Heaney revisits the lost domain of childhood, his memory awakened by the sight of an old-fashioned farmhouse utensil used to decorate butter (the Heaneys produced their own butter on the family farm in ‘Churning Day’ from Death of a Naturalist, Heaney’s first collection of 1966).
The sight of the butter-print generates mock recrimination aimed at the woodworker who made it: Who carved on the butter-print’s round open face / A cross-hatched head of rye, all jags and bristles? The contrast between the tasty substance and the image it bears has given rise to a stinging memory: Why should soft butter bear that sharp device / As if its breast were scored with slivered glass?
The poet’s reaction stems from a childhood crisis: When I was small I swallowed an awn of rye, a naïve act that triggered sharp distress: My throat was like standing crop probed by a scythe. The cereal head moved smoothly down the throat in one direction but attempts to regurgitate it proved painfully difficulty: I felt the edge slide and the point stick deep.
Panic ensues: I coughed and coughed and then relief and coughed it up; the heat of stress and panic is cooled: My breathing came dawn-cold, so clear and sudden.
In his blessed relief (I might have been inhaling airs from heaven) the rye casualty comes up with an innocent victim from Church history, the pair of them gazing down on the cause of their agony: healed and martyred Agatha stares down / At the relic knife as I stared at the awn.
- butter-print: plates of carved wood with which to impress patterns on (often home-produced) butter;
- cross-hatched: images of rye will confirm the intersecting sets of fibres that characterise the cereal head;
- jags: sharp projections;
- bristles: short, stiff hair;
- device: the pattern transmitted by the butter-print;
- scored: scratched;
- slivered: as if marked small, thin shards of glass;
- awn: the stiff, bristle-like ear of rye;
- standing: for example upright grass before it is cut;
- probed by a scythe: pricked by a sharp-ended instrument; scythe: long-handled, sharp-pointed tool used in the fields for cutting grass manually;
- dawn-cold: the coolest time of day;
- martyred Agatha: Agatha (Gk ‘agos’ meaning ‘good’) came from a rich and important Sicilian family. She lived a life dedicated to God refusing marriage proposals from all the men who sought her hand. Unwilling to renounce Christianity she was beaten, imprisoned, tortured; her breasts were cut off.
- relic knife: the blade used to mutilate her;
- 5 sentences composed in 3 quatrains; line length based on 10 syllables; unrhymed with one exception; balance between punctuation and use of enjambment;
- Double questions mimic a sense of outrage at the contrast between soft butter and sharp edged pattern inscribed on it; ‘bear: double meaning ‘carry’, ‘ suffer’;
- ‘as if’ confirms the contrary-to-what-you-would-believe dimension;
- butter personified ‘breast;
- the swallow itself is matter-of fact; the language of after effect explodes, generating heat: vocabulary of sharpness; repetition of ‘coughed’ setting out the effort required to dislodge the blockage
- emphatic placing of ‘up’ permits the after-flow of relief: vocabulary of soothing coldness;
- thanking his lucky stars (cosmic space is mostly cold) introduces his common link with a holy victim;
- the music of the poem: twelve 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 couplet, for example, stirs together voiceless velar plosive [k] bi-labial plosive [p][b] alongside voiceless alveolar fricative as in hatched [tʃ]; voiced alveolar fricative as in jags [dʒ]; 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]; 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.