Heaney places himself within a woman’s experience voicing his dramatic monologue to a farmer’s wife coping as best she can with the incessant demands of her daily work made more challenging by pregnancy and the kicks administered by the fetus she is carrying.
Heaney constructs the poem such that pump, pregnancy, delivery, farm reality and metaphor remain interwoven. Whether his poetic alliances are effective or strained is a moot point.
The daily chore of drawing water (I work at the pump) is unremitting. The weather is against her (wind heavy … spits of rain) tearing at (fraying) the normal flow (rope of water) from the pump’s outlet.
To a woman familiar with calving the pump’s delivery (pays itself out) provides an easy comparison (like air’s afterbirth) thanks to its inner workings (each gulp of the plunger).
Enough is enough (tired of the feeding of stock) – her mission is unrelenting (each evening), physically demanding (labour this handle) and lengthy (half an hour at a time) – thirsty cows (guzzling at bowls) ensure the task is never completed (topped up … lower it down).
She can identify with despondent cattle (trailed in again) plodding through the farm’s jerry-built barrier (ready-made gate), knocked together by her husband (he), ill-fitting (stuck into the fence), recycled (jingling bedhead) not properly hinged (wired up between posts), falling apart (on its last legs). If ever the bedhead witnessed marital bliss that time is long gone (does not jingle for joy any more).
From pump to unborn child (plunger inside me) – enough is enough (tired), her forceful appeal (God) triggered by its unrestrained movements (young calf … wild on a rope).
No posture she adopts (lying or standing) brings relief from its antics (capers), evidence to her of a male fetus (he) – her inner functions barely differ from the pump’s inner workings (gulp in my well).
The wife’s vocative (O) hope and prayer is that at the moment her cervix dilates (I am a gate for myself), her amniotic fluids will break as powerfully (wind fray my waters) as the pump’s current overspill (scarfs my skirt through my thighs) and that the wind will act as oxygen to relieve contraction pains (stuffs air down my throat).
- pump: the exterior cast-iron device for raising water that preceded mains water:
- spits: spots;
- fray: cause to become threadbare;
- pay out: let out release slowly
- afterbirth: bloody placenta released after a birth;
- gulp: large amount swallowed hastily;
- stock: livestock;
- labour: work with great effort;
- handle: hand-operated part of the pump that controls the plunger using up and down movements;
- guzzle: eat greedily swallow in great swigs;
- byre: cow shed;
- top up: refill to a required level;
- trail in: enter despondently;
- ready-made: roughly built, not made to order
- jingle: light metallic ringing sound;
- bedhead: upright panel fixed to the head of a bed
- on its last legs: dilapidated, nearing the end of existence, usefulness
- plunger: plunger: ingenious part of the mechanism that initially sucks up water from below ground into the pumping chamber before expelling it through the spout;
- calf: young cow or bull;
- go wild: behave in an uncontrolled manner;
- caper: lively movement;
- well: place where water springs;
- scarf: overlap to form a joint;
- stuff: force, cram into a limited space
- MP 79 … While his first volume was largely preoccupied with childhood and the giant figure of his father, ‘the heart’ of the new book centres on adult relationships, on ‘poems on love and marriage’ in which the positions of wife and mother are sympathetically re-assessed. In the dramatic monologue, ‘Mother’, Heaney portrays the exhaustions and frustrations of a farmer’s wife, as she works the pump, and bears the heaviness of her latest pregnancy. She feels like the pump, drained of energy. In attempting to satisfy the various physical needs of others her own emotional needs are neglected, and she likens herself to the abandoned bedhead, “on its last legs/ It does not jingle for joy any more … The poem ends in a prayer, with the mother longing for a door leading to a distinct identity;
- NC (22) the poem reflects Heaney’s interest in assuming (as in ‘Undine’, ‘Mother’, ‘Limbo’, ‘Shore Woman’ and elsewhere) a special type of anonymity: what it might mean to imagine oneself inside a woman’s experience.
- 5 verses (V) [5+ 6 +4 +5 +4] in 12 sentences (S) including the colon; variable line length between 5-11 syllables; unrhymed beyond occasional couplets and some end-of-line or in-line assonance;
- rhythm change is not marked in this poem the piece is almost totally enjambed ; this dictates the flow and rhythm within the oral delivery potential, governing pace or pause;
- personal pronouns: ‘I’ for the anonymous wife; ‘he’ her unnamed husband; ‘ they’ cattle also referred to as ‘stock, ‘cows’;
- internal monologue without direct speech; man and wife do not communicate; all is emotional build-up;
- V1 (two sentences) image of solid water flow ‘rope’ worn at the edges might coincidentally reflect her mind-set; three motifs introduced: the pump that will stand both for itself and its inner workings that will adopted by the mother; elemental wind that will contribute to 2 labours – work and childbirth; childbirth that will dominate the final section; personification of pump whose double action ‘plunger’ swallows and spits out water;
- V2 (3 sentences): statement of morale followed by accumulation of symptoms; the word ‘labour’ will recur and resonate; onomatopoeic ‘guzzle’; contrast ‘up’ and ‘down’; double tautology: top/ up lower/ down;
- V3 (3 sentences) despondency reflected in cattle behaviour ‘trailed in’; Irish farming’s make and mend mentality arguably the norm when income is limited; both ’jingle’ and ‘bedhead’ recycled to regret more cheerful times;
- V4 (3 sentences) repeat – ‘tired was emotional now physical; correspondence of inner workings of pump/ mother-to-be present in ‘plunger’; rural simile compares foetus movement and untamed young cattle behaviour; sharp breath ‘gulp’ taken in extreme circumstances deep inside her ‘well’;
- V5 (1 sentence) vocative ‘O’; the three motifs converge; euphemism replaces less palatable biological facts; the wind that bedevilled the pumping process may now become a favourable element; apparel ‘scarf’ used to describe tight grip; upholstery term to describe the cramming process;
- 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: fifteen 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;
- Verse 1 is dominated by front of mouth sounds: aspirate [h], breathy [w], alveolar [l], bilabial plosives [p] [b], labio-dental fricatives [f] [v] and alveolar plosives [t] [d ] alongside a smattering of nasals [n] [m] and sibilants [s] [z];