Two Stick Drawings

Two vignettes borrowed from the lost domain of childhood portray youngsters in circumstances that to Heaney’s eye provided them with uninhibited pleasure. Walking-sticks form the main props to the action.


Heaney reflects on the actions and responses of a playmate (Claire O’Reilly)  wilful enough to misappropriate her granny’s stick for her own purposes –  its shape (crook-necked) ideal for blackberry-picking expeditions (snare the highest briars) and providing a solution to Claire’s refusal to be denied access to the best fruit (always grew the ripest blackberries).

In comparison the fate of a ‘heroine’ of Greek mythology (Persephone) was much less fortuitous (in the halfpenny place compared to Claire),

Claire’s nature ignored regulation (she’d trespass and climb gates) or danger (walk the railway). Heaney frames her in a solid mid-Ulster Castledawson mix of man-made and God-given, steam-railway cutting and nature (where sootflakes blew into convolvulus) and the anger of the on-rushing footplate man (train tore past with the stoker yelling) figured as a pale replica of the Hades who abducted Persephone (balked king from his iron chariot).

  • Claire O’Reilly: friend and neighbour of the young Heaney; member of his ‘gang’;
  • crook-necked: curved at one end like a shepherd’s crook;
  • snare: extension of the wider meaning of ‘trap for catching birds or mammal to suggest a means to catch hold of hedgerow fruit;
  • Persephone: Andrew Grant was right to stress allusion to and similarities with the Persephone myth of Greek mythology (with which Heaney would surely have been familiar via Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Dante’s Purgatorio, 32 or Milton’s Paradise Lost IV, 268). In brief Persephone was high-born in the underworld where her mother intended to keep her well distanced from men. The god Hades determined to abduct her come what may. One day the young girl was playing and picking flowers along with her friends in a valley. As she stooped down to pick the flower Hades arrived in his chariot and carried her off.
  • the halfpenny place: colloquialism suggesting ‘inferior 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: atwo-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
  • Unrhymed;
  • 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: 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 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

One thought on “Two Stick Drawings

  1. Sorry, in Section 1 you’ve missed a major reference to Paradise Lost IV 1. 268:

    “Not that fair field
    Of Enna, where Proserpine gathering flowers,
    Herself a fairer flower, by gloomy Dis⁠
    Was gathered, which cost Ceres all that pain
    To seek her through the world; nor that sweet grove
    Of Daphne, by Orontes and the inspired
    Castalian spring, might with this Paradise
    Of Eden strive;”

    Dis (Hades) abducts Proserpine (Persephone), daughter of Demeter and Zeus in his dark chariot while she is gathering flowers and makes her queen of the underworld. Heaney playfully suggests that Claire’s position is very much to be preferred. Her Dis is the engine driver in his equally sulphurous chariot, but he doesn’t stop for her. The more I read of “The Spirit Level” the more I recognise its often playful allusiveness to Heaney’s great poetic ancestors. In a sense, that is “The Spirit Level” into which he is tapping.

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