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In “The Sharping Stone,” Heaney returns to the earthen materials that first composed the subject matter of his poems. The item named in the poem’s title, a sharping stone, is an instrument used to sharpen metal objects like knives, scissors, and axes. This whetstone also recalls blades used by woodsmen to fell trees and by carvers to hew timber into furniture and other objects for human use. In the first stanza, the poet recovers the sharping stone from within an apothecary’s drawer as he packs up the now deceased man’s possessions. Intended as a gift for the older man, its future use is called into question.

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In scope, the poem travels from present to past, from Ireland to other countries, and projects into a future time and place: the land of the dead. Engaged in the act of retrieving the whetstone from a cedar drawer, the poet ponders where next to place this tool. In the second stanza, memory guides the poet to a forest park and to two tree trunks “Prepared for launching, at right angles across / A causeway of short fence-posts set like rollers.” A side excursion to the Louvre Museum in Paris temporarily displaces both Ireland and wooden objects from the poem. The poet recalls an Etruscan clay double sarcophagus, one intended for the burial of a married couple. The image on its casing displays husband and wife, two figures recumbent and content. As the stanza closes, the image is revealed to adorn a postcard sent to the father, who claimed it among his possessions, and in this manner the focus of the poem returns to the wooden drawer and its contents.

The image of a ship set to launch, introduced in the second stanza, returns in the fifth. The poet ponders placing the sharping stone in its drawer and allowing both to drift downriver, recalling Viking rituals of sending the dead out to sea with provisions for the afterlife. Drawers, coffins, and boats are repositories for objects, whether sharping stones, corpses, or passengers. The instruments that the artisans employed to craft these containers were sharpened by whetstones similar to the one the poet has retrieved. What connects sharping stone to tool, and tool to drawer, and the wooden objects to each other, is the human crafter. Nature provides for people and people craft natural materials into serviceable objects to accommodate their journeys, which inevitably reach death. That Heaney considers forwarding the sharping stone to the deceased...

(The entire section contains 587 words.)

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