Perhaps Heaney is recalling his ‘wood kerne’ (one of those Catholic rebels who, during the earlier course of Irish history, took to the woods when defeated, to prepare for further resistance) in ‘Exposure’, the final poem of ‘North’.
Sitting in his workroom the poet conjures up a mid-Ulster folk hero said to have ridden his motorbike daringly through extreme winter conditions in 1947, a ‘wild goose’ figure (a second group of rebels who supported the defeated Catholic cause). With this in mind the whole sonnet may be read as an allegory of minority Catholic repression in Northern Ireland challenged.
Heaney introduces an anonymous man (He) the mirror image of himself who has lived tongue-tied in an Irish sectarian society (the unsayable lights), endowed with an extraordinary sensitivity to the lyrical beauty around him (the fuchsia in a drizzling noon), who can envision the little world of an elder tree’s clustered bloom within the wider universe (at dusk like a risen moon) and who celebrates every nuance of being alive (green fields greying … windswept heights).
‘He’ is determined to make a quantum leap as poet and individual (‘I will break through’), by saying how things are without holding back as he might once have done (what I glazed over) via lyric (perfect mist) and elegy (peaceful absences).
His resolve was spurred (sudden) by a fearless prototype (sure as the man who dared the ice) said to have ridden over Castledawson’s iced up watercourse (raced his bike across the Moyola River) – whether true or apocryphal (man we never saw).
Extreme winter conditions (1947) brought the reflective shine of the heaviest snowfall in human memory (country bright as a studio) and low temperatures which left the biker with only two possible outcomes – solid success (crystallize) or watery failure (founder).
At the time this larger-than-life act lifted spirits (quickened us), transformed the man into an emblem of courage and endurance of historical proportion (wild white goose) and was widely talked about (heard after dark) amongst folk shut in by the weather (the drifted house).
- unsayable: remaining unspoken perhaps because of some sensitivity;
- fuchsia: shrub with pendulous tubular flowers
- break through: achieve success, celebrity
- glaze over: of eyes become dull, expressionless, disinterested; also cover a surface ,say, with glass;
- dare: risk;
- crystallize: form crystals, take definite shape
- founder: collapse:
- quicken: give, restore life to
- wild goose: credible allusion to the ‘wild geese’ label for Irish Catholic soldiers put to flight by William of Orange’s victory at the Battle of The Boyne in 1690 and the advent of Protestantism;
- drifted: enclosed by walls of driven snow:
- MP (170) introduces an element of guilt: perhaps over his present lyric ‘truancy’, and past reticence on political matters – surfaces again in the somewhat oblique sixth sonnet. Having ended the previous poem retreating into a foetal position in ‘the tree-house’ of Mossbawn/Glanmore, Heaney reproaches himself for his ‘timid circumspect involvement’, determining in a future tense to break through .’What I glazed over’, to take more risks. He is quickened by the memory of an anonymous, local act of heroism from the winter of 1947, when a man ‘dared the ice/ And raced his bike across the Moyola river’.
- sonnet in six sentences (including suspension points and direct speech);
- the first part (volta after line 6 creates sestet/ octave shape ) follows the activities of an anonymous hybrid figure (Heaney is one component) expressing deeply lyrical affection for the landscape; third person; past tenses … things have changed; simile bloom and moon, microcosm, macrocosm; no apostrophe as such but the declaration of intent in direct speech amounts to one; contrast ‘unsayable’ to use of modal auxiliary ‘I will …’;
- following the volta the octave provides the stimulus perhaps real perhaps apocryphal for change – the winter real, the daring act maybe; scarlet pimpernel figure of popular hearsay; Heaney presents binary upshot in a mixture of water in its different states: solid ‘crystallize’, unsolid’ founder’ in a lightly veiled allusion to the Glanmore move; personal pronoun ‘us’ applies to the wider audience; contrast of light and dark apply both to reality and mood;
- the relative balance between sentence length, punctuation marks and enjambed lines determines the flow and rhythm within the oral delivery potential;
- 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 abba **** 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: 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 final lines are dominated by alveolar plosives [t] [d] and front-of-mouth sounds- breathy [w], aspirate [h] labio-dental fricatives [f] [v], bi-labial[b]; interwoven clusters of nasals [n] [m], sibilants [s] [z] and velar plosives [k] [g];