Heaney offers an example of a rural skill that verges on the miraculous to those looking on.
The dowser (called in to locate underground water) approaches his task in a calm and professional way. His equipment amounts to a forked hazel twig, living wood from a green hedge. He grips it tight by the arms of the V; he walks in circles as a deliberate ploy to capture the pluck of water (as a string-player making notes using fingernail rather than bow); his manner is acutely sensitive to movement from the stick but unfussed.
Successful location delivers an uncontrollable ‘electric’ charge: sharp as a sting/ The rod jerked with precise convulsions. The hidden water has given itself away suddenly broadcasting … its secret stations.
Whilst the dowser is no showman (he rises modestly above it all, well used to the curious who would wish to try their hand); he knows that he can demonstrate his gift by nonchalantly exploiting their failure (the rod dead in their grasp).
As a party-piece he grips expectant wrists and uses his own hands as ‘jump-leads’ whereupon, as if by magic, his intervention completes the energy circuit: The hazel stirred.
- At a different level the poem alludes to the magical transmission of poetic message and the magical talent of poet;
- the title is ideally chosen to introduce a ‘supernatural’ incident; syntactically it elides into first line;
- the 12 mainly 10-syllable lines are grouped in 3 quatrains; the variably placed caesura (literally ‘cutting’, i.e. the natural break-point point between phrases) offers varied dynamics: to deliver a pause; to create a ‘will-it-won’t-it’ suspense before the violent reaction of the rod; to hint at the ‘miracle’ implicit in the final phrase; the punctuation helps this;
- recognisable scheme of loose rhymes abab/ cdcd etc
- assonant echo chains: [ʌ] cut/ hunting/ pluck/ nervously/ unfussed/ pluck/ convulsions; [ɪ] it/ till/ gripped/ wrists; [ai] bystanders/ try;
- alliterative frequency of sibilants [s], [ʃ]: circling/ unfussed/ nervous/ professionally; : precise convulsions … sharp as a sting … Spring water suddenly … secret stations;
- contrast between the living rod from green hedge that lies dead in the hands of those without magic powers;
- transmission of increasingly strong sensations reflected in the vocabulary: from pluck via sting to convulsions/ jerked;
- parallel: as the water transmits its sensation to the stick, so the diviner to inquisitive sceptics;
- Heaney had connected the poetic gift and the(dowser’s) quest for ‘what lies hidden’ (water) (Michael Parker Seamus Heaney, The Making of a Poet p.73);
- Neil Corcoran in The Poetry of Seamus Heaney, A Critical Study encourages the notion of the poet as intimately involved with his own community, serving it with words and forms as the diviner serves it with vital water (p.8).