In dialogue with Dennis O’Driscoll’s in Stepping Stones (p. 406)  Heaney referred to ‘Moyulla’ as ‘a praise poem but it’s keenly aware of ‘green’ issues; and to a degree, its drift is also political’

The 4-poem sequence contrasts ecological decline with former glory; Evidence of pollution sits alongside a host of female symbols: river, lover, dam; the ideal relationship is loaded with sensual overtones.


A ‘before-time’ of purity recalled from those days when the river flowed fast black-lick and quick beneath the willows; remembered for her chill breath the coldness off her a river chill as familiar to him (and addressed to his female companion) as the coldness off you,/ your cheek and your clothes/ and your moves – when you come in from gardening.

Moyola, a self-contained ecological gem  in the swim of herself, that swarmed with river life and was rich in fertility with pollen sowings the only things that tarnished her pools.

  • Sallies/ sally trees: dialect words for willow
  • 12 lines of 7 syllables or fewer; free verse using enjambed lines and dashes;
  • Assonance [əʊthose/ flowed/ coldness/ clothes; later shallows/ sowings [ɪlick/ quick  [u] you moves  [æ]  gravel shallows are interwoven with alliterative chains: alveolar plosive [k] black-lick quick; coldness/ clothes; sibilant variants: she swim/ herself/ shallows swarmed/ sowings/ tarnished/ pools;
  • Sense data are of sight and touch;                            


Heaney perceives voices of protest. Whatever their origin (Let them/ cry if it suits them) it is the Moyulla that merits the lamentation, now showing signs of pollution: slicked and blurred with algae. The poet clarifies the change of spelling: the river’s identity (name and address ing water) has suffered muddying that has sullied the purity and the limpidity of her clear vowels and forced the great vowel shift/ Moyola to Moyulla.

  • Less lyrical; more admonitory and linguistic;
  • 12 lines of 7 syllables or fewer; free verse; consecutive enjambed lines;
  • [ai] I/ cry; [ɜː]her/ purls/ blurred;  [ʌ] suffered muddying; variants of vowel [o];
  • alliterative combination of sibilant [s] and voiced and voiceless bilabial plosives:[p] and [b]: purls/ pebbles/ slicked and blurred                 


A river traditionally associated with the life-giving force nourishing young cattle has been compromised: now a Milk-fevered river/ Froth at the mouth/ of the discharge pipe that leak poisonous gidsome flotsam.

The boy once stood entranced barefooted on the bank,/ glad-eyed, ankle-grassed, the one who watched and loved as cattle suckled their newly born to overflowing: blettings, beastings; evidence of  fecundity creamery spillage witnessed from an unpolluted river-bank with cleanly, comely/ sally trees and alders.

  • Gidsome: an apparent neologism possibly explained by ‘gid’ a disease affecting herbivores caused by the transmission of pollutants to which is added the ‘collective’ suffix ‘-some’; flotsam: refuse floating on water; blettings, beestings: uncommon words, possibly coinages associated with ripe fecundity, the flowing of milk from udders for hungry calves; created or used to form a sonic chain;
  • 12 lines of 6 syllables or fewer; free verse; use of enjambed lines
  • assonant effects: [ɪ milk/ river/ discharge/ gidsome; unstressed [ə] gidsome flotsam; [æ] bank/ ankle-grassed/ glad; [ɔː] saw it all; [i:] fevered/ beestings/ creamery/ cleanly/ trees;
  • alliterative pairings: [f] Fevered/ froth; [m] gidsome flotsam; [b] barefoot/ bank; blettings beestings; [k] cleanly/ comely;
  • vocabulary of pollution sits in stark contrast to vocabulary of life-giving milk and regeneration;


An invitation to seek enduring pleasure and sensual communion with the river: step into her for me and share, as the speaker has, the river’s intimacy some fresh-faced afternoon; take precautions by donning thigh waders then immerse yourself in her, become as one with her up to the bib.

Pleasure lies in the give and take/ of her deepest, draggiest purchase. Pitting your strength against hers, countering, parting/ getting back at her, sourcing/ her and your plashy self will bring its own physical gratification. It promises to be prolonged: neither of you ready to give up.

  • bib: thigh waders come up almost to the chin with braces across the shoulder; purchase  is to do, here, with leverage and movement
  • 12 lines of 8 syllables or fewer; free verse; 5 consecutive enjambed lines;
  • punctuation: commas are numerous when the action becomes more heated!
  • marked assonant chains [e] Step/ fresh/ step/ getting/ her/ ready/ let; [ɪinto/ bib/ countering, parting, getting ; also [i:] stream/ deepest;
  • consonant clusters: [f] for/ fresh-faced [s] deepest, draggiest purchase;
  • use of present participles;
  • vocabulary with sensual overtones enhances the erotic nature of the contact;


  • In the light of these anxieties, it’s impossible to read even the most immersed evocations of place (“Moyulla”) without registering a note of elegy. Andrew Motion
  • In dialogue with Dennis O’Driscoll’s in Stepping Stones (p. 406) Heaney said: ‘”Moyulla” is about a polluted river, but there’s a river nymph on the scene too aswim in the words and the water. There’s erotic glee as well as ecological gloom’; also ‘I wanted to darken the vowel from “oya” to  “ulla “ to suggest a darkening of the ecological climate’. The river had become polluted from the ‘release of poisoned water from the flax dams years ago’ along with ‘agricultural waste’.