Heaney pens a sister poem to The Diviner of Death of a Naturalist, delving into the Irish ‘underlay’ (things that make Ireland magically special and unique for him): both demonstrate the gifts of ordinary untutored Irishmen that, to onlookers, verge on the miraculous; at an allegorical level the poems allude to the skills that turn poetic charges into works of art.
Located next to ‘The Forge’ the poem presents a second example of what Helen Vendler (p.19) refers to as ‘functional anonymity within longstanding rural practices’.
The tradesman’s arrival is casual … meeting a spoken arrangement with no definite dates (bespoke for weeks) … without prior warning (turned up some morning unexpectedly) … without any fanfare (bicycle slung) … with no more than a few basic tools (light ladder … bag of knives).
The tradesman goes through his routine – practised eye and hand take stock of the state of the existing thatch (the old rigging) especially where it overhangs the outside wall (poked at the eaves) – materials receive attention (opened and handled): suitable base materials (sheaves of lashed wheat-straw) and structural supports (bundled rods) – from the best available tree source (hazel and willow) passing the sturdiness test (flicked for weight) and flexible (twisted in case they’d snap).
Nitpicking bystanders might have judged his unhurried, deliberate preparations as ponderous (the morning warming up).
Action: equipment set in place (fixed the ladder, laid out well-honed blades); thatch cut to uniform length (snipped at straw); pencil-sharp tips fashioned (sharpened ends of rods); springiness tested through 180 degrees (bent in two); a metal fixing produced (white-pronged staple) that will secure what he has fashioned (pinning down his world) sheaf by sheaf (handful by handful).
The thatcher poses with heraldic dignity (couchant), his knees cushioned by clods of turf (sods) against the discomfort of exposed roof beams (rafters). Then to the finishing refinements – every sheaf of even length (shaved and flushed the butts) and fastened to the next (stitched all together) to make a regular pitched-roof pattern (sloped honeycomb) with areas of bristle (stubble patch).
Those who came to watch stood open-mouthed (left them gaping) in awe of his ability to turn everything he touched to gold (his Midas touch).
- bespoke: made to order, arranged beforehand; also perhaps without written contract, deal arranged by word of mouth
- sling: suspend loosely and casually;
- eye: make a visual assessment, weigh up;
- rigging: naval provenance structural support
- poke: jab with finger or tool in the hand:
- eaves: roof section overhanging the wall;
- sheaf: bundle of stalks laid lengthways;
- lashed: secured with cord;
- rod: thin straight support;
- hazel/ willow: two trees favoured by thatchers;
- flick: ruffle with a quick finger movement;
- twist: bend, check the pliability;
- warm-up: period of precise preparation;
- honed: sharpened;
- snip: cut with small, quick strokes;
- sharpen: hone to a sharp cutting edge;
- staple: U-shaped metal bar that holds things in place;
- couchant: heraldic lying with body on arms and legs and head raised
- sod: chunk of turf;
- rafter: internal beam of a roof;
- shave: cut, reduce by small amounts;
- flush: produce an even length;
- butt: thicker end;
- stitch: join together with twine (as in needlework)
- honeycomb: structure of adjoining elements;
- stubble: cut stalks at the end of sheaves;
- gape: stare open mouthed;
- Midas: king of Classical mythology with the power to turn everything he touched into gold;
- NC 13 … think of [Door into the Dark] as a book in which a new, finer and more subtle kind of Heaney poem seems to be embryonically present, but not yet quite born. If Heaney has himself defined one way in which Janus is its appropriate god, I would suggest another: some of its poems, particularly the analogical poems, ‘The Forge’ and ‘Thatcher’, look back to one of the major kinds in Death of a Naturalist, whereas others, and in particular the concluding ‘Bogland’, are the origin, the nurturing ‘wet centre’, of a subsequent manner and procedure in particular, of the major sequence of ‘bog poems’ initiated by ‘The Tollund Man’ in Wintering Out.
- Helen Vendler considers where Heaney is positioning himself in relation to the picture he is painting: by the last stanza Heaney’s ‘outsideness’ is quietly present in the closing reference to ‘them’ – not ‘us’. It is also present in the ‘educated’ vocabulary (of heraldry in ‘couchant’, of mythology in ‘Midas’) that he poet brings to bear in order to exalt the medieval form of the thatcher, and in the Keatsian metaphorical turn (‘honeycomb’, ‘stubble patch’) by which he gathers the thatched roof into the storehouse of English pastoral; (HV19);
- For HV (19) the thatcher does not realize his own imminent obsolescence but Heaney does … 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;
- HV (20): each vignette of anonymous labour has its distancing moment … makes that poem too an elegiac one, representing a life which the poet does not want to follow, could not follow, but none the less recognizes as forever a part of his inner landscape… If writing about labourers engaged in archaic occupations is one way for a modern poet to submerge his own adult identity in anonymity, another way is to leave his own historical moment, to speak as an ‘I’ or a ‘we’ from another era.
- four quatrains [Q] in 5 sentences [S] (not including the colon that implies a catalogue of actions; line length 10-11 syllables; rhymed couplets of very loose nature; past tense
- HV 19 … for the reader who notices literary form, the ‘outsideness’ is already present in Heaney’s choice here of the stately pentameter quatrain – a variant (in its rhymed couplets) of the alternately rhymed stanza known in prosody as the ‘heroic quatrain’. Such a ceremonious stanza helps to monumentalize the thatcher into a lone survivor;
- the balance of punctuation marks and enjambed lines determines the flow and rhythm within the oral delivery potential; S1 and S4 are heavily enjambed;
- Q1/2 vocabulary of casual business arrangements in Mid-Ulster communities of the period (1940s?); slightly comedic caricature of he who turns out to be capable of a ‘magic’ based on training and experience rather than the miraculous gift of Heaney’s ‘Diviner’; think thatcher think poet in Q1; consider two men with an understanding of the job to be done and in the case of a young poet the basic tools for the task; the ‘unexpected’ is followed by a period of pre-preparation;
- S3/4 heavily enjambed; verbs describe the deliberate stages of the craftsman’s preparation; sight and touch; reasons for testing basic materials shown as vital; human responses explored – length of preparation period questioned by folk who will stand open-mouthed when the job is done; colon suggests that an enumeration will follow;
- Q3 totally enjambed; business like steps before action: tools and materials all modified; compound adjectives; a working life spent perfecting his trade; fact and reflection, literal and metaphorical converge (‘pinning down his world’ … ‘handful by handful’); think thatcher think poet; tools and words chosen precisely; ‘educated’ man and skilled, ‘uneducated’ craftsmen both strive for the same outcomes; a glance into the life and world of two complex human beings; play on ‘pin down’;
- Q4 intellectual touches deriving from Heaney’s education: heraldry and mythology (‘couchant’, ‘Midas touch’); mix of metaphor and active reality; finishing touches use seamstress image (‘stitched … together’); simple rural parallels: thatch pattern resembles beehive order (‘honeycomb’); thatch length displays a cereal field effect; climax emphasises the magical skills involved;
- 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;
- Q4 is dominated by alveolar plosives [t] [d], nasals [m] [n], sibilants [s] [z] [sh] alongside front -of-mouth aspirate [h], alveolar [l], bi-labial [p] [b[ and labio-dental fricative [f];