The Sharping Stone

Five poems are triggered by the discovery of a gift in mint condition lying forgotten in a drawer. The fourth piece identifies Heaney’s late father-in-law Thomas ‘Tommy’ Devlin and clues suggest that he is the centrepiece.

Heaney zooms slowly in on the whetstone: from the furniture in which it was discovered (an apothecary’s chest of drawers), a quality piece (sweet cedar) of modest provenance (purchased second hand) to its specific location in a drawer (one of its weighty deep-sliding recesses). Therein the object itself (sharping stone) and recall of its original intended recipient who for the moment will remain anonymous (our gift to him). In mint condition (still in its wrapping paper). Too late to deliver now (Tommy has passed on) and typical of Heaney’s underlying sense of falling short the discovery suggests he has let the team down (baton of black light I’d failed to pass).

  • 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;


The sharping stone acts as a catalyst for a frolic of free imagination.

Its point of discovery provides striking sensory example of poetic economy (airless cinder-depths) encapsulating in three words the stale trapped smell of a space long unopened and triggering involuntary memory of dry dustiness.

The sharping stone’s deadness to the world (he way it lay there) reminded Heaney (wakened something too) of a zany thing that he and Marie once did (that evening on the logs flat on our backs) as a couple (pair of us, parallel), stretching out stiffly (arms straight, eyes front) across two felled tree-trunks (supported head to heel). 

Their shared togetherness left Nature do the talking (listening to the rain drip off the trees and saying nothing) as they lay rigid (braced) to avoid the wet (damp bark). He addresses Marie: we must have been totally mad (what possessed us?).

The poet’s imagination intervenes to create an image of arboreal splendour (bare, lopped loveliness of those two winter trunks) morphing into a rocket-pad ready (prepared for launching) to propel them in an elsewhere direction (at right angles), lifting them above their surroundings (causeway) using the ricochet effect of logged wood (short fence-posts set like rollers).


He allows his imagination ever fuller rein: lift-off is imminent … sound suspended (neither of us spoke), nature in limbo (puddles waited), no one to bear witness (workers gone home), the moment on hold (saws fallen silent).

Then as in a magic spell Heaney and Marie are re-cast as two innocents in a fairy-tale (babes in the wood), eyes settled on the celestial rain-source above (gazing up at the flood-face of the sky) that lifted them (a flood carrying us) beyond their immediate surroundings (forest park), bodily (feet first, eyes front), beyond time (out of November, out of middle age) and into their world of 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 midpoem 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’;


Ostensibly the speaker is looking intently at an example of ancient Etruscan pottery in a French museum (Sarcophage des époux. In terra cotta). The urn was assumed to contain the ashes of the two ancient Graeco-Romans (Etruscan couple) depicted in life (side by side) in patrician pose (recumbent on left elbows).

Two stereotypical demeanours: the husband in control mode (pointing with his right arm and watching where he points), the wife prominent (in front), beautified (earrings in), coiffured (braids down to her waist) utterly ‘feminine’ (taking her sexual ease).

He (all eyes) is on the qui-vive: she, preoccupied (all brow and dream) is in a world of her own (deep inward gaze): her posture (right forearm and hand held out) is St Kevin-like (see this collection): some bird might be about to roost there.

So, asks Heaney, what does the ‘exhibit’ tell us of Graeco-Roman society: a couple attached to one another (domestic love) brown tints and prosperity (warm tones and property) but also a hint of brittle impermanence (frangibility of terra cotta).

The surprise in the poem’s tail is poignantly touching: the Heaneys are not in Paris at all (figured on the colour postcard) though they were once there (Louvre, Département des Antiquités) and sent the card to her father Tommy Devlin kept by him and discovered after his death (found among his things).

  • sarcophage: 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 circa500 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’;


Here at last the portrait of the man Heaney has been pointing towards. The poet sets out the things that made his wife’s father tick. Tommy enjoyed unintended errors that made him chuckle (inspired mistakes). One such was a language slip – his Spanish grandson’s rendering (transliteration) of a ‘thank-you for the boat trip (‘a marvelous walk on the water, granddad’).

The child’s expression sat happily alongside the man (walked on air himself). The death of his wife Eileen had rekindled his joie-de–vivre (the youth in him) and stripped years from the life (athlete who had wooed her) of an erstwhile champion at running and jumping alike (breasting tapes and clearing the high bars).

Tommy rediscovered his carefree spirit (lightsome once again), bordering on the devil-may-care behind the wheel of his car (going at eighty on the bendiest roads) and betting his shirt (going for broke) on horses and cards (every point-to-point and poker-school).

Rejuvenated (‘his wild career’ a second time) he threw caution to the winds (not a bother on him) ignoring health warnings (smoked like a train), unafraid of new-fangled machinery (took the power mower in his stride), still eager to impress the ladies (flirted and vaunted), falling asleep whilst smoking (set fire to his bed) and surviving accident (fell from a ladder)

The crowning glory, perhaps: his ability to live on his own and prepare instant meals using modern technology: (learned to microwave).

  • HV confirms that the subject of this piece is Tommy Devlin Heaney’s father in law (Marie née Devlin); alongside Heaney’s own father Patrick, Marie’s father seems the only 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 ofhorseracing 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 sharping stone links memory of Thomas Devlin to the souls of heroes of Celtic mythology released on boat journeys to a better place. The unused sharping stone will act as a legendary grave-good committed to the river in its original container from the apothecary’s chest (drawer) laid on the pure melt-waters of winter’s end (freshets of thaw water).

Heaney pictures the stone washed up (next summer on a riverbank) in a utopia of Irish rural landscape (where scythes once hung all night in alder trees) of immediate use to farm workers engaged in the music of sharpening their grass-cutting tool (mowers played dawn scherzos on the blades).

Together, man and scythe resemble the Irish coat of arms and the sharpening action mimics playing the instrument (harpists’ arms) in a double movement (one drawing towards) the second, in pushing away, adding to razor-edged Irishness (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: fifteen 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/ ang

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