Widely regarded as one of the collection’s major pieces, the title introduces the element at the source of all life (Water is certainly a ‘shape-changer’ MP99), dominant feature of Irish climate, determinant of landscape and symbol of cleansing and renewal. Heaney wrote the poem in Berkeley: images, descriptions and associations stem from his Irish memory bank.
Allegory is in-built: Heaney’s Ulster is under threat of political and social inundation and he is in ‘inward, broody’ mode. He returns to his home-ground especially the cherished Moyola river of his neighbourhood .
Prolonged rainfall associated with bounty (the Gifts of rain) becomes a recipe for flooding: whether full spate (Cloudburst) or continuous steady downpour now for days.
Enter a living creature into this bleak landscape, defined only by its generic name Still mammal, unbalanced by such extreme conditions (straw-footed on the mud); growing consciousness of a problem he begins to sense weather by his skin.
The insinuating ‘tongue’ of rising water (nimble snout of flood) is mammal-like, obscuring safe passage (licks over stepping stones) and foraging as it proceeds: goes uprooting.
Living is adapting: the creature fords his life. The survival instincts that establish sure footing via guesstimates of water depth (sounding) also ‘hear’ the acoustic of a landscape under threat: Soundings . The imagery applies equally to the poet-émigré thinking of home.
- ‘To survive he must acknowledge his kinship with and dependence on the rest of the natural world, for he is part of the pattern not its centre. Heaney contrasts the figure’s hesitant progress with the assured movement of the water, which seems to possess a sense of purpose’ (MP100);
- cloudburst: a sudden, violent rainstorm;
- straw-footed: an elusive reference possible explained as the name (strawfoots) given to recruits at the time of the American War of Independence;
- nimble: quick moving, agile;
- snout: the prominent nose of a mammal;
- stepping stones: a series of raised stones used to cross water without getting wet;
- ford: shallow part of a river through which to walk or drive;
- soundings: (possible dual intention) measurements of water depth; attunement to the sound of;
Human presence is now added: A man wading lost fields distorting the glassy, waterlogged surface by his movement (breaks the pane of flood). The turbulence he causes throws up an image of beauty (a flower of mud-/ water blooms up to his reflection) that dissolves into an image of injury like a cut swaying/ its red spoors through a basin … like a beautiful country uglified by warring factions.
This Ulster countryman, and via him the poet, the nation, cannot change his (their) instinctive (farming) responses to cope with (waterlogged) extremes: His hands grub/ where the spade has uncastled/ sunken drills. Inundation threatens the traditional (Irish potato) crops below the surface, jeopardizing a way of life, a nationhood and, most immediately, a source of income: the atlantis/ he depends on. Even walking in water he struggles to maintain his critical relationship with his environment (hooped to where he planted), to fulfil his contribution to the annual agricultural cycle (sky and ground/ ( ) running naturally) as he searches blindly for the plants he knows are there among his arms that grope the cropping land.
- ‘the solitary figure becomes clearly identifiable. It is the poet himself, a déraciné, returning to the ‘lost fields’ of his childhood, and the lost field of Ulster. Literal and symbolic levels of meaning are maintained in subsequent images ( ) the water, memory, Ireland – a metaphor of beauty – surface, only to be immediately displaced. The simile of the cut ( ) helps the reader to visualise the troubled water, but also reminds one how in Irish history and myth, words like ‘land’ and ‘blood’ are kin. ( ) The concluding images of this section suggest that places can generate currents of energy, connecting the human, natural and elemental worlds to each other and to their past’ (MP100);
- wading: walking with effort through water;
- pane: reference to a single sheet of glass in a window or door;
- swaying: moving rhythmically backwards and forwards/ from side to side;
- spoor: sign, signal, trail;
- grub: unearth by feeling around;
- uncastle: level something strongly constructed;
- drills: earth rows in which seeds are planted;
- atlantis: reference to the legendary prosperous island of Atlantis, swallowed by the sea and lost;
- hooped: forming a circle;
- grope: firmly grasp:
Heaney sets out the subtly different sounds he grew to recognize.
Rising water levels in his familiar neighbourhood river were distinctive: When rains were gathering / there would be an all-night / roaring off the ford.
Thanks to their experiences and the acuity of their world-schooled ear local folk possessed the canny ability to make fine distinctions amidst the cocktail of sounds (monitor the usual confabulations): the splashing sound emanating from the man-made channel close to the houses (the race slabbering past the gable); the metallic, musical plucking sounds of the Moyola harping on/ its gravel beds.
To the listening ear, gushing columns thrown up by the river’s turbulence played their own tunes (spouts by daylight/ brimmed with their own airs) or overflowed each barrel of the water-wheel in abundant strands: in long tresses.
Something has gone astray. The missing notes are nowhere to be heard: I cock my ear / at an absence. Then he sorts it: his common Irish ancestry and pedigree (the shared calling of blood) are pushing him to affirm the traditions and knowledge of pre-colonial Gaelic Ireland passed on typically by word of mouth: my need/ for antediluvian lore.
He picks up the frail, throaty signals of those early speakers (Soft voices of the dead ( ) whispering by the shore) of whose experiences he would wish to learn (I would question) then pass things learnt to the next generation (for my children’s sake): tales of Irish hardship and famine (crops rotted), their primitive dwelling places: river mud glazing the baked clay floor.
- ‘The ‘absence’ which the poet’s ear picks up (in ‘Gifts of Rain’) is that of the older native ‘lore’ of pre-colonial Gaelic civilization (‘antediluvian’ … because prior to the flood of colonization). It is the lore of native history and tradition … listening in to this lore is necessary to found a more equitable future’ (NC41);
- ‘Heaney celebrates the River Moyola, the source of his initiation into music, his baptism in sound. Though returning to its initial image of continuous rainfall, the focus now has shifted to childhood and the past tense, and away from the tense present. Once more the adult poet captures the child’s exhilaration with noise and sights and danger, referring to the water’s ‘roaring’ at night, its bathetic ‘slabbering’ by day, and the ‘long tresses’ which pour in abundance from the overflowing rain-barrel … he longs to question the river-oracle… and endeavour to found an Irish future (‘for my children’s sake’) through communion with the Gaelic past (‘Soft voices of the dead’), and to place present failures (‘crops rotted’) into perspective. There are positive associations in the image of the river bed as a kiln, as if hope might harden into definition one day’ (MP101);
- gathering: building up, accumulating;
- world-schooled: lessons taught by the ‘university of life’;
- confabulations: derived from Latin verb indicative of ‘talking together’; cocktail of sounds;
- race: a strong current of water (associated elsewhere with the channel of water-mill)
- slobbering: a neat imitative word combining liquid mud and sound (‘slurp’)
- gable: the triangular wall at the end of a ridged/ pitched roof;
- Moyola: the local river of Heaney’s childhood:
- harping: producing the metallic, flowing sounds of a harp (Irish emblem);
- spouts: rotating columns of water;
- brimmed: filled right to the top;
- tresses: (locks of) hair;
- cock: sense of tilting the ear to catch a sound
- antediluvian: used generally to indicate the time before Noah’s Flood referring to God’s punishment of a wicked world in Genesis of the Old Testament; Heaney is aware of an alternative: the Moyola, his local river, overflowed its banks in the 1920s, flooding nearby Broagh and becoming a date against which locals timed events …’before’ or ‘after’
- glazing: overlay with a shiny coating not unlike ‘glass’;
Interweaving his ‘langagey’ theme with synesthetic effects, Heaney bows in homage to a personified, glorified Moyola. No need to write anything down, the river’s name spells itself; the letters that form her name are synonymous with her distinctive Cleopatra-like colouring (tawny); she possesses an individual, guttural voice with a unique musicality (score) that elevates her to empress status (in a Cleopatra sense she has a consort who adores her; alternatively she is one instrument in a group orchestrating the sounds of Ulster).
The dialect and dictions Heaney ‘hears’ from afar along her distant banks affirm his sense of being an Ulsterman: bedding the locale / in the utterance. The haunting reed music produced by her old chanter has floated through the insubstantial Ulster air since time immemorial: breathing its mists/ through voweIs and history.
The Moyola, teeming with bounty (A swollen river), an intimate voice (a mating call of sound) that stimulates Heaney’s thirst for a deep-seated relationship (rises to pleasure me) bringing him the riches of a biblical Dives. The Moyola, a symbol guardian of shared Northern-Irishness (hoarder of common ground) currently under threat from sectarian division;
- the Moyola (is) transformed by his myth-making into a river goddess, an accessible deity to whom he can appeal for imaginative guidance and strength … she symbolizes creative unity, the inseparability of composer and ‘score’, nature and art, history and contemporaneity, physical and spiritual being … Heaney acknowledges the gifts and the grace she has bestowed upon him, transforming him into a rich young man, a second Dives. The poem ends with the pious wish that his cherishing of home territory, the interlocking Catholic and Protestant farmsteads of South Derry, might in turn encourage others to find common ground in a landscape jointly inherited. (MP101)
- tawny: combination of orange-brown and yellow shades of colour; associations with Anthony and Cleopatra, Cleopatra’s ‘tawny front’
- guttural: (describing speech) throaty, harsh-sounding; (describing language) rich in guttural consonants e.g. velar plosives [k] [g];
- score: vocal/ musical arrangement presented as a document;
- consort: specific reference to the spouse of a reigning monarch, by extension a mutually beneficial partnership; a small group of musicians;
- bedding: establishing (retaining the notion of sleeping alongside);
- locale: a particular spot where things happen, life goes on;
- reed music pun: woodwind instruments, the oboe for example uses a reed; reeds grow on the river-bank;
- chanter: the part of a (bag)pipe with finger holds through which to produce the melody;
- swollen: enlarged by accumulated water-flow;
- mating call: sound made by a bird or animal to attract a (sexual) partner
- pleasure: generate a feeling of intimate closeness, enjoyment or satisfaction;
- Dives: traditional name for a rich man originating from the New Testament (Luke xvi); associated with ‘divine’ so ‘favoured by the Gods’;
- hoard: accumulate and store items; the collection of items in one place;
- common ground: original sense of open land accessible to all is extended to signify things shared by all parties (speech, land, heritage, history etc.);
- ‘Prior to those place-name poems ( ) I wrote a poem in Berkeley called ‘Gifts of Rain’, a strange, water-logged thing that went back to conversations I’d overheard as a youngster about a time in the I920s when the Moyola had over flowed and flooded some of the houses in Broagh. Older people would occasionally remember events and date them by asking, ‘Was that before or after the flood?’ So ‘Gifts of Rain’ came out of this sense of belonging to an antediluvian world’ (DOD125);
- ‘Another major legacy of colonialism, broached first in ‘The Last Mummer’, and then explored in a succession of poems – ‘Traditions’, ‘Anahorish’, ‘Broagh’, ‘Toome’, ‘A New Song’ and ‘Gifts of Rain’ – is the linguistic dispossession of the Irish people. Though on one level these poems mourn the ‘Vanished music’ (‘A New Song’) of Gaelic, on another they deny silence and loss. Acknowledging the debt contemporary Irish writers owe to Joyce, Heaney has commented that thanks to (Joyce) English is by now not so much an imperial humiliation as a native weapon’’ (MP97);
- ‘A number of poems are peculiarly alert to the ways in which a spoken tongue might be the medium of a history and a politics: and the word ‘ear’ is consequently also prominent in Wintering Out … in ‘Gifts of Rain’, he rakes ‘soundings’ into the flooded landscape, where the word punningly means both measurings of the depth of water and attunements to the sounds made on the land. The poem typifies the balance maintained between realism and allegory in Wintering Out’
- ‘Gifts of Rain’ is one of Heaney’s most successful reflections in time of civil war ( … ) it reveals the poet struggling for self-definition, making tentative ‘soundings’ into the deeper tracts of consciousness, as he strives to reconnect himself to the watery land which bore him. At the same time ( ) it is motivated by ‘the shared calling of blood’ – family and racial. The dramatis personae of his first two books – father, mother, wife and the poet himself – have been joined by a larger cast from the present, past and future, which includes his children and all the (Heaney) hopes to reconcile what he sees as his dual responsibilities, to himself as an artist and to his community’ (MP99-101);
- ‘A dominant presence in the poem – as in ‘Anahorish’ and ‘Broagh’ – is water, the healer, the assuager, the shape-changer’(MP99-101);
(i) 12 lines in 2 stanzas; 5 sentence construct; no formal rhyme scheme;
variable line length (2-10 syllables);
watery image accompaniments describing varying intensity: ‘burst’, ‘steady’, ‘flood’, ‘fords’;
communication via mammal senses and instincts(‘skin’): ‘sense’, ‘soundings’; the only words are the poet’s;
‘straw-footed’ suggests ‘sure footed’;
parallel: mammal’s survival and water’s personification: ‘snout of flood’;
emphasis (single-word final sentence) of ‘Soundings’ as an instinctive way round threatening circumstances;
(ii) 7 couplets in 3 sentences; no formal rhyme scheme;
variable line length with copious use of enjambment;
vocabulary of reflections: for water surface read mirror; ‘pane of flood’; ‘man ‘hooped’ into the flood;
simile (‘like’) association of colour and blood: ‘flow’ … ‘red spoors like a cut;
underwater images: ‘sunken’, ‘atlantis’; source of lost ‘treasures’
inexorability and hardship of existence: rain or shine the farmer works to retrieve his livelihood;
(iii) 6 quatrains in 4 sentences; no formal scheme but some assonant rhymes in final words;
variable line length and much use of enjambment;
time clause ‘when’; cause and effect … then > ‘would be’;
composite adjectives: ‘all-night-, ‘world-schooled’;
vocabulary of water build-up: ‘gathering’, ‘snout’, brim’ > ‘overflow’;
sounds of varying intensity: ‘roaring’, slabbering’, (musical) ‘harping’; of the dead: ‘gentle voices … whispering’
comparison: falling water/ cascading hair;
pun: ‘water making a musical sound; harping back, recalling past history (1840s famine and hardships;)
first person: poet/ Irish folk sharing this common ground;
dual intention ‘antediluvian’; Biblical; memory of local event;
(iv) 4 triplets in 2 sentences; unrhymed;
variable line length (4-8 syllables); copious enjambment;
personification: Moyola water has a voice; is educated (‘spell itself’), can speak (‘utterance’); the river speaks with a human voice, is an instrumentalists and a source of pleasurable gratification;
musical terminology: ‘score’; ‘reed’, ‘chanter’; more archaic reference: ‘consort’ a collection of similar instruments – here pipes;
vocabulary of intimacy: ‘mating’, ‘pleasure’ (with ‘rises’ potential for sexual pun);
vocabulary of home, shared origins from ‘locale’ to ‘common ground’; classical word for rich, privileged individual: ‘Dives’;
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 of (1), for example, bring a cluster of plosives: velar [g] [k], bilabial [p] [b], alveolar [t] [d]interspersed with sibilants [s] [z];
- 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.