“With an Ear to the Line”: An Auditory Reading of Seamus Heaney’s Wintering Out (1972)
The Irish Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) is arguably one of the most widely read, studied and translated poets of our time. Sound − in all its manifestations, literal and metaphorical, including silence − is referenced throughout his poetry and prose. From the rasping sound of his father’s spade to the shunting of trains; from the gurgling of the local river to the silence of bogs and bog-bodies; from the noise of tractors and airplanes to the quietude of lakes and canals, moments of sound and silence inspire and define not only Heaney’s poems but also our experience of them. As Heaney himself indicates, listening was a way for him not only of perceiving the surrounding world but also reaching out and staying in touch with the wideness of the world. In his Nobel Lecture (1995), Heaney recalls how as a child he would take in “everything that was going on” beyond the walls, from “the sounds of the horse in the stable at night, the voices of adults conversation from the kitchen”, “a steam train rumbling along the railway line one field back from his house” to the “bursts of foreign languages” coming from the radio.
This study combines the linguistic and literary practice of close reading with ecological theories of auditory perception and soundscape interpretation to map and analyse references to sounds − and their absence − in Wintering Out (1972). This collection has been chosen because it was published at a transitional stage in the poet’s personal and professional life. Heaney’s third collection is born out of everyday childhood memories and his concerns about identity, territory, language, religion and history. It documents the poet’s standpoint in relation to the Troubles, his anxieties as a young parent, his hopes for the appreciation of the common ground and his confidence about his vocation as a poet. Wintering Out echoes the poet’s thoughts and concerns through moments of sound and silence.
Historically, studies of sounds and audition have been informed by a concern with the understanding of music and the physical attributes of sound waves − e.g. amplitude, frequency, timbre. Studies of sounds in poetry have focused primarily on understanding prosody and the relationship between poetry and music. This acoustic study of Heaney’s Wintering Out sets out to demonstrate that references to sounds in poetry are not only guided by a feel for the sounds of words but also by a strong sense of places and times they evoke, and thus, can be socially, culturally, and personally charged and meaningful.