I have read this poem before and studied it, line by line, looking at how it works and I have returned to it many times following. His abilities as a lyric poet are fully displayed in this poem, The Underground. And there is not a line I would alter. For two sentences, for that is what the poem consists of, he creates a lyric that when read aloud, is intense and very oral and recalls the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.
There we were in the vaulted tunnel running,
You in your going-away coat speeding ahead
And me, me then like a fleet god gaining
Behind you before you turned to a reed
Or some new white flower japped with crimson
As the coat flapped wild and button after button
Sprang off and fell in a trail
Between the Underground and the Albert Hall.
Honeymooning, mooning around, late for the Proms,
Our echoes die in that corridor and now
I come as Hansel came on the moonlit stones
Retracing the path back, lifting the buttons
To end up in a draughty lamplit station
After the trains have gone, the wet track
Bared and tensed as I am, all attention
For your step following and damned if I look back.
First off, the beat of the lines echoes the idea. That vaulted tunnel running is so certain, so subterranean, the vowel sounds in the first half of each word, 'vau', 'tun' and 'run' are heavy and they dominate the line with their guttural, underground and netherworld sounding quality. The opening line also has the implication and action of being propelled forward, the pace and action getting the poem going, or rather, thrusting the poem forward with its restless diction. Then Heaney’s craft continues in the second line - "You in your going-away coat speeding ahead". 'Y' anchors the line in musical flourish. The rest of the stanza fits neatly and follows in the unstoppable diction. The first sentence runs throughout the first two stanzas, while the second covers the second half of the poem.
We are taken underground (we cannot hold back, the poet is too strong) with him and this other person, a woman, on what is an Orphic journey. In the first and second lines of the second stanza, japped and flapped play into each other, also giving the impression of whatever is occurring is happening with such an intensity; and one can hear the words 'japped' and 'flapped' clearly.
The poem takes a turn at the beginning of the third stanza and this turn, or pause, or even quick stop, like that of an Amtrak, is reflected in the language: "Between the Underground and the Albert Hall" - stop, get off the train, or step quickly on the platform and hurry back on in under a second - "Honeymooning, mooning around, late for the Proms" . . . We’re off. And the language is playful. Again, here we have the same vowel dominance as that in the first line. I have indicated only the strong vowels, 'oo’ and 'roun' and 'rom'. This time, however, we are not propelled as in the poem’s first line, but held back a bit, yet not restrained. We breathe. The train slowing down, maybe coming to a halt. Then we gain our breath and strength to continue, but slower. The diction works like a speed bump or speed caution slowing the speed that was contained and let loose and used to its fullest in the first two stanzas, implying even a stopping, intimated by the next line, "Our echoes die in that corridor", but we do not stop, instead we move with and now, which is emphasized, kind of a gearing up for more, going into the next line, "I come as Hansel came on the moonlit stones/Retracing the path back" . . . That third line indicates ascendancy and must be read with the same ascending tone in the voice.
So the language ascends with the imagery of the poet coming up from the subterranean halls of the Underground, as if after his descent into Hades for his Eurydice. He does not trust that she is with him, but he dare not look back or he’ll be damned to loneliness as she fades off, just like in the myth. He feels lost, and must retrace his tracks, maybe even to the beginning of the poem. The trains are gone, the tracks are wet and empty, that lonely feeling in a major urban metropolis, the dampness all around. He is tense.
The action and speed in this poem has ceased. He is not moving and cannot move. We are above ground, but lost. "To end up" states the new surroundings and direction that must be taken, alone. The final word in the poem is 'back', ending the phrase "I look back", which points us to his "Retracing the path back" at the end of the third stanza, but more importantly, to the opening line of the poem, back into the tunnel and all that occurred in it.
The first two stanzas consist of we, the poet and his Eurydice and the reader/s, but in the last two stanzas, there is only the solitary I of the poet left alone. There is allusion, however, to the other with your step following, his Eurydice and the reader/s. Then the poem is finished in a tone not of regret and disappointment.