Waterfall

The power, texture and formats of flowing water present Heaney with the challenge of transposing the visual turbulence and disorder of a waterfall into words. Feel and finish are important in a poem that deploys a wide range of sense data. Heaney clarifies the process in the final triplet.

The poet’s attention has followed a water course (burn) to a point above a waterfall where the pressure of water overwhelms it (drowns steadily its own downpour). 

A maelstrom confusion of textures and light-effects is added (helter-skelter of muslin and glass); unseen obstacles cause skids and go-slows that throw up frothy soap-like suds. The cataract generates contradictory momentum (acceleration … braking). The irresistible gravitational effects injected at the moment the water plunges into the void remind Heaney of classical Renaissance paintings in which the sinful are pitched into the fiery furnaces of Hell Like villains dropped screaming to justice. 

The water’s rebound is likened to an athletic glacier …/ reared into reverse and the stream’s channel a long throat, with constant influx (swallowed) and reflux (regurgitated).

Heaney clarifies the poetic challenge: his words, caught up in a turmoil of events, dragged over the brink alongside Hurtling tons that slabber and spill, are frozen into a single poetic frame, recording the tumult thus standing still.

  • burn: a small water course, the term originating in Old English and used still especially in Scotland and Ireland;
  • helter-skelter: fairground slide around a central tower, used metaphorically to indicate confusion, speed, turmoil, maelstrom;
  • muslin: lightweight, semi-transparent woven cotton cloth;
  • skid: slide out of control with locked wheels;
  • crash up: throw up a spray of;
  • suds: froth (e.g. soap and water combined);
  • simultaneous: at the same time;
  • brake: slow down a moving entity;
  • villain: evil person, ‘baddie’;
  • drop: (idea of execution) vertical fall (on the end of a rope/ into Hell);
  • glacier: slow moving ice mass;
  • rear: rise up threateningly like a horse on its hind legs;
  • reverse: move backwards;
  • regurgitate: bring (swallowed) food back up into the throat;
  • ride over: travel, move over the surface;
  • hurtle: move at high speed and out of control
  • slabber: splatter, splash, dribble
  • record: register (a permanent image);
  • tumult: frenzy of movement/ sound;
  • 4 triplets of mainly 10 syllable lines; a single rhyme in the final couplet;
  • Heaney injects the noise of water via the abundance of sibilant s and sh sounds (more than 30 in 12 lines);
  • vocabulary is used to describe changes in speed: skids/ acceleration/ braking; also water-power: crashed; reared (horse/ wave-like)/ hurtling;
  • the simile accompanying falling water (Like villains) is elusive, whether referring to the irresistible force of gravity or allegorically to church propaganda urging worthy behaviour;
  • Heaney rings the changes of vowel and consonant chains, separate or in tandem: My eye rides; drowns/ down; up/ suds/ simultaneous/ sudden; through/ this/ throat; tumult/ thus/ standing/ still; slabber and spill;
  • his use of personification via quasi-medical references to flux and reflux provides the stream with a gastric system: swallowed/ regurgitated;
  • the glacier metaphor makes sense of the final image: the ice-field has colour and texture; importantly, it has no visible movement.

 

  • 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: eleven 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 sibilant variants [s] [z] [sh]] and a cluster of plosives (bilabial [p] [b]alveolar [t][d], velar [k] [g]) alongside continuant [w] and nasals [n] [m];
  • 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