Heaney’s ingenious poem conflates two sites miles apart in space and time (Whitby a seaside town in north-east England and the Moyola river that flowed close to Heaney’s childhood home mid-Ulster) and two individuals one of whom became a saint and the other an anonymous Mossbawn cowman who shared Caedmon’s veterinary talents.
The poem is topped and tailed with direct reference to 7th century poet-herdsman, Caedmon, working in a north Yorkshire abbey whom Heaney came to know (alongside Beowulf) through his Old English undergraduate studies. Similar characters frequented Heaney’s Mossbawn farm not least Irishman John Dologhan ‘the best milker ever to come about the place’ in Montana from the Electric Light collection.
The standards of perseverance and compassion amongst cowmen, be they Northumbrian or Irish, were set, to Heaney’s mind, by a figure regarded by many scholars as the father of English poetry.
So, says Heaney, here is another example (Caedmon too) of privileged contact through study (lucky to have known) or his translated figure in the Mossbawn farmyard (back in situ there) with a man displaying excellence in animal husbandry: the cows milked (his full bucket), the cows cared for (armfuls of clean straw), all one could possibly ask for on any farm of a consummate practitioner (perfect yardman).
The man’s sharp intelligence left room for things above and beyond his bread-and-butter trade (unabsorbed in what he had to do), spurred by his personal need to get things exactly right (doing it perfectly) and time spent observing those (undergraduate at his studies or boy in a mid-Ulster farmyard) observing him (watching you).
Whilst there might seem something God-sent about his care (he had worked his angel stint) he was no softie (hard as nails). Caedmon is often pictured in ancient images bearing a harp which Heaney attributes to the musicality of the poetry forming in his mind (poeting with the harp). Heaney also imagines another as yet untutored side to him (his real gift … the big ignorant roar) that he did not control (could still let out of him) whenever his muddy existence got to him (just bogging in).
Beasts were God-given (sacred subjects) and their instinctive behaviours (herd that had broken out) called for practical solutions (needed rounding up).
Heaney perceived no signs of religiosity evident in the old images (I never saw him once with his hands joined) perhaps just a sign of frustration or disbelieve (case of eyes to heaven) as he practiced his veterinary skills (quick sniff and test of fingertips) after off-putting forensic examination (passed them through a sick beast’s water).
Caedmon the poet alongside Heaney’s farmyard doppelganger is awarded the highest accolade (the real thing all right).
Speaking to Nicholas Wroe in The Guardian on-line in October 1999 Heaney provided a way into the poem:
As the years have gone on I have become increasingly devoted to the figure of Caedmon, the first Anglo-Saxon poet,” says Heaney, sitting in the kitchen of his comfortable but unprepossessing Dublin home 50 yards from the sea. “The myth of the beginning of English sacred poetry is that this guy Caedmon was a worker on a farm attached to the abbey at Whitby. But every time the harp was passed at the feast Caedmon would contrive to find a way not to be there because he thought he was not very good at chanting or singing with the harp. So he went out to the cattle in the yard, and one night when he was outside working, an angel appeared and said, ‘Caedmon, sing me the creation.’ And he obeyed and began to sing the first English poem about creation. The agricultural comparison is both attractive and apt… Heaney was born on a farm called Mossbawn
- Whitbyis a seaside town, port and civil parish in the English county of Yorkshire situated on the east coast of Yorkshire at the mouth of the River Esk;
- Moyola,a modest river stretching for approximately 27 miles through County Derry from the Sperrin Mountains to Lough Neagh, that flowed close to Heaney’s childhood home at Mossbawn and features in a number of his lyrics;
- Caedmon (AD 657–684): the earliest English poet whose name is known; from Northumbria he cared for the animals at the monastery of Streonæshalch (now known as Whitby Abbey) when St Hilda was abbess; originally untutored in the “the art of song”, the 8th-century historian Bede suggested that the skill to do so was visited on him in the course of a dream. He later became a zealous monk and an accomplished and inspirational Christian poet;
- in situ: (Latin phrase) on site, where you would expect to find him;
- yardman: farmhand in the cattle yard;
- unabsorbed in: paying no particular attention to;
- done his angel stint: perhaps ‘completed his allotted tasks like some kind of attendant spirit’;
- hard as nails: both physically tough and indifferent to people’s finer feelings;
- poeting with the harp: perhaps as a spare-time performer of traditional Irish tunes; the Celtic harp is the symbol of Ireland;
- bogging in: getting ‘stuck in’, getting his hands dirty, working in mud;
- sacred subjects: the important issues troubling his mind sometimes causing the loud outburst;
- hands joined: as if in prayer;
- eyes to heaven: as if praying;
- water: here euphemism for urine;
- real thing: the genuine article;
- ‘Whitby-sur-Moyola’ presents, we might say, as its title implies, a light-hearted translation of the seventh-century Yorkshire poet-herdsman Caedmon into the form of a Co. Derry yardman from Heaney’s childhood. (NC 191)
- From the Economist of Sep 10 1998: Rural toil remains the real, honest work, that which best represents the idea of honest literary labour;
- sixteen lines in a single verse, constructed in 5 sentences; based on 10 syllable lines(sometimes 11 + 9) ; the 2 tributes can temporarily halt the flow of narrative (ll.6 & 16);
- no rhyme scheme; plentiful use of enjambed lines especially in sentences 3 & 4;
- lexis suggestive of liquidity: full, (un)absorbed, euphemistic ‘water’ for urine;
- introduction of mildly parodic pseudo-religious vocabulary: sacred subjects, hand joined, eyes to heaven; angel (the latter confirming spiritual limitation by the juxtaposition of ‘stint’ that stresses spiritual short-fall);
- use of ‘as if’ clauses suggests improbability; vocabulary of completeness: perfect, perfectly, real thing
- poetic license: verb ‘poeting’ from noun; ‘bogging’ also;
- simile: hard as nails, confirming the contrast between the gentle approach of the animal carer and his responses once his wards seek to exercise their own free will;
- the last emphasis is more colloquial, a phrase known to be used by Heaney to describe his total personal approval
- the music of the poem: seventeen 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 lines stir together voiceless velar plosive [k] voiceless alveolar plosive [t] alveolar [l] preceding a pair of 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/ ang