second part of the poem ends with a clear description of the sectarianism at play in Northern Ireland; using dialect, such as “Prod” and “Pape,” as well as references to the secret indicators of sect—in name and address and “password, handgrip, wink, and nod” (Line 71). The speaker makes an allusion to the Trojan horse to explain the predicament of the Northern Irish people as being trapped in forced silence for all of their lives.

Part IV completes the poem with concision. Three quatrains contain the final 12 lines of the poem, which reiterate some of the previous sentiments made earlier in “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing.” Part IV opens with a description of the everyday violence the speaker witnesses while living in Northern Ireland and concludes with the statement, “We hug our little destiny again” (Line 88), a reminder that the violence and the fate of Northern Ireland, and all people living there, remains ongoing, a type of “destiny” they have not managed to escape.

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