I'm taking notes and learning about the poem "North" by Seamus Heaney, and would like help with the literary analysis of some lines.

What is meant by:

Expect aurora Borealis in the long foray, but no cascade of light.

I feel this may mean that the poem's speaker should expect to receive flashes of brilliance in his endeavours, but no complete enlightenment.


trust the feel of what nubbed treasure your hands have known.

I can't even find an adequate definition anywhere of "nubbed".

Appreciate the help.


2 Answers 2


The context of these lines is a poetic vision in which Heaney invokes the Vikings only to demythologize them. Heaney considers ‘those fabulous raiders’ first as archaeological subjects (‘in the solid / belly of stone ships’ referring to ship burial) and then as historical subjects (‘geography and trade, / thick-witted couplings and revenges’). This is followed by a section in which Heaney imagines ‘the longship’s swimming tongue’ giving him advice about writing poetry (‘Lie down / in the word-hoard … Compose in darkness’). It is here that the longship says:

Expect aurora Borealis
in the long foray
but no cascade of light

Contrary to the impression given by photographs, the northern lights are very faint to the naked eye. The photographs are taken with long exposures and post-processed to increase the colour saturation. So this means: when composing poetry, expect to see a faint glimmer in the distance, not a sudden bright light of inspiration.

trust the feel of what nubbed treasure
your hands have known.’

The Oxford English Dictionary says:

nubbed, adj. Having numerous small protuberances; covered in nubs or lumps.

So this means: when composing poetry, pay attention to the real things around you, the rough things that you have touched, these are the sources of poetical value.

“Word-hoard” is the Old Norse kenning for language, wherein the poet must follow the labyrinthine toils of his wit like a winter serpent twining for warmth. For the illumination of his “long foray”, Heaney can expect only distant tints on the far horizon. […] To achieve full identity as an artist, Heaney must ultimately live by the rough braille of his senses, and thus he returns in the last two lines to the “nubbed treasure” of the world at hand.

Floyd Collins (2003), Seamus Heaney: The Crisis of Identity, p.83.


What does "nubbed" mean? Something is nubbed if it has a nub or nubs. (Just like something is fringed if it has fringes, or something is winged if it has wings.)

The definition of nub is (from Oxford Dictionary Online):

1 The crux or central point of a matter.
2 A small lump or protuberance.

Normally, nubbed would mean having nubs with respect to definition 2. But this is poetry, and it's quite possible that Seamus Heaney is playing with words, so you will have to use your own judgment.

And Gareth Rees has an excellent answer dealing with the rest of your question (although he misses the possible play on words I describe above).

Added in an edit: Some more thoughts about the poem.

"The longship's swimming tongue" says

‘Lie down
in the word-hoard, burrow
the coil and gleam
of your furrowed brain.


trust the feel of what nubbed treasure
your hands have known.’

To me, this sounds like the speaker is a dragon (dragons have coils, hoards they burrow in, and are associated with Viking longships). But metaphorically, Heaney is talking about poetry. So literally (from the dragon point of view) "nubbed treasure" means treasure with small protuberances. But metaphorically, it might mean valued poems with "nubs" in sense 1 of the word above.

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