in memory of Donatus Nwoga
Humanity fails in its attempt to make earthly death a temporary state. Heaney expresses his sense of loss at the death of Nigerian scholar and critic Donatus Nwoga (who was a fellow student at Queen’s University, Belfast, in the 1950s) by reworking an Igbo fable from the Nigerian folk lore of Nwoga’s roots.
Experience of death led to an appeal to the highest authority, to be carried by an animal: When human beings found out about death / They sent the dog to Chukwu with a message.
They urged Chukwu to make death temporary and reversible (They wanted to be let back to the house of life). They were unhappy with the idea that death was irrevocable: They didn’t want to end up lost forever, their earthly bodies cremated Like burnt wood disappearing into smoke and their remains scattered to the winds: ashes … blown away to nothing.
They wanted their departed souls to remain in the living world of familiar surroundings: in a flock at twilight / Cawing and headed back for the same old roosts, able to go through the normal motions when their bird-souls re-awakened each day: the same bright airs and wing-stretchings each morning. This death-form would be a short-lived affair like a night spent in the wood after which they would be resurrected: At first light they’d be back in the house of life. Heaney sounds a note of foreboding: (The dog was meant to tell all this to Chukwu).
The appellants will come to repent an error of judgment: they have entrusted a critical task to an incompetent messenger to whom death and human beings took second place. Their dull-witted dog does what dogs do amongst themselves: he trotted off the path and started barking / At another dog in broad daylight just barking / Back at him from the far bank of a river.
His distraction allows an upstart rival to get there ahead of him: that is how the toad reached Chukwu first.
The opportunist toad (who’d overheard in the beginning/ What the dog was meant to tell) transmits the totally opposite message and is believed: ‘Human beings,’ he said / (And here the toad was trusted absolutely),/ ‘Human beings want death to last forever.’
This verdict delivered, Chukwu watches the people’s souls in birds / Coming towards him like black spots off the sunset knowing that restoration to life is out of the question: there would be neither roosts nor trees/ Nor any way back to the house of life.
The all-powerful Chukwu is angered by challenges to his ruling: his mind reddened and darkened all at once. His decision is final: nothing that the dog would tell him later/ Could change that vision.
Humanity is condemned to fleeting existence then demise (Great chiefs and great loves/ In obliterated light), the animal that brought it about is consigned to a distasteful waterlogged fate (the toad in mud) and the hapless dog doomed to howl nightly at his failure: crying out all night behind the corpse house.
At a moment when the poet is lamenting the loss of a friend, his Irish environment (Wicklow Also) provides the nocturnal sounds that echo his grief.
HV(p174) ‘The poem ends with Heaney’s bleakest Afterwards, a tableau of annihilation and elegy.’
- ’Heaney will return to the theme of irreversible death in a later poem: Lagans Road in the Found Prose sequence of District and Circle (2006) relates a First Nation American legend;
- Chukwu: in traditional Igbo spiritual belief system and Igbo mythology, Chukwu is the infinitely powerful, indefinable, supreme deity encompassing everything in space and space itself. The Igbo people believe that all things come from Chukwu, who brings the rains necessary for plants to grow and controls everything on earth and in the spiritual world.
- let back: allowed to return;
- souls in a flock: dead souls depicted as birds in flight; a similar metaphor can be found in The Loaning of Station Island (of 1984);
- twilight: period of the evening after sunset when a soft glowing light remains visible in the western sky; between daylight and darkness;
- cawing … roosts: bird sounds and where they spend the night;
- airs: birdsong;
- first light: earliest dawn;
- meant to: supposed to;
- toad: regarded as an ugly amphibian and used to describe contemptible or detestable individuals;
- souls in birds: the deity comprehends the metaphor;
- reddened and darkened: verbs suggestive of growing anger at the whole situation that will lead to punishment for all the protagonists;
- at once: both ‘immediately’ and ‘both at the same time’;
- obliterated: utterly and irrevocably destroyed
- corpse-house: the compound where dead bodies were laid;
- as a genre the fable provides characters with an allegorical dimension and lessons to be learned; the dog represents those who lose sight of their main purpose; the toad stands for people who inveigle themselves into positions of negative influence; in that sense the particular lessons of this fable target those who miss vital opportunities in life or politics or are thwarted by self-seekers;
- an anonymous tribute paid to Heaney on the day he died: “I was very sad to learn about Heaney’s death earlier today… A dog is crying in Wicklow. And in Belfast. And in Dublin. And in Limerick. And in Sligo. And in Cork. And … every place … where there are readers of poetry.”
- a poem in 9 sections of varying length (10, 4, 5, 9 lines); line length largely10 syllables, some longer; unrhymed;
- V1 is a 5 sentence structure; good balance between punctuation and enjambed lines;
- comparison: living world/’house’; vocabulary of cremation;
- comparison (dead souls/ birds) generates avian references applying to different senses (sight, sound);
- ‘first light’ poetic alternative for ‘dawn’;
- Ellipsis: ‘ meant to’ (but did not);
- simile ‘like a night spent in a wood’: death seen as a short-lived condition before life restored
- V2 quatrain; vocabulary of distraction: ‘trotted’, ‘just’ ‘barking back’;
- V3’how’ provides the explanation of sudden turnaround;
- Use of direst speech;
- V4 simile: birds/ black specks; ‘off’ interplay of dark colour contrast against warm background;
- colour used to denote mood: ‘reddened and darkened’
- synesthesia: obliterated (physical) light (visual);
- figurative use of ‘house’: h-of life; corpse house;
- 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 sentence, for example gathers together alveolar plosives [t] [d] and nasal [m]; note also alveolar [l];
- 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/ anger.