Victorian Guitar

                                                                For David Hammond

                                        Inscribed ‘Belonged to Louisa Catherine Coe before

                                        her marriage to John Charles Smith, March 1852.’

Heaney’s ingenious little poem dips into a period when social etiquette was in its ascendancy, when, within middle-class families, so called ‘Victorian’ values such as chastity and modesty were paramount and where rules for social behaviour regarding courtship and marriage were strict and rarely deviated from.  An inscription triggers Heaney’s interest and his imagination does the rest.

The poet’s examination of a century-old guitar owned and played by his entertainer friend David Hammond and the coldness of the dedication it carries generate a comparison between Hammond’s electrifying technique and Heaney’s image of the influence overbearing Victorian men insisted upon within their middle-class marriages.

Unsurprised (I expected) that the presentation of the instrument was formally recorded (date of the gift) and celebrated as some kind of sacred event (christening) Heaney sees the inscription’s style as reflecting a marital restraint on the wife (more like the plate on a coffin) – the guitar ‘belonged’ to her, she came to ‘belong’ to her husband – a dutiful bride (not light) trained to become a chattel by ceding to her spouse (cancelled by him)  both birth name and (far more) ceasing from the moment she climbed into the marital bed (on the first night) to lead her previous guitar-owning existence.

Heaney concludes (I believe) that, in line with his rather pompous name (John Charles Smith), either he had no taste for music or the shadow of a talented wife or that as a cold-fish he did not enjoy intimacy (your touch) – Heaney leaves both options open (did not hold with fingering) hinting perhaps that his hands were too podgy to produce pure notes from the restricted size of the instrument (obviously a lady’s). Perhaps in support of his ‘erogenous’ angle Heaney creates the slightly daring pictorial hybrid that might appeal to Hammond’s personality (sound-box trim as a girl in stays), its fret-board responsive to the slightest digital dexterity (neck right for the smallest span).

The final questions are addressed to the dutiful Louisa: could she known what would become of the instrument (keep track); could she ever have imagined that one day Hammond would extract from that same guitar the stimulating resonances she never enjoyed (time of its life).

  • David Hammond (1928-2008), much admired Northern Irish writer, singer, teacher, songwriter, historian, musician, film-maker and broadcaster; close friend of Marie and Seamus Heaney who collaborated with the poet on BBC radio. Heaney’s Field Work collection of 1979 includes ‘The Singers House’ about Hammond’s holiday home in Gweebarra and his final collection ‘Human Chain’ (2010) includes ‘The Door was Open’, a ‘dream’ poem dedicated to him; Heaney loved Hammond’s conviviality and companionship and on the occasion of his memorial service in August 2008 told how, at the Singer’s House on the Wild Atlantic Coast, he spent many happy days at the annual “David Hammond Summer School of Revelry and Rascality”.
  • lettering: the font, writing style used on an inscription;
  • christening: Christian ceremony of welcome;
  • plate: metal plaque bearing an inscription;
  • maiden name: original name of a woman who bears her husband’s after marriage;
  • cancel: erase, set aside;
  • touch: one of the five senses; also technique;
  • to hold with: approve, endorse;
  • sound box: hollow chamber of a stringed instrument that produces resonance;
  • trim: slim, slender, in good order;
  • stays: two-piece, stiffened corset that slims the body;
  • neck: long thin board on which the frets sit;
  • span: the distance edge to edge;
  • keep track: follow, keep a record of;
  • the time of your life: period of exceptional pleasure;


  • 5 triplets (T) in 6 sentences (including colons and dashes); line length between 8-11 syllables; rhyme pattern rather than scheme with a single rhyme in almost all the triplets alongside assonant or alliterative effects to carry the rest;
  • the combination of punctuation and enjambment dictates flow and rhythm within the oral delivery potential,  governing pace or pause;
  • Heaney will show his disapproval of ‘belonged’ in particular and make it clear he has taken against the husband’s name appearing in full on an item that he has come to own by marriage;
  • T1 (in 1 sentence): personal pronoun ‘I’ – Heaney is very much involved; contrast – a creative item supposed to offer pleasure presented as a kind of obituary- birth/death ‘christening’/ ‘coffin’;
  • T2 (in 2 sentences): reflection on Victorian marriage – lady (her full name) who as sacrificed identity and control over her tastes;
  • T3 (half sentence as far as colon); negative judgment of husband figure deemed both staid and cold-fish; possible hints of the erogenous cannot be ruled out;
  • T4: (half sentence) reflecting on the diminutive size of the instrument; comparison – its female torso shape presented as a slightly vulgar caricature of Victorian sauciness; parts of instrument named;
  • T5 (double questions addressed to the lady): was your life really as controlled as Heaney reckons; could she imagine the excitement and intimacy drawn from the instrument by a skilled modern performer;              


  • 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 two triplets is dominated by alveolar plosives [t] [d ], nasals [n] [m] and velar plosives [k] [g] alongside a cocktail of front of mouth sounds: aspirate [h], breathy [w], alveolar [l], bilabial plosives [p] [b], labio-dental fricatives [f] [v];

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