Faber & Faber, £12.99, 85pp. £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Human Chain, By Seamus Heaney

I *Human Chain, the first collection from Seamus Heaney since he suffered a stroke in 2006, the completeness of the poet's recovery is affirmed by the book's quiet intensity, while a sense of human frailty has led him to draw his subjects closely about him in a freshly considered intimacy where elegy and affirmation appear inseparable.

Heaney's parents have long figured in his work, and the new book opens with five poems which revisit them on an evening walk in the fields, or at a wedding meal. The more musically exuberant manifestations of Heaney's skill are set aside here in favour of a bare simplicity of utterance which nonetheless performs a complex series of tasks. As an "ineluctable" ghost from his parents' future, he re-enters the past, witnessing scenes at which he was not present, showing with tactful sorrow how love's unbroken link, part of the title's "human chain", must itself be a form of separation.

The next, artfully situated poem, "The Conway Stewart", revisits Heaney's best-known early poem, "Digging", amending (though not betraying) its optimism in the light of experience. It describes his parents' gift of a pen the day before the poet left home for his secondary education at St Columb's College in Derry. The shopkeeper demonstrates how to fill it, "Treating it to its first deep snorkel/ In a newly-opened ink-bottle" – and immediately we are in the liquid, mysterious, many-layered, freely metaphorical world of Heaney's imagination. Such a transformation entails a cost: the pen's first official task in Heaney's hands is to write a letter home, so that in effect he signs the warrant for his own exile.

The urge is to return to that masterpiece of Heaney's middle period, "The Alphabet", and then page forward to the sumptuous medieval Irish poem here, "My hand is cramped from penwork", in which a scribe describes his quill: "Its bird-mouth issues a blue-dark/ Beetle-sparkle of ink." What can reconcile the poet's sense of loss with the joy of composition? The work itself must try to do so, conducted in the ethical spirit that Heaney's poems disclose.

In the subsequent diptych, "Uncoupled", we infer that it is separation that has enabled Heaney to do such tender honour to his parents. His mother, walking with a pan of ash from the fire, and his father among cattle and the noise of market, are transfigured, like inhabitants of a Virgilian underworld. Like his friend and contemporary Michael Longley, Heaney is the fortunate recipient of a Classical education. Their allusions to the characters of poetry and legend, and their adaptation of its landscapes and modes are not in the derogatory sense academic, but a claiming of an imaginative birthright the rest of us risk losing.

There may be those who would complain that Heaney's largely rural imagination makes him outmoded, but in respect of Human Chain they would have to answer the question of whether, in the light of his work, his parents are people of any less worth and dignity for living where and as they did. The answer, one hopes, is self-evident. Heaney's world of fields and ditchbacks and clustered placenames has never seemed like an escape, and nor has his treatment of the past ever seemed merely nostalgic.

As Human Chain repeatedly indicates, the past is quite as demanding as the here and now, offering both a challenge and a sustaining presence. "The Riverbank Field", written after passages from the Aeneid Book VI (in which Aeneas visits the underworld), addresses that challenge. As at school, the poem conspicuously "shows the working" of itself. Lethe becomes Heaney's native Moyola, complete with native insects, moths and midges for Virgil's bees, and after that there is a congruence of places in "the willow leaves/ Elysian-silvered". Eventually the poet continues "in my own words", evoking "presences" who "Are summoned here to drink the river water// So that memories of this underworld are shed/ And soul is longing to dwell in flesh and blood/ Under the dome of the sky."

When writing of his own illness in "Chanson d'Aventure", Heaney turns naturally to literature as a mode of knowledge. He remembers lying partly immobilised in the back of a car, accompanied by his wife on the way to hospital, and thinking of John Donne's "The Extasie", that intricate, beautifully argued love poem on the relationship of body to soul and of the spiritual union of those whom love "interinanimates": "we might, O my love," Heaney says, "have quoted Donne/ On love on hold, body and soul apart." Like an object lesson in the workings of the auditory imagination, the iambic form and desolate overtones of "apart" lead to another poem, Keats's "Ode a Nightingale", resurfacing in "Forlorn! The very word is like a bell/ To toll me back from thee to my sole self." The clasp of his wife's hand, which the stricken poet cannot feel, leads into Keats's lines to Fanny Brawne which imagine the living wishing to change places with the beloved dead – a thought to set alongside Heaney's description of the drip feeding him through a cannula.

In this very rich and substantial collection, Heaney makes frequent use of the tercet stanza, which posterity may indicate he has done much to render a contemporary forma franca. In his hands it has remarkable flexibility – see the dozen 12-line sections of "Route 110". The stanza moves as though between the epigrammatic hinge of a couplet and the more expansive quatrain, generating drama and extension (as though into the future of the imaginative act) through enjambed line-and stanza-endings.

The triple line, with its echo of terza rima, reels in and out, re-gathering to achieve the tension of resolution - a movement clearly suited to the alert, considering melodies that Heaney so often plays. How fortunate we are to have a poet of such formal mastery, who also speaks to us like an adult addressing other adults, who must like him remember innocence and encompass loss.

Sean O'Brien's new collection, 'November', is due from Picador in February

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game