The epigraph is borrowed from James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: A batlike soul waking to consciousness of itself in darkness and secrecy and loneliness.
The final nouns defining the main ingredients of bat-like existence (shortage of light/ enlightenment; drawing back from human contact; isolation even outsider status) are equally the metaphorical embodiment of the creative spirit, be it a Joyce or a Heaney; these factors count amongst the issues hampering Heaney at this stage in his poetical development.
Placed here within a series of poems of transition the bat is a ‘soul-mate’, a liberating spirit.
You would (the repeated action perhaps of an anonymous companion on the rural walks of Heaney’s younger days) dislodge bats from their natural habitat using an old hat on the tines of a fork. Responses of the diminutive creature were predictable: slight/ bat-thump and flutter/ … babynails clawing the sweatband.
Fearing that his companion might seek to inhibit the bat the speaker issues a series of negative imperatives so that it may fly unimpeded and follow its instincts freely: don’t/ bring it down, don’t break its flight again,/ don’t deny it; effectively ‘let me see what it does’.
Its bat-flap takes it from its railway-tunnel hideaway towards human habitation; it shadowsmoonslicked laurels .. skims the lapped net on a tennis court keeping ahead ( ) in the road.Its bat flightfollows sudden, unpredictable movements: next thing … next thing …You keep swerving off.
Then, hinting at Heaney’s own search for a way ahead, comes the key question: What are you after? He might have put it differently: ‘Who are you exactly?‘ or ‘What exactly are you up to’?, or most significantly ‘Where are you leading me’. The bat-actions that follow offer insights into the poet’s own mindset.
Using its uncanny ultrasonic navigation system, flying blind over ashpits and netting wire, the bat is being drawn towards a female object of sexual desire: the brush of a word like peignoir, rustles and glimpses, shot silk. The carnal dimension is pursued as bat-like senses are inundated by the potential of sexual promise in human form: the stealth of floods/ So close to me I could hear her breathing.
The creature is unsettled, shifting location changing its shape: now peeping in by the lighted window behind trees/ it hangs in creepers, now a wet leaf blowing in the drive, now in the delicate flower shape of a plant that covers and chokes others: soft-deckled, shadow convolvulus.
There is a thrill in the air of unrestrained sexual activity beyond all expectation handed out by random women to the young male fantasy: Who would have thought it?At the white Gates/ She let them do whatever they liked.
The speaker comes to a realisation: there is no shame or guilt in being what one is or was: Cling there/as long as you want.There is nothing to hide.
- trawl to fish by dragging the net along the bottom of the sea, here the ceiling of the tunnel;
- sweatband: a strip sewn around the inside of a hat that protects it from human perspiration;
- (London) Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS): a railway company founded in 1923 eventually part of British Railways; many rural Irish railway lines were closed in the mid 1960s;
- peignoir: a French word to describe a woman’s dressing-gown often made of translucent material and worn in the intimacy of her bedroom after rising or before retiring for the night;
- shot silk: an attractive form of silk with a colour-change effect in changing light conditions.
- stealth: originally mid 13th century, ‘theft’, developed a further sense of ‘secret action’ (both are appropriate to the piece); students may read more into the idea of male secret activity in response to sexual feelings;
- flood: the literal sense of ‘overflowing of land by water’ suggests by extension something that overwhelms, inundates, e.g. the senses by sexual promise;
- deckled: in paper-making a ‘deckled’ edge would be rough and uncut. akin to the trumpet flowers of the convolvulus, a wild twining plant;
- the slang word ‘bat’ can be used to refer contemptuously to ‘prostitute’.
- Heaney is adept with prepositions: on the road in the title; in the road in the narrative. the use of on the road betrays Heaney’s intention of ‘going somewhere new’, of ‘being proactive’, ‘being on the way’;
- the epigraph occurs twice in Joyce’s novel. On the first occasion Stephen Dedalus’ friend Davin describes the pregnant peasant woman attempting to seduce him (Penguin ed. p198); on the second occasion (ibid p239) Stephen Dedalus is reacting to his long-standing unrequited ‘love’ for Emma.
- Heaney’s admiration for Joyce and his impact on the poet is cited by Jonathan Allison in his The Erotics of Heaney’s Joyce:There is an image I have often used of Joyce. He is like an immense factory ship that hoovers up all the experience from the bed of the Irish psyche. If you open Ulysses or A Portrait, or Dubliners, you are reading yourself. Seamus Heaney, Irish Times, 13 September 1984.
- Joyce’s original batlike souls were women but the instincts driving Heaney’s bat, not least its sexual impulses, seem to be those of the male;
- there are differing views of Heaney’s message: NC has described it as a ‘voluptuous poem about voluptuousness, A Bat on the Road proposes an erotic Joycean trope for the jouissance which such an increase in isolation might bring the poet taking the story of Davin’s bewildered encounter with the pregnant peasant woman … as an emblem for the seductive invitations ( ) of the poem’s own promise to its creatorPoets of Modern Ireland (p112);
- an epigraph followed by eight triplets; variable line-length between 7 and 12 syllables; no rhyme scheme;
- composed in 12 sentences the rhythm comes to echo the erratic flight and search of the bat; both adjectives and verbs provide powerful description of bat behaviour;
- initial anonymous addressee ‘you’; the personal pronoun is used twice more addressing the bat alongside the third person pronoun ‘it’;;
- ‘would’ reveals a habitual action; the roughness of the tunnel search is expressed via a undersea metaphor;
- close observation of the creature as it wakens;
- series of negative imperatives suggests that the speaker’s motivation differs from that of his companion;
- local colour via proper nouns;
- semi-darkness skilfully described : ‘shadows moonslicked’;
- vocabulary at once sensual and sensuous is added to the mix echoing the suggestiveness of the original Joyce;
- 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:
alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies: T1 combines continuant [h] with alveolar plosives [t] [d]; T2 offers paired voiceless velar plosive [k] adding voiced bi-labial plosive [b] carried into T3 with voiced alveolar plosive [d]; T4 adds sibilant weight [s] with voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] (sh) and nasals [m] [n]; T5 brings front-of-mouth sounds: voiceless labio-dental fricative [f], voiced labio-dental fricative [v] and frictionless bilabial [w]; T6 is heavy with [s] then multiple voiced alveolar plosive [d]; in T7 listen for [k] [v] [w] [s] and [ʃ] (sh); T8 beats with voiceless alveolar plosive [t] and velar plosives [k] [g];