The Birch Grove

A poem about togetherness. Two people from an earlier generation share Nature’s regeneration with the privacy of their domestic setting. Both couple and tree (it is said) are at their happiest growing close together.

The birch grove is newly planted in a private enclave akin to historical buildings fallen into disrepair: like the baths or bake-house/ Of an unroofed abbey or broken-floored Roman villa.

Recently established but already in growth, the saplings resemble the mature trees they will become: their own long grown-up selves. Small details link them to the humans present: putting forth in the sun/ …the white of the bark/ As suffused and cool as the white of the satin nightdress/ She bends and straightens up in.

The couple are breakfasting: she serves, pouring tea: he lolls, dandles a sandal/ On his big time-keeping foot, its regular swinging movements like a clock’s pendulum beating the passing seconds; the foot as bare as an abbot’s adds to the medieval feel of the scene.

In fact the couple live in a modern world: the housing materials are of red brick and slate; the standard fruit trees retain/ Their credibility; musical sustenance is classical but in modern guise: a Bach CD making the rounds of the common or garden air (depicted as a series of expanding concentric circles of sound). In the sky above are the indelible signs of a more threatened kind of world-outside: a vapour trail that to those who concentrate on it starts as a jet trail then Tapers and waves like a willow wand or a taper.

In the final couplet ‘he’ finds the witty aphorism that to his particular satisfaction (and, whatever existence might have thrown at them, trumping life/ With a quote) sums up the couple’s choice of this life-style in retirement: ‘If art teaches us anything’…/ .. it’s that the human condition is private.’

  • In Stepping Stones (p 412) Heaney tells Denis  O’Driscoll that the poem ‘is really a portrait of Bernard McCabe (English academic and writer) and his wife Jane (to both of whom the Haw Lantern collection is dedicated) in a little grove they planted at the bottom of their garden in Ludlow (Shropshire, UK) in earshot of the River Teme’;
  • Postscript: for a man such as Heaney, very much in the public eye, the desire to retain some privacy must have high priority. The scene we have witnessed is as close as his friends can get to a haven of privacy!
  • The British Isles provide an excellent habitat for birches: slender, elegant trees with distinctive, peeling bark, common in light sandy and wet soils where, like couples, they grow close together.
  • trumping: in card games, trump cards, even the most modest, enable you to beat other cards whatever their strength;
  • 16 lines in a single stanza; no rhyme scheme; lines of 12 syllables or more; combination of this use of enjambment offers unusual rhythmic potential to the reader;
  • the first sentence runs with the plosive consonants of the title: [g]  and especially [b]: Birch/ back/ baths/ bake/ abbey/ broken; recurrent [r] sound;
  • assonances are achieved using a blend of variant (a) sounds: [æ] back/ abbey/; [ɑː]       garden/ baths/ planted; [ʊə] water/ corner walled; floored [ei] bake; unstressed [ə] Roman;
  • the second sentence (‘planted – abbot’s’) interweaves [i:] recently/ each/ she/ tea/ time-keeping ʊ] only/ own/ grown [ʌ] puts/ sun/ -up/ suffuses/ up [ai] Like/ white/  nightdress  [uːcool/ suffused; [æ] across/ dandles a sandal/ as an abbot’s; alliterative effects achieved by clusters of [l] [s] [t] [b];
  • the final sentences shift from medieval look-alike to modernity; the [ei]of straightens is echoed in slate/ retain/ jet trail/ tapers/ waves; clusters of ] brick/ credibility/ is making/ willow; [i:] tree/ CD/ teaches; the unstressed [ə] common/ garden; a pair of [ai] life/ private; alliterative [w] waves/ willow/ wand;