The Gravel Walks

Heaney pens an elegy to the loss of an irrecoverable resource.

In an interview he added that ‘The Gravel Walks’ ‘ is about heavy work—wheeling barrows of gravel—but also the paradoxical sense of lightness when you’re lifting heavy things. I like the in-between-ness of up and down, of being on the earth and of the heavens’. Heaney in the Harvard Crimson of Oct 2008.

The poem’s most memorable line linking Heaney’s voice and his mid-Ulster heritage will appear on his headstone in Bellaghy church-yard.

Heaney focuses on his cherished Moyola river and on the visible elemental inter-reaction of stone and water (river gravel) since time immemorial (in the beginning, that).

At a time when water levels were depressed (high summer) the poem was triggered by a piece of up to date transport (angler’s motorbike) left (deep in roadside flowers) like a metal-clad victim of medieval combat (fallen knight) of whom in distant memory (whose ghost we’d lately questioned) he and his playmates might have enquired whether the fish were biting (‘Any luck?’).

As mechanized post-WWII progress kicked into life (the engines of the world prepared) Nature on the river bank prepared for the worst (green nuts dangled clustered closer to the whirlpool trees dipped down).

Beneath the Moyola’s surface erosion continued apace (flints and sandstone-bits worked themselves smooth and smaller) in a river cherished for its light effects (sparkle of shallow), rapid flow (hurrying) and amber colouring (barley-sugar water); plentiful small fish (minnows schooled) shied away from the youngsters (scared when we played).

A process dating from the Earth’s creation suddenly and savagely disrupted (an eternity that ended) by the need to dredge gravel (once a tractor dropped its link-box) and mix it with concrete (cement mixers began to come to life) as part of post-war construction.

Unprecedented human activity spawned new creatures (men in dungarees) otherworldly chain-gangs (like captive shades) engaged in a back-breaking process (mixed concrete, loaded, wheeled, turned, wheeled) as significant as slaves building the ancient Pyramids (Pharaoh’s brickyards burned inside their heads).

  • high summer: summer at its warmest and brightest;
  • fallen knight: a knight brought down from his horse;
  • engines: mechanical devices, the signs of impending urban development;
  • whirlpool: rotating mass of water typically brought about by conflicting currents;
  • flints: pieces of hard grey rock;
  • worked themselves: ground themselves smooth against each other in the river current;
  • barley-sugar: a hard amber-coloured sweet made of boiled sugar;
  • minnows schooled: small freshwater fish that typically swam in large shoals;
  • link-box: a multi-purpose metal container attached to the rear of a tractor; here used to dredge out gravel;
  • dungarees: hard-wearing work trousers with a bib held up by straps over the shoulders;
  • Pharaoh: rulers of ancient Egypt who ruthlessly completed the huge developments still evident along the Nile;


Adult Heaney venerates the wholesomeness of Moyola grit (hoard and praise the verity of gravel) of inestimable value to those who see the truth (gems for the undeluded), there from the beginnings of time (milt of earth) and remembered for its musicality (plain, champing song against the shovel) projecting an alliterative image (soundtests and sandblasts) of value (words like ‘honest worth’). 

Heaney takes a swig from Sorescu’s meaning from the deep brain: he is a part of what is part of him (kingdom of gravel was inside you to) stored in his memory-vault (deep down) where memories come from (far back), a pure thing (clear water running over pebbles) rich in colour tints (caramel, hailstone, mackerel-blue).

Humping true Moyola gravel (actual washed stuff) kept feet firmly anchored to the ground (slow and steady). Meeting the physical demands (stooping with your barrow full) purged feelings of sin (an absolution of the body) and elevated the body beyond exhaustion (shriven life tired bones and marrow feel).

And then the words that grace Heaney’s headstone in Bellaghy churchyard where he exhorts himself to stay true to his calling (walk on air against your better judgement), to take pleasure from his unique position (establishing yourself somewhere in between) at the interface of ugly modernity (those solid batches mixed with grey cement) and the splendid Irish surroundings lyricized in a popular song (tune called ‘The Gravel Walks’ that conjures green).

  • hoard: store secretly;
  • praise: glorify;
  • verity: true worth;
  • undeluded: those who have come to realise the truth;
  • milt: fine gravel resulting from geological erosion;
  • champing song: sounds like teeth chewing;
  • soundtest: measuring the sound;
  • sandblasts: process of roughening or cleaning (a surface) with a jet of sand mixed with water;
  • caramel: the light brown colour of boiled sugar or syrup
  • hailstone: a pellet of iced rain;
  • mackerel: the greenish blue stripes of a predatory marine fish;
  • absolution: release from guilt or sin;
  • walk on air: feel elated;
  • batches: quantities produced in a single operation and at the same time (e.g. bricks from a kiln);
  • Gravel Walks: a well-known Irish tune for fiddle or pipes;
  • conjures green: that brings Ireland into the mind as if by magic;
  • we find Heaney contemplating memories of the beautiful (and now destroyed) gravel beds of his childhood and urging himself (to) walk on air.Nicholas Jenkins Walking on Air in the TLS of July 5th 1996:
  • This “walking on air” phrase has become … an organizing preoccupation for Heaney: in his Nobel lecture, for instance, delivered in December, he avowed that “for once in my life, I am permitting myself the luxury of walking on air. But “walking on air” means something more than simply the conventional sense of being exultant or delighted … it also conveys an effort of determination and defiance, as much remaking as relaxing. Nicholas Jenkins Walking on Air in the TLS of July 5th 1996
  • Questioner:Back to your Nobel lecture. You recited a line from your poem, where the narrator says, “Walk on air against your better judgment.” You offered this line as an instruction to yourself and all who listened. What does that mean?  SH: A person from Northern Ireland is naturally cautious. You grew up vigilant because it’s a divided society. My poetry on the whole was earth-hugging, but then I began to look up rather than keep down. I think it had to do with a sense that the marvellous was as permissible as the matter-of-fact in poetry From the Harvard Crimson of Oct 2008
  • Along with an almost animistic celebration of the natural world, Heaney has consistently emphasized the physicality of English words … The Anglo-Saxon pith of “gravel” and “milt” rubs shoulders with the biblical and Latinate “verity.” And notice the satisfying consonant rhyme of “gravel” and “shovel,” and the elegant music of the feminine half-rhymes “soundtests” and “sandblasts” tucked into the last line. If you can’t hear the “champing song” when shovel digs into gravel, you don’t have ears. Increasingly, this champion of the senses has come to emphasize moral and spiritual dimensions. The words “honest worth” not only sound like feet stepping on gravel, but characterize how we handle gravel and what we use it for … Thoroughly grounded as he is in …”the things of this world,” this son of an Irish farming family offers a vision that is a powerful tonic against the fin de siècle alienation and solipsism touted by fashionable literary criticism. Richard Tillinghast
  • (1) four quatrains; 10 syllable lines; loose rhyme scheme begins to emerge and will become more formal abab/cdcd in the second piece;
  • five sentence construct; rich use of enjambed lines contrasts with the cluster of verbs/ activities on the building-site
  • use of engines as a generic word for machines; also ‘schooled’;
  • old Testament reference (in the beginning) to the Creation Genesis1i; second theological reference in ‘absolution’; personification oftrees in reverence: ‘dipped down’; ‘eternity’
  • use of simile;
  • otherworldliness: ghost, shades;
  • concentration of many different elements (dimensions, refracted light, shades of colour) in a single phrase ; sparkle of shallow, hurrying barley-sugar water;
  • comparisons: motorbike and medieval knight; water colour of a sweetmeat; builders/ underworld figures; personification: a machine that lives
  • 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 effects allow pulses or beats, soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies:
  • for example, the first lines quatrain stirs together velar plosives [k] [g] alveolar plosives [t] [d]alongside nasals [m] [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

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