Heaney’s trout of Death of a Naturalist (1966) possessed the lightning reactions of a missile. In complete contrast the indolent perch can be observed in the Bann’s clear waters lying stock-still on its water-perch, in its favoured location near the clay bank at a spot where light effects reflected in the water are never still: alder-dapple and waver.

Heaney spells out their long-term presence in his consciousness and their ‘style’: known in his community as ‘grunts’; lumpy, misshapen water dwellers (flood-slub); of diminutive size (runty); ever putting off the next move (ready); at home in a home-from-home of God-like splendour: the river’s glorified body.

In a water-zone where traffic should be fluid (passable through) the perch obstruct the way ahead like militaries with some kind of mission to accomplish (bluntly holding the pass), snoozing (adoze), mouths in constant chewing mode (guzzling the current), resistant to being pushed backwards (against it) constantly readjusting (all muscle and slur), as much at home in their fish habitat (finland of perch) as the wetlands in which riverside birches flourish (fenland of alder).

Could they but express their contentedness then they would be ‘walking’ on air that is water above the river’s rich ground cover (on carpets of Bann stream), busy doing nothing (on hold) in a dolce far niente of calm relaxation and unhurried idleness: the everything flows and steady go of the world.

  • perch: the creature a freshwater fish; also a creatures’ resting place;
  • Bann: a Northern Irish river that flows into and out of Lough Neagh; the Lower River Bann flows into the Atlantic near Portstewart;
  • clay: firm, fine-grained earth
  • alder: tree of the birch family that flourishes in Northern Irish wetlands;
  • dapple: a mottled effect of spots and patches;
  • waver: quiver, flicker; in an Irish Times article of Feb 1, 2019 ‘ The Words We Use’ Diarmaid O’Muirithe researched the word: I found a few glosses from Ted Hughes’s country which might interest his friend: (a) young tree left standing when the surrounding wood is felled; (b) a twig shooting from a fallen tree; (c) a small waving twig. Is the latter one Heaney’s meaning? The first two meanings are from Middle English weyven, from Anglo-French weyve-r, from Old French gaiver. Hence the law term waiver; hence waif. The third is from Old English waifian, to move to and fro, corresponding to Old Norse vafa, to swing, vibrate;
  • grunts (id) a northern word, mentioned in W.H. Patterson’s glossary from Down and Antrim, sent to the editor of the embryonic English Dialect Dictionary in 1880; nobody seems to know what its origin is. The word is not in any of the Scots or English dialect dictionaries, as far as I know, but another poet knew it. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in her 1851 Casa Guidi Windows has: “The pool in front Where in the hillstream trout are cast to wait The beatific vision, and the grunt used at refectory, keeps its weedy state”.
  • slub: thick lump in pre-spun yarn; unevenly textured fabric;
  • runty: reference to the smallest> weakest in a litter of young;
  • bluntly: suggestion of something bulky and round-edged forming an uncompromising obstacle;
  • hold the pass: connotation of holding a strategic military position, allowing nothing to go by;
  • adoze: as is sleeping;
  • guzzle: eat hungrily;
  • slur: notion of indistinct lines caused by minor movements
  • finland: place where fish abide – deliberate sonic juxtaposition with fenland: wetland, marshy area;
  • on hold: waiting, in limbo;
  • (walk) on air: feel pleasure, contentedness
  • flow and go: movement from one place to the next;


  • 5 couplets in a single sentence of Proustian length and complexity; lines are presented between 12 and 14 syllables but effectively the commas act as a conductor’s baton governing the flow and rhythm of oral delivery;
  • unrhymed, yet some end-of-line assonances provide echoes;
  • water and air are predominant elements sometimes presented as one and the same at underwater level ‘air that is water’;
  • parallel between flowing water and time continuum as in At Toomebridge;
  • vocabulary of refracted light: ‘dapple and waver’;
  • assonances: ‘grunts…flood-slub, runty’, ‘guzzling…current… muscle’; ‘hold…flows…go;
  • alliteration using paired bilabial plosives [b] [p]: ‘Perch… perch… Bann…bank…dapple’;
  • spiritual attachment: ‘glorified body’ of the Bann;
  • preposition usage: ‘under’ + ‘over’ = between;
  • stasis of creature ‘on hold’ amidst inexorable ‘everything flows and steady go of the world’
  • vocabulary of ‘military’ dominance and blockage: ‘passable through… holding the pass’;
  • pun of ‘bluntly’: ‘speaking directly’; perch are not aerodynamic creatures;
  • alliterated pun ‘finland … fenland’;
  • 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: twelve 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;
  • for example, the final four lines are rich in in alveolar plosives  [t] [d] and nasals [m] [n] alongside velar plosives [g] [k] and front-of mouth sounds, labio dental fricatives [f] [v] and [l];
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;



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