Sensitive to his own break with his family’s traditional way of life and faced with three seismic life-challenges in the same 1960’s period: marriage, poetry and paid work in the academic sphere, Heaney dedicates this poem to his wife Marie Heaney née Devlin, confident that her support will help him achieve the full identity that might have been denied him had he picked up the reins of farming.
Heaney offers his new wife an additional wedding vow: I shall perfect for you the child. He paints the picture of his younger persona: an industrious person, perhaps, not yet seriously focused on grown-up things, who diligently potters … digging with heavy spade, engaged in as yet unfulfilling projects: puddling through muck.
He confesses his good intentions (annually tending his own little garden and sowing for produce) but concedes his relative failure (to protect it against invaders: sow and pecking hen).
Ambitious projects were not thought through, as encapsulated in his epic but vain pursuit of sound irrigation principles: when, driven on despite the sucking clabber, he Delightedly built dams across the flowing drain. They proved unfit for purpose: my bastions of clay and mush/ Would burst before the rising autumn rain. Basically he was not up to this way of life and he derived no fulfilment from it.
Those times have gone: new limits now: Heaney is confident that Marie, his Love, will help him outgrow the child Whose small imperfect limits would keep breaking. They will enjoy shared parameters: an intimate togetherness within our walls; a newly avowed commitment in marriage, symbolised within our golden ring.
- A poem constructed around the abstract notions of perfection and imperfection;
- Heaney avers that he never really made anything of his farming training; 12 lines are inundated with the vocabulary of attempted constructiveness overcome by total lack of engineering skills; moreover the working life he has left behind was dirty and unpleasant;
- in view of that ‘failure’ he is determined that his marriage and his new direction will be successes; he is prepared to change and be changed; he begs Marie to play her part within their new partnership;
- the English colloquial phrase’ stop mucking about’, meaning ‘get on with something serious,’ chimes well with the toilsome picture accompanying Heaney’s message;
- the speaker’s humility and self-deprecation are characteristic of the medieval courtly-lover.
- 16 ten-syllable lines in 4 quatrains; a loose rhyme scheme abab cdcd etc;
- line 13’s you shall seeks a shared contract confirming line 1’s I shall: both partners have a rôle to play in the speaker’s aspirations; Heaney’s use of 1st person plural pronouns we and us indicates a new togetherness; personal pronoun of a failed past is singular: my ….wall .. to exclude; dam/ my bastions/ burst; possessive pronouns of a successful future are plural: our walls .. our golden ring;
- use of alliteration: voiceless bi-labial plosive [p] perfect/ potters/ piled/ puddling interwoven with alveolar plosives [d] and [t] that are produced in the same area of the mouth);
- sibilant [s] sucking/ splash; [d] delightedly/ dam/ drain;
- assonant effects: [ʌ] puddling/ muck; mush/ autumn; [ɪ] strip/ build; [æ] dam/ bastions; earth monoliths have no power;
- evocative description permits neologism: puddling/ clabber.