The Birch Grove

A retired couple in their domestic setting. Both the couple and the tress they have planted are at their happiest growing close together.

Heaney revealed to DOD (p.412)  that the poem is  ‘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)’. The Heaneys and McCabes were close friends spending time abroad in each other’s company. Heaney picks out the differences between the two personalities with great subtlety.

Heaney tells us the ‘where’ – close to the babble of the river Teme in a walled off enclave akin to historical buildings left in disrepair from medieval or Tudor times (the baths or bake-house of an unroofed abbey) or remnants of earlier conquest (broken-floored Roman villa) – before he reveals the environmental credentials of the McCabes …  a newly planted birch grove.

 Recently established but already putting forth in the sun, the saplings reflect the colourings (white of the bark) of the ageing couple (their own long grown-up selves) … the ‘her’, suffused and cool, with the markedly toga –like elegance (white of the satin nightdress) of the woman  gracefully engaged (she bends and straightens up) in providing refreshment.

 He lolls (dandles a sandal), never still, like a clock’s movement  beating the passing seconds (on his big time-keeping foot), a monk-like foot as bare as an abbot’s adding a medieval feel to the scene.

This is in fact a couple living very much in a modern world … where housing materials (red brick and slate) and trusty standard fruit trees complete the plausibility of the scene (retain their credibility)  …  their musical taste admittedly classical (a CD of Bach) depicted as a series of expanding concentric circles flooding their space at ground level (making the rounds of the common or garden air).

 In the sky above indelible signs of a less environmentally responsible kind of world-outside: a jet trail, its vapour dwindling as time passes (tapers) and oscillating almost magically (waves like a willow wand or a taper).

 In the final couplet the first human communication: the academic who was reading comes out with a witty aphorism that beats the rest (trumping life with a quote) and fits the couple’s choice of life-style to a tee ‘If art teaches us anything it’s that the human condition is private’) – in retirement, far from the madding crowd, our life is our own.

  • grove: OE graf group of trees;
  • in earshot: within hearing distance; here in earshot of the River Teme;
  • baths/ bake-house: heated sections of religious sites and Roman villas;
  • unroofed abbey: reference to the shells of ancient religious buildings often destroyed during the reign of Henry VIII that dot the English countryside;
  • broken-floored: mosaics in various forms of preservation;
  • put forth: present to the world;
  • suffused: charge, load;
  • satin: smooth, glossy, classy fabric generally of silk;
  • dandle: describing a light up and down movement
  • sandal: light, open-toed footwear;
  • time-keeper: imagine the pendulum of a clock that records the time;
  • abbot: chief monk of an abbey
  • make the rounds: pass from place to place; in the case of music devices revolve;
  • common or garden: in one sense ordinary, run-of-the-mill; in this context both components refers to pieces of land;
  • trail: line of vapour left by an airplane;
  • taper: (v) become narrow; (n) slender candle, spill;
  • wand: slender baton said to have magical qualities;
  • trump: in card games, trump cards, even the most modest, enable you to beat other cards whatever their strength;
  • the British Isles provide an excellent habitat for birches: slender, elegant trees with distinctive, peeling bark, common in light sandy and wet soils where they grow happily  close together.

 

  • 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 [əʊ] only/ own/ grown [ʌ] puts/ sun/ -up/ suffuses/ up [ai] Like/ white/  nightdress  [uː]  cool/ 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 [ɪ] 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;

 

  • 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 two sentences are especially rich in front-of-mouth sounds: labio-dental fricatives [f] [v], bi-labial plosives [b] [p], alveolar [r]and breathy [w] [h] [y] alongside alveolar plosives [t] [d], nasals [m] [n] and sibilant variants [s] [z] [sh] ;
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;