Wordsworth’s Skates

Heaney responds to an exhibit once worn by a celebrated Romantic poet who lived in the Lake District. This is a poem about celebrity and professional respect. It is also about legacy: signs of presence left behind. It offers insights into the poetic process.

For Heaney, visiting Dove Cottage, there is literally and metaphorically a Star in the window. In his mind an idea takes on poetic charge, prompting questions as to what drew his attention
(Slate scrape./ Bird or branch?) and provided a stepping-stone to an ice-bound Lake District and the sounds of the whet and scud of steel on placid ice as sharp blades cut into a frozen surface.

The skate-blades he saw, the bootless runners lying toppled/ In dust in a display case,/ Their bindings perished opened up a lost world: the reel of them on frozen Windermere.

Only a poetic master was capable of generating the superhuman power required to escape the globe’s gravitational pull and leave the world of mere mortals As he flashed from the clutch of earth along its curve. The writings that left Wordsworth’s signature on the ‘ice’ for all to see (left it scored) gave him celestial status, made him the ‘star’ Heaney espied in the window of Dove Cottage at the outset.

  • the Wordsworth Museum, incorporating Dove Cottage is in Grasmere, Cumbria England. Dove Cottage was the home of William Wordsworth between 1799 and 1808;


  • 10 lines of irregular form; lines from 2 to 12 syllables in length; no rhyme scheme;
  • a short judgment; 2 questions that brings 2 responses within a single sentence: not/ but;
  • Heaney fills this short piece with assonant echoes and chains: [ɪin/ window/ in / display/ its; [ei] Slate/ scrape/ display/ case; [ɑː] star/ branch; [ʌ] scud/ runners/ dust/ But/ clutch;   [ai] ice/ lying/ bindings; [i:]  steel/ reel/ mere; [ɜː] Bird/ curve;
  • alliterative effects;  sibilant [s] Slate/ scrape/ scud/ steel/ placid/ ice; bi-labial plosive [b] Bird/ branch/ bootless/ bindings; touches of [t]: bootless/ toppled/ dust/ perished; the endless labio-dental fricative [ffffff] mimics the sound of skates: frozen/ flashed;
  • Reel contains ideas of liveliness and dancing associated with skating skills:        


  • As he narrates Heaney wants us to draw the elegance, sound and manoeuvres of skaters from his use of language: for example, from ‘whet’, ‘scud’ and ‘reel’. In a nine-line poem where those museum items, ‘toppled / In dust in a display case’, are rejected in favour  of the reel of them on frozen Windermere/ As he flashed from the clutch of earth along its curve/ And left it scored. (anon)


  • Writing like this carries no excess baggage: what reels and flashes here is both Wordsworth’s life and Heaney’s imagination, while ‘the clutch of earth’ is something both acknowledged and overcome in the word ‘scored’ – a musical as well as a physical act of inscription. Peter McDonald in The Literary Review
  • Sketched in that way, Heaney’s career sounds like a recipe for reactionary provincialism, yet nothing could be farther from the case. What Heaney has done is reclaim, renew and give service to an element of Romanticism embodied in the work of one of his poetic masters, Wordsworth – the sense that in landscape lies wisdom and some guidance for the conduct of life. In “Wordsworth’s Skates”, recalling the wonderful skating episode in The Prelude, Heaney moves swiftly past the relics to evoke “the reel of them of frozen Windermere/ As he flashed from the clutch of earth along its curve / And left it scored.” The musical pun is a bold one, affirming the permanence of Wordsworth’s art in the consciousness even of that vast public which may never read a page of Wordsworth or Heaney – for much of what we know of place derives from poetry. Sean O’Brien Friday, 7 April 2006.