On the face of it Heaney sets out on a kind of botanical meditation delivered with the nonchalant ease of a teacher on a nature walk talking of things that his lifelong curiosity has brought to his attention. However the narrative unearths a subtext of Irish history, geology, flora and nationhood beyond the confines of Castledawson. Heaney’s imagination lights upon natural forms and shapes from both childhood and adult experience, ones which articulate the identity of the whole of Ireland, and not merely his own (MP84).
For Heaney the ever present bush (all year round) boasts its best light both out of season (blossom or two) and at its splendid best (in full bloom now).
To illustrate the whin’s sheer profusion the natural colour match he finds (small yolk stain) would exhaust its every source (all the birds’ eggs … all the nests) to meet peak demand (spring) decking out (spiked and hung) the superabundant frieze of blossom (everywhere … bushes) reaching its pinnacle (ripen).
The wider landscape (hills) celebrates the colours of the Irish flag (oxidizes gold), enjoys the nascent fervour of new growth (smoulder of green shoots) above the unproductive (dross) barrenness (dead thorns underfoot) now seared with yellow (blossoms scald).
Botany and allegory join forces: the spark of lightning strike or arson (a match under whins) guarantees instantaneous combustion (go up of a sudden) as Ireland’s troubled history past and present so clearly shows.
Not always immediately visible (no flame in the sun) the blaze creates a ferocious shockwave (fierce heat tremor). Whether natural or sectarian, the flare up (incineration like that) will only alleviate the immediate symptoms for a while (takes the thorn) whilst the main entities survive to pursue their beliefs (tough sticks don’t burn) … with the durability of ossified remains (like bone) burnt and all but petrified (charred horn).
So, Heaney suggests, think ‘whinlands’, think a land where the whin is prolific, think ‘Ireland’. He sets out the allegorical correspondences: richly overlaid (gilt); able to inflict injury (jaggy); resilient (springy); delicate around the edges (frilled); held back by circumstances (stunted); from arid yet splendid roots (dry richness); tenacious (persists); largely rural (hills) with man-made features (stone ditches) … and, when push came to shove, brought by its razor-edged societal mix (flintbed) to the point of violence (battlefield)!
- whin (word of Scandinavian origin): wild bush with sharp thorns and small, yellow flowers; its name is used commonly in Scotland and Ireland in place of ‘gorse’ or ‘furze’; whin grows on otherwise barren land, in sandy soil with good sun exposure; it has glossy green leaves, spines, and grows as a low shrub where not much else grows; in the spring it has bright yellow flowers. The whin lends itself readily to allegory – it is likely to survive and sprout after a fire; in fact it is exceedingly flammable and may well have adapted specifically to survive sporadic fires, particularly those from lightning strikes;
- – lands adds the notion of unbounded, expansive tracts of Irish landscape;
- full bloom: with its flowers fully open
- yolk: yellow internal part of a bird’s egg or poultry eggs
- stain: coloured patch, blotch;
- spiked: formed into a cover of sharp points
- ripen: reach maturity;
- oxidize: go through a chemical reaction by combining with oxygen;
- smoulder: burn with smoke but no flame
- shoot: fresh new growth, tendril;
- dross: worthless matter, chaff;
- thorn: stiff sharp-pointed projection
- scald: injure with hot liquid or steam;
- match: specially tipped wood that ignites when rubbed against a rough surface
- of a sudden: in a flash;
- tremor: involuntary quivering, trembling movement;
- incineration: burning to ashes;
- stick: thicker stem;
- bone: hard whitish tissue as of a skeleton;
- charred: burnt and blackened;
- horn: hard outgrowth resembling bone;
- gilt: covered with a thin gold leaf or gold-coloured veneer
- jaggy: with sharp projections;
- springy: elastic, stretchy
- frilled: fluted, pleated;
- stunted: prevented from growing properly;
- flintbed: geological stratum of hard greyish-black stone from which stone-age tools were fashioned; there were deposits in both Co Derry and Co Antrim in Northern Ireland;
- battlefield: site of ancient hostilities hiding the possibility of archaeological findings;
- MP(84) After the sensual richness of Death of a Naturalist, Heaney developed a taste for the austere sublime, influenced in part perhaps by his painter friends, such as T. P. Flanagan, and perhaps partly in response to the Hughes of Wodwo. Like Hughes’s ‘Thistles’, the humble gorse blossom in ‘Whinlands’, is ablaze with identity, spikily determined to hold its ground. Through nature’s alchemy, the hills are covered with oxidised gold. The ‘small yolk stain’ of each bush, which is multiplied many times over, emphasises the fertility, resilience and lyric beauty of this particular feature of the Irish countryside;
- The primeval, and sometimes pre-Celtic landscapes of ‘The Peninsula’, ‘Whinlands’, ‘The Plantation’, ‘Shoreline’ and’ Bogland’ all illustrate Heaney’s increasing concern with Irish geography, history and archaeology, and how ‘home’ now means something greater than the Mossbawn microcosm (id) … this ‘old dark’ of history and prehistory begins to be read out of the Irish landscape, in a way that points forward to some of the central poems in the two subsequent volumes, Wintering Out and North.
- the whin surfaces occasionally in poems set in both Northern Ireland and the Republic, Mossbawn and Glanmore: as a passing reference in Death of a Naturalist’s ‘Dawn Shoot’; as an emblem of beauty as POET salutes incoming summer in Electric Light’s ‘Glanmore Eclogue’, as a memory of pinpoints of the whin’s yellow colouring woven into his Aunt Sarah’s tweed clothing in District and Circle’s ‘Home Help’; as part of Ireland’s rich flora A Herbal 3,a sequence that features plants in their natural environment with human voices, emotions and distinct personalities;
- 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 ;
- 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 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;