In the guise of a paramilitary exercise, a burlesque drama is played out. Two inept ‘heroes’ are motivated to hunt rabbits by official bounty payments that can be claimed for evidence of listed vermin killed. The sortie is long in build-up and over in a flash; its failure is written off as hardly worth the effort anyway!
The speaker is with a companion, Donnelly, at dawn on a damp chilly day when Clouds ran their wet mortar, plastered the daybreak/ Grey.
The bounty-hunters are on their way to the ‘killing-fields’, along the railway-track, across stones that clicked tartly underfoot, breaching the need for silence essential for surprise. No trains yet: the only steam was funnelling from cows that return the watcher’s stare Ditched on their rumps …/ Cudding (chewing their cud), watching and knowing.
The narrator sees marksman’s skills in the train tracks: The rails scored a bulls-eye into the eye / Of a bridge.
The early morning venture amounts to a military exercise; but attempts to avoid detection are suddenly dashed: A corncrake challenged/ Unexpectedly like a hoarse sentry/ And a snipe rocketed away on reconnaissance.
Like wartime commandos the companions are properly equipped for the mission: Rubber-booted, belted, tense as two parachutists. They overcome the first obstacle and make for A sandy bank, reinforced with coiling roots from which, with ravenous eye and hungry for a kill, they overlook the target area and lay their ambush: the holes under cover.
The watcher senses the enemy coming, humanised rabbits returning nervously to their den…/ Loping under ferns in dry drains, flashing/ Brown orbits across ploughlands.
The light increases from plaster to whitewash … bleaching on houses and stables; the wake-up call is imminent: in best barracks style The cock would be sounding reveille/ In seconds. The first rabbit, (portrayed as flashy and heedless) a playboy trotting up to the hole, is exactly on time. To the speaker’s anger (I spat) the prey is claimed and shot with both barrels by his senior-ranked companion whose mocking tribute to his victim is drawn from a popular Irish folk-song.
The silence and the illusion are shattered: Another snipe catapulted … A mare whinnied and shivered; the rabbits have fled. Not wishing to feel he made no contribution the ‘subaltern’ marksman reveals he discharged his gun, too.
No sooner has it begun than the sortie is over. Intense purpose is replaced by sauntering laddishness: they dandered off, back the way they came, leaving the dead rabbit behind: the pay-out is too measly to bother. The remaining rabbits that slipped back when the all clear got round would come across the victim of the attack.
- Heaney chuckles almost incredulously at something he did as a young man;
- the longest poem in the collection in 4 stanzas of variable length; lines of varying length, the shortest of merely 3 syllables And got him; no rhyme scheme;
- alliteration: [t] stones clicked tartly (also onomatopoeic association of sound and taste; [k]corncrake/ unexpectedly/ rocketed/ reconnaissance; [b] rubber-booted/ belted; [s] ravenous eye/ used/ greyness/ settle, soon;
- assonant effects: [ei] daybreak/ grey; [ʌ] funneling/ rumps; [ai] climbed/ iron; [ɪ] whinnied/ shivered;
- cows’ natures enshrined in triple participles: cuddling, watching and knowing; the final knowing complements Heaney’s wown head-shaking at his adolescent activities – they have seen it all before!
- Vocabulary of humidity: wet/ steamed/ ditched/ dew;
- military terms: bull’s-eye/ rubber booted/ belted/ parachutists/ sentry/ all-clear/ reveille/ barrel; the wading bird (snipe) is close to ‘sniper’;
- increasing daylight is described using colour shades from building construction: wet mortar, plastered … Grey becomes plaster thinned … whitewash … bleaching and eventually light);
- evidence of morning chill is interwoven with railway references: steam … funnelling from cows;
- verbs of movement swing from ‘purposeful’ (climbed … dropped) to ‘lacking purpose’ (dandered);
- the synaesthesia of ravenous eyes combines hunger-pangs and sight;
- Humorous intent confirmed, perhaps, by a third hidden animal introduced (in sound at least!): cows/ bull’s-eye/ hoarse;
- Heaney demonstrates a boyish relish for violence … based on macho imagery (Michael Parker Seamus Heaney, The Making of a Poet p.45);
- MP claims a huntsman’s respect and an adult’s empathy( ibid p.45);
- war films of the 60s period set out heroic circumstances : dialogue used in the poem might well be that of characters in such films;
- ‘Action Man, (not specifically mentioned here), a military action toy aimed at boys, was also a product of the mid 60s; this poem bears all the hallmarks of the macho styles adopted in the period that they somehow projected;