Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Heaney has commented, regarding this poem, that it is he himself as a child who fears crossing the water on a boat ride to church. He has the same fear of crossing those waves as did the ancient characters of mythology. He does not rid himself of his fear and anxiety until he is safely onshore looking back at the experience.

When he arrives at the church, the story pictured on the church’s facade reminds him of the water he has just crossed, but this time, instead of seeing himself as the focus, he looks at the figure of Christ being baptized. The poet meditates on this immersion in water as a deliberate choice—no fear is evident here. Moreover, this event, this baptism, separates the hidden life of Jesus up to this time from the very public life which he sees as his mission or vocation. Heaney may have in mind the differing demands of his own private and public lives. Many of Heaney’s poems refer to the struggles he had after deciding to pursue poetry as his vocation, so it is understandable that this baptism makes such an impression on him.

In the last poetic sentence (the last three lines), Heaney pictures the children, himself among them, feeling the intense heat of the day. As the figure of Jesus stands up to his knees in water, he and the children are “up to our eyes” in heat waves, putting the poet in the position of “seeing things” in both a literal and metaphorical way.