Seamus Heaney’s poem titled “North” uses a number of poetic devices and techniques, including the following:
Line 1 contains two good examples of anapestic meter, in which two unaccented syllables are followed by an accented syllable: “I returned to a long strand.” This meter emphasizes “turned” and “long,” and then “strand” gets especially heavy emphasis, thus making the adjective/noun phrase “long strand” particularly powerful and emphatic.
Line 3 is one of various lines that use enjambment, in which the meaning of one line is run over into the next line because the first line ends without punctuation. The same devices can be found in other lines, such as 5-6. In lines 8-9, enjambment is even used between stanzas, so that it receives all the more attention and has all the more impact.
Line 4 gives especially strong emphasis to the verb “thundering” by placing it not only at the end of the line but also at the very end of a sentence.
Lines 6-8 use parallel phrasing when they refer to
. . . the unmagical
invitations of Iceland,
the pathetic colonies
of Greenland . . .
The repetition here suggests the tedium and monotony that the speaker associates with these two places. He finds them boring and uninteresting, and so he writes about them in ways that make them seem largely indistinguishable.
Lines 9-10 use anaphora (beginning two lines with the very same word) to give new and emphasis to the new topics introduced here. Note also how the placement of “suddenly” at the end of line 8, combined with the use of enjambment there, gives even more emphatic stress to the use of two instances of “Those” when those words appear. Finally, lines 9-10 receive even further emphasis because the two phrases that make up the lines are confined to one line each (unlike the pattern in lines 6-8, in which two phrases were stretched out over four lines).
Lines 13-16 again use anaphora, picking up the use of “Those” earlier so that the phrasing now has almost become chant-like. Note also how these lines brim with concrete images and vivid verbs. In lines 13-15, each initial syllable is heavily stressed; in line 16, this is not the case. Similarly, in lines 13-15, each line consists of five syllables, while line 16 consists of seven. In both cases, then, Heaney sets up a pattern and then breaks it, so that lines 13-15 command our attention because of their brevity and force, while line 16 receives our attention because it disrupts the patterns already established.
[To be continued below . . .]
[Continued from above.]
Lines 18-19 display a kind of internal rhyme, since both “me” and the last syllable of “epiphany” are accented, thus contributing in yet another way to the sheer music of the poem.
Line 22 contains an allusion to Norse mythology, thus contributing to the mythic nature of the poem and to its chronological expansiveness. At this point the phrasing of the poem becomes less lucid than it has been; allusions to times past and to past cultures complicate the meaning of the work, making it denser and less easily penetrable than it has previously been. The speaker seems to be alluding to the less attractive aspects of ancient Norse culture, including its bloodiness and its ethic of revenge.
Line 29 initiates a new phase of the poem, in which the speaker is directly addressed by the “longship’s swimming tongue,” mentioned in line 20 (an example of a metaphor). The tongue advises the speaker how to compose and what to expect, including shimmering lights surrounded by darkness rather than any sudden, total illumination. The phrase “word-hoard” in line 30 is an example of a kenning, a technique often used in Old English poetry, and indeed this particular kenning will be familiar to anyone who has read even a little Anglo-Saxon verse. Thus, through overt statement and through implied allusion, the speaker is linking his own artistry to that of ancient forbears.
Line 38 uses the highly unfamiliar word “bleb” (referring to a fluid-filled bubble), thus displaying the speaker’s linguistic adventurousness. Notice, too, in this stanza and in the preceding several lines, how heavily the speaker accents imperative verbs by placing them so prominently and so frequently at the beginnings of lines. This technique gives the poem a great deal of vital energy as it works toward its abrupt, somewhat mysterious conclusion:
'Keep your eye clear
as the bleb of the icicle,
trust the feel of what nubbed treasure
your hands have known.'
To what ultimate meaning do all the techniques discussed above contribute? That is far less clear, especially in the poem’s second half. Harold Bloom has gathered a number of interpretations of the poem and offered his own (see link below), but many of them mostly paraphrase the poem or quote from it at length. The ultimate message of the text seems to be to write with a clear eye and firm grip on reality, acknowledging its darknesses while seek whatever light it has to offer.