The poet recounts the speaker’s last sighting of an old man taking his last look at the environment in which he has spent his life. Heaney’s in memoriam is addressed to the memory E.G. and though we later learn the man’s family name, no further identity is provided.
A couple out for a spin above the sea-shore come across an old man stilled and oblivious, standing in limbo, mentally distant from the world around him;his gaze is focussed on the blossoming potatoes. This man-of-the-land has been walking the fields as evidenced by his trouser bottoms wet/ and flecked with grass seed.
Roadside sounds that might have awakened him from his reverie (Crowned blunt-headed weeds…/ flailed against our car)spark no reaction in a man lost in his long watchfulness/ by the clifftop fuchsias.
His silent physical presence is a timeless emblem of old Ireland akin to sheep’s wool on barbed wire or an old lock of hay combed from a passing load.
Heaney pictures the old man in his younger days travelling Donegal/ in the grocery cart its signage clear in his memory. The delivery-man’s horse was cared for by his customers: Flourbags, nosebags, buckets/ of water ( ) in every whitewashed yard. The clash between E.G’s rural Donegal and modernity (even a car of 1930’s vintage) was renowned: Drama between hedges/ if he met a Model Ford.
Heaney summons a mythological Irish-speaking heroine sure to make the wide strand sweet/ with inviting Irish, her weaving equestrian skills reflected in the wet dazzle and blaze of water covering the sand.
But not even the arrival of a symbol of Irish womanhood, guaranteed to stir a man’s blood, could shake E.G. from his inward look, drawn him out/ from the covert of his gaze.
- EG: research suggests Edward Gallagher;
- nosebags were bags that contained food fastened beneath a working horse’s nose by a string that passed over its head;
- Donegal is the largest county in Ulster situated in the north-west corner of the island;
- Model Ford suggests a time around 1930 when very few motor cars were to be seen on Irish roads;
- Niamh: Niamh was a female figure from Irish legend who crossed the western sea on her horse Embarr and took the young man Oisin with her on her travels; Oisin fell in love with her and returned to Ireland. Falling from the horse he touched Irish soil and was turned into an old man. Thus the story ended very sadly but the couple produced a daughter;
- strand: the poetic word for ‘sea-shore., ‘beach’
- covert: originally an Old French adjective meaning ‘hidden’, ‘obscure’, ‘covered’; also used as a noun to indicate a thicket of trees;
- an elegy in 4 sections of 12, 6 and 20 lines respectively; line length based between 4 and 7 syllables arranged within 7 sentences; much use made of enjambment to open up the rhythmic flow;
- whilst there is no formal rhyme scheme assonant echoes and some actual rhyme occur at intervals;
- lyrical description of an ageing countryman; vocabulary of man shut inside himself and no longer aware of the world outside;
- period description of the young man with use of proper nouns; contrast between traditional rural practices and what was at the time ‘modern’ and threatening; his anger levelled at modernism (the motor-car);
- evocation of the colour and energy generated by a classical heroine;
- the music of the poem: twelve assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text:
- alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies: V1 is launched using alveolar approximant [l] and voiceless velar plosive [k] followed by sibilant fricative variants [s] [z] and a pair of [h]; V2 features bilabial [w] and alveolar [l] with voiced plosives [b] [d]; V3 interweaves voiceless alveolar plosive [t], voiced velar plosive [g]; later [w] and voiced alveolar plosive [d] carry into V4 adding voiced labio-dental fricative [v] and a pair of voiced alveolar fricative [z];