A poem is triggered by the ‘framed’ still-life of horse-tack on a farm wall.

The poet reflects on the purposes it once served. The apparatus conjures up an equine absentee, perhaps the same horse as in Night Piece that described a child’s nightmare memory of the animal alive. Heaney’s elegiac piece reflects his compassionate nature only enhanced by distance in time and his sense of the irretrievable.

Before Heaney’s gaze hangs the forensic corroboration of the horse’s existence: evidence of once living saliva (green froth that lathered) its liquid form still evoked (shining bit) alongside the remnants of what the animal once chomped (cobweb of grass-dust).

Scanning and handling the items reveals the beast’s hard working life (sweaty twist of the bellyband), now both dead and of no further use (stiffened, cold in the hand). The eye pieces once worn still carry their protruding shape (pads of the blinkers bulge) against the background fabric (through the ticking).

The elements that controlled the animal in its labours (reins, chains and traces) hang now in limp disorder (droop in a tangle).

From the visual to less tangible considerations of smell: the living horse’s pungent odour died with the animal (hot reek is lost) no more now than a residual blend of dampness and mould built into the building’s fabric (placeold in his must).

The animal’s death came suddenly (he cleared in a hurry) – the animal passed on all but naked (clad only in shods) and, as if to suggest some human equivalence, left its private living space like a bed that had been slept in (stable unmade).

  • froth: foamy residue down in this case to salivation;
  • lather: produce a sweaty froth;
  • bit: metal bar across an animal’s mouth attached to the bridle and used to control it;
  • sweat: visible perspiration:
  • twist: distortion;
  • bellyband: leather strap used to attach a horse to the shafts of a cart
  • stiffen: become rigid, lose flexibility;
  • blinkers: pair of small screens attached to the bridle to prevent a horse from being distracted or startled
  • bulge: swell, distend;
  • ticking: cloth covering;
  • reins: straps attached to the bit to guide or check a horse;
  • traces: straps attaching the animal to the vehicle it is pulling;
  • droop: hang limply;
  • tangle: disordered cluster;
  • reek: strong unpleasant smell;
  • must: damp, mouldy smell;
  • shod: horseshoe;


  • sonnet in six sentences (S) ; Heaney experiments with the form across his work – here the principle volta occurs after l. 9 as visual effects change to smells; a second after l. 11 lends an almost human dimension to the post-death memory; very variable line length between 5 and 9 syllables;
  • unlike ‘classical’ sonnets Heaney does not set a tight rhyme pattern; there is a very loose combination of rhymes and alliterative or assonant effects;
  • S1 switches from living liquid presence (‘froth, ‘lathered, ‘shining’) to remnants (‘cobweb’, ‘dust’); the then and the now are reflected in the tenses; enjambed sentence;
  • S2 balances still-life visual remnants with snatches of the living horse – ‘sweaty becomes ‘stiffened’; eye-piece shape unchanged by time allows ‘bulge’ to accommodate the eyes of a horse distended by work-load;
  • S3 (enjambed couplet) presents the paradox of proud items used in an orderly fashion to attach and controL the animal now disorderly in disuse;
  • S4 and S5 (rhyming couplet) focus upon smells separated in time: ‘reek’ of short-lived pungency becomes ‘must’ of enduring reminder;
  • S5 (fully enjambed triplet) adds something human to the process: euphemistic death ‘he cleared’; the horse’s nakedness; the image of the unmade bed;
  • the relative balance between sentence length, punctuation marks and enjambed lines determines the flow and rhythm within the oral delivery potential;


  • 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: ten 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]

  • 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;
  • the final lines are dominated by alveolar plosives[t] [d], nasals [m] [n] and sibilants [s] [z] [sh] alongside front -of-mouth aspirates [h] and alveolar [l];

Join the Conversation - Leave a comment