Heaney was familiar with Salthill Promenade having unveiled a monument built there to celebrate this very poem. As was often the case he felt he had to write something to commemorate the event.
He disguises it as a delightful holiday ‘snapshot’ celebrating Irishwomen swimming together and then, using a classical goddess and a Celtic legend, proceeds to his deeper intention – a love poem to his wife Marie.
His beach-eye pans from breaking sea (swell foams) to its lady bathers, some inactive (float) others energetic (crawl), their swimming stroke’s explosiveness likened to a firework (catherine-wheel of arm and hand), the rise and fall of buoyancy (each head bobs) as predictably sudden (curtly) as an air-filled beach toy (football). Heaney hears the swimmers’ shrieks (yelps) muted by the beach’s wind direction (faint here on the strand).
His mind wanders into associations with the world of art and legend: Salthill (this western shore) is far removed from the Mediterranean background of a Botticelli canvas depicting the mythical landfall of the pale-skinned goddess of beauty and physical love (no milk-limbed Venus ever rose).
Ireland’s tough equivalent (our sterner myth) is the Gráinne Ní Mháille (Grace O’Malley) figure of maritime legend, feisty and nationalistic (pirate queen in battle clothes).
The restless ocean is a timeless self-repeating entity (breakers pour themselves into themselves) in which the passage of time goes unrecorded (years shuttle through space invisibly). Its powerful, frothy ebb and flow (crests unfurl like creamy beer) swallow history and legend beyond trace (queen’s clothes melt).
The women braving the incoming tide (salt suds where the wave has crashed) have their own stresses to cope with (generations sighing) – not least the inhibiting social mores (labour in fear of flesh and sin) ushered in by the intervening years (time has been accomplished).
Heaney’s eye proceeds slowly … from the women leaving the water as a group (through the shallows in swimsuits), broadly similar (bare-legged, smooth-shouldered and long-backed), traversing the water’s weight (wade ashore) gymnastically and verbally (skips and shouts) – to settle on the object of his love, his Botticelli-like embodiment of beauty and sexual attraction (So Venus comes), taking everything in her stride (matter-of-fact).
- Galway: the poem was adopted by Salthill Promenade which had separate sections for men at Blackrock and the Ladies’ section next door;
- swell: slow sea movement where waves do not break;
- foam: mass of bubbly liquid formed by agitation; wind-blown spray;
- crawl: swimming stroke involving overarm movement;
- catherine wheel: coiled firework that spins when ignited
- bob: move up and down, appear to bounce;
- curt: short and sudden (rude of human responses)
- yelp: shriek, squeal of surprise;
- Venus: Roman goddess of love (cf Greek Aphrodite) represented by Botticelli and Boucher inparticular as emerging from the sea; The Greek word aphros means “foam,” and Hesiod relates in his Theogony that Aphrodite was ‘born from the white foam’ used in line 1;
- limb: arm or leg;
- pirate queen: the allusion is not specific but Gráinne Ní Mháille (Grace O’Malley 1530-1603) certainly fits the bill as an Irish nationalist icon, successfully defending the independence of her territories in the west of Ireland (north of Galway) at a time when much of the island fell under English rule; she is still considered today ‘the pirate queen of Ireland’;
- breaker: heavy sea wave that creates foam on the shore;
- shuttle: travel regularly between specific points;
- crest: foamy top of a wave;
- unfurl: spread out, uncoil;
- melt: dissolve;
- generation: collective group of people around the same time; generally defined at 30 year intervals;
- suds: froth made of soap and water;
- labour: make great effort – possible allusion to childbirth;
- flesh and sin: strong hint of carnal sins and sexual gratification;
- accomplished: completed (the term appears in the Bible with slightly different connotations)
- wade: walk with effort through water;
- skips: bouncing steps;
- matter-of-fact: down-to-earth, without pretension;
- an anecdote posted by one ‘HJ McCracken’ (almost certainly a pseudonym for an Irish nationalist figure of yore) claimed: Heaney and his wife had … gone on holidays with my favourite aunt and her husband in the 1960s. I wonder what that holiday was like … My aunt and Heaney’s wife were splashing in the frosty waters of Ireland’s west coast and came running up the strand. “Write us a poem Seamus!”, at least that’s what my aunt said they exclaimed. This was the result, Girls Bathing, Galway 1965. Yes, one of those girls is my aunt, frozen forever. We know from Marie Heaney that she might say this kind of thing to Heaney and he might respond (as regards for example ‘A Peacock’s Feather’ from ‘The Haw Lantern’);
- an alternative reports Heaney’s unveiling of a monument to the poem itself published as text: at Cúirt 2006, a poem entitled “Girls bathing at Salthill” was unveiled on Salthill Promenade. It was written by Seamus Heaney when he and his wife were on honeymoon in Galway, and it is located on the Promenade facing the ‘Ladies’ bathing area. It was unveiled by the poet himself and John Mulholland, who was the assistant Mayor at the time reported: “Among schoolchildren as well as many a writer and poetry fan, Heaney, smiling public man, spoke and read and twinkled”.
- five quatrains (Q) in 7 sentences (including a semi-colon); line length based almost completely on 8 syllables; rhyme scheme abab cdcd etc.
- the balance of punctuation marks and enjambed lines determines flow and rhythm within the oral delivery potential; the balance between these governs pace or pause;
- rhythm changes are marked in this poem via use of mid-line punctuation and sentence length; S6, long and almost totally enjambed builds to introduce Heaney’s own ‘Venus’;
- with two exceptions the present tense prevails reporting a living experience from the past; past tenses describe a Celtic icon and the way in which times have brought in the ‘Catholic’ mores governing everyday life;
- Q1 focuses on location and human responses; as in ‘Peninsula’ the movement of seawater is described here linked causally to female response;imagery links swimming style and firework; buoyancy selects an air-filled item of beach paraphernalia; acoustics added;
- Q2 compares art and legend: Mediterranean images of classical painters (imaginative) contrast with Irish legend (based on a real woman) in which Heaney and Marie are deeply culturally immersed; clothes, climate and background are contrasted (‘milk-limbed… pirate queen…battle dress… sterner myth’); introduction of a specific device:
- NC 21 refers to a stylistic device for which he provides examples from Door into the Dark: … the ‘self-inwoven simile’ (or the ‘reflexive image’) first noted in Andrew Marvell’ poetry as the ‘short-circuited comparison’ whereby things are compared to themselves and somehow described in ‘their own likeness’. … NC cites ‘The burn drowns steadily in its own downpour’ from Death of a Naturalist’s ‘Waterfall’) – the key to something’s ‘own resemblance’ seems revealed by the adjective ‘own’ or reflexive pronouns (DF). NC suggests ‘The breakers pour/ themselves into themselves as an example of this device. Seeing Things xxxii describes the house that Patrick Heaney built at The Wood as standing ‘firmer than ever in its own idea;
- Q3 moves into a wider metaphysical realm involving time and space (space exploration vocabulary ‘shuttle’); sea used as a metaphor for the way in which traces of the past are erased from human memory;
- Q4 regrets the forces that judge and challenge life’s spontaneity; biblical/sermon-like echoes ( ‘flesh and sin…accomplished’)
- Q5 describes the herd exit from the sea as a means to izoom in, in this neatly designed love poem, on his ideal woman and the attribute for which he loves her;
- 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;
- Q3 and Q4 are interwoven with front of mouth sounds: aspirate [h], breathy [w], alveolar [l], bilabial plosives [p] [b], labio-dental fricatives [f] [v], with marked contributions from alveolar plosives [t] [d], nasals [m] [n], sibilants [s] [z] [sh];