Beauty is fragile but it has a way of surviving the imaginative strategies of an inexperienced young gardener.

The piece’s launch mimics the colloquial question asked half a century ago of people whose approach to a task turned out to be short-sighted:’ What did Thought do?(A typical response might have been ‘he followed a muck-cart and thought it was a wedding’ or even ‘he stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni’.) Heaney offers his variation: ‘Stuck/ a feather in the ground and thought/ it would grow a hen.’

Preparation of the sweet-pea patch is sound enough: its regular spacing, rod by rod we pegged the drill; its plant supports: light brittle sticks, twiggy and unlikely; its well fertilised soil: in fresh mould.

To the eyes of the youngster the regular pruning of the flowers (stalk by stalk we snipped/ the coming blooms), a routine rural practice to encourage greater yield, inflicted injury on the delicate plant to be seen in its inscrutable face: pain/ … haircracked her old constant vestal stare.

His good intention had been (as he ‘clutches at straws‘ in search of vindication) to offer the sweet-pea a more comfortable existence by providing sight of the sky through a mat of creepers (he likens it to the freedom of water passing unhindered through the webs of a green net),freeing space in which he is sure the plant will rejoice, a clearing where her heart sang, if only now and again: without caution or embarrassment, once or twice.

  • drill: a gardening term indicating the line along which seeds, bulbs or tubers are separately sown;
  • allegorically the poem hints at the struggle that fragile things including artistic creativity itself face hampered by clumsy treatment;
  • an unusually formed sonnet using three half lines in its five sentence construct; free verse;
  • wide variation in line-length;
  • initial childlike assumption based on a childish saying;
  • an objective picture of horticultural practice reveals some gardening skills;
  • childlike responses recalled lend a soul to the flower; ceramic reference to pain;
  • purity expressed via classical reference;
  • the improvement to the plant’s lot centres round an appropriately horticultural idiom ‘clutch for straws’ that implies that there is little substance in the youngster’s theory;
  • 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:

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies: ll. 1-4 pair plosives: alveolar [t] and velar [g]; 5-10 adds trill [r] and alveolar [d], then fricatives: alveolar [s] and post-alveolar [ʃ] alongside nasals [n] [m]; 11-17 use velar plosive[k], fricatives [s] [z], a pair of voiceless dental fricatives [θ], paired frictionless [w] then velar [k] together with the palatal nasal [ŋ] of present participles.

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