Heaney responds to the tragic loss of his niece, Rachel, elegising her in the eternal present of his poem. Rachel was the daughter of his brother Hugh who continued to live on the Heaney family property at The Wood.
The abundant rain that irrigates the mid-Ulster landscape plays a role in a disastrous accident; the child who was lost is retrieved in the poetic imagination as a water nymph gracing the local landscape.
Heaney sets out the prequel to catastrophe: annual signs of seasonal growth around Rachel’s Bellaghy home (your back door) – crops, like Rachel, not yet mature but well on the way (potato … flowering … hard green plums on damson trees) – the fruitfulness of blackberry or rose (berried briar) shines brightly (glittering) in mid-Ulster’s changeable weather patterns (whenever showers plout down).
The weather was not good: rainfall in the year in question blighted farming (flooded hay and flooding drills … whole summer … waterlogged) and immediately prior to the fateful moment superstitious folk sensed something bad was destined to happen (a ring around the moon).
Rachel’s death shattered everyone’s belief (loath to trust … broke down) in the link between flattering, life-giving water (rain’s soft-soaping ways) and happy consequences (summer’s unstinting largesse) both of good crops and the mature young woman Rachel would develop into (sentiments of growth).
The bad omens were realised last May – Rachel was killed in the road outside her home. Heaney depicts her body exposed to the care, reverence and prayers of her family (we laid you out in the white of purity). He remembers her body cosmetically freed (your whited face) from the wounds of impact (gashed from the accident), stone-dead (still, so absolutely still) and framed against a beautiful day’s end that brought no comfort (setting sun set merciless).
Her grieving family (every merciful register inside us) would wish with all their heart (yearned) to rewrite events (run the film back), watch the seven-year old proceed (step into the road) pushing her pristine cycle (bright-rimmed bike) and go safely where she intended (safe and sound as usual), have her bicycle restored (twisted spokes all straightened out) and evidence of the driver’s vain attempt to stop erased (awful skid-marks gone).
The fact is, Rachel, your life cannot be restored, (but no). However you live on in my mind and my poem as a nymph, hidden amidst life-bringing water (downpours … memory’s riverbed) emerging dreamlike from the crisscross of river flow (thick-webbed currents) as the woman you might have become (life you might have led), beckoning for attention (wavers and tugs) from your hiding place in the soft-plumed waterweed, a welcome soothing presence (tempts our gaze and quietens it) reawakening all those sentiments of loss (recollects our need).
- flower: end of the growing season, late May;
- briar: prickly, scrambling plant;
- plout: Irish usage, sudden splash or heavy rainfall;
- drill: furrow, trench, channel in which seeds are planted;
- ring around the moon: meteorological phenomenon regarded by superstitious folk as a forecast of bad weather or the occurrence of something distressful;
- loath: OE disinclined, averse;
- soft-soap: flattery used to persuade someone to do something;
- unstinting; bountiful, benevolent;
- largesse: generosity;
- break down: collapse, founder;
- lay out: present for others to see;
- whited: given an artificial white colouring;
- gash: long, deep wound, laceration;
- mercy: compassion towards someone vulnerable;
- merciless, showing no compassion, pitiless;
- merciful: compassionate, tender-hearted;
- register: list, log, ledger, record;
- yearn: ache pine;
- turn back: re-wind:
- rim: circular circumference of a bicycle wheel;
- safe and sound: still alive, in one piece after being in danger;
- spokes: wire rods connecting centre of a wheel to its outer edge;
- straighten out: make straight, align, return to original;
- skid-mark: dark marks left on the road surface by a braking vehicle;
- downpour: cloudburst, heavy fall;
- memory’s riverbed; place where memories flow like water;
- web: latticework, mesh;
- waver: move gently in the current;
- tug: pull suddenly, sharply;
- plume: upper edge growing from a root;
- waterweed: submerged aquatic plant;
- quieten: soothe;
- recollect, recall by re-collecting;
- Local man Eugene Kielt pinpoints the accident site: ‘Rachel was killed on the Ballymacombs Rd, Bellaghy just at the end of Heaneys’ Lane (‘The Wood’).’
- The Catholic Church’s traditional care for the deceased and the family and community that survive them calls for a community response. It is customary to have a gathering of the family and friends of the deceased lying in a casket between death and burial. The wake usually happens on the day preceding the funeral possibly in church but very often in the home of the deceased;
- 9 quartets of varied line length between 6 and 10 syllables; 5 complete sentences;
- loose rhyme scheme on lines 2 &4 of each verse;
- smooth flow determined by the very frequent use of enjambed line, flow broken by commas as the dream section unravels;
- the initial continuous present tense as if things are going on as he speaks replaced by past tenses in the central vigil and film sequence sections, reverting to present as the final 8 lines invite (let) the water nymph to appear;
- the poem is dominated by references to water;
- dialect (plout), French (largesse)and old-fashioned poetic (loath) words appear;
- 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];
- verse 1 is dominated by rat-a-tat bi-labial plosive [p] [b]; verses 3/4/5 are caught in a downpour of soothing sibilant variations [s] [z] [sh]; the final 6 lines strongly feature plosive [t] [d];
- assonant effects: [au] flower…shower… around…out…sound…down…out…our; [e] every …setting…every…berried; [i:] green…trees…appear…dreamily…waterweed…need; [i] is glittering and dripping…flooding…ring…confidence in…unstinting…still…still… merciless…merciful…inside…into…rimmed…twisted skid…riverbed …thick; [ʌ] flooded…flooding…summer…trust…unstinting…sun…run… flood… tugs; [əʊ]whole…loath…growth…road…spokes… no…so; [ei] rain…ways…May…laid…safe… straightened…wavers…gaze;[ai] white… whited…bright…bike…life…might; [ɜː] merciless…merciful…yearned
- 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;