Planting the alder

The sonnet sings of a tree dear to Heaney that flourished in the wet landscape of his upbringing. Alders abounded on the banks of the Moyola in the previous piece.

The poet provides the lyrical version of what might be found in a botanical handbook of trees.

He cites compelling reasons for planting the alder:

For the silver and greys shades of its bark – dulled argent…/ pigeon collared;

For its foliage especially under rain: splitter-splatter, guttering/ Rain-flirt leaves; 

For the hue and shape of its cones in Spring – the snub and clot of the first green cones,/ Smelted emerald, chlorophyll;

For the texture and sound (both elements implicit in the reference to the rattle-snake) of its cones in Winter (they remain on the tree long after the leaves have been shed): the scut and scat of cones in winter,/ So rattle-skinned, so fossil-brittle; 

For the distinctive colour of its lacerated wood, flame red when torn;

most of all for the swinging locks/ Of yellow catkins

The alder tree with its scruffy, unkempt appearance stands out:  Streel-head in the rain (Irish word for ‘untidy person’).

  • Sonnet form with lines between 3 and 10 syllables; each feature punctuated as separate; the injunction to ‘plant’ in 4 lines; use of enjambment;
  • Pigeon collared: the white-collared pigeon has a distinctive white band around its neck that contrasts with its slate-grey colouring; the alder has similar lighter coloured bands around its trunk; rattle-skinned: chosen as a descriptor both because texturally its skin is narrow ridged and rough and because the sound its cones make resembles the sound of the reptile;


  • ‘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 him as ‘alder’ statesman which ‘wiped it out, basically.’
  • Heaney uses words which contain more than one allusion or mixes dialect words with more familiar ones.