Cana Revisited

In conversation with DOD (97) Heaney revealed the use he made of a notebook to record and remind himself later of details of daily life that struck him. He indicated how useful it proved when he came to compose ‘Cana Revisited’: I was using it during Marie’s first pregnancy and it’s full of things where pregnancy is the theme or the preoccupation.

The poem’s exuberant quatrains set the impending miracle of creating a family alongside a biblical miracle that brought new life to a flagging wedding celebration in Cana. Heaney’s poem might be said to result from his confession to DOD that his wife’s pregnancy was inspirational: something beautifully generative about living with the new life between us.

Nothing in Northern Ireland can compete with a classical canvas – neither foreground vessels (round-shouldered pitchers) nor middle-ground servants (stewards) in positions of responsibility (supervise consumption or supplies) – mains’-water Belfast  (water locked behind the taps) is banal enough to dispense with the need (expectation) for him to wax supernatural (miraculous words).

Yet signs of miracle there are – what Marie is poised to unveil is cradled in her pelvic area (bone-hooped womb), her belly bulging (rising like yeast), her moral strength and reputation (virtue intact) about to produce (waiting to be shown), an apotheosis (consecration wondrous) as meaningful to the Heaneys (being their own) as Jesus’ first miracle was to the Cana wedding host and indeed to the Christian world (water reddened at the feast).

  • Cana: in the first recorded miracle in the New Testament (John 2:1-11) Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding feast. Jesus attended a wedding in Cana with His mother Mary and several of His disciples. Mary told Jesus that the guests had consumed all the wine. Jesus spotted six large stone water jugs, summoned several of the servants to fill the jugs with water and take them to the host; the host took a sip from the jug and realized that the water had been turned into wine. The miracle at the wedding feast attracted classical painters not least Paolo Veronese whose canvas executed in the 1560s is exhibited in Paris’ Louvre Museum;
  • round-shouldered: curved, without sharp angles; said also of human body posture;
  • pitcher: large water-carrying vessel, jug
  • steward: supervising attendant;
  • consumption: amount eaten or drunk;
  • supplies: stocks in reserve;
  • bone-hooped: the womb is supported by the ligaments and tissue of the pelvis
  • womb: female organ in which offspring are conceived and gestate; uterus;
  • yeast: fungal raising agent e.g. for bread dough;
  • virtue intact: maiden virtue, undefiled virtue;
  • consecration: declaration that something is sacred;
  • wondrous: inspiring a feeling of delight, marvellous;


  • MP 81 Elation and grief in motherhood form the basis of another pair of poems. ‘Cana Revisited’ and’ Elegy for a Still-born Child’. The two joyous quatrains of the former, which rejoices in the contemporary miracle occurring in the ‘bone-hooped womb’, contrast with the sombre couplets of the latter;


  • 2 quatrains [Q] in 2 sentences; line length of 10 syllables; rhyme pattern abba cddc;
  • rhythm varies [Q]
  • Q1 totally enjambed; Q2 punctuated (including parenthesis) ; this dictates the flow and  rhythm within the oral delivery potential,  governing pace or pause;
  • the poetic eye pans across a visual presentation of a biblical miracle (possessive pronoun ‘their’) alongside observation of a personal miracle;
  • Q1 contrast biblical and Belfast (‘here’); personification – water jugs with human postures; water on demand in 1960s’ Ireland(‘locked by taps’) doubles with the fluids of childbirth commonly referred to as ‘waters’ that will break spontaneously; birth not imminent but is an ‘expectation’ in common parlance; tributes will have to wait;
  • Q2 Belfast setting with Marie’s pregnancy zone under consideration – physically (‘bone-hooped womb’); within the moral confines of Catholic protocols (‘virtue intact’); a sacrosanct birth for this Irish couple (‘their own’) as important as the marvellous biblical transubstantiation of water into wine; the latter merely colour-coded;


  • 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: twelve 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]
  • the use Heaney seeks to make of assonant effects can be judged and measured in the ‘coloured hearing’ that follows; marvellous happenings on personal and global levels;

  • 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;
  • Verse 1 is dominated by front of mouth sounds: aspirate [h], breathy [w], alveolar [l], bilabial plosives [p] [b], labio-dental fricative [v] alongside alveolar plosives [t] [d ], nasals [n] [m] and sibilants [s] [z][sh];

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