Planting the alder

The sonnet celebrates a tree that flourished in the riverbank landscape of Heaney’s upbringing. Alders abounded along the banks of the Moyola. The poet tacks on an appeal for everyone to plant a tree to help the environment.

Heaney takes on the challenge of describing colours and textures in a lyrical version of what might be found in a botanical handbook of trees, citing compelling reasons for planting the alder and raising a glass to each of the qualities in turn.

For the alder’s high-class heraldic bark of dulled argent alternating with white striations (pigeon collared).

For its leaves as they inter-react with rain drops: acting as a sound-board (splitter-splatter), disposing of the downfall (guttering ), not taking the relationship seriously (rain-flirt).

 For the springtime shape of its first green cones–their stubby lumpiness (snub and clot) and their shades of green (smelted emerald, chlorophyll).

 For the dull colour (scut and scat) of cones that cling to the tree long after the leaves have been shed: their texture and sound (so rattle-skinned), their fragility (so fossil-brittle).

 For the distinctive colour (flame red) of its mutilated wood when torn.

He loves the alder most of all when it is in blossom for the swinging locks of yellow catkins!

 Planting an alder tree is a ‘must’ however scruffy and unkempt it might appear (streel-head in the rain).

  • bark: tree-trunk’s tough protective cover;
  • argent: heraldic reference to silver;
  • dull: lacking shine, matt;
  • roundly: dual purpose – completely, around;
  • pigeon-collared: the white-collared pigeon has a distinctive white band around its neck that contrasts with its slate-grey colouring;
  • splitter-splatter: an alliterated phrase coined to convey the sound, rebound and fragmentation of falling raindrops on leaf;
  • guttering: shaped so that water runs off;
  • flirt: non-serious relationship
  • snub: short and stubby;
  • clot: lumpiness;
  • smelt: heat to very high temperature
  • emerald (gemstone), chlorophyll (pigment present in green plants): shades of green:
  • scut (short, erect tail), scat (mucky colour, animal droppings): shapes and winter colours of the cone
  • rattle-skinned: texture surface of a rattle-snake’s skin
  • fossil: petrified impressions of prehistoric plants or animals embedded in rock;
  • brittle: that can be easily snapped
  • torn: ripped off, not sawn;
  • locks: ringlets, strands of hair;
  • catkins: small flowers dangling from branches like earrings
  • streel-head: Irish word for a scruffy individual


  • Sonnet form with lines between 3 and 10 syllables; each feature punctuated as separate; the injunction to ‘plant’ in 4 lines; use of enjambment;
  • compounds: the poem offer copious use of hyphenated compound nouns and adjectives; the device has the merit of economical combination;
  • pigeon collared: rattle-skinned: chosen for tinge or textural reasons visible in bird and reptile the latter for its skin is narrow ridged and rough and because the sound its cones make resembles the sound of the reptile;
  • use of words which contain more than one allusion;
  • mixture of dialect and non-dialect words;


  • 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: twelve 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;
  • ‘Alder’ was one of the options Heaney contemplated as title for the collection. He offered slightly different explanations as to why he discarded it in two interviews he gave around the time of its publication. The first, considered: ‘because there was just too much comfort in the phrase’; the second, droll: fellow Northern Irish poet, Paul Muldoon, referred to Heaney as an ‘alder’ statesman which wiped it out, basically.’

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