On the Spot

The coldness of death carries huge implications.

An early-morning walker has unearthed A cold clutch of last year’s birds eggs, a nestful, all but hidden preserved intact by last year’s leaf-mould. A country boy knows that the eggs are rotten by the mattness and stillness of them.

Any healthy glow they exhibit is illusory, mere death-sweat deposited on them by the morning dew that didn’t so much shine the shells as damp them.

The speaker who delights in nature walks of this nature clarifies what his search has revealed: not the warm eggs of living matter but This sudden polar stud/ And stigma and dawn stone-circle chill. A host of ideas are released: ‘Stigma’ has multiple connotations, principally the reproductive part of a plant but also mark of disgrace and sign of abuse (thinking of the body of Christ nailed to the cross). A clutch-ring of eggs lies in his mortified palm (the epithet transferred from the state of the eggs to the finder’s emotional response); a dawn ‘sacrifice’ has occurred in a pagan Bronze Age landscape (there are numerous examples of stone-circles in Ulster).

The eggs are interpreted as signs of something more fundamental: proof positive, beyond debate, of a much wider conspiracy of circumstances that addle/ Matter, factors way beyond a microcosmic local infertile bird’s nest; universal anxieties placing everything in its planetary stand-off.

  • Heaney uses ‘reach in’ to describe the most intimate of contacts (v. The Butts in Human Chain);
  • A sonnet; break after eight and a half lines; discernable rhyme scheme at the outset discontinued; lines based on 10 syllables; 3 complete sentences;
  • sound effects in approximate order and frequency: alliterative start [k] cold clutch alongside assonances: ʊcold/ whole/ mould/ stone/ later polar/ stone; [uː] knew/ dew; [e] nestful/ death sweat/ there/ hedge; alliterative fricative [s/ z] variants: nestful/ last year’s/ -ness/ sweat/ so/ shine/ shells/ riser/ busy;
  • ʌ] under/ But/ sudden/ stud; reprise of [s] stud/ stigma/ stone; [ai]  mortified right/ conspired; bi-labial plosive [p] proof positive; [æ] hand/ addle Matter/ planetary stand; the [ɒ] of the title: positive Of/ conspired on the spot/ -off;      


  • An example of Heaney’s subtle use of title: merely ‘being present where it happened’ is injected with the urgency suggested by ‘immediate, here and now’ and feelings of discomfort when one is or should be ‘put on the spot’.
  • Questions multiply: unhealthy life-style; the decline in male sperm-count and growth of infertility. Examples from the natural world suggest that the melting ice-cap has placed the polar-bear amongst thousands of endangered species.
  • The speaker has unearthed evidence of the failure of birds to reproduce. The sonnet moves from a tiny though significant example of biological death, decay and decline to global even universal laws of physics that hold Matter in its planetary stand-off;