The poet communicates with a friend he has known from Harvard days offering her a gift that he hopes will help alleviate a condition that is threatening her; the poem’s increasingly elegiac tone is ominous.
The poet has been in contact with Adele before, in early Spring as he sat in a garden at a rustic table /Under magnolias in South Carolina/As blossoms fell on me. He recalls the vivid imprinted on his memory: what he could see – a sharp Spring light against which a gable /As clean-lined as the prow of a white liner/Bisected sunlight in the sunlit yard; what he felt: respite from a busy schedule that such a moment permitted: I was glad of the early heat and the first quiet/ I’d had for weeks; what he heard: both the sounds of nature (the mocking bird} and of music practice (a delicious, articulate/Flight of small plinkings from a dulcimer) that reminded him instantly of Adele (almost certainly up in Boston at that moment) Like feminine rhymes migrating to the north.
Heaney introduces ominous hints: he suspects that the condition that will kill Adele within five years has already taken a hold: Where you faced the music and the ache of summer; the life-threatening nature of her condition is already entrenched: earth’s foreknowledge gathered in the earth.
Time has moved inexorably on; it is the same season: Now it’s St Brigid’s Day with its first snowdrop. The poet is back home in County Wicklow, actively engaged in creating a personal gift for Adele that ties in with the date (a Brigid’s Girdle/ I’m plaiting for you), a medieval icon and symbol of an ancient Ireland peopled by magical beings: an airy fairy hoop. Heaney’s parenthesis introduces Irish dialect words and traditional methods: Like one of those old crinolines they’d trindle/Twisted straw that’s lifted in a circle.
- He prays that his emblematic gift (handsel) will contain the magical power to heal. The gift has seasonal celebrity, is a rite of spring with an unusual, graceful, ethnic dimension (strange and lightsome and traditional); Heaney urges her to step through the girdle to enjoy its hidden properties: the motions you go through going through the thing.
- an obituary by Susan Kovacs Buxbaum confirms Rand Brandes’ suggestion that Adele is Adele Dalsimer, a friend of Heaney’s who established the Irish Studies Program at Boston College and who died in February 2000 at the age of 60: ‘Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney, said that Adele had “a gift for lifting people’s spirits into vision and cooperation” and made the Boston College Irish Studies Program “a locus of energy….[which has gained the international] respect of writers, critics and all workers in the field.” ’
- South Carolina: a State on the south-eastern seaboard of the United States;
- mocking bird: the bird mimics the sound of the dulcimer; perhaps Adele plays such an instrument but is way up north and has problems wherever she is;
- plinkings: an onomatopoeic rendering of the sound of a dulcimer, part plucking part metallic;
- dulcimer: a fretted string instrument of the zither family, typically with three or four strings. Its origins are in the Appalachian region of the United States;
- face the music: figuratively to confront a problem;
- ache: the word is repeated in Poet’s Chair as the poisoned Socrates feels the first symptoms of what will kill him;
- St Brigid’s Day: St Brigid was the second patron saint of Ireland, renowned for her piety
- Most of what is known about her comes from medieval biographies of the saints. Brigid comes across as an extraordinarily strong and self-reliant woman … scholars see numerous similarities between the stories of Brigid and the legends of Celtic goddesses; St. Brigid’s day is February 1, corresponding with “Imbolc,” the Celtic feast of renewal and purification Ancestry.com
- The ‘girdle’ is a belt of straw plaited as a mark of respect in pious, rural communities;
- snowdrop: a small winter-flowering plant that coincides with the saint’s day;
- airy fairy: selected to enhance the magical imagery, in other contexts the phrase might suggest ‘something Impractical and foolishly idealistic’;
- crinoline: an old fashioned stiffened or hooped petticoat worn to make a long skirt stand out
- trindle: (Northern Irish usage) suggestive of the textile process required for a circular hooped garment ; as a noun it describes a wheel, for example that of a wheelbarrow;
- handsel: (Northern Irish usage) ‘a gift made as a token of good wishes or luck especially at the beginning of a new year’;
- the poem is written in 5 quatrains, a four-sentence construct with a loose rhyme scheme abab cdcd;
- line length is based on 10 syllables;
- the rich use of enjambed lines makes each sentence all but a continuum;
- the two separate scenes are distinct in time (Last time … Now); past and present tenses are used appropriately;
- imagery associated with a sea-going vessel; later vocabulary seeks to stress the mythical side of old Ireland including dialect usages;
- in the final line words mimic the making process itself;
- simile using ‘like’ ,alongside comparison as … as
- use of onomatopoeia in ‘plinkings’ is also synesthetic using sounds to describing words as sounds;
- potential pun on ‘face the music’;
- 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 consonant effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies:
- the first quatrain of Brigid’s Girdle, for example, opens with alveolar[t[ alongside rear-of-mouth plosives [k] and [g];
- it is well worth teasing out the sound clusters for yourself if only 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]; bilabial 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/ anger.