A Drink of Water
A Drink of Water
Seamus Heaney 1979
“A Drink of Water,” collected in the 1979 volume Field Work, is part of a series of elegies, or poems composed to lament the dead, that comprise much of the first part of the book. In it, the speaker reveals through images and sounds the character of an old woman, presumably a neighbor, who used to come to his well each morning to fill her water bucket. The descriptions in the first eight lines are ones of old age and decrepitude, foreshadowing the woman’s death: she is “like an old bat staggering up the field,” the pump’s sound is a “whooping cough,” the woman wears a “gray apron.” In the last six lines, she has vanished from the poem physically, but while in life she depended on the favors of the speaker, in death she has become the “Giver,” providing the poet with inspiration and perhaps representing to him the maturing process of poetry itself—the aging of his muse. Filled with careful rhythms and intricately patterned sonic elements, the poem is a good example of the sonnet in contemporary poetry—a form Heaney explores extensively in Field Work.
Heaney is generally regarded as one of Ireland’s preeminent poets of the late twentieth century. His verse frequently centers on the role poets play in society, with poems addressing issues of politics and culture, as well as inner-directed themes of self-discovery and spiritual growth.
These topics are unified by Heaney’s Irish sensibilities and his interest in preserving his country’s history. Using language that ranges from, and often mixes, sexual metaphor and natural imagery, Heaney examines Irish life as it relates to the past and, also, as it ties into the larger context of human existence. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1995 for, as the Swedish Academy noted in its press release, “works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.”
Heaney was born in 1939 in Mossbawn, County Derry, Ireland. The eldest of nine children, he was raised as a Roman Catholic and grew up in the rural environment of his father’s farm. Upon receipt of a scholarship, he began studies at Saint Columb’s College in Northern Ireland and subsequently attended Queen’s University in Belfast. It was at Queen’s University that he became familiar with various forms of Irish, English, and American literature, most notably the work of poets such as Ted Hughes, Patrick Kavanagh, and Robert Frost. Like these poets, Heaney would draw upon childhood memories and past experience in his works. Using the pseudonym Incertus, Heaney began contributing poetry to university literary magazines. Upon graduating, he directed his energies toward both his writing and a career in education. He assumed a post at a secondary school and later served as a lecturer at Queen’s University. As a poet, he published his first collection, Death of a Naturalist in 1966; the volume quickly established him as a writer of significance.
As Heaney’s stature increased, he was able to use his literary works to give voice to his social conscience. Of particular concern to him was the 1969 conflict between Catholic and Protestant factions over religion and national autonomy. Living in Belfast, the epicenter of the fighting, Heaney had a front-row seat for much of the ensuing violence, and his poetry of this period reflects his feelings on the causes and effects of the upheaval. Although he moved out of Belfast in 1972, his work continued to address themes directly relevant to the conflict. After a brief period in the early 1970s during which he wrote full-time, Heaney returned to teaching in 1975 as head of the English department at Caryfort College in Dublin. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, he divided his time between writing, teaching, and reading tours. His subsequent academic posts have included professor of poetry at Oxford University and Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard University.
[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]
While certain specifics of the sonnet’s situation are never revealed—the identity of the woman, for instance, and the precise nature of her relationship with the speaker—the first lines’ implications establish nearly all we need to know in the poem. The verb “came” in line 1 suggests two important possibilities. First, since it is in the past tense, we infer that the action described no longer takes place—she no longer comes to the well. Combined with the images of old age and decrepitude that follow in the first quatrain —“old bat,” “staggering,” “whooping cough,” “slow diminuendo”—this past-tense description suggests that the old woman has died. Second, the use of “came” instead of “went” implies that the speaker is already at the well when the woman arrives. From this, it is possible that the speaker owns the well and allows the woman to draw from it: that, at the beginning of the poem at least, he is the “Giver.”
Throughout the first eight lines, the reader should note the poem’s use of the sense of sound to convey the emotional appeal of an elegy. First, consider how the poet plays upon the traditional rhyme scheme of a Shakespearean sonnet. According to that form, the first and third as well as the second and forth lines of each quatrain must be set in end rhyme—that is, the lines’ final vowel and consonant sounds must agree exactly. Here, however, Heaney sets his lines in half rhyme, the vowel sounds suggesting one another but not agreeing exactly: “field” (line 2) and “filled” (line 4) as opposed to, for instance, “field” and “wield.” This technique allows the poet to achieve the musical sound of a sonnet without sacrificing word-choice or falling into the type of overt lyricism that would be inappropriate to the mood of the poem. The reader should also note the sound elements that work within lines. One of these is assonance , the internal repetition of many vowel sounds in words close to one another: “draw” and “water,” “bat,” “staggering” and “clattered,” “gray” and “apron,” and so on. Another sonic device is the consonance, the internal repetition of certain consonant sounds: the p’s in “pump” and “whooping;” the l’s in “field,” “filled,” “recall” and other line-ending words; the b’s in “brimming bucket” and “treble.” These sonic devices reflect the speaker’s sound-oriented memory of the woman: she is revealed in the octave through “the pump’s whooping cough,” the “bucket’s clatter,” the sound of running water’s “slow diminuendo,” or decrease in sound, and the “creak” of the pump’s handle that sounds like her “treble” voice.
In the sestet, the situation shifts from morning to night and from the well to the woman’s house, but the woman herself, who predominates the sonnet ’s first eight lines, has vanished physically from
- In 1994 Faber and Faber released a cassette of Heaney reading his poems along with several other poets.
- In Harvard College’s 1990 recording Heaney reads not only his work but also selections from other poets, including Yeats, Shakespeare, and Wyatt.
- The Lannan Foundation produced a videotape of Heaney reading from his Selected Poems and talking about his poems and Irish political history. The conversation took place in 1991, the year the video was also released.
the poem. Further, while the speaker is clearly present at the well in the octave, the relationship between him and the scene in lines 9 through 11 becomes a matter of interpretation. In line 9, the perspective seems to be from outside the woman’s house: the full moon lifts “past her gable.” Yet in lines 10 and 11, the perspective seems to move inside: the speaker observes (or imagines) the way the moonlight appears to “lie / Into the water set on the table.” Whatever the speaker’s point of view, the verb “would lie” suggests a continuity in time from the first eight lines to the next three. Yet in line 12, the verb “have dipped” marks a transition to the present perfect tense, suggesting a change in both the time and focus of the poem. With the time-shift and the woman’s sudden physical absence, the implication is that she has died.
The reader may consider a number of possibilities when interpreting the last lines. First, the personification of moonlight lying “into the water” might suggest a religious connotation—that of baptism, which marks a person’s entry into the Christian faith. This suggestion coincides with the speaker’s intent to be “faithful” to the phrase on the woman’s cup, itself a religious saying: “Remember the Giver.” But while the woman was apparently a believer, it is clear the speaker has doubts about religion. To him, the cup’s phrase is an “admonition”—implying
Topics for Further Study
- Write a descriptive essay on the old woman in “A Drink of Water.” Describe her life, including major events from Irish history.
- Expound on what you think the injunction in the last line, “Remember the Giver,” means. Who do you think “the Giver” is?
- What is the role of the moon in this poem? What does it tell you about the woman? What does it tell you about the speaker?
- Examine the references in the poem to different sounds and discuss the effect each sound has on your interpretation of the poem.
that he is guilty of not remembering the “Giver” to which the saying refers—and it is “fading off the lip.” That he is “faithful” to something he seems not to believe suggest an irony that might seem flippant. Yet another implication must be considered: while the speaker—the poet—once was the “Giver,” allowing the woman to use his well, now her memory has become the source of his poem. She is the “Giver” because the poet remembers her. In this sense the woman takes on a symbolic value that can be traced back through the sonnet. The idea of a female muse—and indeed of a female Ireland, traced back through the ancient goddess-cult—is one Heaney returns to throughout his work. In terms of this symbolic system, the poem may address the maturing process of the poet himself, the “aging” of his muse, his “Giver,” who like all things must someday fade and die.
Field Work is filled with elegies, some poignant, others gruesome, for victims of “The Troubles,” the resurgent violence that swept through Northern Ireland in the 1970s. As many readers have noted, “A Drink of Water” appears a bit anomalous in this volume. Instead of contemplating the recent violence’s terrible effects, the poem returns to a literally and metaphorically more peaceful time. In this childhood remembrance, the poet draws sustenance from the memory of kindness. To put this idea in slightly different terms, memory acts as refreshment in a time of violence.
The poem begins simply, with a conversational tone and a simile that establishes a high degree of familiarity and intimacy: “She came every morning to draw water / Like an old bat staggering up the field.” The underlying tenderness cannot be missed; the speaker knows not only the woman’s routine but also her particular gate and the various sounds the pump and the bucket make. Even the less-than-flattering comparison of the woman to “an old bat” underscores the shared intimacy. This gentle gibe does not mock her but celebrates the admirably determined way she carries out her morning chores.
The next several lines pursue a similar strategy. The speaker conjures the woman by remembering various details about her: her apron down to its color, the particular “treble / Creak of her voice.” These are details stored from years of watching. The poem moves to a moment of illumination within darkness, as when “a full moon” shines upon the water. The speaker peers into the house from outside of it.
Ultimately, the poem argues that to remember is to remain faithful. Honoring the woman’s caretaking, the poet fulfills the injunction etched upon her cup, “Remember the Giver.” Memory also acts as a kind of sacramental renewal, returning the speaker to his boyhood days. He drinks from the water of memory and, by doing so, lets memory refresh his spirit.
Typically for a Heaney poem, nature furthers this process of renewal. Raised on a family farm, Heaney, like his poetic model William Wordsworth, often depicts nature as a force for regeneration from the miseries of modern life. The woman draws water by hand from deep within the earth; the moon illuminates it so the young boy can catch a glimpse of the pail. The intervening years place a considerable distance between the poet’s boyhood state of what one might call “innocence” and his more mature understanding of life’s difficulties and frustrations. When the poet casts back to the family farm, though, he dips again into its reservoir of comfort and safety.
“A Drink of Water” is a sonnet, the most distinguished and popular metrical form in English-language verse. A sonnet consists of fourteen-lines; it may, or may not, adhere to traditional rhyme schemes. From the sonnet’s origins in Renaissance Italy to its recent revisions by modern poets, one of the major themes that poems in this form express is love.
In “A Drink of Water,” the depicted love is familial, not amorous as in many other sonnets. Perhaps the best analogy is one that “A Drink of Water” implicitly draws: the poem as a toast. A toast is an act of love: one only toasts those of whom one feels fondly. Yet, if shared affection inspires a toast, it also requires a certain level of formality. As wedding attendees know only too well, the best man usually begins his required duty with a amiable joke about the groom, moves to a more tender illustration of the bride and groom’s compatibility, then concludes with a wish for their continued happiness. In “A Drink of Water,” the sonnet form also gives a certain degree of formality to the proceedings; the depicted love follows a well-established tradition of poems in this form about this subject. Just as the memory refreshes the speaker, the sonnet form inspires the poet, guiding his thoughts into a fully formed poem.
“A Drink of Water” is a sonnet, a traditional poetic form characterized by its fourteen-line length and its use of a set rhyme scheme. Although there are many variations on the sonnet form, most are based on the two major types: Petrarchan (Italian) and Shakespearean (English). In different ways, “A Drink of Water” resembles both. While its rhyme scheme is that of the Shakespearean form—three quatrains rhyming or half-rhyming abab cdcd efef, followed by a couplet rhyming gg—its thematic division most closely follows the Petrarchan model. In this type of sonnet, the first eight lines, or the octave, generally present some kind of question, doubt, desire, or vision of the ideal. The last six lines, or the sestet, generally answer the question, ease the doubt, satisfy the desire, or fulfill the vision. In Heaney’s poem, the first eight lines examine the image of the old woman who comes to the speaker’s well to collect water. The octave’s images are filled with reminders of old age and death. In the sestet, the sonnet shifts to night, focusing on the image of the woman’s moonlit water-bucket and her cup that bears the inscription “Remember the Giver.” Now the woman is dead, and while the speaker once was the “giver,” allowing the woman to draw from his well, now it is he that remembers and she that gives—in the form of memories and poetic inspiration.
In The Government of the Tongue: Selected Prose 1978-1987, Heaney describes the contrary demands that “Song and Suffering” place upon a poet. In a question that has long puzzled poets, he wonders if his primary allegiance as an artist is to beauty or to truth. Especially when read outside its political context, “A Drink of Water” may seem to be a rather nostalgic, overly dreamy poem, too much “Song” and “beauty” and too little “Suffering” and “truth.” Yet, it is important to keep in mind the campaigns of violence that form the poem’s backdrop in order to see how the poem’s peaceful evocations of childhood stand in contrast to contemporary realities.
Among the landmark moments in the violence that has plagued Northern Ireland was “Bloody Sunday,” January 30, 1972. In November, the Irish Republican Army (IRA), a Catholic terrorist organization dedicated to independence for Northern Ireland, killed eleven unarmed soldiers. On “Bloody Sunday,” British paratroopers killed thirteen unarmed civil rights marchers in Derry. The world viewed these murders with outrage. In addition to Heaney’s own poems on the subject, other artistic responses include the Irish band U2’s song “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”
In his poetry and essays, Heaney is always quick to point out the various absurdities of violence. For example, in “Casualty,” a poem that appears with “A Drink of Water” in Field Work, Heaney elegizes a fellow Catholic who was murdered by Catholics. On the day of the funeral for those killed on January 30, the Irish Republican Army sets a curfew. However, the victim in Heaney’s poem decides to go to the bar only to be killed by another Catholic’s bomb.
This violence in Northern Ireland continued throughout the 1970s in spurts and even during more hopeful periods of relative calm. In his book, Seamus Heaney: The Making of a Poet, the scholar Michael Parker cites some illustratively grim statistics.
Compare & Contrast
- 1972: Fourteen men die after British troops open fire on a civil rights demonstration in Derry. Later in the year, the IRA sets off a series of bombs in the capital of Belfast that kill 11 people.
- 1979: The IRA assassinates Earl Mountbatten, a World War II hero and a cousin of England’s Queen Elizabeth.
- 1981: Ten IRA prisoners gain worldwide attention and become martyrs when they die in a hunger strike.
- 1985: The Anglo-Irish Agreement allows the Republic of Ireland’s government a consultant’s role in matters concerning Northern Ireland.
- 1993: The Downing Street Declaration, presented by Irish leader Albert Reynolds and British Prime Minister John Major, stipulates that the people of Northern Ireland will decide their own future. Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA, is promised roles in peace talks if they declare a cease-fire.
- 1996: Former U.S. Senator George Mitchell chairs multiparty peace talks concerning Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein joins the talks in 1997.
- 1998: Britain announces an independent inquiry into the “Bloody Sunday” killings of 1972. In April, Northern Ireland’s political leaders negotiate a deal that includes retaining ties with Great Britain while still having self-rule in Northern Ireland. The plan is presented to voters, who overwhelmingly approve it.
In 1975 and 1976, while Heaney wrote many of the poems that would comprise Field Work, sectarian violence in Northern Ireland killed more than 545 people and inflicted major injuries upon more than 5, 000 people. Among those killed were cousins of Heaney’s.
In 1980, one year after Field Work was published, the strife in Northern Ireland again received worldwide attention, as several prisoners in favor of independence from England went on a hunger strike, demanding the status of political prisoners. The American press tended to report the situation as a kind “war of wills” between the hunger strikers and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Eventually ten hunger strikers died. In Section IX of Heaney’s “Station Island,” one of the deceased describes the agony of his death: “My brain dried like spread turf, my stomach / Shrank to a cinder and tightened and cracked.”
In his 1988 book The Poetry of Seamus Heaney, critic Elmer Andrews explores the development of Heaney’s vision in Field Work. In poems like “A Drink of Water ,” Andrews writes, “Heaney’s muse is no longer the mythological goddess of Irish history, the implacable ‘black mother.’ Instead he develops the image of the domestic muse or sibyl.” “A Drink of Water” is a “haunting little poem,” Andrews writes, and an example of Heaney’s re-dedication to “the life-giving sources, to his role as diviner through whom the water used to broadcast its secrets.” Here, the female figure present throughout Heaney’s poetry has grown old, and as a result “the imagery suggests difficulty, noisy effort, disease and decline.” But ultimately, Andrews argues, the poem centers on the notion of faith: “Despite the poet’s faithlessness, the old woman still provides a drink of water. At the end the poet has ‘dipped to drink again to be / Faithful.’” Robert Fitzgerald similarly observes in a 1976 New Republic article that the poem demonstrates “Heaney’s piety toward the life of his boyhood” and calls “A Drink of Water” an “excellent” poem. The critic adds that “Heaney’s best poems in their purity are certainly fresh esthetic objects; at the same time his manner is large and open, his intent a publicly conducted meditation among the living and the dead.”
Aviya Kushner, the poetry editor for Neworld Renaissance Magazine, earned an M.A. in creative writing from Boston University. In the following essay, Kushner discusses Heaney’s portrayal of the turmoils in Irish history against the beautiful backdrop of Ireland in his writings. She also presents the argument that “A Drink of Water” is actually alluding to the struggles of an Irish poet writing in the poetical form and language of his enemy.
“The Irish thing,” as Nobel Prize-winner Heaney calls it in one of his poems, never seems to go away, both in Heaney’s poetry and in his personal life. In stanza after stanza, Heaney addresses the political and religious conflicts of his birth-place—the blood, the gore, and the deep divisions between neighbors.
Heaney’s poetry and prose also reveal a strong need to depict a personal heritage. He must write about the land, the heritage of the farm, and his father’s spade. He must make poems out of the numerous wells, hills, and schoolrooms of his childhood. As a poet of the land and a poet of the nation, Heaney has a double mission, and this tension of being pulled in different directions may partially explain Heaney’s power as a writer.
None of this is lost on Heaney. In his writing and conversation, Heaney frequently describes the pull of Ireland’s beauty and the pain of her troubled history as he ponders his role as a poet. In everything from a Nobel acceptance speech to newspaper reviews of others’ poetry books, he asks himself: Is the poet obligated to take a stand? What is poetry’s “job,” anyway? Sometimes, it seems that Heaney is clawing for a poet’s right to simply sing, to spend a page praising a tiny white cup. Sometimes, as in the poem “Act of Union,” everything from a woman’s body to the countryside’s rolling hills seems doused in imperialism and political strife.
In “A Drink of Water,” written when Heaney was already an established poet and an established destination for journalists looking for views on “the Irish thing,” there are several signs of a man caught between two competing forces. The first sign is form. The fourteen lines are in English sonnet form, clearly not an Irish form, though the subject is a seemingly Irish woman. Heaney is using the oppressor’s language and the oppressor’s form to depict an Irish scene. While this paradox might seem
What Do I Read Next?
- Seamus Heaney’s New and Selected Poems 1966-1987 offers a generous selection of his poetry.
- In addition to his skills as a poet, Heaney writes very lucid criticism. In The Government of the Tongue: Selected Prose 1978-1987, he discusses the work of Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and several Eastern European poets, among others. The introductory essay, “The Interesting Case of Nero, Chekhov’s Cognac, and a Knocker,” meditates upon Heaney’s responsibilities as a poet and is particularly compelling.
- Two good critical studies of Seamus Heaney’s poetry are Seamus Heaney, edited and introduced by Harold Bloom, and Helen Vendler’s Seamus Heaney. Vendler, a former colleague of Heaney’s at Harvard, remains one of the most sympathetic and insightful readers of Heaney’s work.
- In The Rattle Bag: An Anthology of Poems, Seamus Heaney and fellow poet Ted Hughes offer their favorite poems. This lively anthology is a fascinating glimpse into two poets’ (sometime idiosyncratic) taste.
subtle at the beginning of the poem, it will get more and more obvious as the poem goes on.
One of Heaney’s trademarks is the use of agricultural, natural images that allude to larger issues. Here, he begins a poem that takes place in the outdoors with a simply worded title that doubles as a request—“a drink of water.” The opening two lines are similarly low-key, describing a daily scene in a country location:
She came every morning to draw water
Like an old bat staggering up the field
The words “every morning” indicate routine, something done over and over—like the sonnet form itself. The title reinforces that sense of routine, since “a drink of water” is something to be had over and over. However, the second line gives
“Heaney’s poetry … reveal[s] a strong need to depict a personal heritage. As a poet of the land and a poet of the nation, Heaney has a double mission, and this tension of being pulled in different directions may partially explain Heaney’s power as a writer.”
much more information and changes the tone completely. Heaney is expanding the vista, as he often does. “Like an old bat staggering up the field” reveals the woman is probably old and that whatever she is doing is labor for her. It is difficult, and so the poem will to some extent address difficulty.
Heaney tends to use certain words, such as “north,” “digging,” and “union”; “field” is another word that appears often. Here, “field” provides the first sense of place in the poem, and it establishes a rural feeling—a country ode. “Up the field” means the woman is walking uphill. The first two lines are all visual, but by the third line, sound— what is heard—is introduced.
The pump’s whooping cough, the bucket’s clatter
And slow diminuendo as it filled,
“Whooping cough” is a fabulous example of the power of personification when it is combined with an element of surprise. “Whooping cough” is a loud, distinctive noise. In addition, “whooping cough” implies severe illness or poverty and fits with “staggering,” “old,” and the general sense of struggle. The third line makes it clear that for this woman, the seemingly simple task of procuring a drink of water is in fact a difficult task.
What’s “coughing” here, though, is not the old woman, but the pump itself, perhaps in sympathy. The speaker must know that particular pump intimately well to use a phrase as specific as “whooping cough.” Of course, the downward motion required to pump water matches the swooping undertones of a distinctive word like “whooping.”
The focus on sound continues with “the bucket’s clatter” and the “slow diminuendo.” The struggle is unfolding into a scene of calm, as the bucket fills with water. This mix of brash “whooping” and slow, soothing “diminuendo” is what “announced her.” What the woman looks like remains a mystery, but the shorter line indicates that the poem is about to change. The fourth line is also split by a caesura—a pause, in this case a period, that heralds a switch. The phrase “I recall” signals a further change, as the poem moves from describing a routine into a riff on the specifics of the past.
Sight and sound begin to blend in this section. “I recall / Her gray apron, the pocked white enamel / Of the brimming bucket, and the treble / Creak of her voice like the pump’s handle.” Interestingly, two musical terms have now appeared—“diminuendo” and “treble.” Both are Italian words, showing a willingness and perhaps a need to use non-Irish words to describe an Irish scene.
Like many sonnets, “A Drink of Water” turns in the last six lines. Instead of describing a morning, it switches to evening. The profound meaning for the speaker of this individual woman and her daily routine has not been explained yet, and so in this brief poem the pressure is on at the end.
Nights when a full moon lifted past her gable
It fell back through her window and would lie
Into the water set out on the table.
When the full moon is out, the speaker thinks of this particular woman. Something about her haunts him, and something about her makes him remember her:
Where I have dipped to drink again, to be
Faithful to the admonishment on her cup,
Remember the Giver fading off the lip.
In the last three lines, the latent power of water as an image becomes obvious. Water carries religious overtones, with immersion rituals in particular, as the verb “dipped” suggests. Water is frequently associated with purification, and something about this woman’s water ritual offers the speaker both “admonishment” and purification. Something about her reminds him of sin and the need to erase it. However, the meaning of the old woman is still ambiguous.
In the last line, the power of this lone old woman getting her water is finally explained. Her cup had a phrase on it—“Remember the Giver.” Who the Giver is, of course, is the immediate question. Who gives water, who gives life? These questions might refer to God. However, in Heaney’s unique context of an Irish poet writing in English, it is possible that the “Giver” is England, the source of the words he uses as tools to create a self. Like a man dependent on God’s water for survival, for the gift of life, this is the tale of a poet dependent on a ruler for the gift of language and the sustenance of words.
Finally, what is most fascinating is that the motto is fading. As Heaney the poet grows in fame and in control over the English language, the fact of ownership—of who actually “gave” him that language—may fade. But wherever he “dips to drink again,” whenever he sets pen to paper and starts sipping at the English language, he is nevertheless forced to remember the giver, to think about ownership, nationhood, and what “the Irish thing” means to him as both person and poet.
Source: Aviya Kushner, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale Group, 2000.
Carolyn Meyer holds a Ph.D. in modern British and Irish literature and has taught contemporary literature at several Canadian universities, including the University of Toronto. In the following essay, Meyer expounds on the symbolism of the pump and the old woman that draws the water in Heaney’s “A Drink of Water” as well as the writer’s use of the sonnet form for the poem. She also describes the elegiac nature of the verse.
“A Drink of Water,” from Heaney’s 1979 collection Field Work, is a poem about the strength to be drawn from what lies closest to home. Elsewhere in the volume Heaney mourns the friends and relatives lost to the hatreds and bloodlusts of Northern Ireland’s “Troubles” and earnestly reflects on issues of the artist’s social responsibility. Here, however, he finds solace and respite from that crisis in the solid traditionalism of the sonnet form and in the recollection of the family pump around which his rural childhood was centered and according to whose rhythms the life of his first community was measured out. In a discussion originally broadcast on the radio by the BBC and later published as “Mossbawn” in Preoccuptions: Selected Prose 1968-1978, Heaney refers to the pump as a symbol and touchstone, numbering it among his earliest memories. In its utilitarian simplicity and encapsulation of the local, the ordinary, and the immediate, it stands imperturbable and resolute against the “the great historical action” of World War II, much as the subsequent memory of it has the power to at least temporarily obscure and assuage the unconscionable barbarities of sectarian violence:
I would begin with the Greek word, omphalos, meaning navel, and hence the stone that marked the centre of the world, and repeat it, omphalos, omphalos, omphalos, until its blunt and falling music becomes the music of somebody pumping water at the pump outside our back door. It is Co. Derry in the early 1940s. The American bombers groan towards the aerodrome at Toomebridge, the American troops manoeuvre in the fields along the road, but all of that great historical action does not disturb the rhythms of the yard. There the pump stands, a slender, iron idol, snouted, helmeted, dressed down with a sweeping handle, painted a dark green and set on a concrete plinth, marking the centre of another world. Five households drew water from it. Women came and went, came rattling between empty enamel buckets, went evenly away, weighed down by silent water. The horses came home to it in those first lengthening evenings of spring, and in a single draught emptied one bucket and then another as the man pumped and pumped, and the plunger slugging up and down, omphalos, omphalos, omphalos.
Heaney’s poetry, much like this passage of prose, is concerned with roots, origins and well-springs—enacting quests downwards and backwards to the sources of personal, creative, and national identity. In “A Drink of Water” the poet assumes the role of diviner, as he has often done, revisiting scenes from his childhood in rural County Down, but in this case the past becomes, as critic Carlanda Green noted in Seamus Heaney,“the lens through which he looks at the present” to understand the steadying faithfulness and grace that revive and sustain the creative impulse. The source to which he returns, according to Michael Parker in Seamus Heaney: The Making of the Poet, is “life-giving” in both the actual and figurative sense, the communal pump offering not only physical refreshment but spiritual replenishment.
While poets of classical Greece and Rome may have looked for inspiration to the daughters of Mnemosyne who tended a sacred spring atop Mount Parnassus, Heaney, according to Elmer Andrews in his The Poetry of Seamus Heaney, is heartened by the memory of an aging “domestic muse,” an old woman who presides over the farmyard pump and applies herself to her daily ritual of drawing water with clumsy yet unwavering devotion. Heaney’s evocative description of her and her legacy brims with a joy in the phenomenal world and in the naming of its objects, lending support to his belief, which he extolled in an interview in Viewpoints, that “poems with rural or archaic images” can “engage with the modern world.” What the old neighbor teaches him by example and injunction (“Remember the Giver”) is exactly what Heaney sets out to achieve in Field Work (as quoted in a Critical Inquiry interview): “to trust melody, to trust art as reality, to trust artfulness as an affirmation.” Like a shade from Dante’s Divine Comedy, a work Heaney was reading at the time of writing Field Work, she is one of his guides, allowing him to negotiate the underworld of modern-day political strife and the minefield of opinion as to what the writer’s role in that conflict should be. Her salutary message makes for what critic Blake Morrison, in his book Seamus Heaney, called “a moment of grace that blocks out the island’s ‘comfortless noises.’”
As Heaney pointed out in an interview with James Randall in Ploughshares, Field Work marks his return to traditional verse forms and their “rhythmic contracts” after his experiments with the slender, curt and volatile half-lines of his previous collection, North. The thirteen sonnets of Field Work, “A Drink of Water” among them, accommodate Heaney’s natural lyricism—his insistence that “the first person singular” should “mean me and my lifetime”—and serve as formal metaphors for control and order against a backdrop of political aggression and elegiac lament.
Heaney’s recourse to the sonnet comes with recognition of the form’s flexible rigidity and of the adaptability of its conventions. Given the issues of responsibility and commitment with which Heaney wrestles throughout the collection, the sonnet is in many ways an ideal vehicle for his relentless questioning since its structural division into octave and sestet, comprising statement and counterstatement or problem and solution, satisfies a need for resolution within its tidy span of fourteen lines. The sonnet’s reputation as chiefly a love poem “historically filled” with what feminist critic Rachel Blau Du Plessis called, in an article for (How)ever magazine, “voiceless, beautiful females in object position” is playfully recast in Heaney’s hands, for the feminine principle that assumes many guises in his poems has now grown old and artlessly wise. Closer to the Irish cailleach (hag) than to any object of erotic desire, this unlikely sibyl versed in the traditional ways of living close to the land instead instills a need for mindfulness and circumspection, together with a renewed appreciation for life-giving sources and the restorative gifts of charity, kindness, and reverence.
“A Drink of Water” reinvents the sonnet as a love poem, effectively widening its scope to express a love of this world and its possibilities as sustained by acts of fortitude and faithfulness. Writing in The Poetry of Seamus Heaney, Andrews observed that Heaney’s bending of familiar sonnet conventions comes about in part from his effort to find what is poetic in the more unpoetic dimensions of daily and domestic experience. Half-rhymes (field/filled, lie/be, cup/lip), enjambments, and shortened lines (line 5) lend an easy naturalism to the highly wrought artifice of the Shakespearean sonnet form (rhyming ababcdcdefefgg) much as the transition from octave to sestet becomes, in Heaney’s hands, as ordinary as the passage from day into night.
The first eight lines concern the water drawer herself, whose identity is inseparable from the task she performs and the place she inhabits. The opening states her business matter-of-factly—“She came every morning to draw water”—but the ensuing description, as richly evocative as it is in its detail, makes her a figure more to be pitied than revered. The imagery Heaney invokes to describe her morning ritual suggests, as Andrews noted, “difficulty, noisy effort, disease and decline,” hardly foreshadowing or justifying the abiding influence for which the speaker ultimately credits her. With her drab “gray apron” and “creak” of a voice, she is likened to “an old bat staggering up the field.” Her laborious effort engenders “the pump’s whooping cough” and “the bucket’s clatter / And slow diminuendo.” The bucket itself has “pocked” enamel, as though scarred by disease. Even the moon, rising in the night sky and shining into her window, falls back and “lie[s] / Into the water.” The inscription on her cup is said to be “fading off the lip,” as though the vessel itself is not simply worn but the words themselves, like those spoken by the dying or by the ghosts of Dante’s Purgatorio, are being uttered in final, breathless warning or valediction.
What is easily lost in the cacophony of her exertion is the underlying harmoniousness of her undertaking. To suggest this, Heaney modulates his appropriately sturdy, homespun, and at times harshly consonantal language with terms raided from the musical lexicon—the “slow diminuendo” of the filling bucket and the “treble / Creak” of the old woman’s voice that is indistinguishable from the music of the pump itself. It is this sound that makes her presence known to the speaker, whose deepening awareness of her and her craft is dramatized by the halting medial caesura of line 5— “Announced her. I recall.” This line remains two 2 feet short of its required length, as though the speaker is pausing to collect his thoughts while his distant memory of her comes into sharper focus.
What emerges is a portrait not of the woman herself, for she remains nameless and largely featureless, but of her dedicated triumph over adversity, a legacy that proves inspiringly creative.
The sestet makes it abundantly clear that the old woman, despite all appearances, is not merely an enduring presence but in fact a muse to the poet. The images associated with her—the full moon and its reflected image—are symbols long associated with feminine power and the poetic imagination. Along with similar circle images throughout Field Work, including everything from eyes and rings to sunflowers and vaccination marks, they embody what critic Blake Morrison cited as the notion of “artistic perfection”, not to mention the finiteness of “artistic self-enclosure.” Altogether, the monthly full-mooned nights and the endless chore-filled mornings make for a reassuring sense of continuity that anchors the poem and unifies its constituent parts.
In the sestet, the clatter of the previous eight lines subsides, replaced by a calm interiority and serene domestic orderliness that is presented with the imagistic power of a haiku. The “water set out on the table” as if in offering reflects a moon that seems meant for the old woman’s circumscribed world alone, lifting “past her gable” and falling back “through her window.” It is, after all, the old woman’s labor that makes such poignant beauty possible. The image of the moon lying “into the water” is one akin to baptism, suggesting renewal, rebirth, and purification. For the speaker, the image is a sustaining one, a consolatory moment from which to draw and draw again. Had Heaney placed a comma or omitted the punctuation entirely at the end of line 11, instead of using a period, the syntax of the final lines would invite a far more limited reading. As it stands, the “Where” of “Where I have dipped to drink again” refers not simply to the “water set out on the table” of the previous line but to all that precedes it.
Like any good parable, this brief narrative of the woman’s simple life takes on metaphoric relevance and provides the standard against which the speaker measures his fidelity to life’s sustaining values. When he drinks, he drinks in and is fortified by the remembrance of her example, in an act that imitates and secularizes the ritual of communion. Heaney seizes upon the problem-solving function of the sonnet’s counter-statement, in this case confined to the final three lines, to suggest that the healing affirmations he seeks elsewhere in Field Work are to be had by “bowing down to, by offering up”—by rededicating and pledging himself to the life-giving sources according to the cup’s admonishment,
“Like any good parable, this brief narrative of the woman’s simple life takes on metaphoric relevance and provides the standard against which the speaker measures his fidelity to life’s sustaining values.”
“Remember the Giver.” This parting motto, haunting in its discernable Dantesque influence, reveals “A Drink of Water” for what it actually is—an elegy—so that the entire poem becomes what Andrews called “a formal enactment” of the old woman’s warning. True to his word, Heaney pays tribute to the giver and her gift.
Source: Carolyn Meyer, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale Group, 2000.
Andrews, Elmer, “Field Work,” in his The Poetry of Seamus Heaney: All the Realms of Whisper, London: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1988, 219 p.
DuPlessis, Rachel Blau, “Thinking about Annie Finch, On Female Power and the Sonnet,” (How)ever, Vol. 1, No. 3, Summer 1991, p. 16.
Fitzgerald, Robert, “Seamus Heaney: An Appreciation,” in New Republic, March 27, 1976, pp. 27-9.
Heaney, Seamus, Field Work, London: Faber, 1979, p. 14.
Heaney, Seamus, The Government of the Tongue: Selected Prose 1978-1987, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988.
Heaney, Seamus, interview with Frank Kinahan in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 8, No. 3, Spring 1982, pp. 405-14.
Heaney, Seamus, interview with James Randall in Ploughshares, Vol. 5, No. 3, 1979, pp. 21.
Heaney, Seamus, interview with John Haffenden in Viewpoints, London: Faber, 1981, p. 66.
Morrison, Blake, Seamus Heaney, London: Methuen, 1982, p. 82.
Parker, Michael, Seamus Heaney: The Making of the Poet, London: Macmillian, 1993.
Vendler, Helen, Seamus Heaney, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.
Andrews, Elmer, The Poetry of Seamus Heaney: All the Realms of Whisper, London: Macmillan Press, 1988.
Andrews analyzes Heaney’s poetry and identifies its primary themes through the 1985 collection Station Island.
Buttell, Robert, Seamus Heaney, Cranberry, NJ: Associated University Presses, Inc., 1975.
Provides critical analyses of the poems included in Heaney’s first three volumes and considers how Heaney’s personal experience and literary education have influenced his poetry.
Hildebidle, John, “A Decade of Seamus Heaney’s Poetry,” The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 28, No. 3, autumn 1987, pp. 393-409.
Hildebidle describes Heaney’s exploration of both personal experience and Irish history in his poetry.
Parker, Michael, Seamus Heaney: The Making of the Poet, Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 1993.
Provides historical contexts and analyzes the biographical, literary, and political influences within Heaney’s poetry.