A Winter’s Tale
Referring to the period before his sabbatical in 1971 (spent at Berkeley University in California) Heaney revealed to DOD (p124) that ‘Earlier on, in 1969 and 1970, I’d written the group of poems about women in distress – ‘Shore Woman’, ‘Maighdean Mara’, ‘A Winter’s Tale’, ‘Limbo’.
Heaney’s ‘more inward, broody’ mindset is present in A Winter’s Tale, an episode from the life of a lost soul linked via the title with Shakespeare’s Perdita (reference Latin ‘lost one’). Heaney knew the girl’s identity through the community grapevine. Offspring with mental health problems could be a feature of the ‘closed’ Ulster villages of and before Heaney’s time (see also ‘Stick Drawings’ of Spirit Level).
The poet recalls a group that hunted down a runaway At first light after an all-night search. The search-light effects of pursuing vehicles picked out her unhealthy paleness (A pallor in the headlights’/ Range wavered and disappeared), the raw, open wounds (Weeping, blood bright from her cuts), inflicted by hedgerow and barbed-wire fences as she sought refuge in the fields: Where she’d fled the hedged and wired / Road. She was cornered cowering and confused, as bare as the livestock amidst which she was standing: they eyed her nakedness/ Astray among the cattle.
The sights and sounds of pursuit (Lanterns, torches/ And the searchers’ gay babble) were precisely the elements she had run away from (eluded earlier).
In receipt of one of their own, her own people only formed a protective circle (Closed around her dazed whimper), restored warmth and dignity With rugs, dressings and brandy then took their firstborn back into the bosom of the family (Conveying maiden daughter/ Back to family hearth and floor). Their wheedling questioning was intended to soothe: Why run, our lovely daughter,/ Bare-breasted from our door?
All’s well that ends well … the situation could have ended badly but did not (Still, like good luck, she returned).
Further snippets emerge: her flight was not a one-off event (Some nights); she was in the habit of crossing the thresholds/ Of empty homes; she would doze off as she dried her nakedness (dewy roundings and folds) next to the fire (in the chimney nook).
When folk came home the discovery of the intruder was untoward, perhaps, but caused little stir (After all, they were neighbours) quickly assuming an air of normality: Surprised but unmalicious/ Greetings passed/ Between them.
Neighbourliness (making all comers guests) felt unthreatened by a familiar trespasser (She was there first/ And so appeared no haunter). Their calmness was reassuring to the girl awakening like a wild animal from suspended animation: (She stirred as from a winter/ Sleep) as evidenced by her friendly acknowledgement (Smiled) and relaxing body-language: Uncradled her breast.
- (The) Winter’s Tale: allusion to Shakespeare’s romantic-comedy of 1623 in particular Perdita (Latin derived ‘lost one’), living as a lowly shepherd girl in Bohemia and unaware of her royal lineage; loved by Florizel she finds her way back to her native Sicily where, via a complex sequence of events including a miracle, she lives happily ever after; the disconsolate story of a disturbed young woman fits neatly with the broody tone of the Wintering Out collection;
- pallor: unhealthy paleness of appearance;
- range: sweep, scope, extent;
- waver: here describing movement not still enough to train on an object;
- astray: off course, adrift mentally and physically;
- first light: earliest dawn;
- gay: light-hearted (strictly no other connotations);
- babble: chatter excitedly;
- eluded: evaded, avoided;
- own people: nearest (and dearest) kin;
- whimper: soft, feeble sound;
- dressings: bandages to protect wounds;
- maiden: both unmarried and firstborn;
- roundings: suggestion of plump flesh hiding projecting bones;
- chimney nook: the fireplaces of pre 20thc. dwellings were often built into a corner recess;
- unmalicious: childlike, ingenuous, without a hint of nasty intent;
- haunter: disturbing otherworldly presence;
- uncradle: moving folded arms beneath the bosom into a more relaxed stance;
- ‘The historical and political themes in Wintering Out are carried, in a number of poems in Part One, by particular imagined or recalled human figures …They are complemented, in mood and meaning, by various figures in Part Two, (including) the mad girl of ‘A Winter’s Tale’ … In both parts of the book, many of the evoked figures suffer some kind of human diminishment: isolation, repression, disenchantment, exploitation or betrayal’ (NC30);
- 30 lines of poetry split 16/14; 10 sentence construct; tentative, loose rhyme scheme;
- line length 3-7 syllables;
- the balance between enjambed lines and punctuation regulates breath groups for oral delivery; this is especially evident in the final line which contains 3 full stops;
- tense usage: pluperfect; simple past;
- light effects figure strongly: antithesis ‘pallor … wavered ..blood-bright’;
- self-harm when the demented, fleeing child ignores the boundaries that cattle recognise;
- ‘weeping’: emotional response transferred to the wounds; ‘astray’ mentally and physically;
- intense contrast : ‘gay babble’ of those not directly involved in psychological assessment/ emotionally; ‘dazed whimper’ of nearest and dearest;
- metonymy: ‘family hearth and floor’ for household home;
- ‘eluded’ suggests both the cunning and survival instinct of ,say, a fox pursued by hounds;
- nakedness is a feature of the disturbed girl’s behaviour: ’bare-breasted … unclasped her breasts’ (even in her mental state she seems to retain an sense of modesty, amongst people if not the cattle in the fields;
- time-line: ‘headlights (so dark) … first light … now’;
- state of naked body described via its ‘roundings and folds’;
- ‘still’ at once pause word and adverb suggesting that some pluses were derived from the misfortune;
- ‘like good luck’: girl accepted as a kind of household mascot rather than unwelcome ghost (‘no haunter’);
- touching finale: reawakening; friendly nature; loss of inhibition;
- 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: 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 lines, for example, bring together bi-labial [w] and alveolar fricative [dʒ] as in ‘range … hedged’ alongside a cluster of alveolar plosives[t][d];
- 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.