The Thimble

Helen Vendler identifies the geographical context for the frescoes as Pompeii (‘Seamus Heaney’ p.134); the thimble becomes the ‘absent centre’ around which Heaney constructs his vignettes;

A study in balance … Heaney reveals how simple things, such as a thimble or a swing, can hold the weight of history – and how history can alter the emotional weight of an object. Noonday Press blurb of June 1996.

The small closed-end cap (familiar since the late Roman period) worn traditionally over the finger-tip to protect it, for example, when pushing a needle through tough fabric is the unifying factor of a sequence of five short pieces. 


Focus on a sexually explicit fresco (in the House of Carnal Murals) conjures up the small thimble-shaped cup carried by its painter to apply a coloration (hold a special red) deliberately chosen to exaggerate the fresco’s deviant, lascivious subject-matter (lips and special bite-marks).

  • House of Carnal Murals: wall paintings illustrating sexually titillating subject matter;
  • touch: the caress of the paint brush adds to the suggestiveness of the piece;
  • special red: used to exaggerate fleshy, erogenous zones or show evidence of moments of uncontrolled passion;
  • Three lines in a single unpunctuated sentence; lines of 8 and 10 syllables;
  • sexually suggestive vocabulary: carnal, touched, lips, bite-marks;
  • use of arty words with double intention ‘touch’;
  • ‘freshest’: both most ‘recent’ and ‘best preserved’;


Heaney dips into the Irish medieval world of holy relics, miracles and superstitions focusing on a church bell that

prior a historical religious turning point (until the Reformation) had been an object of unconditional worship (revered as a relic of St Adaman).

Legend dictated (it was said) that the ill thought-out commission (bell, so heavy) could not be completed (no apparatus could lift it to the belltower).

An unexpected development reduced those who had cast it (stricken one by one) to a state of torpor (kind of sleeping sickness) consistent with metal poisoning. The overwhelming conditions in which they laboured (fiery delirium of metal pouring) caused hallucinations (green waterweed) and mirages (stepping stones across the molten bronze).

Divine intervention in the shape of Adaman provided ministration (blessed their hands and eyes) and the miracle (cured them) that might one day sanctify him. Thereupon (at that hour) occurred a second awe-inspiring consequence (the bell too shrank miraculously).

This necessitated r a new description to fit and conflate size  and miracle-worker (Adaman’s Thimble); this found approval amongst the worshippers (henceforth was known to the faithful) and was officially recorded as such in the archives(registered in the canons’ inventory).

  • Reformation: 16th-century movement demanding the reform of abuses in the Roman Church and ending in the establishment of the Reformed and Protestant Churches;
  • revered:
  • relic: supposed part of a deceased holy person’s body or a belongings kept as an object of reverence;
  • St Adaman: (generally written Adamnan) (679–704), born atDrumhome, County Donegal, Ireland;  biographer of  Columba (Columcille); the ability to perform miracles such as the one described were pre-requisites to the canonization of humble clerics;
  • foundry: workshop or factory for casting metal;
  • cast: shape molten metal by pouring it into a mould;
  • apparatus: medieval lifting equipment;
  • stricken: seriously affected;
  • delirium: disturbed state of mind caused by fever or other disorders;
  • stepping stones: series of raised stones used to cross water courses;
  • molten bronze: alloy of copper and tin heated to its liquid form;
  • registered: entered formally;
  • canons’ inventory: a complete list of items of property, goods or the contents of a religious building kept by named clerics;
  • 17 lines in a single stanza; 4-sentence construct; lines from 5 to 10 syllables; unrhymed;
  • Plentiful use of enjambment – see for example sentence 4 that flows uninterrupted;
  • Use of ‘until’ suggests continuum of historical time rather than a splitting point implicit in, say, ‘before’;
  • The vocabulary of sickness extends to the light effects that can build up around molten metal: fiery delirium’;
  • Use of conjunction ‘so’ to impart the idea of spiritual cause and effect;
  • Archaic usage: ‘at that hour’ as opposed to ‘at the same moment’ extends the Holy Bible-like lexis; time references: Until> afterwards> so> henceforth


How it was for him: a rhetorical question expresses the lyrical rapture of a man who savours a wee shot of the hard stuff – how it generates pleasurable side effects (measure of the sweetest promise), awakens an appetite for more (dipped thirst-brush) and stirs the saliva of pleasure (dew of paradise) – such that he hears himself say ‘aye’ (flee my tongue) at the mere mention of a dram (thimbleful).

  • measure: both a signal of linguistic consciousness of something as yet untried and a shot of liqueur enjoyable now in Heaney’s sense-memory;
  • thirst-brush: the light and fleeting taste of something that satisfies the thirst buds; the caress effect echoes he first vignette albeit in a totally different context
  • thimbleful: the term used colloquially amongst friends as invitation to enjoy a tot;
  • A single question based on 10 syllable lines; final echo of the human voice;
  • Vocabulary of pleasure;
  • Lyrical compound of thirst-brush offers a parallel though very different sensual thrill to vignette 1;
  • Use of ‘flee’ to indicate that bodily responses to the thrill are beyond Heaney’s control;


Times and fashions have changed (now) by golly! Enter the punk era (teenager with shaved head) shirtless (translucent shoulders) and in ‘uniform’ (wears it for a nipple-cap).

  • translucent: a light effect on the skin suggesting semi-transparency;
  • nipple-cap: the so-called ‘punk’ subculture of the 1970s was a unisex wave of rebellion demanding personal freedom. It was reflected not least in how young people dressed and how they presented themselves characterized by all manner of ornamentation including chains and body-piercings; some young men stripped to the waist and wore small caps attached to their nipples;
  • 4 lines of variable length in a single, unpunctuated sentence; the unfazed poet takes a rebellious societal phenomenon in his stride with no resort to exclamation marks;


Life and times dictate that variations on the theme of (‘thimble’) usage will continue ad infinitum (and so on).

  • the music of the poem: fourteen 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 vignette, for example, stirs together alveolar plosives [t] [d] alongside bi-labial plosives [p][b] and nasals [m] [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/ ang

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