The poem is an elegy written after the death of Seamus Heaney’s niece, Rachel, who died at seven years old in May 1985. He wrote the poem that summer. ‘The Summer of Lost Rachel‘ was published in 1987 in The Haw Lantern, a collection well-known for its focus on death. Within its pages, Heaney also penned poems about the deaths of his parents in 1984 and 1986.
Explore The Summer of Lost Rachel
‘The Summer of Lost Rachel’ by Seamus Heaney was penned after Heaney’s niece, Rachel, was hit by a car and killed at seven years old.
In the first part of the poem, the poet sets the scene. He describes a long summer of crop-killing rain that made people superstitious about the future. Something bad was going to happen, they believed. This bad thing coalesced in the death of Seamus Heaney’s young niece, Rachel. The rest of the poem is devoted to the poet’s grieving process and how he’d like nothing more than to change what happened to Rachel.
You can listen to the full poem here.
The main theme of this poem is death. Heaney also taps into people’s reactions to death, grief, and the transience of life. The unfair nature of the situation, stemming from the fact that Rachel died so young, is also a critical part of the poem. The speaker, and the rest of Rachel’s family, are helpless to do anything about her accident.
Structure and Form
‘The Summer of Lost Rachel’ by Seamus Heaney is divided into nine stanzas, each of which has four lines, known as a quatrain. These quatrains follow the simple rhyme scheme of ABCB, known as ballad rhyme. The poet uses both half and full rhymes in this poem. This is seen particularly well in the final two stanzas. The lines vary in length from six to ten syllables.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Caesura: a pause in the middle of a line of verse. This usually occurs due to the poet’s use of punctuation. For example, “In white, your whited face.” This is also an example of repetition.
- Anaphora: the repetition of the same word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “And” begins several lines.
- Enjambment: occurs when a poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines two and three of every stanza.
- Imagery: the use of particularly effective descriptions that should inspire the reader to imagine a scene, feeling, experience, and more, in great detail. For example, “The twisted spokes all straightened out, / The awful skid-marks gone.”
Potato crops are flowering,
And every berried briar
In the first stanza of the poem, the poet begins by setting the scene. Without prior knowledge of what the poem is about, these first lines suggest a pastoral, or a piece of poetry dedicated to a description of the natural world and the simple everyday tasks of farmers or shepherds. But, as the lines progress, it becomes clear that something much darker is happening.
He addresses his words to Rachel as well, speaking about her “back door” where green plums are appearing.
Is glittering and ripping
There’s a ring around the moon.
The speaker describes how in the lead-up to the accident, the area was flooded with rain. The showers “plout down” and flooded the hills and hay. There’s a “ring around the moon,” this stanza ends, suggesting that everyone in this area of Ulster believed all this bad luck was leading up to something even worse.
The whole summer was waterlogged
And sentiments of growth
Heaney emphasizes this further by saying that the whole summer was waterlogged. There was something wrong the entire time, seen through the symbol of unending rain.
The accident this poem was inspired by was caused in part because of the rain. This is cleared up as the poem progresses but is alluded to through the poet’s line, “Yet everyone is loath / To trust the rain’s soft-soaping ways.”
Because all confidence in summer’s
In white, your whited face
Without saying exactly what happened, the fourth stanza includes details of the funeral. The family laid Rachel out in white, the symbol of purity. Her youth and the poet’s reference to unripened fruit in the first stanza are often connected and used to further emphasize how young she was.
Stanzas Five and Six
Gashed from the accident, but still,
And every merciful
Register inside us seared
Wheeling your bright-rimmed bike,
Her body was scarred with gashes from the accident, Heaney reveals, and as she lay there, everyone was horrified and moved by how still and completely gone she was.
The bike comes into the poem in the sixth stanza. Everyone in the family wanted nothing more than to go back in time and change what had happened. The poet uses a metaphor of running back film to stop “you” from stepping into the road while wheeling “your bright-rimmed bike.”
Stanzas Seven and Eight
Safe and sound as usual,
The awful skid-marks gone.
But no. So let the downpours flood
The life you might have led
If they could turn back time, they’d be able to see Rachel riding down the road as she used to. Her body would be scarless, and her bike would be restored to what it looked like before the accident without twisted spokes.
But no, Heaney continues, this is impossible. Because they can’t turn back time and change what happened to her, they have to be satisfied with accepting their grief and the downpour of rain that it symbolizes. Heaney is focused, as is the whole family, on the life that Rachel could’ve had that she never got to live. This fact tugs at him, and the final stanza concludes.
Wavers and tugs dreamily
And recollects our need.
Heaney finishes the poem by saying that the knowledge of Rachel, having lost an entire lifetime of experiences, is hard to shake off. The poet imagines the unending rain turning into a river from which Rachel emerges. She’s a soothing presence in their grief. He can only imagine the woman she might’ve turned into had the accident not happened.
The tone is mournful and sorrowful. The speaker feels a great deal of regret that there’s nothing he or anyone else can do to go back and save Rachel from her fate. His affection for her is clear, as is his grief that she isn’t going to get to live her life.
Heaney wrote this poem to express his personal feelings about the death of his niece, detail some of the events that led up to it and honor her memory. The poem is an example of an apostrophe, seen through Heaney directing his words to someone who cannot hear or respond to him (Rachel).
The message is that death can come unexpectedly and surprisingly. Rachel’s death came suddenly and brought the family a great deal of grief. Not just because she was gone but because she was only seven years old and never got to live a full life.
’The Summer of Lost Rachel’ is an elegy. It is a poem written in honor of someone who has died. In this case, Heaney wrote it to honor his niece Rachel.
Readers who enjoyed ‘The Summer of Lost Rachel’ should also consider reading some other Seamus Heaney poems. For example:
- ‘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.
- ‘Bogland’ – speaks on the history and landscape of Ireland through the metaphor of a bottomless bog.
- ‘Blackberry-Picking’ – recalls a recurring scene from his youth: each August, he would pick blackberries and relish in their sweet taste.