As early as Blackberry Picking with his family in Death of a Naturalist (1966) child-Heaney discovered perishability In the world around him, laws of mutabilty that reduced stored treasure to decomposition, pleasurable blackberries to ‘rat-grey fungus’. The experience offered him two lessons, firstly that nothing remains in its perfect state for long and secondly that moments of poetic charge from whatever source can and do spark an involuntary welling up of emotional consciousness within him.
The heart-on-ones-sleeve responses of that early poem are replaced, in the metaphysical parable of Hailstones, by the outcome of a childhood experience in which ice melted into nothing and how its nothingness in the mind of a child destined to become a poet became an ‘absence explored now by the poet in his late forties.
Child Heaney describes in the way of a child the unprecedented, painful assault on his five-year-old body (my cheek was hit and hit) by pellets of frozen rain (sudden hailstones) energised by a squall (pelted and bounced on the road). Once the hail storm ceased (cleared again) something began to fade immediately – both stinging pain and consciousness of a hidden lesson (something whipped and knowledgeable).
The boy turned his attention to what was lying there (my chances). He collected and compacted the icy pellets (small hard ball) only to discover a contradiction: melting ice inflamed his fingers (burning water running from my hand) and body heat reduced the ball to nothing.
Forty years on he is creating a poem (just as I make this now) transmuting the disappeared 1940s’ ice-ball (melt of the real thing) into chapped memory of its living moment (smarting into its absence).
- hailstone: pellet of frozen rain;
- pelt: fall quickly and heavily;
- bounce: rebound;
- whipped: lashed struck painfully;
- knowledgeable: knowing a lot, informative, containing a lesson
- withdraw: leave the scene;
- chance: opportunity;
- melt: turn from solid to liquid state,
- smart: sting, tingle;
- absence: non-presence, omission, gap
- 4 triplets in 3 sentences; variable line length 3-10 syllables; unrhymed;
- rich in enjambed lines;
- assonant effects: [i] hit…hit… something whipped…withdrawn… thing…smarting into its; [əʊ] stones…road; [ɔː] drawn…small…ball…water; [ɑː] hard…smarting;
- alliterative chains: front of mouth[h], [l],[w]; reprises of alveolar [t/d], bilabial [p/b], nasals [m/n], sibilant [s]
For a primary school-age youngster hailstone squalls impacted negatively (to be reckoned with): they resembled unruly children (those brats of showers); they kept him in detention at playtime (refused permission); they were attention-seekers (rattling the classroom window); they reminded him of corporal punishment in school (a ruler across the knuckles). Above all, the youngster noted, they were pristine when they landed (perfect first) but quickly impaired (in no time dirty slush).
An early author of childhood experience, mystical poet Thomas Traherne, delighted in the orient wheat that credited his world (proof and wonder).
Nothing so high-flown for young Heaney and his pals around Castledawson (for us) – just things things that gave pain (sting of hailstones) and things that felt no pain – the unstingable hands of Eddie Diamond, a local farmer ‘grasping the nettle’ to improve his cattle-feed (foraging in the nettles).
- reckon with: take seriously because of powerful impact;
- brat: nuisance child; brat of: degree of irksomeness;
- refuse permission: say ‘no’;
- rattle: succession of rapid clattering sounds
- ruler: wooden strip used to measure, draw straight lines; useful for chastising a child at school;
- slush: muddy, partially melted snow/ ice/ hail;
- Thomas Traherne (1636 or 1637 – c. 27 September 1674) was a 17th century Anglican parson, who lived in Hereford. He wrote some poetry and some religious prose. He was never famous or well-connected, like John Donne or George Herbert. He was not some radical outsider, like William Blake. He was uncelebrated in his lifetime, and remained almost completely unknown until 1896, when some of his manuscripts were discovered in a wheelbarrow outside a London antiques bookstore, including a book called Centuries of Meditation, which is a contemplative guide made up of 400 brief meditations.
- orient wheat: Traherne’s Centuries talk about how the world appeared to him when he was a child:
- The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never should be reaped, nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting. The dust and stones of the street were as precious as gold: the gates were at first the end of the world. The green trees when I saw them first through one of the gates transported and ravished me, their sweetness and unusual beauty made my heart to leap, and almost mad with ecstasy, they were such strange and wonderful things:
- proof: confirmation, corroboration;
- wonder: awe;
- sting: sharp pain;
- Eddie Diamond: a local friend was able to bring the character, indeed the whole neighbourhood to life: the Diamonds own a typical small farm located between Castledawson and Bellaghy. The son told me that Paddy Heaney (Seamus’s father Patrick) would have gone there to buy cattle off Eddie. As a young fella Seamus sometimes accompanied. It was during one of these cattle-buying visits that Seamus spotted Eddie among the nettles as they approached the farm. That’s what the guy said. Whether it’s true or not I don’t know but I have no reason to doubt him;
- forage: search for foodstuff;
- nettle: free growing plant with jagged leaves transmitting a sting; farmers judged nettles beneficial to cattle diet;
- 4 triplets in 2 sentences; variable line length 5-12 syllables; unrhymed;
- assonant effects:[ei] same…way they…way; [u:]refused…room…ruler…proof; [ɜː] were perfect first…dirty…Traherne; [i] it…sting…unstingable…foraging in;
- alliterative chains: front of mouth[f], reprises of alveolar [t/d], bilabial [p/b], velar [k], nasals [m/n], sibilant variants [s/z/sh]
Recall now of the lumpy, epidermic after-effects of ice pain (nipple and hive, bite-lumps) plus an agreeable early sense of furtherance that faded away (small acorns of the almost pleasurable) is signalled then snuffed out by the passing of the squall (intimated then disallowed). The net outcome: the whole episode was put on hold (wait).
‘It might have taken me forty years’, says Heaney, ‘but I am feeling it now!’- the uncontrollable welling-up of sensibility (dilation) triggered by that hailstone blueprint for all that followed (truest foretaste of your aftermath) embedded once the storm passed (light opened) in the continuing life on the Hillhead Road outside Mossbawn (car with wipers going still) and spurring him to recover that transitory moment (perfect tracks in the slush) – a submerged metaphor for this mobile act of writing, which lays its own perfect, printed tracks in the inevitably disintegrating slush of the actual (NC142).
- nipple: small mammary protrusion;
- hives: itchy skin condition
- bite-lump: bump that develops after an insect sting;
- acorn: fruit of the oak tree; oval nut in cup-shaped base;
- intimate: announce, signal;
- disallow: block, rule out;
- foretaste: preview, whiff, advance warning;
- aftermath: end result;
- dilation: a physiological moment when an organ widens, is made larger or more open, swells, distends; by extension an emotional moment suggestive of the same outcome;
- wiper: blade that clears a windscreen
- track: textured imprint;
- 4 triplets in 3 sentences; variable line length 5-10 syllables; unrhymed;
- Repetition of ‘there…there’ to mimic the soothing expression of sympathy adults use with youngsters
- assonant effects: [ai] hive…bite…dilation…light…silence…wipers; [i] nipple…intimated…disallowed; [ɔː] small…almost…for…for…fore…your; [ei] acorns…intimate…wait…say…foretaste…dilation…laid
- alliterative chains: front of mouth[f] [l], reprises of alveolar [t/d], velar [k/g], nasals [m/n], sibilant variants [s/z/sh]
DOD287 There are a couple of lines in another Haw Lantern poem (Hailstones) that refer to ‘the melt of the real thing / smarting into its absence’. They’re about the sensation of holding a ball of hailstones in your tightly closed fist… But they also point to one of the main concerns of the book: call it loss of faith … loss of faith, to a certain extent, in language itself, or at least doubts about the ‘real presence’ behind it … I didn’t see this as clearly at the time, but now I can see also that there’s a countervailing impulse at work, a refusal to discredit ‘the real thing’, however much it may be melting.
NC ‘Hailstones’ strikingly uses the word ‘dilation’ as does the essay ‘The Main of Light’… written for the festschrift volume Larkin at Sixty (1982) and reprinted in The Government of the Tongue (1988) and Finders Keepers (2002).on Philip Larkin, where Heaney says of the poem ‘Deceptions’ that ‘It is this light-filled dilation at the heart of the poem which transposes it from lament to comprehension‘, an observation which may feed usefully back into an interpretation of the Heaney poem Itself (138);
… the word ‘absence’ is a significant one (recalling) ‘Sunlight’ in North (‘There was a sunlit absence’), ‘Gifts of Rain’ in Wintering Out (where ‘I cock my ear at an absence’, that of the Irish language) and ‘Station Island’ … where a meditation on the death of a child provokes the sense of an empty space, like an absence stationed in the swamp-fed air’). In ‘Hailstones’ the word occurs once more (in the context of) a childhood experience – that of being hit by hailstones ( ) likened to the making of the poem itself, which replaces the experience (139);
- 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: fifteen 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;