Let us imagine that a poet who has returned from a lecture tour in the United States that he undertook on his own is facing the partner he left to cope with home and family alone. He presents himself as a housemartin returning from its long journey in early summer to reclaim its niche and its partner. He depicts her as the housemartin’s nest.


Heaney concentrates his eye-camera on the flight of the bird that becomes the focus of his own return to the nest. He barks out the first of his imperatives (fetch me the sandmartin). Here is a creature that flies alarmingly close to the watery surface (skimming) on a weaving flight path (veering) a mirror image of the poet (breast to breast with himself) about to home in through the mist (clouds in the river).


The well-used entrance to his roost (worn mouth of the hole) betrays extensive coming and going (flight after flight after flight). His flapping rebalancing act (swoop of his wings) recognizes a shared freehold (gloved) and affection (kissed) for what is theirs (home).


His hoarse utterance sticks in his throat (glottal stillness). He turns listener not lecturer now (an eardrum) all but installed (far in), prepared to blame his absenteeism on impulse (featherbrains) and face her stern face (silence) within long-lost Irish surroundings (silence of water lipping the bank).


His initial imperatives have turned to pleas to his ‘nest’ that she sculpt him (mould my shoulders) to the shape that best pleases her (inward to you), keep him in tow (occlude me), be her alluring self (damp clay pouting) and please allow him (let me) (the extended metaphor a touch overworked) to rest his head beneath her bosom (listen under your eaves).

  • sandmartin: swallow-like brown and white bird digging out nest-holes in sandy banks and cliffs near water:
  • skim: fly very close to but without touching;
  • veer: change direction suddenly;
  • swoop: fly rapidly downwards through air;
  • glove: cover, screen;
  • glottal: from glottis, the part of the larynx where the vocal chords are to be found; the gap between these leads to sound modulation; sandmartin song is hoarse and scratchy
  • eardrum: tympanic membrane of middle ear that reverberates in response to sound waves;
  • featherbrains: cf. feather-brain: silly absent-minded individual;
  • lip: reach the top of; lap against; come within an inch of overflowing;
  • mould: give shape to, influence the shape of;
  • occlude: shut in;
  • pout: (v) use ones lips to show petulant annoyance or to appear sexually attractive;
  • eaves: section above a wall where the roof overhangs;


  • MP In the poems immediately succeeding ‘Glanmore Sonnets’, Heaney again dwells on the critical role played by his wife in his personal and artistic maturation. She becomes a nest in ‘Homecomings’ (‘damp clay pouting’), a reclaimed waterland in ‘Polder’, and a ‘wounded dryad’ in ‘Field Work’, her veins ‘crossed/ criss-cross with leaf-veins’.


  • four separate pieces each of a single quatrain, the first 2 in a single sentence the last 2 in three sentences; thinly veiled impersonal pronouns conceal Seamus and Marie Heaney;
  • I : the imperative is lordly and demanding compared with the pleas of IV after a frosty reception; the sandmartin/nest metaphor is established; vocabulary describing flight consistent with the sandmartin’s; II extends the metaphor depicting the physical return to the nest, flight characteristics suggest right to live there and affection; feelings appropriate to established human relationship; III is suggestive of frosty, ambivalent reception requiring a change of attitude on his behalf; sound timbre introduced in phonetic terms ‘glottal’; oxymoron ‘glottal’>sound – silence>no sound; poet’s self-assessment ‘featherbrains’ retains the metaphor; IV smacks of courtly love: dominant female – male in subservient thrall; nest and Marie merge –‘ damp clay pouting’; personification: nest-build pouts;
  • I and II together provide a closely observed film snippet in words of sandmartins interreacting in their natural habitat;
  • the sentence structure (some mid-line) and enjambed lines determines the flow and rhythm within the oral delivery potential; ringing the changes: I and II totally enjambed; II picks up and responds to vibes; IV enumerates four pleas;
  • variable line length between 3-9 syllables; Heaney suggested his Field Work lines were iambically tight;
  • unrhymed; I uses four assonant [ɪ] sounds; II begins and ends with assonant [əʊ]; IV includes assonant [i:] on even lines; III unrhymed;


  • 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;
  • poem IV is dominated by alveolar plosives [t] [d] and nasals [m] [n] with a sprinkling of front-of-mouth sounds bi-labial plosives [p] [b] and sibilants [s] [z] [sh];

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