Cow in Calf

Picturing himself in a location familiar to him as a farmer’s son, Heaney composes a sonnet about birth and renewal.

The poet weighs up the signs of pregnancy evident in the first instance (It seems) from the cow’s sheer bulk (as if she had swallowed a barrel) and from her sagging undercarriage (slung like a hammock) from front (forelegs) to rear (haunches).

Farming experience recognizes the physical methods required to shift a cow (slapping her out of the byre). The smacks administered sound somehow different with a calf inside her body: solid, dull sounds like slapping a great bag of seed; smacks so weighty that his own hand suffers physical punishment (no doubt a distant memory of school!) smarting as if strapped, echoing like distant wartime underwater explosions (plump like a depth charge/ far in her gut).

The signs of impending calf production emerge: the growing udder resembles a wind instrument with its bagpipe’s windbag, producing a drone ‘continuo’ accompaniment to her lowing. 

Heaney reflects sadly if stoically upon the ever recurring (keep coming and going) loop of a cow’s existence from milk production to motherhood: cud … milk … heats … calves.

  • barrel: large, cylindrical wooden container;
  • forelegs: front legs;
  • haunches: hindquarters
  • slung: suspended (at both ends);
  • hammock: canvas bed (that sags in the middle);
  • slap: smack;
  • byre: cowshed;
  • tingle: mild stinging sensation;
  • strap: beat with a strip of leather;
  • plump: idea of a muffled underwater explosion that expands outwards;
  • depth-charge: anti-submarine weapon that explodes under water;
  • gut: belly;
  • udder: cow’s teated milk-storage bag;
  • windbag: section of a bagpipe in which air is stored;
  • crammed: filled to overflowing;
  • drone: part of bagpipe that produces a continuous sound;
  • lowing: the mooing of cattle;
  • cud: partly digested food moving back and forth between cow’s first stomach and mouth;
  • heats: receptive moments in the sexual cycle;
  • Sonnet form, split 3:6:5; no rhyme scheme save in the final 3 lines lowing/ going
  • Challenging description made easy by the combination of simile and commonplace: slung like a hammock; sound memories from war-time: like a depth charge; the muted sound of underwater explosion: plumped;
  • A visual analogy of udders resembling Windbags of bagpipes opens musical possibilities: to drone in her lowing (the part of the instrument that provides a single continuo sound beneath the tune is called the drone)
  • Assonance occurs mainly in pairs: foreleg/ haunches; slung/ hammock; again/ again; charge/ far; drone/ lowing; one triplet: plump/ gut/ udder;
  • Mainly paired alliterations: cow/ calf; barrel/ belly; slapping/ seed; hit heard;
  • Similes are defined as such: like/ as if;
  • The repetition of again might allude to the blanket depth charging of enemy submarines in WWII;


  • 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 sentence, for example, weaves together a cluster of plosives (bilabial [b],alveolar [t][d], velar [k] [g]) alongside sibilant [s] and nasal [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


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