Heaney, Joyce: Namings and Nation

04 May 2018

During an interview with Dennis O'Driscoll published in the 2008 volume Stepping Stones, Seamus Heaney recalls a two-line poem from his childhood: 'Two sticks standing and one across / Spells Willie Brennan in Hillhead Moss'. If, as Heaney suspects, the poem appeals to a child's mind, it is probably because it conjures an image that appears untrue. At right angles, a pair of vertical sticks crossed by a horizontal makes an 'H' shape, a letter that does not begin to 'spell' Willie Brennan in Hillhead Moss in any literal sense. If the sticks are placed at acute angles, forming an 'A', the same problem arises. With both images lacking correspondence, one begins to wonder if 'spell' is meant in a different sense - closer to 'signifies' or 'evidences'. That is Heaney's understanding of the line, anyway, for he describes the poem as an '"unlettered" performance' before drawing a parallel with Ulysses.