Heaney adapts a New Testament miracle as a tribute to those who came to his aid in crisis. Having described his impotence as a stricken stretcher-case he salutes the initial human support-chain of friends whose efforts helped bring about the miracle of recovery.
He is commemorating not the beneficiary of a biblical miracle (the one who takes up his bed and walks) but, rather, his own ‘stretcher-bearers’ (the ones) whose solidarity took up the challenge however daunting of moving him: Their shoulders numb, the ache and stoop deeplocked/ In their backs … the stretcher handles/ Slippery with sweat.They spared no effort (without let-up) to deliver a sick man for healing despite the logistical problems: strapped on … made tiltable… raised… lowered.
Heaney urges us to be mindful of those like those who ferried him who, their job done, could only stand and wait, their hands still suffering the burn of paid-out ropes, left with thelightheadedness of physical exertion and their incredulity at having managed that first difficult stage successfully.
Without the miraculous presence of those ones who had known him all along Heaney feels that his illness might have met with a less felicitous outcome.
- 12 line poem; free verse. 2 complete sentences separating the ‘story’ from an appreciation of those who sacrifice themselves for others;
- Using allegory and written in the third person the piece bears all the hall-marks of personal experience;
- Sibilant repetition helps describe a task made more difficult by lack of grip: Stretcher handles slippery with sweat;
- frequent plosive [t] after no let up mimics the grunts of concentration and effort;
- the final enjambed couplet slows the pace, allowing the symptoms to dissipate.
- The story of the paralytic being brought by four friends and healed by Jesus can be found in three of the four Gospels: Matthew 9:2-8, Mark 2:1-22 and Luke 5:17-26.
- The Robert McCrum interview offers other insights: Heaney identifies his support chain: “[The poet] Peter Fallon and (Desmond) Kavanagh carried me down the stairs (of the Donegal guest-house where they were all staying); McCrum reports that Heaney denied a biblical intent: ‘Around this time, perhaps responding to the larger stage on which he always finds himself, he began to write a poem, Miracle, inspired by the gospel story of the paralysed man lowered through the roof into Christ’s presence. Heaney insists that it’s not a spiritual poem, but one that marked “being changed a bit by something happening. Every now and again you write a poem that changes gear.” He had never written a poem in response to scripture before, and says he is not a believer’.
- But it’s also a reference to the disorientating experience of being carried, helpless, to an ambulance, and of feeling the support of those bodies doing the lifting. These allusions ripple out from “Miracle” Charlotte Runcie, living.scotsman .com, Aug 20 2010.
- The miracle is felt by these close observers as a physical thing, a ‘slight lightheadedness and incredulity’ that is intimately connected to the resilience and sweat that went into achieving it. The Biblical story underpins the image of humans as levers, hoists, props, each other’s limits and each other’s best support;
- This is where Heaney’s obsession with writing about bodily exertion gets personal; the poem’s impotent patient, perhaps a stroke victim, is referred to only in the third person, his passiveness exaggerated by the brusque physicality of those around him. Charlotte Runcie, living.scotsman .com, Aug 20 2010.
- This short tribute to stretcher-bearers everywhere (“handles/ Slippery with sweat”) segues into Human Chain’s title poem, which sings the joys of grain-sack hauling as “backbreak’s truest payback”. Jeremy Noel-Tod in the New Statesmen of Sept 13, 2010.
- His poem Miracle, which he describes as central to the collection, was directly inspired by his illness. Recalling the people who had to carry him up and down stairs in the immediate aftermath of his stroke, he draws on the biblical imagery of the men who carried a paralysed man to Jesus to be healed. “I realised the guys that are hardly mentioned are central… without them no miracle would have happened,” said the grateful poet. Eimear Flanagan, BBC News Aug 23, 2010
- Heaney himself was once a ‘brancardier’ on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, sponsored by an aunt (District and Circle, 2006)