Home Fires


  1. A Scuttle for Dorothy Wordsworth

This ‘Tale of Two Dorothys’ portrays William Wordsworth’s sister at different stages in her life. A scuttle such as Heaney describes in the piece still sits next to the hearth at the Wordsworths’ Dove Cottage at Grasmere in the English Lake District.

The first Dorothy young, energetically poking and raking the grate (jig-jigging her iron shovel) with tetchy, noisy determination (barracking a pile of lumpy coals). The man with the appropriate name (Thomas Ashburner) lived in a cottage opposite Dove Cottage and did odd jobs for her including coal delivery.

Dorothy is indifferent to what is going on around her, wracked with pain (her toothache ablaze), a condition aggravated by the stoking process (every jolt and jag) as if a dagger backstabs her in her every joint.

 The second Dorothy old, mentally and physically frail (doting), her age reflected in the flicker in a brass companion-set), alone now – all the companions gone or let go, some dead, some left behind.

Dorothy no longer hears or expects the sound of company arriving (footfalls on the road), where once the sounds of social gathering were as copious (plump) as the depth of her hospitality (the dropping shut of the flap-board scuttle-lid) as it banged shut after she heaped coal onto the open fire: stacked the grate for their arrival.

  • Dorothy Wordsworth (1771-1855) joins the list of the collection’s celebrated names: she was the devoted sister of William Wordsworth, who kept house for him in their native Lake District; she was left on her own after his marriage but kept ‘the home fires burning’ in his absence.
  • scuttle: metal container with handle for fetching and storing coal for a domestic fire;
  • jig: a lively dance involving jumping;
  • shovel: small spade-like tool;
  • barracking: actively interfering with, physically heckling;
  • lumpy: with solid chunks;
  • carted: conveyed, delivered by cart;
  • Thomas Ashburner: real or fictitious name appropriate to his late 18th/ early 19th trade;
  • ablaze: raging, flaming;
  • Jolt: jerk, jar;
  • jag: sharp, painful jolt;
  • stab: wound with a knife;
  • dote at: c.1200, be feeble-minded from age as opposed to dote on be fond of;
  • flicker: quivering glint;
  • companion-set: poker, fire-tongs and shovel, kept together on the hearth;
  • footfall: sound of footsteps;
  • plump: describing a dull, rounded sound;
  • flap-board: a hinged lid;
  • stack: pile up;
  • grate: the hearth recess with metal frame that contains the fire;


  • 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 [əʊ] Home/ coals/ so/goes/ jolt/ bone; also [ai] Fires/ iron/ pile [ɜː] of Wordsworth echoed in Ashburner; [ʌ] Scuttle young/ shovel/ up/ unremarked; new injections: [ɪ] jig-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 [əʊ] doting/ 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;
  1. A Stove Lid for W.H.Auden

The epigraph is from Auden’s poem ‘The Shield of Achilles’ (1952). Heaney is not, however, exploring the rejection of war-related violence of the Auden poem – rather, visual memory of an old style decorated cast-iron stove lid, untouchable because burning hot, has triggered a link in his mind to the epic world of Homer’s Iliad and the decorated shield fashioned for a classical hero by a divine.

Both epigraph and sonnet focus on mass and majesty – different contexts with a shared significance that seems, to Heaney, to corroborate Auden’s view of all that carries weight and always weighs the same.

The classical warrior’s round shield is replaced by Heaney’s small-world icon, similarly round in shape, of concentric circular design, hefty and too hot to handle – a humble domestic object from the past: the small compass of a cast-iron stove lid.

 The boy who once stood next to the stove (the youngster in a Fair Isle jersey)  loved the procedure: the lifting tool that removed the lid by grasping it (stub claw), held it fast with a click-fit sound (clink-fast hold) that reassured the handler … the safety concerns (fit and  weight and danger) as the magma that became clinker(red hot solidus)  was pushed  to one side so that fuel could be fed through the hellish open mouth (fire-fanged maw of the fire-box) … finally the gnashing bucket (he recalls the tooth-grinding sound as coal/coke was propelled by shakes into the fire-box) returned to its place.

His daily routine (one more time)… to safely replace the weighty (tote) stove-lid that shielded him from the stove’s infernal interior (hell-mouth stopper) a mundane flat-earth disc with majesty beyond  its mass.

Heaney invites himself to revisit (poke again) the sounds (rake and rattle), light effects (sparks die) and emotional memories of a long-lost time – cherished (starlit ) times when fetching in coal (dark matter) from a separate building was also part of the routine.

  • mass: body of matter;
  • majesty: grandeur;
  • compass: range, sphere, connotation of circularity;
  • stove: heater, burner;
  • Fair Isle: knitwear of multi-coloured geometric design dating from the 1920s
  • lifter: detachable metal grip
  • stainless: that does not corrode or tarnish;
  • stub: truncated, shortened;
  • claw: hooked device for gripping or lifting
  • clink-fast: ringing sound of attachment;
  • solidus: coals that have fused together, formed a mass;
  • fire-fanged:
  • maw: jaws of a voracious animal;
  • stoke: add fuel to a fire;
  • gnash: grind the teeth;
  • stow: pack away carefully;
  • tote: carry something heavy;
  • hell-mouth:
  • flat-earth:
  • wherefore: … and for this reason;
  • rake: draw together with a toothed implement;
  • rattle: bang, shake;
  • matter: solid mass;
  • coalhouse: building used to store coal;


  • 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;  [əʊ] 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  [əʊ] poked/ 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;


  • 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: fourteen 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, soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies; this is sonic engineering of the first order;
  • for example, the final four lines are especially rich in alveolar plosives [t] [d], nasals [m] [n] sibilant [s] and [sh] alongside front-of-mouth sounds: labio-dental fricatives [f] [v], bi-labial plosive [p] and alveolar [r];
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;

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