Heaney allegorizes the survival instinct of a herb that for all its lowly appearance graced the Heaney family’s Sunday lunch table. His underlying message, however, sets out the deeper danger represented by tenacious units who are in fact, or see themselves as, downtrodden. The plant becomes an emblem for the overlooked and a warning to the rest of society. ‘Anything Can Happen’ published ten years later in District and Circle (1996) spells out one awful potential aftermath when groups are not ‘regarded’.
In contrast Nicholas Jenkins talks of ‘a benign, lyrical language that is one of this collection’s most appealing notes’ of the poem’s early lines (Walking on Air in the TLS of July 5th 1996)
In its physical form mint is nothing to write home about (like a clump of small dusty nettles) – just an invasive plant that graced the Heaney farmyard (growing wild at the gable of the house) where cultivated garden met rubbish heap (beyond where we dumped our refuse and old bottles) – a plant of unattractive coloration (unverdant ever), hardly eye-catching (almost beneath notice).
But … and here comes Heaney’s fair-mindedness, it possessed the potential (promise) and power to refresh (newness) however lowly its status on the world stage (the back yard of our life).
A plant of humble nature (Heaney personifies the mint) and self-effacing (something callow) but iron-willed (yet tenacious) ostensibly fitting in (sauntered) with its ordered rural environment (green alleys), above all profuse in its growth (rife).
The ennobler of Sunday roast lamb – mint’s crowning moment: the Sunday morning harvest (snip of scissor blades) when it came into its own (cut and loved).
The poet turns to himself acknowledging increasing short-term memory loss (my last things will be first things slipping from me) and begging (let) that these earliest memories (all things … that have survived) remain available to his poetic art (go free).
The appeals that follow add the ominous dimension… the potent scent (heady) of a humble herb (defenceless) becomes a metaphor for the victims of injustice (inmates liberated in that yard), for those downtrodden (disregarded) by Northern Irish, Eastern bloc or indeed politics and prejudice from whatever source. He takes a sideswipe at those who should have spoken up (failed them by our disregard), their silence interpreted as connivance (ones we turned against). Perhaps, too. Heaney is taking a sideways look at forces that at this very moment threaten the Good Friday Agreement and indeed world peace.
- unverdant: the opposite of rich green in colour;
- saunter: to proceed in a slow, leisurely manner;
- rife: unchecked and widespread;
- beneath notice: ’below the line of sight’ takes on a further suggestion of utter worthlessness; Heaney sets out to show that this is not the case;
- callow: inexperienced and immature
- heady: potent, intoxicating;
- defenceless: in need of no defence;
- disregarded: paid no attention to;
- District and Circle will report on the shattering outcome of 9/11 2001 of what Heaney foresaw as lack of foresight (Anything Can Happen);
- a four-stanza poem of four lines each with a loose rhyme scheme abab cdcd;
- line length based on 10 syllables;
- a six-sentence construct; its ix full-stops balanced rhythmically by enjambed lines;
- local colour: a 1940s rear garden area;
- personification of a plant to resemble the character of a cheeky, neglected but determined youngster of humble beginnings;
- as if clause introduces the comparison followed by a hidden subjunctive tense ‘sauntered’; use of repeated simile using ‘like’;
- onomatopoeia of ‘snip’; imperative ‘let’, if not a command as such then a symbol of the statement’s importance;
- 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: 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 consonant effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies:
- the first two lines of Mint, for example, combine velar plosives [k] and [g] with alveolar plosives [t] and [d] alongside alveolar [l];
- it is well worth teasing out the sound clusters for yourself if only 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