Sunday, July 1, 2012


By Seamus Heaney

A rowan like a lipsticked girl.
Between the by-road and the main road
Alder trees at a wet and dripping distance
Stand off among the rushes. 

There are the mud-flowers of dialect
And the immortelles of perfect pitch
And that moment when the bird sings very close
To the music of what happens.

The great Irish poet Seamus Heaney won 1995 Nobel Laureate in Literature "for works of lyrical beauty and ethical  depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past."

This delicately lovely poem has always reminded me of a haiku - there is the same  the real yet etching-precise economy, the wealth and evocativeness of the images, with every word worth a thousand pictures. The interweaving of images and music captures the very essence of poetry that delights, enchants, creates longing .

In the first stanza of this poem, Heaney contemplates two trees with resonances in Irish legend. In Celtic mythology the European rowan, whose leaves and berries turn red in autumn, is known as the Traveler’s Tree. It is said to offer protection to the traveler. It is also associated with druidic culture, being the wood of choice for magician’s staves, divining rods, and magic wands. Encountering the rowan, Heaney also encounters the alder, from whose wood the ancient Celts made ritual pipes and whistles. In Irish folklore, the trunk of the alder is thought to conceal doors to the supernatural. In some Irish legends, the first man came from the alder, the first woman from the rowan.

As Heaney dwells in this place of origins, contemplating the intersection of human, natural, and supernatural worlds, his attention turns to language and music. In the phrase “the mud-flowers of dialect,” he suggests an organic connection between human speech and the local terrain, the flowers of human dialect and the mud from which they’ve sprung.  Likewise, in “the immortelles of perfect pitch,” he evokes an intimate connection between the sounds of the natural world and human musicians with absolute pitch, who can reproduce those sounds without external prompts. And in his closing line, he recalls the legend of Finn Mac Cool, who challenged the warriors of the Fianna—accomplished poets, all—to name the finest music in the world. The music of the lark over Dingle Bay, suggested one.  The laughter of a young woman, suggested another. The bellowing of a stag, suggested a third. No, replied Finn Mac Cool. The finest music is “the music of what happens.” The function of the songbird—and perhaps of the poet—is to “sing very close” to the reality of that music. Or, as Heaney has said elsewhere, to “stay close to the energies of generation.”

Rowan- Rowan is a fast-growing pioneer tree in the Caledonian Forest, characterized by its brilliant red berries at the end of summer.

Alder- is a characteristic tree of wet places, marshes and stream-sides

Immortelle-A name for various composite flowers of papery texture

Ref: The music of what happens dated 6 October 2011 by Ben Howard 

Rowan Tree

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