A Sofa in the Forties

A sequence of four poems set in the living area of the Heaney family’s farm at Mossbawn.

Heaney reflected on this early period of his life in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: In the nineteen forties, when I was the eldest child of an ever-growing family in rural Co. Derry, we crowded together in the three rooms of a traditional thatched farmstead and lived a kind of den-life. The time of innocence or ignorance will ultimately be replaced by full historical and political awareness.


Active play is unfolding: the children are all positioned (on the sofa In a line) protecting limbs from the imagined ‘outside’ (kneeling behind each other). There is both hierarchy (eldest down to youngest) and an energetic purpose: (elbows going like pistons) that gives the game away (this was a train).

The Mossbawn setting might leave them short of space (between the jamb-wall and the bedroom door) but in the childish imagination were no boundaries (our speed and distance were inestimable. Each stage dramatized and added to – ricochet movement (we shunted) and trainlike sound (we whistled); then a pretend appropriately serious inspector of real yet non-existent tickets (invisible for tickets) with appropriate actions (and very gravely punched it).

Increasing momentum, reflected by the voices (carriage after carriage under us moved faster, chooka-chook) reverberates downwards (sofa legs went giddy) . Mother, father, Aunt Mary, not part of the play (unreachable ones far out on the kitchen floor joined in the spirit (began to wave) – in line with the peculiarly British habit of waving at passing trains and passengers waving back.


Heaney’s memory darkens at the thought of 1940s’ events the youngsters could not have known about – images including the holocaust atrocities during WWII dressed as questions because they were not yet certainty (Ghost-train? Death gondola?). With hindsight the sofa’s physical make-up (carved, curved ends, black leatherette and ornate gauntness) lent itself to the image of a funeral-barge floating on a Venetian canal (the sofa had achieved flotation). Alternatively its design (braid and fluent backboard) and floor fittings like flitting courtiers (castors on tip-toe) were suggestive of a throne from which to witness outdated ceremonial display (airs of superannuated pageantry).

It played another more remote, aloof role when visitors endured it, people sitting upright (straight-backed) and not of the family (it stood off in its own remoteness).

It was the annual repository for Christmas presents reflecting wartime shortages and lack of income in large families (the insufficient toys appeared on it). Christmas mornings brought yet another image: the sofa’s shape akin to Santa’s sky-flying sleigh of myth (potentially heavenbound) a belief bound to be dashed by reality (earthbound for sure), part of a festive tradition that made sense to a child (might add up), until someone broke the Santa spell (let you down).


His focus shifts to 1940s BBC radio, the ‘wireless’ that fed information and entertainment to the youngsters born into history and ignorance. The siblings gathered (under the wireless shelf ) to listen to weekly instalments of compelling Children’s Hour westerns (Yippee-i-ay/ Sang ‘The Riders of the Range’).


Bulletins transmitted from London were forceful (HERE IS THE NEWS) delivered in impeccable King’s-English (absolute speaker) and totally at odds (a great gulf fixed) with the mid Ulster accent of their  Castledawson farmstead (where pronunciation reigned tyrannically).

Wireless signals were plucked from the air by an aerial wire (swept from a treetop down) brought into Mossbawn in rough and ready fashion (hole bored in the windowframe). Gusty oscillations (when it moved in wind) brought frustrating variations in reception (sway of language and its furtherings) that reverberated in the air-filled spaces of their ears (swept and swayed in us) like things governed by sea-flow (nets in water). They recognized a similar sound-wave shape (abstract, lonely curve) emanating from the Castledawson line beyond the farm (distant trains), acoustic effects they were as yet too uneducated to comprehend as Heaney reminds us (history and ignorance).



The sofa-train play experience taught them to be tenacious (occupied with all our might), long-suffering (fit for the uncomfortableness) and seeing things through (constancy its own reward already).

The theatre of their drama-journey was sustained: one child looking out (somebody craned to the side); a second mimicked the front-men (driver or fireman wiping his dry brow) – heroes reaching the end of a punishing ordeal (one who had run the gauntlet) and, totally in role, oblivious to the rest of the world (we were the last thing on his mind).

One imagined obstacle to be navigated in pitched darkness (we sensed a tunnel coming up) – there actually was one – releasing them alongside Mossbawn (unlit carriages through fields at night).

The sofa-train routine was set – sit, eyes straight ahead and be doubly delighted (transported) … on a train and thrilled. No one broke the spell (make engine noise).

  • jamb: the vertical portion of the door-frame onto which a door is secured
  • pistons: the parts of a steam locomotive’s engine that pump to impart motion;
  • whistled: the British steam locomotives of the 1940s emitted a very particular clear, high-pitched whistle sound immediately recognisable to those who heard it;
  • shunted: pushed or pulled (a train or part of a train) from the main line to a siding or from one line of rails to another;
  • punched: a pair of clippers was used to make a hole in the ticket; this ensured that it could not be used twice;
  • chooka-chook: a childish chant that accompanied an imagined journey on a train as it jolted from rail to rail;
  • death-gondola: funerals in Venice had to be conducted using a funeral gondola with its visible black coffin with all its trimmings;
  • leatherette: affordable imitation leather
  • castors: small swivelling wheels fixed to the legs or base of a heavy piece of furniture so that it can be moved easily.
  • fluent: graceful, with flowing curves;
  • superannuated: something outdated or obsolete;
  • add up: make sense
  • Yipee-i-ay: cowboys’ (and children imitating cowboys!) expression of wild excitement or delight:
  • Riders of the Range: in the late 1940s and early 50s, BBC radio broadcasted a regular evening slot for children that followed the adventures of cowboys living on a ranch; it regularly attracted an audience of 10 million;
  • furtherings: echoes, dwindlings of sound;
  • crane: to stretch out in order to see something (however imagined);
  • run the gauntlet: a form of physical punishment where a captive ran between two rows – a gauntlet – of soldiers who repeatedly struck them;
  • transported: both physical transport, imagined circumstances and emotional bliss;
  • “Transportation”, at both the carnal and the spiritual levels, is one of the book’s main themes; and its pages are therefore crowded with vehicles Nicholas Jenkins Walking on Air in the TLS of July 5th 1996:
  • the historical setting of the piece: Heaney is in his late fifties when the collection is published; he would not have reached secondary school until 1950;
  • the final 12 lines are devoted to the sofa game which becomes a kind of parable
  • make-believe required specific individual contributions leading to family solidarity:
  • Many of these acts of translation) may be regarded as what ‘A Sofa in the Forties’ defines as the entry into ‘history and ignorance’. In that poem the children’s pretence that their sofa is a railway train (‘chooka-chook’) is firstly dramatized fondly … but it then takes on much darker connotations as this train becomes, as it were, transparent to those others ‘in the Forties’ now known to the historically aware, mature consciousness of the poet: the ‘ghost trains’ and ‘death-gondolas’ which ferried their victims to the Nazi con­centration camps of Germany and Poland during the Second World War. To enter history and ignorance, then, is to have a pristine childhood delight permanently shadowed by the knowl­edge first that you do not know, and then by the knowledge of atrocity. NC (p191)
  • Heaney’s Nobel Lecture, carries the argument back to when the kitchen really wasthe cosmos:

In the nineteen forties, when I was the eldest child of an ever-growing family in rural Co. Derry, we crowded together in the three rooms of a traditional thatched farmstead and lived a kind of den-life which was more or less emotionally and intellectually proofed against the outside world. It was an intimate, physical, creaturely existence in which the night sounds of the horse in the stable beyond one bedroom wall mingled with the sounds of adult conversation from the kitchen beyond the other. We took in everything that was going on, of course — rain in the trees, mice on the ceiling, a steam train rumbling along the railway line one field back from the house — but we took it in as if we were in the doze of hibernation. … With help from the radio, the nine kids left the three rooms for everywhere: “We entered history and ignorance / Under the wireless shelf.

Steve King Today in Literature (undated) quoting from the first paragraph of Heaney’s acceptance speech of December 7th 1995.

  • Some commentators chose to accentuate Heaney’s passing allusion to current wartime events:
  • From Cornell Daily Sun Oct 29 2012: Heaney read “A Sofa in the Forties,” a poem about a child’s game of turning a living room sofa into a train Of the unintended (sic) juxtaposition of his childhood train with those of Auschwitz, he said, “We enter history in ignorance. You live long enough and then you realize what you are doing.” … His advice to aspiring writers was to get rid of their sense of a moral high ground and capture effectively by creating a “commerce between temperament and the times we live in.”
  • English@cc blog Feb 28, 2008: ‘A Sofa in the Forties’ ( ) relates to our ‘Schindler’s List’ study. Heaney read this poem at the Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration. The poem is set during WWII as a family of Irish children play trains on a sofa. The poem juxtaposes the make-believe play of the children with the terror and tragedy of the Jewish people as they are transported across Europe to their deaths.
  • 4 poems each of four triplets, in the first, line-length based on 11 or 12 syllables; in the second 9 syllables; thereafter 10 syllables; all pieces are unrhymed;
  • The use of punctuation and enjambed lines varies as do therefore the rhythms of individual piece;
  • (1), a two sentence construct, contains vocabulary of variable momentum ‘pistons’ to ‘giddy’ reflected in an accelerando ultimately slowing to near stop; period railway usage from ‘shunted’ to ‘punched’; use of  simile; use of italicised onomatopoeia;
  • (2), a four sentence construct with 2 short questions, seeking answers the fourth a long reflection on the sofa’s different roles contains Venetian references that images of gondolas will vouch for; vocabulary associated with three elements (only fire missing); use of  oxymoron ‘ornate gauntness’; word order changed to form a chiasmus (l.11)
  • (3), a five sentence construct, contains vocabulary associated with period radio programmes and its power ‘absolute’  ‘ruled tyrannically’; use of  simile; coined vocabulary to do with the physics of sound: ‘furtherings’, ‘curve’; combination of objective observation and more abstract responses; mainly air and earth;
  • (4), a four sentence construct; children’s game with mature interjections; ; military comparison ‘gauntlet’; use of simile; pun on ‘transported’;
  • 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: 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 of ‘Sofa’, for example, stirs together sibilant [s] alveolar nasal [n]alveolar plosive [t] bilabial plosives [b] and [p];
  • 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.

Join the Conversation - Leave a comment