In his poem “The Otter,” Seamus Heaney uses the otter as a conceit, which is an extended metaphor that compares two quite dissimilar things in creative and sometimes shocking ways. In this poem, Heaney compares an otter and a woman. The speaker watches as the woman plunges into the pool, noting how “the light of Tuscany wavered” from her dive. This woman swims like an otter as he watches, appreciating the lines of her shoulders and back as she moves through the water. As he follows her swim, the speaker thinks about how when he holds her, the two are as close as the water and the atmosphere.
In the fourth stanza, the otter image varies. He now envisions the woman as an otter swimming through his memory. The memory of her is lithe, graceful and supple, and palpable, almost able to be touched and grasped. Yet it is swimming in the “pool of the moment,” and it is soon gone.
The speaker's attention returns to the woman swimming before him, and he watches her as she turns onto her back, otter-like, and swims silently as the light shifts around her. Then, fast as an otter, she is out of the water and beside him, her intensity stunning him. She is, he remarks, “Heavy and frisky” in her “freshened pelt.” She is dripping with water, her hair and skin shiny with moisture that drops onto the stones.
Heaney uses the image of the otter here likely for the purpose of sensuality. Otters are beautiful creatures with fine lines and a great deal of grace. They are also playful, intriguing, and quite adorable—all characteristics that the poet uses to describe in the woman, who is the object of his poem. The shift to the image of “otter of memory” suggests a slipperiness, a memory that glides by and away almost before the speaker is aware of it. Indeed, the conceit of the otter proves to be both interesting and apt, and it holds readers' attention as they plunge into the poem and try to capture this graceful image.