Glanmore Sonnets – 4


Heaney vaults neatly over the recent past in Belfast to land in his rural surroundings at Mossbawn farm skirted by the Castledawson railway line.

Precociously curious, the child-poet-to-be was interested in the messages of sound … if one knew how, the railway track (lie with an ear to the line), he was told (they said), would broadcast in advance (a sound escaping ahead) the metallic song (iron tune) of an express steam locomotive (flange and piston) speeding headlong by (pitched along the ground).

Nothing so romantic happened in his case (I never heard that) – just the echoes of freight traffic (struck couplings and shuntings) from Castledawson marshalling-yard (two miles away) carried through space (lifted over the woods).

He recalls one of the farm animals (head of a horse) spooked by something (swirled back from a gate), taking to its alarmed heels (grey turnover of haunch and mane) and only reappearing when it could gallop no further (up to the cutting).

However the youngster’s powers of close observation recorded a clear, almost imperceptible seismic transmission in the family’s quarters (two fields back, in the house): the tiny reverberations (small ripples shook … silently) of a passing train registering in their scullery on the surface of what was stored there from the well (our drinking water).

Such is the real lesson pulling Heaney’s emotional strings (shaking now across my heart) – his gift of capturing and storing those fleeting poetic charges before they faded (vanished into where they seemed to start).

  • flange: projecting circular collar visible on a steam engine’s driving wheels
  • piston: steam-driven tube and cylinder imparting motion to a locomotive
  • pitch: throw;
  • couple: connect railway vehicles together;
  • shunt: push or pull a train from track to track;
  • swirl: spin and twist:
  • haunch: hindquarters;
  • mane: long hair growth on a horse’s neck;
  • cutting: passage excavated from higher ground:
  • ripple: tiny wrinkle on the surface of water;
  • shake: tremble;


  • MP (168) takes a different angle: Each sonnet records moments in the making of his poetic sensibility, aural, visual, tactile stimuli. IV makes analogies between the childhood longing to hear the engine’s ‘iron tune’ and the adult poet’s striving after verbal strength and resonance; both involve keeping ‘an ear to the line’ for something that might never materialize. Instead of tasting the potent, promised sound of ‘flange and piston pitched along the ground’, the music of that alluring, frightening, populous, mechanised world beyond his borders, the child’s faith, patience and persistence earn only a meagre reward – the dull thump of ‘Struck couplings and shuntings’, and the sight of a few ephemeral ripples shaking ‘Silently across our drinking water’. The failure is only relative; refreshment can be drawn even from the well of loss;


  • sonnet in four sentences (2 starting in mid line, parenthesis);
  • the first part (volta before final quatrain) paints a ‘live’ picture of the creative process exercised within precocious child-Heaney’s home ground and the effects of sound on other creatures; first person; railway parallel; locomotive replaced by its component parts that inject momentum;
  • after the volta comes the deep emotional feeling of memory reinforced by the parenthesis
  • the relative balance between sentence length, punctuation marks and enjambed lines (the whole makes good use of enjambment) determines the flow and  rhythm within the oral delivery potential; Heaney injects panic into horse behaviour and movement very effectively;
  • contrasts of final quatrain: external to internal; noise to no noise; sound replaced by reverberation; home thoughts generate very personal emotional responses; successful attempt to describe the delicate movement from disturbed water to still surface in line with the musical diminuendo and other musical vocabulary appropriate also to the poetic processes;
  • line length between 9-11 syllables; Heaney suggested the sonnets rhythms were iambically tight;
  • rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg  – ff a tenuous diphthong ‘rhyme’;
  • past tenses including habitual ‘used to’;
  • use of gerundive nouns;
  • scanning the alliterative effects will emphasize for example the sibilance [s] [sh] [z]of the early section and final quartet;


  • 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: fourteen 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 opening lines are dominated by alveolar plosives [t] [d] and nasals [m] [n] interwoven with front-of-mouth [w] [h] [l] labio-dental [f] [v] and sibilants;

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