Drawn from his readings and personal experiences Heaney dips into recorded events, real and mystical individuals and landscapes on both sides of the Irish Sea. Heaney’s title alludes also to the creative spirit’s small-hours wait for inspiration.
Heaney pulls out an episode recounted by an illustrious Irish medical figure of 1849 reviewing the antiquities and spiritual sites along the river Boyne. He picks out the story of a miracle that helped a humble monk along the road to sainthood: a scribe (monk of Clonard) … dedicated (working late) … suddenly plunged in darkness (candle burnt out) … a supernatural occurrence – writing implement turned torch (quill pen feathered itself) that produced the miraculous light enabling the cleric to fulfil his mission.
Heaney’s images of the quivering light (shadow-flit) and reflective surfaces (Ink-gleam and quill-shine) within the monk’s cell at an ungodly hour (late now in the day) remind him of his own need for miracles (their likes) – things with poetic charge that spring up and stir his creative juices (freshets and rivulets) – unpredictable arrivals (starting from nowhere) that spread elation round his system (capillaries of joy) and by their very volatility (frittered and flittering) open layers of association in his memory bank.
One such springs up immediately (flashed on my inner eye): David Thomson, on the road, remembered for the liquid arc that relieved a compelling personal need (scimitar of cowpiss in the wind) … the man emerging from his overnight in an ill lit farm building (murky byre), responding like a cow released from winter quarters (cow let out in spring) and immersing himself fully in Nature’s rich sense data (smelling green weed, up to his hips in grass).
Thomson, nearly blinded as a boy (dark-roomed David), author of a work born of his youthful Scottish experiences (Nairn in Darkness and Light), whose restricted vision (injured eyes) created images dependent on his remaining senses (waves and waterfalls in young girls’ hair).
Heaney conjures up images of the ageing character he came across a lifetime later: the man’s unquenchable joie de vivre (glee of boyhood still alive and kicking), his gaunt self-neglect (tattered stick-man), his engaging wackiness (erotic fancy-tickler), contentedly itinerant (never more at home than when on the road responding as a child (led by amazement), able to invent surreal scenes off the Galway coast (a seal walking ahead of him up the Aran shingle), dressing like a Funeral Director (clawhammer coat and top hat) as if prepared if necessary to create business for himself (dressed to kill) but in fact merely on his way to quench his appetites (public house or kitchen) as if nothing were (the way he would himself).
Acting as if he were delivered from a watery grave as with the hero of a Pushkin poem (Arion … off the waves, off the dolphin’s back) and ostensibly living in an elsewhere (oblivious-seeming) Thomson was actually totally with it (taking it all in), delighted still to be alive (glad of another chance) and appreciative of such good fortune (believe his luck).
- late in the day: at a late stage, no longer useful;
- Sir William Wilde (1815 – 1876) : Irish eye and ear surgeon; author of significant works on medicine, archaeology and folklore, particularly concerning his native Ireland; father of Oscar Wilde;
- Beauties of the Boyne and the Blackwater by Sir William Wilde; originally published in 1849; gives an exhaustive account of the antiquities along the Boyne River and its tributary river the Blackwater, which flow through Counties Kildare, Meath, Louth and Cavan. Along their banks are countless ruined forts, castles, abbeys, cairns and tumuli including Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth; here also took place the Battle of the Boyne;
- monk of Clonard: possible reference to Saint Finnian of Clonard, one of the early Irish monastic saints, who founded Clonard Abbey in modern-day Co. Meath; the twelve Apostles of Ireland were said to have studied under him;
- quill: pen made from the feather of the main wing of a bird;
- feather itself: feature around the edges
- flit: dance, flutter
- freshet: flood of juice, increase in flow (‘stream flowing into the sea’ -1590s ‘fresh‘ – stream in flood);
- rivulet: small stream, rill;
- capillary: fine blood vessel, part of a network of the same;
- fritter: split into tiny pieces;
- flitter: dance about;
- scimitar: eastern short sword with curved blade;
- David Thomson (1914-88): writer and BBC radio producer of Scottish parents; spent early life as son of a professional soldier abroad; early education in London cut short when he sustained an eye injury that nearly blinded him; taught by private tutors in his maternal grandmother’s home in Nairn, Scotland for an extended period before entering an Oxford college;
- Nairn in Darkness and Light: book originally published in 1850 selected by scholars as being culturally important, and part of the knowledge base of civilization as we know it; republished in original form in 2016; a memoir of David Thomson’s Scottish childhood set in the 1920s, it recreates the varied community of Nairn, with its fishermen and townsfolk, its crofters and its prosperous upper-middle classes.
- hip: projection where pelvis and upper thigh bone meet;
- darkroom: space for developing photographs from which normal light is excluded;
- glee: great delight;
- alive and kicking: very active;
- tattered: old, torn, in bad condition;
- stickman (pun): simplest representation of a human being using straight lines and a circle for the head; skin-and-bone appearance;
- seal: fish-eating aquatic mammal;
- Aran: 3 rocky isles guarding the mouth of Galway Bay in western Ireland known for their ancient sites;
- shingle: pebbled seashore;
- clawhammer coat: knee length dress coat with the front cut away; jacket and top hat were the formal black garments worn by Funeral Directors;
- dressed to kill: intending to create striking impression;
- Arion, dolphin: elements of a fantastical story by Herodotus; in some versions the world’s greatest lyre player is robbed by the boat crew transporting him; he chooses to commit himself to the sea but sings a song first; a dolphin appears and takes him home; the invention of the dithyramb (hymn to Dionysus, God of wine and fertility) was attributed to him; also subject of a Pushkin poem;
- oblivious: unaware, indifferent;
- take things in: not fail to notice, not miss a trick;
- believe one’s luck: be surprised and pleased when something good has happened unexpectedly/ by chance;
- 7 quatrains in 3 lengthy sentences (S); variable line length 9-13 syllables; unrhymed;
- rhythm and flow governed by use of enjambed lines, heavy in certain places;
- S 1/2 alliterative chains:[w] ‘William Wilde…working…how’; [m/n] in first quatrain;; alveolar [k] ’Clonard….candle…quill…miraculous’; sibilant variants [s/z]; front-of-mouth [r] ‘ freshets…rivulets… capillaries…frittered…frittering; labio-dental [f]; nasal [m/n];
- assonant echoes: ‘working…burnt’/ ‘his…his quill…itself…miraculous…flit…ink…quill…rivulets…capillaries… frittered….frittering…piss…wind…inner…imagined’/ ‘gleam…need’/ ‘late in the day’/ ‘shine…likes…like…byre’;
- S3 alliterative chains: nasals [m/n]; alveolar [t/d] ‘dark…David…darkness…light…water…tattered stickman…meet lifetime…erotic…tickle…taking’;[w] way…waves…waterfalls; alveolar [t]; sibilant variants [s/z]; labio-dental [f/v] ‘arriving…oblivious …waves…dolphin;
- assonant echoes: ’saw…waterfalls’/ ‘eyes…lifetime’/ ‘glee…meet…read…seeming…believe’/ ‘home…road…coat’/ ‘kicking…erotic…tickler’; ‘led…ahead…dressed…enter…self’/ ‘amazement…ways…waves…taking’/ ‘like…Arion…arriving/’seeming…believe’;
- 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;
- 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;