Helen Vendler, long-term friend of the poet and author of books, articles and reviews of his poetry, provides a key to this cryptic, elusive piece: In this dream of guilt and repentance Seamus Heaney is a Wordsworthian boy robbing a nest of eggs (cf. The Prelude (1850), Book First, ll. 326-28).
Placed close in the collection to ‘Summer Home’ which describes a holiday crisis in Heaney’s relationship with his wife, Marie Heaney, for which he suffers acute guilt feelings, Somnambulist provides a ‘psychological’ dream sequel in which he and his estranged wife take part.
A crime against life (the theft of a mother bird’s egg) is exposed via a tragedian’s dramatic body posture: the somnambulist stares at the physical agents of theft (Nestrobber’s hands) asking himself despairingly how they could ever have committed such an act; the second presence, a disembodied visage, is placed, in his dream, behind a veil and beyond his reach: a face in its net of gossamer. The ‘veiled’ face is a woman’s, Marie Heaney’s.
Somnambulist, egg thief and poet are the same person. Heaney has transported us into a sleepwalker’s world pervaded by sub-conscious guilt.
The dream sequence reaches a rapid dénouement: tears of repentance ‘convict’ the nestrobber for his crime against the mother bird; his genuine weeping is copious enough to dampen the fine linen pillow-case of the bed (unstarch the pillow); the precious egg is crushed to freckle her sheets with tiny yolk.
HV adds: ‘his hands (leave) small stains of yolk–symbols of his crime (replacing what would be blood-stains in a story of damage to a human being)–on the sheets–“her” sheets, which metaphorically become her skin, as the yolk-stains become “freckles.” … one deduces here an offense against the mother of his children. (Heaney was almost always careful to describe intimate marital things at one symbolic remove, as in “Otter”);
- William Wordsworth’s Prelude I (326-28) reads: ‘Nor less… / Moved we as plunderers where the mother-bird / Had in high places built her lodge; though mean/ our object and inglorious yet the end/ was not ignoble’; the boy-poet is clambering up a Lakeland crag in search of a raven’s eggs perhaps in return for bounty-money (ravens were said to attack lambs);
- Somnambulist: sleepwalker; sleepwalking: a sleep disorder; sleepwalkers arise in a state of low consciousness and perform activities typically performed during a state of full consciousness; awakening sleepwalkers is frowned upon;
- nestrobber: person who steals eggs from birds’ nests;
- net: piece of open meshed twine typically used to capture creatures;
- gossamer: delicate mesh-like substance, for example cobwebs spun by spiders;
- starch: stiffen using starch; unstarch; un-stiffen;
- freckle: (n) small dark patch on the skin that darkens in sunlight;
- yolk: the yellow centre of an egg that nourishes the embryo;
- ‘as we grope to unravel Heaney’s message it is worth remembering his expression of his own creative challenge as commented on by HV in The New York Times Book Review of April 18, 1976: For Heaney, things in their “opaque repose” can be searched out only by divination, in a “somnambulist process of search and surrender” (as Heaney described it in a lecture to the Royal Society of Literature two years ago). When the diviner has found out, as by instinct, a hoard in the nether darkness, he must then gather words with “a binding secret” between them to lift the treasure into view.
Heaney’s dream strategy depicts a man wandering physically through the darkness, his sub-conscious aware of something he has done. Within this ‘Freudian’ mindset images float in and out of focus, feelings of guilt or failure to take proper domestic care surface in distorted ways, visual signals assume different meaning.
- Freud-like, Heaney emphasizes the significance of unconscious processes in both normal and neurotic behaviour and the psychological conflicts between various sets of forces. It may be also that the use of a sleepwalker’s dream somehow enables Heaney to exteriorize his efforts to understand himself;
In a cryptic poem such as this one lacking a direst cue to the text itself the interested reader’s task is multifold: identify who the sleepwalker is and what he is doing there; assess the significance of the sleep disorder, locate where the soft-blurred action is taking place; learn which nest, real or metaphorical, has been pillaged; seek to identify the anonymous woman to whom the sleepwalker has returned and in what sense she is veiled; divine the emotions that have left the man tearful; work out why the egg that he wanted to possess is smashed; speculate on the presence of egg stains on the bed-linen;
- in an unexpected twist, pondering ‘Somnambulist’ the reader becomes a ‘diviner’, in receipt of ‘a hoard in the nether darkness’ and striving to bring it into the light;
- Heaney was very responsive to works of art: the message of Flemish Renaissance artist Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s The Peasant and the Nest Robber of 1568 is relevant to the forces in play in ‘Somnambulist’ in that it presents a moralising contrast between the passive person who is virtuous and the active, wicked individual;
- 3 couplets in a single sentence; line length 3-10 syllables; unrhymed;
- metaphor: veil hiding the face – ‘net of gossamer’;
- unusual invention ‘unstarch’ achieves an economy of words to meet a poetic need; indeed the title is referring to an ‘unsleeper’… ;
- woman anonymous (‘her’) yet unmistakeable;
- The poem is divided into two parts by the semi-colon, with the first two lines giving Part I (the criminal act) of the dream, and then, after the semi-colon, the rest of the lines give Part II (the repentance and guilt in the closing part of the dream). There is almost no seduction of the ear, because the dream is a purely visual one. Only after he composes the poem does he add the one striking aural effect (-list, nest) by prefacing the dream-lines with a post-hoc descriptor of himself “sleepwalking” through the dream (HV); also, perhaps, net/ freckle;
- 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: in a poem of less than thirty words Heaney weaves no fewer than nine assonant strands into the text; Heaney places them 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 piece mixes a cocktail of gentle sibilants [s][sh], labio-dental fricative [f], continuant [h] alongside alveolar plosives [t] [k];
- 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.