A Drink of Water Essays and Criticism
by Seamus Heaney

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Portrayal of the Turmoils in Irish History

(Poetry for Students)

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"The Irish thing," as Nobel Prize-winner Heaney calls it in one of his poems, never seems to go away, both in Heaney's poetry and in his personal life. In stanza after stanza, Heaney addresses the political and religious conflicts of his birthplace—the blood, the gore, and the deep divisions between neighbors.
Heaney's poetry and prose also reveal a strong need to depict a personal heritage. He must write about the land, the heritage of the farm, and his father's spade. He must make poems out of the numerous wells, hills, and schoolrooms of his childhood. As a poet of the land and a poet of the nation, Heaney has a double mission, and this tension of being pulled in different directions may partially explain Heaney's power as a writer.

None of this is lost on Heaney. In his writing and conversation, Heaney frequently describes the pull of Ireland's beauty and the pain of her troubled history as he ponders his role as a poet. In everything from a Nobel acceptance speech to newspaper reviews of others' poetry books, he asks himself: Is the poet obligated to take a stand? What is poetry's "job," anyway? Sometimes, it seems that Heaney is clawing for a poet's right to simply sing, to spend a page praising a tiny white cup. Sometimes, as in the poem "Act of Union," everything from a woman's body to the countryside's rolling hills seems doused in imperialism and political strife.

In "A Drink of Water," written when Heaney was already an established poet and an established destination for journalists looking for views on "the Irish thing," there are several signs of a man caught between two competing forces. The first sign is form. The fourteen lines are in English sonnet form, clearly not an Irish form, though the subject is a seemingly Irish woman. Heaney is using the oppressor's language and the oppressor's form to depict an Irish scene. While this paradox might seem subtle at the beginning of the poem, it will get more and more obvious as the poem goes on.

One of Heaney's trademarks is the use of agricultural, natural images that allude to larger issues. Here, he begins a poem that takes place in the outdoors with a simply worded title that doubles as a request—"a drink of water." The opening two lines are similarly low-key, describing a daily scene in a country location:

She came every morning to draw water Like
an old bat staggering up the field

The words "every morning" indicate routine, something done over and over—like the sonnet form itself.

The title reinforces that sense of routine, since "a drink of water" is something to be had over and over. However, the second line gives much more information and changes the tone completely. Heaney is expanding the vista, as he often does. "Like an old bat staggering up the field" reveals the woman is probably old and that whatever she is doing is labor for her. It is difficult, and so the poem will to some extent address difficulty.

Heaney tends to use certain words, such as "north," "digging," and "union"; "field" is another word that appears often. Here, "field" provides the first sense of place in the poem, and it establishes a rural feeling—a country ode. "Up the field" means the woman is walking uphill. The first two lines are all visual, but by the third line, sound— what is heard—is introduced.

The pump's whooping cough, the bucket's clatter
And slow diminuendo as it filled, Announced her.

"Whooping cough" is a fabulous example of the power of personification when it is combined with an element of surprise. "Whooping cough" is a loud, distinctive noise. In addition, "whooping cough" implies severe illness or poverty and fits with "staggering," "old," and the general sense of struggle. The third line makes it clear that for this woman, the seemingly simple task of procuring a drink of water is in fact a difficult task.

What's "coughing" here, though, is not the old woman, but the pump itself, perhaps in sympathy. The speaker must know that particular pump intimately well to use a...

(The entire section is 3,330 words.)