Heaney unites title, epigraph and narrative to signal a transformation that liberated him from previous control: the gift of poetry awakened his dissatisfaction with his Catholic markings of tribe, caste and conditioning( and even, arguably, made him a more ‘useful member of society’).

Initial focus illustrates the Catholic sway to which his nature, upbringing and training readily submitted him. He was prepared to live under what he now regards as a form of enslavement: attending Lent services in church(subjugated yearly under arches); ‘signed up’ to a kind of contract: Manumitted by parchments and degrees; indelibly marked by liturgical colouring: My murex was the purple dye of lents; conscious of the symbolism and significance of the festival: on calendars all fast and abstinence.

He pinpoints Ash Wednesday’s solemn warning that Man is mortal and will return to dust: ‘memento homo quia pulvis es’. His attendance in church on the first day of Lent was routine (‘would kneel‘), his senses alert to the priest’s presence (the silk friction of his clerical garb) as he offered himself to be physically and spiritually impressed by ashes. The application of dust to his forehead is seen now as a ritual reminder to the faithful of their penitent status and their need to toe the Catholic line: I was under the thumb too like all my caste.

He awakened to a contradiction: the thumb-print that marked him as a ‘chosen’ one, an earth-starred denizen, indelibly did not apply to the groomed optimi, the senior clerics who were sleekly superior and adept in their control function, whose estimating, census-taking eyes targeted individuals and undermined self-esteem. Made to feel inferior he had lacked the strength to throw off what was effectively feeding off him, so remained Fastened on my mouldy brow like lampreys.

Until, that is, coinciding with his undergraduate days in Belfast, his day of successful independence dawned: Then poetry arrived in that city; it would empower him to forswear cause (the Church’s cant) and effect (his own self-pity). He recognises the debt: his new calling rid him of ritual ash (poetry wiped my brow) and brought the prospect of advancement (sped me).

His break will not silence the Church he belonged to. He anticipated its censure; he will be branded ungrateful: they will say I bite the hand that fed me

  • manumit: early 15c., from L. manumittere, lit. “to send from one’s ‘hand’; the word contains a sense of ‘control’, ‘direction’ by others;

  • murex: a shellfish yielding purple dye, the colour of Lent;

  • Lent: a 40 day period in the Christian calendar (fro Ash Wednesday to the Saturday of Holy Week) characterised by fasting and penitence in commemoration of Christ’s fasting in the wilderness

  • Memento homo quia pulvis es: ‘Remember, man, that thou art of dust (and unto dust will return)’;

  • ashes: symbols of grief or repentance; hence Ash Wednesday (c.1300), from custom introduced by Pope Gregory the Great of sprinkling ashes on the heads of penitents on the first day of Lent; the poem uses the event to illustrate the change that has taken place within the poet;

  • stipple: an art technique of applying paint using the bristle ends of the paint brush;

  • to be under the thumb is to be totally controlled by some other person, recorded from 1580s;

  • caste: originally 1550s, “a race of men,” from Lat. castus ‘pure’, ‘cut off’, ‘separated’; association with Hindu social groups picked up by English in India 17c. from Port. casta “breed, race, caste,”; here Heaney is reinforcing the idea of social/ religious divisions, ‘tribalism’;

  • denizen: historically, an outsider admitted to certain rights of citizenship; a naturalized citizen.

  • optimi: from Lat. optimus, ‘best’; the Senatorial class of Ancient Rome (MP p 146); Heaney’s tone suggests a deliberately unfavourable reference to more senior clerics;

  • lampreys: origin, usually explained as lit. “lick-rock,” from L. lambere “to lick” + petra “rock.” These rather unpleasant-looking animals attach themselves to things with their sucker-like mouths (v optimi above);

  • sped: the word contains suggestions of ‘sent me on my way’, ‘with alacrity’, ‘made me prosper’, even ‘stopped me looking over my shoulder;

  • 16 ten-syllable lines in 4 quatrains, 6 sentences;

  • there is a rhyme scheme aabb/ ccdd initially loose then tightened;

  • the ‘colour’ of sound suggests at least 8 assonant clusters or chains of vowel sound:

Subjugated yearly under arches,

Manumitted by parchments and degrees,

My murex was the purple dye of lents,

On calendars all fast and abstinence.

Memento homo quia pulvis es.’

I would kneel to be impressed by ashes,

A silk friction, a light stipple of dust

I was under the thumb too like all my caste.

One of the earth-starred denizens, indelibly,

I sought the mark in vain on the groomed optimi:

Their estimating, census-taking eyes

Fastened on my mouldy brow like lampreys.

Then poetry arrived in that city –

I would abjure all cant and selfpity –

And poetry wiped my brow and sped me.

Now they will say I bite the hand that fed me

[u][ɑː][e][ʌ][ai][ɪ]  [i:][au]

  • alliteration provides a series of alveolar sibilant [s] in stanza 1alongside bilabial [p] [b ], alveolar [l] and plosives [d] [t] and fricatives [f]; the second stanza uses more bilabial [m] and alveolar [n] nasal consonants and the third reverts to alveolar plosives [t] [d]; the final stanza combines bilabial [p] and sibilant [s];

  • the vocabulary selected borrows directly from Latin terms used in religious services or requiems or employs rarely used, archaic terms with a Latin derivation (manumitted/ optimi); both approaches echo the heavy almost pompous language used in church contexts, indeed the routine use of a classical language might be said to bamboozle ordinary folk;

  • oxymoron: earth-starred;

  • MP asserts that Heaney is levelling the charge that the Catholic Church had collaborated in and contributed to the political and spiritual repressiveness of the North of Ireland (p145);

  • he equates the success of children from the Catholic working class .. with the achievements of former slaves who reached major positions of authority in Ancient Rome (MP p 145)

  • Poetry if not morally heroic does provide a release from the defining marks of tribe and caste (NC80)

  • Historian R H Barrow published ‘The Romans’ an overview of Rome and its civilisation starting from the founding of the city’. Barrow’s epigraph describes how in the Roman Empire it was possible for ‘civilised’ slaves from ‘backward’ races to earn Roman status; interestingly, sculpted friezes from Roman times often depicted ‘barbarians’ as Untermenschen in contrast to the strength and nobility of their Roman victors.