A Mite-Box

Encouraged by his mother’s example Heaney was a very active member of his local church and served for a period as altar-boy. He later referred to this as a ‘surfeit’ of Catholic training as slowly but inexorably his own faith lapsed. For all his loss of belief the stories and words, parables and liturgy he had learned by heart plus the sounds, smells and church paraphernalia with which he was familiar continued to resonate and emerged whenever poetic charge required.

A Mite Box renews the charity theme downsizing it from large-scale international aid of Human Chain to the poet’s experiences as a youngster carrying a collecting-box round the parish in search of donations.

As Heaney lies awaiting the return of feeling to limbs numbed by stroke (still to feel) he can feel only too well shapes and sensations triggered by memory. The collecting box he recalls was accompanied on his part by a suitably entreating pose (cupped palm) – a hard-wearing object (chunk) it made a jingling sound that spoke of the generosity of others (clink) once filled to capacity (full to its slotted lid) with small change (copper coins) donated by local folk of modest means.

The stated destination of the collection was ‘foreign missions’ and it may be unkind to suggest that Heaney loss of faith is hiding a hint of mischief in an implication that such a vague heading gave the Church carte blanche over the money’s distribution.

The cheaply-made, self-assembly (cardboard kit) of the mite-box gave away its spiritual intention (wedge-roofed like a little oratory). To be trusted with the task of collecting (yours to tote as you made the rounds) brought with it the need for personal responsibility. Children were used, Heaney implies, because they were seen as more appealing (indulged on every doorstep).

The organisers recognized the potential for temptation however and imposed a double check (pinprick in a card).

Heaney comments wryly on the calculating way the collection was sold to volunteers (way for all to see a way to heaven) and falls back on a cunning scientific analogy that allowed simple folk to stare indirectly at the sun (pinholed Camera Obscura) to witness the miracles of the solar system (unblinds the sun eclipsed) without blinding themselves!

  • mite box: the contemporaneous description of a small cardboard collecting-box;
  • cup: form the hands into a curved shape;
  • chunk: lump, thick solid piece
  • clink: ringing sound, jingling;
  • alms: money given to the poor and needy;
  • slot: long, narrow slit;
  • copper: British pre decimal coinage was separated into copper (coloured) coins of low denomination and silver (coloured) coins of higher denomination;
  • foreign missions: long-term assignments abroad involving missionaries; in Station Island IV Heaney encounters the ghost of Terry Keenan whom he knew from childhood and who became a missionary father in the tropical rain forests. The certainty of Keenan’s religious convictions conflicts with Heaney’s lapsed status. The piece reflects upon religious certainty and the status of the priesthood in Irish society. As Heaney pointed out the irony was that Keenan’s vocation designed as a test of faith led to his death from malaria;
  • kit: flat pack that with snips and folds assembles into something;
  • wedge: block tapered from thick to thin:
  • oratory: small (often private) chapel;
  • tote: carry about ;
  • pinprick: literally a hole in card made with a sharp-pointed domestic pin
  • pinholed: very small hole;
  • Camera Obscura: sealed (Latin ‘obscura’-‘dark’) chamber (Latin ‘camera’) with no lens that uses a tiny pinhole to collect upside-down images on a back screen; the metaphorical implications of what might be ‘hidden’ from a gullible populace are not lost on Heaney;
  • 4 tercets; free verse; a single sentence which, following the dash, introduces a more personal view: collecting in this way exploited the gullible;
  • religious cliché: way to heaven; the sun regarded as a symbol of spiritual enlightenment;
  • onomatopoeia: chunk and clink ; you feel the chunk, you hear the clink;
  • repetition with religious connotations: way .. to see a way
  • oratory: a chapel for private worship;
  • sonic echo: pinprick … pinholed;
  • unusual usage: unblinds: it is not the sun that is blinded, rather the person who would dare to gaze at it directly; variation of word order: sun eclipsed;
  • use of you/ youris both personal (he did this chore himself) and impersonal (as ‘one’ of many);
  • (silver and) coppercoinage  used to differentiate between rich and not-so-rich;
  • Masterfully finished pieces like “A Mite-Box”, “Chanson d’Aventure” and several of thein memoriam poems refract the idea of the “human chain” in new directions, leading it through the collection and giving it momentum, building plenty of jumping-off points for thinking about relationships. Charlotte Runcie, living.scotsman .com, Aug 20 2010.
  • Three dimensional descriptions such as that of a charity box itself, then the methods and implied motives of the organisers, the pride of the youngster and the implied sacrifices of the populace are skilfully interwoven; Heaney packs every phrase with information or implication.
  • 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;

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