This poem was written by Seamus Heaney, who was an Irish poet, playwright and translator. It belongs to a collection of 43 poems, in which he deals with the troubles in Northern Ireland, looking frequently to the past for images and symbols which are relevant to the violence and political unrest of the time. It is also a reflection on Irish identity in 1975. What is to be Irish and what is to be an Irish poet among the pressing forces of three powerful northern strains: the North as a general emblem of hardship, the Atlantic North of the hybridization of Celts, Anglo-Saxons and Viking, and the North of Ireland, with its conflicting political strife.

The poem tells us about the homecoming of the narrator to an ancestral site of his identity, of his native Northen Ireland. Here he is going to face his own identity as a Northern Irishman and as a poet, assuming all the history epitomized by the Viking invaders in this case in his own personality, first as a man and then as a poet. The immensity of the North Atlantic ocean with the prospect further north of Iceland is not very promising (unmagical), but still it can be of some profit for the identity of the poet.  The story deals with the theme of the criticism to Ireland and the fabulous raiders. But also, with Heaney personal commitment as a human being and as a northern poet.

Facing the structure, we can see how the text is divided into three parts: the first one is from “I returned to a long strand…” to “…of Greenland, and suddenly”, where the narrative voice presents us the land and his thoughts in a sense of disillusion. The second one, begins in the verse nine, from “those fabulous raiders…” to “…memory incubating the spilled blood” where they talk about the wars that happened in the époque of Vikings, the traditional ship tombs and revenge. And the third part formed from “It said, Lie down…” until the end of the text, where we can see how the ancestral voice of the past addresses the poet and counsels him about how to integrate the past in his present identity. The voice of the long ship now tells the person and poet Seamus Heaney not to delude himself into believing he is southern poet  with plenty of sunlight, warmth and colourfulness, but to compose poetry in the dark  atmosphere of the North, rather looking inside himself, taking advantage of the things that the austere North can offer you.

Wrestling with questions about his current status and mindset Heaney has felt the need for solitude; he would benefit in his uncertainty from the reassurance of a counselling voice.

The first forceful voice he hears is of this earth, not yet the counselling voice he seeks: only the secular powers of the Atlantic thundering.

The poetic charge comes suddenly conjuring up pictures of those fabulous raiders.

They lived and died, and were laid in tombs alongside their symbols of prowess: measured against their long swords rusting.

Their ocean-deafened voices and the culture they represent rise above the sounds of Thor’s thunder lifted again / in violence and epiphany. They are the voices of warning.

The Viking longship recognisable from its curled prow-head is both visually and linguistically afloat in the poet’s mind: a swimming tongue buoyant with hindsight carrying him back in time and setting out what it was to be Viking: pagan; empire-building; entrepreneurial, driven, thick-witted by lust and the ethic of revenge; superficially ‘democratic’ but given to hatreds and behind-backs in the althing (the Hall where debate took place and ‘democratic’ decisions were taken). The Vikings were dishonest, dissolute, only made peace when they were too tired to fight; from generation to generation they passed down sagas that confirmed, celebrated and sharpened their appetite for revenge: memory incubating the spilled blood.

His counselling voice speaks to him across twelve hundred years in time, about literary enterprise, language, the poetic processes, the artistic temperament and personal integrity: be at one with your own rich linguistic resource: word-hoard; delve deeply and concentrate within the coil and gleam of your furrowed brain; reconcile yourself to composing in darkness; anticipate the discrete shimmer of composition, an aurora borealis rather than ‘sunburst’: no cascade of light; accept that what you undertake will require stamina and commitment as for a long foray (like Viking exploration); keep your mind lucid and on task: your eye clear as the bleb of the icicle.

The poem consists of 10 quatrains with short lines of variable length (4 – 8 syllables: 6 sentence structure and no rhyme scheme; assonant effects play an important role as a rougher substitute for rhyme.

In this poem, as already said, there is no rhyme involved, as the poet is interested in illustrating his method in the poem itself. The author wanted to show that he has learnt the lesson of the counselling voice of the long ship and is not interesting in brilliant tricks of poetry but rather in a sober use of language. He has  learnt the attitude towards the problem of poetical expression and he uses the language accordingly.

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.

Finally, as a conclusion, we can point out that the poem is a successful poetical reflection on the way in which the past in imbricated in the present, more specifically as part of the personality of the poetic-I, who proposes a way in which the wild, conflicting and unpromising tradition of the North can be morally integrated in his human and artistic personality.