Driven by instinct to find a human mate and produce the child that would provide her with a soul Undine chanced upon a humble ditcher. The steps he takes to improve her nymph’s environment awaken her attention and might just possibly lead to the act of mutual fulfilment that will bring her what she seeks whilst enthralling him in the process. The poem is voiced to Undine.
To recognize an allegory of love and marriage is a small step – to think water spirit and see in Undine aspects of Marie Devlin, to think ditcher and be reminded of energetic farm hand Seamus Heaney, to read Heaney’s version of the Undine story in the context of an established marital relationship whilst recalling the woman of ‘Twice Shy’ and ‘Valediction’ in Death of a Naturalist.
Enter a healthy rural man improving the farm site (slashed the briars) adept with billhook and spade (shovelled) removing blockages in ditches (grey silt) and awakening Undine to his presence (right of way in my own drains). She responded with a sign of life (I ran quick for him) and a desire to demonstrate her decency (cleaned out my rust).
Caught unawares (halted), the ditcher uncoded the spirit (finally disrobed) as unsullied (running clear) and a touch aloof (apparent unconcern).
What follows is an allegory of seduction, foreplay and coitus. When the earthling made to move on (walked by me) she felt impelled to balk him – her first response restrained (I rippled) her second more audacious (churned). Then as an urge began to swell (ditches intersected) and loss of self-control threatened (near the river) his contact turned into a surge of lust (he dug a spade deep in my flank), physical possession (took me to him) and intercourse (I swallowed his trench) – an act she secretly craved (gratefully) and was prepared to commit her whole self to (dispersing myself for love) triggering tremors in the deepest part of him (roots) by the movement of her watery finger-ends (climbing) up his spade-shaft (brassy grain).
Once in favour (knew my welcome) the ditcher allowed Undine to become the prime mover (I alone) of his furtherance (subtle increase and reflection).
His skills, too, were second to none (explored me so completely), tipping her balance towards human commitment (each limb lost its cold freedom). More than an elemental being (human) the hot-blooded earthling thrilled her (warmed to him).
- Undine: (mod. Latin of the waves) mythological figure of European tradition, a water nymph who in one version becomes human when she falls in love with a man but is doomed to die if he is unfaithful to her and in another will be granted a human soul if she has a human’s child;
- slash: hack with strong sweeping movements
- briar: prickly scrambling shrub;
- silt: fine sand or clay carried and deposited by running water;
- right of way: legal right to cross ground belonging to others;
- drain: channel or pipe carrying off surplus water;
- quick: both speedy and living;
- rust: oxydized coat formed on iron or steel caused by moisture;
- unconcern: lack of worry;
- ripple: flow with small, surface waves
- churn: flow turbulently
- intersect: criss-cross;
- flank: side;
- trench: long, narrow channel;
- disperse: scatter, distribute, diffuse;
- roots: reference to parts of a plant embedded in the ground and origins
- brassy: both resembling brass and tastelessly showy, loud;
- grain: the pattern of fibres on wood;
- subtle: delicate, almost imperceptible;
- increase: expansion, furtherance
- warm to someone: begin to like; slowly become more interested or excited;
- as noted by (NC14) Heaney was a touch coy about overly sexual interpretations: In the monologues ‘The Wife’s Tale’ and ‘Undine’, for instance, views of the mutuality and inter-dependence of men and women are exposed … The monologue-allegory of ‘Undine’ (deals with) a female water-spirit who, by marrying a mortal and bearing him a child, might receive a soul – might, in other words, become human. In Heaney’s account of the poem in ‘Feeling into Words’, he makes it ‘a myth about agriculture, about the way water is tamed and humanized when streams become irrigation canals, when water becomes involved with seed’; but the monologue of the undine is of course the voice of a woman responding sexually to a man, describing an encounter which reaches its climax and resolution in an evocation of sexual interdependence;
- MP 82 In contrast to this assertive masculine presence, the female narrator of ‘Undine’ is a water-spirit, who, like Anderson’s Little Mermaid, can only acquire human status and a soul through ‘sexual encounter’. Like ‘Lovers on Aran’, the poem delights in the partnership of male and female, and indicates their potentiality for mutual fulfilment … The vigorous verbs and phrases – ‘slashed’, ‘shovelled up’, ‘ran quick’, ‘cleaned out’, ‘Running clear”,‘rippled’ and ‘churned’, ‘dug … deep’, ‘took me’ – stress that physical and artistic creativity depends on energy and responsiveness. Though guilty of clumsiness, ignorance, and, at times brutality, the male is blessed and sensitised with ‘subtle increase and reflection’ thanks to the forgiving, female deity.
- NC 22 Perhaps the most usual way poets devise to be anonymous is to turn to myth and legend (whether classical, Christian or folk-derived), and Heaney takes this path as well. In a rather self-conscious early poem called ‘Undine’ he writes in the voice of the water-nymph as she recollects her liberation from the earth … Though the sexual analogy becomes strained (‘He dug a spade deep in my flank / And took me to him. I swallowed his trench’), the poem 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. In this regard, Heaney makes use of folktale as well, summoning up the legend of the capture of a mermaid (‘Maighdean Mara’) to account for a woman’s suicide.
- MP 81 Much of the light and energy within the volume radiate from the poet’s sense of confirmation as husband, father and poet. In an important batch of poems, ‘The Forge’, ‘Rite of Spring’, ‘Undine’, ‘Outlaw’ and’ Lough Neagh Sequence’, Heaney celebrates the fertility of the human and animal world;
- 5 triplets in 8 sentences (S) including the colon; line length based on 10 syllables; Heaney’s experimentation with rhyme fades – 2 rhyming couplets only alongside in-line assonances
- rhythm changes are governed by rich enjambment and mid-line punctuation; the final line’s full stop permits Undine’s final judgment of her man;
- 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) introduces verbs of physical prowess and considerate nature; notion of female entitlement in play; water as the transmitter of shape and mood; the nymph is free to adopt whatever form she pleases; metaphor suggesting purity via removal of any previous life’s baggage (‘rust’)
- S2 a man stopped in his tracks and recognising the nymph for her fundamental qualities; (‘disrobed’) prepares for what will ensue;
- S3 (half line only) threat against Undine’s inner motivation allegorises the changing dynamics of getting-togetherness;
- S4 (fully enjambed and uninterrupted by punctuation) nymphly wiles pay dividends as outward threats materialize; allegorized sexual congress initiated by the male;
- S5 (to the colon) reciprocation indicated by changes in water shape (‘dispersing myself’) leads to deeply resonant effect on man (‘roots’) via his erectile function (‘brassy grain’);
- S6 (post colon, enjambed) sets out relationship-development that shifts the emphasis from assertive masculinity to wise womanhood;
- S7 relationship no longer specifically physical, both body and mind (‘explored’); commitment brings warmth but concedes independence; S8 note ellipses;
- 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 two triplets are dominated by front of mouth sounds: aspirate [h], breathy [w], alveolar [l], bilabial plosives [p] [b], labio-dental fricatives [f] [v], alongside alveolar plosives [t] [d ] nasals [n] [m], sibilants [s] [z] and velar plosives [k] [g];