A touching, much admired poem, filled with the poet’s warm humanity for individuals and groups in memoriam; the piece follows Heaney’s sister Ann’s coffin on its final journey to the graveyard. Ann passed away in 2002.
Paradoxically spring is showing signs of life (first green braird) at the very moment a cherished sister is being laid to rest. Her funeral procession is well attended by the local community (filled the road). Heaney makes a link between the close-knit folk of mid-Ulster and images of the ritual burial processions of rural Brittany (Breton pardon) with the well-ordered formality (remote familiar women and men in caps walking four abreast) he associates with Celtic/ Catholic tradition.
The drumming reverberations of post-Troubles Northern Ireland intrude and offend – the gathering is somehow judged by the Forces of Order as worthy of close scrutiny (throttle and articulated whops of a helicopter crossing) and in the process the interment’s solemnity is violated.
In the wake of the deafening noise of intrusion the sounds of calm are amplified (awareness … of our own footsteps) but with the reborn consciousness of political circumstance, constraint and smother (open air … the life behind those words ‘open’ and ‘air’).
Heaney provides a cascade of close observations of a sister in terminal decline: wild uncomprehending eyes (aghast), self-protective body position (foetal), spasms (shaking) perspiration (sweating…wet haired) emaciation (shrunk), an increasing struggle for oxygen (beaten breath), features losing their definition (misting mask) … finally a demented glare (flash of one wild glance) deliberately juxtaposed with the intruding pilot’s fixed grimace (ghost surveillance from behind a gleam of helicopter glass).
The cycle common to all humanity (a lifetime, then the deathtime) has brought together a procession of family friends and community hushed by a common respectfulness (reticence keeping us together when together) where decency dictates that no one airs their differences out loud (all declaration deemed outspokenness).
Heaney pens his tribute to what Ann represented: to the Heaney children (favourite aunt), to Heaney and his siblings (good sister), to Heaney’s mother and father (faithful daughter). Physically frail from childhood (delicate) she proved she was made of stern stuff (tough alloy) commenting on things as she judged them (disapproval, kindness) from her brand of moral-high-ground aloofness (hauteur).
Conscious of Ann’s choice of spinsterhood Heaney cannot repress a warm chuckle: in later life she permitted herself certain indulgences (risk … of certain joys) – intimate appreciation of the world around her (her birdtable and jubilating birds), ‘updated’ clothing (the ‘fashion’ in her wardrobe – though ever unadventurous – hence the inverted commas), the purchase of a chest of drawers (her tallboy) – any suggestion of ‘male’ involvement in her life limited to the name of a piece of furniture!
Such moments as this, the poet suggests, will be remembered for the conditions on the day (weather say our say) and recalled involuntarily in the poetic mind when they recur (reprise of griefs) as perhaps the loss of his niece (Summer’s clearest mornings) or, amid soothing flowers, the death of Heaney’s brother Christopher in Mid Term Break (children’s deaths in snowdrops) or when the hawthorn trees were in blossom (the may) … at this instant Nature’s flora provide a fully orchestrated emotional send-off (whole requiems at the sight of plants and gardens).
Ann’s frail weight (lightly on the bier) is helpful to the four sisters (four women … she would have called them girls) honoured as her friends to hoist the coffin and lower it into its final resting place.
- In January 2022 (DF writes) I was contacted by Paul Mcguiggan. What he told me resulted in a major reappraisal of my previous commentary of 2018. Paul wrote ‘I enclose for your interest a photo of a copy of “The Lift” gifted to me by my sister who, as a great friend of Ann Heaney, secured a copy for myself and each of my siblings (9 of us in total) signed and dated as you will observe by Seamus (it is a prize possession and reminder of the privilege of living within a Heaney poem) … for interest also, the ‘four friends – she would have called them girls’ were four of my sisters … if I locate in time ahead a letter Seamus wrote to my mother on the death of my father, I will share a few descriptive words which he used, or just oozed!!
- Heaney provided a list of his siblings (DOD 29) Sheena, Hugh, Patrick, Charles, Colm and Daniel. Ann, who came after Sheena, died in 2002. And Christopher was between Colm and Daniel;
- Commenting on the family’s move to The Wood Farm after the road accident that killed his brother Christopher (DOD23) Heaney provided insights as regards his second sister’s education: Ann who was always a bit delicate as a youngster, was taken special care of and went in my aunt Sarah’s car to Ballynease School where Sarah taught;
- DOD 30 Heaney indicated how he kept in touch with sister Ann once he moved away to university and into marriage and fatherhood : when Ann was alive, I’d stay with her any time I went back to County Derry, since she lived on her own in her own house and tended to be at the centre of the extended family;
- braird: green shoot;
- pardon the French word for a traditional pilgrimage, religious festival or funeral in France’s western province of Brittany;
- Despite the Good Friday Agreement of April 1998 progress towards Power-Sharing was slow – explaining perhaps why this sombre Catholic gathering of 2003 still alerted the suspicions of the forces of order;
- throttle: powerful engine sound
- articulated: distinct;
- whops: sounds of revolving helicopter blades;
- aghast: open-mouthed and wild-eyed;
- foetal: resembling the shape of a foetus with bent back and folded arms;
- beaten breath: faltering breathing;
- misting: blurring over, fading;
- mask: set into a particular expression
- reticence: restraint;
- delicate: susceptible to illness;
- alloy: blend of metals, here personal qualities;
- hauteur: proud haughtiness
- take the risk: have a go at something that might not work out
- jubilate: rejoice
- tallboy: chest of drawers (to highlight the intended pun, Ann was unmarried);
- say our say: have the last word;
- reprise: repeated passage in music;
- may: hawthorn and its blossom;
- requiem: music for the repose of the souls of the dead;
- bier: frame on which a coffin is placed prior to interment;
- claim: assume entitlement to do something;
- at a political moment in Irish history when all gatherings gave grounds for suspicion, the solemnity of the occasion is invaded by a ‘military’ presence; problems associated with sectarian division and sporadic violence required, it was claimed, security patrols including the use of helicopters; the Catholic population would see this as a form of ‘protestant’ intrusion that degraded a solemn occasion;
- 10 tercets and 1 final line; largely based on 10 syllables; shorter line 2 highlights the topic; varied punctuation and enjambment (one over 4 consecutive lines) ensure an oral delivery that can follow the proceedings, permit reflection and solemnity;
- no formal rhyme scheme beyond paired rhymes after tercet 5;
- braird: regional use for ‘shoot’; pardon the French word for a Breton pilgrimage/ religious festival; the Irish and Breton languages share Celtic roots, so why not the people, too; French words hauteur/ reprise;
- multiple rich and varied groups and chains of vowel sound effects: [ɪ] Lift/ in /filled; [i:] green/ later keeping/ deemed/leaf later gleam later still reprise/ griefs/ clearest; [əʊ] road/ old/ photograph/ remote/ own/open; [ʌ] could/ some; unstressed [ə] Breton/ pardon/ women; ɔː] walking/ four/ falling; [ɒ] throttle/ whops/ helicopter crossing; [au] sound/ our; [ai] life behind later wild/ like behind/ lifetime/ deathtime childhood/ kindness end-of-piece sight/ lightly/ final; [eə] air/ haired/ breath/ deathtime; later deaths; [ɔɪ] alloy/ joy/ tallboy; [ɜː]certain/ birdtable/ birds; [e] weather end requiems/ friends; [ei] say/ say/ may;
- occasional alliterative effects: hawthorn half; half photograph; shaking/ sweating/ shrunk; beaten breath/ misting mask; gleam/ glass; together/ together; declaration deemed; bore/ bier;
- oxymoron: remote/ Familiar; onomatopoeia: whops copies the sound of air pressures and revolving rotor blades;
- 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: fifteen 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 are rich in nasals [m] [n], alveolar plosives [t] [d] and sibilant variants [s] [z][sh]; alongside front-of-mouth sounds: bi-labial plosives [p] [b], labio-dental fricatives [f] [v], continuant [w] aspirant [h] and alveolar [l];
- a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;