A Dream of Jealousy


Heaney made use of the dream trope across his poetry. As he well understands admitting us into his subconscious poses questions in search of answers. Dream narrative twists, turns and distorts but there is always an innate anxiety waiting to surface. The emotional pressures Heaney’s ‘absence’ from his relationship with Marie alluded to in An Afterwards remain centre-stage.

In conversation with DOD (206) Heaney offered a strong pointer to the identity of the second woman as his poetic muse: Obviously, there were many times when I was under pressure to finish stuff for a deadline, and there were absences from home when I was doing broadcasts or readings, and there were the withdrawals and impatiences that are part and parcel of writing. But you’re espoused to poetry too …  So in a sense you’re living a double life … given goodwill and good stamina – and humour – this particular bigamy is manageable. Thanks to his dream Heaney provides himself with a snippet of wise marriage-guidance expressed in the sonnet’s final couplet.

A dream involves a trio of participants: Heaney himself, his wife (you) and an unidentified third party (another lady); the setting is identifiable with Heaney’s world (wooded parkland) but constricted enough to provide an early hint that ‘two is company, three is a crowd’.

Whilst nature chats quietly about the trio (whispering grass) and makes caring contact (ran its fingers through) the human protagonists are tight-lipped (our guessing silence).

A chance to unwind is offered – woodland clears (trees opened) to form a kind of bower (shady unexpected clearing) providing resting space (where we sat down).

The male concludes (I think) that illumination favouring openness (candour of the light) had the reverse emotional effect (dismayed us) creating an atmosphere (desire and being jealous) that spread over them like an intrusive covering (loose single gown) or, in the style of Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’Herbe (white picnic tablecloth spread out), promoted conversations resting on stilted courtesies (book of manners) in unfruitful circumstances (wilderness).

Then occurs his, whoever he is, ultimate faux-pas – an ostensibly intimate request, (‘Show me’) to the woman who makes up the threesome (our companion) to provide much needed (coveted) poetic feed (your breast’s mauve star) to which she visibly accedes (she consented). What greater clumsiness would be required to arouse the jealousy of a neglected wife! Only later does the impact of his gaffe on a spouse who felt she was playing second fiddle to poetry begin to dawn on him.

Once said forever damned! No question of retraction: impassioned vocative declamation (O), regretful love sonnet (these verses), open affection (love), an undertaking to act more wisely (my prudence) none can repair the hurt (heal your wounded stare). Will she let him off the hook, one wonders. Will he have he learnt anything from his dream?

  • run one’s fingers through: provide a gesture of affectionate concern to tidy or organize or make more presentable; open space in a forest
  • clearing: open space in a forest; also maybe the sense of clearance the opportunity to settle some issue, place it behind one
  • candour: Latin candor ‘purity’ ‘openness’ also candere ‘to shine’ ‘to be white’
  • dismay: disconcert, alarm, frighten;
  • jealous: possessive and suspicious originally in the context of sexuality and romance; envious, covetous, resentful;
  • gown: long, loose outer garment; flowing robe (for special occasion);
  • book of manners: elusive reference to some form of list of dos and don’ts; originated in Renaissance Italy. Giovanni della Casa’s Galateo contained a dire warning to suit subject matter to circumstances;
  • wilderness: wild, uncultivated space;
  • covet: yearn to possess;
  • mauve star: elusive reference most likely to the nuanced colourings of the female nipple;
  • prudence: a cardinal virtue to do with intelligence, discretion, foresight and judgment;
  • stare: fixed look; Heaney will reiterate the word’s strong impact on him in the ‘collie’s stare’ of ‘The Clip’ from District and Circle (2006);


  • The circumstances of the current group of what commentators have referred to as the ‘marriage poems’ reveal Heaney’s ‘conscience’ about his absences from the family home either short-term and associated with his income earning from radio contracts and readings or extended lecturing contracts in the United States that left Marie with responsibility for home-building and growing family;
  • In dreams the emotions are often distorted; jealousy is no different whether a reflection of protective feeling or a feeling that something has changed or a desire to establish how one thinks something should be. Dream feelings of jealousy almost certainly reflect feelings of inadequacy vis a vis a person who is not necessarily an issue in the waking life … Dream offers subliminal encouragement to consider one’s own actions and sense of fairness.
  • NC 99 Even if the opportunity for jealousy is being given only in ‘a dream’ in that poem, there is nevertheless no remedy for the hurt it causes. Neither in the order of aesthetics (‘these verses’) with their beguiling allurements … nor  in the ethical order (‘my prudence’), is there balm for the woman’s ‘wounded stare’;
  • Heaney’s love poems also change according to the historical and biographical moments in which they are written. Together, many of these chart the peaks and troughs of desire and disappointment within marriage … A Dream of Jealousy’ from Field Work (1979) is a dreamy sonnet that articulates feelings of jealousy and adulterous desire, but has been read by some critics to allegorise the poet’s powerful attraction to his muse rather than a living woman (unattributed);


  • sonnet in five sentences (S) (including direct speech);
  • the sonnet does not follow strict models: its twists and turns and inner shifting subconscious supersedes standard octet/sestet/volta constructs;
  • S1 sets scene, circumstances and inner psychologies adding the enigmatic and anonymous; personification – nature talks and touches – in contrast the humans are silent; like an animated forward moving film reel a spot to settle and communicate is provided; S2-3 allow a difference of feelings to become clear pointing to a bad outcome; contrast:  light/candour> dismay; a very bright man begins to question his possibly one-sided understanding of human sensitivities interweaving elusive comparisons: a woman’s garment – a possible classical canvas – a possible Renaissance book of etiquette – the bleakness of ‘wilderness’; S4-5 coup de théâtre  – dream statement that (possibly unintended)  impacts on wife and flummoxes reader;
  • S 6 – Heaney’s moment of enlightenment – it’s emphatic finality sets it apart from standard sonnet format, diagnoses the Heaney’s poet/ husband balance dilemma and identifies the piece as a love sonnet; vocative ‘O’;
  • the relative balance between sentence length, punctuation marks and enjambed lines determines the flow and rhythm within the oral delivery potential; the first five lines are fully enjambed;
  • line length between 10-11 syllables; Heaney suggested the sonnets rhythms were iambically tight;
  • rhyme scheme: opens abba cddc  but follows a very tenuous pattern thereafter; assonance may suggest a gg;


  • 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: thirteen 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;
  • the first sentence provides a rich combination of alveolar plosives [t] [d], nasals [m] [n], sibilant variants [s] [z] [sh] and of front-of-mouth sounds breathy [w], [l] and bi-labial plosives [p] [b]; a handful of velar [k] [g] complete the package;

Join the Conversation - Leave a comment