The poem was written in early 1963 and first published in The Irish Times. It portrays an instinctively timid person poised to make a stand against the nature he was born with. The defeated child of ‘Death of a Naturalist’ (and the over-imaginitive youngster of ‘The Barn’ will grow in courage and see himnself a little more clearly.
The poem’s title is borrowed from English philosopher Francis Bacon’s book The Proficience and Advancement of Learning (1605). Heaney prefers the indefinite article to specify an incident instrumental in his own personal development.
The speaker sets out along the river. His aside confirms the habitual choice of route (As always, deferring/ The bridge).
As he stands Hunched over the railing, his initial focus rests on the folds and sheen of water (pliable, oil-skinned) and the reflections cast upon it (wearing/ A transfer of gables and sky). He spends a moment watching ship-shaped swans whose dipping for food reveals their darker under-body (dirty-keeled).
His attention is overtaken by squeaking sounds expressed via a stream of sibilants and velar plosives: Something slobbered curtly, close/ Smudging the silence. The poet’s use of synaesthesia interweaves vocabulary of sound and vision to magnify the repulsiveness he is experiencing.
His first reaction is a gag of nausea (My throat sickened as a first rat slimed out of the water), then acute anxiety (cold sweat) followed by an oath of disgust (God) at the sight of a second scuttling rat nimbling to outflank him.
Given his innate sense of fear (dreaded), Heaney’s soldier-like resolve to create a strong position on enemy territory comes as a surprise to him: Incredibly then/ I established a ( ) bridgehead.
Indeed increasing self-assurance brings a surge of excitement (I turned to stare/ With deliberate thrilled care) and the will to face his hitherto snubbed rodent eyeball to eyeball.
The description that follows is an example of Heaney’s talent for matching language and observation. He depicts the rat’s haphazard movement (he clockworked aimlessly a while), its concentration and its greasy anatomy (back-bunched and listening/ Ears plastered down on his knobbled skull), its cunning guile (Insidiously listening).
Finally the trial of strength: He trained on me (the metaphorical ‘rifle’ extends the military imagery of bridgehead) the who-will-give-way-first I stared him out.
Victory! The agent of so much irrational fear around the childhood farm (This terror, cold, wet-furred, small-clawed) climbs down, retreating to where it belongs: up a pipe for sewage. A momentary glare of triumph, and the speaker walks on; he has successfully crossed the psychological and emotional ‘bridge’ he avoided in the first couplet.
The idiom ‘I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it’ (in the sense of ‘face up to a problem when it crops up’) is appropriate to the poem’s message.
- advancement: development, improvement, further step;
- embankment: earth or stone wall that prevents a river bursting its banks;
- defer: normally delay, postpone ; here indicating choice;
- nose: move with caution, slowly;
- pliable: flexible, easily bent; here ‘bending with the current’;
- transfer: picture/ design that can be transferred to another surface;
- gables: triangular ends of pitched roofs;
- hunched: with shoulders raised and upper body bent forwards;
- railing: fence made of rails, vertical iron bars;
- keel: lowest length of timber/steel that supports a boat’s structure;
- slobber: make a sound like a watery discharge from the mouth;
- curt: short-lived and rude;
- smudge: make a messy smear blur;
- slime: (as a noun) unpleasant, thick, slippery liquid; Heaney creates a verb;
- nimble: (as an adjective) light and agile; Heaney creates a verb;
- arcs: curving trajectories;
- bridgehead: a secure position in enemy territory from which to advance;
- thrilled: of sudden pleasure;
- snubbed: avoided, spurned, ignored;
- rodent: mammals that gnaw e.g. rats mice
- clockwork: follow a pattern of movement;
- bunched: flexed;
- plastered: lying as if glued;
- knobbled: uneven, bumpy, lumpy
- insidious: stealthy, sneaking, cunning;
- taper: become thinner;
- snout: animal’s nose and mouth
- train: point, aim (typically a gun)
- hen-coop: cage or pen for poultry;
- sewage: waste water and excrement;
- the poem contains elements of: memory landscape; a childish phobia overcome; an illustration of nature’s less attractive face;
- a child’s initiation into fear (MP66);
- in the early chapter of DOD Heaney confirms the presence of rodents in the Mossbawn roof-space
- a 9 quatrain poem of mainly octosyllabic lines; the rhyme scheme follows no strict pattern: now abab, now cdcd, now on even lines, now a middle couplet (v5), now odd lines;
- the poem’s tempi vary to echo the calm start, the panic of being surrounded, the tenseness of stand-off between man and rodents; a momentary pause ; the triumphant walk-away;
- the punctuation contributes to this with frequent use of comma, sentences completed in mid-line contributing to a quick-moving, fractured drama;
- alliterations: voiced alveolar [d] of considered/ dirty-keeled swans; voiceless velar plosive [k] of curtly, close; sibilant [s] and voiceless alveolar [t] alone or in tandem: something/ smudging/ silence/ trained/ stared out/ forgetting;
- vocabulary of viscous unpleasantness: slobbered/ slimed/ nimbling/ tracing/ glistening/ raindrop eye;
- military references: cold sweat/ bridgehead/ trained;
- snubbed: (possible dual intention) shunned; stubby, knobbly creature;
- water effects of movement and sheen: pliable/ oil-skinned/ transfer
- neologism: clockworked – the tin-plate toys of Heaney’s childhood were wound up; when released they whirred round in random circles!
- in the defiant stand-off Heaney reveals one essential characteristic for a poet, observation: took all in;
- 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: fourteen 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, for example, weave together a cluster of plosives (bilabial [p] [b] alveolar [t][d], velar [k][g]) alongside sibilant [s] and nasals [n] and [m];
- 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]; interlabial 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/ ang