A Peacock’s Feather

Spurred by his wife Heaney extemporized the poem (dated 1972) on the day his and Marie Heaney’s niece Daisy Garnett was christened. The child was the middle daughter of Marie’s sister Polly Devlin and her well-connected old-Etonian husband Andrew Garnett living in their stately home in Gloucestershire, England.

Polly Devlin describes it as ‘profound and delicate, strong and sub-texted, glowing with observation and truth’ (Writing Home).

The circumstances might actually have presented Heaney with moments of unease hidden in his carefully worded narrative: he is in a stately home that would have held different connotations back in Ireland not least for a modest farmer’s boy like himself. He knows the Devlin family very well (so must be careful to govern his tongue); he barely knows Daisy’s father. Heaney is a lapsed Catholic (and he will be careful to govern his tongue) – it is known that Garnett converted to Catholicism prior to or maybe even as a pre-condition of his marriage to Polly Devlin.

The poem starts with a significant religious event and ends with a very secular alternative.

Seamus and Marie Heaney attended the week-old baby’s baptism (water fell to christen you). The poet’s fingers are crossed that for this baby who would be raised as a Catholic baptismal expectations would be met (work its spell), that new start would erase anything that came before (wipe your slate) and match Seamus’ and Marie’s optimism (we hope, for good).

When all religious pomp and circumstance was said and done the baby retained its three basic needs (sleep, food and the reassuring contact of her mother’s touch of love) – plus, of course, the identity she now carries (Daisy, Daisy, English niece).

Heaney’s eye settles on his Cotswold surroundings: the manicured estate of a well-connected English father with its lyrical appeal (wooded and misty to my eye) and the contrast between mother Polly’s County Tyrone landscape and the child’s present and future prospects amidst grounds of fruitful mellowness, features of stately English standing (topiary, lawn and brick), in private ownership (possessed), sealed against outsiders (untrespassed, walled) and reminiscent of the kind of house one might find in the Irish countryside behind high walls (nostalgic).

Heaney the modest country boy teeters on the edge of his comfort zone (scraggy farm and moss) from somewhere more higgledy-piggledy (old patchworks), left bedraggled (left dishevelled) by centuries of upheaval (pitch and toss of history).

He would like the baby to know (for your sake) that he has made a special effort for the occasion, refining his rough rural Irish twang and manner (levelled my cart-track voice) to befit this upmarket setting (garden tones) and refurbishing his mid Ulster peat-digging setting (cobbled the bog) with exclusive local materials (Cotswold stones).

He reflects on chance and genealogy (ravelling strands of families) – the randomness of couples meeting (mesh in love-knots of two minds) and the outcome of mating (one flesh).

How things turn out for Daisy will be out of her hands (future’s not our own) but the two families will set out to get things right (weave an in-law maze), cordial (we’ll nod and wave) and principled if not bosom (trust but little intimacy).

‘Daisy’, he says, ‘here is my message of affection (billet-doux) recording time, place, ceremony, and early signs of your nature- smiling’. He tells her where and when he sat composing it – overlooking the scene he has described (west window) sensitive both to his writerly purpose and to the inferences that might be drawn from clumsy wording (self-consciously), late in the day (gathering dark) and feeling a touch of home-sickness (Coole Park).

Poised to leave the set of Daisy’s comfortable beginnings (your ordered home) Heaney offers her a prayer – his hope for rich yields (tilth and loam) from a bloodmix  (darkened with Celts’ and Saxons’ blood) that he hopes will foster (breastfeed) the baby’s appreciation of heritage (love of house and wood).

Not destined, perhaps, to be more than a ship in the night (as I pass) Heaney leaves Daisy a double keepsake: his poem, and his very secular good luck symbol discarded by an Indian bird fashionable in many English stately homes (peacock’s feather on the grass).

Polly Devlin was given away by Seamus Heaney at her marriage to Andrew Garnett in 1967. In her ‘Writing Home’ she described the circumstances of the Daisy poem: My sister Marie and her husband Seamus Heaney had just arrived from one of their many trips abroad and Marie was worried they hadn’t had time to get Daisy a christening present. ‘Go you and write a poem,’ she said to Seamus … he went upstairs and began the poem and half way through writing it we all went for a walk … and we came upon a fallen peacock’s feather. Seamus went back and finished the poem immediately … He was shy enough about it – his modesty was part of his character.

  • water: Holy font water in the Catholic Church used at christenings; the ceremony was linked to baptismal promises to the effect that the child will reject sin and all that leads away from God and devote his/her entire life to the Holy Trinity received at Baptism;
  • spell: words thought to have a magical effect; a profane alternative;
  • wipe the slate clean: signal a fresh start, start of something new (connotation of forgetting past differences);
  • touch: mother’s initially;
  • suffice: be adequate;
  • prospect: extensive landscape view; also chances of success or wealth;
  • mellow: rich and gently rolling;
  • topiary: shrub or tree clipped to an ornamental shape;
  • possessed: under private ownership;
  • untrespassed: without intruders;
  • walled: surrounded by high walls for security or to create mini-climate; feature of wealthy properties;
  • nostalgic: wistful, evocative of past feelings;
  • scraggy: scrawny, meagre;
  • moss …bog: references to the peat deposits around Mossbawn;
  • patchwork: composed of small elements of different colours and textures;
  • pitch and toss: game part skill part luck; ups and downs of fortune;
  • dishevelled: of disordered neglected appearance;
  • sake: good, benefit;
  • level: flatten, take the potholes out of;
  • cart-track: rough, narrow dirt road;
  • cobble: surface with small rounded stones;
  • Cotswold stones: the Cotswolds is a rural area of south central England principally in Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire; area of rolling hills and grassland with thatched medieval villages, churches and stately homes built of distinctive local yellow limestone
  • ravel: (n) tangle, knot;
  • strand: single length;
  • mesh: form a network;
  • love-knot: tie, bond of love;
  • maze: complex network with entrance and exit;
  • trust: faith, reliance;
  • intimacy: closeness;
  • billet-doux: letter/ message of love;
  • .. court: Manor house of 1650; stately home set in its own grounds with many period features;
  • self-conscious: uneasily self-aware;
  • gather: accumulate, come together;
  • Coole Park: symbol of Irishness – nature reserve located a few miles west of Gort in County Galway; managed by the Irish NP&W Service, part of the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.
  • ordered: well organized, well laid-out, well-regulated;
  • tilth: prepared ground;
  • loam: fertile ground;
  • peacock’s feather of wide symbolic value: kindness, compassion, good luck, patience and benevolence; love, good-will and kindness; emblematicof immortality amongst  the ancients;


  • 6 sextets in 12 sentences; line-length 7-9 syllables; rhyme scheme aabbcc ddeeff etc;
  • a number of sentences totally enjambed;
  • language emphasizing culture shock – posh English ‘topiary’ – mid-Ulster gambling games ‘pitch and toss’, ‘Cotswold stone’ and Castledawson ‘moss’;
  • occasional pun: ‘spell’ something magic or something holy; ‘court’ courtyard and place where courtiers surround royalty;
  • reference to Coole Park is not the most convincing line penned by a poet seeking a rhyme!
  • assonant effects: [ei] days…slate…Daisy…landscape…maze…wave… say…lay…pray…may; [ai] wipe…life… suffice……shire…lie; [i:] we… sleep…Daisy…misty…we’ll weave…Bradley…green…be…before… leave… breastfeed…peacock; [əʊ] hope…topiary…old…tones…stones…own… so…window…home…loam; [ʌ] good…touch of love suffice… wooded…untrespassed…come…blood…love:[u] to…you…food…two… doux… July you…Coole; [ɒ]cobbled the bog with Cotswold…drop… peacock…on; [ɔː] lawn…walled…in-law…warm…ordered…your; [i] its…misty…this…brick…with little intimacy… this is a billet-doux;
  • alliterative chains: front of mouth [l] [w][h]; reprises of alveolar [t/d], bilabial [p/b], velar [k/g] nasals [m/n], sibilants [s/z/sh], labio-dental [f/v];


  • Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to.
  • 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;
  • syllables without highlight are largely the unstressed sound as in common, little [ə]

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats, soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies; this is sonic engineering of the first order;
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;


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