The Sharping Stone


A quintet of elegiac poems triggered by the discovery of a gift lying forgotten and unopened in a piece of home furniture.

Heaney sets the context: (where the stone was discovered) In an apothecary’s chest of drawers; (its construction) Sweet cedar; its status (purchased second hand); its specific location in a drawer (one of its weighty deep-sliding recesses); the object itself (the sharping stone); its original intended destination): Our gift to him (further clues suggest his father); its mint condition (Still in its wrapping paper). The discovery generates a sense failure Like a baton of black light I’d failed to pass (a relay runner dropping the baton).

  • apothecary: person who in olden times prepared and sold medicines and drugs;
  • chest of drawers: solid piece of furniture;
  • sweet cedar: a cedar used for its resinous odour;
  • deep-sliding recesses: reference to drawers; large furniture has large proportions (deep); drawers slide in and out;
  • sharping stone: a stone used to sharpen tools in a tradesman’s workshop; these came in various shapes, for example chisels required flat stones; the adjective itself may also have been selected to express degree as in ‘sharp sense of loss’; this usage fits very appropriately with the subject-matter;
  • baton … pass:  tube passed from runner to runner in a relay race;
  • sextet; line length based on 10 syllables; unrhymed; 3 sentences; good balance between punctuation and enjambed lines;
  • vocabulary appropriate to large dimensioned, old fashioned monolithic furniture;
  • comparison too/athletic baton;


Airless cinder-depths: a striking example of economy encapsulates in three words the stale trapped smell from within a space long unopened and involuntary memory associating the smell with the coal fires of his early life.

The sharping stone’s placement has triggered a second pleasurable scenario: it wakened something too, himself and Marie in togetherness that evening on the logs,/ Flat on our backs, side by side: the pair of us, parallel, supported head to heel, lying to attention like recumbent soldiers: arms straight, eyes front.

Nature was doing the talking: Listening to the rain drip off the trees/ And saying nothing, as they lay pressed firmly, braced against the damp bark. For them to brave such conditions something must have taken them over? What possessed us?

It was worthwhile: The bare, lopped loveliness / Of those two winter trunks) conjured up an image of a launch-pad with rockets Prepared for launching, at right angles across/ A causeway of short fence-posts set like rollers.

Time and sound were suspended; there was a sense of something in the air: Neither of us spoke. The puddles waited./ The workers had gone home, saws fallen silent.

Heaney gives his imagination free rein: two innocents (babes in the wood) eyes fixed on the rain-source (Gazing up at the flood-face of the sky) then floating away (as in a film animation), out of their surroundings (a flood ( ) carrying us/ Out of the forest park, feet first, eyes front), beyond time (Out of November, out of middle age) and straight into Celtic mythology: across the Sea of Moyle.

  • logs: cut sections of a tree;
  • lopped: stripped of side branches and leaves;
  • launching: like a rocket about to be hurled skywards;
  • causeway: raised road or track across low or wet ground;
  • babes in the wood:  traditional children’s tale; the expression has passed into common parlance referring to inexperienced innocents facing the unknown;
  • Sea of Moyle: archaic poetic name for the narrowest expanse of water between Northern Ireland and the Scottish Mull of Kintyre;
  • 19 lines in a single verse; 9-sentence structure; balance between punctuation and enjambed lines; unrhymed;
  • all the same: used idiomatically, sense of anyway, let me move on;
  • parallel: will recur in the next piece as ‘side by side’;
  • comparison: short logs and rollers; long logs rockets;
  • use of short sentences in mid poem to create a suspense preceding fairy-story animation;
  • reference to children’s stories: babes in the wood;
  • personification: flood-face of the sky;
  • military instruction repeated: ‘eyes front’;
  • repetition of preposition ‘out’;


The speaker is looking intently at an example of ancient Etruscan pottery in a French museum: Sarcophage des époux. In terra cotta. The urn containing the ashes of an Etruscan couple depicts them in life (shown side by side, / Recumbent on left elbows). The two figures have contrasting demeanour: the husband is in control mode: pointing/ With his right arm and watching where he points. The wife plays on her femininity: in front, her earrings in, her braids/ Down to her waist, taking her sexual ease. The man (all eyes) is on the qui-vive: the woman (all brow and dream) is living in a world of her own (her deep inward gaze). She has the same posture as St Kevin (featured in the collection): Her right forearm and hand held out as if/ Some bird … Might be about to roost there.

Heaney reflects on the values perceived via the household ‘snapshot’ (Domestic/ Love, the artist thought,/ warm tones and property) and also the frail texture of the artifact itself: The frangibility of terra cotta.

The surprise in the poem’s tail is poignantly touching: Heaney is not in Paris at all: what he saw figured on the colour postcard / (Louvre, Département des Antiquités) that was found among his things: the old man treasured the communication from his family so much that after his death it had remained part of his estate.

  • Sarcophage des époux: the Paris Louvre contains an example of an Etruscan monumental terra-cotta urn (sarcophagus) representing two elongated figures at an Etruscan banquet whose ashes were assumed be contained within; époux: married couple;
  • terra cotta: brownish red fired clay;
  • Etruscan: relating to ancient Etruria; the Etruscan civilization was at its height circa 500 BC and was an important influence on the Romans;
  • recumbent: lying, stretched out;
  • braids: hair typically made up of three or more interlaced strands;
  • sexual ease: a seductively languid posture;
  • brow: forehead;
  • inward gaze: sign of being self-absorbed;
  • frangibility: fragility, brittleness
  • Département des Antiquités: a section of the Paris museum exhibiting the creative activity of the Greeks and Etruscans from their earliest times;
  • 15 lines in 6 sentences; line length based on 10 syllables; unrhymed;
  • use of anatomical and ceramic references;
  • vocabulary reflective of extrovert male and preoccupied female: all eyes, ‘all brow and dream’
  • pathos: the relatively banal but much treasured postcard ‘found among his things’;


Heaney sets out the things that activated his wife’s father in old age. The old man enjoyed unintended errors that made him chuckle (inspired mistakes). One such was his Spanish grandson’s word-for-word rendering (transliteration) of a thank-you for a boat trip: ‘That was a marvelous/ Walk on the water, granddad.’

The child’s expression fitted neatly with a man who walked on air himself. The need to cope with the aftermath of his wife’s death had awakened his joie-de –vivre (the youth / In him, the athlete who had wooed her a champion at running and jumping alike: Breasting tapes and clearing the high bars).

His rediscovered buoyancy (lightsome once again) bordered on the devil-may-care: behind the wheel of his car Going at eighty/ On the bendiest roads; gambling his money on horse-racing and cards (going for broke/ At every point-to-point and poker-school).

Rejuvenated, he threw caution to the winds (his wild career a second time / And not a bother on him. There was always a cigarette in his fingers (Smoked like a train), he ignored the dangers of new-fangled machinery (took the power mower in his stride), sought to impress the ladies (Flirted and vaunted), fell asleep whilst smoking (Set fire to his bed) and was unafraid of heights (Fell from a ladder).

The reader is offered a clue as to the period Heaney is talking about: Marie Heaney’s father adapted to living on his own and prepared instant meals using modern technology: Learned to microwave.

  • HV reveals (In Seamus Heaney, p157) that the subject of this piece is Heaney’s wife’s father (Marie née Devlin).
  • alongside Heaney’s own father Patrick, Marie’s father seems the other man capable of stirring the poet’s emotions to this degree.
  • inspired : unusual juxtaposition; Heaney remembers his etymology offering a choice: either ‘to fill (the mind, heart with grace, or ‘to prompt or induce (someone to do something’) from Latin inspirare “inflame; blow into”
  • transliteration: word-for-word translation of a corresponding phrase in a different language; walk on the water: the mistake comes easily from the Spanish – tomar un paseo (walk) en barco; in a different context to walk on water was equivalent to achieving the impossible;
  • walk on air: be very happy, euphoric;
  • widowed: by the death of a wife;
  • wooed: courted her with a view to marriage;
  • breasted tapes: come first in athletic track events breaking the tape stretched across the finishing line; in close finishes it is the chest that decides;
  • high bars: that are cleared in jumping events;
  • lightsome: happy, carefree;
  • going at eighty: pun; at eighty miles per hour; at eighty years of age;
  • going for broke:  risking everything in an all-out effort; a person with no money is said to be ‘broke’
  • point-to-point: a form of horseracing over fences for hunting horses and amateur riders;
  • poker school: a group of people gambling together;
  • not a bother: showing no signs of stress or age;
  • like a train: at full speed like an express train (the simile only works when locomotives burn coal and produce smoke);
  • power mower: newfangled grass-cutting equipment that operates using mains electricity; contrasts with the traditional mowing of grass in the final poem;
  • in his stride: pun thought nothing of using/ coped well; walked behind;
  • vaunted: showed off, boasted ‘swanked’, sought to impress;
  • microwave ovens became widely-used, affordable domestic appliances and instant meals were developed in the mid to late 1970s;
  • 16 lines in a single verse; 8 sentences; the enumeration of the man’ activities (initially a list punctuated by commas) eventually provides an independent sentence for each as they become more extravagant;
  • line length based on 10 syllables; unrhymed; abundant use of enjambed lines;
  • direct speech, the first attributed to the grandson; the second, unattributed, possibly the words of an incredulous daughter!
  • Idiomatic phrases: walk on water, on air;
  • gerunds used figuratively to express victory: breasting; clearing
  • unusual suffix ‘some’ added to denote relative degree as ‘ish’;
  • play on words: at eighty; broke; stride; also ’career’ carries a: sense of both ‘what he did before’ and ‘living life in the fast lane’;


The final piece returns to the sharping stone of the first: Heaney’s suggestion is to ritualize the man’s death by releasing the emblematic gift into Nature: So set the drawer (from the apothecary’s chest of drawers) on freshets of thaw water / And place the unused sharping stone inside it.

He pictures the stone washed up next summer on a riverbank with its fairy-like images of traditional Irish rural life (Where scythes once hung all night in alder trees). It will be of immediate use to farm workers engaged in the sharpening procedure: mowers played dawn scherzos on the blades. The sharpening process is similar in technique to playing the harp: like harpists’ arms, one drawing towards with an added otherworldly dimension One sweeping the bright rim of the extreme.

  • freshets: (archaic) streams of fresh water;
  • thaw: ice and snow melt;
  • alder: tree of the birch family with toothed leaves; very common in Ireland;
  • mower: person mowing/ cutting down grass;
  • scherzos: vigorous, playful compositions, typically one section of a symphony or sonata;
  • blades: shear-like cutters;
  • drawing towards: the lower arm in the sharpening operation that pulls closer to the waist; the other arm follows an outer circle of movement;
  • rim: outer edge of object or trajectory;
  • harp: Irish symbol;
  • 1 sextet in a single sentence; lines based on 10 syllables; unrhymed; good balance between punctuation and enjambed lines;
  • conjunction ‘so’ serves several purposes: as a next step, as a final step, for this reason, when all is said and done; because there is little more to be said; the monosyllable also slows the pace for a much calmer ending;
  • comparisons; (scherzo) the sound of music, the sound of stone against metal; man sharpening a scythe, musician playing the Irish harp;
  • the music of the poem: sixteen 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 title and first sentence, for example, stir together alveolar fricative as in chest, purchased [tʃ] sibilant {s] [sh] sounds alongside bi=labial plosive [p] and alveolar plosives [t] [d];
  • 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.