What follows is a close reading of the poem “Valediction” by Irish poet Seamus Heaney (b. 1939), from the collection entitled “Death of a Naturalist”.
“Valediction” (Heaney, 1991: p35) is about the poet’s feelings for a certain “Lady with the frilled blouse” (Line 1) and how those feelings are affected by the lady’s absence. Heaney begins with a simple apostrophe in which he addresses the “Lady”, telling her that her absence has somehow damaged his ability to think:
“Since you have left the house
its emptiness has hurt
(Lines 3 – 5)
From mid way through line 5 to the end of the poem, Heaney employs a conceit in which he compares time spent in the “Lady’s” presence and apart to images of the sea and sailing. He tells her that, when she is around, “Time rode easy, anchored on a smile” (Lines 6-7). By comparing time spent “in your presence” (Line 5) to a boat at anchor he creates an image of stability and security. All is well. He also uses a synecdoche by referring to the “lady”, and possibly her feelings for him, as “a smile”, and when she leaves:
Rocked love’s balance, unmoored
(Lines 8 – 9)
So the boat is now cast off and adrift, telling us that time has somehow lost its structure, its regularity, when his love is gone, but love’s balance has also been rocked; and by this I think Heaney is telling us that his love is somehow diminished by not being near the object of his affections. This idea is repeated again when he says “Pitched from the quiet sound of your flower-tender voice” (Lines 11-13). He is shook because he can no longer hear her sweet voice. So much for that old saying “absence makes the heart grows fonder”.
Heaney reinforces the image of a boat adrift at sea by giving us the personification where the days “buck and bound across the calendar” (Lines 9-10). The words “pitched” and “sound” in line eleven also add to the sea/sailing metaphor because pitched can mean an abrupt lurch in seafaring speak and a sound can be a large ocean inlet, not to mention the fact that sound is comprised of waves. Both words clearly refer to the “voice” of line thirteen though. And we can see another clever pun when he uses the word “strand” in the sentence, “need breaks on my strand;” this conjures an image of the poets desire washing over him but also serves to hint at his isolation. Isolation confirmed in the next line; “you’ve gone, I am at sea.” (Line 14)
Heaney ends the poem by giving in to the fact that he will be fighting with himself, “self is in mutiny” (Line 16) until his “Lady” is back by his side and has him firmly in control; “until you resume command” (Line 15) . The use of “mutiny” serves to conclude the conceit.
In terms of tenor, vehicle and ground then, Heaney uses the image of a boat as the conceit’s vehicle and the passage of time as its tenor. So the ground is the similarities between the stability of an anchored boat and the smooth passage of time when his love is there, and the unsteady way that time seems to pass; when she is not there time passes like a boat adrift at sea, lost and lacking direction. He also shows how his feelings may not be as solid for her when she is not there to keep him anchored.
Ultimately Heaney’s view of love is a more realistic one to that often expressed in more traditional poetry; love is not on a pedestal here. Heaney’s love is a fragile creature, subject to environmental factors; it needs constant care and attention.
Heaney, Seamus, 1991, Death of a Naturalist, London: Faber & Faber Ltd.
Buy Death of a Naturalist
manatita44 from london on November 12, 2017:
Nice take in looking at Seamus Heaney and his poetry. You have looked at it with a careful eye.
Fawole Amos on March 17, 2012:
Thanks for this great analysis, it was really of a great help.
PiaC from Oakland, CA on August 24, 2011:
I too find Seamus Heaney rather difficult, but I will check out Valediction after reading your sensitive analysis of it.
B.C. Hollywood (author) from Co. Meath, Ireland on December 14, 2010:
Thank you for taking the time to read this. In truth I find Heaney difficult but 'Valediction', and a few others really struck a chord. The beauty of a good piece of poetry is that you can really dig into it to find your own meanings. Maybe reading poetry is a form of literary archeology?
chspublish from Ireland on December 14, 2010:
A great read here about Heaney's poem. You cetainly lead the reader into the poem and an appreciation of it. For some reason or other I've never really grasped that inward appreciation of Heaney. Perhaps I've needed to read appreciations such as yours, to lead me there.