A touching, much-admired poem, filled with a warm humanity for individuals and groups; the piece follows a coffin’s final journey fixing on the instant immediately preceding interment.
An initial paradox: Spring is showing signs of life at the very moment of a funeral. An old woman has died. Her funeral is well supported by the local community itself ageing: her cortège filled the road. Ulster might have been rural Brittany with its ritual procession of remote/ Familiar women and men in caps/ Walking four abreast.
With an incongruity bordering on outrage the proceedings are disrupted by the throttle and articulated whops / Of a helicopter crossing. Once the deafening noise has subsided, calm restores itself; not just bringing physical Awareness … of our own footsteps but a shared consciousness of restrictions imposed by political circumstances and questions about restriction: the value of open air, and the life behind those words / ‘Open’ and ‘air’.
The deceased woman on her final journey is recalled in her decline: initially her world closing in, mental confusion and oxygen in short supply: aghast,/ Foetal, shaking, sweating, shrunk, wet haired; then loss of faculties and death symptoms: A beaten breath, a misting mask, a flash of one wild glance that compares with the pilot’s ghost surveillance/ From behind a gleam of helicopter glass.
Such is the human cycle: A lifetime, then the deathtime (‘A’ one each; ‘the’ common to all without exception).
The procession is unified by a universal reticence/ Keeping us together when together. Decency dictates silence in which people’s differences may not be voiced: All declaration deemed outspokenness.
In her life, the woman played different rôles: Favourite aunt, good sister, faithful daughter, physically frail (delicate) perhaps but, in personality, a tough alloy/ Of disapproval, kindness and hauteur. Heaney’s second French word provides the ‘mot juste’ for this unnamed woman’s brand of moral-high-ground aloofness.
Tribute is paid to a woman whose spinster life was characterised by self-sacrifice and inhibition even though, latterly, she might have exposed herself to ‘sin’ by allowing herself the risk … of certain joys. These are modest enough by any normal standards: Her birdtable and jubilating birds/ The ‘fashion’ in her wardrobe and her tallboy; out-datedness is suggested by the inverted commas and any suggestion of ‘male’ involvement in her life is limited to a piece of furniture.
The funeral would be remembered for its chill Spring weather its recipe of death and rebirth, its musicality befitting the circumstances be it lyrical and delicate Reprise of griefs in Summer’s clearest mornings/ Children’s deaths in snowdrops and the may (the hawthorn trees surrounding her grave-site) or on much grander scale Whole requiems at the sight of plants.
Her frail weight carried lightly on the bier helps the coffin-bearers: Four women/ …she would have called them girls claim the privilege of the final lift and with it their privilege as friends to lower her coffin into the grave beneath the hawthorns.
- at a political moment in Irish history when all gatherings gave grounds for suspicion, the solemnity of the occasion is invaded by a military presence;
- problems associated with sectarian division and sporadic violence required security patrols including the use of helicopters; the Catholic population would see this as a form of ‘protestant’ intrusion especially on a solemn occasion;
- 10 tercets and 1 final line; largely based on 10 syllables; shorter line 2 highlights the topic; varied punctuation and enjambment (one over 4 consecutive lines) ensure an oral delivery that can follow the proceedings, permit reflection and solemnity;
- no formal rhyme scheme beyond paired rhymes after tercet 5;
- braird: regional use for ‘shoot’; pardon the French word for a Breton pilgrimage/ religious festival; the Irish and Breton languages share Celtic roots, so why not the people, too; French words hauteur/ reprise;
- multiple rich and varied groups and chains of vowel sound effects: [ɪ] Lift/ in /filled; [i:] green/ later keeping/ deemed/leaf later gleam later still reprise/ griefs/ clearest; [əʊ] road/ old/ photograph/ remote/ own/open; [ʌ] could/ some; unstressed [ə] Breton/ pardon/ women; ɔː] walking/ four/ falling; [ɒ] throttle/ whops/ helicopter crossing; [au] sound/ our; [ai] life behind later wild/ like behind/ lifetime/ deathtime childhood/ kindness end-of-piece sight/ lightly/ final; [eə] air/ haired/ breath/ deathtime; later deaths; [ɔɪ] alloy/ joy/ tallboy; [ɜː]certain/ birdtable/ birds; [e] weather end requiems/ friends; [ei] say/ say/ may;
- occasional alliterative effects: hawthorn half; half photograph; shaking/ sweating/ shrunk; beaten breath/ misting mask; gleam/ glass; together/ together; declaration deemed; bore/ bier;
- oxymoron: remote/ Familiar; onomatopoeia: whops copies the sound of air pressures and revolving rotor blades;