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 they approach an emblematic Irish pump, long since replaced by mains water (in the long grass); the child knows not to speak (in silence).
The father belongs to the generation that installed the pump; he can still ‘hear’ the shaft being constructed (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 aftermath of readily available drinking water (women coming with white buckets) female water-carriers resembling birds (flashes on their ruffled wings).
The father figure instinctively knows there is a pleasure awaiting discovery: 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 creature is fleshed out: its colouring (finch-green, speckly white), its particular reason for being there (nesting), the unwelcome shock that has disturbed its calm (suffering the light).
The father seeks to to restore the bird’s sense of home and security (roofed the citadel) … the child eager to take her turn discovers that the bird has gone (single egg, pebbly white).Yet it can still be seen (in the rusted bend of the spout) given away (tail feathers splayed) but standing its ground (sat tight).
For a tender, caring father there is a lesson to impart: his child’s notions of grown-up adulthood (when you have grown away) may well fall short of her expectations (very centre of the empty city). Should that be the case he urges her to recall the authentic memories of her rural past (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 a childhood 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: yhirteenassonant 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];