Glanmore Revisited 7. The Skylight


Seamus Heaney and his wife did not always see eye to eye in the contested zone of Glanmore Cottage. Heaney recounts one battle (Marie was the one for skylights) that he lost … it happened behind his back! Initial shock is eventually replaced by acceptance of what he cannot reverse.

By nature Heaney disliked change: he saw something iconoclastic about taking a saw to Glanmore’s original wood ceiling (cutting into the seasoned tongue-and-groove of pitch pine); his writerly needs preferred something low and closed, a feeling of being enclosed (claustrophobic) in a private nest-up-in-the-roof.

No water leaks there (snuff-dry feeling) thanks to the carpentry (perfect, trunk-lid fit); warmth and security (all hutch), ideal for writing poetry (all …hatch); no need for heat insulation – he judged the cottage’s blue slates as effective as traditional sedge roofing (like midnight thatch) … perfection.

His return from a working stint at Harvard was greeted with a bombshell fait accompli: a skylight built and in place (the slates … off). He suffered shell-shock  (surprise wide open …for days), torn between violation and illumination (extravagant sky entered).

Faced  with the aftermath, an ultimately remorseful Heaney lifted up his eye to heaven, he says, and found restoration in the Bible story that told of the cripple (man sick of the palsy) lowered through the gospel equivalent of a skylight (through the roof) to confess his sins, be absolved (sin forgiven) and cured (healed), as a result of which he discarded his previous mindset (took up his bed) and said no more (walked away).

  • skylight: window-light set in roof or ceiling;
  • seasoned: pre[pared for building use;
  • tongue-and-groove: interlocking planks;
  • pitch pine: hard resinous timber;
  • claustrophobic: irrational fear of confined spaces;
  • snuff-dry: very dry indeed
  • trunk: large box with hinged lid;
  • hutch: small container for animals;
  • hatch: both small opening and place where eggs incubate;
  • extravagant: unrestrained, excessive;
  • man sick of the palsy: the New Testament Gospels recount how Jesus healed a cripple at Capernaum;

Heaney discussed the event with DOD (326):  I used to very much like claustrophobic condition – facing the wall with a low-set ceiling. In the cottage, we had this lovely old low ceiling and one of the things that Marie and I disagreed about was a skylight. She liked the idea and I said, ‘No’ …I came back from Harvard one time and went upstairs in the cottage – there was a skylight! Actually, it was a tremendous change for me; again something to do with getting near fifty: I lifted up my eyes to the heavens!

MP (221): it is his wife’s insistence on a skylight in their Wicklow retreat which results in yet another burst of air and illumination, admitting wonder; cutting into the pitch pine’ is an act of liberation, rather than violation. Once more the ‘lapsed’ poet is compelled into biblical allusion (the man sick of the palsy) … Perhaps the only afterlife is the one created by the Imagination, he suspects, yet, paradoxically, the more space Heaney puts between himself and orthodox belief, the less embarrassed he is speaking of souls and spirits.

  • sonnet (8 + 6); volta after l.8 moves the poem from poetic retreat to bombshell and new illumination;
  • lines based on 10 syllables; the octet is rhymed abab ccdd; the sextet largely unrhymed;
  • 8 sentence structure; frequent punctuation dictates the phrasing of the octet; enjambed in the sextet provides a much more legato flow;
  • personal pronouns: ‘you’ and ‘I’ where different views are held;
  • use of compound adjectives;
  • triple actions in the final line is an effective ploy;
  • 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 Glanmore sonnets: thirteen assonant strands are woven into the 7 texts; 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 lines might interweave bilabial plosives [b][p], front-of-mouth sounds [f] [h] [y] [w] and sibilant variants [s] [z] [ts]; the sounds will be heard as the poem is read;
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;