District and Circle: A Shiver                                                                        

1) Rationale

In this poem Heaney explores the idea of power and its dangers – it was written to make the reader consider the burden, corruptive capacity and destructiveness of great power.


2) Most forceful quotation

‘does it do you good’

This is halfway through line 9. It is clearly the poem’s volta – the focus here switches from an objective description of a specific ‘you’ wielding the hammer, to a moral, problematic problem posed to the audience.

It comes after a caesura and is only a weak run-on line, causing it to be emphasised. As the volta, it also begins the question which consumes the entirety of the final sestet of the poem, further increasing its forcefulness.


3) Quotation which sums up Heaney’s overarching theme or concern

‘A first blow that could make air of a wall’

(Also above quotation)

This line expresses Heaney’s concern with the sheer destructive capacity of power, represented by the hammer. That it could in one ‘blow’ turn a solid structure (‘wall’ which has connotations of strength and the expression ‘to come up against a brick wall’ suggesting something is difficult to overcome or destroy) to even less than dust or rubble (‘air’) is a scary thought and main theme of the poem.

Some suggest that this is an allusion to 9/11 due to the image of an aircraft which ‘air’ might suggest, and the image of complete destruction, which would resonate strongly with an audience of 2006.


4) Obvious rhythm change and reason

After an ABCD ABCD rhyme scheme in the first octet, the rhythm is destroyed after the volta. Heaney suggests 1) the destruction which great power brings and 2) the difficulty of the question posed to his audience by destroying his rhyme scheme.

The key line (9) is the only one which rhymes with no other in the poem – ‘directable’ and ‘wall’, and ‘landed’ and ‘handle’ seem at least to be attempts at rhyme. After the volta, too, the relatively regular iambic pentameter disappears. This is especially noticeable in ‘Withholdable at will’ and the awkward ‘unanswerably’.


5) Place in collection

Heaney explores his childhood in WW2 in other poems in ‘District and Circle’ so perhaps this comment on power links to his experience of its destructiveness. He is also concerned with exploring his heritage and where he comes from – since power throughout history, especially corrupted, destructive power, has shaped where we are today this is highly relevant.


6) Focused analysis

‘Its gathered force like a long-nursed rage’

In ‘A Shiver’, Heaney’s sledge hammer is a symbol for power, and he attempts to show its destructiveness and corrupting ability. ‘Its gathered force’ describes the backward swing of the hammer once it has struck. Firstly, this image suggests the idea that power controls people and thus is almost an entity in itself, just as the hammer’s built-up momentum cannot be stopped from creating a movement against the will of the wielder. Secondly, the idea of the hammer swinging back with a strong force – both ‘long-nursed’ and ‘gathered’ suggest a build-up which we imagine would be quite powerful – perhaps suggests the inadvertent destructiveness, or dangerous unintended and uncontrollable consequences, of power. Heaney’s simile suggests that it is a bitterness and personal grudge (‘rage’ suggesting not only intense anger, but a very personal emotion, having different triggers for everyone) which is responsible for a desire for power and potentially the corruption which follows it. The idea that it is ‘long-nursed’ implies a chilling care and attentiveness applied to building the desire for or achieving power, which may be Heaney’s comment on the strength of a craving for power is in all of us, in that it is given an almost maternal protection.


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