Irish Poetry

When Human Beings Found Out About Death – Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney wrote this heartbreaking poem in memory of his friend Donatus Nogwa in 1995. The story follows an Igbo legend about the loss of innocence and the overwhelming strength of the concept of everlasting death whose spell can’t be broken even by great chiefs or great loves. Wicklow, the place mentioned in the poem’s title, is the county in Ireland where Heaney used to live.


A Dog Was Crying Tonight in Wicklow Also

When human beings found out about death
They sent the dog to Chukwu with a message:
They wanted to be let back to the house of life.
They didn’t want to end up lost forever
Like burnt wood disappearing into smoke
Or ashes that get blown away to nothing.
Instead, they saw their souls in a flock at twilight
Cawing and headed back for the same old roosts
And the same bright airs and wing-stretches each morning.
Death would be like a night spent in the wood:
At first light they’d be back in the house of life.
(The dog was meant to tell all this to Chukwu).

But death and human beings took second place
When he trotted off the path and started barking
At another dog in broad daylight just barking
Back at him from the far bank of a river.

And that is how the toad reached Chukwu first,
The toad who’d overheard in the beginning
What the dog was meant to tell. ‘Human beings,’ he said
(And here the toad was trusted absolutely),
‘Human beings want death to last forever.’

Then Chukwu saw the people’s souls in birds
Coming towards him like black spots off the sunset
To a place where there would be neither roosts nor trees
Nor any way back to the house of life.
And his mind reddened and darkened all at once
And nothing that the dog would tell him later
Could change that vision. Great chiefs and great loves
In obliterated light, the toad in the mud,
The dog crying out all night behind the corpse house.


Seamus Heaney (1939-2013)
From: Selected Poems 1988-2013