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Studies on Seamus Heaney

Jacqueline Genet

The ways of the possible a textual analysis of "gifts of rain" by Seamus Heaney

Adolphe Haberer

Texte intégral

1Written in 1971, published in Wintering Out, one of the few poems selected by Heaney for the Faber Poetry Cassette and therefore probably one he likes reading in public, Gifts of Rain, upon a first reading of the Selected Poems is one of the texts that arrest our attention. This first poetic experience, "lived, illiterate and unconscious", if we adapt Heaney’s expression about the sense of place, has little to do with meaning as such: all I can do is point out a number of passages — an "image", a rhythm heard, the music of one particular line, a single word — to which I am called back insistently; all I can do to answer that call is go back to the poem, read it again, read it slowly — "not reading with the eye but loud, leisurely, poetical (not rhetorical) recitation, with long rests, long dwells on the rhyme and other marked syllabes, and so on", as Hopkins required that one of his sonnets should be read.

2It is a difficult poem. Can any arresting poem be easy? With Gifts of Rain, however, the difficulty could be perfunctorily attributed to the fact it is made up of 4 sections, a fact that immediately raises the question of its unity, of the interplay of differences and echoes, ruptures and relations, continuity and discontinuity. It could also be related to the syntactic ambiguity of the title which opens up an initial space for the reader’s hesitations and waverings, his wonder and puzzlement: are we to understand, indeed, that rain is given, or that Rain is the giver? The consequence of that ambiguity is of course to separate the shifting, elusive meaning (the signified) and the signifier, give more relief and substance to the latter, create what Poe called "indefinitiveness of meaning" and set the

Gifts of Rain


Cloudburst and steady downpour now for days.
Still mammal,
straw-footed on the mud,
he begins to sense weather
5 by his skin.

A nimble snout of flood
licks over stepping stones
and goes uprooting.
He fords
his life by sounding.


A man wading lost fields
breaks the pane of flood:

a flower of mud-
water blooms up to his reflection

5 like a cut swaying
its red spoors through a basin.

His hands grub
where the spade has uncastled

sunken drills, an atlantis
10 he depends on. So

he is hooped to where he planted
and sky and ground

are running naturally among his arms
that grope the cropping land.


When rains were gathering
there would be an all-night
roaring off the ford.
Their world-schooled ear

5 could monitor the usual
confabulations, the race
slabbering past the gable,
the Moyola harping on

its gravel beds:
10 all spouts by daylight
brimmed with their own airs
and overflowed each barrel

in long tresses.
I cock my ear
15 at an absence --
in the shared calling of blood

arrives my need
for antediluvian lore.
Soft voices of the dead
20 are whispering by the shore

that I would question
(and for my children’s sake)
about crops rotted, river mud
glazing the baked clay floor.


The tawny guttural water
spells itself: Moyola
is its own score and consort,

bedding the locale
5 in the utterance,
reed music, an old chanter

breathing its mists
through vowels and history.
A swollen river,

10 a mating call of sound
rises to pleasure me. Dives,
hoarder of common ground.

3words free — Gifts of Rain, gifts of rain, gifts-of-rain ... until, with hardly any phonological modification, we hear something else, the same thing but different words — gifts-sovereign, Gift Sovereign.

4Meaning there is, though, even at a first reading, but in patches only, fragmented, problematic. Also a semantic cohesion founded upon the theme of water and the long series of words that have the seme of water in common (downpour, flood, fords and soundings; wading, flood, mud-water basin and atlantis, to mention only the most obvious in the first two sections). That semantic cohesion is reinforced by the way in which the theme and semes of water are related to those of earth (eg. mud, stepping-stones, drills, ground, cropping land, etc.). Since the so-called "elemental" approach is not the one I shall be using here, I may as well indicate right away one structural feature which would interest elementalists: each section begins with a reference to water:

I Cloudburst and steady downpour...
II A man wading lost fields...
III When rains were gathering...
II A man wading lost fields...
IV The tawny guttural water...

5Each is conclued by a word or syntagm which refers us to the element of earth (Soundings, cropping land, the baked clay floor, common ground); and the problematic relation between water and earth is evinced by the recurrent instances in which they are semantically blended or brought together (mud, stepping-stones, fords, soundings, wading, shore, etc.).

6The objection I have to this approach is that, unless when it is very carefully handled, it leads to the analysis of semantic series and oppositions that bear on words extracted from the context of the poem, and leaves out the poem as a verbal structure — signifier, syntax, rhythm, rhyme and all. Because its direct aim is the meaning of the poem, it tends to bring meaning from where meaning is easily available (the Jungian belief in a cosmic harmony in which everything is included and made significant) into the text.

  • 1 P., 63.

7Meaning is not the first purpose of poetry. When poets want to communicate ideas, they write essays and give lectures. And so Seamus Heaney did, repeatedly. Poetry is "speech framed to be heard for its own sake and interest over and above its interest of meanings", Hopkins once wrote. Meaning can only be the after-effect of an act of reading which combines the very active, precise and demanding analysis of the verbal structure of the poem and what Heaney, when he deals with the act of composition, calls "listening..., a wise passiveness, a surrender to energies that spring within the centre of the mind"1. Let us, therefore, in our first formal approach to Gifts of Rain, forget about any miraculous atlantis of meaning, desirable as it may be, and concentrate on the waters and stepping stones of the text. Let us go forth and accept the risks and hazards of the journey, fording our reading (not, like the man at the end of section I, our lives) by sounding. Soundings.

I. A formal approach to "Gifts of Rain"

A. Unity vs. Discontinuity

8One poem in four sections should be the starting point. The 4 sections, moreover, are unequal in length. The first technical difficulty encountered is in counting the lines of section I: according to poetic conventions, we count 9 lines, but who can be sure that this is conventional poetry? The counting of lines in the rest of the poem is easy:

I (9?) / II (14) / III (24) / IV (12)

9Thus, within a binary sequence (4 units), we observe a predominance of the odd and ternary in I and II, with figures that are irreductible to one another (9/14), then, in III and IV, figures that mark the return of the binary and of a correspondance (24/12). At that level already we note a progression towards integration and regularity.

  • 2 Eg., II, 12-14.

10Meter is irregular, though within limits; lines seem to carry from 2 to 4 main stresses and though a regular rhythm is sometimes perceived2 there is no general fixed pattern.

11The lay-out of the poem on the printed page, on the other hand, shows that each part is further divided into smaller textual units, stanzas or verse paragraphs:

Section I: not regular at all; marked by abrupt ruptures; the layout indicates a division into two verse paragraphs, the second one beginning with "A nimble snout of flood..."

Section II: a good deal more regular; the section is presented as a sequence of 7 pairs of lines, which could be described as free distichs. Note that two-line stanzas are not traditional, and that 14 lines altogether cannot but evoke the length of a sonnet.

Section III: six quatrains, which makes section III the longest and, as far as the visible lay-out is concerned, the most regular and traditional. Kinship, which could be read as a structural and thematic development of Gifts of Rain, is made of 6 sections of 6 quatrains each

Section IV: four tercets; a compromise between II and III? A three-line stanza is unsual, unless combined with a strict rhyme-scheme (terza rima), or part of the sestet in a sonnet.

B. The formal cohesion of the poem

12Apart from the general lay-out which shows the 4 sections to be parts of a sequence, there are many elements that contribute to the formal cohesion of the whole. Let us review the most important ones, bearing in mind that the semantic cohesion, important as it is, has no place here.

1. End-rhymes

13There is no rhyming pattern, but a number of end-rhymes are to be found. Their being scarce and irregular may sometimes confer a great force of emphasis to them:

14I have included ear/ear which, technically speaking, is a mere repetition, and disregarded the distance between the rhyming words. Apart from the relative increase in number with section III, the most important remark is about the linking of sections I, II, and III by the rhymes mud/flood, flood/mud, and blood/mud.

2. Lexical repetitions

15Leaving out those words already mentioned as rhyming repeatedly (mud, flood, ear), we note quite a large number of words repeated:

16"fords" (I, 8) / "ford" (III, 3)

17"over" (I, 7) / "overflowed" (III, 12)
"sounding" (I, 9) / "Soundings" (I, 9) / "sound" (IV, 10)
"water" (II, 4) / "water" (IV, 1)
"ground" (II, 12) / "ground" (IV, 12)
"cropping" (II, 14) / "crops" (III, 23)
"the Moyola" (III, 8) / "Moyola" (IV, 2)
"beds" (III, 9) / "bedding" (IV, 4)
"calling" (III, 16) / "call" (IV, 10)

18Each of these repetitions plays a part in the weaving together of the different elements of the text into a cohesive whole. Particularly forceful in itself is that found at the end of section I (sounding/Soundings), though its effects is not one of cohesion. Note, too, the positional importance of "ground" as last word of the final section.

3. Phonological repetitions

19Apart from those that correspond to end-rhymes or lexical repetitions, there are phonological parallels of all sorts in Gifts of Rain, alliterations and inner rhymes, assonances and consonances. Some, as we shall see further on, have a major structural function; the first effect produced by them all, however, is to enhance the concatenation of the signifier, give form, substance and texture to the "verbal contraption" of the poem. A few examples will be enough to illustrate what is meant by concatenation and texture: towards the end of section II, "his arms / that grope the cropping land", echoing "His hands grub..." and "sky and ground"; at the end of the poem, "an old chanter / breathing its mists / through vowels and history; more distantly, the rhyming of "A nimble snout" and of "all spouts" (I, 6 and II, 10).

4. The structural framing

20From "Cloudburst" (I, 1) to "ground" (IV, 12), the first and last words of Gifts of Rain, there is a complex phonological structure which relates the end to the beginning. What first claims our attention is the way in which the initial line shows forth a double mirror-effect, or phonological chiasmus. This is the line:

21Cloudburst and steady downpour now

22Leaving out the consonances in [st] and [d], and that between "-burst" and "-pour", I shall concentrate upon the enclosing effect of the two chiasmi, "cloud-" / "down-" ([dan]) and "down-" / "now" ([aun]: [nau]). They give the line its self-contained, cohesive structure (a self-contained cohesiveness which, at another level, the syntactic enjambment denies), a sort of normal autonomy which bears upon the signifier [daun] as a double arch bears upon a central pillar.

23Now the last word of the whole poem, "ground", makes up with "down-" another general, all-enclosing, chiasmus ([aund] / [daun]), the final end-rhyme "sound" / "ground" counterbalancing to some extent the extraordinary phonological density of line 1. The architectural simile, already used, might serve again to indicate that a first occurrence of "ground" (II, 12) constitutes a first intermediary pillar announcing the final closure of the all-encompassing arch.

24The same signifier [daun], finally, comes into play with the end of section I, and constitutes with "sounding. /Sounding" yet another enclosing chiasmus, with "snout" (I, 6) providing a sort of intermediary relay. In the same way as the end-rhyme "sound" / "ground" provided the necessary reinforcement to counterbalance line 1, the repetition, there ("sounding. / Sounding."), a very remarkable one as we shall see, gives more weight to the end of the section.

25The structural framing so far observed rests upon the particular configuration of line 1. Its effect is that of closure. It operates within three textual units, that of the line, that of the section, that of the whole poem. It can be summed up as follows:

26What the diagram shows fairly clearly is the repetition of the enclosing process, as if each attempt at closure, until the final one, was seen to fail.

27Still bearing upon phonological repetitions and playing a part in the structural framing of Gifts of Rain, there is the way in which the first two lines of section II are echoed by the last two lines of section III and constitute a sort of positional chiasmus:

A man wading lost fields
breaks the pane of flood (II, 1-2)


about crops rotted, river mud
glazing the baked clay floor (III, 23-24)

29The parallel can be summed up as follows

30If one represents the four sections of Gifts of Rain as four segments on an horizontal line, the enclosing effect of this chiasmic parallel appears quite clearly:

31To sum up, the formal study of Gifts of Rain leads to two major remarks. The first is that the beginning of the poem is marked by a great phonological cohesiveness, which is maintained but becomes looser (framing of line 1, of section I, of the text as a whole. The second is that, with end-rhymes, parallels and repetitions, each of the following three sections is related to the first one within a general pattern that confers on the poem some degree of formal unity or cohesiveness. Such a conclusion may sound rather vague and limited in scope: it is the basis upon which the semantic reading of Gifts of Rain can now be worked out; it is the foundation of its general structure which corresponds to a process of integration and substitution.

II. The structure of the poem: integration and substitution

32What I would like to show is that the four sections of Gifts of Rain do not merely make up a sequence of the type A + B + C + D, but that section I stands out at the beginning as something different and unique to which the three following sections are related; the formula of the sequence, therefore, could be given as X/A + B + C. For me the part played by section I is to give a figure to the impossible (to the real) upon which the three following sections are articulated as explorations of the ways of the possible.

A. Section I as a figure of the impossible

  • 3 Serge Leclaire, Démasquer le reel, Seuil, 1971, p. 22.

33The proposition implied by the expression "figure of the impossible" is that, though by definition the impossible is impossible to represent or symbolize, it can be obliquely referred to and given, like Leclaire’s "semblants du manque", a textual metaphoric form3. That form, here, is that of a short poem that resists integration and comprehension.

1. A poem that resists integration

34The resistance to integration is manifested by flaws and ruptures in the formal and syntactic cohesiveness. At a first level this is shown in the breaking up of lines 2, 8 and 9. At a second level, the phonological framing studied above, with the closure at the end ("sounding. Soundings.") of the chiasmus opened in line 1 ("cloudburst and steady down pour now"), leaves out the final unstressed syllable of the last repeated word ("sounding. Soundings"); the insistant, emphatic attempt at neatly enclosing the whole structure fails emphatically.

35The third level is that of the syntax. The first four sentences fall into a binary structure in which S 1 + S 2 is repeated by S 3 + S 4, a parallel which corresponds to the division of the section into 2 verse paragraphs. S 1 and S 3, though different, are both descriptive of the rain; S 2 and S 4 have the same pronoun he as subject. This parallel structure leaves out S 5, the elliptic, nominal, one-word final sentence: "Soundings".

36Quite significantly, as we shall see below, the only signifier which takes part in the metrical, phonological and syntactic resistance to formal integration is the last one - "sounding", or "Soundings".

2. A poem that resists comprehension

37Semantically speaking, S 1 and S 3 offer no difficulty worth mentioning. Not so S 2 and S 4. The first problem is that of the identity of the referent behind the subject he; to say that the referent is found later, at the beginning of section II, is no acceptable solution since we are dealing here with the formal and semantic cohesiveness of section I. Not only is there no referent for he, but the rest of S 2 raises the problem of the identity of that referent further. Are we to understand, with "Still mammal", that he is soon to lose that quality and turn oviparous or something? Is "straw-footed" an original metaphor? Is it indicative of a great fragility, descriptive of the way peasants used to stuff their clogs with straw to keep their feet warm, or is it an obscure reference to the way young army recruits used to be drilled (strawfoot/hayfoot)? What can be meant, finally, by "he begins to sense weather / by his skin", if not the return to some form of instinctual pattern of life and the corresponding loss of humanity?

  • 4 SP., 54.

38As for S 4, "He fords / his life by sounding", there may be something almost exhilarating in the way the enjambment seems to correspond to a safe crossing of the river. The introduction of the notion of life, though, cannot but bring into the semantic effect of the metaphor that of death, and with the stepping-stones now flooded and invisible the fording of life by sounding means a blind, precarious progress over the waters of death. Surely, as with the bogholes at the end of "Bogland", "The wet centre is bottomless"4; if the stones of the ford can be sounded, the rest is unsoundable, unfathomable, and, since it is limitless, impossible to comprehend. Like death itself.

39In this context the final sentence, "Soundings", reduced as it is to a single signifier which, as we have seen, breaks up at three different levels the formal cohesiveness of section I, constitutes an irreducible enigma. The dictionary is no great help: "soundings" may mean the taking of measurements, or waters where the bottom can be sounded with a hand sounding line (hence the phrases "in soundings" and "out of soundings"). With life and death at stake, the elliptic final sentence is so vague and obscure that it can be said not only to defeat comprehension but to mark the end of the possibility of meaning and of representation. "Soundings", in more ways that one, is unbearable. It is the word upon which rests most of that paradoxical figure of the impossible presented by section I. It is, in the last analysis, an addition which means the loss of everything.

B. Section II: the restoration of representation the descriptive mode

40The restoration of a formal regularity in the order of the lines goes with the restoration of the referent and of the process of representation. "A man wading lost fields", though an anonymous (and pathetic) figure, raises none of the problems examined when dealing with the impossible He of section I (Crashaw’s "not impossible she", on the contrary, is the object of pleasant dreams and fantasies).

41Loss there is at the beginning, even the loss of images with the breaking of the flood’s mirror, but loss is represented, turned into a pretty vignette, an object of esthetic enjoyment -almost a Keatsian "thing of beauty". Here is the beginning of the description:

A man wading lost fields
breaks the pane of flood:

a flower of mud-
water blooms up to his reflection

like a cut swaying
its red spoors through a basin.

42No explicit relation is made between the impossible He and the man "wading lost fields". With the formal link provided by the rhymes (mud/flood and flood/mud) and the semantic parallel ("He fords his life" / "A man wading"), however, the undeniable effect is one of relief since the reader’s desire is to assume that they both have the same referent: with the restoration of representation, the possible has been substituted for the impossible, the endurable for the unbearable.

43In the rest of section II, moreover, what is represented leaves no room for any sense of loss: the man "wading lost fields" finds what he is looking for -- the crop of potatoes in the flooded fields which is suggested by the Irish context under the decorative cover of the metaphors:

His hands grub
where the spade has uncastled

sunken drills, an atlantis
he depends on.

44But are only potatoes involved? The metaphors are not merely ornamental and the choice of "uncastled" is not indifferent: the word carries connotations of value and difficulty and refers us to a rich medieval context of quests and captures, while the signifier significantly relates the loss and the recovery ("the spade has uncastled / sunken drills"). As for the reference to the legendary perfect city of Atlantis, its effect is to open up a vast intertextual perspective and reactivate one of the myths which best formulates man’s desire in its relation to an impossible object.

45The closure of section II is semantically achieved with the sense that now, as at the end of one of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets, "All losses are restor’d and sorrows end". The man is now part of an integrated harmonious natural landscape. The mirror of flooded fields is no longer broken, so that both ground and (reflected) sky "are running naturally among his arms".

46No mention is made of the rain, or of water, and the final sense of harmony is also that of the plenitude of the fertile earth. Closure and harmony are also formally signified by the first occurrence of "ground" in the chiasmatic structure analysed above, on the one hand; on the other by the sudden iambic regularity of the rhythm with which the description ends:

and sky and ground
are running naturally among his arms
that grope the cropping land

C. Section III: loss narrated and the autobiographical mode

47This section is clearly based upon an opposition between two successive and slightly uneven parts, and the main terms of that opposition can be listed as follows:

Part 1 (1-13)
Time past
(They), their
knowledge of Nature
"their world-schooled ead"
the iterative would (line 2)

Part 2 (14-24)
I, my
Lack of knowledge
"I cock my ear at an absence
need, lack
the modal would of vain desire (line 21)

48Formally related to section I by a number of lexical and phonological recurrences (the rhyme "blood" / "mud, the word "ford", "spouts" echoing "snout", "overflowed" repeating most of "flood" / (licks) over"), section III, structurally, stands in a relation of substitution to the beginning of Gifts of Rain. Continuity between the end of section II and the beginning of section III, if there is any, is less important that the articulation of the autobiographical narrative to the initial figure of the impossible. Loss there is again, but loss accounted for, loss made bearable, loss experienced against a background of remembered happiness.

49Childhood is presented, mutatis mutandis, in a traditional romantic way as the time of plenitude and harmony. With Wordsworth, the poet could almost declare: "nature then (...) / To me was all in all". Childhood was the time when fears could be eased because everything in Nature was meaningful and the elders knew how to decipher the messages of the rain and of the Moyola:

When rains were gathering
there would be an all-night
roaring off the ford.
Their world-schooled ear

could monitor the usual
confabulations, the race
slabbering past the gable,
the Moyola harping on

its gravel beds...

50The plenitude of meaning at night, when water was invisible and all sound, is parallelled by a Keatsian plenitude of beauty when water, by daylight, became visible and "overflowed each barrel / in long tresses" — an abundance made poetically visible by the enjambment of the syntagm overflowing both line and stanza.

51Adulthood, on the contrary, before it is even reconstructed as what is referred to by the second part of the section, is characterized by absence and loss. The structure of stanza 4, now taken as a unit of signification, gives form to the sense of severance that goes with the abrupt change in syntax and meaning:

in long tresses.
I cock my ear
at an absence -

52Like the long tresses now cut off from the preceding stanzas, adulthood is cut off from the natural harmony of the waters of childhood. Absence, ever so briefly, is given its unbearable vacant figure of speechlessness in the simple dash that follows it ("absence --"), with something of the dissolution of all reference and all representation we noted about "Soundings", before it is related to the formulation of desire, and made to make sense:

I cock my ear
at an absence —
in the shared calling of blood

arrives my need
for antediluvian lore.

53The sense of loss and absence, however, is no occasion for any violent expression of grief. Absence is related to presence, death to life, kinship ("the shared calling of blood") and filiation ("my children"). Though the dead are dead and cannot be summoned or questioned, their soft voices can still be heard "whispering by the shore". If "antediluvian lore" has been lost, there is no poignancy in that loss: "antediluvian lore" refers to something vague, very ancient, probably obsolete by now; the choice of the adjective, in the context of a poem entitled Gifts of Rain, is more evocative of academic witticisms than the wrath of God; lastly, the signifier is poetically well integrated, by means of alliteration ("antedi/uvian lore") and rhyme ("lore" / "shore" / "floor").

  • 5 See the admirable "Sunlight", itself articulated upon an initial "sunlit absence": SP., 98.

54Loss is again played down, and suffering alleviated, with the question the poet would like to ask "about crops rotted, river mud / glazing the baked clay floor". Even if emotionally charged, like all allusions to his early childhood at Mossbawn5, what the question is actually about is felt to be apparently insignificant. With the waters now gone, leaving behind them a mirror more lasting than the "pane of flood", meaning seems to have withdrawn as the signifier was becoming more insistent and proclaimed the solidity and self-containedness of the poetic structure: the last two lines, in themselves an example of the poetic reification of language discussed by Jakobson, concentrate upon themselves an extraordinary sense of closure and formal achievement (closure of the chiasmic parallel with the beginning of section II; closure of the rhyme "blood" / "mud" and, more distantly, of the figure made by "mud" / "flood" / "flood" / "mud" / "blood" / "mud"; closure of the triple rhyme "lore" / "shore" / "floor").

55In section II, the representation of loss was followed by the staging of recovery, and the closure of the section was mainly the semantic effect of the final image of integration and harmony. In section III, the narrative structure posits an original unity and presence in the past, succeeded in the present by loss and absence; closure is made possible because loss is euphemized, the poignancy of absence toned down, and it is formally achieved at the end when the narrative structure is taken up by the poetic structure.

D. Section IV: presence celebrated and the lyrical mode

56Signalled by the alliteration in [t] which is framed, in line 1, by one more phonological chiasmus ("tawny" / "water"), unity and presence are what is meant by the beginning of section IV:

The tawny gutteral wafer
spells itself; Moyola
is its own score and consort...

  • 6 Christopher Ricks, The Force of Poetry, Clarendon Press, 1984, 51.

57Those lines are quoted by Christopher Ricks6 in an essay on "reflexive imagery" in the poetry of Marvell (a figure of speech which Empson called the self-inwoven simile).

  • 7 Lang-Wedge, as William Carlos Williams memorably called it.
  • 8 See Mimologiques, Seuil, 1976.

58The semantic effect of such syntactically marked reflexivity ("itself", "its own") suggests the complete self-containedness of the river Moyola. What is implied by the idea that the water spells its own name is no less than the bridging of the gap of language7 between word and referent. As for Genette’s Cratylists who believe that language is motivated, Moyola is no arbitrary linguistic sign but the natural sound produced by the "guttural water"8. Unity and self-containedness are further signified by the second "reflexive image": "Moyola / is its own score and consort"; it is at the same time the written musical text and the ensemble of performing instruments, and it is also said to be, in line 6, both "music" and "chanter" (chanter meaning either singer or the reed pipe of the Uileann pipes, the Irish bagpipe).

59With the dissolution of the fundamental differences between sign and referent, and between text and utterance, everything becomes blurred and fused together. In the context of section IV, this is perhaps the dominant semantic effect of the metaphor of the Moyola as

an old chanter

breathing its mists
through vowels and history

60Such an interpretation can be supported by the paronomasia through which the phonological repetition noted in "its mists" and "history seems to become significant, and history to dissolve and lose itself in the general in-distinctiveness. History being, for Stephen Dedalus as well as for many Irish people, a nightmare from which they are trying to awake, this could be a dissolution... "devoutly to be wish’d".

61The theme of sexual union is related to that of the dissolution of all the differences in language, and of language itself. Sexual union is first hinted at in line 3 because of the double meaning of "consort". It becomes explicit in stanza 2 with the Moyola "bedding the locale / in the utterance". It finds its full development and expansion in the climactic final sentence of the poem:

A swollen river,

a mating call of sound
rises to pleasure me, Dives,
hoarder of common ground

  • 9 See III, 8.

62The structurally repeated and rhyming mud, present as we saw in each of the first three sections, is not to be found in section IV. Neither is there any mention of the flood. Moyola, without the definite article it had before9, is no longer an ordinary river: it (or he? ) has become an original figure of the principle of water, and the poem celebrates in the end the emblematic marriage of water and earth.

63Throughout section IV presence is celebrated. Moyola being both sign and referent, the music of the water spelling itself in the name, quite logically the utterance of Moyola is given great evocative power. The syntax, by the way, typically combines the present tense and a systematic expansion of the noun in a mode of poetic discourse which we might call the lyrical mode of praise - a mode best exemplified, perhaps, by the celebration of the Irish bog in the second section of Kinship. There is no need to define the lyrical mode strictly here: it is enough to remember that literary genres and modes do not exist as such but within a system of oppositions and differences; the final section of Gifts of Rain is lyrical in tone mainly because of the contrast it makes with the descriptive mode of section II and the narrative mode of section III; and the sort of paean sung in praise of the Moyola is markedly referred to the poet’s desire, to such an extent that, as "Dives", / hoarder of common ground", he becomes a party to the final sexual reunion.

64The formal closure of section IV is achieved by the end-rhyme "sound"/ "ground" in the last stanza. It does not seal the unity of the last section, though, but that of the general formal structure of the whole poem inaugurated with "Cloudburst and steady downpour now". The formal closure coincides with a final emphatic formulation of possession and plenitude. In terms of lack or loss, whatever the exact meaning of "hoarder of common ground", all the elements of the last sentence concur to produce the same global sense of having. In that respect, considering the semantic organisation of the whole, section IV emphatically operates the recovery of what had been narrated as lost in section III -- "the Moyola harping on / its gravel beds" (III, 8-9) being now back as "Moyola... / bedding the locale" (IV, 2-4).

65From an opaque initial vision to a resplendent conclusion, from the unbearable loss of meaning and bearings to the final exhilarating sense of triumphant possession, the semantic structure of Gifts of Rain is one of progress and gain. With the rain as referential agent of that progress, and with the waters of the "swollen river" as substantial manifestation of that gain, the title of the poem receives an undeniable a posteriori justification: the rain is both giver and gift - a supreme gift, unmitigated, unsurpassed, unrestricted, a gift-sovereign indeed.

66In the course of my reading of Gifts of Rain, section after section, I observed the complex interplay of the formal and semantic dimensions of the poem’s structure. After section I and the failed attempt at maintaining the self-contained formal solidity of the first line, "Cloudburst and steady downpour now", after the failed attempt at providing that first textual unit with a proper closure in order to contain what we analysed as a figure of the impossible, sections II, III and IV, illustrative as they are of the descriptive, narrative and lyrical modes of writing, were three successive explorations of the verbal possibilities of integration and unification. Failure in section I was followed by success in the following sections, especially in terms of closure: section II was closed with a representation of unity and harmony (semantic closure); section III with the gradual dissolution of the sense of absence and loss and a powerful system of phonological repetition (formal closure); section IV, as we saw, produces at the end an emphatic sense of completion and achievement with the combination of the semantic and formal modes of closure.

  • 10 East Coker, v. 7-8.

67A totally successful poem, then? The question may well be asked, but it is not easy to answer. Leaving aside the aesthetic judgments that each reader has a right to pass, I would say that it successfully stages an impossible success. Indeed the ways of the possible are open to the explorations of the poet only because they are related to some impossible. Without the impossible that raises limits and differences, nothing could be produced. "Il n’y a que le réel qui soit parlant", says Lacan, meaning that language itself and the desire to speak or write are hinged upon the impossible. Remember T.S. Eliot, for whom each poem was a new attempt at reducing the impossible, "each venture / ... a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate"10.

68The figure of the impossible we found, notably in the last word of section I, "Soundings", is not the impossible. No text can say what lies beyond the limits of language. All that "Soundings" does is to mimic within the structure of the text the function played by the unspeakable impossible. What the poem eventually integrates is but a counterfeit.

69What admirable pretence, though. To the point that the "sound" / "ground" final enclosing rhyme twice reduces the figure of the impossible: "ground" is semantically substituted for "Soundings", leaving us safely on dry land, away from the waters of death; and "sound" is formally substituted for "Soundings" as if the dropping of a suffix ("-ings", anagrammatic of sing) was sufficient to substitute the order of poetic writing ("sound") for the impossible disorder of the real.


1 P., 63.

2 Eg., II, 12-14.

3 Serge Leclaire, Démasquer le reel, Seuil, 1971, p. 22.

4 SP., 54.

5 See the admirable "Sunlight", itself articulated upon an initial "sunlit absence": SP., 98.

6 Christopher Ricks, The Force of Poetry, Clarendon Press, 1984, 51.

7 Lang-Wedge, as William Carlos Williams memorably called it.

8 See Mimologiques, Seuil, 1976.

9 See III, 8.

10 East Coker, v. 7-8.

© Presses universitaires de Caen, 1987

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