The rivers and streams close to his boyhood home are very much part of Heaney’s landscape. In this poem he takes advantage of his huge interest in Nature pausing on arched bridges to acquaint himself with life-forms in the stream below.
The first 5 lines are composed around two contrasting verbs: one of inertia, the other of movement. At one moment the fish’s latent power Hangs (as if suspended in the water) like a fat gun-barrel waiting to be triggered; next it slips effortlessly like butter down the throat of the river.
From deep in the water the trout accelerates to the surface in search of food. Heaney loads the text with sniper and naval imagery: muzzle/ bull’s eye/ picks off/ torpedoed (there is no escape from the pace and accuracy of the device). The trout’s non-friction design (slips) is facilitated by the texture of the water’s depths smooth-skinned as plums.
In contrast the fish’s impact in shallower underwater areas, Where water unravels/ over gravel-beds is fired from the shallows, its track visible across the water’s surface: white belly reporting/ flat.
Once its mission is accomplished the trout takes cover with lightning speed: darts like a tracer-/ bullet back between the stones.
The fish is tireless, its cannon-like power summed up in the final couplet: A volley of cold blood/ ramrodding the current.
- As with The Diviner the title elides into line 1: Trout/ Hangs;
- Heaney provides an object-lesson in translating visual observations into words;
- ‘ramrods’ were used to drive explosive charges into the barrels of muzzle-loading firearms;
- 17 lines split into 4 quatrains of mainly 6 syllables lines plus a final line; no rhyme scheme;
- extended metaphor likening the trout to a firearm is reflected in the frequency of gun references, even old-fashioned ones. Numerous examples refer to the trout’s ‘fire-power: gun-barrel/ muzzle/ bull’s eye (the centre of targets/ gun-sights)/ picks off (like a sniper)/ fired/ reporting (introduces the sound of firing)/ darts/ tracer-bullet; volley; ramrodding (restricted to big guns in WWII);
- an example of the deliberate juxtaposition of voiced and voiceless sound produced in the same part of the mouth: [tʃ ]and [dʒ] arched bridges;
- assonant pairs: trout/ throat; bridges/ slips; unravels/ gravel; stones/ cold; triplets: gun/ under/ butter; plums/ muzzle/ bull’s eye;
- The antithesis of never burnt out and cold blood deftly juxtaposes the notions of physical stamina and the fish’s biology, physical and instinctual;
- Verbs are very effective in conveying the fish at rest and in motion;
- One critic senses both military and phallic metaphors (Neil Corcoran The Poetry of Seamus Heaney, A Critical Study p.3).