The pilgrim has walked down to the water-line and felt soothed by just looking at it. The clear barometer of the water has brought relief from the issues that trouble him.
There he sensed a presence un-reflected in the water (because a ghost has no mass to reflect). Hearing the sound of his name was unexpected: entering into my concentration/ on not being concentrated when he spoke; his reluctance to face the caller stems from his recognition of the man’s voice and recollection of his fate.
The shock … at what I saw is etched on his memory: the victim’s face is as it was after his murder: his brow … blown open above the eye and blood. Strathearn seeks to play it down: ‘Easy now … it’s only me. You’ve seen men as raw/ after a football match.
Suspicion of the late-night activities of men bent upon sectarian violence in Ulster intensifies as the narrative unfolds into a tense, visually compelling screen-play that will end in murder: a couple lying in bed; the initial disturbance: knocking, knocking. and it/ scared me; the cautious visual check: two customers … an old landrover with the doors open; the give-away of curtain drop; the wife’s frantic opposition lamenting and lamenting to herself; his terse response to her whingeing (the inner conflict of a man with a professional medical concern for the community); the persistence: the knocking shook me, the way they kept it up; verbal contact with the men and responses that play on his professional conscience; the false confidence generated by recognition; the fateful decision to go downstairs despite his inner fears: the quiet hit me worse.
The wife changes tack, more resigned though afraid: the eyes standing in her head; remembrance of a final sign of affection: something/ made me reach and squeeze her hand; the sinking feeling; the acuteness of his sense of smell at a moment of threat; his final fateful action: open up.
Heaney establishes that no reason was given, that the killers wore no distinctive uniform. Strathearn sums them up: they were literally and metaphorically barefaced (unmasked and shameless), hard-line executioners:(shites thinking they were the be-all and the end-all).
Their later conviction and imprisonment can be of no consolation to a murder victim.
Heaney portrays Strathearn as he knew him: big-limbed, decent, open-faced, capable of emotion now welling up in his spoiled head expressing affectionate memories of the Heaney he knew as a young man: the figure he cut, his coming-of-age.
The poet sees clean-living integrity: hardly aged … athlete’s cleanliness … still the same, a rangy midfielder (from their joint soccer-playing days), the one stylist in the team… the perfect, clean, unthinkable victim of senseless sectarian hatred.
Overcome by self-reproach Heaney seeks pardon, deploring his own failure of public utterance in response to outrage: the way I have lived indifferent / … my timid circumspect involvement.
Strathearn’s departure is unforgettably poignant and intense: he asks pardon for his appearance and then a stun of pain seemed to go through him/ and he trembled like a heatwave and faded.
- William Strathearn, a pharmacist, was murdered in 1977 by two Royal Ulster Constabulary officers, John Weir and Billy McCaughey at his pharmacy in Ahoghill; they wrongly suspected him of belonging to the Irish Republican Army; his killers were later convicted of his sectarian murder and sentenced to life imprisonment;
- landrover: a sturdy, British 4-wheel drive vehicle first launched in 1948; it could be driven in most terrains and was recognizable as used by army and police;
- whingeing: complaining in a persistent manner;
- racket: used here with the sense of ‘disturbance’, ‘din’;
- barefaced: brazen, shameless;
- shites: synonymous with ‘shit’ meaning rubbish, of no value, no better than faecal matter;
- be-all and end-all: a sneering reference to the men’s huge feeling of self-importance;
- Austin: a British motor-car; its brand name was used between 1905 and 1987;
Stylistic deliberate paramilitary hints: open up, the end-all
- DODasks Heaney about the responses of murdered shopkeeper’s family to his poem.Heaney sets out the background and his poetic take on events; the family did not respond to the poem and he wouldn’t have expected it; in the poet’s mind Strathearn was anonymous and representative of many such assassinations with a sectarian motive; he was known in Bann Valley(p248);
- NC feels that the narration impels Heaney into a confession of what he regards his own evasive uncommitted politics (p116);
- In cantos VII, VIII, and IX Four dead men leave Heaney at his most exposed … each of them forces him to live their final moments, to scrutinise his conduct in the face of their deaths; exposure will lead Heaney via lame excuse through self-accusation to self-disgust and might be said to bea critical requirement of the pilgrimage which is to ‘chastise one’s own soul(MP p198);
- 27 triplets plus a single final line; 41 sentences of very variable length; flow and rhythm are dictated by degrees of punctuation and enjambed lines;
- line length based broadly around 9/ 10 syllables; a definite rhyme pattern based on aba cdc in each triplet plus the refinement of rhyming last and antepenultimate lines;
- T1-3: subjunctive tense used in comparison water/ barometer; unusual pattern of negatives as the victim materialises but only in the imagination;
- T4-6: vivid, livid description; use of direct speech re-creates the friendly character of the murdered man; the account of ‘what happened’ is launched: vocabulary of persistence and potential fear in the sense data;
- T7-9; interplay between data that offers him but not his wife some reassurance; dramatic build-up in the inter-reaction of the couple;
- T10-12: sound screenplay between the couple’s stressed dialogue and the persistent monotone of the assassin’s voice; paradox: those indoors are actually making the ‘racket’;
- T13-15: dramatic cinematic use of light effects to accompany appeals to professional conscience; moment of soundless limbo, calm preceding the storm;
- T16-19: rationalisation via questions; but any show of confidence masks the man’s foreboding; decency provides no detail of the critical moment;
- T20-21 dialogue heavy with negatives and anger …
- T21-23-24: … replaced by positive adjectives; character prefers to share his warm memories of his interlocutor at the time;
- T25-end: description becomes obituary provoking guilt in the speaker; the dematerialisation process is loaded with touch data;
- the music of the poem: thirteen 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:
- Analysis of Heaney’s poems reveals how deliberately he seeks alliterative effects that allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify his assonant melodies. Heaney deliberately deploys pairs or clusters of like consonants; these come and go as the poem develops, entering the sound narrative, dropping out or reappearing at interval; he rings the changes. The simplified phonetic table that follows will facilitate your own analysis. Consonant sounds are formed in various parts of the mouth; most of them come in pairs (and Heaney will often deploy both in combination in the same phrase or sentence or stanza): a voiceless version and a voiced version; for example [p] and [b] are identically formed but [b] requires input from the vocal chords whereas [p] is simply air modified by the lips.
- Front-of-mouth sounds and their phonetic symbols:
voiceless bi-labial plosive [p] voiced bi-labial plosive [b]; voiceless labio-dental fricative [f] voiced labio-dental fricative [v]; bi-labial nasal [m]; bilabial continuant [w]
- Behind-the-teeth sounds:
voiceless alveolar plosive [t] voiced alveolar plosive [d]; voiceless alveolar fricative as in church match[tʃ]; voiced alveolar fricative as in judge age [dʒ]; voiceless dental fricative [θ] as in thin path; voiced dental fricative as in this other [ð]; voiceless alveolar fricative [s] voiced alveolar fricative [z]; continuant [h] alveolar nasal [n] alveolar approximant [l]; alveolar trill [r]; dental ‘y’ [j] as in yet
- Rear-of-mouth sounds:
voiceless velar plosive [k] voiced velar plosive [g]; voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] as in ship sure, voiced post- alveolar fricative [ʒ] as in pleasure; palatal nasal [ŋ] as in ring/ anger.
- Sound it out for yourself and witness Heaney’s intricate sonic draughtsmanship.