An Old Refrain

Musicality is clear from the title, both reference to the jingle of a Tudor song and the musical power that words possess or conjure up in the poetic imagination. Heaney picks up the refrain from a joyous Elizabethan madrigal of Shakespearean provenance sung by the choir of Pages in As You Like It.

The refrain placed as a break between verses becomes a predictable repetition echoing a landscape that repeats itself seasonally.

His two poems mimic folk songs: the first celebrating the lush perennial vegetation growing in profusion along the byways of Heaney’s childhood; the second listing an array of images and sensations the poet associates with familiar Irish labels for other hedgerow dwellers.

The vetch plant familiar to Heaney and his siblings (we) from childhood (robin-run-the-hedge) a washed-out tangle (fading straggle) reminiscent in colour shade of the eponymous Robin Hood, whose Merry Men ranged Sherwood Forest (Lincoln green ).

From outlaw to period embroidery (English stitchwork) somehow reflective of the plant’s runners and branched tendrils invading the undergrowth (unravelling). The vetch embodies the hey-nonny-no cheerfulness of Elizabethan folk song and midsummer night’s dream.

Familiar territory (Wood Road) both for him and clingy, fragile plant  (sticky entangling berry and thread) heralds the loveliest time of year (summering in) amidst the roadside tangle (tousled verge).

  • robin –run-the-hedge/ vetch:
  • straggle: disorderly growth;
  • Lincoln Green: Heaney picks up the colour shade and merriment associated with another Robin viz. Robin Hood legendary English archer and swordsman of popular ballad known for ‘robbing from the rich and giving to the poor’, assisted by a group of fellow outlaws known as his ‘Merry Men’;
  • stitchwork: stitchcraft, needlework, embroidery,
  • with a hey nonny no: refrain from Shakespeare As You Like It act V, iii where all the Pages join to sing a merry, joyous celebration

This carol they began that hour,/ With a hey, and a ho, and a hey hey-nonny-no, / How that a life was but a flower/ In springtime, the only pretty ring time,/ When birds do sing, Hey ding a ding, ding./ Sweet lovers love the spring.

  • entangled: intertwined
  • thread: fine filament, strand
  • tousled: disordered;
  • 4 three-lined stanzas; lines between 4 and 6 syllables;
  • Use of participle form suggesting an unending process: fading/ unravelling/ entangling/ summering;

ii Four lyrical effects evoked by the sounds and echoes of dialect words. Heaney helps the non-botanist with alternative names and attaches human traits to them.

The first (segginssedge) conjures up the gentle sound of air movement (hear the wind) through compliant grass. 

Mid Ulster boortree, the common elderberry fuses its dampness to the touch and its generous bounty (dank indulgence ). Next benweed, the ubiquitous ragwort found by roadsides, both independent and striking (singular), less biddable and flexible than the others (unbending). Finally easing is whose flowers droop  meekly in response to the threat of natural precipitation as they sleep (drips of night rain close to the dwelling (from the eaves).

  • seggins/ sedge: common to damp areas and ditchbacks;
  • boortree (bower tree)/ elderberry:
  • dank: damp and cold
  • indulge: pamper, spoil;
  • benweed/ ragwort: taller, erect plant;
  • singular: at once ‘growing alone’, ‘striking’, ‘different’;
  • unbending: at once ‘stiff’ and ‘inyielding’;
  • easing: possible alternative to heartsease whose flowers droop to protect themselves from rain;
  • eave: roof overhang;
  • 4 tercets in a single sentence with lines ranging from 2 to 5 syllables; scarce punctuation offers variety to the dynamics of delivery;
  • use of Irish language labels
  • attachment of human traits personifying plants;
  • 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

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