The Rain Stick

for Beth and Rand

First published in the New Republic in 1993

Heaney describes the ‘music’ produced by a cactus stalk. He recounts a moment of unexpected pleasure that may be repeated at will; in so doing he introduces the message of the collection’s final piece (Postscript), that of opening the heart and the senses to the simple delights that the world has to offer. The rain stick acquires the symbolic quality of an instrument of divine transmission. 

To play this ‘instrument’ only one lesson is required: Upend the rain stick . The result of doing so is unexpected and miraculous: the cactus ‘instrument’ produces a music that you never would have known / To listen for. From this ‘ordinary’ product of an arid wilderness comes something extraordinary: a concerto on the sound of rain, its first movement a powerful inundation with flood and overflow: Downpour, sluice-rush, spillage and backwash.

The ‘musician’ and the instrument become as one: You stand there like a pipe / Being played by water.

With sensitive fingering (shake it again lightly) the instrumentalist can achieve musical dynamics as sounds soften almost to the point of silence: watery diminuendo runs through all its scales/ Like a gutter stopping trickling.

The sounds emanating from the rain stick have a musical notation with scales, a dynamic that asks for diminuendo and harmonies in the undiminished intervals. Each consecutive stage echoes the minute variations in the sound of falling rain (contrasting so markedly with the rain stick’s arid beginnings): now a delicate, reviving sprinkle of drops out of the freshened leaves, now deposits of subtle little wets off grass and daisies; now engaging other senses, sight as well as sound: glitter-drizzle; now, as if close to miracle, all but making visible the invisible: almost-breaths of air.

Like music itself this simple enriching experience can be repeated at will without losing its impact: Upend the stick again. What happens next/ Is undiminished for having happened once,/ Twice, ten, a thousand times before.

Description is replace by enquiry: cactus or instrument? Who cares if all the music that transpires (emanates as if produced by liquid)/ Is the fall of grit or dry seeds …? Heaney reintroduces the ‘rich young man’ first seen in Station Island (who might enter heaven (‘through the eye of a needle’) on the provision that he was prepared to make major changes of life-style); no call for stipulations in these exceptional circumstances: all those privileged to hear this sublime product of nature with its magical, musical quality resemble a rich man entering heaven/ Through the ear of a raindrop.

The pleasure is repeatable at will. ‘Go on, have another go’, a message in line with Keeping Going: Listen now again (see Heaney’s own comments below).

  • sluice: c.1400a shortening of Old French escluse “sluice, floodgate” (Modern French écluse), from Late Latin exclusa “barrier to shut out water;
  • gutter: the shallow trough fixed to the edge of a roof that carries away rainwater;
  • diminuendo: 1775, from Italian diminuendo “lessening, diminishing,”; a musical dynamic indicating a lessening of volume;
  • scales: dual intention: the cactus tube has retained a veneer of flaked pieces that peel off from a surface; scales describe a succession or progression of steps or degrees; a scale is a group of musical pitches arranged in ascending order that span an octave (with an interval of an eighth). 
  • undiminished: a ‘diminished’ interval in music is produced by narrowing a perfect fourth by a chromatic semitone; Heaney is merely pursuing his musical imagery;
  • transpires: compare Modern French transpirer, to breathe (Latin trans/through + spirare/ to breathe). Heaney is being hugely ingenious, falling back on his knowledge of language to retain the water imagery: transpire, ‘to pass off as a vapor or (here) liquid, figuratively ‘to leak out’, ‘become known’; (usage to mean ‘ takes place’, ‘occurs’ though accepted and appropriate to the context is regarded as erroneous by etymologists);
  • an intriguing fusion: sounds from nature are described using words associated with music; the word-music will run from fff (very loud) volume in the first ‘movement’ increasingly quietly thereafter down to (ppp) (very soft) the dynamic markings are woven ingeniously into the words as the rain stick’s sounds die to near silence;
  • In dialogue with DOD (p345) Heaney commented: ‘That first poem is as much about middle age as about a ‘rain stick. The instruction to listen was directed more to myself than to the reader, a reminder to keep the lyric faith … ‘The Rain Stick’ is about being irrigated by delicious sound, about water music being created by the driest of elements – desiccated seeds falling through a cactus stalk. I’d occasionally seen and heard rain sticks in shops that specialized in ethnic goods, but I’d never heard anything like the one in the Brandes home in North Carolina. It was so lush and I was so entranced that Rand and Beth made me a gift of it – which is why the poem is dedicated to them.’ DOD ‘So the poem is really about ‘keeping going’?’ SH Exactly’.
  • the Saguaro cactus, native to the American Southwestshoots up 30 or 40 feet into the air with raised blunt curved arms and striated rows of giant spikes (thorns). When these giant cacti die, the waxy green pulp dries and fades. The hollow “tubes” are hacked down by native Americans, filled with seeds or small pebbles and their ends sealed off. The sound that is produced by tipping the tube sounds exactly like raindrops .
  • Rand Brandes: academic, critic and bibliographer working at Lenoir-Rhyne University, North Carolina; married to Beth:
  • Adam Kirsch comments on (the poem’s) ‘transparent guilelessness’. It isn’t trying to convince you of something which the poet feels you need to know for your own good. It’s a gift outright, a piece of the wondrous fabric of direct experience.
  • Holly Ordway comments: We listen to the noise of the rain … we know a moment of beauty and peace and then it is gone, passing into memory even at the very moment of experience… if we will but listen (which is what Heaney calls us to do) to the fragility of that moment, we enter into something deeper … what moved me most in “The Rain Stick” was Heaney’s assurance that true joy wells up from an inexhaustible source;
  • six triplets constructed as nine sentences; line length mainly ten syllables, otherwise eight; unrhymed;
  • frequent use of enjambed lines helps determine the ‘musical score’ of oral delivery;
  • poem pitched in the present tense, ‘as it happens’;
  • use of imperatives;
  • rather than the if you of conditional clauses: ’upend’ to mimic user-manual; amounts to the same thing;
  • multiple use of musical terms; vocabulary of liquidity, both open ‘flow’, concealed in Latin borrowings: ‘transpire’;
  • Biblical reference reworked to add a spiritual but non-religious dimension: ‘eye of a needle’ becomes ‘ear of a raindrop’;
  • simile using ‘like’; personification ‘almost-breaths of air’;
  • synesthaesia juxtaposes sight and touch to add the light effect of the compound ‘glitter-drizzle’;
  • 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: twelve 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 sentence of Rain Stick, for example, stirs together sibilant [s] with bi-labial plosive [p], alveolar plosive [t]and nasal [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/ anger.


Cite this article as: David Fawbert, "The Rain Stick," in Connecting with Seamus Heaney, June 1, 2015,