Heaney examines the distinctive textures of the two languages and traditions that shaped his upbringing (MP 169)
From his new-found Glanmore location Heaney explores in his mind the properties of a familiar tree first known by its mid Ulster name (boortree). He can still feel its vertically furrowed trunk (soft corrugations), recall its eagerness to grow (green young shoots) and its youngest branches (rods) shining molten silver with dark flecking (freckled solder).
Once upon a time the Heaney siblings used it as a hideaway (our bower as children), now in retrospect a tad less appreciated (greenish, dank and snapping memory). Background and education taught him a different name (elderberry I have learned to call it).
Heaney had a special fondness (love) for its upright flat topped clusters (saucers) of tiny, flour-grained blossom (brimmed with meal) and its de-luxe dark-skinned fruit (swart caviar) resembling the contents of a hunter’s cartridge (shot), a floating clutch (buoyant spawn) the colour of leaking blood on the skin (light bruised out of purple).
Elderberry, he chuckles, regarded by posh folk as the non-alcoholic equal of its grape cousin (shires dreaming wine).
Gaelic Scottish derivation (boortree is bower tree) describes the hideaway where, as youngsters, they indulged in daring experimentation (played ‘touching tongues’) and were thrilled (another’s texture quick on mine).
Heaney’s meld of intellectual study, dendrology and distant childish impulse (etymologist of roots and graftings) fits this adult moment: his inborn need for a Glanmore-style bolt-hole (my tree-house), a place to take refuge (crouch) amidst nature in full development (small buds shoot) and far from the madding Belfast crowd (in the hush).
- elder: type of berry tree, from Old English – origin unknown but with cognates across old western European languages, Old Saxon elora, Middle Low German elre, Old High German elira, German Eller, Erle.
- corrugations: series of vertical folds parallel to each other
- boortree: word of Scottish derivation for elderberry; mid-Ulster usage;
- rod: thin straight bar that the elderberry flower stem resembles;
- freckle: tiny patch of light brown colour on the skin; phenomenon visible on soldering
- solder: low-melting alloy used to join metal surfaces;
- bower: pleasant shady place in garden or wood:
- dank: unpleasantly damp:
- snapping: giveaway sound of twigs cracking:
- bloom: flower
- meal: floury substance resulting from grinding;
- swart: (archaic) dark-skinned, swarthy
- caviar: roe of the sturgeon, tiny round eggs that cohere;
- shot: lead pellets gathered in a shotgun cartridge;
- buoyant: seeming to float, cheerful
- spawn: eggs in a transparent jelly;
- bruise: impact injury that discolours the skin into bluish purple shades
- shire: Irish counties; here ‘areas where…’
- quick: living, alive
- etymologist: person interested in the origin of words;
- root: both a plant’s underground life-support and linguistic morpheme that may be modified with suffix or prefix;
- graft: both shoot or twig inserted into the stem of a living plant that feeds it and examples of morphemes added to a word’s root as above
- tree-house: literally a house built in a tree for childish recreation;
- shoot: sprout;
- flourish: grow vigorously
- hush: silence, quietude; Heaney’s sonnet ‘Oracle’ from Wintering Out corroborates the shy side of the poet’s personality that enjoyed being on its own in nature;
- MP (169) Saying the dialect word, naming the boortree, can still evoke its ‘soft corrugations’, its ‘green young shoots’ and ‘greenish, dank’ security, yet the sharpness of these images suffers under the influence of time and the ‘alien’ tongue. Like the disappearing Gaelic culture mourned in the place-name poems of Wintering Out, it is reduced to being only a ‘snapping memory’, displaced by its English ‘equivalent’ An appropriate note of stiffness enters in the fifth line, when Heaney recalls how Standard English forms were imposed upon him, ‘elderberry I have learned to call it’. In the next line, however, he turns quickly away from past lessons ‘learned’ to present ‘love’, and celebrates the original’s blooms and berries with a succession of resonants [l] [m] [bp] [r] [s], and a variety of long vowels. ‘Elderberry’, by contrast, is merely “shires dreaming wine an image suggestive perhaps of English opulence “and pretentiousness, a world away from the homeliness and fecundity of ‘saucers brimmed with meal’. Despite his clear preference for the ‘bruised’ language of home, Heaney is not insensible to the benefits that derived from that other culture. The poem is itself an act of grafting, setting into sensual ‘Irish’ stock linguistic slivers from his’ English’ education, ‘cultivated’ words such as ‘corrugations’, ‘swart’, ‘caviar’, ‘etymologist’. Exile, after all, provided him (170) with the words and forms with which to articulate his desiderium nostrorum (need for things we can call our own;
- sonnet in seven sentences (including interrogative, use of inverted commas);
- the first part (volta before final triplet ) paints an anatomical picture of the boortree; first person reflecting on autobiographical correspondences with life stages; strong use of the five senses; variety of verb tenses used; subtle variety of textures and colourings within the two cultures that impacted on Heaney; comparison (bloom…meal) reflects Mossbawn sunlight;
- after the volta comes the deeper emotional impact of memory reinforced by Heaney’s nature and shyness as a child, the Incertus that has never fully left him; play on etymology ‘roots and graftings’ that reflect the full life experience … Mossbawn the root, Glanmore grafted on;
- the relative balance between sentence length, punctuation marks and enjambed lines (the whole makes little use of enjambment) determines the flow and rhythm within the oral delivery potential; Heaney injects panic into horse behaviour and movement very effectively;
- line length between 10-12 syllables; Heaney suggested the sonnets rhythms were iambically tight;
- rhyme pattern starts strongly, wavers in the second quartet and finishes in scheme abab **** efef 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: 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], nasals [m] [n] and sibilants [s] [z] [sh] alongside a handful of velar [k] [g] and an assortment of front-of-mouth sounds;