By Seamus Heaney
Cut from the green hedge a forked hazel stick
That he held tight by the arms of the V:
Circling the terrain, hunting the pluck
Of water, nervous, but professionally
Unfussed. The pluck came sharp as a sting.
The rod jerked down with precise convulsions,
Spring water suddenly broadcasting
Through a green aerial its secret stations.
The bystanders would ask to have a try.
He handed them the rod without a word.
It lay dead in their grasp till, nonchalantly,
He gripped expectant wrists. The hazel stirred.
Commentary: Dr Andrew Barker called ‘Digging’ – the first poem in Heaney’s first collection – his Mission Statement Poem. If that is so, ‘The Diviner’ is an early codicil to that Mission Statement! It is yet another of Heaney’s poems about rural crafts and craftsmen. These earlier poems focussed on his rural roots and the local crafts which were synonymous with his local place. Similar to ‘Digging’ and ‘The Forge’, and ‘Follower’, this poem also explores the poet’s early search for poetic inspiration. Heaney discovered his own gift by seeing the connection between the local craftsmen and his own burgeoning desire to be different yet the same.
The first thing to notice here is that Heaney doesn’t name the poem ‘The Water Diviner’ – instead, he uses the more generic title ‘The Diviner’. This allows him to make ancient connections with the meaning of the word. In the ancient world of Greece and Rome, a diviner was a wise man, a seer, a prophet, a mystic, an oracle. Even in ancient Ireland in the Bardic tradition, the diviner was a saoi, literally a ‘wise one’, a poet at the pinnacle of his powers. So, it is evident that Heaney here is making a clear analogy between the work of the local diviner in Bellaghy and the work of a poet. Heaney is making this connection very early on in his career and so he has already accepted the onerous responsibility of following in the ancient footsteps of the Filí and Bards who had gone before him.
Water is, of course, a vital element and it has to be understood by the modern reader that in Ireland even in the 1950’s, houses, especially in rural areas, did not have water on tap as they do today. Instead, water for daily household use was still being drawn by bucket from communal wells in each locality. Therefore, it is no surprise that the person who could locate the presence of water in such springs and wells would be given great recognition and elevated status in the community.
Heaney speaks of this in some of his early poetry in such poems as ‘Personal Helicon’ and ‘Sunlight’. In ‘Sunlight’, one of two poems dedicated to his Aunt Mary’s home place in Mossbawn, he speaks of the ‘helmeted pump in the yard’; this pump which was the centre of his boyhood universe, where ‘water honeyed in the slung bucket’. In ‘Personal Helicon’ he tells us that he is inspired by and attracted to the water in wells and springs. He tells us that as a child ‘they could not keep me from wells’. However, as an adult, it seems that this activity is frowned upon, so instead, he became a poet! In a beautiful concluding sentence, he says, ‘I rhyme / To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.’ There is a clear connection suggested here between the young Heaney’s activities and the older Heaney’s poetry.
The diviner in this poem is seen in the same light as his father and grandfather are in ‘Digging’. The diviner is exploring the hidden depths, the unexplored layers of landscape, seeking out water-bearing aquifers. This is similar to his father or grandfather toiling in the bog, ‘going down and down for the good turf’.
The jury is still out on whether it is even possible to divine the presence of water by holding a forked hazel stick in one’s hands! Scientists still seem to frown on the idea yet in Heaney’s home place of South Derry there would have been one or two men with this innate power, just as there would have been a person who had a cure for burns or had the ability to fix a bad back or rid a person of warts. These cures or remedies had been handed down through the generations from father to son, from mother to daughter. Heaney has realised that he too has a rare gift and he normalises his own talent as a poet by comparing it to those with rare gifts in his own rural community.
The diviner described here was a real expert and he put on a performance for the onlookers present. His actions were ceremonial, just like a priest at the altar on Sunday – he refers to the diviner ‘Circling the terrain’. The poet creates a mood of tension as the ritual performance commences; words like ‘tight’, ‘hunting’, ‘pluck’, ‘nervous’, sharp’, ‘sting’, ‘jerked’, ‘convulsions’, convey tension, urgency, doubt, and expectation in the reader. The tone of the final stanza is far more relaxed and of course, this is because the diviner has been successful in his quest for water and so he ‘nonchalantly’ grips the ‘expectant’ wrists of those who have asked to have a turn and see if the hazel stick will work for them.
Notice the poet’s clever use of the word ‘nervous’ here in stanza one. He is referring to the fact that our nervous system carries messages to the brain – but here it is the diviner who is the path along which the message from the underground water will be carried.
The poet tries to demystify the work of the diviner by using the analogy of a radio signal picking up foreign radio stations as one turned the dial on the old cumbersome radios that were a feature in many rural homes in the Fifties. The hazel stick is likened to ‘a green aerial’, which picks up the unseen signals the water gives off from underground caverns. We know the diviner has picked up the signal when Heaney says in the second stanza, ‘The rod jerked with precise convulsions’. This image of the water broadcasting its position presents us with the notion that the diviner is the receiver and interpreter of messages that ordinary mortals cannot experience or understand. In Heaney’s view, this is also an exact analogy with his work as a poet.
The word ‘convulsions’ suggests to me that the diviner is not in control of his movements and of course the fact that these ‘convulsions’, these involuntary movements, are visible to the bystanders adds to their sense of wonder and awe.
The style of the poem is very matter-of-fact – as if the poet is reporting for his local newspaper! There is also the subtle innuendo that it’s all some kind of hoax that is being perpetrated here by the diviner – that he is some kind of charlatan, pulling the wool over the eyes of his unsuspecting, gullible audience. These notions are finally dispelled and underlined by the final short sentence: ‘The hazel stirred’.
Another interesting feature of the poem that we need to explore is that we are not told what the diviner looks like. This helps the poet to create the feeling of awe and wonder. This is in marked contrast to other poems such as ‘The Forge’ and ‘Digging’, for example, where we are given little pen pictures, sometimes uncomplimentary, of his father and the blacksmith. In ‘Digging’ he looks down from his upstairs study window and sees his father digging in the flower garden: ‘I look down / Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds / Bends low’. In ‘The Forge’ he describes the blacksmith, Barney Devlin, in a very Chaucerian manner: ‘Sometimes, leather-aproned, hairs in his nose, / He leans out on the jamb, …’. However, in ‘The Diviner’ he refrains from making any of these derogatory comments and therefore the mystique of the diviner is maintained right to the end.
The reason Heaney is drawn to these rural craftsmen and their various trades is that he is in awe of the power of the diviner, the turf-cutter, the ploughman, talents that he doesn’t possess but ones that he admires. In ‘Digging’ he tells us, ‘But I’ve no spade to follow men like them’. He is drawn to these people who divine for water, dig in gardens and plough the land and shoe horses because he wants to follow in their footsteps but in his own unique way.
In many ways, these poems, particularly the ones from the collection Death of a Naturalist, are efforts to pacify and appease worried parents who have suspicions that their young son is different. In this, his first collection, he is reassuring them that he’s not that different but that they will have to accept his choice of career: he will be a poet to be reckoned with, he will dig and plough and divine – but with his pen. Fittingly then, thirty or so years later, The Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Seamus Heaney in 1995, “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past’.
Seamus Heaney. 100 Poems, Faber and Faber, 2018
The Nobel Prize in Literature citation 1995:
Further Reading by the same author: