The Barn


A second bad-dream poem plays on the stuff of nightmare: half-light and darkness; day and night, benign and threatening. Harmless objects picked out in the first section assume very different natures once a child’s imagination is given free rein.

A youngster describes a place very familiar to him: his memory recalls farm objects stored in a barn. His eye observes initially at floor level. Here he sees threshed corn with the consistency, colour (and indeed value to the farmer) of grit of ivory lying scattered on the ground or packed solid as cement in two-lugged sacks (the stitching-up of the sacks provided two ear-like corners, to be gripped by those lugging them about); here he smells musty dark and interprets the shapes of farm tools as weapons in an armoury.

The eye moves upwards from the mouse-grey (a subtle introduction to later rodent trauma) smooth, chilly concrete to the meagre illumination provided by two narrow shafts and the light effect of floating dust (gilded motes) introduced via air-holes slit/ High in each gable. This windowless, airless barn remains cool within whatever the summer heat beating on its corrugated iron roof: when the zinc burned like an oven.

Imagination is given free rein and drama injected: sharp-edged, sharp-pointed tools begin to take on a threatening appearance as they emerge from the penumbra; it requires no more than a scary ‘something’, real or imagined, to cause panic: you felt cobwebs clogging up your lungs/ And scuttled fast into the light of day.

Oh, the terror of being imprisoned in the barn on nights when bats were on the wing leaving their daytime roosts above the rafters of sleep, of lying trapped in a barn transformed into a place where the prisoner is rodent-watched where bright eyes stared /…fierce, unblinking at ground level, where birds shot through the air-slits and pecked at him (chaff) and when, despite his futile attempts to shut out the nightmare (face-down to shun the fear above), benign items of the daytime bore inexorably down on him: The two-lugged sacks moved in like great blind rats.

  • thresh: separate the grain from the corn;
  • grit: small, loose particles;
  • ivory: substance forming elephants’ tusks;
  • lugs: the upper corners of sacks sewn so as to be useful when lifting; also used informally to refer to ears (hence the ‘nightmare’ pun);
  • musty: damp, mouldy (smell);
  • hoard: store;
  • implements: tools, equipment;
  • armoury: a weapons store; linked etymologically with ‘armorial’ suggestive of heraldic display;
  • plough-sock: the pointed, leading end of a ploughshare;
  • shafts: long, narrow rays of light;
  • gilded: gold coloured;
  • motes: tiny specks only visible when light shines through them;
  • gable: the triangular end of a pitched roof;
  • draughts: chilly air currents in confined spaces;
  • zinc: iron used for corrugated roofs;
  • scythe: large tool used for cutting grass or corn manually with long, curved blade;
  • pitch-fork: long-handled tool for lifting hay manually;
  • prong: pointed spike;
  • clog up: block, bung up;
  • scuttle: scamper, scurry;
  • rafters: roof timber; of sleep: because bats would roost there during the day;
  • unblinking: opposite of ‘blinking’ (opening and closing eyes very quickly);
  • gulf: deep, wide inlet ;
  • chaff: husks of corn left after threshing;
  • shun: deliberately avoid, reject;
  • a child’s initiation into fear’(MP66);

  • MP refers to ‘Gothic menace’ (ibid);

  • nightmare ends in metamorphosis: inanimate things come to life;

  • The poem ‘ends with an explicit statement of new knowledge acquired during the incidents described’ (NC6);

  • twenty line divided into 5-quatrains; a loose scheme abab/ cdcd of ‘close’ rhymes;

  • eleven sentences of varying length accompany the poetic eye as it flits around; the birth of fear brings enjambed lines that echo the quickening voice of a frightened child;

  • alliterative effects: strong in sibilants (solid as cement/ sacks) adding a ‘hissing’ background to the growing fear; velar [k] cobwebs/ clogging suggests voice constricted by anxiety; lack of oxygen adds to the sense of claustrophobia;

  • weave of [t] and [b] sounds: into/ nights/ bats/ rafters/ bright assonance: [ɔː] hoarded/ armoury ; [ ʌ] up/ lungs/ scuttled/ sunlit;

  • frequency compound, compound adjectives/ nouns: two-lugged; air-holes; plough-socks; mouse-grey; face-down etc.;

  • the music of the poem would seek to reflect the slowly increasing threat, gathering speed for the fear and drama of nightmare scenarios reaching its paroxysm as child seeks to shun the fear above (he cannot hide under the bed!) then gagging/ sobbing to spell out the fearsomeness of the final line;

  • 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.

The Barn

  • 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 [m] [n];
  • 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/ anger.

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