The Walk

Twin sonnets of love – the first for parental devotion and guidance – the second, a ‘longshot’ contemplating his marriage to Marie that has lasted more than three decades. The first ‘photo’ is ‘fixed’ (his parents are no longer of this world), the second a black and white negative from which positive prints are plentiful and on-going.

Fifty years on Heaney’s childhood Mossbawn walks with his mother and father still shed a magical light (glamoured) on time and place (the road, the day) and them (him and her), wherever they might take him (everywhere).

The elements mixed and merged – solid mineral and liquid (cobbles were riverbed), what they breathed associated with spiritual day (Sunday air) beneath the dome of sky (a high stream-roof) that simply followed the laws of weather (moved in silence). Heaney’s descending mind’s-eye reaches ground level and the flora of his mid-Ulster neighbourhood – from the grandest free-standing shrub in its prime (rhododendrons in full bloom), via tall and pointed foxgloves to the humblest hedgerow stragglers (hemlock, robin-run-the-hedge); his mind’s eye picks out the feathered texture of invasive deckled ivy and the light effects (thick shadows).

Sooner or later the walk would take them to the river Moyola (riverbed) with its characteristic floor (gravelly) its depth reduced (shallowly) by the time of year (summery with pools).  At the age he was the Moyola was the boundary beyond which he had been forbidden to venture (world rim that was not for crossing).

The sonnet’s volta introduces the speaker’s debt of gratitude for that protective devotion (love brought me by the hand) and security beyond reservation (without the slightest doubt or irony) of his unemotional (dry-eyed), sensible (knowledgeable) though sometimes tetchy (contrary as be damned) mother and father.

Their shared love has been immortalized as if by the click of a camera’s shutter (just kept standing there, not letting go).

  • glamoured: Heaney creates a verb from a noun suggestive in northern languages of magical beauty and alluring charm; glamour (n): 1720, Scottish, “magic, enchantment, spell” Old Norse suggests a similar notion;
  • cobbles: small round stones used to cover road surfaces;
  • stream-roof: oxymoronic juxtaposition of things higher and lower; underwater imagery;
  • rhododendrons: shrub or small tree of the heather family loved for the splash of colour of its flowers;
  • foxgloves: tall Eurasian plant with erect spikes of pinkish-purple (or white) flowers shaped like the fingers of gloves; source of the drug digitalis;
  • hemlock: European plant of the parsley family;
  • robin-run the-hedge: a creeping, straggling plant that attaches itself using small, hooked hairs;
  • deckled: with a decorative feathered edge; (of paper) untrimmed;
  • gravelly, shallowy, summery: ‘ish’, relatively, fairly, not quite, impression of;
  • a world rim: furthest boundary of the youngster’s known experience;
  • irony: offering a use of language that normally signifies the opposite;
  • dry-eyed: not crying, stoical, holding emotion back;
  • contrary as be damned: perversely inclined to disagree or to do the opposite of what is expected or desired;
  • not letting go: (word-play) both hand gripping hand; persistence of nature;
  • sonnet form, volta after line 10; 3 sentences; line length based on 10 syllables; unrhymed;
  • much use made of enjambed lines to create the legato flow of the first section;
  • impersonal pronouns hide (unmistakeable) identities;
  • botanical enumeration; colour implied rather than named;
  • ‘stepped out’ contains connotations of pride;
  • triplet of adjectives ending in –y (‘ish’);
  • comparison: the limited area of childhood will one day offer huge potential: ‘world rim’;
  • personification of love synonymous with parents;

Heaney’s love for mother and father is complemented by its adult version: Heaney and Marie are looking at a second tableau (another longshot) in monochrome (black and white), unprocessed (negative). Colours are replaced on glossy celluloid (dazzle-dark) by an indistinct (smudge) unhealthy paleness (pallor); they have to peer to recognize who it is (make out you and me).

At one moment two busy people with careers and hectic schedules respecting their marriage vows, developing the individuals they were into what they became in tandem (the selves we struggled with and struggled out of), gorging on each other (two shades who have consumed each other’s fire), capable of inflicting pain on each other (two flames in sunlight that can sear and singe); next minute they appear less substantial (wisps of enervated air) working independently (after-wavers) lost in the shadowy otherworld of their creative selves (feathery ether-shifts).

Their appetites would quickly turn to passion (apt to rekindle suddenly) when being Irish was in the air (charred grass and sticks) or in the nostrils (fire-fragrance lingering on), arousing the body (erotic woodsmoke) or casting its spell (witchery, intrigue).

Heaney sees little to be gained from weighing up the whys and wherefores (none the wiser) – their time is better spent just being themselves and living on experience (better primed), working their socks off (speed the plough again) and enjoying their mutual snatches of pleasure (feed the flame).

  • The seven poems of Death of a Naturalist that immediately follow Twice Shy (especially Scaffolding) divulge Heaney’s feelings as he marries Marie Devlin in 1965 (a year before the 1996 publication of this his first collection).
  • Marie Heaney was born in County Tyrone and followed a teaching Career in Northern Ireland. She moved to the Irish Republic with Seamus and her family in 1972 and lives in Dublin. Over Nine Waves was published in July 1995, a year before The Spirit Level was published. Marie Heaney ‘skilfully revives the glory of ancient Irish storytelling in this comprehensive volume‘ (publisher’s blurb). Seamus Heaney explores many of these themes in his own poetry;
  • longshot: a long-distance photograph that blurs close detail; used figuratively to denote a risk taken; the Heaneys’ longshot has been successful;
  • negative: black and white image of a picture from which positive prints can be made;
  • dazzle-dark: (oxymoron?) monochrome negatives retained the shine of the celluloid they were printed on;
  • smudge: smear, blur, indistinctness;
  • pallor: unhealthy pale appearance;
  • shades: shadowy figures somehow lacking substance; in both Dante and Virgil ‘shades’ referred to dead people wandering uncertainly around the Underworld; only a select few were exempted from this unhappy fate;
  • fire: passion;
  • sear: scorch with a sudden, intense heat;
  • singe: burn superficially;
  • wisps: insubstantial strands
  • enervated: drained of energy;
  • after-wavers: shimmers; possible image of people saying goodbye;
  • ether-shifts: tiny changes of rarefied atmosphere;
  • rekindle: burst into flame; arouse emotions;
  • charred: describing burnt and blackened remnants;
  • fire-fragrance: the after-smell of outdoor fires used by Irish itinerants;
  • erotic: sensual, provocative;
  • witchery: the compelling power of magical practices;
  • intrigue: secret plotting often associated with love affairs;
  • primed: (word-play) prepared by experience; prepared for experience (re paint primer)
  • Heaney is aware of the medieval sense of the word : ‘glamour’ as the temptations of this world, the wondrous illusions of temporality. When medieval moralists warn against glamour they are keen to help us to see through the false show of this world, to get toward self-knowledge… In fabled pedagogical mode (Heaney) presents us with the lessons and then leaves us to think about the bigger meanings, always in a manner that is gentle-voiced and caring of his listeners.  Philip Harvey Monday, 10 September 2012
  • sonnet form; volta after 8 as past becomes present and future looking;
  • limited use of enjambed lines makes for a kind of finger-counted list of considerations;
  • 4 sentences; line length based on 10 syllables; unrhymed;
  • Vocabulary of greyness associated with a photo negative;
  • Prepositions of contrast: with/ out of;
  • Comparison : self – wisp of air;
  • absence of colour is replaced by other sense data: vocabulary of heat; the imaginative aspect of their characters uses vocabulary indicating lack of substance or make-believe; vocabulary of smell;
  • 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 beginning , for example, draws together alveolar plosives [t] [d] alongside voiced dental fricative as in the they [ð];  then bi-labial plosives [p][b];
  • 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

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