Nonce Words by Seamus Heaney

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There’s a little gem of a poem by Seamus Heaney, tucked away in his 2006 publication, District and Circle, which is particularly apt at this time of year. Imagine yourself driving cross-country, alone, in a hoary December frost. It is Advent, the waiting time in the Christian calendar, one of those ‘in-between’ times of year, when you might just want to get away from all the over-commercialised Christmas fever and find a place of complete calm. The poet chances upon blessings in this poem when he takes a wrong turning, and is so moved by the simple majesty of the landscape that words, the usual elaborate words of the poet, simply will not do. It’s a beautiful, uncomplicated reminder to occasionally take the time to stop, get out, and gaze, and it reminded me of both ‘The Road Not Taken’ by Robert Frost, and ‘Leisure’ by W. H. Davies. The first line is a direct nod to Frost. Davies’s expression of regret for not having time ‘to stand and stare’ is present here, but the final stanza of ‘Nonce Words’ is uniquely Heaney-esque, encompassing the glorious mystery of life, and our often inadequate attempts to convey that mystery through language.

Nonce Words

The road taken
to bypass Cavan
took me west,
(a sign mistaken)
so at Derrylin
I turned east.

Sun on ice,
white floss
on reed and bush,
the bridge-iron cast
in an Advent silence
I drove across,

Then pulled in,
parked, and sat
breathing mist
on the windscreen
Requiescat . . .
I got out

Well happed up,
stood at the frozen
shore gazing
at rimed horizon,
my first stop
like this in years.

And blessed myself
in the name of the nonce
and happenstance,
the Who knows
and What nexts
and So be its.

‘Nonce Words’ was published in District and Circle (London: Faber and Faber, 2006)

Notes

1. A nonce word = a word invented to use only once to meet a particular requirement
2. Happenstance = a chance circumstance
3. Requiescat = the beginning of the Latin phrase ‘Requiescat in pace’ = Rest in peace.
4. The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost
5. Leisure by W. H. Davies

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