A Dog Was Crying Tonight in Wicklow Also

in memory of Donatus Nwoga

Heaney pens an elegiac tribute to Nigerian scholar and critic Donatus Nwoga who was a fellow student at Queen’s University, Belfast, in the 1950s. He reworks an Igbo fable from the Nigerian folk lore of Donatus’s roots in which Humanity fails in its attempt to make earthly death anything other than an irreversible state.

When men realized they were mortal (found out about death) they appealed to the highest Igbo authority via Man’s so-called best friend (sent the dog to Chukwu with a message).

They urged the supreme deity to make death temporary and reversible (they wanted to be let back to the house of life). They were unhappy with the idea that their souls would find no resting place (end up lost forever), their bodies cremated into nothingness (burnt wood disappearing into smoke) and their earthly remains scattered to the winds (ashes blown away to nothing).

They were prepared for their departed souls to be reincarnated as birds (a flock at twilight cawing), returned to familiar surroundings (same old roosts) to live each day’s renewal (same bright airs) and daily bird-soul reawakening (wing-stretchings).

Death itself would be a short affair (a night spent in the wood); the dawning day (first light) would bring resurrection (back in the house of life).

The appeal falls at the first hurdle  – Heaney’s parenthesis reveals the weak link (the dog was meant to tell all this to Chukwu).

The appellants swiftly rue having entrusted such a critical task to a messenger unused to human priorities (death and human beings took second place). Dog does what dogs do – erratic movements (trotted off the path) canine small talk (barking at another dog just barking back at him).

Dog’s distraction and delay allow a deceitful rival to get there ahead of him (how the toad reached Chukwu first). The malevolent all-knowing toad (overheard in the beginning what the dog was meant to tell) transmitted the totally opposite message (human beings want death to last forever) and was believed (trusted absolutely).

His verdict delivered, Chukwu watches the airborne spirits (people’s souls in birds) homing in on him (like black spots off the sunset) about to learn that he has ruled out restoration of life either reincarnated (neither roosts nor trees) or bodily (nor any way back to the house of life).

All-powerful Chukwu has spoken and is in no mood to reverse his decision (his mind reddened and darkened all at once). He will have no truck with conscience-stricken Dog (nothing could change that vision).

And so it was, the Igbo fable tells, that all humanity, without grace or favour (great chiefs and great loves) was condemned to irreversible death (obliterated light), that the creature that brought it about was consigned to a grubby water-hole (toad in mud) and the hapless Dog doomed to howl at night (crying out all night behind the corpse house).

Heaney can hear one now from Glanmore Cottage (Wicklow Also) as he laments the passing of a friend.

  • 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 belief systems and mythology the infinitely powerful, indefinable, supreme deity encompassing everything in space and space. The Igbo people believed that all things came from Chukwu, who brought the rains necessary for plants to grow and controlled 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 describecontemptible 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 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;
  • comparisons (dead souls/ birds) generate 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-of-life; kenning: corpse house;
  • 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:

  • 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/ ang

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