Bartholomew's bell
St. Bartholomew’s Church of Ireland in Ballsbridge, Dublin:

Water Baby


By Michael Hartnett

Already the chestnuts, each a small green mace,

fall in the rusted chainmail leaves.  The swifts,

like black harpoons, fail against the whaleskin sky.

Wasps in this skyless summer have no place,

small quarrels swell to great and flooded rifts;

lime trees, prematurely old, decide to die.

The heavy steel-wool curtain never lifts.

Many cling to rafts of music but I,

I am not happy with the human race

aching for its sun-god – he kills as well –

I skip dripping in the shining rain

and feel the minute fingers tap my face

and breathing in St. Bartholomew’s bell

I look up to the sky and kiss the rain.


This sonnet appears in Hartnett’s 1988 collection Poems to Younger Women published three years after Inchicore Haiku which signalled Michael Hartnett’s  return to Dublin from the fastnesses of West Limerick.  It is a troubled and troubling collection of love poems which appeared after the breakup of his marriage to Rosemary Grantley.  John McDonagh, co-editor with Stephen Newman of the commemorative collection of essays entitled Remembering Michael Hartnett,  states that,

The collection displays all the emotional contradictions of Hartnett’s poetry, visceral images of separation, rejection and isolation juxtaposed with the indescribable delicateness and beauty of the natural world. [1]

On the back cover of the collection published by The Gallery Press, Hartnett tells us that ‘in the main, they were written out of love’.

Knowing what we know, it has to be said that it is very difficult to find signs of lost love, separation, regret and recrimination in any first reading of this poem.  Maybe what we eventually find is a poet finally coming to terms with the new reality in his life and a poet becoming more at peace with himself.  The sonnet begins with a beautiful evocation of September weather – a virtual tour de force by the ever observant poet.  The chestnuts are falling to the ground ‘each a small green mace’; they fall on the soft brown cushion of ‘rusted chainmail leaves’.  Already in the first septet we are given the image of a medieval armour-suited Knight of Desmond patrolling the autumnal chestnut trees in the Castle Demesne in the poet’s native Newcastle West.  What imagery, what a metaphor!!  Then the simile – ‘the swifts / like black harpoons’ – is unleashed.  What follows is a superb description of the autumnal sky – ‘the whaleskin sky’.  The juxtaposing of ‘harpoons’ and ‘whaleskin’ is masterful, a masterclass in three lines!  This, indeed, is a perfect example of the ‘indescribable delicateness and beauty of the natural world’ to which McDonagh refers to.

The poet is surrounded by intimations of mortality and loss – the leaves are falling, the wasps are dying and the ‘skyless summer’ doesn’t help them have their final fling.  There are other images of death and decay and the lime trees too ‘decide to die’.  The poet is grieving the breakup of his closest relationship and all that it entails.  The poet remembers how a throwaway word or phrase has mushroomed out of proportion and led to another great argument or marital row:

small quarrels swell to great and flooded rifts;

The grey autumnal weather is depressing the poet’s mood and in a return to the earlier imagery he concludes that ‘the heavy steel-wool curtain never lifts’.

The sonnet form is inverted here by the poet and instead of the usual octet followed by sestet we have a septet followed by another septet.  The grey gloom of an Irish autumn is perfectly depicted in the opening septet and replaced by a qualified joy and exhilaration of sorts in the closing septet. Ironically, this may coincide with the poet’s return to the city because while there are clues that the earlier lines could well have been written in or about Newcastle West the final lines refer to ‘Bartholomew’s bell’, the historic bells of St Bartholomew’s Church in Ballsbridge, Dublin.  So he finds himself at sea, alone, forlorn; his life now governed by the relentless, metronomic pealing of bells.

There is also an egocentric focus in the closing septet – ‘I’ is mentioned four times.  There is no ‘we’ or ‘us’.  The earlier depressing mood has been lifted somewhat but it is still raining!  The poet suggests that to relieve the September blues many turn to music or head for the sun but he instead skips ‘dripping in the shining rain’.  There is one last troubling thought about the passing of time as he breathes in the tolling of ‘St. Bartholomew’s bell’ which chimes every fifteen minutes to remind the hearers of their mortality.  Indeed, there is a lovely association of thought in the final three lines between the ‘minute fingers’ of the rain and the pealing of those church bells.  The poem ends with the poet, as in a Hollywood movie, singing in the rain or maybe crying in the rain.  Despite this very clichéd ending the sonnet manages to capture the poet’s mood by focusing, like Austin Clarke, on the Irish weather.  The season of Autumn is evoked by broad brush strokes and lightning strikes of epiphany – autumn leaves, grey skies, and rain are used to signify new beginnings, and Summer endings.

This whole underrated collection again shows off Hartnett’s technical mastery.  Again, John McDonagh has high words of praise for the collection:

It certainly stands as one of the most overlooked of his collections but it equally holds its own in any interpretation of his life’s work, a testament to the honesty of his difficult and troubling emotional responses to life as well as a fearless determination to face down the innumerable demons that haunted him throughout that life. [2]

The poet is back in Dublin trying to come to terms with the two great recent upheavals in his life – the breakup of his marriage and separation from his two children and the abandoning of his great experiment announced back in June 1974 from the stage of the Peacock Theatre.  These poems, including Water Baby, are therefore a form of therapy, a catharsis of sorts.  The collection itself helps explain further the brilliant and gifted and complicated poet that was Michael Hartnett.  We also have his reassurance that in spite of the evident turmoil and upheaval in his life ‘in the main they (the poems) were written out of love’.

Author’s Note:  I have to say I’m at a loss as to the significance of the title, ‘Water Baby’.  Firstly, I’m not sure if the title originated with the poet or was it added by the editors in The Gallery Press?  Anyway, it is beyond a literary allusion which I’m missing – is there a connection to Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies (1862)?  Ironically, Brendan Kenneally wrote the rather pompous ‘The Man Made of Rain’ in 1998.  All your suggestions and explanations gratefully received!


Works Cited

McDonagh, John., and Stephen Newman, (editors), Remembering Michael Hartnett (Dublin, Four Courts Press, 2006).


[1] McDonagh John. (2006) ‘No Longer Afraid’: Michael Hartnett’s Poems to Younger Women. (Book Chapter) PDF. p.43.

[2] Ibid p.52

3 thoughts on “Analysis of ‘Water Baby’ by Michael Hartnett

  1. The unfashionable ‘lyric I’ was only ever as good as the ‘I’ that used it. Hartnett is a poet untroubled by the question of whether the lyric I is valid or not. Though he is not dependent on it and though his poems are well populated with others to whom he gives voice, many of his finest poems are unashamedly first person affairs, and ask to be read autobiographically. I love the elegy for his brother ‘For Edward Hartnett’. Part 1 is ‘I’- centred and makes the claim that Hartnett’s poetry may have been gifted to him by his brother. Part 2 deploys the ‘we’ in a more generalised coda.

    The whole purpose of lyric poetry was to give a vice to the I; polyphony was already voiced by dramatic and epic poetry. So I see Hartnett as a natural lyric poet of the unselfconscious first person.

    This – as you’ve helpfully pointed out and thanks for the photo – Dublin poem is a formal expansion on the Inchicore Haiku, but as you say, the mood is not quite so miserable and maudlin. It’s a fantastic sonnet, and the technical mastery is evident in the final line. Because the last word ‘rain’ is not a rhyme but actually a repletion of the word ‘rain’ that ends line 11, the reader is forced to stress the word ‘kiss’ in recognition of the second ‘rain’.

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  2. Thanks. I have read the collection, but it’s not a poem that I noticed properly before. I enjoyed re-reading it therefore with an enthusiastic commentary. ‘Water Baby’ may simply be a way of describing his own emotional state as he finds himself in the autumnal Dublin rain, rawly rebirthed into separation, but making the allusion to Kingsley. You are right about the finesse of the chestnut mace, and my ear recalls how Hartnett used the word ‘mace’ in a youthful London poem ‘This Friend, An Old Man’.

    You mention an egocentric focus but it’s just what they call ‘the lyric I’. Yes, there is no we or us, but there is a ‘he’ – a tantalising invocation of the ‘sun-god’.

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    1. Thanks Niall – I agree it’s an easily overlooked poem especially in the context of the overall collection. I agree also with your take on ‘he’ and the reference to ‘sun-god’. He is becoming more accepting of the reality of his changed circumstances.

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