This beautiful early poem was inspired by a haunting Irish lament (Port nabPucai -‘song of the fairies’) composed long ago, the story went, by a lone fiddler on a Blasket island (Inish Tearaght) off the west coast of Ireland.
It was the only one of Heaney’s poems to be read at his funeral service held at the family’s Parish Church of the Sacred Heart in Donnybrook, South Dublin, chosen perhaps because it represented in memoriam all that was dear both to the poet and his wife – their deep-seated Irishness … their love for the Irish-speaking populations of Ireland’s Gaeltacht … the magical Celtic underlay … things that render Irish music special and unique … Heaney’s own ability to pluck beautiful lyrics from ‘nowhere’. In that sense musician and poet are kindred spirits faced with identical challenges and creative impulses – think ‘fiddler’, think ‘poet’.
The poem’s title introduces the musical motif (note) but equally importantly the notion of creative charge (given) bestowed involuntarily on a chosen few. Heaney alluded to his own experience of this in his District and Circle poem ‘In the Loaning’ where he suggested that writing poetry was complex and that ‘vers donnés’ (‘given lines’) were not automatic; when they occurred he made sure to find a place for them in his verse.
The Given Note is set on perhaps the Irish Republic’s remotest island (most westerly Blasket) in an abandoned habitation (dry-stone hut) where an anonymous musician (he) picked out a musical strain (air) gifted to him as if from nowhere (out of the night).
The coded messages (strange noises) were discerned differently by those who tried it later (others who followed), who picked up odd notes here and there (bits of a tune) carried (coming in) on the island’s climatic forces (loud weather). To the Blasket fiddler the others who tried fell short of the mark (nothing like melody).
He put it down (blamed) to lack of technique (fingers) and musical sensibility (ear), lack of application (unpractised) and unadventurous performance (fiddling easy).
The lone fiddler had sought seclusion on Inish Tearaght (alone into the island), imprinted the musical legacy of the wind blowing over the island on his memory (brought back the whole thing) and given it full vent back home (house throbbed like his full violin).
Heaney knows how it feels: creative spirits respond to their ‘given notes’ so whether or not the fiddler’s lament was inspired by the fairies (spirit music) is decidedly immaterial to him (I don’t care).
What struck him was the fiddler’s gift to create something from nothing (off mid-Atlantic … from nowhere). What captivated him was the end result – the solemn piece his Blasket fiddler performed (comes off the bow gravely) and the sound effects that made it just right (rephrases itself into the air).
- Blasket: group of islands off the Dingle peninsula in Co Kerry; The Irish Government evacuated the last of its Gaelic-speaking residents in 1953. The evacuation resulted from a young man’s death from meningitis which occurred during one of the many storms that cut the islands off from communication with the mainland
- most westerly: reference to Inish Tearaght translated as ‘westerly island;
- dry-stone: constructed without mortar;
- air/ tune: melody, song, theme, strain,
- loud weather: conditions that produce booming, thunderous sounds;
- unpractised: with no musical training;
- fiddle: the Irish fiddle is one of the most important instruments in the traditional repertoire of Irish music, identical to the violin, perhaps but played differently in widely-varying regional styles;
- throb: pulse as with a heartbeat;
- spirit: ghost, phantom, spectre, apparition, wraith, shadow, presence; all relating to deceased folk;
- maintain: insist;
- bow: curved rod with horsehair drawn across violin strings to produce sounds;
- grave: solemn, earnest, sober;
- phrase: term used for short sequences of notes within a melody;
- In Death of a Naturalist ‘The Diviner’ delves into another aspect of Irish ‘underlay’ (things that make Ireland magically special and unique for Heaney) depicting a talent that, to onlookers, verges on the miraculous.
- Heaney’s fascination with creative sources finds expression in ‘At the Wellhead’ from the ‘Spirit Level’ collection: the singing of his mother’s friend, blind neighbour Rosie Keenan, came to him and his pals as children stopping them in their tracks; the songs they heard came as if from a wellhead of notes ‘strange and new’ (DOD336); the poem invited her in memoriam to ‘sing yourself to where the singing comes from’;
- as regards the poetic effects: the tune wrote itself, it is said … repetition of movement in various modes. Lovely curls, differently lovely, Also love the shadows, empty or full. Brian O’Donovan
- ‘The Given Note’ … I understood Heaney’s beautiful poem to be a meditation on the unfathomable origins of ALL music, all art, all inspiration. In a way they are ‘given’ to us from somewhere mysterious, and although in the modern world we might laugh at the quaint concept of ‘fairies’, when you think about the intangible origins of art, perhaps the idea isn’t so wide of the mark … at a time when Northern Ireland increasingly descended into civil strife and crisis, Seamus Heaney looked to landscape, and to a lesser but comparable extent traditional music, to articulate a distinctive voice, beyond the claims of tradition and community, ‘to use the first person singular’ as he has remarked, ‘to mean me and my lifetime’ … traditional music and song would appear to have provided Heaney with what he interpreted as an appropriate metaphor for artistic inspiration, his portrayal often avoided the political and social complexities associated with this music. David Bruce
- a possible Shakespearean influence suggests itself in Caliban’s monologue to Trinculo and Stephano (The Tempest III,ii): Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,/ Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not./ Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments/ Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices;
- of lateral interest as regards the song’s unmentioned title a pouca, or in Irish púca, usually refers to a magical being–a “water sprite,” or “mischievous fairy”–a word adapted by Shakespeare for his character Puck in Midsummer Night’s Dream Tony McMahon
- to complete the musical link a version of Port na bPúcaí a lament performed on the fiddle in 1968 by Seán Cheaist Ó Catháin (who was born and brought up on Great Blasket) can be found on https://soundcloud.com/patrick-cavanagh-2/port-na-bp-ca-played-by-se-n
- 6 triplets (T) in 9 sentences (S); very variable line length of 5-11 syllables;
- occasional hints of rhyme in Ts 4/5/6 but no sustained pattern;
- the balance of punctuation and enjambment dictates flow and rhythm within the oral delivery potential, governing pace or pause; overall the longer sentences are heavily enjambed interspersed with short sentences ;
- rich use of musical terms: ‘note’, ‘air’, ‘tune’, ‘melody’, ‘phrase’; instrumentation – ‘fiddling’, ‘ violin’, ‘bow’; insubstantial musical sources ‘strange noises’, ‘loud weather’ (is this an example of synaesthesia?), ‘spirit music’, ‘out of wind’;
- contrast: ‘ bits of … whole thing’;
- neat use of prepositions: ‘out of’ suggests mysterious transfer; ‘in on’ implies something compelling; ‘into the island’ points at commitment; ‘comes off’ suggests the continuity of the lament; ‘into the air ‘implies the mixing of two invisible forces;
- ‘night’ echoes the collection’s title but with the twist that the music emerges from the dark behind which it was hidden;
- personification inside a simile: both house and instrument have a heart-beat;
- narrated in the past except where Heaney intervenes;
- local colour: location; describing basic Island existence ‘dry-stone hut’;
- the fiddler’s judgment of his less competent fellows resembles in its directness Heaney’s critical assessments in other contexts; the fiddler’s contribution to the narrative is couched at his intellectual level – ‘got’; Heaney’s on a higher poetic plane;
- do Heaney’s rhythms mimic the sounds and emotions of the music do you think?
- 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;
- the final six lines are dominated by alveolar plosives [t] [d ], nasals [n] [m] and sibilants [s] [z] alongside a cocktail of front of mouth sounds: aspirate [h], breathy [w], alveolar [l], bilabial plosives [p] [b], labio-dental fricatives [f] [v]; a smattering of velar plosives [k] [g] completes the alliterative deal;