Lick The Pencil

In a sequence that ultimately reveals a deep, underlying sorrow two shades are recalled: Heaney’s father, Patrick, and Colmcille. The pencil and its marks come to symbolise things that do not fade with time.

  • there was a pre-war habit in Britain of licking pencils before using them possibly because it helped darken the script. In the 1940’s and 50’s there existed pencils, also licked, that produced purplish, more permanent markings and were referred to as ‘indelible’ pencils.

Providing his father with a nickname derived from his quirky ways and his farming skills leaves Heaney with a dilemma. He recalls three fitting images of the man he knew. The first, ‘Lick the pencil’ was very apt: so quick and deft was his father’s action to wet the lead; so intimate the contact: tongue-flirt round the stub.

The second, ‘Drench the cow’ described the uncompromising way in which his father dealt with the cattle he owned and traded in: so fierce his nostril-grab/ And peel-back of her lips. Heaney’s enduring portrait-image: the bottle-neck between her big, bare teeth.

Lastly, accompanied no doubt by a whistle of admiration, ‘Catch the horse’: the act of a small man, in spite of the low-set/ Cut of him who could negotiate a complicated manoeuvre with a large animal in the blink of an eye: fit winkers on/ In a single move.

Left with one choice only, then as much for the surprise/ As for the truth of it, it is the first phrase that secures his choice.

  • Drenching: a term used on dairy farms to indicate force-feeding of cattle with water, nutrients or medicines (the latter to offset the high risks of metabolic disorders otherwise costly to farmers).
  • Winkers, and attached strapping were pieces of horse-tack fitted beside the horse’s eye to restrict its vision to side and rear.
  • Lead: the toxic element after which the pigment core of the pencil is named was probably not used in pencils given the 16th century discovery of graphite deposits
  • 4 triplets; lines generally based on 10 syllables, save the last, shortened to indicate a ‘like-it-or-not’ decision!
  • assonance: lead/ deft; move/ truth; unusual compound noun used normally in other contexts: tongue-flirt; frequency of so; alliterative big bare teeth;
  • the speed and nimbleness of stanza 1 is reflected in the use of monosyllables;
  • his father’s no-nonsense approach: Heaney works the verbal actions in stanza 2 into compound nouns: nostril-grab… peel-back.


ii Heaney exposes the ‘copying pencil’ itself to scrutiny: so called who knows why; when copying is what pencils routinely do. Hints, too of the age of wonders of ‘Hermit Songs’: the pencil is a phenomenon That inked itself and purpled when you licked; a stub-end with singular odour, tangy as the cigarette butts in his pocket (described by Heaney in‘The Butts’). Its soft grade core was in constant need/ Of sharpening, then testing/ On the back of his left hand. 

Having ranged the countryside as a boy, Heaney draws analogies that only one of his ilk could: the resultant mark was as livid and enduring As bloodlines holly leaves might score/ On the back of a bird-nester’s; in contrast the ‘ink’ of White dandelion milk, became indelible, drying into glum, grey pocks.

  • The knowledge and activities of rural life are never far away: bird-nesting; the properties of common weeds;
  • holly is associated with medieval ink in Colum Cille Cecinit (i);
  • 12 lines in a single sentence, lines of varying length; one ‘half’ line: about as short;
  • the poem is akin to a piece of music, with its own musical ‘dynamics’ of pause and flow, crescendo, decrescendo; staccato and legato; the placing of commas andenjambement contribute to the  possibilities open to the speaker in delivering the poem;
  • voiceless alveolar plosive [t] occurs frequently up to line 6;  later, a cluster of bilabial plosive [b] then a [d] pairing: indelible/ dandelion; finally velar plosive [g] in glum grey;
  • assonance: bright/ might; move/ truth.


iii   A resemblance of distinguishing marks unites two beloved Irish figures: Heaney’s much lamented blood father Patrick and a much admired scholar/father Colmcille. What has started as an In memoriam for a father dissolves film-like into a requiem for the saint. 

The link between the two is sealed via the indelible colourings and markings of Nature (in ii) common to those who ‘work’ outdoors, whether farmer or peripatetic monk: behold those pigmentations/ Moisten and magnify to resemble marks/ On Colmcille’s monk’s habit.

Focus is concentrated on Colmcille’s death (from whose life-story, Vita, Heaney draws) yet the father’s presence is never far away. Unlike him the saint has no need (as in iTo catch the horse since the horse had come to him/ Where he sat beside the path. Impending death is treated euphemistically (he was weary) and the master/faithful beast relationship depicted movingly: the horse ‘wept on his breast/ So the saint’s clothes were made wet’.

Colmcille enshrines the dignified, pastoral qualities that made him saintly. Recognising the significance of the moment yet retaining his saintly poise he bids his servant Diarmit not to intervene ‘till he has sorrowed for me/ And cried his fill.’

  • The use of personal pronoun (him/ he) and the outdoor context tease the attentive reader. In fact neither character in this poem died in quite the manner Heaney describes. He has created an alternative scenario linking father and saint, as one in his affection and respect;
  • The main source of information about Columba’s life is the Vita Columbae by Adomnán (also known as Eunan), the ninth Abbot of Iona, who died in 704. Columba died on Iona and was buried by his monks in the abbey he created. He was later disinterred and is reputed to be buried in Downpatrick, County Down, with St Patrick and St Brigid or at Saul Church neighbouring Downpatrick.
  • In the introduction to Adamnani Vita Sancti Columbae (pp lxxiii/ lxxiv) JT Fowler summarises the circumstances of Colmcille’s death and identifies his ‘attendant, Diarmait ‘…just after midnight between  June 8 and 9, 597, he was found lying before the altar in a dying state … he passed to the Lord as he lay in the arms of his attendant, Diarmit’; Heaney has already alluded to his father’s death in The Butts.
  • Pigmentations: the natural colourings of plants (and animals etc.);
  • Stanza 1 is rich in the voiceless bi-labial nasal [m] of low-voice murmur: pigmentations/ moisten/ magnify to resemble marks/ … Colmcille’s monks ;
  • in stanza 2 the voiced alveolar plosive [d] and repetition of day emphasize its significance;
  • Stanza 3 exploits the plangent [w] sound: weary/ wept/ wet;
  • The initial 7-lines are enjambed with some mid-line commas;
  • the ‘in memoriam’ is triggered by the quasi-biblical enjoinder behold ;
  • the final line caps all that is doleful in the sequence;
  • borrowings are  shown by speech-marks.