A further example of poet in transition: a father and his child witness a special natural phenomenon; the experience provides him with an example of ‘change’ and with it a snippet of wisdom to be stored for the future.
As in silence they approach an emblematic Irish pump, long since disused (in the long grass); the child knows not to speak.
The father belongs to the generation that installed the pump; he can ‘hear’ the bite of the spade that sank it, recall the mood of the stonemason as he embedded the pump: the slithering and grumble/ as the mason mixed his mortar. He pictures the women coming with white buckets, resembling birds with flashes on their ruffled wings.
He instinctively recognises there is something there: the minimal sound (clink) made as the cast-iron rims of the lid are removed excites a response from within the pump: something stirred in its mouth; the ‘something’ is identified: I had a bird’s eye view of a bird.
The scene is fleshed out: the bird’s colouring (finch-green, speckly white), its particular reason for being there (nesting), the sudden shock that has disturbed its calm (suffering the light).
Seeking to restore the bird’s sense of security the father roofed the citadel; the child eager to take her turn discovers that the bird had gone, leaving a single egg, pebbly white. The creature hides now in the rusted bend of the spout where, tail feathers splayed, it sat tight.
For the tender, caring father there is a lesson to impart: on the day when you have grown away you may come to realise that you are actually standing at the very centre of the empty city, having mistakenly believed that everything would be as anticipated. If and when that happens it would be good for her to have learnt that things change (for you to retrace this path).
- Heaney talked about it with DOD in answer to a question concerning the family’s move from Glanmore to Dublin and the urban upbringing to which this would expose his children: It did sadden me a bit, but there were compensations ( ) that reference to the empty city didn’t come from my own sense of what their future was going to be like. It’s an image from the I Ching, the book of changes ( ) (‘Change’) could signify the illusory nature of conquest or triumph: you take the citadel or town only to find there’s nothing there (p255);
- A poem with a you (an unnamed child, boy or girl, that Heaney is clearly fond of So, tender, I said..) and a ‘me’, himself;
- Heaney’s wisdom comes from age and experience: though they might both be looking at the same object (the pump), the poet can clearly remember the bite of the spade that sank it, the mason who built it and the women who drew water there;
- the pump, no longer active, now has a different function: it has become a nest. Thanks to his rural knowledge and poet’s curiosity, Heaney enjoys a special bird’s eye view;
- something serendipitous has occurred: the egg of the next generation is exposed to view;
- the lyric becomes a parable with a moral offered to the child;
- The paradox is that the highly populated city can prove soulless and, by implication, the sparsely populated countryside is ‘full’ (providing, of course, that you have learnt where to look);
- In the lyrics that follow … the poet renews the ‘covenant’ within his family linking achildhood long past with ones that are passing(MP p190);
- thirteen couplets arranged in five sentences; lines of variable length up to 10 syllables;
- balanced use of enjambment and punctuation; limited rhyme but no formal scheme;
- women compared to birds; the pump’s head to a fortress;
- involuntary memories provide a batch of sense data from the past, particularly sight and sound; the ensuing narrative offers others from the poem’s ‘present’;
- the final paternal advice encouraging realistic expectations is a touch sermon-like: ‘one day you will take the lid off the exciting city to find that there is nothing there’;
- the music of the poem: eleven 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: in ll.1-8 listen for paired voiceless and voiced velar plosive [k] [g]; paired bilabial plosives [p] [b], the introduction of bi-labial nasal [m] then pairs of continuant [w], voiceless velar plosive [k] and voiceless labio-dental fricative [f]; 9-15 begin, alongside [k], with alveolar plosives [t] [d] changing to labio-dental fricatives [f] [v] and increasing beats of voiceless alveolar plosive [t]; 16-22 add voiced alveolar fricative [dʒ] of ‘gently’ then bi-labial plosives [p] [b] and voiceless alveolar plosive [t], the latter carried into the final 4 lines with paired voiced velar plosive [g];