The Blackbird of Glanmore

The collection’s final poem, ’The Blackbird of Glanmore, offers an intensely moving epilogue:  an ageing poet revisits the beloved site where much of his work was composed; he interacts with a kindred spirit -creature and its endearing characteristics; he sees the shadow of a younger brother killed in a road accident outside the family home in 1953 and reflects on rites of passage – arrivals … departures … superstition … premonition … making the best of what is left.

Heaney has driven to Glanmore and is met by his beloved blackbird filling the stillness of the empty property with life. He recognises the nature of this ever-active but nervous creature preconditioned to scare off at the first wrong move. It will observe the kerfuffle of his departure from the safety of the ivy.

 Heaney’s affection for the blackbird is strong and unreserved: you … I love. 

 Reluctant to disrupt the peacefulness of the moment the speaker proceeds with deliberate caution: I park, pause, take heed. Breathe. Just breathe.

 As he sits there, an intensely moving personal moment springs to his mind more than fifty years after the event, a memory fuelled by words he once translated: ‘I want away to the house of death, to my father. He is recalling his brother Christopher, then 4, killed in a road accident in 1953 outside then family home.

The child’s personality, playfulness and unreserved love when Heaney came home after his first term in boarding school remain indelible memories: his childish exuberance (little stillness dancer) his enduring impact on the Heaney parents (haunter-son) and his siblings (lost brother), his open affection (cavorting through the yard, so glad to see me home)

A superstitious neighbour claimed that the presence of a blackbird had been an evil omen (I never liked yon bird); it had allegedly not moved from the shed roof prior to Christopher’s death: up on the ridge for weeks. Heaney told DOD of ‘ an old woman – a weird sister figure, she lived down the fields…She read the world in terms of signs, omens’

The delicate balance is suddenly shattered (the automatic lock clunks shut), its impact on the blackbird startling though short-lived.

The  watcher is suddenly looking down on himself (for a second I’ve a bird’s eye view), viewing  the evidence of his longevity (a shadow on raked gravel)  in front of Glanmore cottage where so much of his history played out, poetry was written and a young family raised (my house of life).

He addresses a final farewell to his iconic blackbird, constantly flitting from one branch to another (hedge-hop), dominated by his unchallengeable presence (I am absolute for you), in constant, cheeky dialogue with him (ready talkback), quick to startle, quick to return and never too close (each stand-offish comeback), finicky and fussy (picky, nervy) but a treasure (goldbeak).

The poem‘s coda (lines 1 and 5 are repeated) reveals the depths of Heaney’s emotion: a tiny, pushy bird making its noisy presence felt alongside a man of unassuming greatness.

The past is set in stone, the future closed: On the grass when I arrive, in the ivy when I leave. Both bird and man are fixed items in this place; the space left empty by the startled blackbird is as meaningful and poignant as the shadow on the path that will disappear when the man has passed away. 

  • still: calm, soundless, windless;
  • scare off: fly off in fright;
  • wrong: ill-judged;
  • ivy: shiny, evergreen climbing plant
  • take heed: pay attention, weigh things up;
  • clay: stiff impermeable earth;
  • haunt: appear, visit, weigh heavily, lie heavily;
  • cavort: skip around, caper;
  • term: time in school between holidays;
  • yon: yonder, that;
  • ridge: narrow highest point of a roof;
  • clunk: dull sound of a mechanisms in operation;
  • short-lived: momentary;
  • bird’s eye view: seen from above;
  • rake: smooth, level using a rake:
  • hop: spring short distances
  • absolute: gigantic, beyond a bird’s intellect, unchallengeable, supreme, dominant;
  • talkback: impertinent bird-sound response;
  • stand-offish: remote, never getting too close, ostensibly unsociable;
  • comeback: resurgence, return;
  • picky: finicky, fussy;
  • nervy: tense, restless;

 

  • This last poem in the collection, which Heaney acknowledged to be his ‘favourite’ is dedicated to an emblematic bird whose sight brings memories, nostalgia and sadness flooding back. The poem is the collection’s beautifully lyrical epilogue powerful enough to draw a tear and crying out background music;
  • ‘The reason I like the poem’, Heaney said in an interview, ‘it’s kind of a different stage of life. You’re beginning to be aware of the underground journey a bit more.’
  • Heaney clarifies the reference to Christopher to whose death he was exposed in the poem Mid term Break to Dennis O’Driscoll (Stepping Stones, p. 408): the first time I came home from St Columb’s College, when (Christopher) was about two or three he actually frolicked and rolled around the yard for pleasure. That stayed with me for ever…’
  • In 1972 the Heaneys moved from Northern Ireland to the Irish Republic, to a cottage in Glanmore in the Wicklow mountains south of Dublin; initially a letting, the property was ultimately sold to the Heaneys by Ann Saddlemyer in 1988 to whom the collection is dedicated. The property carries a huge emotional charge;

 

  • The structure follows a pattern: 6 five-line stanzas with a 1-line intermezzo between each; no rhyme scheme;
  • Stanza (1) echoes the [ɜː] of the title Blackbird/ first; followed by [ɪ] and [ai] in tandem I arrive/ filling/ stillness; life/ In/ ivy/ I; loose rhyme move/ love ;
  • In (2) the initial alliteration park, pause is followed by repetition of [b] and [i:] breathe echoing heed; full stops and 4 consecutive enjambments dictate the rhythm of the stanza;
  • Stanza (3) sound effects: [ɒ] one gone/ lost/ cavorting alongside other (o) variants [ʌ]       son/ brother; [əʊ] so/ home/ homesick/ over; [u] through;
  • In (4) recurrent nasal variant: think/ neighbours/ long/ yon/ on/ nothing/ never; assonant [ɜː] words/ bird;
  • Startling alliterative [k] is strong in (5): automatic lock; with [ʌ] clunks shut; black-/ panic; strong sibilants: [s] and [sh]; limited assonance:
  • Final section begins with alliterative aspirates hedge-hop and assonant [u] absolute/ you and other front-of-mouth sounds: bilabial [b] absolute/ talkback/ comeback; labio-dental fricatives [f] -offish and [v] nervy/ ivy blending with [i:] each/ beak/ leave; 

 

  • 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 6 lines are rich in a balance of alveolar plosives [t] [d], velar plosives [k] [g], front-of-mouth sounds: labio-dental fricatives [f] [v], bi-labial plosives [b] [p], breathy [w] [h and nasals [m] [n]];
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;
  • ‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’, a peaceful garden is disturbed by ‘the automatic lock’ of the poet’s car door as it ‘clunks shut’, recalling not only the same door in Heaney’s superb Nineties poem ‘Postscript’, but the mechanism of a gun being loaded, an overtone that was only the ghost of a presence in the earlier, more meditative poem. Arms around the world Tobias Hill in The Observer, Sunday 2 April 2006
  • The real meat on the bone comes in poems such as “Nonce Words,” “Home Help” and “The Blackbird of Glanmore,” where the pain of loss disarms the decencies and decorum of Heaney’s style to go beyond nostalgia to genuine pathos. David Wheatley in The Contemporary Poetry Review
  • But the oldest shade there is that of the four-year-old brother whose death is the subject of Heaney’s early poem, “Mid-Term Break.” That death is revisited here in a great poem, “The Blackbird of Glanmore”; these two poems will now forever be read side by side. The earlier one takes life at grotesquely close range, in whispers and small details (the dead child’s body is marred by a “poppy bruise.”) This new one has Heaney standing “on raked gravel / In front of my house of life.” The “Circle” of Heaney’s title represents that inevitable return; the “district” is everything inside of it; these poems are remarkable for suggesting, in a lyric poetry of great charm and canniness, that what it cannot master is unknowable, charmless, and huge. Poetryfoundation.org