Seamus Heaney

A Drink of Water by Seamus Heaney

A Drink of Water” is a poem about the poet’s nostalgia of an old woman, who comes to fetch water from his well every day. It was published in his 1979 volume of poetry Field Work. This volume is basically about the lamentations of the dead friends and relatives as a result of the blood-shedding in Northern Ireland because of the sectarian war. It is also about memories of his childhood and boyhood.


Summary of A Drink of Water

In “A Drink of Water,” the speaker reveals the character of an old woman, who used to fetch water from his well. The poem starts with the usual description of the usual coming of the woman to the well. The poet’s use of the verb “came” suggests that the poet was already there to observe it. This old woman’s presence gave the poet joy and happiness, as he used to watch her every time. However, in the sestet, the poet moves inside the house, and also from day to night. This shows that Heaney is so familiar with the old woman that he knew all about her. The final line of the poem suggests that the old woman to be his “muse” meaning she gave him the “inspiration”. He “drinks the water as if receiving inspiration” to express his memories and life experiences as a young boy living on a farm in Ireland.

You can read the full poem here.


A Drink of Water Analysis

Lines 1-4

She came every morning to draw water

( . . . )

Announced her  . . . .

The poem begins with the poet’s description of the old woman who comes to fetch water every day. ‘Like an old bat’ suggests that she is very old and nearing his death. Since neither the identity nor the relationship of the old women with the poet and is not revealed, she could be assumed as his neighbor. Use of the verb “came” in line 1 implies that she is no longer comes to the well or she is no more. The presence of the images of old age in the first quatrain such as “old bat,” “staggering,” “whooping cough,” “slow diminuendo” depicts that the old woman has died. The poet understands very well the presence of the old woman through the imagery used. From the poet’s observation of the old woman’s coming every day, it is evident that the well belongs to the poet and he has allowed the old women to fetch water from his well.


Lines 5-8

. . . . I recall

( . . . )

Creak of her voice like the pump’s handle.

Lines 5 to 8 of the poem gives a picture of the old women wearing the ‘gray apron’ and the bucket she carried is coated with the white enamel. Her voice is compared to the handle of the pump. The colour gray is a symbol of decaying, which refers to the aging of the old women. ‘I recall’, advocates that the action described has happened in the past.


Lines 9-14

Nights when a full moon lifted past her gable

( . . . )

Remember the Giver fading off the lip.

In the sestet, the situation shifts from morning to night and from the well to the woman’s house.  The woman, who predominates the first eight lines, has vanished physically from the poem. In the octave, the poet observes the woman from his window or from home, but in the sestet he simply interprets and observes away from her home. He imagines the full moon lifts “past her gable” and falls through her windows and lies on the water she kept on her table. Whatever the speaker’s point of view, the verb “would lie” hints continuity to the action from the octave. Line 12 marks the transition the course of action and time. The final couplet implies the speaker’s intent to be “faithful” to the phrase on the woman’s cup.  The phrase “Remember the Giver” is italicized to give special implication of the religious belief of being faithful to the one who gives. The Cup refers to the poet’s use of the memory of the old woman to write poetry.


Use of Literary Devices

Form of the poem ‘A Drink of Water’

‘A Drink of Water’ is an elegy written in the sonnet form against the nature of a sonnet.  However, in this poem Heaney has used the sonnet to describe a memory of a woman.  Careful use of the rhythms and intricately patterned sonic elements elaborates the memory of the speaker and the women shared together before she passed away and now the memories that remains in the heart of the speaker. Wilfred Owen also used the same pattern.



A Drink of Water‘ is written in 14 lines with an octave and a sestet ending with the rhyming couplet. The octave gives a vivid illustration oif the woman who comes to water from the speaker’s well. It talks about her appearance and the way the poet recognize and remembers her presence. Sestet comes with the transition in time and mood. The poet recollects how he has become the receiver from the giver.


Tone of ‘A Drink of Water’

Throughout the first eight lines, the reader should note the poem’s use of the sense of sound to convey the emotional appeal of an elegy. It has the tone of nostalgia.


Use of Simile

Heaney uses the simile “like an old bat staggering up the field” to describe the image of the woman walking or moving unsteadily. It denotes that the woman was elderly and was finding it hard to walk. It is also a connotation to this experience of growing up on a farm in Ireland when he was a young boy.


Use of Assonance

Heaney uses the Assonance “water”, “bat”, “staggering”, “apron” etc. which is the repetition of similar vowel sounds in a sentence or line of poetry therefore the similar vowel in this poem is “a”. The assonance is used in ‘A Drink of Water‘ to show the reader how the speaker is remembering the woman’s actions and how she was before she died.


Use of imagery

Heaney uses the imagery like “old bat”, “grey apron”, to overshadow the idea that the woman was elderly.  It could be impart that woman was either close to death or already dead when the speaker wrote this memory down.


Historical background

Heaney in his collected essay The Government of the Tongue: Selected Prose 1978-1987, explores the diverging burden of “Song and Suffering” placed upon a poet. In a question that has long puzzled poets, he wonders if his primary allegiance as an artist is to beauty or to truth. Especially, “A Drink of Water” may seem to be a rather nostalgia of the poet, yet it has a deeper context that presents the aftermath of the war.  As a result, ‘A Drink of Water‘ conveys how important it is to keep in mind the campaigns of violence that form the poem’s backdrop in order to see how the poem’s peaceful evocations of childhood stand in contrast to contemporary realities.


About Seamus Heaney

Heaney was born in 1939 in Mossbawn, County Derry, Ireland. Heaney is one of Ireland’s prominent poets of the late twentieth century. His verse frequently centers on the role poets play in society, with poems addressing issues of politics and culture. They also introspect on the themes of self-discovery and spiritual growth. He received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1995 for his excellent works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth. His works exalt everyday miracles and the living past. Heaney began his literary career way back in his university period where he has written with the pseudonym ‘Incertus’. He published his first collection of poetry, Death of a Naturalist in 1966 which exalted him as a writer of significance.

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Miz Alb Poetry Expert
Miz Alb received her MA in English Literature. Her thirst for literature makes her explore through the nuances of it. She loves reading and writing poetry. She teaches English Language and Literature to the ESL students of tertiary level.
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