Home Fires

  1. A Scuttle for Dorothy Wordsworth

‘A Tale of Two Dorothys’ in appreciation of William Wordsworth’s sister at different stages in her life.

The first Dorothy young, stacking and raking the grate with tetchy, even noisy determination, jig-jigging her iron shovel/ Barracking a pile of lumpy coals. Heaney has learnt of or invented (possibly from memorabilia exhibited in the Wordsworth Cottage at Grasmere) a coal-man bearing a particularly appropriate name: Thomas Ashburner.

At this moment in time, however, Dorothy is indifferent to all that, too wracked with pain to spare any thoughts for him: Her toothache/ ablaze, aggravated by the stoking process she is engaged in: as every jolt and jag/ Backstabs her.

The second Dorothy old, mentally and physically frail with age, sitting alone in front of an open fire (doting in the flicker/ In a brass companion-set), her socialising a thing of the past: all the companions/ Gone or let go, dead or neglected.

Dorothy is deaf now to the sound of social gathering once as plump/ As the dropping shut of the flap-board scuttle-lid. The word ‘plump’ appropriate both as an indicator of the fullness of her hospitality and, onomatopoeically, to describe the sound made by the lid banging shut after she stacked the grate for their arrival.

  • dote (v.): c.1200, “to be feeble-minded from age”;
  • companion-set: poker, fire-tongs and shovel, kept together on the hearth,
  • Dorothy Wordsworth joins the list of the collection’s celebrated names: she was the devoted sister of William Wordsworth, who kept house for him, latterly in their native Lake District; she was left on her own after his marriage but kept ‘the home fires burning’ in his absence. The poem is in part about living alone.
  • In our times of instant heating, it is difficult to appreciate that keeping warm in days gone by involved coal and coke, dust, mess and hard work. In this piece the hearth is the central feature and unifying factor.
  • 2 sextets; lines based on 10 syllables; no rhyme scheme;
  • 2 sections separate young from old;
  • sound effects in stanza (1) reflect activity and pain: title sounds: recurrent [əʊHome/ coals/ so/goes/ jolt/ bone; also [ai] Fires/ iron/ pile [ɜː] of Wordsworth echoed in Ashburner; [ʌ] Scuttle young/ shovel/ up/ unremarked;  new injections: [ɪjig-jigging; superseded by variant (a) sounds: accentuating the toothache with ablaze/ name: [æ] jag Backstabs; audible groans can be heard in the hurting bones: wrist/ neck/ jaw; alliterative pairs or clusters: [j] [k] [b]; accretion of ‘agony’ monosyllables in line 6;
  • stanza (2) depicts the old Dorothy [əʊdoting/ go/ road; introducing subtly variant sounds of vowel (o): companion/ gone/ foot/ for/ sounded/ once/ dropping/ board; injection of [ʌ] unlistened/ plump/ shut/ scuttle and [æ] as/ flap / stacked/ arrival;
  • decline in life is accompanied by use of enjambments that slow the pace;

        2. A Stove Lid for W.H.Auden

The epigraph is from Auden’s poem ‘The Shield of Achilles’. Both epigraph and sonnet concern themselves with mass and majesty.

It is ‘roundness’ that gives rise to the correspondences: firstly the classical warriors round shield, then Auden’s large-scale world, all/ That carries weight and always weighs the same; finally Heaney’s small-scale symbol of ‘mass and majesty’, similarly round in shape and protective though lacking epic quality in the Homer/ Auden sense: a humble everyday object recalled from the early days: the small compass of a cast-iron stove lid.

The speaker was once the youngster in a Fair Isle jersey, who loved the tools of the stoking process: the lifter with its stub claw, made fit-for-purpose of stainless steel, functional with clink-fast hold ( the securing click of the fit); admiring of The fit and weight and danger as the red hot solidus (the magma that become clinker) is carried to one side of the stove, fuel added through the open mouth (the fire-fanged maw of the fire-box … stoked) and the gnashing bucket, (evocative of the sound of coal/coke as, like teeth, it grinds together or is propelled by shakes into the fire-box) returned to its place.

The stove-lid assumes a significance that exceeds its proportions, a majesty that belies its mass, shielding the stove’s infernal mouth, suggestive both of the entrance to hell and molten earth’s core.

The well trained ‘youngster’ is used to replacing the lid (hell-mouth stopper, flat-earth disc), and ensuring that thanks to a good rake and rattle dangerous live coals end up in the ashpan.

A final chore might well require him to go for coal, dark matter in the starlit coalhouse where fuel was traditionally stored.

  • Auden was a 20c British poet, playwright and critic who adopted American citizenship in 1945. He was often torn between his privileged background and his left-wing political sympathies.
  • Auden’s Shield of Achilles: poem (1952) and collection (1955);
  • The Homer and Auden versions; the latter a response to the epic former differ considerably in their views as to  ‘the mass and majesty of the world’; Heaney provides his nominee;
  • Pictures of Achilles, princely hero of Homeric accounts of the Trojan War feature his characteristic round shield, solid and imposing, a protection against adverse forces; it was round with 9 concentric circles with embossed motifs; Heaney seems to have picked up on its shape and the alliteration of the epigraph;
  • Fair Isle describes a particular style of multi-coloured, warm knitted garments originating from the Scottish Shetland islands and popular in 1940s and 1950s;
  • Sonnet; break after line 9; lines of10/11 syllables (except part-lines); no rhyme scheme;
  • the beginning repeats the assonant/ alliterative effects of the epigraph: mass and majesty; [æ] re-echoes in compass/ cast;
  • variant (i) sounds of (1 )link into sentence (2): [ɪ] blink/ lid with lifter/clink/ fit; [ai] I/ iron with Isle; what follows is an intricate recipe of new sound ingredients: [ʌ] youngster/ loved; [ei]  made/ stainless/ weight/ danger; [ɔː] claw/ bore/ For/ maw; ʊ] hold/ stove/ stoked/ stowed; [ɒ] hot solidus; alliterative [l] loved a lifter; stainless steel; claw/ clink; echoes of [f] [s] and [n];
  • Clink-fast: ingenious compound to express a locking sound;
  • the final 5 lines offer assonant variant (o) sounds: So/ tote; one/ stopper; more/ mouth superseded by [ei] replace/ safely/ rake/ again [ai] time/ die  ʊpoked/ coal; [ɑː] sparks/ dark;
  • alliterative effects: alveolar [t] time/ tote it/ stopper/ flat then [r] replace/ rake/ rattle finally [k] rake/ sparks/ poke/ dark/ coalhouse;