Week 17: The Guttural Muse, by Seamus Heaney

The Guttural Muse

Late summer, and at midnight
I smelt the heat of the day:
At my window over the hotel car park
I breathed the muddied night airs off the lake
And watched a young crowd leave the discothèque.

Their voices rose up thick and comforting
As oily bubbles the feeding tench sent up
That evening at dusk—the slimy tench
Once called the “doctor fish” because his slime
Was said to heal the wounds of fish that touched it.

A girl in a white dress
Was being courted out among the cars:
As her voice swarmed and puddled into laughs
I felt like some old pike all badged with sores
Wanting to swim in touch with soft-mouthed life.

Seamus Heaney

The most successful poet of modern times caught in a mood of vulnerability and alienation, wishing he could lay down his bardship and just go with the flow as one of the crowd. One is tempted to say ‘Forget it, Seamus, you’d be bored rigid in two minutes’, but whatever one’s scepticism towards the sentiment that muscular, sensuous language of his is, as ever, a delight.


3 thoughts on “Week 17: The Guttural Muse, by Seamus Heaney

  1. First published in 1979 when Heaney was forty. Guttural [adjective] – “Having a harsh grating quality, as certain sounds produced in the back of the mouth”. The guttural muse of the title seems to be the “young crowd” with “thick and comforting” voices. They (and especially the girl in the white dress) have inspired him to write the poem.

    • Yes, I have puzzled somewhat over the ‘Guttural’ of the title. It has been suggested that the ‘young crowd’ may have been speaking in Gaelic, which to an English speaker can certainly sound guttural with its back of the throat consonants, but that doesn’t seem to have any compelling relevance to the main theme of the poem, the poet’s sense of wistful apartness, and as Heaney was always so careful in his choice of words and so respectful of etymology and association I think there must be more to it than that – I just haven’t been able to figure out what.

      • Hi David, there might be another meaning in the title. Did Heaney have a belief in a muse of poetry (Erato?)? He dedicated his life to her but on this occasion he finds her message/her demands harsh?

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