Faithful Admonisher

picture-of-seamus-heaneyA 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.


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.

5 Replies to “Faithful Admonisher”

  1. Greetings from Cork, Stafford and thanks for your blogs.

    One thinks of course of the woman at the well in John 4. Heaney’s woman is also marginalised but there are no close verbal references. I presume as with many of his poems he is drawing on a childhood experience.

    Even so, the religious/spiritual interpretation goes further than the bizarre idea that England is the Giver. England gave the world rugby football, but one hopes that Heaney’s mastery of the English language will be matched by a worthy green display at Twickenham this Saturday.

    Another random thought about John 4 and poetry. I was struck years ago by this poem of John Berryman, writing about the early Christian thinker Justin Martyr who after trying different philosophers of his day turned to Christ.

    After a Stoic, a Peripatetic, a Pythagorean,
    Justin Martyr studied the words of the Saviour
    finding them short, precise, terrible and full of refreshment.
    I am tickled to learn this.

    Let one day desolate Sherry, fair, thin, tall
    at 29 today her life the Sahara Desert,
    who never has once enjoyed a significant relation
    so find his lightning words.

    John Berryman
    the seventh of ‘Eleven Addresses to the Lord’ from Love and Flame Faber and Faber

  2. John,

    Thank you for your comments, you have encouraged me to check out some more of John Berryman’s work.
    I wonder if this might be a suitable thread for sharing poetry?

    The following, from Resurrection, An Easter Sequence, by W. R. Rodgers a Presbyterian who ministered in Loughgall from 1935 to 1946, I find inspiring.

    The tomb, the tomb, that
    Was her core and care, her one sore.
    The light had hardly scarleted the dark
    Or the first bird sung when Mary came in sight
    With eager feet. Grief, like last night’s frost,
    Whitened her face and tightened all her tears.
    It was there, then, there at the blinding turn
    Of the bare future that she met her past.
    She only heard his Angel tell her how
    The holding stone broke open and gave birth
    To her dear Lord, and how his shadow ran
    To meet him like a dog.
    And as the sun
    Burns through the simmering muslins of the mist
    Slowly his darkened voice, that seemed like doubt,
    Morninged into noon; the summering bees
    Mounted and boiled over in the bell flowers.
    ‘Come out of your jail, Mary,’ he said, ‘the doors are open
    And joy has it’s ears cocked for your coming.
    Earth now is no place to mope in. So throw away
    Your doubt, cast every clout of care,
    Hang all your hallelujahs out
    This airy day.’

  3. @Peter Morrow

    Thanks Peter for the Rodgers poem, good to know that Presbyterians can be poetical.

    If Moderator doesn’t mind, here’s another Easter poem by John Updike:

    Seven Stanzas at Easter

    Make no mistake: if He rose at all
    it was as His body;
    if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
    reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
    the Church will fall.

    It was not as the flowers,
    each soft Spring recurrent;
    it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
    eyes of the eleven apostles;
    it was as His Flesh: ours.

    The same hinged thumbs and toes,
    the same valved heart
    that — pierced — died, withered, paused, and then
    regathered out of enduring Might
    new strength to enclose.

    Let us not mock God with metaphor,
    analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
    making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
    faded credulity of earlier ages:
    let us walk through the door.

    The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
    not a stone in a story,
    but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
    grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
    the wide light of day.

    And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
    make it a real angel,
    weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
    opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
    spun on a definite loom.

    Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
    for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
    lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
    embarrassed by the miracle,
    and crushed by remonstrance.

    –John Updike (1932- )

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