In Door into the Dark Heaney makes no secret of the insecurity that left him prone to disturbing dreams – Night Piece paints the picture of the youngster and the farm horse behind his bedroom wall coping sleeplessly with scary darkness; Dream opens a trapdoor into the Heaney’s subconscious to reveal the dynamics of nightmare. Vision points at finger-wagging warnings that may well have contributed to Heaney’s need to bolster the confidence his nature sometimes lacked.
Dire warnings instilled by grown-ups (unless … they said) served to make sensitive child-Heaney all the more
susceptible to vivid dreams. Mind you, as an avid young reader Heaney might in fact have frightened himself – Hoffmann’s Struwwelpeter describes the disastrous consequences visited on a boy who did not groom himself properly!
Head lice common amongst schoolchildren in a 1940s’ Anahorish classroom required manual removal from the scalp (fine combed). The story he was fed about being un-groomed was presented as an actual event: nits massing (gang up), forming a leash (mealy rope) to manhandle him (drag … to the water) powerless (small) and unwashed (dirty) … and even drown him (doomed).
Exaggerating the disastrous consequences of misconduct made young Heaney wary (cautious) of getting too close to the Moyola (riverbank fields) because he imagined a hawser (thick as a birch trunk) lying in wait to rear up on him (cable flexed in the grass) disturbed air pressure betray his presence (wind passed).
The apprehension remained with him – years later he dreamt an incident (stood at night) in which the waterlogged Moyola meadow was alive with eels in transit (moved through the grass) like that old dire warning coming true (hatched fears).
Rooting him to the spot (in one place) the surreal images of flood-plain (flowed past), sticky eel highway (jellied road) and creatures out of their element (eels crossing land) required a re-appraisal (re-wound his world’s live girdle), permitted thoughts of the unthinkable … even, who knows, dread of times in spasm and the darkness of sectarian divisions exploding into the Troubles?
For the moment however glowing eel-ness (phosphorescent) and slippery muscularity (sinewed slime) formed an endless procession (continued at his feet) corroborating the horror he had been warned of (time confirmed the horrid cable).
Heaney acknowledges that poetry provides a way to express to greater self-understanding in a much wider comment to Peter Mackay on the ‘relationship between present and past’ : ‘the complications and contradictions of history, politics, culture, fidelity, hostility, inner division, challenge and change get themselves gathered into words and become available to writer and reader as a mode of self-knowledge’.
- vision: something seen in the imagination or the supernatural; something experienced in a dream; mental image of what the future might have in store;
- fine comb: fine-toothed hair-comb used to control louse infestations;
- lice: nits, tiny insects that live in hair; highly transmissible;
- gang up: attack as a group;
- meal: ground, powdery substance;
- doomed: ill-fated;
- riverbank field: the Moyola next to Mossbawn farm had damp meadows that acted as flood plains;
- flex: bend, tense to make muscle definition stand out;
- hatch: emerge from the egg;
- jelly: slimy, gelatinous substance;
- girdle: band worn round the waist; likely allusion to St Brigid’s girdle: a belt or sash of straw plaited as a mark of respect (for Ireland’ second patron Saint) in pious, rural communities; folk might step in and out of the emblematic girdle to cleanse themselves of sin;
- phosphorescence: radiated light;
- sinew: tough fibrous tissue uniting muscle to bones, ligaments and tendons;
- horrid: (original Latin suggested hairy, savage); from 16th century ‘causing horror’ and synonymous with horrible;
- Peter Mackay has it that Vision’s cable of eels becomes ‘the physical manifestation of a warning Heaney had been given as a child that a cable of lice would drag him into the water if his hair was not ‘fine-combed’. The poem ends with the horrid realization of this fear. (‘The Strange Loneliness: Heaney’s Wordsworth’ 219);
- (MP84) Fittingly, ‘The Vision’ completes the sequence with two nightmarish scenes from childhood. In the first, he recollects a threat and his own susceptibility to superstition; in the second, it is as if fears have been made flesh, as he witnesses during adolescence the eels’ massed exodus from land to water. In ironic contrast to the ‘bright girdle’ of faith which once encircled the world of which Matthew Arnold spoke. Heaney presents a ‘live girdle’, a ‘horrid cable’ surrounding us. All too soon the poet’s ugly vision would be realised. From the malign depths within human nature, fresh violence would hatch, a spawning which would quickly overrun the whole province. Instead of metaphorical frogs or eel, camouflaged men would soon occupy the ditches and hedges, and street corners, having ‘gathered there for vengeance”
- In Human Chain’s Eelworks Heaney will describe a fellow-pupil at Anahorish Primary school Alfie Kirkwood who in his own way accustomed him to uncomfortable realities: the classmate remains an indelible memory on account of the eel skinhe wore as a kind of glove and the ‘pong’ he gave off. The class was forbidden to draw attention to it.
- 5 quatrains in 7 sentences (S); line-length based around 7 syllables; narrated in the past;
- discernible but inconsistent rhymes – initially a loose play of alliterative or assonant effects abba, eventually settling into a firmer form of that pattern;
- the piece is richly enjambed overall; its combination of punctuation and enjambment dictates flow and rhythm within the oral delivery potential, governing pace or pause;
- third person pronouns fail to hide autobiographical features;
- S1 reported speech; unforeseen psychological consequences of finger-wagging; vocabulary of nasty consequences includes triple adjectives all inculcating a sense of unworthiness; S2 it was effective on young Heaney leaving him prone to nightmare even in his own domain;
- S3 nightmare exaggeration ‘cable’ and medium sized tree; strong muscularity ‘flexed‘; feeling of emotional unbalance intensified the effect of wind on the inner ear;
- S4 totally enjambed; passage of time yet involuntary recall; door into the dark ‘night; whether fact or dream waterlogged meadows adopt a life their own; comparison eels/ ‘hatched fears; vocabulary of flows and channels; eels out of their element yet still in it; allusion to the St Brigid circular girdle through which people stepped in the superstitious/ religious hope of different/ better times; concentrated eel-ness on show; ever-present in the poet’s psyche the ‘mealy rope’ comes full circle ‘horrid cable’; allegorical threat of sectarian violence;