Heaney moved his family from Belfast in Northern Ireland to Glanmore in Co. Wicklow (Irish Republic) in 1972. Initially a tenant he eventually purchased the property in 1988. The cottage became the family home and later an iconic refuge for composing poems.
Heaney takes an active role in his eclogue (POET) exploring and commenting on issues that emanate from his dialogue with MYLES (whose name recalls the Latin miles (soldier/ warrior) suggestive of an active hiberno-centric spokesman, possibly Myles na gCopaleen, one of the pen-names of Brian O’Nolan or Flann O’Brien).
Initially the eclogue exposes Heaney’s conscience at living in the Irish Republic as an in-comer from the North; it ends with a delightful Gaelic-derived song of summer celebrating the beauty of the Irish landscape. Heaney respects the key melancholic elements of Virgil’s Eclogues – loss, guilt and the importance of recording ‘songs’ in written form for posterity. The final hymn to summer insists on the sweet effect that music and poetry have on existence.
MYLES addresses Heaney, confirming the success of that original move (you’ve landed on your feet). He identifies its three principal benefits – rural ownership (house and ground), an iconic resource (your own bay tree … both a culinary and triumphal emblem!) and work-space (time to yourself) … in sum the ideal surrounding if Heaney’s free-lance poetic aspirations are to get anywhere (If you can’t write now, when will you ever write?)
POET salutes Ann Saddlemyer as the catalyst of change, (a woman … call her Augusta because we arrived in August), and the annual blessings the month of August bestows (baled hay and blackberries and combines … Augusta’s bounty).
MYLES, despite his nationalist irritation (outsiders own the country nowadays), has accepted Heaney’s presence (I don’t begrudge you) as legitimate (Augusta’s tenant); though Canadian she has every right, maybe more right than most, to her quarter acre).
Saddlemyer’s intimate local knowledge (she knows the big glen inside out) opens the link to the eclogue’s third party, Meliboeus, based, commentators suggested, on real-life poet, playwright and collector of Irish folklore John Millington Synge (1871-1909). Synge’s wandering lifestyle brought him close contact with rural Irish folk, some of them vagrants (tramps … tramping the roads), others servants to the rich overheard chewing the fat (servant girls colloguing in the kitchen) and expressing a common feeling (changed lives!).
MYLES’ ‘beef’ derives from the realm of historical redistribution of property and economic balances as they affected the Irish population: supposedly improved conditions (Land Commissions making tenants owners … Empire taking note) brought no benefit to Synge’s generation (Meliboeus’ people went to the wall) – what is current, be it the ‘Celtic Tiger’ phenomenon fuelled by foreign investment (now with all this money coming in) or the pre Good Friday Agreement promise of political stability (peace being talked up) will only hit a different section (the boot’s on the other foot) – downturn is hurting (small farmers here are priced out of the market).
Plus ça change plus c’est la même chose! POET confirms that nothing has changed for the rural Irish (backs to the wall and empty pockets).
Heaney admires the Meliboeus/ Synge character for adopting the itinerant life (never happier than when he was on the road), living shoulder to shoulder with the deprived (people on their uppers) and content in his own company (loneliness … his passport through the world).
His lyrical responses to things around him (midge-angels on the face of water, the first drop before thunder) whatever the weather (stranger on a wild night, out in the rain falling) have left an indelible mark (his spirit lives for me in things like that).
MYLES salutes education (book-learning is the thing) that enabled POET (a lucky man) to rise above the norm. It is he, Myles, who is left with the daily stresses of the standard Irish alternative: farming – its daily drudgery (stock to feed … milking times … tillage), the bodily wear and tear (blisters on your hand), things beyond his control (weather-worries).
POET chuckles at the nickname Synge might have used to describe him (‘Mr Honey’), a ‘foreigner’ suddenly turning up in a rural community with everything going for him, a Heaney’/ ‘Honey’ man who walked away from his farming background and embraced first academia then poetry.
Unlike the cautious bards of Eclogue IX POET accepts MYLES’ invitation to sing a song that Synge would have appreciated (our old language that Meliboeus learnt) an elemental hymn addressed to both surroundings and listener (for the glen and you).
The harbinger of Summer is on the wing (cuckoo cuckoos, Welcome, summer is what he sings) … ground-hogging flora is alive (heather breathes) pressing its head against soft bog-pillows … plants pay reverence to elemental forces (bog-cotton bows to moorland wind) … local fauna jubilates at summerness (deer’s heart skips a beat; he startles).
Coastal water flows in (fills), pauses (rests) and flows out (runs) lulled by the seasonal warmth (drowsy ocean) … gorse colourings stand out (yellow-blossoming whins) … peat deposits shine black (bogbanks … like ravens’ wings).
Vitality is the byword (cuckoo keeps on calling … speckled fish jumps, the opportunist early bird will catch the worm (strong warrior ( ) up and running).
The lark (little nippy chirpy fellow) and its song (the highest note there is … clear tidings) celebrate sublimity (summer, shimmer, perfect days).
- ground: a property’s surrounding land;
- land on one’s feet: enjoy an unexpectedly good outcome;
- Augusta, reference to Canadian-born academic and friend Ann Saddlmyer, who initially rented the iconic Wicklow cottage at Glanmore (where the action starts) to the Heaneys in 1972 then sold it to them in 1988 .
- bale: large gathered clusters of hay;
- combines: harvesting machines that cut and bale the hay;
- bounty: beneficence;
- outsider: incomer; alien stranger;
- begrudge: envy, resent;
- tenant: person who pays a rent;
- right: entitlement:
- quarter acre: (archaic measurements) land area of about 1000m2;
- glen: narrow valley with steep sides;
- know inside out: know like the back of one’s hand;
- tramp: (n) vagrant (v) march, walk;
- loft: space immediately beneath the roof;
- collogue: chat privately;
- Land Commissions: government departments set up specifically to deal with issues of ownership/ redistribution of land; Empire: the island of Ireland was part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland from 1801-1922 and governed from London; its responses to Irish unrest was regarded as deliberately slow and indifferent to local issues;
- the boot’s on the other foot; the situation and its consequences are reversed;
- Meliboeus: Ann Saddlmyer was a John Millington Synge scholar and clues from the narrative suggest a correspondence between Synge and the Meliboeus remembered in the piece;
- go to the wall: go bankrupt, fail;
- priced out of the market: unable to compete commercially;
- back to the wall: in a hard-pressed situation with no way out;
- on one’s uppers: extremely short of money, impoverished;
- midge-angels: tiny flies that gather above water and resemble angels on the wing;
- face: visible surface;
- book learning: knowledge provided by books rather than active experience;
- stock: livestock, animals;
- tillage: ground preparation for planting crops;
- blister: painful hard skin caused by continuous tight grasp and friction;
- Mr Honey: name the locals used to address Christy Mahon, central character of John Millington Synge’s ‘Playboy of the Western World’ (1907); Mahon appeared as if from nowhere and mixed with the community; initially accepted Mahon harboured a dreadful secret that came out and distorted relationships;
- old language: possible reference to the Irish variant of the Celtic languages that first appeared over 2 millennia ago and was spoken across the island of Ireland and developed its own culture; note however that the hymn is written in English;
- rest of us: a correspondent writing to me in 2017 after visiting Heaney’s home territory around Castledawson in Ulster confirmed the powerful influence of the bard figure and the reverence in which he was held: ‘One Richard Keenan ( ) said how Seamus spoke for all of them, saying things that they could not find the words to say’;
- cuckoo: bird with distinctive late-spring call; associated with oncoming summer in Shakespeare and the earliest medieval songs;
- heather: abundant heathland plant with purple flowers
- bog: wetland typically dominated by peat moss
- bog-cotton: plant with cotton-like tufts growing in peaty, acidic wetlands
- bow: bend;
- moorland: open heath;
- skip a beat: be suddenly affected by surprise, excitement or shock;
- startle: jump with surprise;
- tide: the rise and fall of sea level – coastwards (fill), pause (rest); out (run)
- drowsy: somnolent, sleepy;
- tuft: bunch, clump;
- whin: furze, gorse;
- raven: large, black crow;
- speckled: with spots, patches of contrasting colour;
- warrior: fighter, combatant;
- up and running: inaction, on the go;
- nippy: agile, fleet-footed;
- chirpy: in good spirits, lively;
- hit a high note: achieve a level of personal satisfaction
- lark: songbird that sings on the wing associated with summer
- tidings: the news of summer he brings;
- shimmer: soft light wavering in the heat;
- M – a triplet, lines based on 11 syllables; unrhymed; 4 sentences dedicated to respected companion taking stock;
- assonance ‘house…ground’; repetition of ‘time’; alliteration alveolar [d] [t] ‘time…landed…feet…can’t write…write’
- P – quartet in 2 sentences; 3 x 11 syllable lines + 7 syllables emphasising lavish generosity;
- Weave of assonances: ‘changed…baled hay’/ ‘Augusta…… bounty’/ ‘because…from…on…combines’;
- alliterative effect [b] ‘baled…blackberries…combines’;
- M- 18 lines in 8 sentences; some enjambment to vary vocal flow; unrhymed save some line-end echoes ‘own…so’;
- launch line a 4 syllable splutter of irritation; the other 17 variable line length 9-12 syllables
- long list of assonances and internal echoes ‘outsiders…nowadays’/ ‘but…enough…Augusta’/ ‘most…knows…wrote…roads’/ ‘picked…listening …in…kitchen’/ ‘those…owners…note’/ ‘days…making…late’/ ‘peace…people’/ ‘farmers…market’;
- alliterative effects [t] tramps he met tramping…listening…loft/nasals [m] [n] ‘own country…nowadays’/’tenant…enough’/ ‘went…wall…now…will;
- P – 4 sentence construct; septet between 10 -13 syllables; unrhymed;
- alliterations bilabial [b] [p]’backs…empty…pockets…Meliboeus…happier’/ ‘world…water…wild’;
- assonances ‘angels…face…stranger’/ ‘wild night…like’/ ‘spirit lives…in things’/ ‘roads…loneliness’;
- M – 11 syllable triplet, unrhymed; assonant negatives ‘no’; allit ‘weather worries’
- P – single 12 syllable line;; internal echo ‘would…Honey’;
- M – quartet in 2 sentences; largely 10 syllables;
- end of line echo ‘learnt…words’; assonances ‘lovely…putting…us…understand’;
- allits [l] old language…Meliboeus learnt…lovely’;
- P – 4 verse construct; intro line of 11 syllables + 4 quartets; 12 sentences;
- final 7 syllable line places a quintessential emotional experience in emphasis … ‘perfect days’;
- look for end-of line assonant echoes ‘sings…pillows…wind’/ whins…wings’/ and soothing sibilants;
- assonant strings [u] summer…summer…cuckoo cuckoos…welcome summer/’soft bog…bog cotton’/ ‘deer…beat…sea…season…drowsy’/ ‘ocean…yellow’/ up and running’;
- alliterations ‘cuckoo keeps…calling welcome…speckled’;’blossoming…bogbank‘/ ‘little nippy hits…sings…shimmer; strong sibilant final couplet
- 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;
- syllables without highlight are largely the unstressed sound as in common, little [ə]
- 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;
- a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;