At the Wellhead


Two sonnets hark back to Heaney’s roots (family, a neighbour (Rosie Keenan), his playmates) around the time that ‘the arts’ came into their lives. His emotions well up.

The poet reaches towards a ‘veteran’ singer, anonymous and dear to him (most probably the blind girl herself but perhaps his mother who was a school-friend of Rosie Keenan or his Aunt Mary both of that previous generation or his wife, Marie, of the present one). He recalls familiar strains delivered in her singular way: Your songs, when you sing them with your two eyes closed/ As you always do; airs as familiar to him as ‘the back of his hand’ (a local road / We’ve known every turn of in the past) ; lyrical melodies that betoken the rural Ulster landscape of old (midge-veiled, high-hedged side-road) where the singer once Stood Looking and listening rarely disturbed by traffic (until a car/ Would come and go), scant human contact that only made her lonelier than you had been to begin with.

The poet implores her not to stop: wherever she may be: So, sing on; to let him hear the cherished voice of a Dear shut-eyed one no longer of this world dear far-voiced veteran; to sing until she reaches the wellspring source of music: Sing yourself to where the singing comes from.

Heaney’s lonely, passionate vocalist (Ardent and cut off) resembles Rosie Keenan, an unsighted person from his childhood who lived across the fields: our blind neighbour, equally musical (Who played the piano all day) equally shut off (in her bedroom). The piano notes carried to the children’s ears as if from an underground wellspring, like hoisted water spilling and splashing, Ravelling off a bucket at the wellhead , sounds that captured their attention, shut them up and left them uncertain how to respond to something mysterious and new: next thing we’d be listening, hushed and awkward.

In conversation with DoD Heaney talked about Rosie Keenan: ‘(Rosie’s) blindness itself was the wonder. The Keenans lived only a cou­ple of fields away from us … Rosie would often be out on the road, sometimes on her own, sometimes with her sister. This was the Broagh Road, a side road, and in those days the traffic amounted to no more than a few locals on bicycles and the occasional horse and cart, so she was safe enough, walking tall and straight, her white stick in hand, her pale face looking straight ahead, unwavering and unseeing. … When I first knew her she would have been in her late thirties or early forties, a contemporary of my mother’s, who had been at school with her. So there was great ease between them and always a special sweet atmosphere when she came to the house.’

She made that musical dimension a living thing for us. She ( ) had a piano at home and, in the middle of the day, we’d often hear her playing as we passed by Keenans’ house – which I always found strange, because in our experience the daytime was when grown-ups were out working (p366)

  • wellhead: the point where underground water is raised to the surface; compare ‘where the singing comes from’;
  • midge-veiled: minute two-winged flies that breed near water or marshy areas swarming in vast numbers;
  • far-voiced: voice remembered and from time past;
  • veteran: from Latin veteranus, from vetus ‘old’; someone experienced in a given field;
  • ardent: burning, passionate;
  • cut off: isolated;
  • hoisted water: raised from a well;
  • ravelling: spilling and splashing;
  • sonnet in two verses; line length based loosely on 10 syllables; no rhyme scheme;
  • volta after l.9 coinciding with change of person focus;
  • 3 sentence structure with copious use of enjambed lines creating oral narrative flow;
  • use of present tense suggesting Heaney is reliving past events; then moving into past preterite implying that his veteran singer is dead; conditional ‘would’ suggests repeated occurrence
  • the sequence will centre round unsightedness and song; the vocabulary echoes this repeatedly;
  • 9 lines devoted to a cherished singer are heavy with heartache;
  • Sense of hearing prominent; assess vocabulary;
  • Use of vocative: ‘(Oh,) dear shut eyed one …’; entreaty disguised as imperatives: ‘sing on’, ‘sing’
  • parallel: singing episodes reflect a time in the poet’s lie; the landscape is timeless;
  • comparison: songs and landscape; piano notes/ splashing water;
  • lexis of shared traits: both musicians sing/play; both are remote;
  • metaphor: the point at which music becomes tangible to listeners seen as raised from an invisible source ‘wellhead’;
  • triple response: ‘listening, hushed and awkward’;
  • simile: singing like road; piano notes like water etc.

Heaney reaches out to touch his unsighted childhood neighbour (That blind-from-birth, sweet-voiced, withdrawn musician) a source of wonder (a silver vein in heavy clay./ Night water glittering in the light of day in the guise of an ordinary person (just our neighbour, Rosie Keenan).

To overcome her blindness Rosie employed her other senses: She touched our cheeks. She familiarized the children with items that might seem odd to them about blind people, for example the sheer size of her books: She let us touch her braille / In books like books wallpaper patterns came in.

The boy noted the fidgeting of her active hands and the weird coloration and mattery discharge of her eyes full/ Of open darkness and a watery shine. Her hearing helped her to recognize: She knew us by our voices; though born blind she used sighted language: She’d say she ‘saw’ / Whoever or whatever.

Her early acquaintance brought Heaney an experience of closeness (Being with her/ Was intimate) to a positive force (helpful) and a therapeutic presence (like a cure/ You didn’t notice happening).

He recalls reading A poem with Keenan’s well in it; if it sounded odd to him at that moment he marvels now that a person unsighted from birth could describe so lyrically what many sighted people might never notice anyway: she said/ ‘I can see the sky at the bottom of it now.

  • withdrawn: not easily communicating or mixing with other people;
  • silver vein: the sign of a rich deposit;
  • night water: paradoxical effect of a sightless person bringing beauty to the sighted;
  • braille: form of written language for blind people; characters are represented by patterns of raised dots that are felt with the fingertips:
  • wallpaper patterns: books that included ranges of embossed paper, massive tomes;
  • open darkness: (oxymoron) darkness that can be seen into;
  • cure: restoration to health;
  • HV(p159) ‘It is implied that (Rosie’s ) gift to him was an analogous one: she revealed to the child the moral clear sky at the bottom of a ark place.’
  • Reading “At the Wellhead” at Emory University, Atlanta in March 2013 Heaney noted that this poem “does have the age-old trope (figurative or metaphorical figure) of the blind singer being the archetype of a kind of utterance.”
  • Sonnet; line length based on 10 syllables; no formal scheme but some rhymes;
  • 8 sentences offer natural pauses in the narrative ‘score’; some enjambment;
  • Simile: sweet neighbour like things that shine; braille books/ large pattern books;
  • Contrast: ordinary/ extraordinary;
  • vocabulary of touch prominent;
  • Similarities between the 2 musicians carried through;
  • Indirect references to blindness: night water;
  • open darkness’ combination of ideas: her eyes show she is blind; they also reflect her outgoing warmth; similarly euphemism: watery shine combining the off-putting discharge round the eyes; the inspiring personality behind them;
  • Volta in l.10: from reporting episodes to consideration of significance;

Simile: the lift Rosie brought him resembling some unspoken grief alleviated;

  • 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 title and first 3 lines, for example, stir together sibilant sounds [s] [z] bilabial continuant [w] alongside alveolar plosives [t] [d] palatal nasal [ŋ] (sing) and alveolar nasal [n];
  • 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.