Nov 222013

The First Gloss

Heaney takes the first poetic step in ‘change and revival’ mode, the ‘lift-off’ anticipated from the new Heaney Sweeneyrelationship. This short, clever piecealludes to the poet’s principal weapon the pen that featured in the first poem of Death of a Naturalist written in August 1964. The original ‘digging’ imagery is replaced by words used in the text editing process.

The speaker gives himself two instructions: Take hold (a firm grip to show new intent, to demonstrate mental preparation and determination); then Subscribe to, declare ownership of, sign up to the first downstroke of, say, a signature. This will represent the first step taken in the move from the orthodox justified line into hitherto fringe areas: the margin.

  • Heaney deploys the vocabulary of text editing to indicate his change of direction from justified line (the now-to-be-discontinued orthodox position with everything straight and in its place, expressed using the analogy of the spacing and alignment of written text on the page, Into the margin, a more peripheral, less predictable position (in printing,the broad space outside the written area of a page);
  • gloss: 16th century usage; ‘inserting a word as an explanation’, even a ‘clarification’;
  • subscribe: Latin derivation sub (underneath) scribere (to write), ‘add one signature at the bottom of a document’; further usage provided ‘give one’s consent’, ‘sign up to’, even ‘give money to’;
  • interpretation differ: ‘First Gloss’ begins the search for a justified line, which takes him back to the margins, to the eastern edges of Co.Derry, away from ‘great historical action’ to ‘the rhythms of the yard’ (MP p205)


  • a single quatrain in 2 sentences; the first couplet based on 8 syllables, the second on 6; unrhymed;

  • a double imperative addressed to the creator, the author, himself;

  • vocabulary of printing/ editing generating a play on words; subscribe, justified: on the one hand editing text, on the other making a mental readjustment;

  • the music of the poem: even within the 24 words of this short piece seven assonant strands are woven into 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.
  • Listen for voiceless alveolar and post-alveolar fricative [s] [ʃ] (sh)and beats of alveolar plosive [t], labio-dental fricative [f];