Memory, distance and emotion translate into a moment of simple joyous exaltation and deep love for being alive and Irish. The poem echoes all things Heaney and is for many their favourite music.
The poet begs all who would listen and consent to share (some time make the time) to follow in his leisurely footsteps (drive out west) and be prepared for an unexpected moment of heart stopping beauty in the remoteness of the Burren (County Clare) where the land meets the sea in a series of rocky limestone plates (along the Flaggy Shore).
Autumn (September or October) provides optimum elemental collaboration (the wind and the light … working off each other) – to the right untamed open sea (ocean … wild), an inter-reaction of water and light (foam and glitter) – to the left (inland among stones) enclosed water lying on mudstone (slate-grey lake) its surface suddenly charged by a high-voltage flash (earthed lightning) of creature presence (flock of swans).
The poet’s eye-camera zooms to capture nuances of texture – plumage disheveled by the wind (feathers roughed and ruffling) – and colouring (white on white). Proud, determined heads (fully grown headstrong-looking) are never still (tucked or cresting or busy underwater).
Heaney’s solemn warning: do nothing to break the spell or the thrill of the instant will be lost (useless to think you’ll park and capture it more thoroughly). Your presence, like mine, is an accidental intrusion (you are neither here nor there) with permission to savour a fleeting, unfathomable life moment (hurry through which known and strange things pass).
The perceptible surges of the wind (big soft buffetings) that disturb the vehicle’s balance (come at the car sideways) and were not initially sensed (catch the heart off guard) provide what it takes to bring the poet’s emotions to an uncontrollable peak (blow it open).
- Clare: west-coast county of the Republic of Ireland south of Galway;
- Flaggy Shore: one of the most northerly parts of County Clare in the Burren; desolate, windswept stretches of sea and lake and an ideal place to study Ice-Age geology;
- working off each other: complementing each other, working cooperatively together so that the sum of their combination becomes greater than their individual contributions;
- earthed lightning: where the huge electrical discharge hits the ground and dissipates;
- headstrong: wilful, determined;
- tucked: folded for security;
- cresting: raising tufted plume of feathers;
- capture: possess, make … your own;
- hurry: all too hasty progression;
- buffetings: strong repeated blows;
- off guard: unprepared;
- blow ( ) open: provide an explosive charge sufficient to open the door of the heart where feelings and values are stored;
- DOD (p366) Postscript, the final poem in The Spirit Level (1998) strikes me as just such a “surge of utterance”, a single burst of inspiration. Was that how it seemed at the time?
SH: It was written quickly, yes, and I believe I sent it off almost immediately to The Irish Times. It could have been given a long Wordsworthian title, something like Memorial of a Tour by Motorcar with Friends in the West of Ireland, but that would misrepresent the sudden, speedy feel of it. Now and again a poem comes like that, like a ball kicked in from nowhere: in this case, I was completely absorbed in writing one of the last of the Oxford lectures when I had this quick sidelong glimpse of something flying past; before I knew where I was, I went after it. It came from remembering a windy Saturday afternoon when Marie and I drove with Brian and Anne Friel along the south coast of Galway Bay … we drove on into this glorious exultation of air and sea and swans. There are some poems that feel like guarantees of your work to yourself. They leave you with a sensation of having been visited, and this was one of them. It excited me, and yet publishing it in The Irish Times was, as much as anything else, a way of sending a holiday postcard – a PS of sorts – to the Friels.
- “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. Among other things, Heaney looks increasingly like one of the great travel writers – the writers, that is, who relish the physical sensations of travel. From the early “Night Drive” to the relatively recent “From the Frontier of Writing”, has anyone else, even Proust, even Kerouac, written as sensually about the ur-modern experience of being in a car? Nicholas Jenkins Walking on Air in the TLS of July 5th 1996
- a lyric in a single verse; 2 sentences; line length based on 10 syllables; unrhymed;
- echoes the sonnet structure: 11 descriptive lines followed by 5 lines of reflection.
- the first sentence balances punctuated and enjambed lines. Perhaps this is to capture that the experience is
- based on a combination of basic elements such as wind, light, colour, sea, swans and landscape;
- the shorter second sentence brings the poem to its climax: a moment of pleasure that Heaney wills us to share;
- Heaney is both painter of a word picture and film director panning from one side of the car to the other and zooming in on the waterbirds ;
- contrast: ‘park’/ ‘hurry’ Use of compound adjectives that comparisons: ‘slate-grey’, ‘headstrong-looking’;
- plentiful natural imagery involving water effects, feathery textures, rocky landscape, light, car movement;
- metaphor The high voltage impact of bright white on a blue grey landscape;
- personification: the swans have a human characteristic ‘headstrong-looking’;
- contrast of mood and movement: as a piece of music the relaxed invitation is replaced by a crescendo of thrilling events then slowing in pace yet maintaining its emotional intensity;
- repetition: ‘time’ is repeated in the first line for musical effect, ‘white’to suggest slight variants of the colour;
- the final line, in its comparison of emotional flood and safe-breaking provides a powerful coda to the collection as a whole;
- 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 effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies:
- the first 4 lines, for example stir together sibilant sounds [s] [sh], alveolar plosives [t] [d], velar plosives [k][g] and alveolar approximant [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/ ang