Had I Not Been Awake

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  • Had I not Been Awake
    • In this poem Heaney writes about a sudden gust of wind that “rose and whirled” and got him out of his bed in the middle of the night.
      • This poem came from a period of convalescence in the poet’s life when he was recovering from a stroke, and in it Heaney seems to be marking the regaining of a firm grasp on life and its realities. 
        •  The effect of this night-time visitation is expressed in the poem’s most memorable image, where the speaker (who can be identified with the poet rather more confidently than in the case of Frost’s poem) describes himself as getting up: “The whole of me a-patter, Alive and ticking like an electric fence”. 
    • The simile, with its prompt towards the slang term for the heart (“ticker”) and its suggestion of throbbing energy successfully conveys the access of vitality
      • common phrase “alive and kicking” which is varied by a single consonant in the line, actually has associations with birth – the reaction to the air of a healthy newborn baby. Heaney is taking us a long way from any impression of him as a strokeshadowed old man.
        •  This image is allowed its due weight, being followed by a colon, after which the second tercet finishes with a repetition of the first line, which itself is a repetition of the title to reinforce the epochal importance of that night. This is in strong contrast with the meaninglessness of time to the speaker of “Acquainted with the Night”.
          • The sound of the blown leaves is evoked by the onomatopoeia of “patter”. Leaves are a traditional symbol of transience or mortality, but these leaves are “quick”, meaning not only that they move rapidly on the night wind, but also that they are alive.
            •  Suggestions of life and death intermingle in the description as the speaker responds to the sound of the blown leaves. The pattering of the leaves calls forth the response: “the whole of me a-patter”.
              • The imagery of the last two tercets suggests the speaker’s complex reaction to what is literally a life-changing event. (Once again the contrast with Frost’s poem is marked, as there the events of the night are ignored or drained of significance.)
                •  First the wind is described in a simile as returning “like an animal to the house”. This may be the house where the speaker was sleeping – or rather not sleeping – or it may be the house of the body, revitalized by the event.
                  •  However, there seems to be, mixed in with this feeling of enhanced vitality, a fearfulness, and once again the contrasting emotional deadness of the speaker in Frost’s poem may be mentioned.
    •  In “Had I not been Awake” the unexpectedness is not a matter of unmixed joy or relief. We are reminded of the words from the funeral service, “In the midst of life we are in death.” The metaphor of the “courier blast” is appropriate in an obvious way for the wind, but a courier brings a message, and this announcement is violent. 
      • Its brevity is also stressed as it “there and then/ Lapsed ordinary”. The tone in the final tercet seems dazed, as the speaker struggles with his reaction to the event of the night, conveyed by the brief, incomplete sentences introduced by conjunctions which would normally be used to join clauses, but here are used as separators, and by the use of temporal adverbs “then”, “not ever after”, and “not now”.
        • The “not ever after” seems to re-assert transience in the midst of the vitalizing experience, and the speaker and hence the reader faces his – and our - mortality.
          • The spasmodic nature of the concluding lines of Had I not been Awake is very different from the formal composure achieved by Frost through rhyme and reiteration in order to characterize his speaker’s lack of affect as he faces the night.
            • For Heaney, the night is a more or less fortuitous temporal setting; for Frost, it may represent the indifferent universe in which man finds himself.  

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