The Thimble


The small closed-end cap (familiar since the late Roman period) worn over the finger-tip to protect it when pushing a needle in sewing is the common factor in a sequence of short poems.

The Thimble argues that every object is an ‘absent centre’ around which every culture weaves a different text of meaning”. HV(p133)


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

  • House of Carnal Murals: wall paintings illustrating sexually titillating materials;
  • touch: the caress of the paint brush adds to the lustfulness of the piece;
  • special red: used to exaggerate fleshy, erogenous zones or show evidence of moments of uncontrolled passion;
  • HV identifies the geographical context for the frescoes as Pompeii (p134); the thimble becomes the ‘absent centre’ around which Heaney constructs his vignettes;
  • 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 medieval world of holy relics and superstitions: a church bell that

Until the Reformation, ( ) was revered / As a relic of St Adaman (confirmed as myth: it was said).

An ill thought-out commission produced A bell, so heavy ( ) No apparatus could lift it to the belltower. The effects of metal poisoning on the workers were unexpected, too: stricken one by one / With a kind of sleeping sickness. Working amidst the fiery delirium/ Of metal pouring created hallucinations: green waterweed and stepping stones/ Across the molten bronze.

Divine intervention in the shape of Adaman arrived and blessed their hands/ And eyes and cured them). There was a second less welcome consequence: but at that hour/ The bell too shrank miraculously whereupon it qualified for inclusion in the early Church’s belief-system: henceforth was known to the faithful / And registered in the canons’ inventory/ As Adaman’s Thimble.

  • Reformation: 16th-century movement demanding the reform of abuses in the Roman Church and ending in the establishment of the Reformed and Protestant Churches;
  • 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 at Drumhome, County Donegal, Ireland; biographer of St 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


The speaker goes into lyrical raptures (couched in a rhetorical question) associated with small shots of strong liquor: the expectation of pleasurable side effects (measure of the sweetest promise); the awakening of an appetite to be satisfied (The dipped thirst-brush); the saliva of anticipation (dew of paradise), all brought about (flee my tongue) by the mere mention of A 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;


Now a teenager / With shaved head/ And translucent shoulders / 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;


Variations on the theme of the thimble seems destined to continue in similar vein: And so on.

  • 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 music of the poem: thirteen 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/ anger.