First Calf

Hymn to a patient, lowly beast that accepts her lot unquestioningly unlike the poet who, we sense, is ‘wintering out’, biding his time, growing impatient for change.

Heaney has returned to a lost domain after prolonged absence (It’s a long time since …) Early life alongside a father who dealt in and owned cattle has provided Heaney with first-hand knowledge: he can tell instinctively that this is the cow’s First Calf.

The placenta that traditional farming practices did not waste (The afterbirth strung on the hedge) evokes the pain of delivery and the goriness of the birth: As if the wind smarted/And streamed bloodshot tears.

Indifferent to precise location, the mother stands calmly Somewhere about, her disproportionate frame instantly recognizable (her head almost outweighing /Her tense sloped neck). In contrast the ravenous calf is single-minded in its pursuit of milk: hard at her udder.

Heaney paints the animal’s face in close detail: the depressions (shallow bowls) in which the eyes are set at an angle (Tilt) and filled with mattery membrane and fluid; the distinctive square patch of nose that the motherly cow displays (The warm plaque of her snout) with its snottery deposit: A growth round moist nostrils.

Her pelt protects her from the chill (Her hide stays warm in the wind); her expression is bereft of mental activity: Her wide eyes read nothing.

The placenta signals what she has been through via flag messages (semaphores of hurt) that Swaddle and flap on a bush at the field’s edge.

  • afterbirth: placenta discharged from the womb following the birth of an offspring;
  • strung: hung, stretched out;
  • smart: sting, hurt;
  • stream: conflation of weeping and continual flow;
  • bloodshot: inflamed with blood (often a sign of fatigue);
  • outweigh: be more heavy than, be too heavy for;
  • tense: taut, strained;
  • hard at it: vigorously engaged:
  • udder: cow’s teated mammary gland, source of milk for the calf;
  • bowls: rounded basins;
  • tilt: lean, slope;
  • membrane: protective lining;
  • plaque: visible patch of raised skin;
  • snout: animal’s nose;
  • nostril: nasal cavities allowing air in and out;
  • hide: tough animal skin
  • semaphore: a communication code using flags;
  • swaddle: (unusual intransitive use) enwrap themselves;
  • flap: flutter, sway;
  • 4 quartets in 6 sentences; line length 4-8 syllables; unrhymed;
  • the balance between enjambed lines and full stops regulates the breath groups of oral delivery;
  • verb tenses: the initial simple past ‘saw’ winds back in time to memories narrated as if in the present;
  • the established distance ‘long time since’ suggests a certain melancholy;
  • pathetic fallacy: the wind feels the cow’s pain; transferred adjective: the wind has ‘bloodshot’ eyes;
  • the cow’s stressful inexperience of offspring (‘calf hard at her udder’) made evident (‘tense sloped neck);
  • detailed, tender-hearted recall of animal’s face: ‘shallow bowls … plaque of her snout … moist nostrils’;
  • the cow is all instinct (‘udder’); little cognitive ‘wide eyes read nothing’;
  • final couplet linked back to the first: via metaphor ‘afterbirth’ > ‘semaphores of hurt’ (reference flag waving alphabet code (‘flap’); ‘strung’ > ‘swaddle’ (added implication of caring);
  • 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 gentle sibilant {s} variations {z] bilabial plosive [b] labio-dental fricative [f] a cluster of alveolar plosives[t] [d] velar [k], interspersed with nasal [n] and [m];
  • 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.

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