Following the poems of Irish tribulation and starvation in ‘Death of a Naturalist’ Heaney paints the living tableau of a working day at threshing time reflecting the traditional rhythms, values, rituals and relationships of rural Irish country-folk at a moment of measurable success.
His dramatic monologue is voiced to a proud and dignified farmer’s wife who articulates her woman’s perspective at a time when ‘man’s work’ and ‘woman’s work’ were strictly demarcated. She performs a duty expected of her providing midday lunch for her farmer-husband and his band of threshers. No evidence in her case of Undine’s wish to instil ‘subtle increase and reflection’ on her man.
She extends a womanly refinement (spread it all on linen cloth) setting her fare thoughtfully out of the sun (under the hedge) and lives her one and only moment of control (called them over).
Everything comes to a halt: the leviathan thresher is switched off and slowing down (hum and gulp … ran down), its power drive in sagging dead stop mode (big belt slewed to a standstill), its insatiable appetite halted (straw hanging undelivered in the jaws).
The sudden silence (such quiet) fills with other sounds (boots crunching the stubble) as hungry threshers home in on the refreshment site (twenty yards away).
Enter the Wife’s anonymous husband (he) who will take the lead: ostensibly happy to rest his bones (lay down), holding back (‘Give these fellows theirs … I’m in no hurry’), preoccupied with cereal quality (plucking grass in handfuls), testing its weight (tossing it in the air), offering a judgment (‘That looks well’) and a gesture of approval for the spread his wife has provided – that Heaney deems lip-service and demotes to parenthesis (nodded at my white cloth).
Not the way we men would serve it up … the farmer’s spoken assessment is a hyperbole (lay out a field) stage-managed for those within earshot (boys like us) and serving only to confirm his and their unpolished ways and sense of superiority (little call for cloths). He passes his comment off as a joke (winked) happy to be seen to be indulged (I poured a cup and buttered the thick slices) by a wife who likes nothing better than to please him (that he likes).
His first priorities are progress achieved (‘threshing better than I thought’) and product-quality (good clean seed) as he delegates her as of annual tradition (always) to confirm his views (away … look … inspection).
Feigning expertise (even when I don’t know what to look for) she does as she is bidden: sifting the grain (ran my hand); noting the work in progress (half-filled bags) – sacks hanging where they were left (hooked to the slots); weighing up the bullet-solid grain (hard as shot), the rich yield (Innumerable) and its freshness (cool).
Her eye scans the scene: sacks open-mouthed in awe (bags gaped); sloping ducts (chutes); the thresher’s container at rest (stilled drum); harvesting tools discarded (forks … stuck at angles in the ground) like spears (javelins) from historical confrontations (lost battlefields).
She picks her way back (between them) to the eating area (across the stubble) through anonymous farm hands (they) lying amidst their detritus (ring of their own crusts and dregs), enjoying a cigarette (smoking), uniformly silent (saying nothing).
She registers her husband’s laddish hubris (as proud as if he were the land itself) – the yield sufficient to make flour (crushing) and provide grain for the following year (sowing both) – nothing more, nothing less (that was it).
Her wifely duty – refreshment for the labourers, obedience to her man (I’d come and he had shown me) – is done (I belonged no further to the work) bar a woman’s tasks to clear it all away (gathered … folded) then make herself scarce (went).
Not a single male gesture of help: threshers saw no need (kept their ease), lolling (spread out), casual (unbuttoned), fed – perhaps someone smiled with appreciation (grateful) – and happier out of the sun (under the trees).
- spread: lay out;
- linen: durable cloth woven from flax prominent in Ireland;
- hum: low, steady, continuous sound
- gulp: audible sound of food being swallowed;
- run down: lose momentum:
- belt: continuous heavy-duty leather strap linking the thresher to its power source (tractor or steam engine)
- slew: lose tautness and rest at an angle;
- crunch: the audible sound of something brittle crushed underfoot;
- stubble: cut stalks left in the ground after harvest;
- pluck: take hold of and remove
- have little call for: said of something for which there is little demand;
- wink: open and close an eye to share a silent secret or show affection;
- threshing: the rural practice that separates grain from corn;
- hook: attach to, hang from;
- slot: slit, aperture
- shot: tiny lead pellets used in shooting;
- gape: stand in awe, stare with one’s mouth open;
- chute: sloping channel or slide down which things fall;
- stilled: no longer operating, silent;
- drum: cylindrical part of a mechanism that beats the corn to shake the seed from the stalk:
- fork: long handled farm tool with two sharp prongs used for lifting corn and hay;
- javelin: light spear used as a weapon (and in sport);
- crust: uneaten corner of bread;
- dregs: liquid and sediment left in a container;
- yield: amount produced;
- crushing: grinding into flour;
- for planting: to be retained for the next year’s crop;
- gather: collect; pick up, retrieve;
- keep ones ease: not stir if possible; lie comfortably;
- spread out: loll, lie around;
- unbuttoned: shirts and collars unfastened;
- Heaney assured DOD (92) that the poems of Door into the Dark that dealt with ‘Irish ways’ (the cornfield scene in ‘The Wife’s Tale’, or the eel-fishing in ‘A Lough Neagh Sequence’) – all came out of first-hand experience;
- MP (80) traced one source of the poemto the unpublished’ Homage to Pieter Breughel’. In the Poetry Book Society Bulletin, Heaney explained that the poem began “as an irrational desire to write about a woman bringing tea to a harvest field. Earlier I might have set down the picture and trusted that it was redolent of the emotion it evoked for me.” No longer satisfied with the pictorial, Heaney wanted, like Frost, to get inside the frame, bring the figures to the foreground and fill them with breath;
- HV (20) …The Wife’s Tale’ is Breughelesque in its portrayal of the threshers taking their midday meal in the fields, the presence of a threshing-machine brings the industrial world into this scene, which otherwise might be drawn from a medieval book of hours … 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;
- NC (22) (‘Undine’) announces Heaney’s interest in assuming (as in ‘The Wife’s Tale’, ‘Mother’, ‘Limbo’, ‘Shore Woman’ and elsewhere) a special type of anonymity: what it might mean to imagine oneself inside a woman’s experience.
- 4 verses (V) [7+ 12 +7 +9] (V) in 19 sentences (S) including the dash; line length based on 10 syllables; unrhymed beyond occasional couplets and some end-of-line in-line assonances
- rhythm changes are marked in this poem the piece is both punctuation rich and well enjambed ; these dictate the flow and rhythm within the oral delivery potential, governing pace or pause;
- personal pronouns: ‘I’ for the anonymous wife; ‘he’ they’, ’their’ for equally anonymous males in 2 groups: master and servants;
- use of direct speech restricted to the farmer; the wife’s unstated comments and responses speak louder than words;
- imagery is as uncomplicated and effective as the scene; characterisation is achieved in a variety of ways: the expressionlessness of the threshing team; the direct speech of the farmer; the proud and dignified stoicism of the female narrator;
- V1 in 3 sentences totally enjambed with mid-line commas; the considerate female touch; her sole moment of being in charge; personification of the all-devouring farm machine (the only touch of mid 20th century modernism without which the scene would have been little change since Breughel!); image of humans feeding sacrificial victims to a monster; acoustic effects (‘quiet … crunching’) over distance;
- V2 in 5 sentences, enjambed wherever the rhythm took the narrative; no intimate exchanges; direct speech to deliver the master’s priorities only; concessions to work force; passing appreciation of the wife’s work in parenthesis; the ‘wink’ aimed at whom? Deciding this would offer different connotations so Heaney leaves it open; her stoical acceptance of an annual task that ostensibly involves her in the threshing processprocess;
- V3 in four sentences sets out the successive steps she takes and involves touch and sight principally; her view widens both in perspective and time – the Irish the now and history;
- V4 confirms the roles: farmer’s single preoccupation with future security; his risible ideas are complemented with hubris along the lines of ‘here’s what my men and I can achieve!); is Heaney telling Irish education to up its game? the workforce unrefined, wasteful, silent, addicted; the final paradox: dutiful wife busies herself against a background of male inertia;
- 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;
- the first stanza is dominated by alveolar plosives [t] [d ] alongside front of mouth sounds: aspirate [h], breathy [w], alveolar [l], bilabial plosives [p] [b], labio-dental fricatives [f] [v]; these are supported by nasals [n] [m], sibilants [s] [z] and velar plosives [k] [g];