Chanson d’Aventure

          Love’s mysteries in souls do grow, / But yet the body is the book

The epigraph, drawn from Donne’s Ecstacie, judges the inter-relationship of body and soul and the spiritual union between individuals: the body is the all-too vulnerable vessel within which the soul is said to repose; the soul is the area in which emotions are born. The soul seeks outward expression through the body, inhibited at this point in time by Heaney’s stroke-induced paralysis.

When the metaphysical dimension is stripped away Heaney and his wife Marie are the main actors in an extraordinary love poem.

The chanson d’aventure originated in Old French lyric as a framing device in which the troubador- poet wanders into a wild, rural setting and makes a chance encounter usually of an erotic or amorous nature. Heaney dips into it as appropriate. ‘The trip in the ambulance I always remember (he said in an interview with Robert McCrum in late 2009 that might well have coincided with the composition of the sequence) because Marie was in the back with me… To me, that was one of the actual beauties of the stroke, that renewal of love in an ambulance’.

I Heaney’s sudden crisis has brought an ambulance to the door of the modest Donegal guest-house in which his stroke occurred: he is in the hands of the Irish Emergency Services, first stretchered (strapped on) then conveyed to the vehicle (wheeled out), raised automatically (forklifted) and secured (locked in position for the drive).

The need for speed and the poor state of Co Donegal roads unite to create a mightily uncomfortable drama (bone-shaken, bumped at speed).

Stage-set and characters begin to emerge (the nurse a passenger) alongside the driver; Marie Heaney, the poet’s wife settled comfortably in the nurse’s accustomed seat (you ensconced in her vacated seat) and Heaney himself pinioned (me flat on my back).

Audible communication is nil yet the silence electric (everything and nothing spoken) transmitting ecstatic feelings of togetherness (eyebeams threaded laser-fast) and unprecedented rapture (no transport ever like it until then) that stands in contrast to the circumstances (sunlit cold of a Sunday morning ambulance).

Heaney has a literary author in mind (we might have quoted Donne) yet his reflections on love on hold, body and soul apart would have been inappropriate – their love is ever present and confirmed, their souls as one.

  • mystery: riddle, secret, something unsolved;
  • soul: innermost self, spirit, essential nature;
  • straped on: secured in place with belts;
  • forklift: raise automatically;
  • bone-shaken: thrown around as if the vehicle had no suspension
  • ensconced: installed;
  • beam: shaft, ray (of light);
  • thread: interweave;
  • laser-fast: almost at the speed of light;
  • John Donne (1572-1631): English poet, scholar, soldier and secretary born into a Catholic family, later a cleric in the Church of England becoming Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London; considered the pre-eminent writer of metaphysical poetry, a highly intellectual genre often philosophical or divine and characterised by subtly complex thought, incongruous imagery and use of paradox, hyperbole and allusion, often argumentative and assertively personal;
  • on hold: present but delayed;
  • 12 lines in 4 tercets; free verse; a single sentence;
  • assonance: fast/ transport;
  • Heaney describes the distinct stages of the evacuation process using the vocabulary of the trade, couched in past participles: Strapped on, wheeled out, forklifted (like supermarket goods!), locked;
  • the alliteration of bilabial plosive [b] in bone-shaken, bumped transmits in sound the unevenness in the road-surface;
  • The use of up-to-date light imagery(the tongue-twisting eyebeams threaded laser-fast) contrasts with the much more archaic vocative O my love that sits comfortably in Donne’s metaphysical poems;
  • Transportrefers to both ecstacy and ambulance;

II The poem starts with the final word of I – (apart) – highlighting Heaney’s feeling of on-his-ownness generated by circumstances – his loss of physical sensation brought about by stroke and even a sense of potential death. Two associations have sprung to mind, firstly from the church in Bellaghy close to his childhood home at some Mass-borrowed moment in the past (in illo tempore), the bell outrolled to announce a solemn moment,  assonant with ‘tolled’ describing Heaney-exile’s bell duty as a boarder at St Columb’s College indicating ends of lessons.

He can still sense the pull-weight (haul of it there still) of bellrope lying in his once healthy fist (heel of my once capable warm hand), currently paralysed (could not feel you lift), cold (lag in yours) and held by Marie (both ‘laid’ and ‘made warm’ as in ‘lagging’) numb (flop-heavy) and lifeless as the bellpull itself.

Thus the deep feelings shared by the couple travelling at breakneck speed along the roads of Donegal are physically and metaphsically unspoken (our gaze ecstatic) and held apart by the paraphernalia of emergency aid alone (hooked up drip-feed to the cannula).

Having recovered from the emergency Heaney can permit himself, perhaps, the droll suggestion that the medical equipment designed to help him survive actually got in the way of total emotional inter-reaction!

  • sexton: caretaker of church and churchyard
  • outroll: sent forth;
  • in Illo tempore: Latin (appearing in Mass liturgy) reference to a period in the past ‘at that time’ ‘in its/ his time’ v. Station Island1984 collection for poem of same name;
  • toll: ring a knell, succession of monotone strokes to mark something solemn, formal:
  • college: St Columb’s College, Derry where Heaney was a boarder;
  • haul: downward weight
  • heel: section of the palm of one’s hand;
  • lag: lay, hold, grip;
  • flop-heavy: loss and ungainly, lifeless; play on ‘top-heavy’;
  • bellpull: fat end of the rope used to ring a suspended bell;
  • Dungloe and Glendoan: small villages in Donegal;
  • bisect: separate, split down the middle
  • hooked up: securely connected;
  • drip-feed: device that introduces fluid drop by drop;
  • cannula: tube inserted into vein or cavity;
  • 12 lines in 4 tercets; free verse; a single sentence with an unbroken flow of 9 consecutive enjambements;
  • Internal rhymes add to the resonances of bells: Malachy/ Bellaghy; bell/ Bellaghy; outrolled/ tolled;
  • The aspirate [h] alliteration in haul, heel hand/handadds a breathlessness to the silence;
  • Deliberate play on words: top-heavy/ Flop-heavy.

III   Physiotherapy – a further recovery stage.

Heaney picks out from his cultural memory a kindred spirit with a mutual determination to succeed despite the odds – a piece of classical sculpture (charioteer at Delphi) that portrays the challenge of learning to walk again. Its incomplete figure strives to progress despite snags that would appear to render progress impossible. He holds his own when, in fact, he has nothing to hold (six horses and chariot gone) nor the physical means to hold it (left hand lopped), his severed arm showing how sculpted limbs were constructed (wrist protruding like an open spout)!

The sculptor has injected the piece with movement (bronze reins astream in his right) and endowed his charioteer with dogged single-mindedness (gaze ahead eyes-front, straight-backed posture) the very stance (like my own) adopted by Heaney in the walking frame (doing physio holding up).

Treadmill and chariot fade into a different yet not dissimilar circumstance – Heaney’s mid-Ulster plough training of yesteryear (in step between two shafts), his physiotherapist replaced by fatherly instruction (another’s hand on mine).

His sense memory still lives the inter-reaction of earth and cutting blade (each slither of the share, each stone it hit), can feel the tangible reverberation like a life-sign (registered like a pulse) entering him via his handholds (timbered grips). His hopes that his exertions now will herald the return of feeling to his own limbs remain unsaid.

  • The Charioteer of Delphi is a masterpiece of Classical art, belonging to the “severe” style. It depicts the winner of the chariot race at the Pythian games and is fashioned in bronze with inlaid silver, copper, and onyx. From 470 BC; it is 1.80 m tall;
  • Heaney’s broad cultural interests provide examples across his oeuvre of two- and three-dimensional art in support of his narrative;
  • hold one’s own: maintain strength under pressure
  • lop: remove, cut off from main body:
  • protrude: jut out, extend;
  • spout: projecting tube through which liquid can pass;
  • astream: poetic version of streaming, waving fluttering unattached at one end;
  • team: group that works together;
  • physio: person treating physical condition using physical methods;
  • hold up: redevelop strength and vigour; stand tall;
  • in step; moving in rhythm, conforming
  • shaft; one of a pair of poles between which a horse is harnessed or forming a walking frame
  • slither: either snake-like smooth movement over a surface or unsteady slipping sliding movement
  • share: main cutting blade of a plough;
  • timbered: fashioned in wood;
  • grip: section held by the hand;
  • 12 lines in 4 tercets; free verse; a single sentence;
  • generally 10 syllable lines; the exception portrays a stark reality: his left hand lopped;
  • assonances: own/ gone; hit/ grips;
  • use of compound adjectives: eyes-front, straight-backed;
  • from line 4 much use is made of alliterated sibilant [s] and [sh] sounds;
  • Holding updefines both a physical and mental state: standing erect and determined to succeed, ‘getting there’;.

The sequence

  • Yet such is (Heaney’s) guarded poetic temperament that he regards the undoubted trauma of (his stroke) experience at a slight remove, with John Donne and a Delphic charioteer as distancing references and the title itself alluding to medieval literature rather than to the rawness of felt experience. John Boland writing in The Independent of Aug 28th
  • When writing of his own illness in “Chanson d’Aventure”, Heaney turns naturally to literature as a mode of knowledge. He remembers lying partly (sic) immobilised in the back of a car (sic), accompanied by his wife on the way to hospital, and thinking of John Donne’s “The Extasie”, that intricate, beautifully argued love poem on the relationship of body to soul and of the spiritual union of those whom love “inter-animates” Sean O’Brien in Belfast Telegraph review of Sept 3, 2010
  • the poet who has always been an incomparable observer and investigator of the material world embarks on a deeper, more demanding voyage through the physical into zones of metaphysical ache and observation. In these poems he confronts and begins to anatomise the body as the limit of mortality, stressing the borders of body-life itself. Confronted by the immediate shocks that flesh is heir to, he reads his way into the book of the body and, with a nod to John Donne, finds love there (see Chanson d’Aventure ).(IT/Gren)
  • 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: fourteen 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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