Veteran’s Dream

One of a string of individuals memorialized in Heaney’s poems provided by his 1940s neighbourhood.

The warm-hearted child that Heaney was is reflected In Veteran’s Dream by his compassion for the physical and mental state of retired soldier Mr Dickson, my neighbour whose post-traumatic stress disorder born of Great War experiences in the trenches rendered his life not dream but nightmare.

The time setting is established by the man’s experiences: (he) saw the last cavalry charge/ Of the war and got the first gas.

He takes his injuries with him into his subconscious memory world, walking with a limp/ Into his helmet and khaki. Some near-death experiences are of distant concern: gas has yellowed his buttons; cavalry attack that leaves him cowering (near his head/ Horses plant their shods).

The terror he relives constantly (His real fear) is of infected wounds (gangrene), his physical body attuned to what is going on in his subconscious: He wakes with his hand to the scar.

He revisits the germ ridden circumstances (Where he lies/ On cankered ground) where, thanks to a miraculous intervention (white magic) the leg is being saved: on the trench-floor grubs are at work on his body (A scatter of maggots, busy) holding infection at bay by devouring sick tissue In the trench of his wound. The punning reference to ‘trench’ is evident.

  • veteran: old, experienced, retired soldier (Latin veteranus, old);
  • cavalry: soldiers on horseback; still deployed in World War I (the war was predominantly trench warfare) gradually replaced by mechanized vehicles;
  • gas: chemical warfare, mustard gas demoralized, injured and killed soldiers trapped in the trenches;
  • limp: walk with a stiff leg (evidence of injury);
  • helmet: domed metal headgear intended to protect the head;
  • khaki: strong military fabric yellow-brown in colour; uniform;
  • shods: hoof marks; noun coined from the p/p of ‘shoe’ reference ‘horseshoe’ (metal band protecting the horse’s hoof);
  • gangrene: putrefaction that eats away at soft tissue;
  • scar: mark left on the body after a wound has healed;
  • maggots: refers to treatment using insect grubs to cleanse open wounds by eating dead tissue; they are whitish in colour;
  • trench: ditches dug by soldiers to protect them against enemy fire; significant feature of WWI (Great War 1914-18);
  • Heaney reveals to DOD (p147) that he wrote Navvy during a very productive week of ‘about forty poems in May I969;
  • 4 quatrains in a 4 sentence construct; line length 4-8 syllables; unrhymed;
  • balance between enjambed lines and punctuation regulates breath groups of oral delivery;
  • veteran’s time-line suggested by event rather than date (almost certainly WWI);
  • opposites: ‘first’, ‘last’;
  • preposition ‘into’ opens up imaginative possibilities: Dickson’s mind inhabits his ex-soldier world; he dons his old uniform from time to time;
  • contrast: ‘notices’ (mentally alert); ‘indifferently’ (shot to pieces);
  • neat transfer of military word: attacking cavalry passes above the soldier (‘trench’ saved for later use): the deep gouge of the subsequent wound is a ‘trench’;
  • traumatic stress continues to haunt him: ‘fear … gangrene …wakes … hand to the scar’;
  • early medical treatments miraculous: ‘white magic’ both the effectiveness and colour of maggots;
  • scatter’: ingenious collective noun suggests random but purposeful sewing (of seed, for example);
  • 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: eleven 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 labio-dental fricatives [f] [v] a cluster of plosives (alveolar [t] [d], velar [k] [g] interspersed with nasal [n] and [m] and bilabial [w];
  • 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.

2 thoughts on “Veteran’s Dream

  1. I love Seamus’s poetry, but I would miss a lot if it wasn’t for this commentary. Have you thought of compiling it in book form? I would be willing to pay for it, and I assume others would. I would be very sad to lose this resource if this site was ever shut down.

    1. Hi Dan,
      You have reached David. I am delighted my work helps you to enjoy Seamus in greater depth.
      I decided to offer Heaneyphiles a free educational resource early on in my work and for 2 principal reasons: the blog format permits changes to be made (you might be surprised how many folk have offered compelling alternatives worth recording); secondly, I felt that students routinely went online these days for research and information.
      So I decided to share rather than give or sell. I never set out to earn an income, by the way.
      I hope you can live with that, Dan.
      Best wishes, David Fawbert

Join the Conversation - Leave a comment