Chanson d’Aventure

The epigraph, drawn from Donne’s Ecstacie, reflects on the inter-relationship of body and soul and the spiritual union between individuals: the body is the all-too vulnerable vessel within which the souls 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.

Crisis has brought a response from the Emergency Services in the form of an ambulance: the patient is Strapped on, wheeled out, forklifted,/ Locked in position for the drive. Since speed is of the essence the unevenness of the roads is exaggerated by the onrushing ambulance: Bone-shaken, bumped at speed.

Clues and identities begin to emerge: The nurse a passenger with the driver, a second person (Marie Heaney, the poet’s wife) you ensconced in her vacated seat; and a casualty (Heaney himself) me flat on my back.

There is no outward communication, however their silence is electric, with Everything and nothing spoken, transmitting ecstatic feelings of spiritual union, mutual understanding and comfort heightened by critical circumstances: Our eyebeams threaded laser-fast, no transport/ Ever like it until then The passion of their love stands in contrast to the sunlit cold/ Of a Sunday morning ambulance.

They might have quoted Donne/ On love on hold, body and soul apart (unnecessary in the circumstances: on a metaphysical level their love is renewed and their souls are as one).

  • 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;
  • Transport refers to both ecstacy and ambulance;


ii The poem starts with the final word of iApart links the loss of the senses brought about by stroke to the implied sounds of foreboding of a bell. Two associations have come to his mind, the first from the church in Bellaghy close to his childhood home at some unspecific time in the past in illo tempore (the phrase occurs in certain Catholic Masses); this first bell outrolled announces a funeral in that it rhymes knell-like with Heaney’s choice of ‘tolled’to describe his bell duty as a boarder at St Columb’s:  tolled … in my turn/ As college bellman.

He can still sense the weight of that school bell as he remembers it lying in his once healthy fist: the haul of it there still/ In the heel of my once capable/ Warm hand. That same hand is at this moment paralysed and cold: hand that I could not feel you lift/ And lag in yours (both ‘lay’ and ‘make warm’, as in ‘lagging’). In its numbness it lay flop-heavy as a bellpull.

The deep feelings shared by the couple travelling at breakneck speed along the roads of Donegal are unspoken, our gaze ecstatic, disrupted only by the paraphernalia of emergency aid: a hooked up drip-feed to the cannula.

Having recovered from the emergency Heaney can permit himself to being droll in suggesting that the medical equipment designed to help him survive actually interferes with emotional inter-reactions!

  • Cannula: a tube inserted into a vein for fluid or anti-biotic feed;
  • Dungloe and Glendoan: are towns in Donegal;
  • In Illo Tempore: v. Station Island 1984 collection for poem of same name;
  • 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/hand adds a breathlessness to the silence;
  • Deliberate play on words: top-heavy/ Flop-heavy.

iii The third poem in the sequence describes a further stage in Heaney’s convalescence. The poet uses a piece of classical sculpture to accompany his learning to walk again, chosen because it depicts, in its incompleteness, a man striving onwards despite incapacities that would appear to render progress impossible. He has sensed both a physical resemblance and a mutual determination to succeed.

The sculpture is revealed; The charioteer at Delphi. Heaney assesses the charioteer’s inner strength. He holds his own when, in fact, he has neither something to hold (six horses and chariot gone) nor the means to hold it (His left hand lopped/ From a wrist protruding like an open spout)!

The sculptor has injected the piece with movement: Bronze reins astream in his right. He has constructed a figure radiating dogged single-mindedness: his gaze ahead/ … His eyes-front, straight-backed posture. Heaney recognizes a kindred spirit (like my own) and wants to demonstrate the same qualities that the charioteer embodies as he himself learns how to walk again: Doing physio … holding up.

The process recalls a childhood episode where treadmill and chariot are replaced by the plough: to plough required similar skills ( in step/ Between two shafts) and a fatherly instructor, replaced now by a therapist: another’s hand on mine. He recalls that Each slither of the (plough)share, each stone it hit sent out a reverberation, a sign of life thatRegistered like a pulse. The same sensation heralds the return of feeling to his own limbs.

  • 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.
  • 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 up defines 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 28th2010.
  • The chanson d’aventure, originating from Old French lyric, is a framing device, where the singer (or poet) wanders into a wild, rural setting and has a chance encounter usually of an erotic or amorous nature. Heaney retains the latter aspect of the original genre: ‘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 the ambulance’;
  • 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)