The pilgrim achieves sexual freedom. The happening is presented as a real event and not just the fantasy of a young Catholic adolescent male indulging in a brazen carnal act on a hallowed site. The poem’s third sonnet sets out the sexually frustrated adolescence that preceded it.
Twenty-five years before Heaney encountered a girl without a name, a child of earth, her features and nature still etched in his sense- memory: the sunlit pigmentation on her skin (Freckle-face); her instinct-driven head of auburn colouring (fox-head); the texture and feel of her akin to pod of the broom; a fairy-like tree-spirit (catkin pixie); the gentle sound of her thighs as she walked: little fern swish.
She turned up as if in fleeting make-believe (Like a wish wished/And gone),initially a partner in a child’s game who would share an intimate rite of passage: her I chose at ‘secrets’/ And whispered to. When we were playing houses.
They met and he was sunstruck at the basilica door, the site by now a blurry mix of detail (stillness far away … space … dish and blackened tin … knocked over stool). Its significance, however, is one of legendary impact: tramped neolithic floor …dunes where the bent grass/ Whispers on like reeds about Midas’s secrets, secrets.
Their joint intention to have sex erased the sound of bell summoning pilgrims to devotion; the couple remained Head hugged. Eyes shut. Leaf ears,sworn to mutual secrecyDon’t tell. Don’t tell.
They went against the flow of pilgrims answering the bell to find a silent, secret refuge, the bottle-green still/ Shade of an oak where the intimate act took place. In a sequence where ‘ghosts’ are prevalent Heaney recalls the shades of the classical story in which Roman men carried off a partner for themselves from amongst neighbouring Sabine families.
The necessary adjustment of clothing and the event itself are given a ‘voice-over’, a Horace Ode setting out the power and delight of social events that include nightlong sexual joy: Loosen the toga for wine and poetry/Till Phoebus returning routs the morning star.
The stab of conscience that the young man felt on hearing the somnolent hymn to Mary emanating from the basilica joined the list of broken covenants: breaking the family line by abandoning his farming background to become undergraduate then poet (that bags of grain/ And the sloped shafts of forks and hoes/ Once mocked me with); obsessive thoughts about sex (long virgin/ Fasts and thirsts); implied masturbation (nightly shadow feasts) and sinful thoughts (Haunting the granaries of words like breasts).
His carnal aspirations had been blocked by his Catholic training: the keyhole tosexual pleasure when he was Mad for it merely opened into the confessional booth where no such thoughts could be entertained.
Thanks to her honey-skinned shoulder-blades and the wheatlands of her dress/ through the wide keyhole of her keyhole dress the door has been has unlocked.
The opportunity that arose came from the deep south of luck thanks to which a young man inhaled the land of kindness. Hints of allegory whereby the Irish Republic to which Heaney moved his family in 1972 was the fulfilment of a long-cherished desire to escape are supported by Heaney himself (see below).
Political allegory is reinforced by Heaney’s choice of verse from Dante: the delicately beautiful, lyrical landscape within whose touch of sunlight a sexually immature young man was liberated from inhibitionby the gift Translated, given, under the oak tree of a young womanis totally germane to the sense of release that accompanied Heaney’s escape from the social, political and poetic claustrophobia of Belfast.
pod of the broom: reference to the rounded see-pod of this prickly yellow-flowered shrub common on heathland, flowering between April and June;
catkin: the pendulous flowering stem of willow and hazel trees;
neolithic: the later Stone Age period following the paleolithic age;
Midas: classical king of Phrygia whose touch, it was reported, turned everything to gold
Sabine: pertaining to an ancient Italian people;
- Saint Patrick’s Purgatory: a descriptive alternative reference to the Station Island pilgrimage site stresses its association with the patron saint of Ireland and the hardships to which the pilgrims expose themselves:
- Phoebus: alternative name for Apollo, the sun god; from Greek phoibus meaning ‘bright’, ‘shining’, ‘radiant’
- Till Phoebus returning routs the morning star: from Horace, Odes, Book III, xxi;
- “As little flowers that were all (Dante, Inferno, canto 2. from l.127): Dante emerges from deep depression when Virgil explains to him that he has been asked to intercede on behalf of three ‘blessed ladies’ who support Dante’s cause. Heaney’s situation, though not identical involves similar depression; in his case sexual activity provides the remedy;
- the poet is estranged from the pilgrims; he is taking the opposite route;
- Alluding to canto VI DODcomments on what readers have regarded overall as an essentially a male pilgrimage with the women as silent partners; In response Heaney felt it depended on your ‘agenda’; he further suggested that the feminine principle was strongly at work in the 3 sonnets of canto VI that trace the pilgrim’s progress in the shedding of sexual guilt; (however) more politics than erotics in the sequence as a whole; examination of conscience conducted mostly within that arena (p247);
- Heaneyrecounts his translation from frustrated sexual fantasist (hungry for sexual experience) to fulfilled activist (sexual desire fulfilled) (MP p183);
- three sonnets; the first in 10 sentences; the second in four and the third in three;
- line length from 7 to (predominantly) 10 syllables;
- consider the variable pace of the narrative: copious use of enjambed lines interspersed with short phrases with plentiful punctuation; the dynamic changes from legato to staccato;
- recognisable rhyme schemes in sonnets 1 and 2; less visible in sonnet 3;
- sonnet 1 features a cluster of compound adjectives and nouns that establish sensual affinities with nature; references to childish games and desires; vocabulary of time-stood-still and frozen mental picture; simile seeks comparison with early unregulated human behaviours; classical reference to an ‘golden’ event; the ‘bell’ is the reminder of responsible religious duty, something to be shut out at a moment of sexual arousal; the sentence structure dictates flow and rhythm especially the final semi-panic to conceal the truth;
- in sonnet 2, watery imagery goes against the pull of gravity; lust obeys it. A quotation from classical Horace helps to skirt decently around basics; this time the bell awakens the male sexual impulses that routinely accompany pubescence in a non-religious context; use of euphemism;
- sonnet 3 accompanies the journey from peeping-Tom to ‘the real thing’, a serenade of 7 enjambed lines that reach a climax in the ‘land of kindness’, that is the gift that his sexual partner bestowed; the oak tree placed finally confirms his virile strength; Dante intercedes to describes the release of tension that sexual fulfilment brings to this young man;
- the music of the poem: thirteen 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:
Analysis of Heaney’s poems reveals how deliberately he seeks alliterative effects that allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify his assonant melodies. Heaney deliberately deploys pairs or clusters of like consonants; these come and go as the poem develops, entering the sound narrative, dropping out or reappearing at interval; he rings the changes. The simplified phonetic table that follows will facilitate your own analysis. Consonant sounds are formed in various parts of the mouth; most of them come in pairs (and Heaney will often deploy both in combination in the same phrase or sentence or stanza): a voiceless version and a voiced version; for example [p] and [b] are identically formed but [b] requires input from the vocal chords whereas [p] is simply air modified by the lips.
- Front-of-mouth sounds and their phonetic symbols:
voiceless bi-labial plosive [p] voiced bi-labial plosive [b]; voiceless labio-dental fricative [f] voiced labio-dental fricative [v]; bi-labial nasal [m]; bilabial continuant [w]
- Behind-the-teeth sounds:
voiceless alveolar plosive [t] voiced alveolar plosive [d]; voiceless alveolar fricative as in church match[tʃ]; voiced alveolar fricative as in judge age [dʒ]; voiceless dental fricative [θ] as in thin path; voiced dental fricative as in this other [ð]; voiceless alveolar fricative [s] voiced alveolar fricative [z]; continuant [h] alveolar nasal [n] alveolar approximant [l]; alveolar trill [r]; dental ‘y’ [j] as in yet
- Rear-of-mouth sounds:
voiceless velar plosive [k] voiced velar plosive [g]; voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] as in ship sure, voiced post- alveolar fricative [ʒ] as in pleasure; palatal nasal [ŋ] as in ring/ anger.
- Sound it out for yourself and witness Heaney’s intricate sonic draughtsmanship.