In his interviews with Denis O’Driscoll that make up ‘Stepping Stones’ Heaney reveals his fascination, as he grew up, with Lough Neagh and his experiences of the eel trade (pp.93-4). The title of this 6-poem sequence refers to the familiar local name for the Lough Neagh Fishermen’s Co-operative with which his future wife’s grandfather and father were connected. Heaney takes us into the fairy-tale period of courtship (win the hand of the princess).

i Getting his feet under the table (being invited into a girl-friend’s family home for the first time) was seen as a significant stepping-stone.

In fairy-tales the male aspirant, a standard figure, had to jump through hoops (tasks the youngest son had to perform) to prove he was worthy of the damsel’s love. Thus Heaney’s unprecedented invitation (the first to come a-courting) into the bosom of the Devlin family (fish factor’s house) brought with it a customary repast (eel supper) and a motif for the sequence.

  • win the hand: receive permission to seek marriage;
  • youngest son: The fairy tales of Charles Perrault, author amongst others of The Sleeping Beauty alluded to in Derry Derry Down include family groups, often all male. The youngest son, not always the most handsome or talented, became a stock character featuring as the hero.
  • come a-courting: turn up in search of an intimate relationship; connotation of devil-may-care;
  • factor: buyer and seller;
  • 7 lines; two triplets and a free-standing line
  • use of archaic term once found in fairy-stories and traditional songs: a-courting;
  • he suggests he was the first boyfriend to gain admission to this particular family circle;
  • inversion of word order emphasises the nature of that first privilege;

ii An end-of-the-working-day (evening air) in the life of the eel fishing-yard: the invasive smells (cut of diesel oil) and sounds (tractor engines) of commercial activity, the unsophisticated design of eel-boats used on Lough Neagh (clinker-built  … deep-bellied).

For Heaney the eel fishermen belonged to a race of retrained agricultural workers rather than true sailors (landlubbers horse-and-cart men, really) to whom manhandling a heavy boat was a weight they would recognize (cow down in a drain). On the water they were solid and scared to lose balance (straight-backed, standing firm) relieved only when the boat’s flat infrastructure (adze-dressed keel) made terra firma (cleaved to the mud).

Finally communal relaxation (rum-and-peppermint men) in Tommy’s Bar, Marie Devlin’s father’s pub.

  • cut: invasive smell
  • clinker-built: with overlapping rather than abutting planks
  • deep-bellied: distended underpart;
  • landlubber: a slightly scornful remark from sailors referring to people unfamiliar with the sea (Lough Neigh is of course a lake);
  • drain: culvert, trench;
  • stern and bow: front and back ends of a boat;
  • adze: axe-sized tool with arched blade used for planing, shaping
  • dress: shape using a tool:
  • cleave: stick fast;
  • rum-and-peppermint: a fashionable ‘short’ drink in the 1950’s; a dash of peppermint cordial was added to a shot of rum;
  • father’s pub: Tommy Devlin’s pub stood on the crossroads opposite the family home in Ardboe;
  • 5 three line stanzas;
  • references to ship-building: the overlapping planks of clinkerbuild; the fashioning of the keel using woodworkers’ hand-tools: adze-dressed;
  • as an exercise in sound the velar plosive [k] of the first couplet leads to the bilabial plosive [b] of the next: clinker-built/ Deep-bellied boats,/ Landlubbers’craft,  then to sibilant [s]: straight/ standing/ stern;
  • use of preposition tofollowing cleaved adds the idea of downward pressure to that of drag; the keel acts as a blade creating a split in the mud;
  • a cluster of assonances: firm/ At stern; really/keel/ Cleaved; glad/ adze

iii Young Heaney becomes accustomed to uncomfortable realities: a fellow-pupil at Primary school (Alfie Kirkwood) remains an indelible memory on account of the eel skin he wore as a kind of glove: its surface properties of shiny translucence (sweaty-lustrous) and pliancy (supple); its fabrication (bisected into tails) to secure it (the tying of itself around itself).

Sensitive to being ‘different’ Alfie had a ready explanation … therapeutic (for strength) … he would exhibit the dressing (ease his lapped wrist) otherwise  kept semi-hidden (flap-mouthed cuff).

Pong is the abiding memory (jerkin rank with eel oil), all pervading (abounding reek of it), intensified by seasonal heat (summer desks).

Such was young Heaney’s first exposure to unpalatable proximity (encounter with the up close) – but he sat where the teacher put him and dared not question it (had to be put up with).

  • skin: outer covering used as a pelt
  • sweaty-lustrous: composite of moistness and translucence;
  • supple: pliable;
  • lapped: bound as if with a bandage;
  • flap: section of fabric attached on one side only;
  • cuff: end of a sleeve;
  • jerkin: close-fitting jacket often of leather;
  • abound: be plentiful, abundant;
  • rank: foul smelling;
  • up close: proximity;
  • put up with: bear, suffer;
  • The combination of adjectives offering visual and tactile effects: sweaty-lustrous, supple; alliterative use of sibilant [s];
  • language that imitates the ‘knotting’ movement: the tying of itself around itself;
  • Some internal rhyme: skin … jerkin; alliteration using velar [k]: cuff/ Of a jerkinrank/ reek/ desks;
  • frequency of words with initial letter a ;
  • Amongthings: smell that has impregnated and is impossible to dislodge;
  • the use of couplets permits the lesson learnt to be set apart and to echo the finger-wagging, no-nonsense language a Primary teacher might use(the up close/ That) had to be put up with;
  • inverted word order creates a new noun: the up close.

iv  In Stepping Stones (DOD p93) Heaney recalls fishing for eels by hand as an eleven or twelve year-old. He is probably younger here angling for fish with a rudimentary line and ending up with something unexpected on the end of it.

First his fishing tackle – his trimmed tree branch rod (butt of the freckled elderberry shoot)  not dissimilar in texture to Alfie’s sweaty-lustrous  eel skin glove.

An unfamiliar contact on his fishing line confused him (a-fluster) – more of a drag (trailing) than the fishy tug of an unfettered (utter) reactive (flip-stream frolic) creature attempting to escape the angler.

Instead, something different (foot-long slither of a fellow), an immature eel (greasy grey) and though already writhing for its life (rightly wriggle-spined) too young as yet to present the sterner challenge of the blueblack slick-backed waterwork to which Heaney would become accustomed (live to reckon with old familiar) with its translucent presence in the flow (pearl-purl) and made of the same stuff as a legendary skin-shedding creature (selkie streaker).

  • butt: thicker of two ends;
  • freckle: small dark smudge on the skin;
  • a-fluster: poetic confused, unnerved, uncertain;
  • utter: complete, unmitigated;
  • flip-stream: play on slipstream and fish’s action to navigate current;
  • frolic: cheerful, exuberant;
  • slither: smooth, twisting movement;
  • grease: oily lubricant;
  • wriggle: writhe, twist and turn;
  • blueblack: colour of a mature eel:
  • waterwork: product of water:
  • reckon with: take into account, show respect for;
  • pearl-purl: translucent swirling flow;
  • selkie-streaker: stories are told about the legendary Selkies, creatures said to slip out of their skins thus reminiscent of eel behaviour;
  • streak: said of people who run around naked in public/ sporting gatherings for reasons only known to their deeper psyche;
  • 6 tercets of free verse;
  • The resonance of a now emotive word from a previous poem: butt
  • texture-rich adjectives and adjectival phrases appeal to different senses; fishing references; the twining movement of eels;
  • musicality: the largo passage  involving 2 present participles, tugging … trailing, moves into the quick-fire vivace of the angling process;
  • ingenious combination of alliteration and assonance is tongue-twisting: the slipstream airflow round the aerodynamic shape of a high speed aircraft becomes the hydrodynamic shape of a flip-stream frolic fish; it can produce onomatopoeia and an anaesthesia (you ‘see’ colour; you ‘touch’ texture) in the same sentence, the Slither …  greasy greyof the eel.
  • alliteration and assonance are dynamically interwoven:greasy grey and rightly wriggle-spined; utter / foot-long Selkie streaker;
  • sonic echo: blueblack … Slick-backed; too/ shoot;familiar/ streaker;
  • Pearl-purl: an imaginative combination of like-sounding words opening a mass of possibilities: colour (mother-of-pearl); something valued (the gemstone) ; the looping (as of a knitting stitch), swirling movement (of creature) and the babbling sound of water.

v The words of Walter de la Mare (his rare, recorded voice) trigger a chain of associations: a time of year (summer); an upmarket house (lawn beyond French windows); a locality (downs in the middle-distance); an incident ( that treestruck by lightning); a peculiarity of pronunciation: de la Mare’s ba-aak for bark. 

Creatures that shed their skin? Heaney quotes de la Mare from one of his voyeuristic moments likening the bark stripped from the tree to a girl slipping out of her petticoat (White linen éblouissante) in a refreshing image of bare skin (breath of air) captured in some saucy period photograph (sylph-flash made flesh). 

Nothing tantalizing, however, about preparing an eel for cooking (eelwork): the essentials – a flavour-inducer (sea-salt), a hand-wiper (dish-cloth); the process – taking a grip (first hold); applying pressure (purchase) at just the right spot (under a v-nick in the neck); firm one-movement  removal of the outer skin (skinpeel drawing down). Perhaps with his English author in mind Heaney adds a snatch of culinary sensuality (like silk at a practised touch).

  • Walter de la Mare: poet, story teller and novelist from  the first half of the 20thcentury; privately educated (St Pauls’) and firmly British despite his Gallic name hinting at Breton or Channel Island forebears; noted by some as demonstrating bouts of voyeurism;
  • recorded: Heaney’s poem The Bookcase reveals a collection of records of poets reading from their works
  • French windows: glazed doors serving both as window and exit to a garden or balcony;
  • downs: specific areas of natural beauty in Sussex, south of London; downs are actually upland areas running parallel to the English Channel; possible poetic licence -De la Mare spent most of his life in Twickenham, London
  • bark: tree’s tough outer skin;
  • petticoat: woman’s light undergarment worn beneath a skirt or dress;
  • éblouissante: dazzling, making an impact; Heaney toys with the Frenchness of poet’s name, hinting perhaps at a perceived préciosité in his nature and a sauciness with which the ageing de la Mare responded to young demoiselles of his era;
  • sylph: elemental spirit of the air; by extension, slim, graceful young woman;
  • hold: grip;
  • purchase: leverage;
  • nick: small notch:
  • peel: remove outer covering;
  • draw down: steady drag;
  • practised: skilful via experience;
  • touch: deftness;
  • 7 triplets; two sentences; varying line length with every third  line shortened; final stanza changes format: its sensual overtones are drawn out;
  • sparse punctuation with much use of enjambed lines;
  • early vocabulary reflects the upper middle-class prosperity of the poet;
  • woven alliteration: rare, recorded; windows/ And downs in the middle distance; also flesh/dish; nick/ neckskinpeel/ silk;
  • clever juxtaposition of closely associated or similar sounding words: Sylph-flash made flesh (the era was often recorded using ‘flash’ photography);

vi  The sequence comes full circle in four short coda lines setting adult signage (hoardingsignposts) of yard and Toomebridge weir against the vernacular reference of those who surrounded young Heaney (ever on our lips) to an  emblem of temps perdu ‘The Eelworks’.

  • hoarding: large display board
  • weir: low dam; the part-dam below Toomebridge on the river Bann was constructed for sustainable eel fishing;
  • Heaney deploys ‘work’ in the triple sense of waterwork (an eel engendered in water), eelwork (culinary preparation) and eelworks (the label adopted by locals to denote a local site)
  • Heaney manages to portray life in its most unflinchingly human terms. By unapologetically engaging the reader’s senses, Heaney takes us into some of his most “up close” memories Christine Fears writing in the Literateur; Sept 2010
  • 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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