Heaney treads his way through his cherished Ulster landscape. He does not identify the location but Wintering Out features the Moyola of Heaney’s childhood and the bridge at Broagh both of which fit the bill admirably. His uncertainties suggest that he is far from home and dipping into his Irish memory bank.
The narrative unfolds in May when springtime sets everything in motion, not least poetic emotions.
The poet paints a post-card from snippets of memory: a place with a the bridge ; a spot where startled fish distorted reflections on the river’s surface Trout were flipping the sky / Into smithereens); a welcome point at which to stop a while (the stones/ Of the wall warmed me).
His footsteps take him from the bridge onto a riverbank of thirsty plants (Wading green stems) with delicate eared lugs of leaf, easily damaged (untangle and bruise ) a frail outflowing of Nature (tiny gushers of juice).
He observes his damp shoes, ill-equipped for marshy conditions (My toecaps sparkle now) especially when treading vulnerable ground (the soft fontanel/ Of lreland). Allegory is never far away: Ulster society is in danger of being trampled.
Hallowed ground creates a moral duty: put on footwear of old (I should wear/ Hide shoes) and to bear discomfort as a kind of penance: the hair next my skin.
Heaney dips uncertainly into his memory bank: Wasn’t there a spa-well with greenery festooning its boundary wall (Its coping grassy, pendent) and a stream that flowed across the carriageway (the spring issuing /Right across the tarmac)?
Wherever he is located at this instance Heaney is intent (I’m out) upon thinking home thoughts, specifically of that village with its iconic Irish features: construction (low sills); fragrant) smells; indigenous plants (lady smock and celandine) and a mysterious, otherworldly magic: Marshlights in the summer dark.
- flipping: turning upside down with quick movement;
- smithereens: into tiny pieces (19th c. Irish derivation);
- lug: resembling an ear of the flap of a cap; something that can be gripped and pulled;
- gusher: flower stem compared to an oil well that flows without pumping;
- toecaps: rounded front part of a shoe protecting the toes;
- fontanel: (Heaney uses the US version) vulnerable spaces between the bones of a fetus/ baby skull where ossification is not complete;
- hide shoes: made of tanned animal skin, one side smooth, the other rough:
- spa-well: a location where mineral spring waters emerge from at ground level/ above ground;
- coping: the uppermost course of brick or stone on a wall;
- pendent: overhanging;
- sill: shelf of stone beneath a window;
- ladysmock: a wild flower common in Ireland also known as Cuckooflower;
- celandine: a common yellow flower of the buttercup family;
- marshlights: atmospheric, ghostly lights seen at night almost certainly the spontaneous combustion of natural gases; source of many tales of folk-lore;
5 quatrains in 5 sentences; line length of 5-7 syllables; unrhymed;
the balance of enjambed lines and punctuation regulates the breath groups of oral delivery;
verb tenses: simple then continuous past of a recalled moment in the past replaced by the present tense of a return visit;
‘flipping’ conflates visual and sound images; fish convulsion converting river into tiny drops: ‘smithereens’;
a time and a homely place to be : ‘May … warmed’;
pointers to Irish/ Ulster climate: ‘wading …gushers … sparkle’; modal ‘should’ with the sense of ‘ought’ (thinking earlier would have helped define his Ulster/ Irish identity);
personification: Ireland has a skull and frail bone structure; ‘fontanel’: to avoid damaging the environment soft early Irish footwear (‘hide’) is to be recommended;
question that tests memory; ‘pendent’ meets a rhythmic need that ‘overhanging’ would not;
mission created: ‘out to’; also ‘out’, in the fresh air, not indoors;
final couplet defines Irish bounty as both ordinary (beautiful but common flora) and yet phenomenal, unique (‘marshlights’);
- 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 two lines, for example, bring together a cluster of plosives ( alveolar [d] [t],velar [k]) alongside gentle sounds (sibilant [s] bilabial [w]) 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.