The poem spins a web comprising South Derry place names, issues of Irish history (dispossession, uprising), a vanished world, things that happen in real-life (universal: girl-meets-boy; particular: a flood event). Its phonological content adds to the complexity.
To help unravel the piece’s message NC refers to the Heaney’s essay ‘1972’ in Preoccupations: ‘discussing his beginnings as a poet, he writes, ‘I think of the personal and Irish pieties (his roots) as vowels and the literary awarenesses nourished by English (his degree, his working language) as consonants. My hope is that the poems will be vocables adequate to my whole experience.’ ’ (NC42);
Heaney’s title announces a new music bidding to retrieve a lost domain: a song to be heard, the celebration of an icon, a call-to-arms, sung by folk singer, young countryman in search of madrigal pleasure, a distant poet with a long-term emotional attachment to his home ground and the lyric talents to express his tenderness in topo-erotic terms. The Moyola’s capacity to burst its banks makes her a symbol of repossession.
A chance encounter (I met a girl from Derrygarve – it lies upstream from Broagh) leads to an intimate consequence: a girl’s name and the perfume she was wearing produced a stimulus of aphrodisiac proportions (potent musk), evoking a vanished (lost) river scene once chronicled by the poet’s eye-camera: in wide shot (the river’s long swerve); in zoom mode, the flash of A kingfisher’s blue bolt at dusk; panning to follow stepping stones like black molars /Sunk in the ford; recording movement and light effects: the shifty glaze/ Of the whirlpool. Stitched together the silent sequence showcases the Moyola and the emotions she excites: Pleasuring beneath alder trees.
So, what of the ‘old’ song? Derrygarve, I thought, was just, / Vanished music set against twilit water, a godlike toast (smooth libation) to a time gone by generated by chaste contact with a beautiful girl: Poured by this chance vestal daughter.
The ‘new song’ emerges, as potent as a sensual act (our river tongues must rise / From licking deep in native haunts) that culminates in climax (flood), recruiting him to the river’s cause.
In flood the Moyola’s vowelling embrace effaces what is unwanted: she repossesses estates once confiscated by the English (Demesnes staked out in consonants) and urges neighbouring riverbank communities to side with the river that unites them geographically: Castledawson we’ll enlist/ And Upperlands.
The river’s uprising restores the power of Gaelic derivations and ‘ownership’ (each planted bawn) and promotes Ireland’s national colour: bleaching-greens resumed by grass .
‘Bawn’ is the first example Heaney’s phonological ‘vowel’ roots, embodying all that is Irish, local and origin: a vocable similar in Gaelic derivation to rath and bullaun.
Yet if the Civil Rights movement inspired Heaney’s optimistic tone then, sadly, his ‘new’ song will not be much heard until the Good Friday Agreement a quarter of a century later.
- Derrygarve: small village settlement within close reach of Heaney’s childhood and teenage homes;
- potent: powerful; as with other references in the poem connotation of sexuality;
- musk: strong smelling perfume, scent indicating male presence;
- swerve: sweeping change of direction;
- kingfisher: large-headed bright blue and orange river bird that dives into the water for fish;
- bolt: medieval short heavy-headed arrow fired by a crossbow with swift flight;
- dusk: last glimmers of daylight;
- stepping stones allow passage over water without getting wet;
- molars: large rear teeth for grinding;
- shifty: sense both of tricky, cunning and ever moving:
- whirlpool: rotating mass of water, eddy;
- Moyola: Heaney’s ‘own’ cherished local river running through many local settlements;
- alder: catkin-bearing tree of the birch family commonly found in damp areas;
- twilit: illuminated by the reflected glow of the sun that has passed below the horizon;
- libation: drink offering to a god;
- chance: accidental, not arranged in advance;
- vestal: chaste, pure;
- haunts: places regularly visited
- demesnes: Anglo-French word for landed estates, obsolete in England, but still current in Ireland; reminders of properties confiscated by Elizabethan invaders from England;
- staked: marked with wooden posts to assert a right of ownership
- Castledawson/ Upperlands: small villages/settlements within close reach of Heaney’s childhood and teenage homes
- bawn: from Irish bábhún (“walled enclosure”) a building used to shelter cattle; defensive wall once used to protect livestock during an attack;
- bleaching-greens: stretches of ground upon which bleaching or drying clothes were spread;
- resumed: 15th century use of ‘regain’ ’take back’, current sense of ‘continue after interruption’;
- vocable: utterance associated specifically with a specific social grouping and its culture;
- rath: (Irish word) hill-fort (NC40);
- bullaun: (Irish word) a hollowed stone mortar, found on archaeological sites (NC40);
- ‘Another major legacy of colonialism, broached first in ‘The Last Mummer’, and then explored in a succession of poems – ‘Traditions’, ‘Anahorish’, ‘Broagh’, ‘Toome’, ‘A New Song’ and ‘Gifts of Rain’ – is the linguistic dispossession of the Irish people. Though on one level these poems mourn the ‘Vanished music’ (‘A New Song’) of Gaelic, on another they deny silence and loss. Acknowledging the debt contemporary Irish writers owe to Joyce, Heaney has commented that thanks to (Joyce) English is by now ‘not so much an imperial humiliation as a native weapon’ (MP97);
- ‘A New Song’ has its origins in the optimistic Civil Rights Period in Northern Ireland. Despite its ambiguities, its tone is light and it derives its politics from an encounter which is initially playful or amatory, and as animated as a meeting in folksong (‘I met a girl from Derrygarve’), even if it also has behind it something aspiring to the resolved balladic measure of the opening lines of the penultimate stanza, with their echoes of political broadside’ (NC43):
- 5 quatrains in 4 sentences; line length based on 8 syllables;
- rhyme scheme: abab cdcd etc;
- first person narrator;
- balance between enjambment and punctuation establishes breath groups for oral delivery;
- opposites: ‘new’/ ‘lost’, ‘vanished’;
- sense data: smell (‘musk’); sight (‘blue bolt’); sound (‘vanished music’); taste (‘libation’); touch (‘licking’);
- vocabulary of intimate sensuality (both girl and Moyola): ‘potent’, ‘pleasuring’, ‘tongues’, ‘rise’, ‘licking deep in native haunts’;
- simile: stones/ bad teeth;
- comparison: girl, vestal maiden;
- call to arms: ‘must rise’, ‘flood’, ‘enlist’, ‘greens’ preceded by unexpected event (‘met’, ‘chance’) of linguistic common ground(‘music’, ‘vowelling embrace’ ,’vocable’) to fight invasive (‘staked out’) languages;
- Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to;
- 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 first line, for example, bring together nasals [n] and [m] alongside a cluster of bilabial, alveolar and velar plosives and a pair of sibilant [s];
- 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.