The positive connotations of ‘Oracle’ (a youngster destined to be a poet growing up in a healthy environment) give way to a much darker Augury: the mask and body of a sick fish warn of impending threats to well-being. The ’inward broody style’ characteristic of Wintering Out underlines in allegorical form the threats facing both Ulster community and more widely by Mankind.
Initial signs of normal health (The fish faced into the current) belie life-threatening changes: Its mouth agape as it searches for oxygen, Its whole head opened like a valve. The narrator bows to his companion’s prognosis: You said ‘It’s diseased’.
Closer observation reveals the signs of sickness: an oval shaped pale crusted sore/ Turned like a coin dangling down from its body (wound to the bottom) and threatening to contaminate the healthy aquatic growth around it: Unsettling silt off a weed.
Society (We) faces dramatic choices. Heaney sets out his perceptions: his community/ Mankind is demonstrating fishlike symptoms of disease (hang); it has been protected by good fortune (charmed); it is in a precarious position – the pathway it treads is insecure (trembling); everything is happening in public view (catwalk).
All is not lost: what Man can urgently do to protect his interests (What can fend us now) will reverse the damage that unbalances the order of the universe (soothe the hurt eye/ Of the sun) and of the Earth itself Unpoison great lakes.
Faced with the alternative of plague years to come (The rat on the road) a common will is, in Heaney’s view, absolutely critical.
The universal context describes a fresh-water fish in a contaminated environment: a catastrophe in waiting if Man continues to abuse the planet. In a much more particular sense, Heaney lays out in allegorical form the symptoms of sickness at the heart of his community: the sectarian and political problems Ulster faced were all the more evident to the poet when he returned from his year’s sabbatical in America.
- augury: omen, sign of something to come;
- agape: wide open (in a human caused by surprise, wonder, shock);
- valve: element controlling the passage of fluid;
- crust: hard outer layer;
- sore: raw, ulcerated spot;
- turn (a coin): fashion, make, shape;
- silt: fine sediment in running water;
- catwalk: narrow walkway or platform (v. fashion industry);
- fend: use of/ adaptation of a verb with variety of connotations from defend, guard, ward off, bar, make provision for; in Scottish ‘live comfortably’;
- 4 quatrains in 4 sentences; unrhymed; variable line length 2-8 syllables;
- the balance between enjambed lines and punctuation regulates the breath groups of oral delivery;
- tenses: from past to present as the poet moves from examination of an ailing fish to impending threats to humanity as a whole;
- anonymous ‘you’: a personal Heaney contact with fishing/ ichthyological knowledge;
- synecdoche ’we’ for humanity as a whole, shared global fate;
- simile: coin/ fish wound;
- ‘turned’: allusion to circular shape, perhaps, rather than texture (coins are stamped);
- interesting device – duality by association: ‘wound’ (n) an injury (context-fitting) but with an underlying reminder of the spiralling motion of the verb ‘to wind’; ‘unsettling’: disturbing natural matter (context-fitting), generating by extension an inner concern;
- ‘fend’: disconcerting usage within a line requiring a monosyllable;
- man’s triple misuse of the planet focuses on global warming ( personification -sun feels pain), pollution/overuse of nitrates (lexical ingenuity -‘unpoison’) and dealing with waste ( need for anti-vermin strategies);
- 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, for example, bring together labio-dental fricatives [f] [v] and a cluster of velar plosives [k] [g] interspersed with sibilants [s] [z];
- 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.