Lovers on Aran

Heaney expands the sea/land relationship of Valediction settling on an extended metaphor that encapsulates a couple’s togetherness and mutual fulfilment (they are on holiday off the west coast of Ireland in a place where land and sea meet and inter-react). The poem should be read in the context of seduction and sensual communion of man and woman.

The sea, both elemental force and feminine symbol, seeks to possess the landmass she comes up against. Her Waves have broken constantly since time began onto this southern Irish island-shoreline, reflecting and refracting light (bright … broken glass … dazzling … glinting); her waves have rolled in from distant, exotic lands (Americas) examining and fragmenting matter (sifting … sifting); her waves are pursuing physical possession. The absence Heaney felt so intensely in Valediction affirms the female Devlin-sea as irresistible.

Heaney turns things volte-face, suggesting that the sea yielded to him, the male symbol, the island, the immoveable elemental force, keen (rush) to ‘possess’ her by throwing the wide arms of rock around a tide in an embrace that brought surrender (yielded with an ebb, with a soft crash). 

So which way was it? Who possessed whom? Heaney asserts a happy symbiosis: both he and Marie have benefited, drawing (literally and metaphorically) new meaning from the waves’ collision on the road to fulfilment (full identity). 

MP eloquently summarises the forces and feelings in play: all four elements are invoked to celebrate the unity and exhilaration of love and marriage …  Heaney realises his new secular state of Grace  picturing the eternal embrace of land and sea … Metaphors of light mingle with sexual images in a joyous swirl and swell of sound and rhythm Heaney has associated water with the feminine, the Gaelic, the Catholic, the creative elements in his nature’ (pp. 72-73).

  • Aran Island(s) located in Galway Bay on the West coast of Ireland; accessible by ferry;
  • sift: pass through a sieve, filter;
  • dazzling: blindingly bright;
  • possess: own, bewitch, control;
  • yield: surrender, give in, resist no longer;
  • ebb: movement out to sea;
  • crash: break, dash against;
  • define: give meaning to;
  • The poem is full of musicality, cries out for musical accompaniment.
  • MP refers to Heaney’s Catholic coyness … ‘male’ rock embracing yielding ‘water’(p.48);
  • the poem describes Heaney’s sense of completeness (ibid48)
  • 3 triplets; 10 syllable lines that rhyme on the odd line axa byb czc; ‘a little gem’ of composition;
  • assonant sound effects: timeless/ bright; wide/ tide; sifting/ glinting/ sifting; did/ define drew/ new; each/ meaning; yielded/ sea/ sea; alliteration: bright/ broken;
  • deliberate repetition: Aran/ land/ sea;
  • came/ came: the ceaseless landfall of the waves
  • choice of vocabulary with dual possibilities: timeless suggests both ‘age-old’ and’ beyond the reach of time’;
  • frequency of sibilant sounds in the first 3 lines: the breaking, broken rhythm of the waves is woven into the textures of stanza 1; this is accompanied by the sibilant hiss and repetition of moving water on sand;
  • sexuality is inbuilt: yielded …. Soft crash


  • 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: eight 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 labio-dental fricatives [f] [v], a cluster of plosives (alveolar [t][d], velar [k] [g]) alongside sibilant [s] and palatal nasal [ŋ] of ‘ing’;
  • 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


2 thoughts on “Lovers on Aran

    1. Hi Lucy,You have reached David Fawbert; thanks for your question.
      As I remember Seamus and Marie and Devlin are on Aran island, very much in love with each other and the poet eager to demonstrate both the chemistry that will unite them in a long fulfilling marriage and their differences as individuals.
      He notices the interaction of sea and land (two major elements), how each responds to the other, how the one tries to take the other over and how the other resists; once you combine metaphor and male and female synbols you are into the poem. Somewhere woven into the narrative you sense ‘contrast’ though I do not believe this to be the poem’s main thrust.
      Hope that helps; do come back if you wish
      best wishes,

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