Heaney is touring the English Midlands. What he sees from his car window ignites a poetic charge expressing just how his mind and personality respond to things left behind (leavings), from field stubble to the scars inflicted by the Tudor Reformation.
The poet’s eye meets burning fields after harvest time. His mid-Ulster farming background has taught him all about air funnels in heat (soft whoosh), farmers’ timings (sunset blaze) and the combustible materials involved (straw on blackened stubble). He can talk proportions (thatch-deep), clean start (freshening), fierceness (barbarous) and evening fire glow (crimson burn).
Feigning period transport (I rode down England) he uses the coincidence of stubble burning (as they fired the crop) to clarify his title (the leavings of a crop) and leads via the harvest’s initial act of violence (smashed) and the cereal’s bland colouring (tow-coloured barley) into the spoliation a religious site at the hands of the Tudors (Ely’s Lady Chapel). The echoes of its Catholic voicings (sweet tenor latin) forfeited to history (forever banished) … it’s former stained glass works of art (sumptuous windows) trashed – in line with the cereal metaphor (threshed clear) – by the villain of the piece (Thomas Cromwell).
Heaney condemns Henry VIII’s destroyer-in-chief to Dante’s Inferno, the deeper the better (which circle does he tread) adding an individual sear of painful damnation (scalding on cobbles), not for reasons of religious confrontation but for every piece of Art the man destroyed (each one a broken statue’s head).
Thoughts of a recent Nottinghamshire walk (after midnight, after summer) and the leavings of fire (sparking field) has conjured up a DH Lawrence landscape (smell dew and ashes) and surprised a character from The Rainbow (start Will Brangwen’s ghost) from the smouldering depths (hot soot). A spotlight is thrown (breaking sheaf of light) on a farming character in his element (abroad) alongside the heard sounds (hiss and clash) of his activity – gathered stalks being stacked on end to dry (stooking).
- leaving: example of gerundive noun;
- whoosh: sudden onomatopoeic rushing sound of heat or air movement;
- stubble: cut stalks of cereal crops left in the ground after harvest;
- thatch: straw or similar material once used commonly to cover a roof;
- freshen: renew;
- barbarous: savagely cruel, unsparing;
- rode: drove;
- crop: cereal yield harvested at one time;
- tow: originally flax fibres, pale yellow in colour;
- barley: coarse, hardy cereal plant;
- Ely: city in Cambridgeshire England boasting a very fine Cathedral, once part of an abbey that was deliberately damaged during the Tudor Reformation;
- Lady’s Chapel: part of Ely Cathedral; its stained-glass was destroyed between 1536-40 and replaced by plain glass;
- tenor latin: Catholic liturgy conducted in Latin often included recitatives sung in the high male voice register;
- banish: condemn and remove by edict;
- sumptuous: lavish, extravagant, costly, rich;
- thresh: OE beat and sift grain by trampling underfoot;
- Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540) chief minister to Henry VIII eventually beheaded by him; responsible for many of the Tudor Reformation’s iconoclastic acts seeking to ‘scrape, scrub and smash Catholic extravagance’;
- circle: reference to Dante’s Inferno where the dead were graded according to the sins of their lifetime, the lower the ‘circle’ (nine in all) the greater the sins;
- scald: be afflicted painfully by heat;
- cobbles: small, roundish, water-worn stones used for paving;
- start: cause to awaken;
- Will Brangwen: Heaney’s travel itinerary would seem to have included DH Lawrence territory on the border between Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire100 miles north west from Ely. Lawrence’s novel The Rainbow set against the backdrop of increasing industrialisation in Britain dealt with three generations of the Brangwen family, a dynasty of farmers and craftsmen; second generation Will Brangwen initially in an unhappy relationship with his wife Anna later deals with her daughter Ursula who is coping badly with her own demons within an increasingly materialist and conformist society.
- soot: literally ‘what settles’; black powder deposit; evidence of burning
- abroad: moving freely about;
- hiss: sharp sibilant sound
- clash: brush, confrontation
- stook: collected sheaves of grain stood on end and left in a field;
- 6 quatrains (Q) in 4 sentences including dash and interrogative);
- Q1 explores the poem’s trigger metaphor‘fire’ to which it will return in the final lines; an essentially visual narrative includes colour and contrasted colour; onomatopoeic sound starts the poem; ‘barbarous’ is judgmental of things that run out of control and transferrable to the subsequent crimes of agents of the Reformation against architecture and other creative arts; use of compound adjectives here and in Q2 that places autobiography in context; use of ‘rode’ suggest Heaney has changed centuries himself and is travelling the highway; leavings characterised into Q3 as replacing colour with see-through -stained glass > plain glass, as scouring the extravagance, so with it language and music, from Catholicism and its support of the Arts, this unappealing to the poet’s creative spirit; Q4 though phrased as a question Heaney condemns cultural iconoclasm out of hand using Dante; he is merely questioning the degree of everlasting torture; Q5 detects a literary ‘leaving’; literary visits and allusions were very much part of the Heaney routine (compare Thomas Hardy); Q5 reveals Heaney as very much more comfortable in a literary landscape; the overall darkness lit by man-made fires is replaced by fiction’s emblem of light;
- very variable line length 4-8 syllables; unrhymed; Heaney stressed that his Field Work lines were iambically tight;
- the relative balance between sentence length, punctuation and enjambment determines the flow and rhythm within the oral delivery potential; the continuity ebbs and flows;
- 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 first quatrain is rich in front-of-mouth sounds breathy [w], approximant[l] labio-dental fricatives [f] [v] and bi-labial plosives [p] [b]; alveolar plosives [t] [d] have a dominant role to play alongside nasals [m] [n] and sibilant variations [s] [z] [sh];