The Aerodrome

Heaney  recounts  the story of a wartime visit to his local airfield. The visit becomes a parable to do with a child’s insecurity generated, perhaps, by an awareness of temptation and resistance.

The airfield is long since out of commission, first disused then re-developed (first back to grass, then after that to warehouses and brickfields). Its iconic centre-piece (wartime grey control-tower) has retained its control status rebuilt and glazed into a hard-edged CEO-style villa.  Post-war changes in attitude and style introduced a new lexis; here the ‘hard edge’ of uncompromising money-making opportunities. The distinctive wartime features have disappeared.

The aerodrome is a part of mid-Ulster’s history transporting the poet’s memory (Easter Monday 1944) and his senses (smell of daisies and hot tar on a newly-surfaced cart-road) back to a specific walk.

There were compelling reasons for a lad of his age wanting to be elsewhere (the annual bright booths of the fair at Toome) made all the more attractive because they were out of question (all the brighter for having been denied). As the boy reels off the attractions (catchpenny stalls … beribboned gauds) he all but stamps his heels (wherever the world was, we were somewhere else). However ‘she’ is in charge,  has made a decision and is not open to appeal (would be).

The youngster slowly awakens to the pretext that has taken her to where she has dragged him.

Expectation was in the air, greater than any competing odds (sparrows might fall or B-26 Marauders not return). Something to do with that commandeered space (land usurped by a compulsory order) has driven the unfolding drama (watched and waited).

An insecurity transmitted itself to the youngster (a fear crossed over then) linked with planes and pilots (like the fly-by-night and sun-repellent wing that flies by day)an anxiety that he might be about to lose her – a tangible stress as both heavens (sky above me and her that day) and the two of them waited and scanned the airspace.

Legend (and post-war film drama) had it that American forces in Britain in the 1940’s provided an irresistible appeal for many young British women. Hence the question in the young boy’s mind (would she rise and go with the pilot calling from his Thunderbolt?), a neat device lending the pilot godlike status in its dual reference to the name of an American airplane and the ultimate weapon with which Jupiter imposed his will.

Faced with temptation the woman’s sudden decision to shut it out of her mind is discernible to the young witness (only the slightest back stiffening and standing of her ground) as if she has recognized some greater responsibility than infatuation with a god-like stranger (her hand reached down and tightened around mine).

The final lines seek to abstract some truth from the incident that might apply universally both in space and time (here and there and now and then).

Heaney’s thesis: if self is a specific place, then so is love – not something ‘fly-by-night’ or shallow but rather something based on conscience and reflection (bearings taken, markings, cardinal  points) (navigational references deliberately target the aviator and the temptation he represents).

Any imaginary possibility that crossed the woman’s mind (options) as she waited at Toome aerodrome was defeated by her own navigational instincts (obstinacies, dug-heels and distance) – values and upbringing conspired to defeat infatuation and leave her in an honourable place (stance).

  • went back to: became overgrown by;
  • warehouse: building where things are stored in bulk;
  • brickfields: where green fields gave way to housing and industry;
  • control tower: tall building from which traffic was controlled;
  • glaze: install windows
  • hard-edged: both the sharp edges of the buildings and the mind-set of those in control;
  • CEO: Chief Executive Officer, the top job in a corporation, company, organization, or agency;
  • hangar: building where aircraft were parked and repaired;
  • Nissen huts: prefabricated steel structures made from a half-cylindrical skin of corrugated steel used extensively as bomb-shelters during WWII; named after their inventor
  • barbed: with sharp metal spikes to deter trespassers;
  • tar: black substance onto which gravel was poured in road-making;
  • booth: temporary stall at market or fair;
  • catchpenny: cheap and attractive, designed to make quick money;
  • awning: stretch of canvas acting as a shelter;
  • gaud: showy bauble;
  • sparrows might fall: St Matthew’s gospel suggests a spiritual link – that no sparrow could fall without God’s awareness of it; here a sense of ‘cows might fly’ as the youngster assesses his chances of making Toome Fair;
  • usurp: take over by force
  • stiffen: become rigid; a sign of stoical resistance:
  • stand ones ground: stand firm;
  • compulsory order: still used by Authorities to requisition land without regard for ownership;
  • references to day and night allude to WWII aircraft designed for operations; B-26 Marauders Thunderbolt a wartime airplane named to suggest speed and aggression;
  • fly-by-night: an idiom suggesting unreliable, short-lived relationships as opposed to the stronger bonds ultimately demonstrated by the girl to her young ward;
  • (take) bearings: assess one’s position relative to things around;
  • markings: uncrossable lines
  • cardinal points: things that matter, principles;
  • obstinacy: dogged determination;
  • dig you heels in: show stubborn resolve;
  • stance: a deliberate position;
  • Fellow commentator Andrew Grant took the woman to be Heaney’s mother still young and attractive enough to be flirted with, as by the amorous coal man in “Two Lorries” from “The Spirit Level”. This combines with the general mood of impending danger and the immature incomprehension of a child to create his anxiety that he might lose her.
  • eight 4-line stanzas without a rhyme scheme; ample use of enjambed lines ensures variety of rhythm and flow in oral delivery; up to a dozen sentence units including colons;
  • top chefs stand out thanks to their ability to combine advanced cooking skills with the talent of adding herbs and spices with different tastes so as to produce individual and memorable flavours.
  • this poem shows the poet in a similar light as he sets up chains and weaves of sound and echo within the narrative:
  • three initial quatrains that move via assonant [æ] and [ɑː] in chiasmus shape: back to grass and after that/ wartime ; then [ɪ] it/ designated/ brickfield/ designated/ industrial/ rebuilt; into/ villa; Nissen; [ei] grey/ glazed; [əʊ] control/ CEO/ Aerodrome/ local; [uː] Toome/ to; To/ afternoon/ Toome; [ʌ] runway/ huts;[ai] wartime/ wire/ miles/ brighter;[ɒ] bomb/ forgotten/ gone/ not/ hot/ On;
  • alliterative effects are discernible, for example[g] and [k] from the same part of the mouth: back/ brickfields/ control; aspirates: history/ hangars/ huts;
  • into v. 4 and beyond: alliterative effect of bi-labial plosive [b] bright booths/ brighter/ been/ bonnets/ beribbonned and continuant [w] Wherever the world was we were somewhere combined with vowel sounds [ɔː] All/ stalls/ Awnings/ gauds; fall/ Marauders/ compulsory order;
  • the blend continues:[ɪ] and [ai] perimeter/ like the fly-by-night/ flies/ rise; pilot/ slightest/ mine alongside [w] watched/ waited/ watching/ waiting/ wing/ would; [əʊ] go/ Thunderbolt/ only; cluster of [st] sounds: slightest/ stiffening/ standing; rhymes: ground/ around; stance/ distance and alliterative pairs: location/ love/ Options/ obstinacies; dug/ distance;
  • 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: fourteen 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 quartet is rich in sibilant variants [s] [z] [sh], alveolar nasal [n]and alveolar plosives [t] [d], plus labio-dental fricatives [f] [v];
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;


  • Characteristically, Heaney balances violence with healing… The next poem considers the post-war erasure from the landscape of an aerodrome, while the following poem returns to destruction with a version of Horace echoing the attack on the World Trade  Center: “Anything can happen, /the tallest towers / Be overturned.” An example of Heaney’s care in shaping a book, this strategy replaces surprise with deliberation.  Stephen  Knight in the Independent Sunday, 9 April 2006

One thought on “The Aerodrome

  1. I took the woman to be his mother, still young and attractive enough to be flirted with, as by the amorous coal man in “Two Lorries” from “The Spirit Level”. This combines with the general mood of impending danger and the immature incomprehension of a child to create his anxiety that he might lose her.

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