In praise of women. Heaney composes a poem at once crackling with sexual electricity and diffused with spiritual light. Composed in a single sentence hyphenated to offer three distinctive angles Clothes Shrine harks back on the one hand to the sexuality of Heaney’s and Marie’s early-days’ relationship (he found her sensationally attractive, as he explained in Twice Shy of Death of a Naturalist of 1965) and on the other the shining example of an Irish goddess turned saint; the strengths and qualities embodied in the final quartet apply to both and (unstated) to other strong female influences in Heaney’s life – his own mother and her sister Mary.
Heaney chatted to Daljit Nagra in a BBC interview of March 2001 about his ‘whole new life’: ‘The Clothes Shrine’ began with the sight of clothes glistening on a line; in the early 60s in Belfast co-habitation ‘was not the habit’; the bathroom of early marriage was where ‘the faintly erotic underthings were hanging to dry’
Heaney’s life with Marie brought him a whole new sweetness – signs of a seductive female presence in the home, light white muslin blouses (their translucent promise transferred, modestly perhaps, to the see-through nylon line) and garments that reflected 1960s’ trends (drip-drying). The more intimate the items (nylon slip) the greater the remembered thrill (shine of its own electricity).
Heaney’s daughter Catherine Ann felt that this retrospective love poem to her mother was also a hymn of reverence to St Brigid. Heaney’s consecration of the Belfast bathroom as a clothes shrine to Marie recalled one of Brigid’s miracles – a sunbeam strung on air to dry her own cloak on.
He pays tribute to the saint’s strength and stamina (hard-pressed Brigid, so unstoppably on the go).
He salutes the female will to confront the depressing drudgery of daily existence (damp and slump and unfair drag of the workaday), to cope easily and survive the menial tasks (made light of and got through) in the exceptional, dazzling manner that was the norm (as usual, brilliantly).
Catherine Ann alluded to two other strong, pious, Irish catholic women in her father’s life unmentioned in the poem but unmistakeably present: Heaney’s mother to whom he was very close and her sister Mary who lived with the family and helped bring him up on their humble, hardworking farmstead … without forgetting Marie, of course, Heaney’s wife and love of his life, to whom the bathroom shrine is dedicated.
Heaney declared himself pleased with the piece: Nagra: ‘Clothes’ shrine, clothes shine, clothes line’ triple associations ‘the buzz, fizz of language’ SH: ‘fundamentally what we enjoy in writing is that which makes us say inwardly “yes, yes, yes” … you don’t quite ask yourself what it is gives you the pleasure – you take the pleasure, it offers itself;
- muslin: light-weight cotton material;
- see-through; translucent;
- nylon: synthetic fabric of nylon fibres;
- line: string on which items hang:
- drip-dry: that does not crease or need ironing;
- slip: loose-fitting undergarment;
- St Brigid: secondary patron saint of Ireland after St Patrick, renowned for her piety; in medieval biographies Brigid bore numerous similarities with the legends of a pagan Celtic namesake; St. Brigid’s day is February 1, corresponding with “Imbolc,” the Celtic feast of renewals and purification associated with lambing ;
- ‘Marie’s book at the time contained legends of the saints including one about St Brigid, the great strongwoman of Irish mythology, a goddess turned into a Christian saint’ … to dry her wet cloak ‘she took a sunbeam and hooked it up from one side of her room to the other’ ‘Fine Lines’ BBC interview with Daljit Nagra of March 2001;
- rig up: erect, set up;
- sunray: beam of sunlight;
- string (up): hang in line;
- cloak: sleeveless over-garment hanging from the shoulders;
- hard-pressed: burdened with things to do
- on the go: constantly active;
- damper: check, rein, impediment;
- slump: downward flop, depressing decline;
- drag: ref. both to something that slows progress and something tiresome;
- workaday: related to a job, nothing special, ordinary,
- make light of: treat as easily achievable, create brightness;
- get through: survive:
- brilliant: both exceptional and dazzling;
- 3 section construct in a single sentence; line length based on 7 syllables; totally enjambed;
- unrhymed with exceptions: ‘shrine…find…shine;/ ‘air…fair’;
- It took me a long time to get a title for the book, Heaney explained to Daljit Nagra in a BBC interview of March 2001, then rather late on I wrote this poem, ‘Electric Light’ ‘… as I look back over the poems there’s a lot of light in them: ‘white…shine…electricity…sun…see-throughlight…brilliantly’;
- completeness: ‘whole new’;
- assonant effects: ‘find…light…white…nylon…shine’/ ‘if…Brigid…rigged’/ ‘cloak…so…go’/ ‘through… usual’;
- alliterative effects: [d] ‘damp…drag…workaday…made‘;
- play on words: light…make light of;
- use of neat, economical compounds: ‘see-through…drip-drying…hard-pressed’;
- memory of the static electricity of man-made nylon fibres that fits poetic circumstances;
- 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: eleven 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;