The humane portrait of a road-worker-superman, at once man of the earth dressed in fit for purpose (The moleskins stiff as bark) and man joined to the earth, driving a heavy pneumatic tool into the carriageway (the drill grafting his wrists/ to the shale).

A modest labourer, perhaps, but no pushover: where works have created a chicane for drivers (the surface ( ) weavy) and caution is required, the navvy polices the situation. When camber tilts/ in the slow lane he is in charge: he stands / waving you down.

Heaney is familiar with the boggy landscape through which the road passes (The morass
the macadam snakes over
) and the bog’s voracious appetite for anything that strays onto it: it swallowed his yellow bulldozer.

The stratified peat bogs provide a metaphor of historical time-line, laying ( ) down a piece of big equipment on top of remnants from previous ages: prehistoric refuges and primitive boats (lake-dwellings and dug-outs); Elizabethan weaponry (pike-shafts); Viking remnants (axe-heads, bone pins).

Whilst such cerebral issues are of no interest to a simple labourer (all he is indifferent to) Heaney stands in awe of his mental strength, his dogged disregard of whatever nature or driver expletives throw at him (He has not relented / under weather or insults).

Heaney venerates the navvy as a kindred spirit (my brother and keeper) comparing the electric charge flowing between the man and the earth (plugged to the hard-core) with his unfussy pursuit of his business (picking along) and the mark of his enterprise on the welted, stretchmarked/ curve of the world.

Heaney’s recognition of the extraordinary within the ordinary will use much the same imagery in District and Circle (2006): skating on Lake Windermere takes William Wordsworth a stage further: the worthy navvy remains earth-bound welted to the horizon’s curve; that same curve becomes a launch pad propelling Wordsworth into orbit.

  • navvy: labourer working in road construction;
  • moleskins: gloves made of thick strong fabric;
  • bark: tough outer sheath of a tree;
  • drill: a heavy pneumatic tool used for making holes in road surfaces;
  • grafted: fixed together;
  • shale: fine stone;
  • weavy: undulating, winding like the threads of a fabric;
  • camber: the arch shape of a road surface (so water runs off it);
  • tilt: slope at an angle;
  • wave down: signal a driver to stop using the hand;
  • morass: boggy, swampy land;
  • macadam: mixture of tar and stone used to surface a road;
  • bulldozer: powerful , heavy vehicle with caterpillar tracks;
  • lake-dwellings: prehistoric man-made islands of peat timber and stone known also as crannogs, used for defence and refuge by the ancient Irish;
  • dug-outs: boats made of hollowed tree trunks;
  • pike:  infantry weapon used in the Elizabethan period with a pointed steel oriron head on a long wooden shaft;
  • bone-pins: decorations made of bone common during the Viking period (10/11th c);
  • relented: yield, ease off;
  • brother and keeper: Heaney reworks an account in Genesis IV 9 of the Old Testament: ‘the Lord said unto Cain, where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?’; Cain has killed Abel out of sheer jealousy and his reply comes to symbolise people’s unwillingness to care for others;
  • hard core: brick rubble that forms a foundation onto which tarmacadam is laid;
  • welt: the decorative edge of a shoe to which the sole is sewn;
  • stretchmark: use of a term indicating streaks visible on the skin of a distended abdomen (via obesity or pregnancy) to apply the bulge of the earth’s curve;
  • Heaney reveals to DOD (p147) that he wrote Navvy during a very productive week of ‘about forty poems in May I969;
  • The historical and political themes in Wintering Out are carried, in a number of poems in Part One, by particular imagined or recalled human figures (including) the labourer of ‘Navvy’ ‘ (NC30);
  • In ‘Navvy’, Heaney addresses the labourer ( ) as ‘my brother and keeper’; but Heaney himself could be said to act as the brother and keeper of his characters in ‘Bog Oak’, ‘Servant Boy’ and ‘The Last Mummer’, where he gives a place in poetry to those who have usually been excluded from it(NC31);
  • 5 quatrains; lines of 5-7 syllables; unrhymed; 3 sentences;
  • the balance between enjambed lines and punctuation regulates the breath groups of oral delivery;
  • simile: roadman’s glove and tree bark;;
  • navvy depicted as an extension of the road he works on; ‘grafting’, ‘plugged to’;
  • dual intention: ‘slow lane’ – low intellectual turnover; where the traffic is least dangerous;
  • personification’: tarmac/ snake; bog that has a throat;
  • layered history: digging peat rewinds time from enormous bulldozer to tiny Bronze Age artefacts;
  • contrast (non-judgemental): poet is sensitive to the surroundings; navvy is oblivious and single-minded: ‘indifferent’, ‘not relented’;
  • biblical allusion: he who maintains the roadway is the motorist’s friend;
  • omission: ‘picking’ (his way); suggestion of unhurried, methodical movement;
  • 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, assemble labio-dental fricatives [f] [v], a cluster of plosives (alveolar [t] [d], velar [k] [g] interspersed with nasal [n] and [m] and sibling [s] variations’;
  • 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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