A Drink of Water

When he received the David Cohen Prize in March 2009 Heaney had been asked to recite two poems that represented his Lifetime’s Achievement! As his second choice he plumped for A Drink of Water recalling a moment from his childhood when an old woman who drew water every morning revealed herself later as a muse of sorts to him. Heaney remarked that it was ‘about receiving a gift and being enjoined to remember the giver’ … something, the old charmer added, that underlined the value he placed on the Cohen Prize and the evening’s reception.

As with all the poems of ‘Field Work’ is worth considering how each individual lyric, elegy and meditative piece contributes in a positive or negative way to Heaney’s barely veiled eagerness to sever his ties with Northern Ireland and ratify the success of his move to the Irish Republic.

Heaney revealed that the old lady in the poem was a real person, a neighbour, a crone, as she might have been described, who lived on her own, down the fields from us  … to us kids she had a certain witch-like aura, but in the poem she becomes more like a muse offering the cup of poetry to the child Incertus’ (the pen name ‘Uncertain One’ with which Heaney signed his earliest poetry.

The sonnet’s octet returns Heaney to the lost domain of his childhood: a neighbouring visitant (she) – never identified by name – came to Mossbawn Farm on a daily basis (every morning) to help herself to what she needed for survival (draw water) irrespective of  age and ‘witch-like aura’, infirmity (old bat staggering) and the struggle involved (up the field)

When the youngster could not actually see her she betrayed her presence: priming handle strokes as distinct as an unpleasant childhood illness (whooping cough), metallic echoes of her container (bucket’s clatter) providing a varying musical dynamic (slow diminuendo as it filled) and acting as a fanfare (announced her).

From sonic to visual – her working garment (grey apron) and ageing container (pocked white enamel) carried homewards (brimming bucket) – finally the high-pitched crone’s voice (treble creak) reminiscent of rusty friction (pump’s handle).

The sonnet’s sestet shifts from light to darkn (nights), from objective to half-imagined detail, from Mossbawn farm’s free gift to an old local woman to something she gave in return.

Brightly lit darkness (full moon lifted past her gable) was thrown back into the crone’s abode (fell back through her window) to become part (lie into) of her domestic set-up (water set out on the table).

In return for the poetic charge gifted to him Heaney’s final triplet sets memory of the old crone’s message in the eternal present of his poem (I have dipped to drink again): the biblical warning (admonishment) he claims was printed on her cup (Remember the Giver) retreating slowly into the past (fading off the lip) but unforgotten.

  • stagger: move unsteadily threatening to fall;
  • old bat :offensive colloquialism levelled at old persons by impertinent youngsters
  • whooping cough: contagious disease mostly affecting children with convulsive coughs followed by a whooping sound;
  • clatter: repeated rattling;
  • diminuendo: musical term indicating a decrease in loudness;
  • apron: protective garment worn at the front and tied at the back;
  • pocked: scarred with blemishes;
  • enamel: glossy substance applied to an item as a protective coat
  • brimming: filled to overflowing:
  • treble: musical term denoting the highest register of the human voice (traditionally used for boy choristers);
  • creak: the high-pitched sound of something under strain;
  • gable: end wall including the shape of a pitched roof;
  • dip: place briefly into a liquid;
  • faithful: steadfastly loyal;
  • admonishment: warning, reprimand;
  • Remember the Giver: phrase in both Psalms and Isaiah in The Holy Bible enjoining people not to forget the source of God’s benefits;
  • fade: grow faint;
  • lip: smoothed upper edge of a container;


  • In his later Catechism from Ten Glosses in Electric Light (2001) Heaney further revealed the warmth of his feelings for others: ‘Who is my neighbour? … My neighbour is all mankind’.



  • sonnet: octet + sestet in four sentences; relative balance between sentence length, punctuation marks and enjambed lines determines flow and  rhythm within the oral delivery possibilities;
  • line length gathered around 9-11 syllables with a single exception that allows the echoes of fanfare to resonate awhile;
  • rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg more often than not based upon assonant similarity;
  • contrasts: internal/ external; objective/ subjective; oral/visual;
  • water as the source of life; offering a drink to someone in need the ultimate merit;
  • use of musical terms to add textures to sound;
  • the octet’s daytime effects are relatively colourless; the moonlit darkness sharper and clear cut;
  • use of simile: old woman/ old bat with connotations of potential disrespect not on Heaney’s account but possibly his siblings; unlubricated rusty pump mechanisms and children’s illnesses;
  • use of moon symbol rising and falling in watery reflection to introduce the allegory of poetic charge given as reward for a community service once offered freely to an old woman;
  • unexpected preposition ‘into’ that enhances the impact of the reflected light
  • dream/ reality in the sestet: the distinction hardly matters; young Heaney might have visited her and noted a cup bearing a biblical motto (as mugs did and still do); it’s fading serves a secondary purpose alluding to time passing and mortality;


  • 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;
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;
  • alliterative effects: the final sentence interweaves alveolar plosives [t] [d] and nasals [m] [n]with a variety of front-of-mouth sounds – labio-dental fricatives [f] [v], bilabial plosives [p] [b] continuant [w] and [l];

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