The sonnet sets out at some length the physics and dynamics of wielding a hammer. The energy generated brings with it, however, an understanding of its destructiveness. What begins as a sense of physical reverberation affecting the person using a heavy tool ultimately evokes a shiver of fear when, as contemporary history demonstrates, extreme power falls into the wrong hands.
The tool in question is the weighty sledge-hammer, commonly used by builders and labourers for demolition. Aware of the possible damage to the untrained operator it is clear that the poet/ farmer’s son has handled such an implement and been shocked by its potential.
The poem sets out The way, ‘instructions’ for the safe use of the sledgehammer. Firstly the ‘stance’: the posture required to swing this heavy tool: your two knees locked, your lower back shock-fast (recalling the ‘braced’ snedder), reminiscent to Heaney of a classical defensive military formation, the testudo, which used overlapping shields. The ‘eye’ is drawn up the body via spine and waist to the point at which weight is transferred: A pivot for the tight-braced, tilting rib-cage.
From stance to ‘grip’ of the tool hanging vertically with its blunt iron head as ugly as an oversized, misshapen foot: Unyielding(ly) as a club-footed last (a cast-iron foot-shaped model used by a shoemaker).
Finally the rise and pause of the back-swing: heft and then half-rest, followed by the acceleration like a long-nursed rage/ About to be let fly. It is this reference to anger that invites reappraisal of the poem’s real intent.
The poet alters course, raising a question: does it do you good… what benefit, physical, intellectual or emotional, might you have derived from having experienced in your bones the power of a sledgehammer whether literally the impact of your own physical act or by extension the potential power at anyone else’s disposal, directable/ Withholdable at will? How should the poet and by extension all people of conscience be affected by the shiver of such an awesome double ‘clout’, the first of which could all but vaporise solid stone, make air of a wall, and a second so unanswerably landed/ (that) The staked earth quailed and shivered in the handle?
Heaney is suddenly talking about ‘strike’: the power wielded by terrorists flying aircraft into public buildings.
- A last is an implement in the approximate shape of a human foot, used by shoemakers and cordwainers in the manufacture and repair of shoes. Lasts typically come in pairs, and throughout their history have been made from many materials, including hardwoods, cast iron, and, more recently, high density plastics.
- Club foot is deformity of the foot which leaves it misshapen, often rotating inwards;
- the image of man wielding sledgehammer resembles the post-industrial equivalent of classical and Renaissance sculptures of the type!
- The sonnet has discernible rhymes abcd/ abcd in its first 8 lines: ‘sledge’ – ‘sledge’, ‘fast’ – last; waist – ‘rest’; ‘cage’ – ‘rage’; these disappear after the volta in line 9; .
- The way… is repeated three times as technique is described; its absence from the final lines may be judged ironic in that unwelcome abuses of power take a variety of forms;
- assonant effects: [u] you/ to/ to/two; [ɒ] locked/ shock-fast; a weave of vowel (i) sounds [ɪ] [ai] and [ei]: in/ spine/ waist/ pivot/ tight-braced, tilting rib-cage/ its/ iron; [ʌ] un yieldingly/ club-footed; [e] heft/ then half-rest; [ɪ] it in/ Withholdable at will; [əʊ] known/ bones/ Withholdable/ blow/ so; finally [ei] staked/ quailed;
- alliterative effects: the sonnet is initially rich in sibilant [s] and [ʃ] (sh) sounds, later replaced by voiced and voiceless velar plosives [d] and [t];
- Heaney offers vocabulary with more than one meaning: unanswerably – one is stunned into silence; there is no defence; riposte is impossible; staked – marked out; burnt (at the stake); invested in by capitalists;
- make air of a wall: the image of aircraft vaporising matter as they are flown into buildings is etched on the memory of all who witnessed 9/11.
- Several of the finest poems are at the heart of this thematic (conflict) movement. ‘A Shiver’ describes the way a man swings a sledgehammer in terms of great allure, then questions the value of that allurement (‘Does it do you good/ To have known it in your bones, directable,/ Withholdable at will,/ … The staked earth quailed and shivered in the handle?’). In ‘Anything Can Happen’, the human geography of the central conflict in District and Circle becomes clear: ‘Anything can happen, the tallest towers/ Be overturned, those in high places daunted,/ Those overlooked regarded.’ Arms around the world Tobias Hill in The Observer, Sunday 2 April 2006
- In “A Shiver” Heaney describes the act of swinging a hammer and the release of its potential energy, “Its gathered force like a long-nursed rage / About to be let fly.” Throughout these poems there is a tremendous sense of stored-up energy, but only occasionally do we witness its full release. There is something endlessly patient and solid about Heaney’s work, but which at the same time militates against surprise. If this is a weakness, it is one that derives from just how familiar the formally flawless Heaney poem has become over the years. It is a remarkable instrument, which makes it all the stranger that that his most humanly moving poems are those which owe least to the unflappable Heaney persona we know so well. David Wheatley in The Contemporary Poetry Review