The door was open and the house was dark

Heaney’s ‘dream’ poem is dedicated to the memory of close friend David Hammond, much admired Northern Irish writer, singer, teacher, songwriter, historian, musician, film-maker and broadcaster who died in August 2008. As with all dreams the conscious and sub-conscious contribute ostensibly at random to the dream’s main ‘message’.

In a BBC interview with Eimaar Flanagan of Sept 23, 2010 Heaney insisted the poem was not written – but dreamt. ‘The dream is just recorded in verse that rhymes. It was an extremely strange, haunting dream. One of those dreams that marks, that you don’t forget’.

Heaney’s indirect reference (hence perhaps the quotation marks) to Virgil’s Aenied vi (ll.172-177) – ‘Death’s dark door stands open day and night. But to retrace your steps and get back to upper air, That is the task, that is the undertaking’ echoes the Virgilian expectation that some shade will be returned to life on earth – for them death is reversible.

Pitch-black night – the stuff of nightmare?

A visitor stood before the door of a familiar house. Unlike previous occasions (this time) he was faced with an eerie paradox: an ever welcoming door (open) yet no sign of life (house was dark). The caller sought some reassurance (wherefore I called his name) but heard only his own voice (I knew the answer this time) followed by a resonating quiet (silence) sufficient to halt his progress (kept me standing, listening), a perceptible force-field (it grew backwards and down and out into the street) suggestive of the soundless passage of a shade departing in search of alternative refuge.

Pitch darkness (street lamps too were out) brought him an unprecedented (I felt for the first time) yet palpable (there and then) sense of alienation (stranger, intruder almost). His instinct said ‘get out of here’ (take flight), his reason told him ‘stay’ (there was no danger) ‘you are witnessing a dead man’s soul moving silently on’ (only withdrawal).

For all the sense of loss (emptiness) the dwelling place still exuded its erstwhile joie de vivre and hospitality it once exuded (not unwelcoming).

The visitor’s memory is drawn to a similar site in darkness (midnight hangar) bereft of any further the post-war usefulness (overgrown airfield in late summer) still inhabited by the shadows and memories of a lost domain.

  • Heaney’s respect and affection for David Hammond in his lifetime is celebrated in ‘The Singer’s House’ in ‘Field Work’;
  • wherefore: as a result of which;
  • down and out: as a discrete phrase there is a suggestion homelessness and vagrancy;
  • out: not operating;
  • intruder: uninvited presence;
  • take flight: flee, run away;
  • withdrawal: exodus with added sense of ‘something being taken back’;
  • hangar: extensive building holding aircraft;
  • overgrown: with plants that have been untended, sense of ‘derelict:
  • Heaney, who has, of course, been ‘the visitor’ all along, writes elsewhere in his poetry about Toome airfield with its teeming activity during the build-up to D-Day in June 1944 in stark contrast to its silence and disuse once the war was over.
  • airfield: Heaney was particularly familiar with the once active, disused Toome airfield close to his Castledawson homes first Mossbawn then The Wood Farm ; The Aerodromein District and Circle  describes wartime activity at Toome;
  • 4 triplets, lines generally of 10 syllables;
  • unusually for the collection Heaney offers a rhyme scheme: knew/  grew; now/ out stranger/danger; hangar/ summer;
  • The early frequency of the diphthong as in now… out … down resembles the British ‘ow’, an exclamation of pain;
  • Slightly archaic usage: Whereforethis permits the assonance door/ wherefore;
  • The final syllable of the double participle, standing listening, is a continuant that can prolong  delivery to reflect the instant;
  • Alliterative there and then; well aware/ withdrawal/ unwelcoming;
  • Litotes of not unwelcoming that urges amendment
  • Frequency of alveolar [t] in stanza 3; assonance: no/ Only; overgrown;
  • Vocabulary of the insubstantial; silence/ withdrawal/ emptiness;
  • emptiness plays on the double idea: ‘there is nothing there’; ‘there was something there.;
  • The use of ‘late’can refer also to death.
  • For a celebration of the life of David Hammond, see Seamus Heaney’s obituary in The Guardian newspaper of Thursday 28 August 2008 and Keith Baker’s BBC News Obituary of August 26th
  • At times, despite his effort to be consoled, it is as though whatever is being remembered has taken all his heart for speech. This is most apparent in an elegy for the Irish singer David Hammond, which contains four of these three-line stanzas plus one extra line. It is the poem where the struggle between pure lament and the search for comfort in images seems most intense: Colm Tóibín in The Guardian of Saturday 21 August 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: 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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