Heaney referred to ‘Moyulla’ as ‘a praise poem but it’s keenly aware of ‘green’ issues; and to a degree, its drift is also political’.  ‘Moyulla is about a polluted river, but there’s a river nymph on the scene too aswim in the words and the water. There’s erotic glee as well as ecological gloom’… ‘I wanted to darken the vowel from “oya” to  “ulla “ to suggest a darkening of the ecological climate’. The river had become polluted from the ‘release of poisoned water from the flax dams years ago’ along with ‘agricultural waste’ (DOD 406)

The 4-poem sequence contrasts ecological decline with primordial purity, provides evidence of pollution and offers a host of female symbols … its final images of intimacy are loaded with erotic overtones.


A ‘before-time’ of purity (those days) when the peat-stained Moyulla flowed black-lick and quick beneath the willow trees, remembered now for his ‘brrr’ moments (the coldness off her).

Now living far away, contact with his wife’s skin and clothing (coldness off you, your cheek and your clothes) and her jumping up and down to defreeze (your moves ) after working outdoors brings involuntary memory of it.

 Moyulla, self-contained and knowledgeable (in the swim of herself), invaded (swarmed) in the late spring by pollen scattered like seeds (sowings) that made her surfaces darker still (tarnished her pools).

  • lick: rapid movement;
  • sallies/ sally trees: dialect words for willow;
  • in the swim: aware of what is going on;
  • swarm: come together in a large number;
  • shallows: where the water is not deep;
  • pollen: fine powder carried by the wind discharged by plants and flowers;
  • tarnish: blacken, darken, take the shine off;


  • 12 lines of 7 syllables or fewer; free verse using enjambed lines and dashes;
  • assonance [əʊ] those/ flowed/ coldness/ clothes; later shallows/ sowings [ɪ] lick/ quick  [u] you moves  [æ]  gravel shallows are interwoven with alliterative chains: alveolar plosive [k] black-lick quick; coldness/ clothes; sibilant variants: she swim/ herself/ shallows swarmed/ sowings/ tarnished/ pools;
  • sense data are of sight and touch;


The second piece is less lyrical and more admonitory. Heaney takes issue with perceived voices of indifference to a polemic about decline (so what).

He broadcasts his scorn for such people (let them  cry  if it suits them), blind to the pollutive effect of fertilizer or flax-dam run-off on underwater plants (pebbles slicked and blurred with algae). The river merits lamentation not denial.

 Heaney likens the loss of purity that once defined her (name and addressing water) at the hands of damaging discharges that now defile her (muddying) to the historical phonetic attack on her clear vowels at the hands of the great vowel shift, Moyola to Moyulla.

  • so what: used to mean ‘it’s not important’ or ‘I don’t care’;
  • purls: swirls, babbling sounds;
  • slicked: streaked, covered with a glossy film; read it within the context of ‘oil-slick’
  • blurred: less distinct;
  • algae: rootless aquatic plants;
  • name and address: essential facts that validate identity, help locate;
  • muddy (the waters): make more confused or complicated
  • The Great Vowel Shift: the change from medieval to modern English that affected certain vowels;
  • Less lyrical; more admonitory and linguistic;
  • 12 lines of 7 syllables or fewer; free verse; consecutive enjambed lines;
  • [ai] I/ cry; [ɜː]her/ purls/ blurred;  [ʌ] suffered muddying; variants of vowel [o];
  • alliterative combination of sibilant [s] and voiced and voiceless bilabial plosives:[p] and [b]: purls/ pebbles/ slicked and blurred                  


The mood music changes … Heaney has learnt a great deal since he ranged the Castledawson locality as a boy – the river water that cows drank in the food chain that nourished their young was a source of illness (milk-fevered river) … he had been persuaded that the milky effluent pouring into the river (froth at the mouth of the discharge pipe) was in fact full of toxins (gidsome flotsam).

He recalls how as a boy standing barefooted on the bank of the Moyola, he watched glad–eyed from the river meadow (ankle-grassed), drinking it all in (loved it at the time) captivated by the sights and sounds of cattle suckling their newly born (blettings, beastings), imagining the milk stained water a rich source of fecundity (creamery spillage) along his cherished mid-Ulster river-bank (cleanly, comely sally trees and alders).

  • fever: high temperature, symptom of sickness
  • froth: impure matter that rises to the surface;
  • discharge: release fluid;
  • international company Nestlé opened a factory in Castledawson in the 1940s principally to produce sweetened, condensed milk processed with cow’s milk from a wide catchment of farms; it ceased production in the late 1970s;
  • milk and water effluent drained directly into the Moyola; between ‘A Milk Factory’ of ‘The Haw Lantern’ (1987) and this piece a number of scientific papers and news reports labelled milk a pollutant that used up oxygen in the water to the detriment of river life and affected the milk of riverain cattle;
  • gidsome: an apparent neologism possibly explained by ‘gid’ a disease affecting herbivores caused by the transmission of pollutants to which is added the ‘collective’ suffix ‘-some’;
  • flotsam: refuse floating on water;
  • glad-eyed: viewing with optimism, not asking the right questions; not seeing beyond his nose;
  • blettings: possibly a Heaney neologism; he was looking for an alliteration perhaps that mimicked the moo of a contented mother cow;
  • beastings: cow’s first milk after calving, rich with antibodies for her newborn’s survival; farmers were known to draw it off and freeze it for another time;
  • comely: attractive;
  • alder: common riverbank tree of the birch family;
  • 12 lines of 6 syllables or fewer; free verse; use of enjambed lines
  • assonant effects: [ɪ]  milk/ river/ discharge/ gidsome; unstressed [ə] gidsome flotsam; [æ] bank/ ankle-grassed/ glad; [ɔː] saw it all; [i:] fevered/ beestings/ creamery/ cleanly/ trees;
  • alliterative pairings: [f] Fevered/ froth; [m] gidsome flotsam; [b] barefoot/ bank; blettings beestings; [k] cleanly/ comely;
  • vocabulary of pollution sits in stark contrast to vocabulary of life-giving milk and regeneration;


In absentia he invites anyone who cares to sample, some fresh-faced afternoon, his own enduring pleasure and sensual communion with the Moyulla (step into her for me).

Once protected (thigh waders) immerse yourself in her as deep as you can go (up to the bib).

There is an intimate pleasure to be gained from going head to head with the Moyulla (give and take), battling against her will to unbalance you (her  deepest, draggiest purchase), pitting your strength against hers (countering), seeking a moment’s respite (parting), renewing the struggle (getting back at her), losing yourself (sourcing her and your plashy self) in a communion that will go on and on: neither of you ready to give up.

  • fresh-faced: clear, fine (of weather)
  • waders: waterproof garment covering legs and body;
  • bib: extension of thigh waders from waist almost to the chin with braces across the shoulder;
  • give and take: contest of opposing forces;
  • drag: pull using force;
  • purchase: leverage and movement
  • counter: respond with an opposing force;
  • part: seek distance between
  • get back at: retaliate
  • source (elusive): guide; Latin subregere to lead;
  • plashy: making a splash, water-loving;
  • let up; ease off, give in;
  • 12 lines of 8 syllables or fewer; free verse; 5 consecutive enjambed lines;
  • punctuation: commas are numerous when the action becomes more heated!
  • marked assonant chains [e] Step/ fresh/ step/ getting/ her/ ready/ let; [ɪ] into/ bib/ countering, parting, getting ; also [i:] stream/ deepest;
  • consonant clusters: [f] for/ fresh-faced [s] deepest, draggiest purchase;
  • use of present participles;
  • vocabulary with sensual overtones enhances the erotic nature of the contact;               
  • 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: fifteen 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 six lines are rich in alveolar plosives [t] [d]  nasal [n] and sibilant variants [s] [sh]  alongside front-of-mouth sounds: labio-dental fricatives [f] [v] and bilabial plosives [p][b];
  • 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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