The Wool Trade

‘How different are the words “home”, “Christ”, “ale”, “master”, on his lips and mine’ Stephen Dedalus

Heaney’s epigraph is taken from James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man at the point when the young Irishman, in his dealings with the English Dean of Studies, suffers ‘unrest of spirit’ when it dawns on him that English (‘so familiar and so foreign’ to him) is a major legacy of English occupation. Three of his example words, of things that loom large in a young Irishman’s life (kinship, religion, social activity), lead to the fourth: his sense of Irish dispossession. Dedalus sounds the words out to himself conscious that the Dean, as an Englishman, will read their meaning differently.

The Wool Trade is to do with being robbed … robbed of language, robbed of prosperity, deprived of nationhood; it interweaves linguistic terms, speech sounds, references to sound production with a vanished industry: the once lucrative Irish wool trade, systematically destroyed by Anglo-Scottish interests after 1700 without concern for those who would suffer.

The wool trade question is credited to an enigmatic third person (‘his’) from whom the topic emerged in relaxed conversation (Rambled), something close to Irish hearts (warm as a fleece) provided from a rich well of knowledge (Out of his hoard). The finger points at Tom Flanagan, Heaney’s friend and mentor on Irish matters at Berkeley but we may never know precisely.

Heaney’s verbs follow the process that produced woollen yarns for textiles: harvesting (shear); storing (bale); cleansing (bleach); preparing for spinning (card) conjuring up a remembered voice unreeling like the yarn itself (Unwound from the spools/ Of his vowels) and awakening pictures of those Irishmen who long ago developed the industry (square-set men in tunics ) and whose conversations talked of foreign markets: plied soft name like Bruges/ In their talk, merchants Back from the Netherlands. Both ‘plied’ and ‘soft’ are loaded with woollen connotations.

Where is it now? The poem turns elegy of Irish rural loss (O all the hamlets). A landscape is tenderly evoked in which Irish-speaking folk and nature worked in symbiotic harmony, where/ Hills and flocks and streams conspired, where they spoke the same language of waterwheels.

What it was is nothing more than memory … the Irish language and spinning machines have shared the same fate: A lost syntax of looms and spindles, vocable-pictures that hang/ Fading, in the gallery of the tongue!

Dispossession has blood on its hands! Politically engineered collapse brought only hardship in its wake, as can be seen in the Scottish model: And I must talk of tweed,/ A stiff cloth with flecks like blood.

  • ale: British word for beer;
  • Stephen Dedalus: central character of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914-15);
  • ramble: walk for pleasure;
  • fleece: wooly coat of sheep or goat;
  • hoard: store (money, treasure, knowledge);
  • shear: cut the wool from a sheep;
  • bale: collect in a bundle;
  • bleach: clean and return to its white colouring;
  • card: prepare wool fibre for spinning;
  • unwound: undone after being wound;
  • spools: a reel around which cotton, thread is wound;
  • square-set: with angular rather than rounded features;
  • tunic: a loose, knee-length upper body garment;
  • plied: followed a route regularly for commercial purposes; ply also the thickness of wool yarn
  • Bruges: Belgian city (Flanders); medieval centre of the textile industry before the 16th century;
  • Netherlands: reference to countries bordering the European North Sea (e.g. Belgium, Holland);
  • hamlet: settlement smaller than a village; a few houses;
  • syntax: rules governing the arrangement of words and phrases to form proper sentences;
  • gallery: room for items on display;
  • tweed: fabric originating in Scotland (from the mid-19th century); some patterns include specks of red/orange yarn:
  • Heaney speaks highly of his friendship with American academic, Tom Flanagan, that enabled him to share concerns for the situation in Ireland ‘not in the abstract, mind you, but in relation to the writing I was doing or not doing at the time: the conflict between detachment and solidarity, between being an activist and an artist, a poet and/or a propagandist (DOD142);
  • Heaney reveals how Flanagan changed his mind-set: ‘I was somebody who knew a certain amount of Irish literature and Irish history, but my head was still basically wired up to English-Literature terminals. I was still a creature of my undergraduate degree. When I left, thanks mostly to Tom’s bril­liantly sardonic Hibernocentric thinking, I was in the process of establishing new coordinates and had a far more conscious, far more charged-up sense of Yeats and Joyce, for example, and of the whole Irish consequence. I was starting to see my own situation as a ‘Northern poet’ more in relation to the wound and the work of Ireland as a whole’ (DOD143);
  • allusion to post-colonial Ireland: ‘The Wool Trade’ knows the historical cost of that in­dustry when it ends with ‘talk of tweed, / A stiff cloth with flecks of blood’ (NC42);
  • 9 couplets in 4 sentences; unrhymed; some final assonances;
  • variable line length (3-8 syllables); copious enjambment establishing the breath groups of oral delivery;
  • calm, intimate contact: ‘Rambled …. warm as a fleece’;
  • quartet of verbs identifying stages in the wool production process: ‘shear’ > ‘card’;
  • puns: ‘spools’ of the spinning machine (note also ‘looms’, ‘spindles’), of the tape recorder of sound (‘vowels’); ‘square-set’: both well-built men and the sails of the ships they sailed in;
  • interweave of wool and nautical terms: ‘soft names’, ‘plied’;
  • change of mood characterized by the apostrophe ‘O’;
  • historical collaboration of Irish sources to produce wool described in linguistic terms: ‘language’, ‘syntax’;
  • vocabulary of disappearance: ‘lost’, ‘fading’ > museum pieces now: ‘gallery of the tongue’;
  • wool’s imposed anglo-scottish replacement has ‘blood’ on its hands;
  • 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 continuant labio-dental fricative [f] and bilabial [w] alongside bilabial plosive [b[and velar [d];
  • 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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