A burlesque drama is played out in the guise of paramilitary exercise. Two macho Laurel and Hardy ‘heroes’ are motivated by official bounty payments that could be claimed for killing listed vermin. Their pursuit of financial reward is long in build-up and over in a flash; relative failure is written off as hardly worth the effort anyway! The poet chuckles at the laddish mentality exhibited by the narrator and his companion, Donnelly.
The inhospitable dawn sky is as grey and damp as building materials: Clouds ran their wet mortar, plastered the daybreak.
The bounty-hunters are en route to the ‘killing fields’, along a railway-track, disturbing stones that clicked tartly underfoot and compromised the surprise factor (mostly silent). Too early for trains… the only steam was funnelling from cows, recumbent (Ditched on their rumps), chewing away (Cudding), watching and all but passing judgment on two unlikely combatants (knowing).
The narrator sees marksmanship skills everywhere: The rails scored a bulls-eye into the eye / Of a bridge.
The pair’s military field-craft is poor and attempts to avoid detection frustrated by startled opposition recognizable by its distinctive call (A corncrake challenged/ Unexpectedly like a hoarse sentry) or unique flight pattern (a snipe rocketed away on reconnaissance).
Kitted up for the mission like wartime commandos the companions look the part: Rubber-booted, belted, tense as two parachutists.
They navigate the first obstacle with assault course efficiency (climbed … dropped) and make for cover (a sandy bank, reinforced with coiling roots) from where, comfortably prone (snug on our bellies), concealed behind dead whins and hungry for a kill (ravenous eye), they overlook the target area and lay their ambush (the holes under cover).
A country boy can sense the rabbits returning to their den ( ) Loping under ferns, using natural cover in dry drains, alert to anything abnormal: flashing/ Brown orbits across ploughlands.
Increasing daylight whitens the grey (thinned plaster at the skyline … whitewash ( ) bleaching on houses and stables. In best army-barracks style the wake-up call is imminent: the cock would be sounding reveille/ In seconds.
The first rabbit, condemned as a flashy and reckless playboy trotting up to the hole, is just what the narrator has been waiting for but to his exasperation (I spat) Donnelly pulls rank, claims the prey and empties both barrels with a mocking tribute (‘Wild rover no more’) drawn from a popular Irish folk-song.
The silence is shattered (Another snipe catapulted … A mare whinnied and shivered), the rabbits have fled. Determined to have played some active part, the narrator reveals he discharged his gun, too.
Initial pseudo-military purpose has lost its appeal and is replaced by sauntering laddishness: they dandered off leaving the dead rabbit behind. The bounty payment is written off so no need to provide evidence (cut out the tongue). The remaining rabbits that slipped back when the all clear got round would confirm the outcome.
- MP offers a different angle: ‘boyish relish for violence … based on macho imagery’(45);
- MP suggests ‘a huntsman’s respect and an adult’s empathy’ (ibid 45);
- shoot: group of people hunting together;
- mortar: mixture of lime, cement and sand for building walls;
- plaster: similar mixture for spreading on walls;
- click: short, sharp sound;
- tart: cutting, sarcastic;
- sleeper: beam laid under railway track to support it (traditionally made of wood);
- funnel: issue as if from a chimney ;
- ditch: make a forced landing on water (of aircraft);
- rump: hindquarters;
- cudding: (verb derived from noun) chewing and digesting grass;
- bulls’s-eye: the very centre of a target (high-scoring in competition);
- corncrake: grassland bird with a distinctive call;
- challenge: seek proof of identity;
- hoarse: croaky, gruff;
- sentry: soldier on guard duty;
- snipe: marshland wading bird with unpredictable flight movemen;
- belted: wearing straps carrying ammunition
- acre: traditional British land unit (0.4 hectare); fields were often referred to by their acreage;
- broom: flowering plant common to damp grassy areas;
- gorse: yellow-flowered shrub similar to broom;
- dew: drops of water condensing on grass and leaves often in the early morning;
- bank: long mound, here of sand;
- reinforced: strengthened;
- coiled: twisted in circles;
- yards: traditional British unit of length, 3 feet (0.9metre);
- track: line of rails of the railway;
- snug: cosy, comfortable;
- whin: furze, gorse;
- ravenous: extremely hungry, very eager to (eat or to) kill!
- under cover: hidden but with a clear shot;
- den: hidden home, lair (of animal);
- lope: walk with long strides, bound;
- ferns: flowerless fronded plants profuse in peaty areas;
- drains: channels (natural or man-made) that allows water to run off ground;
- orbits: eye-socket;
- ploughland: fields prepared for growing crops;
- grazing: fields left in grass for cattle to feed;
- whitewash: old-fashioned solution of lime and waster used to paint walls cheaply;
- bleach: turning white;
- sound reveille: wake-up call for soldiers (refers here to cock-crow);
- break: come out of hiding;
- gap: opening, break;
- barrel: the cylindrical tube through which the bullet/ lead-shot is fired;
- spat: said aggressively;
- playboy: man-about-town, pleasure-seeker; over confident male;
- trot: proceed at a moderate pace;
- empty two barrels: fire both barrels of a double-barreled gun;
- got: hit, killed;
- catapult: flew at great speed;
- mare: female horse;
- whinny: neigh;
- haunches: hindquarters;
- dander: stroll, walk casually;
- cut out: slice off (as proof of a kill)
- all clear: wartime signal that danger has passed;
- the longest poem in the collection in 4 stanzas of variable length; lines of variable length, the shortest of merely 3 syllables And got him; no rhyme scheme;
- alliteration: [t] stones clicked tartly (also onomatopoeic association of sound and taste; [k]corncrake/ unexpectedly/ rocketed/ reconnaissance; [b] rubber-booted/ belted; [s] ravenous eye/ used/ greyness/ settle, soon;
- assonance: [ei] daybreak/ grey; [ʌ] funneling/ rumps; [ai] climbed/ iron; [ɪ] whinnied/ shivered;
- cows’ natures enshrined in triple participles: cuddling, watching and knowing;
- vocabulary of humidity: wet/ steamed/ ditched/ dew;
- military terms: bull’s-eye/ rubber booted/ belted/ parachutists/ sentry/ all-clear/ reveille/ barrel;
- time passing is described using colour shades from building construction: wet mortar, plastered … Grey becomes plaster thinned … whitewash … bleaching and eventually light);
- evidence of morning chill is interwoven with railway references: steam … funnelling from cows;
- verbs of movement swing from ‘purposeful’ (climbed … dropped) to ‘lacking purpose’ (dandered);
- the synaesthesia of ravenous eyes combines hunger-pangs and sight;
- humorous intent confirmed by the third animal introduced (in sound at least!): cows/ bull’s-eye/ hoarse;
- 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: twelve 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 bilabial [w], a cluster of plosives (alveolar [t][d], velar [k] [g]) alongside sibilant [s] [sh] 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