A Basket of Chestnuts

Heaney reflects on the ‘meaning’ of the portrait of himself exhibited in the National Gallery of Ireland, focusing on a local-colour prop that does not actually appear in the finished panel.

Involuntary memory (shadow boost) has brought chesnuts into his mind: the random act of handling a loaded basket has conjured up a hazy, ill-defined occurence (giddy strange assistance)  swinging it revealed an interplay between gravity and weightlessness.

He considers the dynamic variation of mass and momentum (lightness …  diminish …  actual weight), picks out the split second at the apex of the lift when hands feel no pull (unburdened), as if left behind (outstripped), surprised (dismayed), redundant (passed through). Then, just as unexpectedly, comes bounce-back  (rebound), gravitational downthrust, and counter force comeback that give affirmation to Heaney’s celebrity (ratifying you).

He dredges up the properties of the iconic basket of chestnuts, each one part of the same team (really solid gather-up), in-place and shining (all drag and lustre), sumptuous and swollen (opulent and gravid), colour-rich (golden-bowelled as a moneybag).

He would have liked them to be painted to learn what value the artist’s vision (see beyond them) and palette (pigment) might have added or to learn how the artist might have felt (what the reach of sense despairs of) if the finished representation fell short of expectation (fails to reach it) or did not match his intended deftness (the thwarted sense of touch).

Focus moves to the painter and the moment (Edward Maguire … autumn of 1973).  Heaney chuckles … Maguire had requested the chestnuts possibly as an inducement to attract him (decoy) or as a mix-and-match of colour and shine (a coffer for the light) reproduced in his  footwear instead (captured in the toecaps of my shoes). As for the basket, Maguire left it out! It has no recorded existence (is not).

Maguire’s comeback is the finished portrait in the Ulster Museum, where creative spirits such as Heaney live on in the canvas that survives them (in oils and brushwork we are ratified).

The iconic basket-in-the-mind  has lost nothing (the basket shines and foxfire chestnuts gleam). Heaney has recorded in a poem for posterity the short time when Maguire was part of his life (passed through), unhindered (unburdened) and downbeat (dismayed).

The Shiver from from District and Circle of 2006 highlighted Seamus Heaney’s interest in the dynamics and physicality associated  with a farmyard sledgehammer. He demonstrated similar interest in the ‘scientific’ properties  in play when handling a pitchfork in Seeing Things.

  • chestnut: glossy brown fruit of the chestnut tree;
  • boost: source of help; injection of energy;
  • giddy: disorienting, dizzy;
  • assistance: both support and presence (French ‘assister’)
  • wing: convey quickly into the air;
  • split second: very brief moment;
  • outstrip: overtake, outrun;
  • rebound: bounce back, recoil;
  • comeback: correction;
  • downthrust: movement earthwards;
  • ratify: confirm, corroborate, validate, approve;
  • gather-up: harvest from the ground;
  • drag: not of aerodynamic shape;
  • lustre: soft glow;
  • opulent: lavish, luxurious
  • gravid: pregnant
  • bowelled: allusion to the fruit’s deep inner parts within the glossy husk;
  • pigment: natural colouring;
  • thwarted: frustrated, obstructed;
  • lose your touch: not be as good as you were;
  • Edward Maguire: misspelt by Heaney; see DOD entry below; Irish painter b. 1932 – d. 1986;
  • decoy: lure, inducement;
  • coffer: treasure chest;
  • foxfire: fairy light, bioluminescence sometimes found in decaying wood; allusion to the fiery red-brown colours of the fox family;
  • dismayed: the Old French esmaier ‘to trouble, disturb’ with its negative prefix offers possible clarification to the most elusive of a series of participles; Heaney’s linguistic knowledge was comprehensive;
  • It was actually commissioned by Ted Hickey, who was then Keeper of Art in the museum … as soon as the commission was confirmed, Edward arrived at our house, on the lookout for any props that might add a bit of character to the background or the foreground, and settled on this basket of chestnuts that I’d gathered, ‘golden­ bowelled as a moneybag’. But they don’t actually appear in the portrait … My notion is that he concentrated all the light he might have glossed over the skin of the chestnuts into the toes of my boots. If you look at the painting, you’ll see that the footwear is positively  lustrous  (DOD 328);
  • Heaney commented further on his inability to relax totally in Edward’s presence and Maguire’s manner, unfailingly friendly and fiercely funny, and his fondness for Guinness at any time of the day.
  • 7 quartets in 11 sentences; largely 10 or 11 syllable lines;
  • some evidence of a changing rhyme pattern xaay or bcbc  but no sustained scheme;
  • proliferation of punctuation implies short phrasing; Q5 and Q6 enjambed flow;
  • first person, autobiographical narrator
  • repeated words at top and tail: ‘passed through’, ‘unburdened’, ‘dismayed’;
  • compounds, so useful in expressing ideas succinctly;
  • associations that nuance the colour brown: ‘chestnut’,  ’golden’, ‘moneybag’, ’foxfire;
  • vocabulary that reflects the laws of physics in action;
  • repeated ‘ratify’ which has to do with self-assurance
  • 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:

  • 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;
  • for example, the first lines interweave bi-labial plosives [b] [p],nasals [m] [n], alveolar plosives [t] [d], sibilant variants [s] [z] and post alveolar fricatives [change] [chestnut];
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;