In a poem that foretells (Oracle) of a poet-in-the-making Heaney relives a childhood moment that demonstrates his strong spirit of independence, his sensitivity to the world around and his busy imagination.
Once upon a real time, child Heaney’s eagerness to wriggle free of parental control, run ahead and play hide-and-seek in the hollow trunk/ of the willow tree provided a passport to a secret spirit world in which he could commune with Nature (its listening familiar).
This moment of first communion was immediately disrupted by intrusive, repetitive calls: as usual, they/ cuckoo your name/ across the fields. He recognized the sounds of family closing in, navigating the barriers separating them from him: You can hear them/ draw the poles of stiles / as they approach urging him to give himself away (calling you out).
Child Heaney is reluctant to leave his hide-out and break the spell: small mouth and ear in a woody cleft, ear and voice (lobe and larynx) of the damp Mossbawn mossy places. Heaney’s poetry will, as the title prophesies, echo the sounds of nature and express its lyrical beauty.
- oracle: prophecy of things to be; at once mythological person, place and message;
- trunk: main stem of a tree;
- willow: a riverside tree common to Ireland;
- draw: pull;
- poles: lengths of rounded wood;
- stiles: wooden structures between fields that allow people through but not cattle;
- cleft: split, division;
- lobe: the hanging part of an ear, the central part of a leaf;
- larynx: site in the throat of the vocal chords;
- moss: a plant spread by spoors in damp habitats;
- ‘the word ‘ear’ is ( ) prominent in Wintering Out, as the poet describes himself listening in to the language of his original place’ (NC40);
- ‘As the child hides in the hollow trunk of a tree, he hears the family calling his first name, seeking him out… The family summons announcing the claims of home disturbs the child’s anonymous crouching in the ‘secret nest of nature (‘Mossbawn’) where he is more a tree-spirit than a human child’(HV15);
- ‘In ‘Oracle (what makes the poem very individual) is the announcement of the poetic vocation: the generalized pastoral child would not have thought of himself in retrospect as ‘the lobe and larynx / of the leafy places’. The sheer peculiarity of these two lines, in which a person is reduced, by synecdoche, to two biological parts – an earlobe and a voice-box – draws the portrait of the child in a way that the more generic poems do not’ (HV28);
sonnet format in 2 sentences: volta after the colon as the child is transformed into a wood spirit; line length 4-7 syllables; unrhymed;
balance of enjambment and punctuation; the stealthy approach of the search-arty treated as one breath group;
- imperative ‘hide’: the child responds to his sudden impulse; 2nd person ‘you’,’your’ places the reader in the drama;
with the child hidden away, sound is a dominant feature; repetitive cuckoo call; Heaney creates a verb ‘to cuckoo’ cuck… oo not distant in sound from’ Seam … us’;
personification: the willow listens;
- the music of the sound moves from p to mp to mf to f; the occasional music dissolves Debussy-like into the magical associations of the hiding-place;
synecdoche: mouth and ear for child// the wood genius he has become;
‘mossy’: final reference to wet Ulster climate;
- 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: nine 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 of, for example, bring together breathless continuant [h]and alveolar [l] alongside plosives [t] and [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.