A Call

The first of two rueful poems in which Heaney recalls incidents from the time when his parents were still alive. In A Call he is in telephone contact with them.

Heaney had left the family home (after seven years of boarding-school experience) to go to university, after which he worked, married, travelled and brought up children in locations distant from his roots, initially in Belfast then after 1953 in the Irish Republic. 

Heaney’s mother has answered the phone and responded to his request to speak to his father (‘Hold on’ ‘I’II just run out and get him). The elderly man still takes every opportunity (took the chance) to engage in the habits of a farming lifetime – fresh air (the weather here’s so good) and growing vegetables (a bit of weeding).

Left to his thoughts the poet pictures his father’s fitness for purpose – his mobility (down on his hands and knees) and his orderliness (beside the leek rig).

Heaney paints a visual picture of the old man at work: sifting (touching, inspecting), selecting (separating one stalk from the other), discarding (gently pulling up) anything unproductive (not tapered, frail and leafless).

His father’s compassionate nature (gently) grins through: whilst engaged in a must-do task (pleased to feel each little weed-root break) he is not without feeling for his destructive act (rueful also).

The caller waits on … now conscious of equally familiar sounds echoed via the receiver (amplified grave ticking of hall clocks) left speakerless (unattended) in a harmony of light effects (calm of mirror glass and sunstruck pendulums . He waits on.

His imagination invents an amusing if wistful concept whereby given advances in communication (if it were nowadays) the Grim Reaper might give advance notice (how Death would summon) to whom it might concern (Everyman).

The poet-son’s wait is ended (next thing he spoke) and his emotions well up (I nearly said I loved him).

Heaney alludes to the difficulty he experienced in expressing openly his affection. The issue will crop up again in  Human Chain (2010) in Album, iv and the three subsequent poems lamenting the unstated love the poet felt. Patrick Heaney passed away in 1986 following Heaney’s mother’s death in 1984.

  • chance: opportunity;
  • weeding: removing unwanted plants from the vegetable patch: Heaney’s first poem, Digging, in Death of a Naturalist of 1966 depicts his father in the garden; habits that never died;
  • rig: portion devoted to a particular vegetable;
  • not tapered: shoots that grew thicker at soil level would produce vegetables; if not they were useless;
  • frail: weak, delicate, easily broken;
  • rueful: sorrowful;
  • grave: serious, solemn;
  • ticking: regular, repeated sound made by a clock;
  • Sunlight in the North collection of 1975 recalls a similar situation in equally endearing terms;
  • unattended: with no one holding the receiver;
  • pendulums: free-swinging weights that regulate the mechanism of clocks;
  • Death: personified as an unwelcome visitor;
  • Everyman: ordinary, typical human being;
  • nearly said: came close to but did not express his love;
  • 16 lines of poetry including 2 hemistiches in 5 verse of differing length;
  • line length based around 10 syllables for full lines; unrhymed;
  • the use of dots indicate an ellipsis, not of words rather time-lapse;
  • present participles used to add present-ness to a series of actions;
  • use of descriptive words: clock sounds exaggerated by electronic amplification; adjective suggesting both solemnity associated with the family home and anticipating less happy times when there will be no-one to listen or reply: grave, unattended; light effects in the hall;
  • powerful adverb: nearly (but not quite);


  • 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:

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies:
  • the first triplet already gathers together alveolar plosives [t][d] alongside sibilant [s] ;
  • it is well worth teasing out the sound clusters for yourself to admire the poet’s sonic engineering:
  • Consonants (with their phonetic symbols) can be classed according to where in the mouth they occur
  • Front-of-mouth sounds voiceless bi-labial plosive [p] voiced bi-labial plosive [b]; voiceless labio-dental fricative [f] voiced labio-dental fricative [v]; bi-labial nasal [m]; bilabial continuant [w]
  • Behind-the-teeth sounds: voiceless alveolar plosive [t] voiced alveolar plosive [d]; voiceless alveolar fricative as in church match [tʃ]; voiced alveolar fricative as in judge age [dʒ];  voiceless dental fricative  [θ]  as in thin path; voiced dental fricative as  in this other [ð]; voiceless alveolar fricative [s] voiced alveolar fricative [z]; continuant [h] alveolar nasal [n] alveolar approximant [l]; alveolar trill [r]; dental ‘y’ [j] as in  yet
  • Rear-of-mouth sounds: voiceless velar plosive [k] voiced velar plosive [g]; voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] as in ship sure, voiced post- alveolar fricative [ʒ]   as in pleasure; palatal nasal [ŋ]  as in ring/ ang


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