Welcome to my first poetry analysis post!  First, a bit of background info is warranted.  For this series, some of my posts will reference a textbook titled “Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology” by Helen Vendler.  The reason for this is that some of these posts are edited assignments of mine from a poetry college course I took a while back.  Using Vendler’s book in that course was instrumental in me gaining a greater love and respect for poetry as a whole, so I highly recommend it to any avid poetry reader—it will greatly enhance the way you look at poetry!

The poem covered in this analysis is called “From the Frontier of Writing” by Seamus Heaney (link: http://www.famouspoetsandpoems.com/poets/seamus_heaney/poems/12719), and the format of the analysis is based on a thirteen-part analysis checklist that Vendler lays out in one of her chapters.  This checklist is lengthy, but it really helped me to gain a vivid understanding of this poem that I couldn’t have gained with merely a surface readthrough. 

Well, with that being said, let the meat of the post begin!


As far as meanings in poetry go, I believe that “From the Frontier of Writing” is an easy one to decipher.  The speaker, in his car, comes upon a soldier-governed checkpoint.  The poem details the anxiety he feels as he waits to be allowed through and expounds on the horror of being interrogated and scrutinized in that way.  Then, the speaker takes a turn and uses this experience to illustrate the anxiety behind the act of writing by comparing it to once again passing through the aforementioned checkpoint. 

Antecedent scenario

The scenario leading up to this poem is simple to imagine.  Heaney drops us into the middle of the story when the car has already arrived at the checkpoint.  Thus, the logical implication would be that the car first had to arrive at the checkpoint.  We get the sense that perhaps the ride until the checkpoint was relatively peaceful, as the speaker makes a point to describe the “tightness and nilness” surrounding the checkpoint once it is reached (1).  I believe that this is what urges the speaker to start the narration: the change in atmosphere.

Division into parts

I believe the division format that best suits this poem is breaking it up into four.  With eight stanzas in total, this would mean dividing the poem into sections of two stanzas each.  Though it could technically be split into two as well, I have solid reasoning behind this four-way division, which I’ll explain in a later section.

The climax

The climax of this poem arrives in the seventh stanza.  After arriving at the checkpoint which is the act of writing itself, the speaker details the feelings experienced after finally being let through.  We read: “And suddenly you’re through, arraigned yet freed, / as if you’d passed from behind a waterfall / on the back current of a tarmac road…” (21-23).  The poem builds up apprehensive tension until this point, which is when that feeling finally snaps.  We can feel the change to feelings of relief as the checkpoint is cleared for the last time.

The other parts

I mentioned earlier that I believed this poem to be divided into four parts.  My reasoning behind this involves the change in both tone and action that takes place after every two stanzas.  For instance, the first two stanzas involve the first encounter with the checkpoint.  This shifts around halfway through the third stanza, where we read: “…until a rifle motions and you move / with guarded unconcerned acceleration” (8-9).  This marks the transition into the first escape from the checkpoint—a change from anxiously waiting to driving again.  Then, this situation is rewound, and the scene shifts back to the checkpoint in the fifth stanza: “So you drive on to the frontier of writing / where it happens again” (13-14).  Stanzas 5-6 involve another episode of anxious waiting, and then stanzas 7-8 bring us our first real taste of relief as the car begins again.  

Find the skeleton

Vendler mentions in her checklist that, when considering the skeleton of a poem, “it helps to draw a shape” (Vendler, 129).  I’ve decided to take her advice: to the best of my understanding, this poem can best be described as a series of waves with two crests and two troughs.  This relates to my more detailed explanation of this poem’s division.  The two crests (or, more specifically, the points leading up to the two crests) are the two encounters at the checkpoint.  Thus, the two troughs are the moments after these two encounters, where the tension subsides.  In this way, we see a twice-repeating pattern of built-up tension followed by subsiding and a moment of relief.

Games with the skeleton

The skeleton of this poem is one of the most interesting factors about it.  By repeating the same checkpoint scenario twice, Heaney forces us to essentially blur the lines between reality and allegory.  The first four stanzas seem to be set in reality—at least, reality as it relates to the following four.  However, this shifts at the all-important fulcrum line, “So you drive on to the frontier of writing / where it happens again” (13-14).  From there on out, readers get the sense that the rest of the poem takes the previous, real experience and applies it to an act of artistry.  Heaney plays an interesting game with this emotional skeleton because he could have written this poem with only one crest and one trough— for instance, only keeping the last four stanzas.  However, by taking this experience and cataloging it twice (first in apparent reality, and then with the reality applied as an allegory to something else) he makes the second half infinitely more powerful.  This new power comes from the fact that readers have already experienced the anxiety of the altercation before the fourth stanza.  This means that, by the time the allegory comes in, they can understand more clearly how this anxiety applies to writing.  One would think that reading two similar accounts of the same experience would be dull, but Heaney masterfully uses the first account to grant new life to the second.


I’m going to start with the sentence structure in this poem.  “From the Frontier of Writing” is actually composed of only four sentences, and I found the way these sentences are broken up to be fascinating.  For instance, the first experience at the checkpoint (running from stanza one to stanza four) is all contained in one single sentence.  Then, following this is a single sentence spanning a line and a half: “So you drive on to the frontier of writing / where it happens again” (13-14).  This sentence marks the sharp change into the second part of the division that I mentioned earlier.  After this change, the second altercation at the checkpoint takes up another whole sentence, leaving the last two stanzas that take place after the checkpoint as another whole sentence.  In this way, our stream of thought is broken into these little pockets, which draws attention more sharply to each of them.

In terms of a chain of significant relation, I found that there are a lot of words/phrases relating to the feeling of being watched in this poem.  “Inspect”, “eyeing with intent”, “hold you under cover”, and “like a hawk” all contribute to this aura of uneasiness (2, 5-6, 18).  The present tense of the poem also adds to this, as it draws us in as readers with its immediacy and helps amplify these scopophobic feelings.  


Almost the entire poem has a tone of pure anxiety.  This atmosphere begins in the very first line, where the speaker describes the “tightness and the nilness” present in the checkpoint (1).  Repeated descriptions of the soldiers’ guns and their gazes add to this: “…you catch sight of more / on a hill beyond, eyeing with intent / down cradled guns that hold you under cover..” (4-6).  The tone here feels rather oppressive as if the speaker intends to strongly relay this anxiety over being stared down at and scrutinized.  This all changes sharply in the seventh stanza, however, when the tone suddenly becomes more carefree and relieved.  The speaker describes leaving the checkpoint as “[passing] from behind a waterfall”, and the soldiers disappearing behind the car as “flowing and receding / like tree shadows into the polished windscreen” (20, 23-24).  Thus, the anxious tone completely disappears.

Agency and its speech acts

“From the Frontier of Writing” is interesting in terms of the agency it employs, and as such, I had a rather hard time nailing this section down.  For the majority of the poem, the main agent is “you”, as most of the action verbs relate to the second person.  However, though this “you” is the main agent, they are not the speaker of the poem.  The “invisible” main speaker (so to speak) employs a narration speech act, of which “you” is the main agent.  To reiterate: the speaker and “you” are two separate agents, and “you” is the main agent of the speaker’s narration.

That being said, there are a few changes in terms of agency.  In line three, one of the soldiers briefly takes over the poem: “…as one bends his face / towards your window…” (3-4).  This is also directly followed by descriptions of the additional soldiers on the hill, who are described as “eyeing with intent” the main agent (5).  As these verbs change possession, so does the agency of these lines change for a short time.  However, the speech act always remains the same: an overall narration.                               

Roads not taken

There are endless things that could have been added to this poem, but weren’t.  One thought that rose to mind while I was reading was the matter of dialogue—why didn’t Heaney choose to include any?  After this analysis, I believe it’s because of how its absence adds to the aura.  Without any dialogue, we are forced to focus solely on the actions happening in the poem’s surroundings.  No dialogue—and thus, no real explanations as to why all this is happening—makes the aura of the soldiers and the checkpoint in particular much more ominous.  

In addition, Heaney could have chosen to write this poem in the first or third person, as opposed to the second.  However, I think this would have destroyed one of the poem’s most crucial aspects.  By using the second person point of view, the readers are granted a spot in the poem and thus experience everything firsthand.  This adds exponentially to the message of the poem itself and would be destroyed if the reader was instead given a seat on the sidelines through another point of view.


In terms of speech acts, I believe this poem falls under second-person narration, with the narration being conducted by an overall speaker.  By strictly considering content, it’s a poem about anxiety, as well as technically a poem about writing.  These two content factors go hand-in-hand throughout the poem.  In terms of outer form, this poem can first be classified as a pentameter poem.  This means it has lines five beats wide, which it sticks to faithfully throughout the course of the poem.  In addition, the rhythm is a rising one (one-TWO).  There are eight stanzas, each three lines long, with the rhyme scheme being aba cdc efe (and so forth).  Vendler’s “On Prosody” appendix defines this type of three-line format as a “tercet” —thus, this poem can be further classified as a pentameter tercet (Vendler, 414).  

The imagination

I believe the most striking and “fresh” thing about this poem is the analogy at its core.  It’s one thing to merely say that the act of writing is anxiety-inducing, but comparing it to being stopped at a government-controlled checkpoint is absolutely brilliant.  In addition, Heaney’s usage of “you” as the poem’s main agent further draws readers in and allows them to fully experience this anxiety for themselves.  One doesn’t have to be a writer in order to walk away from this poem with a deeper understanding of what the anxiety surrounding writing is really like.  That, more than anything else, is what makes this poem so fascinating.

Works Cited

Heaney, Seamus. “From the Frontier of Writing.” Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology. Compact 3rd ed. Helen Vendler. Bedford, 2018. 138.

Vendler, Helen. Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology. Compact 3rd ed. Bedford, 2018.

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