The Riddle

This ingenious little poem (Helen Vendler judges it ‘exquisite’) enables Heaney to pull out of the hat the metaphor that describes the finely balanced challenges he faces in composing works of art – the handwork that produces the handiwork.

The key to solving the riddle may well lie in the words of Vaclav Havel, Czech dissident turned President, whose optimism impressed Heaney: ‘Hope is a state of mind, not a state of the world … not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out because it is good’. 

Heaney’s clever title says ‘think riddle think pun’: he juxtaposes difficult questions that require the poet’s personal responses and a handheld mesh that, prior to sowing, separates seed from chaff, things that grow from the medium they grow in.

Heaney addresses himself (you): he has never used a riddle on farm or in garden yet it is forever in his ear as he composes (sift and fall) choosing between poetic alternatives (stuff hopped on the mesh), soil and germ (clods and buds) in open competition (little dust-up), sieved leftovers on the ground below (dribbled pile accruing under it).

In search of perfection his creative mind is faced with teasing judgments (which would be better) as to ingredients (what sticks or what falls through) or selections that best reflect his standards and priorities (does the choice itself create the value?).

Heaney metaphors through the motions (start a mime): a solid stance to maintain the balance (legs apart), the accrued wizardry of six previous collections (deft-handed), the alchemy of transformation (sense of things from what’s imagined), coping, if he has to (work out what was happening), with the ‘Gordian knot’ of the self-evidently contradictory (story of the man who carried water in a riddle).

He turns over in his mind two phrases from his Catholic past in relation to why he does what he does. The Haw Lantern collection’s final question presents alternatives that are not in fact mutually exclusive: is to copy the man with the riddle to expose himself knowingly to something of doubtful value (culpable ignorance) … or is he responding as best he may to a secular life (via negative), interspersed with loss and disappointment (drops and let-downs)?

I am tempted to take issue with those who regarded The Riddle as the least conclusive of all Heaney’s collections.

  • riddle: a large sieve that separates substances – sand from gravel, ashes from cinders, stones from soil;
  • riddle; an enigma, puzzle, problem needing an enquiring mind to solve it;
  • sift: the separating process;
  • hopped: possible vernacular past tense of ‘heap’;
  • mesh: criss-cross network of wires;
  • clod: lump of earth;
  • bud: compact plant growth;
  • dust-up: dispute, pun on fine particles blowing around;
  • dribble: fall through in a stream;
  • accrue: accumulate;
  • value: worth, usefulness;
  • apart: separated;
  • deft: quick, skilful;
  • mime: pretend action;
  • culpable ignorance: abstract term with Catholic significance to do with moral responsibility ignorance usually excuses from responsibility, unless the person is guilty of remaining knowingly ignorant;
  • via negative: philosophical approach to theology which asserts that no finite concepts or attributes can be adequately used of God (say, ‘God is good, by definition’), but only negative alternatives;
  • drops: both losses, downfalls and stuff allowed through the mesh;
  • let-downs: both stuff allowed through the mesh and disappointments;


  • 6 couplets (C) in 5 sentences; line length 9-13 syllables; unrhymed;
  • C 1-3 punctuated mind search including questions; C 4-6 both sentences enjambed in more legato flow; poem endes with a question;
  • assonant effects: [u] you…used…accruing…value…who…through; [e] never…mesh…better…self… deft…sense… …negativa…let-downs; [i] sift…dribbled…sift…imagined…in a riddle…ignorance; [ʌ] stuff… buds…dust-up…under…would…does…culpable; [a:] ..start; [ɔː] fall… falls…story…water; [ɒ] hopped on…clods…from what’s…was… drops;     [i:] hear…create…via negative;
  • alliterative chains follow a standard pattern: 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: twelve 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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