‘Wordsworth’s Skates’ by Seamus Heaney

Star in the window.
Slate scrape.
Bird or branch?
Or the whet and scud of steel on placid ice?

Not the bootless runners lying toppled
In dust in a display case,
Their bindings perished,

But the reel of them on frozen Windermere
As he flashed from the clutch of earth along its curve
And left it scored.

I wanted to post a poem (rather belatedly I know) to pay tribute to the great poet Seamus Heaney, who sadly died very recently. When I heard on the news that Heaney had died I was shocked because he was not so old and because he was so well known, and such a ‘star’ in the poetry world (and there aren’t many of those). I also realised that he is probably the most famous English-langauge poet of recent times, and that, despite that, I have not read a huge amount of his work.

I have long admired his famous, Digging, which has been cited many times on the TV and in articles since his death. I studied his translation of Beowulf at school. However, there is not much else that I have read by Seamus Heaney, and I want to change that.

This poem, Wordsworth’s Skatesis from Heaney’s collection ‘District and Circle’, which I have owned for some time, but never got to grips with. I don’t know why. Anyway, I opened that book today and found this poem, and I instantly loved it. I remember visiting Dove Cottage myself in the Lake District when I was 17 and seeing Wordsworth’s skates on display in the museum there. The poem is such a clever, beautiful description of the poet’s response to seeing those skates.

I especially love the way Heaney uses the image of Wordsworth skating and equates it to the poet’s writing and his legacy. What remains of Wordsworth is not the tatty old skates, with “their bindings perished”, but rather his poetry, which is a far more heroic legacy. You can really see the poetic genius of Heaney in that final couple of lines, which I find just exquisite: “As he flashed from the clutch of earth along its curve/ And left it scored.” A great poet does “flash from the clutch of earth” — escapes death and the heavy pull of mortality when he creates immortal beauty in a poem. Heaney certainly has left the world of literature “scored” — forever marked — just as Wordsworth did.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh