Let’s Go Fly a Kite – Heaney and Pascoli – Part Two

Let's Go Fly a Kite

Let’s Go Fly a Kite

The Seamus Heaney translations  of two poems by Giovanni Pascoli (1855 – 1912) published in the New Yorker after the death of Heaney (1938 – 2013) last August sent me scrambling to find out more about Heaney’s connection to Pascoli.  I didn’t have far to go.

Heaney discovered Pascoli in Urbino, Italy in 2002 and was introduced then to Pascoli’s poem L’Aquilone (The Kite), which Heaney,  in a sense, translated twice: once in its entirety and later as a modified version, A Kite for Aibhin (after L’Aquilone by Giovanni Pascoli).  The modified version is set in Ireland not Italy and was included in Heaney’s book The Human Chain, published in 2010.

For a commentary by Heaney on Pascoli’s  The Kite and Heaney’s full translation Click here.   For an article by a professor at the University of Urbino, Gabriella Morisco, describing how she introduced Heaney to Pascoli,  click here.

Heaney’s interest in the kite as an image did not begin with Pascoli. It was one of the wonderful links between these two men that Heaney had already seized on it as a vital image in a poem he had written for his sons about 30 years before — A Kite for Michael and Christopher — a poem that startles me again and again with these lines:

take in your two hands, boys, and feel
the strumming, rooted, long-tailed pull of grief.

That’s a whooper of a line. And when Heaney died last year he might have been surprised to have seen that line quoted in  tributes to him to refer to the grief of his passing.

Here, below is Heaney’s version of Pascoli’s, The Kite.

A Kite for Aibhin

After “L’Aquilone” by Giovanni Pascoli (1855-1912)

Air from another life and time and place,
Pale blue heavenly air is supporting
A white wing beating high against the breeze,

And yes, it is a kite! As when one afternoon
All of us there trooped out
Among the briar hedges and stripped thorn,

I take my stand again, halt opposite
Anahorish Hill to scan the blue,
Back in that field to launch our long-tailed comet.

And now it hovers, tugs, veers, dives askew,
Lifts itself, goes with the wind until
It rises to loud cheers from us below.

Rises, and my hand is like a spindle
Unspooling, the kite a thin-stemmed flower
Climbing and carrying, carrying farther, higher

The longing in the breast and planted feet
And gazing face and heart of the kite flier
Until string breaks and—separate, elate—

The kite takes off, itself alone, a windfall.

Seamus Heaney from Human Chain Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010

Here below is the part of Pascoli’s The Kite that Heaney used for his version. This part begins a few verses after the start of Pascoli’s poem and ends many verses earlier. Heaney pretty well honours the part of Pascoli’s original he uses in his version except for excising two verse in the middle and then changing the order and specifics of the last lines. In Heaney’s version the kite line breaks whereas that is not so clear in Pascoli’s poem. The same yearning as the kite rises is caught in both poems but in Heaney’s poem whatever the kite flier longs for ultimately escapes. Whatever the kite represents for Heaney it cannot be held forever. It wants to leave. Is it a metaphor of the soul leaving the body after death? Perhaps.

From The Kite 

Air from another life and time and place,
Pale blue heavenly air that is holding up
A flotilla of white wings on the breeze –

The kites! Yes, it is! The kites! It’s that morning
And there’s no school and we’ve come trooping out
Among the briar hedges and the hawthorn.

The hedges bristled, shivered, spiky, stripped,
But autumn lingered in red clumps of berries
And spring in a few flowers, blooming white.

A robin hopped around the leafless branches.
In the ditch a lizard showed its darting head
Above dead leaves and vanished: a few scurries.

So now we take our stand, halt opposite
Urbino’s windy hill: each scans the blue
And picks his spot to launch his long-tailed comet.

And there it hovers, flips, veers, dives askew,
Lifts again, goes with the wind until
It rises to loud cheers from us kids below.

It rises, and the hand is like a spool
Unspooling thread, the kite a thin-stemmed flower
Borne far away to flower again as windfall.

It rises and it carries ever higher
The longing in the breast and anxious feet
And gazing face and heart of the kite-flier.

And here is the remarkable poem that Heaney wrote thirty years before he translated Pascoli’s poem:

A Kite for Michael and Christopher

All through that Sunday afternoon
A kite flew above Sunday,
a tightened drumhead, an armful of blow chaff.

I’d seen it grey and slippy in the making,
I’d tapped it when it dried out white and stiff,
I’d tied the bows of the newspaper
along its six-foot tail.

But now it was far up like a small black lark
and now it dragged as if the bellied string
were a wet rope hauled upon
to life a shoal.

My friend says that the human soul
is about the weight of a snipe
yet the soul at anchor there,
the string that sags and ascends,
weigh like a furrow assumed into the heavens.

Before the kite plunges down into the wood
and this line goes useless
take in your two hands, boys, and feel
the strumming, rooted, long-tailed pull of grief.
You were born fit for it.
Stand here in front of me
and take the strain.

Seamus Heaney from Opened Ground, Faber & Faber, 1998

What a duet the two kite poems make! The Kite for Aibhan (after Pascoli) is such a celebration of something escaping free into its natural element. However,  Heaney’s Kite poem written 30 years earlier has a much more ominous and intellectual tone. It risks the inclusion of two huge abstract terms – the soul and grief – and ends with such a surprising last verse where the kite is predicted to fall and the line go useless but not before Heaney turns the kite into an image of grief his boys must hold on to for dear life.

At age 63 I am still holding on to the kite of my life thank god! But yes I feel the cut of grief from that holding. The grief of the loss of two marriages, the deaths of my parents and even the loss of friendships (their inexplicable endings) and some of the futures I once imagined for myself.

But for all the grief, many joys as well. I hold on to those as well. And  Seamus while your kite has been released, the line snapped a year ago, I will say yes:

I was born for it.
I will stand here,
this memory of you,
and take the strain.


  1. Heidi Garnett
    Posted September 6, 2014 at 12:25 am | Permalink

    The Kite poem comes alive for me in the last stanzas and that tender closing image of a mother lightly combing her dead child’s hair. No undertakers here, no stiff pomade, just naturalism.

  2. Richard
    Posted September 25, 2014 at 6:55 am | Permalink

    Thanks so much Heidi.

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