The Diviner

Heaney delves into the Irish ‘underlay’ (things that make Ireland magically special and unique for him) depicting a talent that, to onlookers, verges on the miraculous. At a different level the poem alludes to the transmission of the poetic message and the magical talent of the poet; its title is ideally chosen to introduce the ‘extraordinary’.

The dowser (called in to locate underground water) goes about his task in a calm and professional way. His equipment amounts to a forked hazel twig, living wood from a green hedge which he grips tight by the arms of the V. He walks in circles so to capture a signal from below ground (the pluck of water) as distinct as the note made by a string-player’s fingernail. His manner is acutely sensitive to movement from the stick (nervous) yet controlled (unfussed).

Successful location brings uncontrollable ‘electric’ charges: sharp as a sting/ The rod jerked with precise convulsions. The water has betrayed its position (suddenly broadcasting … its secret stations). 

The dowser is no showman: he rises modestly above it all, well used to the curious who wonder whether they share his magic touch. He knows he can demonstrate his gift by nonchalantly exploiting their failure (the rod dead in their grasp). Gripping their eager expectant wrists he uses his own hands as ‘jump-leads’ whereupon, as if by magic, his intervention completes the energy circuit: The hazel stirred.

  • divine: (variously) discern by intuition, as if by magic, supernaturally; God-given;
  • forked: with two branches, V-shaped;
  • hazel: small catkin-bearing tree providing edible nuts;
  • circle: walk in circles;
  • pluck: pull, tug, jerk;
  • unfussed: cool, unfazed; without showing off;
  • sting: sharp tingling e.g. from wasp bite, nettle;
  • rod: stick;
  • jerk: sudden, sharp movement;
  • broadcast: transmit, send out;
  • grasp: grip;
  • nonchalant: calm, relaxed, casual;
  • expectant: eagerly awaiting (something to happen);
  • stir: twitch, quiver, tremble;


  • Heaney has ‘connected the poetic gift and the(dowser’s) quest for ‘what lies hidden’ (water/ a port’s insights) (MP73);
  • similarly NC encourages the notion of ‘the poet as intimately involved with his own community, serving it with words and forms as the diviner serves it with vital water’ (8);


  • the 12 mainly decasyllabic lines are grouped in 3 quatrains; the sonnet form’s variably placed caesura (literally ‘cutting’, i.e. the natural break-point point between phrases, moods and angles) alters the dynamics: to deliver a pause; to create a ‘will-it-won’t-it’ suspense before the violent reaction of the rod; to hint at the ‘miracle’ implicit in the final phrase; the punctuation helps this;
  • recognisable scheme of loose rhymes abab/ cdcd etc
  • assonant echo chains: [ʌ] cut/ hunting/ pluck/ nervously/ unfussed/ pluck/ convulsions; [ɪ] it/ till/ gripped/ wrists; [ai] bystanders/ try:
  • alliteration of sibilants [s], [sh] and [z]: circling/ unfussed/ nervous/ professionally; : precise convulsions … sharp as a sting … Spring water suddenly … secret stations;
  • contrast between the living rod from green hedge that lies dead in the hands of those without magic powers;
  • transmission of increasingly strong sensations reflected in the vocabulary: from pluck via sting to convulsions/ jerked;
  • parallel: as the water transmits its sensation to the stick, so the diviner to the inquisitive sceptic;


  • 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: ten 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 continuant [h] 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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