The poem’s title is a deliberate conflation: two places miles apart in space and time. Whitby is a seaside town in north-east England and Moyola the river that flowed close to Heaney’s Northern Irish childhood home.
The poem pays tribute to two men in one: the first a 7th century poet-herdsman, Caedmon, from Yorkshire whom Heaney has come to know through his studies; the second a yard-man known to Heaney from his farming background. The honesty, wisdom, judgment and compassion of the humble Irish countryman towards his beasts are gifts common to a historical figure regarded by many scholars as the father of English poetry.
Now here is another example (too) of privileged contact (lucky to have known) in the long-gone farmyard (Back in situ there) with a man carrying the tools of his trade: his full bucket (the cows are milked) And armfuls of clean straw (the cows are cared for), the consummate practitioner: the perfect yardman.
Effortlessly first-rate at his job (Unabsorbed in what he had to do/ But doing it perfectly) left time for the youngster present (watching you).
Exemplary care for his animals was that of a benevolent spirit (He had worked his angel stint) but he was no softie: (hard as nails). Heaney respected his fellow artistic talents, musical rather than written (all that time he’d been poeting with the harp) that contrasted with the less harmonious sounds he was capable of: His real gift … the big ignorant roar (that of an untutored man) He could still let out of him as he went about the toils of his muddy trade (just bogging in).
Being angel-like in dealing with his life’s issues (As if the sacred subjects were a herd/ That had broken out and needed rounding up) did not make Caedmon a religious man (I never saw him once with his hands joined) who prayed to the Almighty (a case of eyes to heaven). Raised eyes signified that he was judging the health of an animal in his care (the quick sniff and test of fingertips/ After he’d passed them through a sick beast’s water).
Caedmon, whichever he is, is awarded Heaney’s highest accolade: the real thing all right.
- Whitby is a seaside town, port and civil parish in the English county of Yorkshire situated on the east coast of Yorkshire at the mouth of theRiver Esk;
- The Moyola (also Moyula) is a modest river stretching for approximately 27 miles through County Derry from the Sperrin Mountains to Lough Neagh, that flowed close to Heaney’s childhood home at Mossbawn and features in a number of his lyrics;
- in situ: (Latin phrase) on site, where you would expect to find him;
- yardman: farmhand in the cattle yard;
- unabsorbed in: paying no particular attention to;
- done his angel stint: perhaps ‘completed his allotted tasks like some kind of attendant spirit’;
- hard as nails: both physically tough and indifferent to people’s finer feelings;
- poeting with the harp: perhaps as a spare-time performer of traditional Irish tunes; the Celtic harp is the symbol of Ireland;
- bogging in: getting ‘stuck in’, getting his hands dirty, working in mud;
- sacred subjects: the important issues troubling his mind sometimes causing the loud outburst;
- hands joined: as if in prayer;
- eyes to heaven: as if praying;
- water: here euphemism for urine;
- real thing: the genuine article;
- ‘Whitby-sur-Moyola’ presents, we might say, as its title implies, a light-hearted translation of the seventh-century Yorkshire poet-herdsman Caedmon into the form of a Co. Derry yardman from Heaney’s childhood. NC 191
- ‘Rural toil remains the real, honest work, that which best represents the idea of honest literary labour’ From the Economist of Sep 10 1998;
- Sixteen lines in a single verse, constructed in 5 sentences; based on 10 syllable lnes(sometimes 11 + 9) ; the 2 tributes can temporarily halt the flow of narrative (ll.6 & 16);
- No rhyme scheme; plentiful use of enjambed lines especially in sentences 3 & 4;
- Lexis suggestive of liquidity: full, (un)absorbed, euphemistic ‘water’ for urine;
- Introduction of mildly parodic pseudo-religious vocabulary: sacred subjects, hand joined, eyes to heaven; angel (the latter confirming spiritual limitation by the juxtaposition of ‘stint’ that stresses spiritual short-fall);
- Use of ‘as if’ clauses suggests improbability; vocabulary of completeness: perfect, perfectly, real thing
- Poetic licence: verb ‘poeting’ from noun; ‘bogging’ also;
- Simile: hard as nails, confirming the contrast between the gentle approach of the animal carer and his responses once his wards seek to exercise their own free will;
- The last emphasis is more colloquial, a phrase used by Heaney to describe his total personal approval
the music of the poem: seventeen 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:
- the first lines stir together voiceless velar plosive [k] voiceless alveolar plosive [t] alveolar [l] preceding a pair of bi-labial plosives [p] [b];it is well worth teasing out the sound clusters for yourself to admire the poet’s sonic engineering:
- Consonants (with their phonetic symbols) can be classed according to where in the mouth they occur
- Front-of-mouth sounds 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.