Poem

Spurred on by a hang-up about childhood shortcomings Heaney expresses the determination that his marriage and his new direction will be successful; he is prepared to change and be changed. Faced with three seismic life-changes in his twenties (leaving behind his rural background for University in 1959; preparing his first collection of poetry after 1960; marriage in 1965), the poet identifies his wife as the force who will steer him through these rites of passage. Convinced that her support will help him grow and develop, he addresses her directly.

Heaney offers his new wife (Love) an alternative wedding vow: he will grow up and seek to improve himself (I shall perfect for you the child). He recalls his boyhood self: industrious (diligent) but not achieving anything in particular (who potters), dwarfed by the oversized farm tools to hand (digging with heavy spade and generally engaging in muddy childish fun projects: puddling through muck.

A well-meaning child annually tending his own little patch (yard long garden) and sowing for produce, he reveals his landscaping strategy (layer of sods) to protect young plants against voracious invaders (sow and pecking hen). He registers his failure: as a matter of routine (would) the trespassers found a way in and the wall collapsed.

Epic juvenile ambitions to build dams across the flowing drain were not well thought through: the muddy mess (sucking clabber) generated huge fun (splash delightedly) but his castle-like structures (my bastions of clay and mush) proved unfit for purpose (Would burst before the rising autumn rain) If this was the shape of farming life to come then it did not appeal to the maturing Heaney. 

In a neat role-reversal of the first line the poet points at himself (you shall perfect for me this child). He has chosen Marie to help him outgrow the child who repeatedly failed his early farmyard tests (Whose small imperfect limits would keep breaking). Those times have gone … a poetry collection in the making, a new job … above all a wife with whom to enjoy shared parameters (new limits now), intimate togetherness within our walls and a newly avowed commitment symbolised within our golden (wedding-) ring.

  • perfect: bring to perfection, polish;
  • diligent: industrious, conscientious;
  • potter: do odd jobs, work without particular aim;
  • sod: grass and earth in a lump;
  • puddling: (pun) ‘splash around in mud’ and ‘work haphazardly’;
  • muck: dirt, rubbish, waste matter; English uses a colloquial phrase ‘stop mucking about’ to mean ‘get on with something serious’; this chimes neatly with the chaotic picture accompanying Heaney’s childhood activities;
  • drain: channel, culvert to carry off lying water;
  • sow: plant seeds;
  • strip: slice off;
  • layer: a single thickness, course;
  • exclude: shut out;
  • sow: female pig;
  • sucking: gluey, sticky, retentive;
  • clabber: muddy mess;
  • dam: block, close;
  • bastion: fortification;
  • mush: soft wet mass;
  • burst: break apart;
  • limit: boundary, terminal point
  • Heaney demonstrates by his life-choices (and not without angst) that he never really made anything of farming; 12 lines are inundated with the vocabulary of attempted constructiveness overcome by total lack of engineering skills; the working life he has left behind was dirty and unpleasant;
  • the speaker’s humility and self-deprecation are characteristic both of Heaney’s nature and of the medieval courtly-lover;

 

  • 16 decasyllabic line in 4 quatrains; a loose rhyme scheme abab etc;
  • I shall/ you shall seeks a binding contract; line 13 reflects the first: both partners have a rôle to play;
  • Heaney’s use of 1st person plural pronouns we and us indicates a new togetherness; vocabulary of failed past enclosure: my ….wall .. to exclude; dam/ my bastions/ burst; vocabulary of successful future enclosure: our walls .. our golden ring
  • Use of alliteration: voiceless bi-labial plosive [p] perfect/ potters/ piled/ puddling (note that alveolar plosives [d] and [t] are produced in the same place in the mouth; sibilant [s] sucking/ splash; [d] delightedly/ dam/ drain;
  • Assonant effects: [ʌ] puddling/ muck; mush/ autumn [ɪ]  strip/ build; [æ] dam/ bastions;
  • evocative description including neologism: puddling through/ sucking clabber;
  • neat reversal of roles (ll 1 and 13) includes demonstrative identification: the child of memory (1) becomes this child-person Marie is looking at(13);
  • Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to;
  • the music of the poem: thirteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text.

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies;
  • the first lines, for example, weave together labio-dental fricatives [f] [v], a cluster of plosives (bilabial [p],alveolar [t][d], velar [k] [g]) alongside alveolar [l] and sibilant [s];
  • it is well worth teasing out the sound clusters for yourself to admire the poet’s sonic engineering:
  • Consonants (with their phonetic symbols) can be classed according to where in the mouth they occur
  • Front-of-mouth sounds voiceless bi-labial plosive [p] voiced bi-labial plosive [b]; voiceless labio-dental fricative [f] voiced labio-dental fricative [v]; bi-labial nasal [m]; interlabial continuant [w]
  • Behind-the-teeth sounds voiceless alveolar plosive [t] voiced alveolar plosive [d]; voiceless alveolar fricative as in church match [tʃ]; voiced alveolar fricative as in judge age [dʒ];  voiceless dental fricative  [θ]  as in thin path; voiced dental fricative as  in this other [ð]; voiceless alveolar fricative [s] voiced alveolar fricative [z]; continuant [h] alveolar nasal [n] alveolar approximant [l]; alveolar trill [r]; dental ‘y’ [j] as in  yet
  • Rear-of-mouth sounds voiceless velar plosive [k] voiced velar plosive [g]; voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] as in ship sure, voiced post- alveolar fricative [ʒ]   as in pleasure; palatal nasal [ŋ]  as in ring/ ang