At the Wellhead

Two moving sonnets take Heaney back to his Castledawson roots and celebrate the blind musician Rosie Keenan who brought a new creative art into his life. The poet addresses the veteran singer (school-friend of his mother and his Aunt Mary). His emotions run deep.

He recalls the tunes (your songs, when you sing them) delivered in her singular way (your two eyes closed as you always do); airs as familiar to him and his playmates as ‘the back of their hands’ (local road we’ve known every turn of in the past); lyrical melodies that betoken the mid-Ulster cul-de-sac where she dwelt (midge-veiled, high-hedged side-road) along the Broagh Road out of Castledawson. That is where they might find her, sightlessly attentive (stood looking and listening) only the rare passage of a motorized vehicle (until a car would come and go) deepening her sense of isolation (lonelier than you had been to begin with).

He implores memory of her not to stop (so, sing on), to let him go on hearing her cherished voice (dear shut-eyed one) – no longer of this world perhaps (dear far-voiced veteran) – to sing on until she reaches the wellspring source of music (sing yourself to where the singing comes from).

Impassioned melodies now rendered inaccessible by the passage of time (ardent and cut off) attributed to the sightless woman who lived across the fields (our blind neighbour) who made music (played the piano all day) physically shut off from the world outside (in her bedroom).

The notes came to the children’s ears as if from underground (like hoisted water) spilling and splashing (ravelling off a bucket) back into the water-source (wellhead) –  sounds that stopped them in their tracks (next thing we’d be listening), left them speechless (hushed) and uncertain how to respond (awkward) to something mysterious and new. 

In conversation with DoD (p336) 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.

  • 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.


In the second sonnet Heaney spells out what was remarkable about his childhood neighbour – unsighted (blind-from-birth), gifted (sweet-voiced) and shy (withdrawn musician) – a rich source of wonder out of coarse mid-Ulster geology (silver vein in heavy clay), an unbounded glow (night water glittering in the light of day) all wrapped up in the unremarkable guise of an ordinary person (just our neighbour, Rosie Keenan).

To distinguish between playmates Rosie employed another sense (touched our cheeks), educated them as to the accessories of blind people (let us touch her braille) – which surprised Heaney by the sheer bulk of script that he could only compare with examples of embossed wall-coverings at home (books like books wallpaper patterns came in).

His curiosity noticed fingers that were never still (active), eyes that, unlike theirs, did not readjust their focus (full of open darkness) and gave out a mattery discharge (watery shine).

Rosie distinguished between them by hearing (knew us by our voices) and yet used the language of the sighted (say she ‘saw’ whoever or whatever).

To rub shoulders (being with her) was close (intimate), positive (helpful) and therapeutic (a cure you didn’t notice happening).

He recalls the time he read to her about the water source outside her terraced cottage (poem with Keenan’s well in it) and the touching lyricism of a woman unsighted from birth making light of her disability (‘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;
  • 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/ 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: fifteen 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/ ang

4 thoughts on “At the Wellhead

  1. Helpful, as always. But both sonnets DO in fact have rhyme schemes. It’s just that the rhymes are subtly oblique: closed/past, car/lonelier, etc. The first sonnet ends with a couplet: wellhead/awkward, the sestet of the second is (obliquely) rhymed effgge.

    1. Hi Patrick, Thanks for your comments.
      I have taken the liberty of adding them to the site as follows: Patrick Keane contacted me to suggest quite justifiably that I be more precise as regards Heaney’s use of rhyme scheme: ‘… both sonnets do in fact have rhyme schemes. It’s just that the rhymes are subtly oblique: closed/past, car/lonelier, etc. The first sonnet ends with a couplet: wellhead/awkward, the sestet of the second is (obliquely) rhymed effgge.

      Hope you are happy with this … it underlines the usefulnees of the blog format that can be edited to improve it.

  2. Thank you for this commentary about the sonnets. Very special as Rosie was my aunty who I met on a few occasions as a child and also when I got married. An amazing person.

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