Lovers on Aran

Lovers on Aran

Heaney expands the sea/land relationship of Valediction settling on a metaphor that explained a couple’s mutual fulfilment at a place familiar to them where land and sea met and inter-reacted. The poem adds the only indirect sexual allusions in the collection.

When they were there the sea at once elemental force and female symbol was seeking to possess what it came up against, its Waves arriving across a huge expanse of ocean breaking as they had broken since time began onto the western Irish island-shore; waves reflecting and refracting the sun: bright … broken glass … dazzling … glinting; sifting waves that both drew together and fragmented matter. Irresistible waves engaged in an act of physical possession as if a female power were seeking to dominate.

Or, and the speaker offers an equally compelling alternative, the male symbol, the island itself, the immoveable object, sought to ‘possess’ the sea in its rush by throwing wide arms of rock around a tide so that it submitted to him: yielded with an ebb, with a soft crash.

Which of the two forces gave meaning to the other? Who possessed whom? Heaney asserts a happy symbiosis: both have benefited, drawing new meaning from the … collision and, in the process, awakening to complete self-knowledge: to full identity.

  • Aran Island(s) located in Galway Bay on the West coast of Ireland; accessible by ferry;


  • 3 triplets; 10 syllable lines that rhyme on the odd line axa byb czc; ‘a little gem’ of composition;
  • assonant effects: [ai] timeless/ bright; wide/ tide/ define; [ɪ] sifting/ glinting/ sifting; did [u] drew/ new; [i:] each/ meaning; yielded/ sea/ sea; alliteration: bright/ broken;
  • deliberate repetition: Aran/ land/ sea;
  • Came/ came: the ceaseless landfall of the waves;
  • choice of vocabulary with dual possibilities: timeless suggests both ‘age-old’ and’ beyond the reach of time’;
  • frequency of sibilant sounds in the first 3 lines: the breaking, broken rhythm of the waves is woven into the textures of stanza 1; this is accompanied by the sibilant hiss and repetition of moving water on sand;
  • The sexuality of the moment emerges: yielded …. Soft crash;
  • The poem is full of musicality, cries out for musical accompaniment;
  • Michael Parker in Seamus Heaney, The Making of a Poet refers to Heaney’s Catholic coyness … ‘male’ rock embracing yielding ‘water’ (p.48);
  • the poem describes Heaney’s sense of completeness (ibid p.48);
  • all four elements are invoked to celebrate the unity and exhilaration of love and marriage (ibid p.72);
  • New state of Grace (ibid 73);
  • eternal embrace of land and sea … sexual images …joyous swirl and swell of sound and rhythm (ibid);
  • Heaney has associated water with the feminine, the Gaelic, the Catholic, the creative elements in his nature (ibid).