Feb 242012
 

The Blackbird of Glanmore

The speaker has reached his destination at Glanmore by car to discover his beloved blackbird Filling the stillness of the empty property with life. He knows its nature of old: an active but nervous creature preconditioned to scare off/ At the first wrong move. As ever, therefore, the kerfuffle of his departure will send it into hiding In the ivy.

Heaney’s affection for the blackbird is strong and unreserved: you..I love. 

Unwilling to spoil the perfection of the moment the speaker proceeds with deliberate caution: I park, pause, take heed./ Breathe. Just breathe.

As he sits there, an immensely moving, personal moment comes to his mind from more than fifty years before, a memory fuelled by words he once translated: ‘I want away/ To the house of death, to my father. He is struck by heart-breaking loss of his 4 year old brother Christopher, killed in a road accident in 1953. The child’s personality, playfulness and unreserved love when Heaney came home after his first term in boarding school are vivid still: A little stillness dancer – /Haunter-son, lost brother Cavorting through the yard,/ So glad to see me home.

A neighbour claimed that the presence of a blackbird had been an evil omen: I never liked yon bird; it had allegedly not moved from the shed roof prior to Christopher’s death: Up on the ridge for weeks.

The delicate balance of the moment is suddenly shattered: The automatic lock/ Clunks shut. Its impact on the blackbird is startling though short-lived. Its impact on the watcher is much more profound: for a second/ I’ve a bird’s eye view of myself,/ A shadow on raked gravel/ In front of my house of life, the Glanmore cottage in which so much of his history has been played out, poetry written and family raised.

He addresses his final endearments to the bird he is about to leave behind: a tiny hedge-hop to whom he must appear a giant: I am absolute for you; its eager birdcall and cheeky talkback; startled away but quick to return: each stand-offish comeback; daring but lacking confidence: picky, nervy goldbeak.

As the poem reaches its Coda (lines 1 and 5 are repeated) we sense the depths of Heaney’s emotion: the tiny Blackbird of Glanmore conducts its existence alongside the mighty Heaney of Glanmore Cottage. The past is set in stone, the future closed: On the grass when I arrive,/ In the ivy when I leave.

  • This last poem in the collection, which Heaney acknowledged to be his ‘favourite’ is dedicated to an emblematic bird whose sight brings memories, nostalgia and sadness flooding back. The poem is the collection’s beautifully lyrical epilogue powerful enough to draw a tear and crying out background music;
  • ‘The reason I like the poem’, Heaney said in an interview, ‘it’s kind of a different stage of life. You’re beginning to be aware of the underground journey a bit more.’
  • Heaney reveals the original moment to Dennis O’Driscoll (Stepping Stones, p. 408): the first time I came home from St Columb’s College, when (Christopher) was about two or three he actually frolicked and rolled around the yard for pleasure. That stayed with me for ever…’
  • In 1972 the Heaneys moved from Northern Ireland to the Irish Republic, to a cottage in Glanmore in the Wicklow mountains south of Dublin; initially a letting, the property was ultimately sold to the Heaneys by Ann Saddlemyer in 1988. The property carries huge emotional baggage;
  • neighbour: ‘There was an old woman – a weird sister figure, she lived down the fields…She read the world in terms of signs, omens’
  • Both bird and man are fixed items in this place; the space left empty by the startled blackbird is as meaningful and poignant as the space on the path that will be left empty when the man has passed away.
  • The structure follows a pattern: 6 five-line stanzas with a 1-line intermezzo between each; no rhyme scheme;
  • Stanza (1) echoes the [ɜː] of the title Blackbird/ first; followed by ] and [ai] in tandem I arrive/ filling/ stillness; life/ In/ ivy/ I; loose rhyme move/ love ;
  • In (2) the initial alliteration park, pause is followed by repetition of [b] and [i:] breathe echoing heed; full stops and 4 consecutive enjambments dictate the rhythm of the stanza;
  • Stanza (3) sound effects: [ɒ] one gone/ lost/ cavorting alongside other (o) variants [ʌ]       son/ brother; ʊso/ home/ homesick/ over; [u] through;
  • In (4) recurrent nasal variant: think/ neighbours/ long/ yon/ on/ nothing/ never; assonant [ɜː] words/ bird;
  • Startling alliterative [k] is strong in (5): automatic lock; with [ʌ] clunks shut; black-/ panic; strong sibilants: [s] and [sh]; limited assonance:
  • Final section begins with alliterative aspirates hedge-hop and assonant [u] absolute/ you and other front-of-mouth sounds: bilabial [b] absolute/ talkback/ comeback; labio-dental fricatives [f] -offish and [v] nervy/ ivy blending with [i:] each/ beak/ leave;                

 

  • ‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’, a peaceful garden is disturbed by ‘the automatic lock’ of the poet’s car door as it ‘clunks shut’, recalling not only the same door in Heaney’s superb Nineties poem ‘Postscript’, but the mechanism of a gun being loaded, an overtone that was only the ghost of a presence in the earlier, more meditative poem. Arms around the world Tobias Hill in The Observer, Sunday 2 April 2006
  • The real meat on the bone comes in poems such as “Nonce Words,” “Home Help” and “The Blackbird of Glanmore,” where the pain of loss disarms the decencies and decorum of Heaney’s style to go beyond nostalgia to genuine pathos.David Wheatley in The Contemporary Poetry Review
  • But the oldest shade there is that of the four-year-old brother whose death is the subject of Heaney’s early poem, “Mid-Term Break.” That death is revisited here in a great poem, “The Blackbird of Glanmore”; these two poems will now forever be read side by side. The earlier one takes life at grotesquely close range, in whispers and small details (the dead child’s body is marred by a “poppy bruise.”) This new one has Heaney standing “on raked gravel / In front of my house of life.” The “Circle” of Heaney’s title represents that inevitable return; the “district” is everything inside of it; these poems are remarkable for suggesting, in a lyric poetry of great charm and canniness, that what it cannot master is unknowable, charmless, and huge. Poetryfoundation.org