Sunlight by Seamus Heaney

‘Sunlight’ is one of two “Poems in Dedication” that were written for his aunt, Mary Heaney. These poems come together under the title “Mossbawn,” a reference to the family farm on which Heaney lived until 1953. The poem speaks on themes of nostalgia, family and memory. 

 

Summary of Sunlight

‘Sunlight’ by Seamus Heaney is a simple, moving poem that depicts scenes from the poet’s youth and the life of his aunt, Mary. 

In the first lines of ‘Sunlight’, the speaker gives a few details about the exterior of his aunt’s home. The sun plays an important role, heating the scene. The warmth is continued within the house, emanating from the stove in which Mary Heaney cooks. He remembers how she moved through the kitchen, dusted the rooms, as well as how her love went into everything she did. 

You can read the full poem here.

 

Structure of Sunlight 

Sunlight’ by Seamus Heaney is an eight stanza poem that’s separated into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The lines vary in length from four syllables up to eight. Despite the lack of rhyme or meter, there are a number of instances of half-rhyme within the text. Assonance or consonance is responsible for creating these partial rhymes.

This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. For example, “helmeted,” “heated” and “honeyed” all make use of a similar “e” sound in lines two, three and four of the first stanza. Or, another example, “sung and “sun” in the second stanza. 

 

Poetic Techniques in Sunlight 

Heaney makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Sunlight’ these include alliteration and enjambment. The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “heated and “honeyed” in lines three and four of the first stanza. Or, “slung” and “sun” in the second stanza. 

Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. Heaney used enjambment in almost every line of ‘Sunlight’. This is the case due to Heaney’s reticent use of end-line punctuation. In the eight stanzas, there are only five periods. Examples of enjambment can be seen in the transitions between the last line of stanza two and the first of stanza three, as well as within the same lines in stanzas six and seven. 

 

Analysis of Sunlight

Stanza One 

In the first lines of ‘Sunlight’, the speaker begins by speaking on “absence”. He refers to a “sunlit absence” that represents the distance he feels from a specific period of warmth and happiness— his childhood. The speaker, Heaney himself, takes the reader deep into a scene from his youth. There are a variety of details within just this first stanza. He speaks on the “helmeted pump” in the yard. The use of the word “helmeted” is meant to allude to protection, iron, and security. It’s a heavy-duty piece of equipment. The last line of this stanza is enjambed, encouraging a reader to move quickly into the fifth line of the poem. 

 

Stanza Two

In the fourth line of the first stanza and the first of the second Heaney discusses the colour of the water that comes up from the ground. It is lightly brown, resembling honey. It fills up the “slung bucket,” used for carrying water to and from the house. In this memory, he recalls how the “sun stood / like a griddle cooling / against the wall. In these lines, the sun comes back into the scene as does heat/warmth. This is one of the major symbols of the text, harkening back to a general feeling of nostalgia and happy memories. 

 

Stanza Three 

In the third stanza of ‘Sunlight’ the speaker moves on to the main character of the poem and the women to whom the text is dedicated, his aunt Mary Heaney. She is working “over the bakeboard”. She’s cooking, working quickly, her hands “scuffled” from spot to spot under, again, warm conditions. Additionally, here is the “reddening stove” warming the room in addition to the general warmth of the day outside. 

 

Stanza Five 

The heat that emanated off the stove was like a “plaque”. It was solid and pressed “against her where she stood”. Despite the fact that this scene is a simple one, it has stuck in the poet’s memory. He recalls his aunt standing “by the window” in an apron covered in flour. 

 

Stanza Six 

In the sixth stanza of ‘Sunlight,’ Heaney moves on to speak about his aunt’s movements outside the kitchen. These lines play out in real-time as if right at that moment Mary is moving away from the kitchen to go “dust…the board / with a goose’s wing”. After, she sits down for a time. Heaney describes his aunt as “broad-lapped” a kindly way of alluding to her weight. Her nails are “white” with flour.

 

Stanza Seven

Her skin, described in the first line of the seventh stanza, is “measling”. This is a reference to the patterning of age spots on her legs, specifically, her shins. Through the use of a colon, Heaney takes the reader into an empty space of time as the food is cooking. There is a “space / again” and the “scone” rises in the oven. It takes “two clocks” worth of time. 

 

Stanza Eight 

The words “here is” appear again in the eighth stanza of ‘Sunlight’. They mimic the similar usage in the previous stanza, this time referring to the love he felt then though. His aunt’s love is embodied through the process of scooping flour out of the “meal-bin”. The simplicity of this action, the heart that’s put into it, and the memories it is associated with come together in these final lines. 

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