Prompted by the sight of an old-fashioned farmhouse utensil used to decorate pats of butter Heaney revisits the lost domain of childhood . The Heaney family produced its own butter on the family farm (see ‘Churning Day’ from Death of a Naturalist, Heaney’s first collection of 1966).
Heaney shakes his head at the woodworker who carved the print’s circular, sunny disposition (round open face) with a barbed design (cross-hatched head of rye, all jags and bristles) emblazoning the tasty substance (soft butter) with a skin tearing image (sharp device) recalling the damage incurred by a saintly figure (breast … scored with slivered glass).
The poet reveals that his personal reaction stemmed from a childhood crisis (I swallowed an awn of rye), a regrettable act that triggered sharp distress (my throat was like standing crop probed by a scythe). The cereal head entered his throat smoothly enough (I felt the edge slide) but attempts to regurgitate it proved painfully difficulty (point stick deep).
Heaney describes the ensuing panic (I coughed and coughed) and the sudden relief (coughed it up) that cleared and cooled his airways (my breathing came dawn-cold so clear and sudden).
Blessed release from terror and pain (I might have been inhaling airs from heaven) conjures up a disfigured victim from Church history … both youngster and Saint (healed and martyred Agatha stares down) looking fixedly at what mutilated them (relic knife … awn).
- butter-print: plates of carved wood with which to impress ornamental patterns on the upper face of butter pats (often home-produced);
- cross-hatched: images of rye will confirm the intersecting sets of fibres that characterise the cereal head;
- jags: sharp projections;
- bristles: short, stiff hair;
- device: the pattern transmitted by the butter-print;
- scored: scratched;
- slivered: as if marked small, thin shards of glass;
- awn: the stiff, bristle-like ear of rye;
- standing: for example upright grass before it is cut;
- probed by a scythe: pricked by a sharp-ended instrument; scythe: long-handled, sharp-pointed tool used in the fields for cutting grass manually;
- dawn-cold: the coolest time of day;
- martyred Agatha: Agatha (Gk ‘agos’ meaning ‘good’) came from a rich and important Sicilian family. She lived a life dedicated to God refusing marriage proposals from all the men who sought her hand. Unwilling to renounce Christianity she was beaten, imprisoned, tortured; her breasts were cut off.
- relic knife: the blade used to mutilate her and provide a Christian object of reverence;
- 5 sentences composed in 3 quatrains; line length based on 10 syllables; unrhymed with one exception; balance between punctuation and use of enjambment;
- Double questions mimic a sense of outrage at the contrast between soft butter and sharp edged pattern inscribed on it; ‘bear: double meaning ‘carry’, ‘ suffer’;
- ‘as if’ confirms the contrary-to-what-you-would-believe dimension;
- butter personified ‘breast;
- the swallow itself is matter-of fact; the language of after effect explodes, generating heat: vocabulary of sharpness; repetition of ‘coughed’ setting out the effort required to dislodge the blockage
- emphatic placing of ‘up’ permits the after-flow of relief: vocabulary of soothing coldness;
- thanking his lucky stars (cosmic space is mostly cold) introduces his common link with a holy victim;
- 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 couplet, for example, stirs together voiceless velar plosive [k] bi-labial plosive [p][b] alongside voiceless alveolar fricative as in hatched [tʃ]; voiced alveolar fricative as in jags [dʒ]; 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