The coldness of death prompts huge questions. 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.
Here is 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’.
On an early-morning walk Heaney has unearthed a cold clutch of last year’s bird- eggs, a nestful, all but hidden and preserved intact by last year’s leaf-mould.
To a country boy the very touch of them (the mattness and stillness) confirms they are dead. Any evidence of health is illusory – mere death-sweat deposited on them by the morning dew that didn’t so much shine the shells as damp them.
For a young man who delights in nature walks (on hands and knees there in the wet) and knows where to look (grass under the hedge) Heaney’s contact is intimate (reached in).
If he had hoped for signs of regeneration (warm eggs) he finds only sudden polar stud … stigma and dawn stone-circle chill. A host of ideas is released: the multiple connotations of ‘stigma’ (the reproductive part of a plant but also mark of disgrace, extending to an emblem of abuse – thinking of the body of Christ nailed to the cross); a clutch-ring of eggs in his mortified palm (the epithet applying at once to the state of the eggs the finder’s numbed arm and his emotional response); a dawn, early day warning, perhaps, of ‘sacrifice’ associated with pagan Bronze Age stone-circles in Ulster.
Stone-cold eggs offered him an on-the-spot awareness, proof positive of something much more ominous – a conspiracy of circumstances way beyond a microcosmic level of a local infertile bird’s nest – that addle matter, leaving all survival in the balance (planetary stand-off).
- clutch: group of eggs laid at the same time;
- leaf-mould: soil of decayed leaves;
- matt: dull, without shine;
- rotten: decayed, bad;
- sweat: perspiration, moisture on the surface;
- dew: nature’s moisture formed by condensed vapour at dawn
- reach in: seek to retrieve something; Heaney uses ‘reach in’ to describe the most intimate of contacts (v. The Butts in Human Chain);
- polar: low temperature such as found at the earth’s poles
- stud: small hard projection unlike its surroundings;
- stigma: mark of shame
- stone-circle: early Bronze age alignment of standing stones of elusive spiritual or communal significance;
- chill: unpleasant feeling of coldness;
- mortified: numb, horrified;
- proof positive: final, irrefutable proof;
- on the spot: at the place in question; put on the spot: present with a dilemma
- addle: rot so it produces no chick;
- matter: physical substance as distinct from mind or spirit
- stand-off: in one sense deadlock; in a cosmic sense circling without getting closer
- at the risk of reading in more than Heaney intended unhealthy life-style, the decline in male sperm-count and growth of infertility, examples from the natural world suggesting that the melting ice-cap has placed the polar-bear amongst thousands of endangered species continue the debate that Heaney introduces.
- 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: [əʊ] cold/ 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;
- 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: eleven 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 rich in alveolar plosives [t] [d] nasals [m] [n], alongside sibilant variants [s] [z] and front-of-mouth sounds: labio-dental fricatives [f] [v] and bilabial [p];
- a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;