A Drink of Water Analysis
by Seamus Heaney

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Historical Context

(Poetry for Students)

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In The Government of the Tongue: Selected Prose 1978-1987, Heaney describes the contrary demands that "Song and Suffering" place upon a poet. In a question that has long puzzled poets, he wonders if his primary allegiance as an artist is to beauty or to truth. Especially when read outside its political context, "A Drink of Water" may seem to be a rather nostalgic, overly dreamy poem, too much "Song" and "beauty" and too little "Suffering" and "truth." Yet, it is important to keep in mind the campaigns of violence that form the poem's backdrop in order to see how the poem's peaceful evocations of childhood stand in contrast to contemporary realities.

Among the landmark moments in the violence that has plagued Northern Ireland was "Bloody Sunday," January 30, 1972. In November, the Irish Republican Army (IRA), a Catholic terrorist organization dedicated to independence for Northern Ireland, killed eleven unarmed soldiers. On "Bloody Sunday," British paratroopers killed thirteen unarmed civil rights marchers in Derry. The world viewed these murders with outrage. In addition to Heaney's own poems on the subject, other artistic responses include the Irish band U2's song "Sunday Bloody Sunday."

In his poetry and essays, Heaney is always quick to point out the various absurdities of violence. For example, in "Casualty," a poem that appears with "A Drink of Water" in Field Work, Heaney elegizes a fellow Catholic who was murdered by Catholics. On the day of the funeral for those killed on January 30, the Irish Republican Army sets a curfew. However, the victim in Heaney's poem decides to go to the bar only to be killed by another Catholic's bomb.

This violence in Northern Ireland continued throughout the 1970s in spurts and even during more hopeful periods of relative calm. In his book, Seamus Heaney: The Making of a Poet, the scholar Michael Parker cites some illustratively grim statistics. In 1975 and 1976, while Heaney wrote many of the poems that would comprise Field Work, sectarian violence in Northern Ireland killed more than 545 people and inflicted major injuries upon more than 5,000 people. Among those killed were cousins of Heaney's.

In 1980, one year after Field Work was published, the strife in Northern Ireland again received worldwide attention, as several prisoners in favor of independence from England went on a hunger strike, demanding the status of political prisoners. The American press tended to report the situation as a kind "war of wills" between the hunger strikers and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Eventually ten hunger strikers died. In Section IX of Heaney's "Station Island," one of the deceased describes the agony of his death: "My brain dried like spread turf, my stomach / Shrank to a cinder and tightened and cracked."

Literary Style

(Poetry for Students)

"A Drink of Water" is a sonnet, a traditional poetic form characterized by its fourteen-line length and its use of a set rhyme scheme. Although there are many variations on the sonnet form, most are based on the two major types: Petrarchan (Italian) and Shakespearean (English). In different ways, "A Drink of Water" resembles both. While its rhyme scheme is that of the Shakespearean form—three quatrains rhyming or half-rhyming abab cdcd efef, followed by a couplet rhyming gg—its thematic division most closely follows the Petrarchan model. In this type of sonnet, the first eight lines, or the octave, generally present some kind of question, doubt, desire, or vision of the ideal. The last six lines, or the sestet, generally answer the question, ease the doubt, satisfy the desire, or fulfill the vision. In Heaney's poem, the first eight lines examine the image of the old woman who comes to the speaker's well to collect water. The octave's images are filled with reminders of old age and death. In the sestet, the sonnet shifts to night, focusing on the image of the woman's moonlit water-bucket and her cup that bears the inscription "Remember the Giver." Now the woman is dead, and while the speaker once was the "giver," allowing the woman to draw from his well, now it is he that remembers and she that gives—in the form of memories and poetic inspiration.

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Poetry for Students)

Andrews, Elmer, "Field Work," in his The Poetry of Seamus Heaney: All the Realms of Whisper, London: Macmil-lan Press Ltd., 1988, 219 p.

DuPlessis, Rachel Blau, "Thinking about Annie Finch, On Female Power and the Sonnet," (How)ever, Vol. 1, No. 3, Summer 1991, p. 16.

Fitzgerald, Robert, "Seamus Heaney: An Appreciation," in New Republic, March 27, 1976, pp. 27-9.

Green, Carlanda, "The Feminine Principle in Seamus Heaney's Poetry," in Seamus Heaney, edited by Harold Bloom, New Haven, CT: Chelsea House, 1986, p. 149.

Heaney, Seamus, Field Work, London: Faber, 1979, p. 14.

Heaney, Seamus, The Government of the Tongue: Selected Prose 1978-1987, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988.

Heaney, Seamus, interview with Frank Kinahan in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 8, No. 3, Spring 1982, pp. 405-14.

Heaney, Seamus, interview with James Randall in Ploughshares, Vol. 5, No. 3, 1979, pp. 21.

Heaney, Seamus, interview with John Haffenden in Viewpoints, London: Faber, 1981, p. 66.

Morrison, Blake, Seamus Heaney, London: Methuen, 1982, p. 82.

Parker, Michael, Seamus Heaney: The Making of the Poet, London: Macmillian, 1993.

Vendler, Helen, Seamus Heaney, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

For Further Study
Andrews, Elmer, The Poetry of Seamus Heaney: All the Realms of Whisper, London: Macmillan Press, 1988.
Andrews analyzes Heaney's poetry and identifies its primary themes through the 1985 collection Station Island.

Buttell, Robert, Seamus Heaney, Cranberry, NJ: Associated University Presses, Inc., 1975.
Provides critical analyses of the poems included in Heaney's first three volumes and considers how Heaney's personal experience and literary education have influenced his poetry.

Hildebidle, John, "A Decade of Seamus Heaney's Poetry," The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 28, No. 3, autumn 1987, pp. 393-409.
Hildebidle describes Heaney's exploration of both personal experience and Irish history in his poetry.

Parker, Michael, Seamus Heaney: The Making of the Poet, Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 1993.
Provides historical contexts and analyzes the biographical, literary, and political influences within Heaney's poetry.

Compare and Contrast

(Poetry for Students)

1972: Fourteen men die after British troops open fire on a civil rights demonstration in Deny. Later in the year, the IRA sets off a series of bombs in the capital of Belfast that kill 11 people.

1979: The IRA assassinates Earl Mountbatten, a World War II hero and a cousin of England's Queen Elizabeth.

1981: Ten IRA prisoners gain worldwide attention and become martyrs when they die in a hunger strike.

1985: The Anglo-Irish Agreement allows the Republic of Ireland's government a consultant's role in matters concerning Northern Ireland.

1993: The Downing Street Declaration, presented by Irish leader Albert Reynolds and British Prime Minister John Major, stipulates that the people of Northern Ireland will decide their own future. Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA, is promised roles in peace talks if they declare a cease-fire.

1996: Former U.S. Senator George Mitchell chairs multiparty peace talks concerning Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein joins the talks in 1997.

1998: Britain announces an independent inquiry into the "Bloody Sunday" killings of 1972. In April, Northern Ireland's political leaders negotiate a deal that includes retaining ties with Great Britain while still having self-rule in Northern Ireland. The plan is presented to voters, who overwhelmingly approve it.

Media Adaptations

(Poetry for Students)

In 1994 Faber and Faber released a cassette of Heaney reading his poems along with several other poets.

In Harvard College's 1990 recording Heaney reads not only his work but also selections from other poets, including Yeats, Shakespeare, and Wyatt.

The Lannan Foundation produced a videotape of Heaney reading from his Selected Poems and talking about his poems and Irish political history. The conversation took place in 1991, the year the video was also released.