A good friend of mine has been corresponding with Seamus Heaney. As a result of his engaging and entertaining epistles, the great man signed a copy of one his poems as a gift for me. The poem is entitled “A Drink of Water” and I have been thinking about the meaning and significance of this sonnet.
I have no formal training in English literature, although anyone who professes to exegete and apply the literature of the Bible, and especially the poetic literature of the Old Testament, clearly needs some expertise in literary analysis. Maybe someone can help me understand the point that Heaney is making in this poem.
A DRINK OF WATER
She came every morning to draw water
Like an old bat staggering up the field:
The pump’s whooping cough, the bucket’s clatter
And slow diminuendo as it filled,
Announced her. I recall
Her grey apron, the pocked white enamel
Of the brimming bucket, and the treble
Creak of her voice like the pump’s handle.
Nights when a full moon lifted past her gable
It fell back through her window and would lie
Into the water set out on the table.
Where I have dipped to drink again, to be
Faithful to the admonishment on her cup,
Remember the Giver fading off the lip.
Apparently, like many sonnets, “A Drink of Water” turns in the last six lines. Instead of describing a morning, it switches to evening. The profound meaning for the speaker of this individual woman and her daily routine has not yet been explained, and so the point is made at the end.
When the full moon is out, the speaker thinks of this particular woman. Something about her haunts him, and something about her makes him remember her. One commentator says this:
In the last three lines, the latent power of water as an image becomes obvious. Water carries religious overtones, with immersion rituals in particular, as the verb “dipped” suggests. Water is frequently associated with purification, and something about this woman’s water ritual offers the speaker both “admonishment” and purification. Something about her reminds him of sin and the need to erase it. However, the meaning of the old woman is still ambiguous.
In the last line, the power of this lone old woman getting her water is finally explained. Her cup had a phrase on it — “Remember the Giver.” Who the Giver is, of course, is the immediate question. Who gives water, who gives life? These questions might refer to God. However, in Heaney’s unique context of an Irish poet writing in English, it is possible that the “Giver” is England, the source of the words he uses as tools to create a self. Like a man dependent on God’s water for survival, for the gift of life, this is the tale of a poet dependent on a ruler for the
gift of language and the sustenance of words.
I must say that I appreciate, and can grasp, the spiritual and religious explanation. It is a well-known biblical metaphor. God is the Giver of water, and the Giver of life, and the water which Jesus gives satisfies our deepest thirst. That is a truth that many may be inclined to forget, and it is the task of all “faithful admonishers” to underscore it.
It is also true that “faithful admonishers” who enter the pulpit every Lord’s Day need to be experts in the use of language as they seek to bring comfort and challenge to their congregations. Clear, creative and careful use of words is the challenge facing every preacher.
Those “words of life” which they share with their congregation also find their origin in the One who is Himself “The Word”. If the words of the preacher are to have any effect in the lives of his hearers, then it is because the message is delivered in dependence on the One who alone can give life. “Faithful admonishers” need to “remember the Giver”.
There’s a lot going on in this poem by Seamus Heaney. I think I may need more help in trying to exegete it. But, once framed, I will treasure it and it will find its place on my study wall.
Postscript: I wrote to Seamus Heaney to inquire if my exegesis of his poem might be legitimate, and I got a lovely reply from him.
I always took the Giver to be the Lord God – I’d presumed the old lady got the cup/mug on some excursion in her early days to Portrush or Portstewart.
Thanks, Seamus. It had to be an “excursion” and not just a day trip.