Heaney puts on display a striking embodiment of his own vocation: from his travels around his Ulster neighbourhood he recalls an itinerant tradesman emblematic of old Ireland; he has perceived similarities between himself and the wandering tailor. The tailor has a way with clothes; the poet has a way with words. They both spend their time unpicking something to put it back together.
Without warning a memory flashes across the poet’s consciousness (Then all of a sudden there appears to me): a remnant of old Ireland, a sharer of Heaney’s ancestry who, as it turns out, mirrors in figurative form many of the traits of a poet: The journeyman tailor who was my antecedent.
There is something leprechaunish as the man sits Up on a table, cross-legged engaged in the first stage of the alteration process: ripping out/ A garment he must recut or resew. (The poet drafts and redrafts pieces.)
The tailor’s face intrigues him: the mouth, tensed in concentration (His lips tight back), the length of cotton thread between his teeth, the reticence that is part of the man’s nature (Keeping his counsel always, giving none), his eyelids set steady as wrinkled horn or iron, in his own world whether moving around or on the job: Self-absenting, both migrant and ensconced. How much of himself has Heaney surmised?
The tailor enjoys right of access to people’s homes and their personal belongings (Admitted into kitchens, into clothes) thanks to the magic he performs (His touch has the power to turn to cloth again).
Heaney’s evaluation is full of respect: the man was guarded, honest, unpretentious: All of a sudden he appears to me,/ Unopen, unmendacious, unillumined
- Banagher: a small parish near Londonderry;
- Journeyman: an experienced worker employed by others; a solid performer;
- journeyman tailor: an itinerant tradesman offering a service;
- antecedent: person with a shared ancestry or social background;
- ripping out: alterations require the unpicking of previous sewing;
- tight back: held tensed;
- keeping his counsel: by his silence revealing nothing of what he thought or intended;
- self-absenting: distancing himself from things going on around him;
- migrant: moving from place to place;
- ensconced: settled in a comfortable place;
- clothes … cloth: the former dependent on the latter;
- unopen:, as a person who gives nothing away so about whom one knows nothing;
- unmendacious: judged to be honest;
- unillumined: who has not seen the light, who has yet to see the light; spiritually unenlightened;
- Richard Tillinghast compares Heaney’s vocational insights with lines from “Adam’s Curse,” by Yeats:
That beautiful mild woman, your close friend, / And you and I ( ) talked of poetry.
I said, ‘A line will take us hours maybe./ Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,/
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
- 4 unrhymed triplets; line length based on 10 syllables; 2 sentences;
- few enjambed lines are possible to describe a staged process or list of traits;
- ‘antecedent’ stands out as an archaic word of Latin root; ’ensconced ‘ of 1600 vintage;
- insights into the poetic process: ideas that come on unexpectedly; poems that require to be reworked: vocabulary of ‘more than once’: recut, resew;
- use of adjectival/ adverbial compounds: cross-legged, self-absenting;
- comparison seeking to convey a texture: eyelids/ wrinkled horn or iron;
- triple adjectives with prefix un- preferred to ‘not’ which would not have blended with his 3 adjectives;
Heaney toasts the tailor: So more power to him on the job there. He notes that the tailor is less comfortable with someone looking over his shoulder: ill at ease / Under my scrutiny despite long experience of not betraying his feelings (years/ Of being inscrutable) as he went about his business, threaded needles/ Or matched the facings, linings, hems and seams.
Heaney goes into close detail: needle position (just off centre); eyes narrowed for close focus (squinting); the split ends of the cotton moistened (licks the thread and licks); the protruding thread pulled firmly through the needle’s eye (sweeps it through).
After close concentration, a momentary pause: time to draw both ends out even, test their tautness (Plucking them sharply twice) then returning to his task: back to stitching.
The poet ponders the tailor’s deeper feelings about his life: Does he ever question what it all amounts to/ Or ever will? About his rootlessness: Or care where he lays his head?
Heaney salutes the Irish incarnation of a spiritual figure who renounced family and wealth, walked the roads and taught something to all who came to watch him: My Lord Buddha of Banagher, the road ahead is less confusing thanks to his presence the way Is opener for your being in it.
- more power to you, your elbow: a British expression used to encourage someone or express approval of their actions.
- scrutiny: close observation;
- inscrutable: difficult to understand or interpret;
- facings: a strengthening piece of material sewn on the inside of a garment, especially at the neck and armholes;
- linings: layers of different material covering the inside surface of a garment;
- hems: edges which have been turned under and sewn;
- seams: lines where two pieces of fabric are sewn together; ‘a triple play on the joins between edges of cloth, on the poet’s name and on the Greek for “sign”’, suggests Nicholas Jenkins in Walking on Air (TLS of July 5th 1996);
- off-centre: not quite in the centre;
- squinting: focusing on an object with one or both eyes partly closed, screwed up;
- Lord Buddha: the founder of Buddhism; Siddartha Gautama ( circa 563-circa 483 BC); born a prince in what is now Nepal, became an ascetic and teacher after achieving enlightenment while meditating;
- ‘(Heaney) the intense cherisher of domestic rituals now remembers the uprooted travellers in his family, like a “journeyman tailor who was my antecedent”, a man “both migrant and ensconced”, absorbed, wherever he was, in his craft… Puns proliferate here, because they are like minute meeting-points for separate verbal orders, miniature enactments of Heaney’s desire to find the intermingling of worlds. Nicholas Jenkins Walking on Air in the TLS of July 5th 1996:
- John O’Kane, who overlapped Heaney as a pupil at St Columb’s College, confirms Banagher as the Ulster parish: ‘Heaney visited the mortuary grave of Muiredach O’Heney to collect the miraculous sand … I always figured that there was a link with the Saint’s grave there’; quite rightly, too, he draws attention to the similarity between the image of the seamster at work on the table-top and the symbolic body-postures of seated Buddha representations;
- 4 triplets in 6 sentences including 2 questions about deeper issues; no rhyme scheme but some loose rhymes; line length between 10 and 12 syllables;
- ‘so’ used as a conjunction: ‘for all these reasons’balance between punctuated and enjambed lines;
- words derived from the same Latin root: scrutiny/ inscrutable;
- ‘seams’ suggestion of triple intention;
- musical reference adds to the varying resonance of sense data: plucking the cotton/ plucking a guitar string; the man is tuning the cotton;
- Heaney uses interrogatives owing to the tailor’s reticence; they are rhetorical;
- lexis of the tailor’s trade sits alongside description of feelings betrayed on the surface ‘ill at ease’;
- use of vocative (Oh) My Lord Buddha;
- paradox: tailor ‘unopen’; the way ahead ‘opener’;
- 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, for example gathers sibilant sounds [s] [z] together with bilabial plosives [p] [b] alveolar plosives [t] [d] and 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.