The first of three place-name poems: ‘Anahorish’, ‘Broagh’ and ‘Toome’ are existing communities within a 2 or 3 mile radius of Mossbawn where the poet’s happy childhood unfolded. Heaney attended Anahorish Primary School and featured the townland in a number of pieces. Enigmatically Anahorish does not appear by name on current Ordnance Survey maps yet its identity is memorialized by Heaney and jealously guarded by its inhabitants.
Heaney sings the music of a name that became part of his essence (Anahorish), celebrating a topographical inheritance founded in the distant past and shared by people of all persuasions. He offers an anglicized transliteration of the Gaelic etymology: My ‘place of clear water’.
Anahorish is Heaney’s Garden of Eden, his pastoral paradise, his Arcadia of earliest memory (the first hill in the world) enriched by the lush inter-reaction of life source and nature (where springs washed into the shiny grass), where even signs of man-made settlement have a watery river-channel association: darkened cobbles/ in the bed of the lane.
Heaney plays for the first time in his published work with an ingenious kind of synesthesia that mixes and blends sensations sparked by a first sense: the swirl of personal feelings and associations triggered by an initial phonetic stimulus. The sounds of Anahorish resemble natural features (soft gradient of consonant); its vocal nuances trigger a landscape (vowel-meadow).
The pleasure and poignancy awakened by retrieved memory go back further than the poet’s own rural childhood, with its time-honoured after-image of lamps / swung through the yards / on winter evenings to enter an Irish ‘first nations’ landscape of custom and practice: With pails and barrows / those mound-dwellers / go waist-deep in mist / to break the light ice / at wells and dunghills.
Such, Heaney avers, is the recurrent lot of Irish communities: basic, hand-to-mouth rural routines eked out in less than favourable conditions since records began.
- ‘place of clear water’: version of the Gaelic Anach fhior uisce;
- first: both ‘earliest’ and ‘foremost’;
- cobbles: small round stones covering road surfaces;
- gradient: a slope up or down, steep or gentle;
- meadow: stretch of grassland, often fenced or hedged;
- dunghills: farmyard animal droppings gathered in a pile;
- ‘The way of life of his father’s rural family, as Heaney has remarked, differed little from medieval custom: and in ‘Anahorish’ his neighbours become indistinguishable from their Neolithic ancestors … He makes himself into an anthropologist of his own culture, and testifies, in each poem, to his profound attachment to the practice described while not concealing his present detachment from rural life’ (HV18); Heaney had broken with family tradition, rejecting farming as a career in favour of academic studies and poetry;
- DOD suggested that Wintering Out represented a significant shift in direction … the very notion of the phonetic as subject matter (for example)’ (SH) Those languagey poems were all post-Berkeley, as far as I remember… The place poems came from a different source, etymological day dreams of sorts, playing with the fit between place and name, responses to having been born in what John Montague called the ‘primal Gaeltacht’. They harked back to the Irish language underlay and were laying claim to a hidden Ulster the Uladh of Doire Cholmcille rather than the Londonderry of the Plantation and Siege. But you’re right to think of their energy as phonetic rather than political’ (DOD125);
- ‘Not knowing the ‘tongue’ of the country you travel in is the deepest kind of estrangement; and Heaney’s preoccupation with the tongue, in this book which subtly registers the contours of a divided culture, derives from the fact that the tongue, or language, he speaks, and uses as a poet – English – is not native or original to the land he comes from – Ireland – or straightforwardly identifiable with the feelings or aspirations of the community from which he derives. English is, at least in the traditional nationalist reading of the case, the imposition of the colonial oppressor, dispossessing the native Irish of their own first ‘tongue’. The historical and political themes of Wintering Out, therefore, are necessarily implicit in the actual tongue spoken in Northern Ireland; and the book includes many poems about language itself’ (NC37);
- (In ‘Unhappy and at Home’, with Seamus Deane, The Crane Bag vol.I no.I 1997, (61-67)) Heaney says of ‘Anahorish’, ‘Toome’ and ‘Broagh’ poems:
‘I had a great sense of release as they were being written, a joy and devil-may-careness, and that convinced me that one could be faithful to the nature of the English language – for in some senses these poems are erotic mouth-music by and out of the anglo-saxon tongue – and, at the same time, be faithful to one’s own non-English origin, for me that is County Derry.
They are envisaged, then as sudden whooping retrievals of reconciliatory ‘vocables’ from within the etymology of the warmly cherished place-names of Heaney’s home, and they may have been sanctioned by the Gaelic tradition of dinnseanchas … They insist that the importance of a place depends not on the world’s having heard of it, but on its significance for the poet who writes it’ (NC43-4);
- In ‘Anahorish’, the word is almost wooed by the poet lovingly celebrating its ‘vocable’: ‘soft gradient / of consonant, vowel meadow’. The shape of the landscape, which reconciles hill and meadow is reconstituted in the word, which reconciles, with the ’consonant’ of its English, the ‘vowel’ of its original Irish ‘anach fhior uisce, the ‘place of.clear water’… (Anahorish) is the site of a human continuity which allows him to imagine the farm workers of his childhood as primitive ‘mound-dwellers’, conveying a sense of what ‘The Seed Cutters’ in North will call ‘our anonymities’. (NC44);
- ‘Another major legacy of colonialism ( ) explored in a succession of poems (including) ‘Anahorish’ 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);
- ‘For Heaney, the poet remains a diviner, a kind of Magus ‘summoning and meshing … the subconscious and semantic energies of words’, and by drawing upon the Gaelic place-names which encircled his Mossbawn home, he attempts to re-connect the ‘energies of generation coursing through Man, land and language, to restore continuity while ‘Anahorish’, ‘Broagh’, and ‘Toome’ renew an ancient genre of Irish poetry called dinnseanchas, which are ‘poems and tales which relate the original meanings of place names and constitute a form of mythological etymology’ (MP98);
- ‘The very act of naming the names conjures ‘a kind of magic reality’. Within the ‘soft Gaelic syllables ‘ of Anahorish – derived from Anach fhior uisce, the ‘place of clear water’ – Heaney rediscovers a sense of harmony, and founds himself by means of myth. The whole poem moves with a joyous energy, embodied in its rhythms by means of enjambment, expressing a delight in the creativity of water and memory. Reconciling dark and light, solid and fluid, concrete and symbolic detail, it evokes the Eden of his childhood, ‘the first hill in the world’. Soon, however, this personal
vision is expanded to include Ireland before the colonial Fall. Like the ‘lamps swung through the yards/ on winter evenings’, names cast shadows, and before long the poet is wading back into a remote Celtic past, its humble images of fertility, ‘wells and dunghills’, set against the violence of the present’ (MP99);
4 quartets of 4/6 syllables in 3 sentences; unrhymed;
balance of enjambed lines and punctuation ensures a measured flow in a minor key;
a complex layering and deliberate association of sound and landscape; feeling and identity;
emphatic ‘My’ places Heaney on common Irish ground;
dual intent: ‘water’ both life source and Irish climatic phenomenon
transliteration of place-name;
‘first’ creates a time-line for imaginative recreation of scenes long past; ‘bed ’ both solid foundation and something comfortable;
Synesthetic juxtaposition of natural and musical: ‘soft gradient of consonant’ for linguistic imitation and personal emotion;
contrast between natural/ man-made: ‘gr ass’/ ‘cobbles’;
Use of kenning: ‘mound-dweller’ as early Irishman; use of compound nouns; the hardship of existence relieved by ‘water’ for life and ‘dung’ for growth;
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: thirteen 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 of for example, are alive with soft sibilants [s] [sh];
- 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.