The sequence navigates a route from imperfection to Heaney’s representation of perfection. The ultimate paragon will be his wife Marie.
Heaney was a vigilant close reader of what met his eye: willow leaves that bore differing tints above and beneath (sally tree went pale in every breeze), creatures ever on the qui-vive for danger (perfect eye of the nesting blackbird) the tiny idiosyncrasies of nature (one fern … always green).
Close observation, too, of Marie (standing watching you ) on the occasion she picked up cleaning materials (pad from the gatehouse) on the other side of the railway track (crossing) and strained upwards (reach to lift) to remove an imperfection in nature (white wash off the whins).
The circular inoculation mark (vaccination) that distorted as she reached out (stretched on your upper arm), was suddenly blotted out by a steam train (smell the coal smell) that separated them (comes between us), trundling (slow goods) seemingly endless (waggon after waggon), packed with beasts eager for his attention (full of big-eyed cattle). Heaney is surely asking Marie to understand that life’s unexpected interventions distance individuals however temporarily.
- sally: willow;
- fern: flowerless plant with feathery, leafy fronds; reproduced from spores;
- pad: cloth
- gatehouse: building by a gateway or guarding a crossing
- whins: furze, gorse;
- vaccination mark: distinctive often quite large mark left for example by smallpox inoculation against disease for example smallpox
- goods: train carrying merchandise rather than people;
Heaney changes direction (but) … perhaps he misremembered (your vaccination mark is on your thigh) or, more likely, he has spotted a poetic opportunity to rework Marie’s scar as a tree’s imperfection (a letter shape – O … that’s healed into the bark) leading him first into mythology then literature.
Though the wood nymph (dryad) is an effigy built into the sculpture of a tree (not a woman) she fits the bill of a vexed wife (my wounded dryad) a model of maternal womanhood (mothering smell) as steadfast as the tree itself (wet and ring-wormed chestnuts).
Vexation might have scaled down his and Marie’s shared (our) symbol of love (moon), pushed it into the background (small and far) yet it sits in the night sky (coin long gazed at) and is depicted in literature (brilliant on the Pequod’s mast) as symbolic of the human thirst for adventure (across Atlantic and Pacific waters). Heaney himself, if not Marie, neglected few such opportunities.
- heal: restore, make better; return to health;
- dryad: tree/ wood nymph in folklore and Greek mythology; the creature was depicted as intrinsic to the tree she inhabited;
- ring-worm: itchy skin condition in small circular patches
- Pequod: reference the vessel in Herman Melville’s globe-trotting adventure classic Moby Dick;
Heaney’s imagination sifts out also-rans (not … nor … no) in his search for perfection.
A roving mind’s-eye camera seeks to settle on something that best ticks the poet’s boxes, resting momentarily on objects before moving on – first at ground level – past the reclaimed polder (not the mud slick), through a tarnished saturated landscape (not the black weedy water) with its signs of nature’s end-of-cycle (alder cones … pock-marked leaves), beyond a field-side hedgerow plant (not the cow parsley in winter) with its pale personified limbs and joints (old whitened shins and wrists) and shivering alliterations (sibilance … shaking).
Now and then the camera-eye lingers a moment longer – on a coloration (tart green shade of summer), a gathered
fluttering (thick with butterflies) or nature’s engorged plenty (fungus plump as a leather saddle).
Nothing meets expectations (not even … No) until something (perhaps someone in disguise) self-effacing (in a still corner), tall, erect, determined (braced), home-attached (pebble-dashed wall) with modest bowing head (heavy, earth-drawn) and human traits (all mouth and eye) hits the lens … zoom to the sunflower, emblem of deep and unconditional love and redolent of golden summer days (dreaming umber).
- alder: only British deciduous tree to develop cones;
- cones: small fruiting body remaining on the tree over the winter supplying food for birds and small mammals;
- pock-mark: blemish, scar;
- cow parsley: hedgerow plant with heads of tiny white flowers
- shin: front of leg below the knee:
- wrist: joint connecting leg to forearm;
- sibilance: [s] sounds ;
- tart: sharp tasting;
- fungus: spore-producing organism e.g. mushroom or toadstool
- plump: full and rounded:
- brace: press firmly
- pebble-dash: combination of small stones and mortar used to clad exterior walls;
- umber: dark yellowish brown colour deepened by the sun;
The smearing of a person with an oily substance had a place in Celtic and Christian theology suggestive of divine election and said to remove burdens and yokes.
Perfection is revealed. Guess who?
Heaney chooses a plant (flowering currant) with off-putting odour (Catspiss smell) yet attractive blossom (pink bloom open) to perform an intimate ritual (I press a leaf …back of your hand). The leaf’s acidic properties – sting (tight slow burn) and glutinous clinginess (sticky juice) – prepare Marie’s hand for the next stage (prime your skin), that of imprinting the signs of human blood-flow (your veins to be crossed) with the lattice pattern of fronds (criss-cross with leaf-veins).
Heaney uses his own saliva (lick my thumb) to pick up Ireland’s loamy soil (dip it in mould) and smear it onto the leaf’s secretion (anoint the anointed leaf-shape). The stencil image blossoms (mould blooms) and marks what is there (pigments the back of your hand) as if it always had been (birthmark).
Marie embodies all the qualities of his ‘sunflower’ (my umber one) – so close in sound to ‘my number one’ – and the sequence’s final oxymoronic juxtaposition is designed to reverse any negative connotations (you are stained, stained) by sublimating a cherished wife (to perfection).
- the flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) with its sprays of dark pink flowers is not universally appreciated; its musty smell earned it the nickname ‘cat-pee plant’;
- tight: stiff, tense, rigid;
- burn: hot painful sensation:
- juice: liquid secretion;
- prime: prepare, add a positive ingredient;
- criss-cross: lattice pattern;
- vein: ribbed branch of a leaf
- mould: sift, loose earth;
- anoint: rub with oil (typically as part of a religious ceremony) or oily substance;
- pigment: natural colouring matter of living tissue;
- birthmark: unusual skin mark present from birth
- stain: change of (skin) colour not easily removable; also connotation of stigma;
- NC (100) Being ‘stained to perfection’ is, we might say, a renovation of the Christian concept of the Fall as a felix culpa, a happy fault: it is the paradoxical conjunction of nature and art, of the human body and the human will which may bring about the ‘anointing’ (the word of ‘Field Work’) of a happy marriage.
- four separate pieces each of varying construction; thinly veiled impersonal pronouns reveal Seamus and Marie Heaney; there is a deep psychological underlay within the poet’s aim of reassuring a nettled spouse;
- I in three quatrains (Q) + a single line (S) in two sentences dominated by enjambed lines; Q1 displays top notch close study involving sight and touch; stasis in nature may be intended to demonstrate the husband’s unchanging feelings; Q2 introduces the wife as an earth mother figure caring for her environment; unspoken Irish environment that unifies them; Q3 vaccination mark will recur as something administered to protect the body from disease; the train acts as a metaphor for living normality that inevitably gets in the way; sight and smell; S deliberately prolongs the time people can feel separated; big-eyed beasts allude perhaps to the interim characters along the way; variable line length 7-12 syllables; unrhymed
- II 5 couplets in 3 sentences; vaccination link to tree-land as a protective measure; mythological/ folk-lore metaphor for neglected beautiful earth mother; moon symbolism as a unifying factor; literary reference used perhaps by Heaney’s conscience to show he is simply taking advantage of life’s opportunities; variable line length 5-11 syllables; unrhymed;
- III 4 triplets + 1 line in 5 sentences (S); S 1-3 enjambed; final 4 lines heavily punctuated in a kind of paused enumeration of sunflower descriptors that will come to apply to Marie; repetition of negatives ‘not’ and final ‘no’ before perfection begins to define itself; use of compounds; variable line length 5-9 syllables; unrhymed
- IV lines in a single verse in 3 sentences (including dash); flowering currant a metaphor for life’s vicissitudes and means to discovering perfection; botanist knowledge of properties and potential for layered images; close contact between couple; background notion of something ‘supernatural’ even Celtic; vocabulary from basic ingredients (leaf, mould) to more scientific > pigment; ingenious phonetic omission that would crown the sequence and reject any doubt Marie might retain (my umber one > my number one’; variable line length 3-7syllables; unrhymed; the piece a richly enjambed flow of consciousness leading to a felicitous declaration;
- the relative balance between sentence length, punctuation mark and enjambment determines the flow and rhythm within the oral delivery potential;
- for all variable line length Heaney stressed that his Field Work lines were iambically tight;
- 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;
- the first six lines of I are rich in front-of-mouth sounds especially breathy [w],also approximant [l] bi-labial plosives [p] [b] and labio-dental fricatives [f] [v]; these are accompanied by a strong showing of alveolar plosives [t] [d], nasals [m] [n] and sibilants [s] [z];