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Analysis of Poem 'Mossbawn: Sunlight' by Seamus Heaney

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney and a Summary of 'Mossbawn: Sunlight'

'Mossbawn: Sunlight' is a poem that focuses on Seamus Heaney's childhood and the loving relationship he had with his Aunt Mary on the family farm at Mossbawn, County Derry, Northern Ireland.

  • The poem is a subtle exploration of the atmosphere within the house as the auntie makes bread, of the remembered light and love, and shifts between past and present which allows the reader to take in the rich, digestible language.
  • It is an evocative mix of timelessness and ticking time, a blending of elements (water and fire) and of the passing of an era. The reader experiences an almost hypnotic energy as the poem progresses, which comes from Heaney's intuitive power over form and content.

You can picture the poet going over each line, reflecting on the sounds and meaning as both build-up through the seven stanzas:

'The gift of writing is to be self-forgetful, to get a surge of inner life or inner supply or unexpected sense of empowerment, to be afloat, to be out of yourself.'

First published in 1975 in the book North, this poem has all the signature Heaney ingredients - plenty of alliteration, assonance and deep, long vowels, sensual feel to the language and the juxtaposed past and present.

'Mossbawn: Sunlight'

There was a sunlit absence.
The helmeted pump in the yard
heated its iron,
water honeyed

in the slung bucket
and the sun stood
like a griddle cooling
against the wall

of each long afternoon.
So, her hands scuffled
over the bakeboard,
the reddening stove

sent its plaque of heat
against her where she stood
in a floury apron
by the window.

Now she dusts the board
with a goose's wing,
now sits, broad-lapped,
with whitened nails

and measling shins:
here is a space
again, the scone rising
to the tick of two clocks.

And here is love
like a tinsmith's scoop
sunk past its gleam
in the meal-bin.

Analysis of the Poem

'Mossbawn: Sunlight' starts off with an ambiguous first line, a single sentence, which creates a sense of something being there yet being ephemeral. That phrase sunlit absence suggests that the speaker is already looking back into a particular light. How come there's an absence? Something missing from the past?

The speaker takes the reader into a yard where a metal pump warms up, the pump being a symbol of life because it brings fresh water. It's certainly an early focal point, where elements blend, water and fire (from the sun), a creative fusion.

Water is made sweet with that word honeyed which enhances the sense of warmth and goodness as the throaty vowels - slung bucket/sun stood - bring depth and strength.

  • The sun is like a griddle (a metal plate used for cooking) and is a familiar presence, time seeming to stand still on those long afternoons of childhood. Note the only use of a simile.

The third stanza tells the reader that there is someone else besides the speaker, casually introduced in that ninth line...So, her hands scuffled ...this is the poet's aunt Mary in real life. And she's making bread, another vital ingredient for life.

This is building up into a solid scene of domesticity, a closed and cosy environment which is secure and safe and nurturing.

Again there is the focus on heat, this time the stove becoming the vital object as it gives heat with which the bread can be baked but equally as important this same heat affects the auntie who is by the window in the light. This is a parallel to the sun and its influence in the yard.

  • Has the past become the present? Now she could well be that, in the mind of the speaker, time has stopped, yet the memories are fresh and being refreshed as the poem progresses.
  • This is one of the strengths of this poem - it has a timelessness about it, but is rooted in reality because bread is being made, a fundamental domestic task, and scones are being timed by two clocks.
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And throughout the poem enjambment takes the reader on, momentum increasing until the next pause, when things slow down and the past is savoured.

Note the goose's wing, real feathers, perfect for the job but oh so old-fashioned, from another era when life on the farm was truly connected to the land and the animals.

  • There is also a superb portrait of Aunt Mary, her nails white with flour, her shins measling (spotty) and quite substantial (broad-lapped) as she sits after using the wing to dust flour off the board.

It's a powerfully nostalgic tone which underpins the detail and subtle observations. It is love that finally emerges in the shape of the tinsmith's scoop, a metaphor/simile for those enduring family bonds, ready for the next batch of bread making.

All in all, a warm, evocative poem with some delicious language, a portrayal of domestic life that is no longer reality but which is still alive in the memory.

Literary Devices Used

'Mossbawn: Sunlight' has lots of alliteration and other devices to help bring texture of sound and interest for the reader. The contrast between long and short vowel words and phrases creates a particular kind of music, a tapestry of cadences.


When consonants are repeated in words that are close to each other in a line - when the sounds resemble each other - this is alliteration, and there are examples here:

Line 6 : and the sun stood

Line 10 : So, her hands scuffled

Line 14 : against her where she stood

Line 20 : with whitened nails

Line 24 : to the tick of two clocks


Where the same vowels and/or sounds occur in words close together in a line:

Line 5 : in the slung bucket

Line 6 : and the sun stood

Internal Rhyme

Seamus Heaney is a master at using the sounds of full and near rhyme to help connect lines and stanzas throughout poems. Just take a note of these, and other vowel and consonant sounds, in no particular order:





(h) helmeted/heated/honeyed/her hands/here/here

(s) sunlit/slung/sun/scuffled/stove/sent/stood/she/sits/shins/space/scone/scoop/sunk

(p) pump/plaque/apron/broad-lapped/space/scoop

(u) sunlit/pump/slung/sun/scuffled/dusts/sunk

(ea) heated/each/heat/measling/gleam/meal-bin

(oo)(wo) cooling/afternoon/goose's/two/scoop

(it)(et) sunlit/bucket/its/sits

Form, Syntax and Enjambment

'Mossbawn: Sunlight' is a free verse poem of seven stanzas, 28 lines in total. There is no set rhyme scheme and the metre (meter in American English) varies from line to line, there being no consistent rhythm.


On the page the poem looks measured and formal, each quatrain with short lines of between four and eight syllables. So free verse means no full end rhymes, which reflects a certain freedom of mind and creativity, despite the nostalgic feel of some stanzas.


Syntax is the way clauses, sentences and punctuation come together. In this poem, the syntax is based around conventional sentences that vary in length. For example, the opening line is a single sentence, a solid statement which sets the scene.

What follows is another much longer single sentence spread over three stanzas, with minimum punctuation, slowing everything down as details are added.

Another single sentence starts in stanza three and ends in the fourth; same again with the next two stanzas before the final sentence is contained within the last stanza. A neat and ordered syntactical set up - five sentences in the poem.


There are several examples of enjambment, when a line or stanza carries on into the next without punctuation, so helping with the flow of meaning as the reader progresses through.

Stanzas one, two, three and five are enjambed which means there is no pause between stanzas. Note the many lines too without punctuation, allowing the reader more flexibility.


100 Essential Modern Poems, Ivan Dee, Joseph Parisi, 2005

© 2018 Andrew Spacey

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