Elegy for a Still-born Child

Sombrely antithetical to the happy delivery of his and Marie’s first child Heaney places Elegy for a Still-born Child next to ‘Cana Revisited’.  He will refine the elegy form as his oeuvre unfolds and compose very moving poems in memory of people or events that struck a chord with him. He writes here of a child lost by another couple who got married at the same time as us (DOD97).

I  Heaney talks compassionately to the shadow of the still-born child: his mother no longer bears the burden of pregnancy (walks light) – to the poet’s mind a fishing basket with its catch removed (empty creel). She is accustoming herself (unlearning) to the loss of reminders of his foetal presence (intimate nudge and pull) imposed (insisted on) by his closely protected (trussed-up weight) pre-infant body (seed-flesh) and soft frame (bone-curd).

Her emptied womb (evicted world) is shrinking (contracts) away from what started normally (its history) but ended in tragedy (its scar).

Uninvited death occurred (Doomsday struck) when the new-born’s life-support system failed (collapsed sphereextinguished itself) at the very moment it was called upon to inhale earthly air (our atmosphere). All that remains is paradox: a mother bereft (heavy) reminded of the burden she carried (lightness in her).

II  Heaney salutes the mother’s commitment (six months) to mapping the future (you stayed cartographer) guiding her husband through the sea of ante-natal information and recommendations (charting) – the man Heaney’s acquaintance, yes, but closely linked (my friend) on a parallel route to parenthood (from husband towards father).

The man did not need to be told she was expectant (guessed a globe your steady mound).

Then disaster – his world tipped from its axis (pole fell), propelling the incoming child (shooting star) into head-on impact (ground).

III  Heaney sits behind the wheel of his car (lonely journeys) (a recurrent motif)  fed by recollection (I think of it all), struck by the ironies:  the stillbirth phenomenon itself (birth of death); the  lifeless form retrieved from the womb in which it grew only to be interred (exhumation for burial).

The birth of his own first child only magnifies their loss and his sense of mourning – the never-to-be-used layette (wreath of small clothes … memorial pram) and, most poignantly, parents groping in vain to touch an infant lying in its bedside cot (parents reaching for a phantom limb).

No comfort is generated in either poet or surroundings: Heaney drives on automatic pilot (remote control) along a featureless highway (bare road) amidst tearful nature (drizzling sky) and omens of death and misery (circling rook); he drives high up (mountain fields) in mist (full to the brim with cloud) and wind-blown crests (white waves) in convoy (riding home) across a bleak and shivery lake (wintry lough).

  • elegy: form of poetry or music lamenting a death;
  • still-born: born dead;
  • creel: large wicker basket holding fish
  • nudge: light push;
  • trussed up: as if bound hand and foot to prevent free movement;
  • seed-flesh: undeveloped body flesh;
  • curd: white fatty substance;
  • evict: expel, produce;
  • contract: narrow, tighten;
  • doomsday: last day of existence;
  • collapse: literally ‘fall together’, come to nothing’;
  • sphere: globe, orb;
  • heavy: weighty, heartbroken;
  • cartographer: person drawing, producing maps
  • chart: geographical map (especially air and sea navigation)
  • mound: protuberance; growing belly;
  • pole: said of a point at the northern or southern end of an axis of rotation; e.g. of the earth
  • shooting star: small meteor that burns up entering the earth’s atmosphere;
  • wreath: flowers arranged in a ring and planted on a grave;
  • pram: child’s four-wheeled carriage pushed by hand;
  • phantom limb: sensation of a body part that has been amputated;
  • remote control: as if controlled by a signal from distance;
  • rook: large crow with black plumage regarded as the bird of death and misery by the superstitious;
  • full to the brim: full to overflowing;
  • lough: Irish form of ‘lake’;


  • in Heaney’s first collection Death of a Naturalist Mid-Term Break elegised a tragedy that occurred outside Mossbawn farm in 1953 when Heaney’s four year old brother Nicholas was knocked down and killed in a car accident. The tragedy, to which Heaney was exposed at the age of fourteen, is likewise recorded in the eternal present of his poetry.
  • 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. Planetary images and painful half-rhymes are used at first to express the poet’s empathy for the bereaved couple. Ultimately, however, the large metaphors of spheres, globes and shooting stars shrink in the face of the tragic actuality of “A wreath of small clothes, a memorial pram/ And parents reaching for a phantom limb.” Fittingly the elegy ends with pathos and irony, a ‘drizzling sky’, ‘full to the brim with cloud’, a sorrow quickened by Heaney’s own fortunate experiences of parenthood.
  • NC 23: ‘Elegy for a Still-Born Child’ discovers in a similar situation not exhilaration but the pain of loss, as the driver’s consciousness is saturated by an awareness of the dead infant:


  • 3 short pieces in rhyming couplets; line length between 9-11 syllables;
  • The combination of punctuation and enjambment dictates flow and rhythm within the oral delivery potential,  governing pace or pause;
  • I 3 couplets in 3 sentences (1 ends mid-line); the possessive pronoun adds to the sense of ‘intimate’ belonging; adjectives ‘light’ and ‘heavy’ used both objectively and emotionally; unusual usage ‘unlearning’ speaks louder than, say, ‘forgetting’; cluster of compounds noun and adjective for economy of words; neologisms ‘seed-flesh’, ‘bone-curd’ throw in ideas of as-yet-undeveloped and thick consistency; ‘evicted world’ implies both the uncontrolled birth process and formal dispossession; ‘doomsday’ chosen as if to suggest secular ‘decreed by fate’, and Christian ‘moment of last judgment’; ‘contracts’ both the physical shape adopted by the uterus after birth and the shrivelling of human spirit; imagery of observed cosmic behaviours; ’our’ is ironically  the world to which the infant was not admitted; final paradox around opposites heavy and light;
  • II , no enjambment; salute to womanhood: she guide and teacher (‘chart’) he largely in the dark (‘guessed’); resolution of the interplanetary imagery – the infant’s delivery and death meteorite-associated;
  • III 4 couplets in 3 sentences, stop-start punctuation; the poet-absentee (Heaney in fact spent time chasing students on placements as part of his job); how involuntary memories crop up; double paradox; change of mood music accompanies the redundant layette and the very poignant parent despair; final 4 lines filled with pathos and irony – things seen from behind the windscreenthat contribute to Heaney’s mood;
  • richly enlambed rhythm varies [Q]1 totally enjambed; [Q]2  punctuated (including parenthesis) ; this the poetic eye pans across a visual presentation of a biblical miracle (possessive pronoun ‘their’) alongside observation of a personal miracle;



  • 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: fourteen 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;

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

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