Rite of Spring

Heaney relives the steps required on his family’s rural mid-Ulster farm to reverse the trials of winter. Their cast-iron pump stood unprotected from the elements in the Mossbawn farmyard. When it froze up the family was without fresh water until something was done! The ritual solemnity offered by the title suggests there were sustained frosts almost on an annual basis during the period. Recalling the elation when water flowed anew Heaney has elected to personify his pump as a woman and celebrate it in barely veiled sexual terms.

To start a sentence with a conjunction (So) might have raised eyebrows amongst pedants but Heaney who left nothing to compositional chance chose it deliberately with the sense of ‘as expected’ helping to raise an annual occurrence into a solemn Rite of Spring.

Heaney personifies the powerful grip of winter (closed its fist) wedged in the family source of fresh water (stuck in the pump).

No pump (plunger froze up), no fresh drinking water from the farm’s underground well! This pump literally blocked by ice, metaphorically dismayed by its own ineffectiveness (a lump In its throat) – with an extraordinary overlay of solid state water (ice founding itself) as if welded to metal (iron). Scarcely begun the manual operation had seized up in an incongruous posture (handle paralysed at an angle).

Heaney’s family knew just how to solve the headache using materials to hand – swathes of cereal stalks (wheat straw) compressed to prolong the burning process (twisting Into ropes), encasing the pump’s main stanchion (lapping them tight) now plant-like  (stem) with animal-shaped spout (snout). Just a match (light) required to de-ice (pump up in flame).

Perhaps Heaney’s muse pressed him to ‘sex up’ his ending! Once it was safe for hands-on (cooled) they stripped the pump down to its intimate parts (lifted her latch), witnessed the first signs of arousal (her entrance was wet) then ejaculation (she came).

  • Rite of Spring: solemn celebration announcing the advent of spring;
  • without any direct link Heaney’s surprisingly titillating ending recalls the similarly titled Igor Stravinski’s orchestral score of a ballet first performed in 1913 when the provocatively sexual choreography of Vaslav Nijinski triggered a near riot during the ballet’s premiere;
  • stuck: fixed, wedged;
  • pump: the exterior cast-iron device for raising water that preceded mains water:
  • plunger: ingenious part of the mechanism that initially sucks up water from below ground into the pumping chamber before expelling it through the spout;
  • a lump in the throat: idiom that describes the tight feeling in ones throat caused by strong emotion
  • found: notion of something that forms into a solid state
  • handle: hand-operated part of the pump that controls the plunger using up and down movements;
  • paralysed: unable to move; immoveable;
  • wheat straw: stalks left over after harvest, retained for cattle bedding, thatching etc; country folk still wove it by hand to create a Brigid’s Girdle (from ‘Spirit Level’) and Heaney’s father was adept at weaving ‘The Harvest Bow’ in the ‘Field Work’ collection;
  • twist: plait tightly;
  • lap: encase, swaddle;
  • stem: main stalk of a plant or shrub;
  • snout: projecting nose and mouth of an animal;
  • latch: metal catch securing a door or gate;
  • come: ejaculate; – Heaney chooses to inject sexual overtones into the final couplet using a more undisguised approach perhaps than in Death of a Naturalist;


  • HV adds the Mossbawn emergency restoration of pump water in Door into the Dark to other period-bound skills/ techniques lost or about to be lost in the mists of time: By choosing as his subject anonymous rural labourers, the young poet erects a memorial to the generations of forgotten men and women whose names are lost, whose graves bear no tombstones, and whose lives are registered in no chronicle. Soon even the tools they used will be found only in museums, and the movements they made in wielding them will be utterly lost. It is immensely important to Heaney to note down those expert movements – like an anthropologist inventing a notation for an unrecorded dance;


  • 4 triplets in 5 sentences (S); line length between 6-8 syllables; Heaney’s experimentation with rhyme continues adopting a single rhyme in each triplet  *aa *bb *cc  d*d;
  • rhythm changes are governed by rich enjambment and mid-line punctuation; the final couplet is deliberately slowed by the use of commas
  • personal pronouns ‘we’ used in the final couplet confirms autobiographical location;
  • widespread use of personification: winter has a fist that it uses; plunger has emotions; handle is incapacitated; the pump has a flower stanchion and animal’s chops; the pump is personified as a woman with intimate parts;
  • S1 (enjambed) extends the metaphor of winter’s power and introduces a vocabulary of incapacitation;
  • S2 (enjambed) describes the changing state of the water element producing (‘founding itself’) an unexpected amalgam of ice and metal via a reflexive image;
  • S3 (enjambed) medical analogy of people incapacitated and how odd they look;
  • S4 (enjambed with mid-line commas that alter the rhythm); step-by-step record of rural ingenuity now rendered obsolete by progress; final emphasis (‘flame’) generating in S5 the excitement and suggestive imagery culminating in the pump’s  final ejaculation (‘she came’)


  • 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: thirteen 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;
  • the first lines are dominated by alveolar plosives [t] [d ]interwoven with front of mouth sounds: aspirate [h], breathy [w], alveolar [l], bilabial plosives [p] [b], labio-dental fricatives [f] [v], alongside nasals [n] [m] and sibilants [s] [z];


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