‘Had I not been awake I would have missed it’.

Heaney recalls a moment pivotal to his recovery from stroke (in 2006 in a Co Donegal guesthouse) describing the moment when Nature’s external show of energy kick-started his own internal engine.

The poem builds in Heaney’s certainty (Had I not been awake) that he would not have been conscious of his next poetic spark (I would have missed it). There is a further dimension – within the consciousness of an agnostic poet over 70 years of age, lies the knowledge that departing this world will bring everything to a close.

Sleep inducing treatment has rendered moments of consciousness more fleeting and increasingly important; ‘reawakening’ generates a new-found impetus that replaces a mind-set of physical and mental frailty, even fear.

Heaney’s senses were super alert to the buffetings of Nature’s strength – to the recognisable sound variations of strength and movement (wind that rose and eddied whirled) and the ability to translate sound (patter) into a sense-picture (quick leaves) with its dual suggestion of uncontrolled staccato and aliveness.

What he senses from his sick-bed is sufficient to stir him (a-patter) mind and body (the whole of me) from his mind-set of incapacity towards the pre-existent life-force and instincts of a mid-Ulster, Castledawson farmer’s boy (alive and ticking like an electric fence). 

Relief and exultation are worth the repetition.

Heaney ponders the vital yet transitory (came and went) moment – unanticipated (unexpectedly) even premature (dangerously), urging him run-before-he-could-walk (Occupational Therapists were in fact required to teach Heaney how to walk) at the risk of him threatening his health.

Nature’s show of strength has awakened a powerful farmer’s boy instinct within him (returning like an animal to the house), a strong message of instrumental brass proportion (courier blast) – a squall that immediately (there and then) died away (lapsed ordinary) but left its allegorical mark: Heaney might be a mere mortal (not ever after) but he still has things to say (not now).

Heaney has a point to prove – I am  a poet still alive and kicking, he tells us, and here is something that will outlive its creator.

  • whirl: move rapidly in eddies, round and round;
  • patter: make a light tapping sound; a-patter: poetic prefix suggesting ‘engaged in’;
  • quick: both rapid and (still) alive;
  • electric fence: farming device with low-charge wires to keep cattle in a designated area;
  • courier blast: first messenger of a potentially destructive barrage;
  • lapse ordinary: sudden decline to ‘normal’;
  • ever after: part of a spiritual (Lord’s Prayer-style) or conventional story ending implying ‘from that moment onwards.
  • whilst resigned to the ephemerality of life, Heaney delights in moments he is determined still to savour; he belies any suggestions that awareness of the world around decreases with the onset of age or incapacity;
  • the opening poem, “Had I not been awake”, replays the stroke in allegory, setting a new unfamiliar tenor of uncertainty and precariousness. Nick Laird, The Telegraph, Sept 2010;
  • the allegory suggestion is engaging. Heaney is successful in weaving different layers into the text: only those suffering a stroke could begin to describe the symptoms of the ongoing condition, its immediate effect on blood supply to the brain and limbs (effectively Heaney’s roof and on the rest of his bodily ‘house’), on what the inner ear registers and the danger to his well-being that it leaves behind.
  • 12 lines; 4 tercets; mostly10 feet lines with a variety of stresses. 6 lines describe an event; 6 lines reflect on its significance leading to a deeper conclusion; one long sentence split by a colon; then 2 short ones ;
  • no formal rhyme-scheme;
  • the title line is repeated; other repetition: patter/ a-patter;
  • alliteration, common in this and subsequent poems: consonants differ according to where in the mouth they are formed: between the lips [p] [b] ; behind the teeth [t] [d]; velar or alveolar [[g] [k]. Some are voiced [b], some are voiceless [p]. Some ex-‘plode’ in a single sound, others can be continuous, floating on air being exhaled [s] [w], some involve friction [f], others are frictionless [w]. The poem can benefit from all of these ‘musical’ alternatives and Heaney knows it!  He loads his composition with alliterated consonants judged best suited to mood and melody;
  • alliteration mimics the sound of the squall: awake/ would/ wind/ whirled; the frequency of [t] mimics  time’s metronome: pattered/ a-patter/ tick;
  • use of synonym to strengthen  a motif:quick/ alive
  • the final word of each of the 3 concluding lines sets out a time reference (past/ infinity/ present): then…ever…now
  • 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: thirteen 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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