Summer Home

The poet revealed to DOD that ‘Those little poems in ‘Summer Home’ come more from pressure of personal experience than from any literary influence’ (p147). Significantly, in 1969, the Heaneys had spent time in the Bas-Pyrénées region of France fulfilling a condition of the Somerset Maugham Award of the previous year.

The cocktail of summer heat in a foreign clime, questionable accommodation, sheer fatigue and the company of two children under three years of age pushes an otherwise reasonable man over the top.

Heaney dramatizes a traumatic domestic event for which he feels guilty responsibility: act 1 provides the catalyst that lights his fuse; act 2 depicts deep remorse and an act of penitence; act 3 confirms an as yet insurmountable distance between man and wife; act 4 ponders the long-term impact of such behaviours; in act 5 the collateral damage rekindles his anger. The sequence ends, however, on a note of hope. The often disconsolate tone of the Wintering Out collection extends to summertime!


The narrator is at breaking point: the family’s temporary Summer Home is plagued by a nasty smell, maybe the malodour of rubbish (wind off the dumps) or rotting matter in high temperatures (something in heat) [even a creature, a cat, a dog, in sexual heat, caterwauling]. There is no escape from stench and sound (dogging us): it has ruined any pleasure (the summer gone sour) and provided the perfect conditions for domestic tribulation: a fouled nest incubating somewhere.

The narrator’s draconian approach to the problem betrays his short fuse: Whose fault, I wondered, inquisitor of the possessed air: the atmosphere has been pervaded by the stench; the stench has become an obsession for the poet.

Sudden awareness that the smell emanates from the doorway of their gîte brings an instant response (whip off the mat) and the discovery of an active swarm of maggots: (larval, moving). Boiling water delivered with a King Lear-like cry (scald, scald, scald), deals with the insect larvae though not the poet’s foul mood.

The poem opens dramatically, marrying intimacy and artistry, addressing itself both to wife and readers. We are made immediately conscious that something, as yet unnamed, is afflicting the marital state.’ (MP 111)

  • dump: place where rubbish is deposited;
  • dog: pursue, trail, bedevil:
  • in heat: the American ear hears suggestions of animal sexuality not necessarily present via the Anglo-Irish ‘on heat’;
  • sour: rancid, bad, fetid:
  • foul: dirty, soil;
  • incubate: grow. spread rapidly when heated;
  • inquisitor: harsh taskmaster, like a 13th century Catholic judge suppressing heresy;
  • whip off: take off very quickly;
  • larval: infested with grubs and maggots;
  • scald: burn with boiling water;
  • 5 couplets in 3 sentences; line length 4-9 syllables;

  • the balance between enjambed lines and punctuation that regulates the breath groups of oral delivery includes interrogative intonation (i.e. a question);

  • the title will reveal a paradox;

  • the question draws a parallel between external and personal circumstances;

  • simple past tenses;

  • deliberate ambiguities: ‘in heat’;

  • pronouns that initially leave the answer open: ‘something’, ‘somewhere’;

  • vocabulary of persistent unpleasantness: ‘dumps … heat … dogging … sour;

  • unexpected association (transfer of epithet?): ‘summer gone sour’;
  • guilt in the air: rhetorical ‘Whose fault’, ‘inquisitor’:

  • emotions running high: ‘possessed … whip … scald’;

  • focus moves forensically from outside the home to inside revealing a domestic problem;

  • climax of the piece from forte to fortissimo via emphatic repetition of ‘scald’;

  • for assonance and alliteration see below;


The poet’s caustic attitude has ‘scalded’ a human target and triggered an act of contrition: a floral offering (Bushing the door, my arms full of wild cherry and rhododendron). He enters to the sounds of his wife’s hurt (her small lost weeping through the hall), her faltering voice bells and hoarsens, singling him out as the culprit: my name, my name.

With his wedding vows echoing through his mind it is a case of mea culpa: O love, here is the blame. His floral gifts are a plea to be forgiven by someone he worships: The loosened flowers between us gather in, compose for a May altar of sorts.

As they lose their beauty and wither the frank and falling blooms will convert into a ‘holy’ oil (Soon taint to a sweet chrism). The remorseful poet bids the balm to direct its energy (Attend) to healing a cherished one’s pain: Anoint the wound.

his wife’s ‘weeping’ sets in motion the process of restoration. Characteristically, Heaney enlists the aid of Catholic imagery and ritual to renew and re-compose their sacred and secular union‘ (MP111);

  • rhododendron: large shrub of the heather family with flower clusters;
  • bell: make loud cries (normally of a stag in the mating season);
  • hoarsen: become gruff, croaky;
  • May altar: reference to a domestic shrine to the Virgin Mary, celebrated in Catholic areas as ‘Queen of the May’;
  • frank: free, liberal, generous;
  • taint: contaminate, spoil, soil, ruin;
  • chrism: (from church Latin) oil and balm mixed to form a cream used for anointing;
  • anoint: both smear on for medicinal purposes and consecrate;
  • 2 quintets each followed by a single line; 5 sentence construct variable line length 5-9 syllables;

  • no formal rhyme scheme; some rhyming/ assonant pairings;

  • the balance between enjambed lines and punctuation regulates the breath groups of oral delivery; the dynamic flow of the poem is broken by 5 sentences within 12 lines of poetry, adding an emotional staccato;

  • metaphor: man > bush;

  • contrast: full sized plants and ‘small lost weepings’ – the psychology of a guilty person: repetition of guilty person via his name;

  • metaphor: ’bells’ – voice akin to a wild animal’s (also ‘wild cherries);

  • apostrophe ‘O’ addressed to what has been violated (not: not who);

  • transferred epithet: ‘loosened flowers’, ‘falling blooms’; in fact the emotional bond between man and wife has been tested;:

  • Catholic resonance: confession, offering, ‘altar’;

  • oxymoronic juxtaposition: ‘taint … sweet chrism’;

  • final imperatives urge a physical contact after climb-down;
  • for assonance and alliteration see below;


Night brought only cold, hurt silence to what should have been an intimate space (O we tented our wound all right under the homely sheet) with neither of them able to communicate: as if the cold flat of a blade / had winded us. (Commentators have suggested an alternative interpretation based on ‘tent’ and ‘flat blade’ as a failed attempt at intimacy.)

As now he watches her bend in the shower he senses reconciliation will be hard-earned (More and more I postulate thick healings); his hope is that water’s cleansing power may restore the physical and spiritual closeness his behaviour has deprived them of: water lives down the tilting stoups of your breasts.

  • tent: a tent is an outdoor canvas erection adapted here as a verb;
  • homely: cozy, comfortable, snug;
  • flat: the area between the cutting edges;
  • blade: the sharp part of a weapon;
  • wind: make breathing difficult (e.g. by a blow to the stomach);
  • postulate: put forward, suggest;
  • lives: flows as if alive;
  • stoups: bowl-shaped containers for holy water, jugs;
  • 4 couplets in 2 sentences;; unrhymed;

  • line length 4-11 syllables superseded by enjambment that dictates 2 extended breath groups;
  • apostrophe ‘O’ an expression of grief;

  • metaphor: marital bed/ tent ; paradox: the sheet pulled over them both does not unite them;

  • injury ( ‘wound … blade’) not regarded as terminal ‘winded’;

  • simple past tense to present tense confirming change of emotional circumstances;

  • personification: water is alive; water also cleanses;

  • juxtaposition of spiritual and sexual lexis: the wife is an object of reverence; their physical coupling will (hopefully ‘postulate’) complete the repair;

  • for assonance and alliteration see below;


The weave of sexual allusions (‘drive’, ‘split’ and ‘sap’) is strongly suggestive of a second successful attempt at intimacy. Whatever, the unfolding of damaging events is turned into metaphor: his repeated rage, unpleasant to the ear (final/ Unmusical drive) is the axe plunged into the living wood of a relationship, injuring it for some unspecified period: Long grains begin/ To open and split/ Ahead.

Similar events have happened before, it is suggested: once more one of them has cast a shadow over the way of pure love: We sap/ The white trodden path / to the heart.

  • unmusical: (of sound) clashing, unpleasant to the ear;
  • drive: forceful impetus;
  • grain: particular texture of a wood;
  • sap: consume, deplete; its liquid connotation supports both readings of the piece;
  • 2 quartets in a single breath group; lines largely of 5 syllables; unrhymed;
  • weaponry of duelling (‘blade‘);
  • pivotal ‘sap’ opens alternative readings;
  • metaphor: love/ long (and here winding) road;
  • for assonance and alliteration see below;


Man and wife both deal with the sounds of collateral damage (My children weep out the hot foreign night./ We walk the floor); the loss of sleep serves only to rekindle his anger: my foul mouth takes it out / On you. Insomnia and corpse-like rigor mortis ensue (we lie stiff till dawn).

The new day comes as a servant to the bedside: Attends the pillow. In contrast to the suffering couple inside its summer ‘home’, rural French nature outside (the maize, and vine) is bursting with fruitfulness: the grapevine boasts its ripening grapes holds its filling burden to the light.

Love mourns the loss of Yesterday’s harmonious geological venture (rocks sang when we tapped / Stalactites in the cave’s old, dripping dark). The flame of fondness still alive deep inside them appeals for the return of harmony: Our love calls tiny as a tuning fork.

In its last lines Heaney strains towards a positive conclusion, invoking metaphors of music and light…In its final images, however, ‘Summer Home’ returns to the dark… The cave functions both as an actual physical location – it is a place where the couple share a common wonder at the sublime – and as a symbol of sexual unity The beautiful, delicate image of the ‘tuning fork’ acts as a reminder of the harmony they can achieve together, its tiny fragile sound a counterpoint to the ‘small lost weeping’ of Part Two’ (MP112);

  • foreign: of another land/ culture; unknown;
  • take it out on: make someone else the victim of your own anger;
  • foul mouth: that delivers unacceptable language/ feelings;
  • attends: makes its presence known;
  • burden: load; the other sense of ‘weight of anxiety’ is also present in the context;
  • tap: hit with a light blow;
  • stalactites: tapering structures formed underground over many millennia by the calcium content of dripping water;
  • tuning fork: 2-pronged steel instrument used by musicians to produce a specific note;
  • 2 quartets constructed in 3 sentences; unrhymed (note: ‘night’ … ‘light’); lines of manly 10 syllables;

  • personal pronouns: ‘my’ (not ‘our’) in the first, short sharp sentence reinforcing personal responsibility aspect; ‘we’ elsewhere not a united ‘we’; the ‘our’ of the final line offers an optimistic note;

  • varied use preposition ‘out’: in time to see it through, survive; as an agent of bad treatment;

  • cause and effect: ‘foul mouth … lie stiff’;

  • romanticized personification: ‘dawn’ presented as a physical presence;

  • paradox: people in state of collapse, nature flourishing;

  • personifications: rocks have a voice; hammers send messages; love has a pleading voice;

  • for assonance and alliteration see below;

  • 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: fourrteen 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;
  • for example the first lines of (i) bring together continuant sounds (sibilant [s], bilabial [w] and velar [h] ) alongside alveolar plosives [t] [d] and nasals [m] [n];
  • 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.
  • Heaney’s oxymoronic title announces the paradox: summer homes are short-stay non-homes lent as some form of pleasurable alternative to normal life (far from the case here); the exciting prospects of a summer turns to ordeal, as it does for countless people in similar circumstances;
  • (as with the) lovers at angry, hurt odds in ‘Summer Home’ … many of the evoked figures (of Wintering Out) suffer some kind of human diminishment: isolation, repression, disenchant­ment, exploitation or betrayal’ (NC30);
  • Lostness and unhappiness are located, in the end, ‘at home’ … in fact, the poet’s ‘Summer Home’. This poem painfully evokes an unhappy period in a marriage by conjuring Images of unease, guilt, temporary assuagement, sexual desire ( ) and sheer persistence … personal material is deflected away from the confes­sional towards the metaphoric and symbolic … the inevitable arrival of dawn becomes, rather, an alternative source of possible regeneration, however tentatively …’ (NC51);
  • Although “the private core’ in Heaney’s domestic lyrics ‘will always remain hermetic within them he reflects the crises, joys and agonies in his personal life with an astonishing open­ness and bravery… ‘Summer Home’ simul­taneously embodies and transcends the private experience which gave it birth. Originating in the poet’s feelings of remorse and desire to make reparation, it becomes … a journey in five acts from sin to a chastened redemption, a poetic exploration of male guilt and Man’s need for ‘feminine intercession’(SH speaking to Frank Kinahan, cit MP p111);
  • Rhythm, sound and imagery combine to evoke an oppressive atmosphere. The regularity established in the first line by the two anapestic feet is immediately disrupted in the second by that ‘something’, and thereafter strong stresses stalk the verse at will … There is dense use of alliteration ([w] [d] [m] [n] [g]) and [s]) and assonance ([əʊ] [ɪ] [ʌ] [au] ). Vowel rhymes ,and images with unpleasant associations snake from one line to the next (‘dumps’ /’something’, ‘in heat/ dogging us ” ‘sour’ /’fouled’)’ (MP111);
  • The difficulties are formally dramatized there by the heavy en­jambements and caesurae which restrain the forward thrust of syntax: the future that the lines cry out to be released into is dis­rupted and postponed. The nervous irresolution of the half­ rhymes completes the effect; and they reach their painful diminuendo in the sadly dissonant chime of ‘fork’ against ‘dark’, which complements the well-judged placing and full rhyming across stanzas of ‘night’ and ‘light’. The poem’s perfect pitch and control are fulfilled in its final simile. The little human noise resonating in the old dark of personal unhappiness and of overwhelming natural forces, as it has earlier resonated in the old dark of Irish historical and political experience, is the true tone of Wintering Out: comfortless enough, but with a notion of survival in it too’ (NC51);

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