Heaney’s routine is suddenly unsettled (thunderlight): signs of everyday Glanmore productivity (split logs) are marred by a warm summer downfall (big raindrops at body heat) that, as it changes colour (spattering dark) onthe wood-cleaving tool (hatchet iron), introduces a darkening mood (lush with omen).
The early-day portent of a lurching scavenger (magpie with jerky steps) looking instinctively for personal advantage (horse asleep beside the wood) is consistent with the damper (dew) of Ireland’s battles and bloody victims (armour and carrion).
Questions betray increasing anxiety as to where threats lie (what … meet?) – a gory animal corpse run over by a vehicle (blood-boltered, on the road?) or an evil Shakespearean ‘familiar’ (toad) haunting the cottage garden (deep into the woodpile?) or some cyclone casting threatening shadows (welters through) over Wicklow’s fertility (dark hush on the crops?).
Heaney’s growing anguish comes to a head with an image from a French holiday he shared with Marie (that pension in Les Landes): a grandmother’s devotion (old one rocked … in her lap … little songs) to a child with life-threatening prospects (mongol).
Poignant reminders of the world’s ills spark a desperate call to Marie (come to me quickly) from his first-floor work-space (I am upstairs shaking). He is fearful for her and the family (my all of you) in the event that his Wicklow initiative is destroyed by fire (birchwood in lightning).
- split: chopped into segments;
- log: section of tree trunk:
- body heat: around 37 degrees C.
- lush: rich, abundant;
- omen: portent, forecast;
- spatter: splash, sprinkle;
- hatchet: one-handed axe:
- magpie: aggressive long-tailed crow with bold markings:
- jerky: stop-start, lurching;
- dew: condensed vapour in the form of water drops;
- armour: medieval metal body protection in battle;
- carrion: decaying flesh of dead animals fed on by scavengers;
- blood boltered: borrowing from Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’; description of Banquo’s apparition it’s hair clotted with blood; he had been murdered by three assassins hired by Macbeth in Act 3:iii;
- toad: ugly tailless amphibian with skin that can exude poison; mentioned by Shakespeare as a kind of demonic attendant to the three witches in ‘Macbeth’;
- welter: turn, roll, twist;
- crop: cereal produce harvested at the same time;
- pension: modest French boarding-house;
- Landes: unique forested area in the south-west of France;the Heaney family had visited the region in 1969;
- rock: move gently to and fro to induce sleep;
- mongol: describing a person born with a disabling genetic condition (Down’s Syndrome) affecting physical appearance and learning capacity;
- birch burns easily and can be burnt unseasoned. It also burns very quickly so is often best mixed with a slower burning wood such as Oak or Elm. Birch bark can make an excellent fire-lighter;
- (MP 170): Glanmore’s solace and sanctuary prove to be temporary. In VIII and IX, threatening elements converge on Glanmore, bringing with them black presences, bloody reflections, which serve as a reminder of, an objective correlative for, ‘scaresome ‘ experiences from his Mossbawn childhood, explosions and carnage from his recent past. His fearful, fertile imagination breeds evil familiars – the magpie, the toad, the rat – and leads him to interpret their natural activities as sinister manouevring … the magpie’s … appearance, like that of the toad, presages some unknown horror… Heaney introduces the figure of his wife into the poem, and a shared memory … The old woman from Les Landes embodies maternal love and protectiveness, and reminds him of the enduring, assuaging power of song.
- NC (105): The poignant memory of human suffering there (the old on from Les Landes) is countered with the urgent imperative of sexual desire, as if the one could occlude the other. It is the vulnerable desperation which registers most powerfully, however, in the phrase ‘My all of you’, which effects a grammatical conjunction (of his possessive adjective and her personal pronoun) responsively imitative of the sexual conjunction itself, which is urgently and vividly imagined now, in anticipation – which is ‘all’ he has of her until she comes to him – as birchwood seen in, or consumed by a flash of lightning. It is the humbled expression of overwhelming need, as well as of irresistible desire.
- sonnet in eight sentences (including four questions symptomatic of inner doubt);
- volta after line 9. Part 1 reflects Heaney’s less than stable state of mind; a triple threat in the making? Domestic arrangements eroded by darkening nature; aggressive opportunistic bird recalling unstable Irish history and its casualties; a wider silencing threat to everyone’s well-being; un pleasant Shakespearean symbols; the sonnet becomes a first person narrative
- Part 2,a personal memory of grand-maternal care and compassion for a handicapped child (repetition indicates determination not to give up) only serves to drive the poet to a crisis moment for whom only his wife can bring solace; instability brings fear and imagery of conflagration; notion that music is comforting; contrast child that cannot express its feelings and misfortune, and poet who can; final couplet turns into emergency;
- the relative balance between sentence length, punctuation marks and enjambed lines determines the flow and rhythm within the oral delivery potential;
- line length between 9-11 syllables; Heaney suggested the sonnets rhythms were iambically tight;
- beyond a minor blip at cc the sonnet follows pattern abab **dd efef gg;
- variety of verb tenses used from present to past including, relatively unusually, the conditional;
- Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to.
- 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 first four lines are rich in alveolar plosives [t] [d] and nasals [n] [m] alongside front-of-mouth sounds, breathy [w], aspirate [h] and bi-labial [p] [b], sibilants and velar [k] [g];