Two poems and three childhood scenarios in two of which walking-sticks play a prominent role.
Heaney reflects on the contrasting behaviours of two girls with whom he mixed as a child.
The first (Claire O’Reilly) had access to a stick (her granny’s), ideally shaped (crook-necked) for reaching up on autumnal blackberry-picking expeditions (snare the highest briars) – to Claire’s thinking the least accessible plants for short people were top priority (always grew the ripest blackberries).
The second girl (Persephone) was less self-disciplined and less intelligent (in the halfpenny place compared to Claire), heedless of regulation (she’d trespass and climb gates) or danger (walk the railway).
Heaney recalls the lyrical mix of railway cutting and nature (where sootflakes blew into convolvulus) and the anger of the all-powerful footplate man (train tore past with the stoker yelling) rendered powerless by a reckless trespasser (balked king from his iron chariot).
- Claire O’Reilly: friend and neighbor of the young Heaney; member of his ‘gang’;
- crook-necked: curved at one end like a shepherd’s crook;
- snare: (outside this context) trap for catching birds or mammals, typically one having a noose of wire or cord; here a means to catch hold of hedgerow fruit;
- Persephone: friend and neighbor of the young Heaney; member of his ‘gang’;
- the halfpenny place: Irish figure of speech suggesting ‘dull-witted in comparison’;
- trespass: enter without permission;
- sootflakes: coal-fired steam locomotives belched out soot particles with the smoke;
- convolvulus: an invasive twining plant with trumpet-shaped flowers growing freely in hedgerows;
- stoker: train driver’s companion responsible for loading coal into the locomotive’s fire-box;
- balked: thwarted;
- chariot: a two-wheeled vehicle drawn by horses, used in ancient racing and warfare; symbol of power and aggression;
A warm tribute to a compassionate father whose warm and indulgent treatment of a mentally challenged individual meets with his son’s full approval.
The scene is set for a one-man show: the props are the stick varieties (drover’s canes and blackthorns and ash plants) provided by Patrick Heaney who used them for his trade and stored them haphazardly in the rear of his car (ledge of the back seat) thereby creating a display (stick-shop window).
Enter Jim the only figure to take an automatic interest in them (who ever window-shopped), his physical handicap (hanging jaw) symptomatic of his mental disability (Jim was simple). In Jim’s case, whatever the circumstances (rain or shine), he forlornly pursued a set routine (his desperate rounds) around the car (from windscreen to back window) with the same anguished pose (hands held up to both sides of his face) on the search (peering) but unable to express his wishes in words (groaning).
Kind-hearted Patrick Heaney would put the sticks on display (brought out … stood up one by one against the front mudguard). Thus stirred Jim would handle each one in turn (take the measure of them) then go through the motions of a sword-fight (wield and slice and poke and parry) with a pretend opponent (the unhindering air).
Ultimately Jim would select his ‘best’ stick (the true extension of himself), respond joyously (jubilant) and caper around (run and crow) like a fencer (stooped forward … right elbow stuck out) manoeuvring his blade to strike his opponent (stick held horizontal to the ground angled across.
Young poet-to-be Heaney found an added dimension: it was as if the stick had taken the simpleton under its control (as if he were leashed to it) rendering him powerless to resist (it drew him on) without hope of ever overcoming his plight (harness rod of the inexorable).
- drover: one of Heaney’s father’s tasks; he ‘drove’ cattle to market;
- canes (from the bamboo plant), blackthorns (from a thorny shrub) and ash plants (Irish usage for ‘walking-stick’ that Heaney uses across his work as an emblematic stick his father carried;
- ledge: narrow projecting surface below a window;
- stick-shop window: imagined shop;
- window-shopped: looked at displayed goods with little intention of buying;
- hanging jaw: suggestion that the boy’s mouth hung open;
- rain or shine: wet or fine, whatever the weather;
- desperate: with a sense of hopelessness;
- take the measure: consider and compare;
- sight: take aim by looking through the sights of a gun;
- wield: brandish;
- slice: slash like a sword
- poke: jab
- parry: ward off defensively;
- unhindering: not getting in the way;
- extension of himself: that added to the length of his body;
- jubilant: whooping with pleasure;
- crow: express great pride or triumph; the loud sound of a poultry-yard cock;
- angled: inclined;
- leashed: fastened; movement restricted by a rope;
- harness rod: fitting by which a horse or other draught animal fastened to a cart is controlled by its driver;
- inexorable: inevitable, inescapable;
- 9 lines in a single verse; 3 sentences; line length based on 10 syllables; unrhymed;
- use of enjambed lines determines the narrative flow in oral delivery;
- use of superlatives: highest, ripest; Irishism: halfpenny seat;
- portrait of carefree Tom-boy figure;
- comparison: railway man/ classical epic gladiatorial figure; vocabulary of train/chariot speed, and male aggression;
- 21 lines in a single verse; three sentence structure, the second characterized by repeated use of semi-colon as a full-stop substitute; early 11 syllable lines superseded by standard 10 syllables; copious use of enjambed lines
- Comparison: car interior/ shop window; image extended by Jim’s appearance;
- Weather described by its components: rain or (sun)shine; similarly wet or fine;
- transferred epithet: Jim his desperate not his rounds; they demonstrate his desperation;
- use of preposition to avoid lengthy alternative: Jim of the hanging jaw;
- lexis alluding to physical deformity and mental impediment, extending to various senses: sight, sound;
- 2 film-like clips: Jim brandishing a stick; Jim following a strange dance with a stick; element of ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ animation where the instruments take control over the user;
- oxymoronic juxtaposition suggesting Invisible mass: unhindered air
- Jim’s jubilation accompanied by an acceleration of hectic activity only slowing as hope and energy decline;
- 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 main title and first couplet already gather together alveolar plosives [t][d] and velar plosive [k] alongside sibilant [s] sounds and nasal [n]; note also alveolar trill [r];
- 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