May 312016
 

Good-night

A vignette from Seamus Heaney’s past set as a play; an elegiac dramatization in memoriam of his mother’s purposeful character. No words are spoken; no words are necessary.

The scene is a humble farmyard, the observer’s attention is grabbed by the familiar sound of a door latch lifting and he watches the sharply delineated rectangle of warmth and security revealed by the swinging door: edged den of light/ Opens across the yard. The contrast of external darkness and stage lighting produces striking effects.

A watcher in the dark, he follows the action from a distance. There are two actors on stage quickly identified as the parents who provided the love and security of Heaney’s family home at Mossbawn.

Initially silhouetted in the doorway then bending to avoid the low head of the frame, Out of the low door/ They stoop to disclose the warm, rich colour inside (the honeyed corridor), symbolic of a productive bee colony.

The actors quit the stage (walk straight through the wall of the dark) leaving an empty stage set: a damp Irish, rural farmyard with puddle, cobble-stones, jambs and doorstep of solid construction: set steady in a block of brightness.

The sudden reappearance of the female lead (she strides in again) is to rectify something they forgot to do, a rôle the poet associates with his mother during her life-time (beyond her shadows).

She kills the light (cancels everything behind her)… stage-blackout.

In Quitting Time from District and Circle (2006) the poet will return to just such a treasured moment describing himself as a home-based man at home/ In the end with little Except this same/ Night after nightness.

  • latch: old fashioned door fastener with metal bar and catch;
  • den: an animal’s lair; a personal very private space;
  • stoop: bend forward (to avoid a low hazard);
  • honeyed: with the warm golden, yellow shades of honey: allusion to the intimacy and regimented productivity of the bee-hive;
  • puddle: pool of rainwater on the ground;
  • cobble-stones: small round stones forming a surface;
  • jambs: side posts of a door-frame;
  • set steady: of solid, secure build;
  • cancel: extinguish;
  • For the son too, a door has closed on the ‘honeyed’ past, and in ‘Good-night’ he identifies the familiar shapes of home – ‘latch’, ‘yard’, ‘puddle, cobble-stones, jamb and doorstep’ – which once provided the boy with ‘den’ and definition’ (NC110). In this scene Heaney acts out a departure, a parting something that he is replaying from distance, ‘in memoriam’;

 

  • 2 quartets in 3 sentences; no rhyme scheme; line length based on 10 syllables; simple present tense;
  • the balance between enjambed lines and punctuation regulates the breath groups of oral delivery;
  • film technique: sound of latch > ‘action’; ‘cancels’ > ‘cut’;
  • transferred epithet from door opens to ‘den of light/ Opens’;
  • light effects: opposites (‘light … dark’); sharp lines: ‘edged … block’;
  • loving memories: ‘den … honeyed’;
  • magic theatrical effect: ‘walk straight through the wall’; scenery ‘set’ in a one act play : puddle > doorstep;
  • purposeful , decisive nature of his mother: ‘strides … cancels’;
  • the painter gets his composition right: switch 0n far side of light source ‘beyond her shadows’, darkness ‘behind her’;
  • Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to;
  • the music of the poem: over the 9 lines no fewer than 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.

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies:
  • the first sentence, for example, brings together alveolar sounds [l] and plosives [d] [t]alongside nasal [n] ;
  • 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.