La Toilette

The early-morning embrace of a loved one recalls unwelcome memories of Heaney’s Catholic training. The die is cast, however: Marie’s is Heaney’s new sacred body.

Initial sensual contact focuses on the nightwear and body of a woman engaged at her ‘toilette’. The speaker’s voice reveals the excitement generated by the way she presents herself: bathrobe/ ungirdled, first coldness of the underbreast . At this moment of physical pleasure he cannot prevent the accessories of Catholic worship from interrupting the intimacy he is enjoying, touch is like a ciborium in the palm.

He shakes his head at the Catholic message that they no longer believe in (Remember?); it was coldly dismissive of the physical closeness, allure and sexuality he is now enjoying as one half of a loving couple. Their bodies are not God’s, they are their own. They are each other’s.

He lends a mockingly seductive if irreverent dimension to holy vessels and vestments: deep split drapes and priest with chasuble/ so deftly hoisted. The religious world in which words and training had their particular resonance is a thing of his past: Heaney’s wife is the ‘new’ divine mouthpiece; he thanks her for introducing him to experiences he loves: vest yourself/ in the word you taught me (The ‘Our Father’ is often introduced as the prayer that Jesus taught us and the ‘Word’ is the word of God).

The trappings of the Organised Church are no match for her secular, sensual world of slub silk.

  • toilette: a French word summing up the process of washing and dressing;
  • ciborium: a Catholic cup-shaped holy vessel that holds the host during Eucharist services (as ciborium is to symbolic ‘bread’, so chalice is to ‘wine’);
  • Italics: ‘ know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?1 Corinthians 6:19 King James Bible
  • drape: fitted textile sleeves;
  • chasuble: a priests formal ‘outer’ garment;
  • vest: archaic, biblical style usage‘ to clothe yourself’, ‘to put on’;
  • slub: descriptive of a silk process; the slub provides silk with a particularly tactile texture appropriate in a poem where touch is at the source of pleasure;
  • Heaney is free to relish sensuous experience – a seductive glimpse of a sacred body, a delicious mouth-music(MP185).
  • three quatrains; six sentence construct including questions; emphasis on shared experiences; no formal rhyme scheme but loose rhymes in the first six lines;
  • line length between 6 and 8 syllables;
  • sensous sometimes sensual vocabulary of intimacy interspersed with religious references outside the world of the senses; plentiful references to dress;
  • parody of prayer: the word you taught me;
  • the adverbs of Q3 have intimate overtones; example of triple adjectives;
  • use of vocative address form;
  • the music of the poem: twelve principal 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: Q1uses bilabial [w] and sibilant [s]; Q2 combines voiceless and voiced alveolar plosives [t] and [d]; the initial [t] of Q3 is replaced by soothing sibilants [s];

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