In a touching sonnet that reveals much about the poet’s own sensitive, observant and imaginative nature Heaney outlines a feature of rural Irish community life, describing his first barber shop situated in the tiny home of a villager (Harry Boyle’s one-room, one-chimney house) where Harry practises his trade and lives his private life (with its settle bed).
The villagers refer to the hair-cut by its colloquial title – ‘a clip’.
Heaney’s memories of the experience are rich in sense data: what he could not see he could feel and hear (cold smooth creeping steel and snicky scissors); what he could see (the strong-armed chair) held him firmly in its grip.
The protective cloth placed around his neck spurred his fertile imagination (the plain mysteriousness of your sheeted self) – became, at one instant, a ceremonial vestment (neck-tied cope), now an altar-boy’s half-sleeved surplice and by stretching the imagination the half hoodless Ku Klux cape of a 1950’s southern-state American white supremacist!
Heaney echoes the initial phrase as in his mind’s eye he mounts the path to the open door of the old bog-road house, close to home but not the same as home (unfamiliar).
The cottage gives the man away: Harry lives on his own; he neglects his garden. Ironically, unkempt himself he smartens up his customers! His head gets uncomfortably near to the boy’s (close breathing in your ear).
Harry is untidy – Heaney still sees the cropped hair, as abundant as fallen fruit in windfalls blown across the floor towards the barber’s dog (under the collie’s nose) . His emotional memory latches onto one thing in particular: the collie’s stare.
- clip: haircut, hair trim;
- settle-bed: a very large, cumbersome piece of Irish furniture to which Heaney dedicates a poem in ‘Seeing Things’;
- barber: person who cuts men’s hair for a living, hairdresser
- creep: move slowly and unstoppably;
- snick: clicking sound of metal on metal;
- strong-armed: literally with strong arms; the hyphenation adds connotations of hidden threat;
- mysteriousness: uncanniness;
- sheeted: the barber places a sheet around the shoulders to keep clothes and skin clear of hairs;
- cope: ceremonial cloak;
- surplice: a loose over-garment worn by clergy or choristers in church;
- Ku Klux: secret right-wing sect in the US whose members disguise themselves in white robes and hoods;
- cape: sleeveless Batman and Robin-style cloak
- bog: wetland area; Heaney’s childhood home lay amidst wetlands dominated by peat;
- house: where someone lives, the body is; home: where someone belongs, the heart is;
- loose: all over the place;
- windfall: reworked idea of fruit blown down from a tree by the wind
- collie: sheepdog;
- stare: fixed gaze;
- Sonnet, break after line 7; lines based on 10 syllables; no rhyme scheme;
- the first sentence contains one repeat and one other echo [au] house/ our;
- sound effects then multiply: assonant sounds [ɪ] clip/ snicking scissors/ inside, [i:] creeping, steel, mysteriousness / sheeted/ sleeveless/ near and [e] chair/ self/ neck-/ hoodless are peppered with voiceless velar plosive [k] between clip/ cold and Ku Klux cape;
- the break is followed by a repetition; then [ʌ] unfamiliar/ enough/ up, accompanied by a strong assonant chain: [əʊ] road/ home/ shoulder/ open/ close/ blown/ nose amidst a flock of sound variants of the same vowel [o]
- sense data: sight: the whole setting; sound: snicking scissors/ breathing; touch: Cold/ creeping steel; strong-armed; (air movement) breathing/ windfalls blown; smell (by association) bog-road;
- heart-strings pulled: first/ near enough to home/ The collie’s stare;
- 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 four lines bring together nasals [m] [n] and alveolar plosives [t] [d] alongside front-of-mouth sounds: bi-labial plosives [p] [b], labio-dental fricatives [f] [v], continuant [w], aspirant [h] and sibilant variants [s] [z];
- a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;