Observation of the power and shape of falling water presents Heaney with the challenge of transposing the visual turbulence and disorder of a waterfall into words.
His poetic eye settles initially above the main fall, relative calm replaced as the pressure of water builds until the stream consumes itself as the burn drowns steadily its own downpour. Gravitational pull is injected, textures and light-effects are added in a helter-skelter of muslin and glass; unseen ridges cause skids that crash and generate visible soap-like suds.
The moment of plunge into the void with its contrast of currents at once acceleration and braking that affect the water’s momentum is as irresistible as late medieval paintings and accounts in which the sinful are deposited into the fiery furnaces of Hell Like villains dropped screaming to justice.
The water’s rebound is likened to an athletic glacier …/ reared into reverse and the stream’s channel a long throat, with humanlike swallow and reflux unceasingly repeated.
Heaney clarifies the picture he has in his mind’s eye: he has frozen a moving sequence (his observation dragged over the brink, caught like a floating stick amidst the Hurtling tons that slabber and spill) into a single frame, recording the tumult thus standing still.
- burn: a small water course, the term originating in Old English and used still especially in Scotland and Ireland;
- suds are the froth of soap and water combined; muslin: a delicately woven cotton fabric both phrases are used here to add light, creamy colouring and texture to the narrative;
- helter-skelter: the name of a fairground slide around a central tower is used metaphorically to denote confusion;
- Texture is important in a poem that appeals to several senses: muslin/ glass;
- 4 triplets of mainly 10 syllable lines; a single rhyme in the final couplet;
- Heaney injects the noise of water via the abundance of sibilant [s] and [ʃ] sounds (more than 30 in 12 lines);
- motoring vocabulary describes changes in water-speed: skids/ acceleration/ braking; other metaphors are used to describe water-power: crashed; reared (horse-/ wave-like)/ hurtling;
- the simile accompanying falling water (Like villains) is elusive, whether describing the irresistible force of gravity or alluding to the sounds made or to Providential inevitability;
- Heaney rings the changes of vowel and consonant chains, separate or in tandem: My eye rides; drowns/ down; up/ suds/ simultaneous/ sudden; through/ this/ throat; tumult/ thus/ standing/ still; slabber and spill;
- his use of personification via quasi-medical references to flux and reflux provides the stream with a gastric system: swallowed/ regurgitated!
- the glacier metaphor makes sense of the final image: the ice-field has colour and texture; importantly it has no visible movement.