The Poplar


This short piece goes to the heart of matters of alignment as per The Spirit Level: as a close observer of the strength of nature Heaney is quick to perceive changes that find an echo in human affairs, themselves reshaped by powerful forces.

A gust of wind exposes the much lighter shaded underside of the poplar tree’s leaves, suddenly changing the landscape: Wind shakes the big poplar, quicksilvering / The whole tree in a single sweep. The poet’s sensitivity as regards shifting ground and equilibrium, his natural caution about hopeful contemporary political developments lead to questions: when things are finely balanced which way will they tip: What bright scale fell and left this needle quivering? How much negative weight (loaded) is required to blight positive initiatives and bring them to grief? Ulster’s future is in the balance.

  • poplar: tall, fast-growing tree of north temperate regions;
  • quicksilvering: causing the tree to tremble and glitter like liquid mercury;
  • scale(s): 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’);
  • 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’;
  • a single quatrain in three sentences (2 questions); length based on 10 syllables;
  • rhyme abab;
  • talking to Henri Cole in The Paris Review of Heaney remarked: “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”. What referred to Heaney’s poetry can apply equally to the poet’s perception of political events
  • British PM Harold McMillan’s ‘Wind of Change’ speech of 1960 heralded a sea-change in British policy towards its ‘colonies’; recent ceasefires in Ulster promise change;


  • the music of the poem: in a four line piece 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:
  • 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/ anger.

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