Sunlight by Seamus Heaney: Summary and Critical Analysis

In the poem Sunlight by Seamus Heaney the speaker was in the kitchen with his aunt. He could see the yard outside. The place outside was sunny but there was nobody who loved him. In the yard, there was a pump which was covered with a protective hat. Because of the sun the pump was heated.

Seamus Heaney (1939-2013)

A bucket was hung in a sling there. Inside the bucket there was water sweetened with honey. As it was summer, the afternoon, was long. The sun seemed to have given enough heat until midday and in the afternoon it looked like a griddle set against the wall by a housewife in order to cool after cooking the food. In the kitchen, the speaker’s aunt was preparing to bake bread for her family members. Her hands were moving over the bake board. She was standing near the window. Her apron was covered with flour. The stove was red and because of the summer its heat could be felt even at the window.

Then she cleaned the flour on the bake board with the wing of a goose. Then she sat making her lap wide. The flour had made her nails white and one could see the spots on the front part of her lower legs. Because of the mother’s presence, the kitchen became a lovely place where one could move or breathe. Now the bread started rising every second. The speaker now realized the presence of love here in the kitchen. The speaker was trying to fill his heart with his mother’s love like a small scoop being filled out of a large container.

Sunlight is a modernist poem that presents an image of a woman in a bakery, illustrating a pitiful working condition that is familiar to us. The poem is notoriously silent about what the poet wants to say. But we can infer deeper meanings ourselves from the situation and images. The poem is deceptively simple in its language. There are no real musical elements, and this is a language beyond irony and metaphor. The poem begins in the narrative mode of expression but ends in mediation.

The poem gives only hints and clues about some possible themes. The first line: “There was a sunlit absence”, is an indication of “absence” of several kinds. There is the absence of company, the absence of comfort, and the absence of love. As we read the poem to the end, we feel that there is no one to talk to. The wall has confined her. The sun has tortured her. Besides, she is near the fire that sends ‘plaque’ of heat. Other clues also support this interpretation. The sun is so parching: the water pump in the yard is heated, and the bucket contains some water that is “honeyed”. She is ceaselessly working all afternoon. She struggles (scuffles) with bake board. With a floury apron, she now dusts the board and now begins the work again. There’s no rest. Her “measling shins” (infected legs) also show how much physical strain that work should be.

The poet records the event very objectively and like a passive observer. He expresses no feelings himself. This is a feature of modernist poetry. But he does present images that arouse the emotion and sympathy in the reader. No one would miss the point where he reads “now sits, broad-lapped, with whitened nails”. This image is vivid and so telling. But all the images are not so easy and unmistakable. Some of them are not uniform. For example, the simile at the end “love like a tinsmith’s scoop” is very ambiguous and complex. The best we can do is to interpret the vehicle “scoop” as an image of threat and torture against the woman. There is another ironic image of a wall being girdled (surrounded) and cooled by the sun that stands against the wall. It is difficult to say what this sun is, though we can guess that it is a symbolic one. It seems to represent, not the warm sun that comforts us, but the sun that tortures those who work in the open and all day long.

The poem uses metaphors and ironies in such a way that language goes beyond the simple and distinctive metaphors and ironies. Though the images seem to be ironical in this poem, they also metaphorically represent the poor people’s lives. This mixture makes it difficult to interpret each image clearly. There is a mind-boggling (puzzling) side to the possible meanings of the image in this poem. The woman is also seen with some attracting: “broad-lapped”, “shins”, and ‘space’, and her activities that seem to attract the observer despite her being poor and dirty. The “love” is another point that may be connected to the attraction. The love there may also mean the bread that she is making even though she is suffering herself.

The poet has used a new and experimental kind of verse in writing this poem. The 28 lines poem consists of four sentences, and the line-ends are usually run-on. The break of the stanzas is also unusual because the poet has deliberately broken stanzas so that the last line of each stanza is grammatically and logically complete only in the next stanza. This gives the effect of compulsive continuity; we need to tumble down the stanzas to understand what the poet is about to say. That also parallels the non-stop and tortuous labor of the woman. The diction of the poem is also deceptively simple, but the theme is not. The subtlety of the diction should be suggestive of the subtlety of the psychological torture in the woman’s life.

The poem also uses none of the traditional rhythms like the iambic, trochaic, anapestic or the dactylic. It presents its ideas in images. The meaning of the poem is nothing but a unique interpretation of the individual reader. So the text is a fluid ground of multiple meanings. The poem is, therefore, open ended and complex. However, based on our understanding of the basic setting, it is interpretable by bringing our own experience of reality as we have seen poor people’s work. The reader is made free to interpret them in traditional poems.

Cite this Page!

Sharma, Kedar N. "Sunlight by Seamus Heaney: Summary and Critical Analysis." BachelorandMaster, 18 Nov. 2013,

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