Holding Course

In a collection bristling with self- scrutiny  Incertus, the pen-name Heaney gave himself in his earliest work, never really deserts him. He is sitting in his workroom on the top floor of the family’s Dublin home. His wife’s distracting presence and the ways she arouses him after more than two decades of marriage bring into question his own contribution the steady-as-she-goes course of their relationship.

The piece is intimate, tender, erotic.

Initial memories of a night ferry journey that he and Marie have made allegorize the things life throws up: the constant tremors (propellers underwater) the relentless sound (cabins drumming), the unrelenting artificial lighting.

If not a specific journey then ferries, so life,  in general – not always at the front of the mind (unthought-of) yet a fact of life (constant), ‘24/7’ (out there every night) and programmed to follow set itineraries (pondered on their courses).

Marie is within a few feet of him: he would love to share what she is thinking at this instant (I envy your sight) as she focuses on the ferries in the Port of Dublin: at rest (docked), solid lumps (massive) familiar, even phallic (sloped-back funnels).

He can weigh up the broad prospects: expansive (outlook is high) and sweeping (airy) but he picks up a pensive sadness in Marie for Spanish climes perhaps even a distant sister living thereabouts (far Toledo blues). His eye shifts from her to the Spanish memento (alpine thistle) brought home from the Asturias region (Covadonga) and bowing in respect (inclines its jaggy crest).

He reflects on their recent trip to northern Spain (last autumn). The heat and aridity from which the humans suffered (smouldering and parched) provided ideal growing conditions for the plant now on sentry duty on the study wall (spikes that keep vigil overhead) for which his preoccupations with ‘Beowulf’ provide the perfect exemplar: the fearsome monster’s claw severed by the hero (Grendel’s steely talon) displayed as proof that threats to the Geat court had been vanquished (nailed to the mead-hall roof) … the same heroic resolve they showed to overcome the climate ordeal (we broke through) and survive (came through) … standing out  in retrospect (its own reward).

So where has their life’s course brought them, man and wife pursuing a pleasure-seeking, hectic lifestyle (voluptuaries of the morning after) and settled in their comfort zone (gulls cry deep channels?

How, he wonders, does the effortless unpremeditated way she turns him on (you stand on and on, twiddling your hair) compare with his stolid lack of subtlety in their sexual space (your MacWhirr of the boudoir), him bulldozing on (head on), single-minded (one track) … unskilled in foreplay (ignorant of manoeuvre)! Disarming honesty!

  • hold ones course: travel on in the same direction, not change course;
  • drum: make a continuous rhythmic noise;
  • ponder: consider, weigh up, appraise;
  • course: route plan;
  • Toledo: city in Central Spain reputed for its culture and sword-blade production; the Heaneys were in this area in 1969 to fulfil the conditions of his Somerset Maugham Award;
  • blues: feelings of melancholy;
  • alpine thistle: spiky plant common to European upland and mountainous areas;
  • Covadonga: town in the Picos de Europa; high mountain range in the Asturias region; Heaney will publish three Little Canticles of Asturias in Electric Light (2001) that recount a trip around the Covadonga area; the Heaneys and friends are credited with a Spanish road trip in 1981
  • crest: uppermost flowery tuft;
  • smoulder: burn slowly without flame;
  • parched: dried out with heat, extremely thirsty;
  • keep vigil: keep careful watch over
  • Grendel: monster slain by Beowulf, title character of the anonymous epic of the first millennium written in Anglo-Saxon/ Old English of which Heaney will publish a translation in 1999;
  • steely talon: steel-like claw resembling those of a bird of prey;
  • mead-hall: principal fortress and protection of saga kings where their faithful collected, decisions were made and banquets took place with lashings of alcohol (mead);
  • break through: force a way past a barrier;
  • come through: survive;
  • its own reward: no further benefit required;
  • voluptuary: person devoted to luxury and sexual pleasure; hedonist;
  • morning after: period of recovery from previous excesses, alcohol or sexual activity;
  • channel: stretch of water deep enough for purpose;
  • twiddle: twist and fiddle;
  • MacWhirr: the ship’s captain of Joseph Conrad’s ‘Typhoon’ of around 1900; a character with an obtuse logic and rigid mental framework. Conrad described the MacWhirr enigma as follows: “Suppose“, he says, “I went swinging off my course and came in two days late, and they asked me ‘where have you been?’ ‘Went round to dodge the bad weather,’ I would say. ‘It must have been dam’ bad, they would say. ‘Don’t know,’ I would have to say, ‘I’ve dodged clear of it.‘”
  • boudoir: woman’s private room, bedroom
  • head on: direct, no messing;
  • one track: with only one thing in mind, driven by a single impulse;


  • 4 quintains in 10 sentences; variable line length 8-12 syllables; some loose assonant echo but no rhyme scheme;
  • Internal monologue; allegory: life hidden behind metaphor;
  • personification: ships that think;
  • foreign references (Asturias) and also fiction (Beowulf and Joseph Conrad);
  • addressed to silent companion ‘I…you’; individuals who are birds of a feather;
  • assonant effects: [ʌ] under…drumming…unthought…funnels… but…outlook…voluptuaries…gulls…above; [ai] lights…night …sight…high…alpine…inclines; [ɒ] constant…pondered on…on and on…docked …on one… ignorant; [ɔː] courses…your…morning; [əʊ] sloped…smouldering…overhead…broke…own; [u:] you…blue… roof…through…boudoir…voluptuaries…manouevre; [i:] rewards… deep…we…steely…mead; [e] ferries …envy…airy…shelf behind…Grendel’s;
  • 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: fourteen 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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