The Guttural Muse

At first sight Heaney’s title seems light-heartedly appropriate to himself – with his rootsy, gravelly Gaelic articulation of mid-Ulster village names like Broagh the poet would be recognized by many Irish people as their ‘guttural muse’!

Heaney has an emotional narrative to grapple with and falls back on his poetry to offset feelings of loneliness, exclusion and middle age. He placed the poem in the same set as ‘The Singer’s House’ and ‘The Harvest Bow’ acknowledging in retrospect ‘a renewed sense of the value of poetry itself as a consolidating element, the writing of which took me to the bottom of something inside myself, something inchoate but troubled … the Troubles, you might say, had muddied the waters but I felt those poems arrived from an older, deeper, cleaner spring (DOD 195).

As with all the poems preceding the Glanmore Sonnets it is worth considering how each individual lyric, elegy and meditative piece contributes to Heaney’s barely veiled relief at having severed his ties with Belfast.

Without telling us where in the world he is Heaney injects clues as regards his circumstances: season (late Summer); insomnia (at midnight); an open window in a hot climate (smelt the heat of the day); the upper floor in a rented room (window over the hotel car park); alone (I … my); the pervasive smell of the wider landscape (muddied night airs off the lake).

He is feeling vulnerable and excluded from the main stream (watched a young crowd leave the discotheque). Incoming sounds are inescapable (voices rose up) but, however throaty (thick) the unidentified language, consoling to a man alone (comforting).

Heaney’s early evening walk had provided his wilting spirit with pinpoints of oxygen (oily bubbles the feeding tench sent up) – a greasy fish (slimy tench) which according to folk-lore (said to) bore a second label (‘doctor fish’) thanks, like poetry, to its curative properties (heal the wounds of fish that touched it).

Heaney’s repressed virility is stirred by developments below his window – an innocent maiden (girl in a white dress) receiving amorous attention (courted) in the nearest convenient spot (out among the cars), clearly warming to the advances (her voice swarmed) and invitingly flirtation (puddled into laughs).

Suddenly conscious he has passed the first flush of youth Heaney seeks his own fish identity: he comes up with a predatory combatant (some old pike) with the battle scars to show for it (all badged with sores) suddenly deeply bereft (wanting to swim in touch) of a wife and the dolce vita of home (soft-mouthed life).

  • guttural: pertaining to the throat; connotations of gravelly, husky sounds; feature of the Gaelic language
  • muse: inspiration for a creative artist;
  • muddied: murky, clouded with deposits
  • tench: freshwater fish of the carp family; called ’doctor fish’ since its skin is said to contain an antibiotic that protects other fish;
  • slime: unpleasant thick slippery substance;
  • bubbles: pinprick spheres that can form a foam betraying the fish’s presence
  • courted: pursued romantically;
  • swarm: gather into large groups; connotations of the mating process;
  • puddle: form a small pool; archaic wallow;
  • pike: predatory freshwater fish:
  • badged: bearing the signs of an old campaigner
  • soft-mouthed: said for example of retriever dogs capable of holding items without damaging them;


  • three quintains (Q) in three sentences (+ two colons) ;
  • the relative balance between sentence length, punctuation marks and enjambed lines (the poem is heavily enjambed overall) determines flow and rhythm within the oral delivery possibilities;
  • with few exceptions line length is of 10 carefully cadenced syllables; the concluding line of 12 syllables sets it out as a glass-raising toast
  • little or no rhyme ; occasional assonant echoes or alliterative effects around final syllables;
  • water, lake life and watery imagery is recurrent;
  • it is interesting unweaving Heaney’s feeling of unease, displacement and even alienation;
  • adjectives ‘muddied’ and ‘thick’ require reader senses;
  • Q1 dominated by references to climate effects on an individual; senses of touch, sight and smell; largely quotidian detail; growing nightfall;
  • Q2 the sonic effects of language rather than its meaning;
  • curative fish becomes emblematic of poetry as a redemptive source;
  • Q3 colour suggestive of the purity of a girl who may be anything but chaste; ; touch of casualness about the suggested tryst; metaphor: the human voice gathers like bees and water;
  • extended fish imagery applied to poet in middle age; the curative ‘tench’ replaced by an unscrupulous predator is this a touch of humorous self-assessment or an image Heaney likes to promote; ‘badge’ offers a double layer from a mere ‘mark’ to something celebrating manhood  as in ‘badge of honour’;


  • 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: fifteen 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;
  • alliterative effects: the first stanza is dominated by alveolar plosives [t] [d] ahead of nasals [n] [m] and velar [k]; alongside are front-of-mouth sounds: aspirate [h], breathy [w] and labio-dental fricatives [f] [v];

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