The Gravel Walks

an elegy to things irrecoverable.

The Gravel Walks,” ( ) is about heavy work—wheeling barrows of gravel—but also the paradoxical sense of lightness when you’re lifting heavy things. I like the in-between-ness of up and down, of being on the earth and of the heavens.” Heaney in the Harvard Crimson of Oct 2008

Heaney focuses on a timeless product of elemental inter-reaction of rock and water: River gravel. In the beginning, that. The poem ‘came on’ in High summer triggered by an angler’s motorbike deposited Deep in roadside flowers like a fallen knight defeated in medieval combat. The angler, dead by now, is a distant memory (Whose ghost we’d lately questioned); on sight of an angler the youngsters would enquire whether the fish were biting: ‘Any luck?’

This was a post-WWII moment as Heaney stood on the threshold of mechanized progress: As the engines of the world prepared.

As if aware of what lay in store Nature huddled defensively green nuts /Dangled and clustered closer to the whirlpool./ The trees dipped down; meanwhile beneath the river’s surface hard and soft stones grated together: the flints and sandstone-bits / Worked themselves smooth and smaller.

A cherished river is recalled, its light effects, depth, speed and amber colour: a sparkle of shallow, hurrying barley-sugar water; the fish attracted the youngsters: minnows schooled that we scared when we played.

The timeless routine was savagely disrupted: gravel was required as ballast for post-war construction so gravel beds were dredged (An eternity that ended once a tractor / Dropped its link-box in the gravel bed and cement mixers began to come to life).

The change brought human activity: men in dungarees, like captive shades/ Mixed concrete, loaded, wheeled, turned, wheeled, activity as unrelenting as the work of slaves building the ancient Pyramids: as if/ The Pharaoh’s brickyards burned inside their heads.

  • High summer: summer at its height;
  • fallen knight: a knight brought down from his horse;
  • engines: mechanical devices, the signs of impending urban development;
  • whirlpool: rotating mass of water typically brought about by conflicting currents;
  • flints: pieces of hard grey rock;
  • worked themselves: ground themselves smooth against each other in the river current;
  • barley-sugar: a hard amber-coloured sweet made of boiled sugar;
  • minnows schooled: small freshwater fish that typically swam in large shoals;
  • link-box: a multi-purpose metal container attached to the rear of a tractor; here used to dredge out gravel;
  • dungarees:  hard-wearing work trousers with a bib held up by straps over the shoulders;
  • Pharaoh: rulers of ancient Egypt who ruthlessly completed the huge developments still evident along the Nile;


Heaney venerates his Ulster stones (Hoard and praise the verity of gravel): of inestimable value to those who know the truth (Gems for the undeluded); there from the beginnings of time (Milt of earth); remembered for the musical plain, champing song against the shovel; projecting an image of value-for-money: Soundtests and sandblasts words like ‘honest worth’.

Heaney takes a swig from Sorescu’s meaning from the deep brain: he is a part of it all (The kingdom of gravel was inside you to) stored in his memory-vault (Deep down), from long ago (far back), something prized, rich in sense data and embedded in his soul (clear water running over / Pebbles of caramel, hailstone, mackerel-blue).

Humping gravel kept his feet firmly anchored to the ground: the actual washed stuff kept you slow and steady. Physical demands brought release from emotions of guilt, obligation or sin (stooping with your barrow full/ Into an absolution of the body) and elevated him above The shriven life tired bones and marrow feel.

Heaney exhorts himself to be confident, elated and defiant: walk on air against your better judgement, to take pleasure from his poet’s role (Establishing yourself somewhere in between) and settle on a comfortable position between relatively ugly reality (Those solid batches mixed with grey cement) and his beautiful artistic Irish legacy: a tune called ‘The Gravel Walks’ that conjures green.

  • hoard: store secretly;
  • praise: glorify;
  • verity: true worth;
  • undeluded: those who have come to realise the truth;
  • milt: fine gravel resulting from geological erosion;
  • champing song: sounds like teeth chewing;
  • soundtest: measuring the sound;
  • sandblasts: process of roughening or cleaning (a surface) with a jet of sand mixed with water;
  • caramel: the light brown colour of boiled sugar or syrup
  • hailstone: a pellet of iced rain;
  • mackerel: the greenish blue stripes of a predatory marine fish;
  • absolution: release from guilt or sin;
  • walk on air: feel elated;
  • batches:  quantities produced in a single operation and at the same time (e.g. bricks from a kiln);
  • Gravel Walks: a well-known Irish tune for fiddle or pipes;
  • conjures green: that brings Ireland into the mind as if by magic;
  • we find Heaney contemplating memories of the beautiful (and now destroyed) gravel beds of his childhood and urging himself (to) walk on air. Nicholas Jenkins Walking on Air in the TLS of July 5th 1996:
  • This “walking on air” phrase has become ( ) an organizing preoccupation for Heaney: in his Nobel lecture, for instance, delivered in December, he avowed that “for once in my life, I am permitting myself the luxury of walking on air”. But “walking on air” means something more than simply the conventional sense (of being exultant or delighted … it also conveys an effort of determination and defiance, as much remaking as relaxing. Nicholas Jenkins Walking on Air in the TLS of July 5th 1996:
  • Questioner: Back to your Nobel lecture. You recited a line from your poem, where the narrator says, “Walk on air against your better judgment.” You offered this line as an instruction to yourself and all who listened. What does that mean? 
    Heaney: A person from Northern Ireland is naturally cautious. You grew up vigilant because it’s a divided society. My poetry on the whole was earth-hugging, but then I began to look up rather than keep down. I think it had to do with a sense that the marvellous was as permissible as the matter-of-fact in poetry From the Harvard Crimson of Oct 2008
  • Along with an almost animistic celebration of the natural world, Heaney has consistently emphasized the physicality of English words … The Anglo-Saxon pith of “gravel” and “milt” rubs shoulders with the biblical and Latinate “verity.” And notice the satisfying consonant rhyme of “gravel” and “shovel,” and the elegant music of the feminine half-rhymes “soundtests” and “sandblasts” tucked into the last line. If you can’t hear the “champing song” when shovel digs into gravel, you don’t have ears. Increasingly, this champion of the senses has come to emphasize moral and spiritual dimensions. The words “honest worth” not only sound like feet stepping on gravel, but characterize how we handle gravel and what we use it for … Thoroughly grounded as he is in …”the things of this world,” this son of an Irish farming family offers a vision that is a powerful tonic against the fin de siècle alienation and solipsism touted by fashionable literary criticism. Richard Tillinghast


  • (1) four quatrains; 10 syllable lines; loose rhyme scheme begins to emerge and will become more formal abab/cdcd in the second piece;
  • five sentence construct; rich use of enjambed lines contrasts with the cluster of verbs/ activities on the building-site
  • use of engines as a generic word for machines; also ‘schooled’;
  • old Testament reference (in the beginning) to the Creation Genesis1i; second theological reference in ‘absolution’; personification of trees in reverence: ‘dipped down’; ‘eternity’
  • use of simile;
  • otherworldliness: ghost, shades;
  • concentration of many different elements (dimensions, refracted light, shades of colour) in a single phrase ; sparkle of shallow, hurrying barley-sugar water;
  • comparisons: motorbike and medieval knight; water colour of a sweetmeat; builders/ underworld figures; personification: a machine that lives
  • 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, soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies:
  • for example, the first lines quatrain stirs together velar plosives [k] [g] alveolar plosives [t] [d]alongside nasals [m] [n];
  • 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.