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A Examination of Seamus Heaney’s Effective Use of Sound in his Poetry

A Examination of Seamus Heaney’s Effective Use of Sound in his Poetry

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An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Ruth Murphy. Originally submitted for Seamus Heaney and Modern Irish Poetry at University College Dublin, with lecturer Alan Graham in the category of English Language & Literature
An essay for the 2011 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Ruth Murphy. Originally submitted for Seamus Heaney and Modern Irish Poetry at University College Dublin, with lecturer Alan Graham in the category of English Language & Literature

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 29, 2012
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A Examination of Seamus Heaney’s Effective Use of Sound in his Poetry
Bernard O’Donoghue makes a keen observation about Seamus Heaney, that he is“indulgently savouring the sheer sounds of words” (O’Donoghue 10). Heaney does take“delight in the sounds of his poems” (Foster 18-19). Words are used not simply inonomatopoeia terms, to convey a specific sound, like buzzing or splashing, but also to conveyemotion through sound. Perkins correctly highlights that “the sounds are considered asrepresenting or further suggesting the emotions” of Heaney’s poems (Perkins 63). As Heaneystates, sound, words are “doors” (Keaney 554), ways to convey not only a story, but emotion.Overall, the main thesis this essay will argue is that Heaney effectively uses sound to conveyemotion. In the terms of this essay, “sound” is defined as euphony, cacophony, assonance andalliteration and “emotionis taken to mean grief and fear. This essay will argue its thesis inthree sections. The first will analyse two poems demonstrating how Heaney successfully usessound to convey grief. In “Mid Term Break”, the poet uses sound to portray the personal grief associated with the tragic death of a younger brother. In “Limbo”, Heaney again uses soundto express grief, but it is less personal and concerned with not only the dead baby, but itsmother and society. The second section will examine another two poems, showing howHeaney efficiently uses sound to convey fear. In “Death of a Naturalist” Heaney employssound to communicate the fear and disillusionment of the child who learns that the world ismore sinister than he first believed. In “A Constable Calls”, Heaney manipulates sound toconvey the child’s fear that his father’s lie will be discovered. The final section will focus onone poem: “Casualty” demonstrating how Heaney uses sound to communicate both the grief and fear surrounding the death of a Derry fisherman.At first, “Mid-Term Break” does not strike the reader as being particularly audible, but through close examination subtle, often unnoticed, sounds are found, which conveyemotion expertly. Foster makes a bold comment stating that Heaney’s handling of grief is“terse and understated” in the poem (Foster 20). Foster believes that “the only sensations he1
[Heaney] reveals of his fourteen year old self are of embarrassment and self-consciousness. Itis this distance that suggest the pain of loss” (Foster 20). This view, as this essay willillustrate, is inaccurate. Grief is not understated in this poem; on the contrary, it is in theforeground. It is not the “distance” of which Foster speaks that suggests the pain of loss inthis poem, but sound. Grief is in seen prominently in this poem, but it is a particular kind of grief, the very personal grief associated with the pain of losing a brother in tragic, perhapsavoidable, circumstances. This grief encompasses not only sadness, despair and loss, but alsoanger at the way the child was cruelly taken away.“Mid-Term Break” is dominated by euphonic sounds, particularly the soft ‘s’ and ‘c’sounds: “sick”, “bells”, “classes”, “close”, “porch”, “crying”, “stride”, “cooed”, “shake”,“sorry”, “school”, “sighs”, “soothed”, and “clear” (“Mid-term” lines 1-21). These soft soundssuggest peace and tranquillity. They also set the mood for the type of grief expressed in this poem. Such soft sounds are often seen in nursery rhymes, which are used to lull a child tosleep, however, in this case, it turns out to be the child’s final sleep. These sounds are soon punctuated by the assonance of mournful vowel sounds: “all”, “morning”, “always”,“coughed”, “corpse”, “Snowdrops”, “saw”, “now”, “gaudy” and “four” (“Mid-term” lines 1-22). These sounds appear more and more frequently as the poem progresses. They suggestthat there is an element of tragedy to this nursery rhyme euphony. They build and build, untilthe climax of the last line, where the reader is informed of the age of the dead child. Thisassonance interrupts the soft euphony and creates a sense of loss of innocence through themournful vowel sounds, which suggest cries of despair. Additionally, this use of euphony andassonance is also very effective as four words break through the mass of peaceful sounds:“drove”, “hard”, “angry” and “scars” (“Mid-term” lines 3-21). These words contain a harsh‘r’ sound which clashes with a consonant. These four cacophonous words collide brilliantlywith the euphonic sounds. They pull the poem’s soft sounds apart with their harshness. Theysuggest anger, indicating that this death was not a normal one. Such anger usuallyaccompanies grief when the loss suffered is tragic and unfortunate, which is true in this poem2
as the poet’s young brother was hit by a car: “the bumper knocked him clear” (“Mid-term”line 21). Such anger suggests that the child was cruelly stolen before he had time to live properly, which is the case as the boy was only four years old.Throughout, “Mid Term Break” expresses the actual sounds of grief. Firstly, amournful wailing, coupled with cries of pain created by assonance, which indicate thehopelessness and despair at the loss of a speaker’s little brother. And secondly, the harshcacophony of anger at the way the child was taken before his time. Moreover, the use of theword “scars” (“Mid-term” line 21) is very effective. It is cacophonous as the “r” clashes withthe “sca” producing a harsh sound, however, adding an “s” to the end of the word softens thecacophonous sound. This gives the sense that anger is overwhelmed by loss and despair at thedeath of the small child. Furthermore, the alliteration of “f” in the final line: “A four foot box,a foot for every year” (“Mid-term” line 22) is exceptionally effective. Not only does it drawthe poem to its powerful climax, but it also communicates the child’s age as the repetition of “f” emphasises “four”. It is in this final line that Heaney skilfully drops the tragic bombshellof the young age of his now dead brother. As shown here, Heaney successfully uses sound toconvey grief and loss.Similar to “Mid-Term Break”, the poem “Limbo” deals with the death of a youngchild, however the grief expressed here is different. In “Limbo” the grief conveyed is less personal and the speaker is not only grieving for the dead baby, but for its mother and thesociety that drove her to drown her child. There is a distance in this poem, a real sense thatthe speaker is describing such events as a though he is detached from them. This sense isachieved by the speaker focusing on the act of drowning the child, describing it in detail. Nevertheless, “Limbo” is exceptionally moving. Again, the poem opens with euphony, seenin the soft “f” and “s” sounds: “Fisherman”, “Ballyshannon”, “infant” and “Salmon”(“Limbo” lines 1-3). However, these peaceful sounds are shattered by the presence of assonance in the words: “last”, “along” and “spawning” (“Limbo” lines 2-4). These two setsof sound convey grief, that it is, the soft silence, coupled with mournful cries of horror, upon3

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