A Drink of Water Themes
by Seamus Heaney

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A Drink of Water Themes

(Poetry for Students)

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Field Work is filled with elegies, some poignant, others gruesome, for victims of "The Troubles," the resurgent violence that swept through Northern Ireland in the 1970s. As many readers have noted, "A Drink of Water" appears a bit anomalous in this volume. Instead of contemplating the recent violence's terrible effects, the poem returns to a literally and metaphorically more peaceful time. In this childhood remembrance, the poet draws sustenance from the memory of kindness. To put this idea in slightly different terms, memory acts as refreshment in a time of violence.

The poem begins simply, with a conversational tone and a simile that establishes a high degree of familiarity and intimacy: "She came every morning to draw water / Like an old bat staggering up the field." The underlying tenderness cannot be missed; the speaker knows not only the woman's routine but also her particular gate and the various sounds the pump and the bucket make. Even the less-than-flattering comparison of the woman to "an old bat" underscores the shared intimacy. This gentle gibe does not mock her but celebrates the admirably determined way she carries out her morning chores.

The next several lines pursue a similar strategy. The speaker conjures the woman by remembering various details about her: her apron down to its color, the particular "treble / Creak of her voice." These are details stored from years of watching. The poem moves to a moment of illumination within darkness, as when "a full moon" shines upon the water. The speaker peers into the house from outside of it.

Ultimately, the poem argues that to remember is to remain faithful. Honoring the woman's care-taking, the poet fulfills the injunction etched upon her cup, "Remember the Giver." Memory also acts as a kind of sacramental renewal, returning the speaker to his boyhood days. He drinks from the water of memory and, by doing so, lets memory refresh his spirit.

Typically for a Heaney poem, nature furthers this process of renewal. Raised on a family farm, Heaney, like his poetic model William Wordsworth, often depicts nature as a force for regeneration from the miseries of modern life. The woman draws water by hand from deep within the earth; the moon illuminates it so the young boy can catch a glimpse of the pail. The intervening years place a considerable distance between the poet's boyhood state of what one might call "innocence" and his more mature understanding of life's difficulties and frustrations. When the poet casts back to the family farm, though, he dips again into its reservoir of comfort and safety.

"A Drink of Water" is a sonnet, the most distinguished and popular metrical form in English-language verse. A sonnet consists of fourteen-lines; it may, or may not, adhere to traditional rhyme schemes. From the sonnet's origins in Renaissance Italy to its recent revisions by modern poets, one of the major themes that poems in this form express is love.

In "A Drink of Water," the depicted love is familial, not amorous as in many other sonnets. Perhaps the best analogy is one that "A Drink of Water" implicitly draws: the poem as a toast. A toast is an act of love: one only toasts those of whom one feels fondly. Yet, if shared affection inspires a toast, it also requires a certain level of formality. As wedding attendees know only too well, the best man usually begins his required duty with a amiable joke about the groom, moves to a more tender illustration of the bride and groom's compatibility, then concludes with a wish for their continued happiness. In "A Drink of Water," the sonnet form also gives a certain degree of formality to the proceedings; the depicted love follows a well-established tradition of poems in this form about this subject. Just as the memory refreshes the speaker, the sonnet form inspires the poet, guiding his thoughts into a fully formed poem.