Wordsworth’s Skates

 

Heaney responds to an exhibit once worn by a celebrated Romantic poet in a piece about celebrity, professional respect and legacy. It offers insights into the poetic process.

On a visit to Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage near Grasmere the British Lake District, Heaney latches onto a literal and metaphorical star in the window. His initial idea takes on poetic a poetic charge that will lift Wordsworth beyond the reach of gravity

As he studies the exhibit he allows the external sounds he hears (Slate scrape. Bird or branch?) to act as  a stepping-stone to an ice-bound Lake District around 1800 and the sounds of sharp blades cutting into the smooth, frozen  Lakeland surface (the whet and scud of steel on placid  ice).

The long redundant skate-blades he was examining (bootless runners lying toppled/ In dust in a display case , the leather bindings perished brought alive a lost world and the pace and excitement of skating: the reel of them on frozen Windermere.

 Only a poetic superman could have generated the energy to escape the globe’s gravitational pull 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.

  • slate: easily split rock used as a roofing material;
  • scrape: scratching sound;
  • whet: sharp edge;
  • scud: fast movement in a straight line;
  • placid: calm, smooth;
  • runner: the metal section that slides;
  • toppled: that has overbalanced sideways;
  • binding; section that grips the boot;
  • perished: rotted, decayed;
  • reel: multi-purpose word suggestive of momentum, dance;
  • flash: multi-purpose word suggestive of speed, bright light and suddenness;
  • clutch: grasp, grip (gravitational);
  • curve; the line that shows the earth is round;
  • scored: marked; also set to music;

 

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

 

  • 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 three lines are heavy with alveolar plosives [t] [d] and approximant [l], alongside sibilant variants [s] [z] [sh], nasals [m] [n] and velar plosive [k] ;
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;