The poetic process in action: an item with poetic charge emerges on the periphery of a television sequence. The title is suggestive of things ‘seen’ by a poet which by-pass ordinary mortals. Cameras following news-pieces is also record the less obvious. What Heaney has spotted sets his creative spirit in motion.
The sonnet links two sets of events involving shock and confusion: the first remembered from Irish history; the second in a contemporary newsreel from the war-stricken Middle-East.
The speaker recalls the specific detail of an incident from the past close to Glanmore that provided poetic charge: the month, the time of day and the weather conditions (bell-clear Sunday). He relives the moment: his stance (elbows lodged strut-firm upon a gate) the pretext for being there: inspecting livestock).
What he sees reflected in the distance (gleams) conjures up a picture of the distant Viking vik of Wicklow Bay (to which his scholarship adds the Old Norse word for ‘bay’ for historical colour).
His first line of thought picks up associations with a turbulent period of Irish history featuring 9th century Viking attacks on monasteries, seats of learning in their time each with its scriptorium, where monk/scribes copied and decorated documents for posterity and without whose work written records would be lost.
He can well imagine the nightmarish fear of the inhabitants (Norse raids, night dreads) and the moments of respite recorded in a written account (that ‘fierce raiders’ poem), in which welcome storms at sea lessened the threat of attack.
His second line of thought (thinking shock) brings about the sonnet’s volta after 8 and a half lines – a jolting return to the present and something on the TV screen he was watching, wholly unexpectedly (out of the blue) or escaping censorship’s news- blackout.
Heaney focuses not on the central news footage; he is studying the periphery: a shell-shocked donkey, meandering drunkenly away (loosed from its cart) , initially the bearer and subsequently the victim of violence between Middle-Eastern sectarian/tribal factions: (five mortar shells/ In the bazaar district.
It is the donkey that excites poet’s compassion – a stray moving out of shot … lost to its owner and mentally confused (lost for its sunlit hills. Heaney’s choice of prepositions here makes his intended message a touch more elusive.
- shot: a film sequence
- out of shot: peripheral to or absent from what is being featured
- bell-clear; the call to church carried on the wind
- strut: a metal bar crossing a gate
- Viking: 8-11 century Norwegian seafarers who raided and then built settlements in Ireland
- vik: (Old Norse) bay
- scriptorium: the writing room an old monasteries where manuscripts were copied;
- dread: great fear;
- small hours: after midnight;
- out of the blue: out of a clear blue sky, without warning;
- blackout: period without lights; period of suppressed information;
- stagger: move unsteadily;
- loose: set free, fire a missile;
- mortar: weapon that fires bombs at high angles;
- Sonnet in three main sections: observing, reflecting, watching; lines based around 10 syllables; no rhyme scheme;
- 10 of the 14 lines are enjambed and other punctuation is in mid-line;
- sentences in which main verbs are replaced by participles;
- the section preceding the 1st comma is a weave of [n] November morning sunshine/ unseasonably; [ɒ] on/ lodged/ top [e] November/ bell/ elbows [i:] clear/ unseasonably (later gleams);
- [ai] of sunshine is picked up in livestock/ Viking/ night/ Irish alongside [ɪ] inspecting/ distant/ vik/ Wicklow/ thinking scriptorium; [ei] gate is echoed later in raids;
- assonant so no; alliterative blue/ blackout [ai] re-emerges: night/ five; repeated loosed/ loosed; [ɑː] cart/ bazaar/ wandering; final cluster of [ɒ] shot/ lost/ lost;
- reference to blue/ blackout also implies the bruising when someone is beaten ‘black and blue’;
- a string of ing participles is suggestive of sequential thought;
- 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: thirteen 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 lines bring together alveolar plosives [d] [t], sibilant variants [s] [z] , nasals [m] [n] and a variety of front-of-mouth sounds from labio-dental fricatives [f] [v] to [l], [h], [w];
- a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;
- If the Heaney of North implied that guilt lay everywhere, the Heaney of District and Circle says that innocence and helplessness are everywhere too. The current “war on terror” informs a smart translation from Horace and a sketch about “a donkey on the TV news last night—/ Loosed from a cart that had loosed five mortar shells/ In the bazaar district, wandering out of sight,” away from the conflict, like Balaam’s ass in reverse. Stephen Burt reviews District and Circle by Seamus Heaney as part of the Christopher Tower poetry competition 2006
- Sanity, though, is not the same as immunity. The matter is pursued in “Out of Shot”, where a donkey-cart mortar improvised by Iraqi insurgents visits itself on a mind peaceably contemplating livestock in an Irish field, which in turn implicitly recalls the IRA’s back-of-a-van mortar attack on 10 Downing Street in 1991. ‘”Out of Shot” proffers itself as a sketch, a note, its method recalling Ted Hughes’s Moortown poems. When a poet as fluent and fastidious as Heaney denudes a poem of a main verb, it suggests unstable materials, resistant to settled interpretation. Sean O’Brien Friday, 7 April 2006