An Old Refrain

Two poems akin to 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 dialect words.

The poem focuses on the vetch plant he knows from childhood as Robin-run-the-hedge. Its fading straggle/ Of Lincoln green is reminiscent of the legend of the eponymous Robin Hood, whose men ranged Sherwood forest dressed in their particular shade of colour. Heaney has observed how the plant’s runners and branched tendrils invade the undergrowth like English stitchwork/ Unravelling. For Heaney the vetch possesses the hey-nonny-no cheerfulness of the old refrain from English Elizabethan folk songs and midsummer night’s dreams. Back on the familiar territory of Wood Road he comments on the plant’s clinginess and its fragility, Sticky entangling/ Berry and thread, as it flourishes amongst the roadside tangle: Summering in/ On the tousled verge.

  • Robin Hood (christened Robert) is a heroic outlaw in English folklore. A highly skilled archer and swordsman, he is known for “robbing from the rich and giving to the poor,” assisted by a group of fellow outlaws known as his ‘Merry Men’.Traditionally Robin Hood and his men are depicted wearing Lincoln Green clothing. The origin of the legend is claimed by some to have stemmed from actual outlaws, or from ballads or tales of outlaws
  • 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: the first, in segginsconjures up the gentle sound of air movement through compliant grass, the very word bidding us to Hear the wind/ Among the sedge. In the second, in boortree, the elderberry’s Dank indulgence fuses its dampness to the touch and its generous bounty. Thirdly, inbenweed  invokes the ubiquitous ragwort found  by roadsides and on neglected land; Heaney recognises a plant standing more erect, less biddable than the others, with its Singular unbending. Finally easing is as much a plant as an emotional response to that quality in Nature that alleviates human pain or sounds heard at moments of sleeplessness, emanating from Drips of night rain/ From the eaves.

  • Musicality is clear from the title, with both reference both to the actual jingle of a medieval song and the musical power that words possess or conjure up in the poetic imagination;
  • the refrain of a song is that repeated line that is put in as a break between verses; its predictable repetition is echoed here in a landscape that has remained unchanged over time;
  • 4 tercets in a single sentence with lines ranging from 2 to 5 syllables; scarce punctuation offers variety to the dynamics of delivery;