The Sounds of Rain


                                                               in memoriam Richard Ellmann

Richard David Ellmann: prominent American literary critic;  biographer of the Irish writers James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, and William Butler Yeats. Ellman died in Oxford in 1987.

Each panel of the triptych is framed within the sound of rain. Its centre-piece II showcases a fellow Nobel laureate and an academic from Harvard days … the poet reflects on comments they made. The side panels are rain-soaked: in I, as the poet emerges from sleep (then came to), Heaney is visited by mourning voices; in III, as he awaits sleep he likens the mighty power of water to the potential magnum opus rising to the surface of the artistic mind.


The poet’s sleep has been disturbed by the all-night drubbing of rain and the threat of flooding (overflow). His threshold consciousness (I dwelt without thinking) took in its persistent sound (the long moil of it) and daybreak confirmed the deluge (dripping eaves and light).

The words of respected fellow authors have been on his mind (saying into myself) –  attributable comments (Proven) and post mortem (weightless sayings of the dead); his Ulster dialect consoles him: You’ll have to thole.

  • drubbing: from Arabic word meaning ‘beating’; also possible portemanteau word combining sounds dripping, drumming
  • moil: v. French mouiller to wet, saturate; different usage : toil ,drudgery
  • eave: protruding edge of a roof
  • proven: attested, time-honoured
  • thole: (Ulster usage) endure, grin and bear it; 


Standing in Pasternak’s home at Peredelkino near Moscow Heaney reaches for the circumstances that dictated a change of direction in the Russian’s work … It could have been

A man is lost in pleasant thought (reverie), looking out into a waterlogged scene (drenched weedy gardens at the most depressing time of year (late-winter gloom), stimulated by the interior decoration (tangerines) and alcohol (the clear of vodka) … a presence (Pasternak), an ‘interviewer’ and a fly-on-the-wall Irish poet.

The voice Heaney recognizes is tolerant (lenient), rigorous (austere), self-controlled (answered for himself) and cordial (without insistence).

In recorded comments Pasternak  expressed a  feeling of an immense debt to those who supported him in his change of direction from lyric poetry and translating, His perceived duty to make a statement about his epoch resulted in his only novel, Doctor Zhivago judged by  Pasternak  with all its faults to have more value and to be richer, more humane than his early work.

Alternatively (Or), something said as Heaney took leave of a colleague at Harvard who lived in Athens Street. Amidst omnipresent precipitation (thaw and puddles … wet doorstep) Heaney recalls the comments of a scholar of Irish origin still alive in 1991 (William Alfred) with reference to an anonymous absentee who died at sixty.

Alfred’s elusive reference to Summer Tides  hints at a writer whose creative promise (a deepening …something ampler) was cut short … then time for bed … thanks for coming, Seamus, and take care: ‘Ah well/ Good-night again.

  • In her Northern Irish Poetry and the Russian Turn Stephanie Schwerter alludes to the two principal elements of Pasternak’s poetics as ‘sounds and ‘rain’ and further suggests the Pasternak poem My Sister – Life as the possible inspiration for  this Heaney poem; she further suggests that the elusive title ‘Summer Tides’ is a link with Ireland but cannot pinpoint it;
  • Peredelkino: dacha compound situated just to the southwest of Moscow, handed over to the Union of Soviet writers; Boris Pasternak settled there and is buried at the local cemetery; Heaney visited Peredelkino with his wife  in 1985 whilst visiting Yevgeny Yevtushenko in his home on the dacha complex;
  • reverie: daydream when pleasantly lost in thought;
  • tangerine: deep orange-red colour; alluded to in Pasternak’s Weeping Garden; a motif in Pasternak’s work;
  • Boris Leonidovich Pasternak(1890-1960), born in Moscow, Russia; awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958; son of talented artists: his father a painter and illustrator of Tolstoy’s works, his mother a well-known concert pianist. Pasternak’s education began in a German Gymnasium in Moscow and was continued at the University of Moscow. Under the influence of the composer Scriabin, Pasternak took up the study of musical composition for six years from 1904 to 1910. By 1912 he had renounced music as his calling in life and went to the University of Marburg, Germany, to study philosophy. After four months there and a trip to Italy, he returned to Russia and decided to dedicate himself to literature, publishing a number of poetry collections and translations of classical European plays including Shakespeare and Goethe ; particularly remembered for his only lyrical epic novel Doctor Zhivago;
  •  “When I wrote Doctor Zhivago I had the feeling of an immense debt toward my contemporaries. It was an attempt to repay it. This feeling of debt was overpowering as I slowly progressed with the novel. After so many years of just writing lyric poetry or translating, it seemed to me that it was my duty to make a statement about our epoch—about those years, remote and yet looming so closely over us. Time was pressing. I wanted to record the past and to honour in Doctor Zhivago the beautiful and sensitive aspects of the Russia of those years. There will be no return of those days, or of those of our fathers and forefathers, but in the great blossoming of the future I foresee their values will revive. I have tried to describe them. I don’t know whether Doctor Zhivago is fully successful as a novel, but then with all its faults I feel it has more value than those early poems. It is richer, more humane than the works of my youth.” Pasternak in conversation with Cynthia Haven, posted on Stanford University’s Book Haven in July 2015
  • lenient: forgiving, tolerant; he was tall and thin hence, perhaps, the ‘lean’ sound;
  • austere: stern, strict;
  • thaw: transformation from frozen to liquid state
  • William Alfred: Harvard University medievalist and playwright of Irish parentage (1922-99); teacher of English drama and literature courses; lived at 21 Athens Street, Cambridge MA;
  • deepening: greater intensity, increasing darkness
  • ampler: with more substantial, meatier content;


The summer storm of rain and sound with a human face (The eaves a water-fringe and steady lash) repeats messages about Heaney’s good fortune (steeped in luck … Steeped, steeped, steeped in luck)

Heaney is listening to a more powerful water-swell (flood … gathering from under), portentous (boding) and waiting (biding) to gush out like a blockbuster masterwork or the work of a leading light (a named name) that cannot be contained (overbrims itself).

In conversation with Henri Cole the poet accepted the extension of the metaphor to himself: I still think I have been inordinately lucky. I regard first of all the discovery of a path into the writing of poems as luck. And the salute that my early poems received and the consequent steadying of direction and identity in my life all coinciding with, as you say, love—I do regard it as a real benediction. And, of course, there’s the whole matter of friendships and family solidarity and the trust of cherished ones. (Paris Review, Seamus Heaney, The Art of Poetry No.75)

  • fringe: border, loose edge;
  • lash: whip, flay;
  • steep: soak in liquid, saturate, marinate;
  • bide: wait
  • bode: portend;
  • masterwork: masterpiece, outstanding work;
  • name: leading light
  • overbrim: overflow;


  • 3 pieces in six sextets based on 10 syllable lines; unrhymed;
  • I in two sentences the first a legato of enjambed lines;
  • dialect words: ‘moil’, ‘thole’
  • voiced plosive [d] provides the heavyweight sound and alveolar [l] adds length ‘long moil’;
  • unusual propositional use ‘into’
  • II has 3 sextets the first lyrical with a punctuation/ enjambment balance, the second and third based on direct speech with copious punctuation, starts and re-starts;
  • Comparisons using relatives ‘more…’, ‘richer’, ‘deepening’;
  • unusual model auxiliary tense ‘repeated ‘could have been’ suggests the uncertain source of poetic association; ‘would have been’ the professional forecasts of an academic
  • III in 2 sentences;
  • repetition of steeped might well be a sound effect like the repeated bilabial plosive [b] of ‘biding and boding and the slightly irregular frequency of nasal [m] in the final couplet
  • double preposition ‘from under’ without supporting noun;
  • italics differentiate between Heaney’ inner comments and the words of his celebrities;


  • 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: twelve 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;
  • the lines of III, for example interweave bilabial plosives [p] [b], alveolar plosives [t] [d],velar plosive [k][g] sibilant variants [s] [z] [sh] and labio dental fricatives [f] [v]; alveolar trill [r]and approximant [l];
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;