Nonce Words

Heaney coins expressions to toast a particular moment on an undated drive west during the pre-Christmas period.  At its simplest, the piece urges celebration of being alive, of ’the time being’, the ‘to-be-going-on-with’.

In a collection that hints at metaphysical issues, bringing us face to face with ‘Mick Joyce in Heaven’, with the otherworldliness of ‘George Seferis in the Underworld’ and Dantesque references to the underworld tunnels of the London Tube, Nonce Words seats us next to an ageing poet at the wheel of his car overriding mortality concerns to savour the privilege of just being there.

Heaney is growing older and he knows it … a senior moment has brought about memory lapse: a missed turning, an alternative route.

A pre-Christmas cold snap that has decorated the world around with frost is introduced with great lyricism: sun on ice, white floss on reed and bushes.

 Heaney composes a beautiful device that, without repeating the word, includes ‘cast’ in both halves of the sentence creating a linguistic bridge alongside a real one: a river crossing built of pre-cast-iron (the bridge – iron cast) set, cast in an Advent silence that befits the spirituality of the moment.

The speaker had to stop (sat breathing mist on the windscreen).  His inner thoughts and an on-coming poem set around the Latin ‘May he/she rest in peace’ spoken as a prayer for a dead person (Requiescat) have brought him to a halt. Heaney reveals it did not happen very often: my first stop like this in years.

 He alighted from the car well happed up against the freezing weather, his mind taking in the distant beauty: gazing at rimed horizon.

He recognized this as a moment for counting his blessings, for the gifts life has brought, however temporarily (things he celebrates in his work – consciousness, health and contentment, everything to do with existence).

He blessed himself not ‘in the name of the Father’ as of religious Blessing , but deliberately couched in existential terms: in the name of the nonce (‘the current circumstances,, the ‘time being’, the ‘to-be-going-on-with’) and happenstance (what fate has in store).

As for what lies ahead (the Who knows and What nexts) – que sera sera, so be it.

  • nonce words: expressions coined for a particular purpose;
  • Cavan: main town in the Ulster border county of the same name
  • Derrylin: small townland west of Cavan;
  • floss: mass of soft, smooth threads
  • cast-iron: formed in a mould rather than fashioned in a forge;
  • Advent: in the church year the 4 Sundays leading to Christmas
  • pull in: pull off the road and park;
  • Requiescat: part of a prayer for the peaceful repose of a dead person
  • happed up: (Northern Irish usage) well wrapped up against the cold;
  • rime: frost particles formed by rapidly cooled vapour, mist
  • in the name of: by the authority of;
  • happenstance: chance, fortune, providence
  • so be it: non-religious equivalent of ‘amen’;


  • 5 sextets; lines of 6 syllables or fewer; 6 complete sentences; no consistent rhyme scheme;
  • in (1) assonant [ɜː] Words/ turned [ai] bypass/ sign / I; end-of-line [ei] taken/ mistaken; [i:] east links with reed in (2); alveolar plosive [t] evident
  • the lyricism of (2) offers a weave of [ai] ice, White iron/ silence [ʌ]Sun/ bush an [ɒ] of Nonce on/ on [æ] cast/ Advent/ across; sibilant [s]  recurs in (2);
  • in (3) ; [i:] re-echoes: breathing/ screen/ requiescat : bi-labial consonant sounds in number: [p] [b] and [w]; [ɪ] in/ mist/ windscreen;
  • happed: colloquial usage for ‘wrapped’ in appropriate outerwear;
  • in (4) s of vowel [o] stood frozen/ shore horizon/ stop [ai] rimed horizon/ like;
  • in (5) multiple repetition as in enumeration of  and its palatal nasal echoed in other words name/ nonce/ happenstance; chain of sibilants: blessed myself/ nonce/ happenstance/ knows/ nexts/ its;
  • poetic licence: three interrogative phrases presented as compound nouns e.g. The Who knows;


  • 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: nine 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 sixlines are rich in  nasals [m] [n], alveolar plosives [t] [d] and sibilant variants [s] [z] alongside front-of-mouth sounds: bi-labial plosives [p] [b], labio-dental fricatives [f] [v], continuant [w] aspirant [h];
  • 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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