It was inspired by the ‘quiet beauty‘ of a picture of a Naples canal painted in 1872 by the French artist Gustave Caillebotte which hangs in the National Gallery of Ireland. In the picture the artist ‘depicts a canal and pathway extending into the distant horizon of a flat Italian landscape. By allowing the edges of his canvas to slice through the water and path, Caillebotte gives the scene a sense of randomness that marked a particularly modern way of seeing‘. Heaney wrote:
Say ‘canal’ and there’s that final vowel
Towing silence with it, slowing time
To a walking pace, a path, a whitewashed gleam
Of dwellings at the skyline. World stands still.
The stunted concrete mocks the classical.
Water says, ‘My place here is in dream,
In quiet good standing. Like a sleeping stream,
Come rain or sullen shine I’m peaceable.’
Stretched to the horizon, placid ploughland,
The sky not truly bright or overcast:
I know that clay, the damp and dirt of it,
The coolth along the bank, the grassy zest
Of verges, the path not narrow but still straight
Where soul could mind itself or stray beyond.
Poem c/o Seamus Heaney, 2014. More detail on the picture at National Gallery of Ireland.