Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 862
While certain specifics of the sonnet's situation are never revealed—the identity of the woman, for instance, and the precise nature of her relationship with the speaker—the first lines' implications establish nearly all we need to know in the poem. The verb "came" in line 1 suggests two important possibilities. First, since it is in the past tense, we infer that the action described no longer takes place—she no longer comes to the well. Combined with the images of old age and decrepitude that follow in the first quatrain —"old bat," "staggering," "whooping cough," "slow diminuendo"—this past-tense description suggests that the old woman has died. Second, the use of "came" instead of "went" implies that the speaker is already at the well when the woman arrives. From this, it is possible that the speaker owns the well and allows the woman to draw from it: that, at the beginning of the poem at least, he is the "Giver."
Throughout the first eight lines, the reader should note the poem's use of the sense of sound to convey the emotional appeal of an elegy. First, consider how the poet plays upon the traditional rhyme scheme of a Shakespearean sonnet. According to that form, the first and third as well as the second and forth lines of each quatrain must be set in end rhyme—that is, the lines' final vowel and consonant sounds must agree exactly. Here, however, Heaney sets his lines in half rhyme, the vowel sounds suggesting one another but not agreeing exactly: "field" (line 2) and "filled" (line 4) as opposed to, for instance, "field" and "wield." This technique allows the poet to achieve the musical sound of a sonnet without sacrificing word-choice or falling into the type of overt lyricism that would be inappropriate to the mood of the poem. The reader should also note the sound elements that work within lines. One of these is assonance , the internal repetition of many vowel sounds in words close to one another: "draw" and "water," "bat," "staggering" and "clattered," "gray" and "apron," and so on. Another sonic device is the consonance, the internal repetition of certain consonant sounds: the p's in "pump" and "whooping;" the l's in "field," "filled," "recall" and other line-ending words; the b's in "brimming bucket" and "treble." These sonic devices reflect the speaker's sound-oriented memory of the woman: she is revealed in the octave through "the pump's whooping cough," the "bucket's clatter," the sound of running water's "slow diminuendo," or decrease in sound, and the "creak" of the pump's handle that sounds like her "treble" voice.
In the sestet, the situation shifts from morning to night and from the well to the woman's house, but the woman herself, who predominates the sonnet 's first eight lines, has vanished physically from the poem. Further, while the speaker is clearly present at the well in the octave, the relationship between him and the scene in lines 9 through 11 becomes a matter of interpretation. In line 9, the perspective seems to be from outside the woman's house: the full moon lifts "past her gable." Yet in lines 10 and 11, the perspective seems to move inside: the speaker observes (or imagines) the way the moonlight appears to "lie / Into the water set on the table." Whatever the speaker's point of view, the verb "would lie" suggests a continuity in time from the first eight lines to the next three. Yet in line 12, the verb "have dipped" marks a transition to the present perfect tense, suggesting a change in both the time and focus of the poem. With the time-shift and the woman's sudden physical absence, the implication is that she has died.
The reader may consider a number of possibilities when interpreting the last lines. First, the personification of moonlight lying "into the water" might suggest a religious connotation—that of baptism, which marks a person's entry into the Christian faith. This suggestion coincides with the speaker's intent to be "faithful" to the phrase on the woman's cup, itself a religious saying: "Remember the Giver." But while the woman was apparently a believer, it is clear the speaker has doubts about religion. To him, the cup's phrase is an "admonition"—implying that he is guilty of not remembering the "Giver" to which the saying refers—and it is "fading off the lip." That he is "faithful" to something he seems not to believe suggest an irony that might seem flippant. Yet another implication must be considered: while the speaker—the poet—once was the "Giver," allowing the woman to use his well, now her memory has become the source of his poem. She is the "Giver" because the poet remembers her. In this sense the woman takes on a symbolic value that can be traced back through the sonnet. The idea of a female muse—and indeed of a female Ireland, traced back through the ancient goddess-cult—is one Heaney returns to throughout his work. In terms of this symbolic system, the poem may address the maturing process of the poet himself, the "aging" of his muse, his "Giver," who like all things must someday fade and die.
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