The Poplar

Multum in parvo! This short piece goes to the heart of matters of alignment and balance. Heaney, a close observer of nature, is quick to perceive the previously unseen and consider whether it signals dramatic shifts in human affairs, themselves shaped by powerful forces.

Heaney addressed the issue with Henri Cole in Harvard’s Paris Review: “The needle is always swinging between two extremes with me. One is the gravitas of subject matter, a kind of surly nose-to-the-groundness, almost a non-poetry, and the other is the lift and frolic of the words in themselves”.

Heaney reflects on something he has not noticed before: a sudden rush of wind (shakes the big poplar) exposes as if by alchemy (quicksilvering) the lighter-shaded underside of the leaves, in a concerted wave (whole tree in a single sweep). Heaney explores an allegorical dimension.

Did the poplar phenomenon remove an obstacle (what bright scale fell) from his way of measuring what affected his life (left this needle quivering)? Did external elemental power result in a major shift in his thinking (loaded balances) either distancing him from a previous positions or leading to sorrow (come to grief)?

So much contained in four lines of poetry: the poet’s sensitivity, the ways the world shifts ground, his natural caution about hopeful political developments – all lurk in the background. When things are finely balanced which way will they tip? Has Heaney fixed on his answer?

  • poplar: tall, fast-growing tree of northern temperate regions;
  • quicksilvering: causing the tree to tremble and glitter; there is something alchemical and astrological associated with quicksilver aka mercury;
  • scale(s): a range of empirical measures of, say, wind speed; a weighing instrument comprising two pans that tip one way or the other and a central pointer (‘needle’) that indicates absolute balance or hovers uncertainly (‘quivers’);
  • the scales fell from my eyes (Biblical reference to Saul): an obstacle to understanding was removed;
  • loaded: weight-bearing;
  • balances: things whose even proportions promote stability
  • come to grief: a play on words – in one sense ‘meet with disaster’; in a specifically Northern Irish context ‘return the people to a sense of despair’;
  • British PM Harold McMillan’s ‘Wind of Change’ speech of 1960 heralded a sea-change in British policy towards its ‘colonies’; recent ceasefires in Northern Ireland point to a lasting peace;
  • a single quatrain in three sentences (2 questions); length based on 10 syllables;
  • rhyme abab;
  • the music of the poem: in a four line piece nine 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:
  • one notes particularly the presence of sibilant sounds [s] [sh]alongside bi-labial plosives [p][b] and velar plosive[k] [g];
  • 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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