The Errand

The second of  consecutive poems in which Heaney recalls incidents involving his deceased parents in particular his father. Heaney had left the family home (after seven years of boarding-school experience in Derry) to go to university after which he worked, married, travelled and brought up children in locations distant from his roots. His memories of those early days are crystal-clear.

The child Heaney shows an early flash of the intelligence he will demonstrate abundantly as schoolboy and scholar: the father gives his eager-beaver son a job he wants done without delay: ‘On you go now! Run, son, like the devil’ ; he is to pass on an instruction: ‘tell your mother to try/ To find me a bubble for the spirit level / And a new knot for this tie.’

When the child simply stares back at him without budging, his non-compliance is not regarded as insubordination: he was glad, I know, when I stood my ground, / Putting it up to him. The youngster has overcome an attempt to send him on an errand that would make him look a fool With a smile that trumped his smile and his fool’s errand.

He knows it will not be the last effort to hoodwink him: … Waiting for the next move in the game .

  • errand; a job;
  • fool’s errand: task or activity asked of ingenuous people without hope of them succeeding ;
  • like the devil: at full speed;
  • bubble: thin sphere of liquid enclosing air;
  • spirit level: device used in the building trade consisting of a sealed glass tube partially filled with alcohol or other liquid, containing an air bubble whose position reveals whether a surface is perfectly level;
  • knot: a looped fastening;
  • putting it up; standing firm;
  • trump: in cards one of a chosen suit that beats cards from other suits; by extension to win the round;
  • move … game: Heaney illustrates the battle of wits that took place using vocabulary of competitive games;


  • two quatrains with lines of variable length; loose rhymes scheme abab cddc ;
  • first quatrain direct speech in 2 sentences with enjambed lines; second quatrain in a single sentence;
  • imagery and vocabulary of card play;
  • the music of the poem: six 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 quatrain already gathers together bi-labial plosives [p] [b] and nasal [n]; note also alveolar [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



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