The Guttural Muse – Seamus Heaney

The Guttural Muse

Late summer, and at midnight
I smelt the heat of the day:
At my window over the hotel car park
I breathed the muddied night airs off the lake
And watched a young crowd leave the discotheque.

Their voices rose up thick and comforting
As oily bubbles the feeding tench sent up
That evening at dusk – the slimy tench
Once called the ‘doctor fish’ because his slime
Was said to heal the wounds of fish that touched it.

A girl in a white dress
Was being courted out among the cars:
As her voice swarmed and puddled into laughs
I felt like some old pike all badged with sores
Wanting to swim in touch with soft-mouthed life.

Seamus Heaney

This poem was originally published in the June 25, 1979 issue of The New Yorker. It was reprinted in the September 9, 2013 issue just after Heaney’s death on August 30.

Guttural – deep throated sound with the connotation of coming from the gut
Muse – inspirational motivation voice from within that excites the senses for response

S1 – I think his room is high up … that the window is open … that in the evening he has been walking near the lake … it has been a hot day (late August is my guess as to the time of year) … overlooking the car-park gives the sense that it is not a great room

‘the muddied night air’ … this may say something of where he is personally … he is disturbed and can’t sleep … and takes interest in the young crowd leaving the disco … he becomes distracted

S2 – you now have the sense that he is alone … that the voices comfort … ‘thick’ linking with guttural. These voices are perhaps bubbles of oxygen to him … and he knows the story of the tench … a fish associated with the healing other fish … does he need to be healed … perhaps healing already started by the connection with the group of young people

S3 – ‘a girl in a white dress’ … white is essential to contrast with his dark mood … and a girl … the male to female fit … her voice ‘swarmed and puddled into laughs’ – well he has been stung and puddled again links with guttural … as well as being a little playful as puddles are with children … especially as laughter flows …

‘old pike badged with sores’ … he now tells of age and of having survived as a fish … but fish-life has given many sores … he wears his experiences in life in his body

All he wants … ‘to swim in touch with soft-mouthed life’ … to be healed of his ache to be young again … to be inspired … the guttural sounds are soft to him … and all he wants is a touch … to be connected … or is it re-connected with his youth

I am reminded of a Phillip Larkin poem.

Your word in my ear ...

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