Midnight is to do with being robbed. Loss of language, prosperity and nationhood are dealt with in the collection; to them Heaney adds the contrived extinction of the wolf, once prevalent in Ireland.
The spoliation visited on Ireland over the centuries has brought Heaney to a Midnight of gloom: things Irish lost or compromised by a string of occupying armies flooding Irish shores (Since the professional wars) with all the brutality of conquest (Corpse and carrion Paling in rain).
The poet laments the disappearance of a predator that roamed free until the British got involved: The wolf has died out/ In Ireland hunted to extinction after the Cromwellian Plantations of the 1650s.
Once upon a time packs/ Scoured parkland and moor until the swaggering son of a landowning family of British origin completed the wolf’s eradication: a Quaker buck and his dogs/ Killed the last one in a sparsely populated area south of Dublin (In some craggy waste of Kildare).
Heaney is testy about other negative outcomes of colonial rule: pure Irish breeds degraded (The wolfhound was crossed/ With inferior strains); flourishing natural resources sacrificed to pleasurable self-indulgence: Forests coopered to wine casks.
His tribulation is drowned by the sound of Rain on the roof to-night: at ground level it drenches (sogs) turf-banks and heather; at elevation, glinting outcrops/ Of basalt and granite reflect its surface shine; in the middle ground, the tree above his head Drips to the moss of bare boughs.
Where the wolf once lived is void (The old dens are soaking). Evidence of wolf’s presence is long gone: discarded pads are lost or eaten up by creatures lowest in the food chain (small vermin/ That glisten and scut).
The wolf is a figment of the poet’s imagination: the imagined sound of its breath (Nothing is panting) the illusion of its lounging recovery from exertion (lolling) or steam rising from its sweating pelt or breath from its nostrils (Vapouring). Heaney is outraged both by the treatment of Ireland and his lame responses.
Paradoxically the wolf is extinct but was free; the poet is alive but inhibits himself from raising his voice: The tongue’s/ Leashed in my throat. Who it is that controls the leash begs the next question!
- professional wars: both 16th and 17th centuries witnessed a string of uprisings against the confiscation of Irish lands by the British (accompanied by huge loss of life); foreign mercenary/ professional soldiers were used both by the invaders and the locals;
- carrion: flesh of dead animals attractive to scavengers;
- paling: losing its colouring;
- wolf: The wolf roamed Ireland long after it was exterminated in Britain . During the Cromwellian Plantation (1650s) the government placed a bounty on them;
- pack: wolves living in a group/ tribe;
- scoured: moved around rapidly in pursuit of food;
- Quaker buck: In 1786 a gentleman sheep farmer called John Watson from Ballydarton in Co Carlow, adjacent to Co Kildare is said to have hunted down a lone wolf with his wolfhounds: the last authenticated record of a wolf in Ireland. Records suggest that stray wolves may have survived longer in remote areas;
- craggy: said of a landscape characterized by rugged, rocky ridges;
- waste: barren uninhabited area;
- Kildare: Irish county south-west of Dublin;
- wolfhound: a large dog originally bred to hunt wolves; the Irish wolfhound had a rough, grey coat;
- crossed: interbred to combine 2 species;
- strain: particular type, subset;
coopered: a cooper fashions barrels from wood;
- sog: verb coined from soggy (very wet and soft);
- glinting: reflecting light, gleaming;
- outcrops: roc formations rising from flatter land;
- basalt, granite: very durable volcanic/ igneous rocks;
- bough: (main) branch of a tree;
- den: wild animal’s lair, home;
- pad: fleshy underpart of animals foot;
- glisten: reflect shinily;
- scut: coinage suggesting scuttle (run around with little steps);
- pant: referring to the rapid breathing of an exerted animal;
- lolling: lounging inactively;
- vapouring: giving out steam (signs of perspiration after exertion);
- leashed: tied; ‘tongue-tied’: unable to speak;
- DOD ‘Can you still remember the week in May I969 when – as you reported in earlier interviews – you wrote ‘about forty poems ‘? Were they just ‘trial pieces’ or did some of them survive into published collections? SH ‘Several of them appeared in Wintering Out: ‘Limbo’, ‘Serenades’, Veteran’s Dream’, ‘Midnight’, ‘Navvy’, ‘Dawn’. But a lot more saw the light of day just once … It was a visitation, an onset, and as such, powerfully confirming, This, you felt, was ‘it’. You had been initiated into the order of the inspired. Even though most of the poems didn’t stand tile critical test later on, the experience itself was crucial. From that point on I felt different as a writer’ (DOD147);
- 6 quatrains of variable line length (4-8 syllables); 7 sentence construct;
- the balance between enjambed lines and punctuation regulates the breath groups of oral delivery;
- vocabulary of violence nature’s food-chain;
- 3 quatrains of things that have happened; 3 of things happening;
- use of proper names including dissenting protestant landowners;
- disparaging references to non Irish landed gentry: ‘dandy’, ‘buck’;
- reference to uncultivated, barren, neglected, undeveloped Irish phenomena: ‘scraggy waste’;
- adulteration of things genuinely Irish: ‘wolfhound … crossed … inferior’; woodland felled for wine-casks and exported; profits to the entrepreneurs;
- invention: verb ‘sog’ closely associated with ‘soggy’; range of visual and sound references to rain and its influence over nature; other geological features;
- scant reference to predators and smaller scavengers who ironically feed on what they leave behind;
- ‘wolves’ inferred from Heaney’s picture of missing evidence of their presence;
- final euphemistic replacement for an uncontrolled outburst of anger;
- 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 lines, for example, bring together nasals [n] and [m] alongside a cluster of plosives: alveolar[d] [t], bilabial [p] and velar [k];
- 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.