The Otter

A man who adores his wife body and soul, cooped up on an American University campus five thousand miles from home is suddenly missing her acutely. Heaney relishes her beauty, intensity and sexual appeal as if she were there beside him before the poetic charge fades. He addresses his very personal message to her via an inventive zoomorphic picture using a creature not usually seen as a symbol of love or desire.

Moments are memorable, catchable, describable, fleeting, retainable. Presence even in absentia has a permanence and intensity recreated and embedded in the eternal present of a poem.

Pictures of Marie Heaney ‘skinny dipping’ (hence perhaps her ‘pelt’ of the final couplet) in a Tuscan pool trigger emotional and erotic ripples in a poet’s lonely room.

Marie entered the water (plunged swung) with an impact threatening the laws of physics (light wavered) across the whole watery scene (the pool from top to bottom).

He admired her water-rending energy (smashing crawl), her ideal body shape (fine swimmer’s back and shoulders), her front crawl technique (surfacing and surfacing again) – hallmarks of their long-standing marriage (this year and every year since).

He neither swam nor spoke (sat dry-throated), settled in comfort (warm stones) so, then in Italy as now in California, could watch but not touch (you were beyond me) relied on matured memory (mellowed clarities) of a moment of promise and pleasure (grape-deep air) that eluded his grasp (thinned and disappointed).

They are together (hold you now) – in reality or imagination, who can be sure – he is delighted (thank God) by sexual renewal (slow loadening), intimate  reconnection (close and deep) so acutely conjured by that Italian occasion (atmosphere on water).

In his love poem he can enter the water, be the water (my two hands are plumbed) and she become the real-life sinuous creature (my palpable, lithe otter of memory) of a Tuscan snapshot (pool of the moment).

The act of swimming becomes an act of love-making – she responsive to his need (turningon your back), signalling her pleasure (silent, thigh-shaking kick) offering transcendence (re-tilting the light) even needing to calm herself (heaving the cool at your neck).

Tuscan memory and current metaphor combine and complete: the exertion is over (suddenly you’re out) – there she is (back again), full of ideas (intent as ever), serious (heavy), mercurial (frisky) in her everyday skin (freshened pelt) … confirming togetherness in the way that drips from her body marked that Tuscan water-side (printing the stones).

  • Tuscany: Italian Region around Florence; ‘Italy a place I feel I could live in – Tuscany, especially’ said Heaney to Henri Cole;
  • waver: quiver; hint of the wavelengths of light;
  • smashing: both superb and violently turbulent
  • crawl: swimming style that displaces much water;
  • mellowed: any of ‘seasoned’, ‘warm’, ‘full’, ‘luscious’;
  • clarity: transparency and by extension purity;
  • grape-deep: compound built on nuances of colour, sweetness, fulsomeness and profundity
  • loadening: neologism built on the old, strong past participle of ‘load’ now obsolete; here suggestive of male virility;
  • plumbed: connected to and flowing with water;
  • palpable: a range of possibilities from ‘tangible’, ‘perceptible’ to ‘manifest’, ‘inescapable’; Heaney will use the adjective again (in A Pillowed Head’ from the Seeing Things collection of 1991)to describe the sudden reality of his daughter Catherine, placed to his surprise in his arms immediately after her delivery in hospital … they were his arms since mother Marie Heaney was on pethidine and only half consciuos at that moment;
  • lithe: agile, graceful;
  • tilt: adjust the angle; once again notion of wavelengths of light
  • heave: drag at, apply pressure to;
  • intent: any from ‘keen’, ‘purposeful’, ‘focussed’, enthralled’, ‘single-minded’
  • pelt: skin (unclothed)
  • printing: leaving the marks of dripping water;


  • 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 … plunging into a pool in Tuscany ‘The Otter’ praises her almost divine ability to displace light, its verbs – ‘wavered’, ‘swung’, ‘Surfacing’, ‘Turning’, ‘Re-tilting’, ‘Heaving’, ‘Printing’ …  thrilling at the impact she makes, the energy she articulates, the adjectives – ‘wet’, ‘smashing’, ‘fine’, ‘lithe’, ‘thigh-shaking’, ‘intent’, ‘frisky’ and ‘freshened’ – relishing her beauty, sense of purpose, and sexual allure.


  • Seven quatrains (Q) in nine sentences (S); thinly veiled impersonal pronouns reveal Seamus and Marie Heaney;
  • Q1 a goddess-like figure enters the water; Q2 the silent admirer watches from the bank (classical paintings are known to depict allegorical examples of vicarious excitement) ; Q3 reflects on memory-time and the erosive effect on relationships of separation); Q4 suggests reunion and full sexual fulfilment; Q5 use of metaphor placing Heaney in the swim alongside his water goddess and clarifying the poem’s title; Q6 water link becomes water bed (David Fawbert’s reading ) ; Q7 melds Tuscan past memory with Heaney domestic present;
  • S1-5 wrong path: ostensibly Heaney follows the creature of his title before identifying the impersonal ‘you’ as a human and yet retaining similarities;
  • innuendo offers sexual reading; up to the reader to decide and support an alternative;
  • vocabulary of swimming styles and actions apply both to creature and human;
  • hint of scientific wavelengths woven into the impact both creature and human create on the observer;
  • allegory or non-allegory? Up to you to decide;
  • the relative balance between sentence length, punctuation marks (some mid-line) and enjambed lines determines the flow and rhythm within the oral delivery potential; ringing the changes: S1&2 are heavily enjambed followed immediately by a pair of short sentences;
  • very variable line length between 3-10 syllables; Heaney suggested his Field Work lines were iambically tight;
  • unrhymed; not even tenuous assonant or alliterative effects in final syllable or word;



  • 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 first quatrains are rich in alveolar plosives [t] [d], nasals [n] [m], sibilants [s] [z] and front-of-mouth sounds, breathy [w], bi-labial plosives [p] [b], labio-dental fricatives [f] [v] and [l];


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