How about this for a piece of verbal magic in Heaney’s elegy for a ‘favourite aunt’ (in District and Circle):
She took the risk, at last, of certain joys —
Her birdtable and jubilating birds,
The ‘fashion’ in her wardrobe and tallboy.
Look how hard the word ‘jubilating’ is working here — except it’s not really working, more like playing or dancing. The word can hardly contain itself, just like the little birds it’s describing. You can see them bouncing and nodding up and down one after the other, with that odd little stop-motion animated effect you get with the movements of birds. It’s like being a child watching an animated film. Or indeed, being a child watching birds on your birdtable. It’s a little Mexican wave of word, as if each syllable were a bird jumping up and landing just as the one behind it jumps up.
It’s also a multicoloured word — no-one in the British Isles will miss the proximity of ‘jubilating’ to ‘jubilee’, so that the word conjures up the red, white and blue of a Royal Jubilee, with the bird-like flicker of cellophane Union Jacks being waved by children. Which of course has political connotations in the Northern Irish context.
But the word is not exclusively Unionist in its associations — it also brings to mind ‘In Dulce Jubilo’, the mediaeval Catholic carol written by the Dominican mystic Henry Suso. Which in turn evokes the spirit of Heaney’s own ‘St Francis and the Birds’, from Death of a Naturalist.
I’m not suggesting this is a political poem, just that political tensions are a perpetual presence in Heaney’s writing, hovering on the edge of awareness, like the ‘ghost surveillance / From behind a gleam of helicopter glass’ earlier in the poem.
And out of the corner of my eye I could swear I caught a glimpse of Christopher Smart’s cat Jeoffrey, eyeing those birds from the pages of Jubilate Deo.
Now you might say I’m reading too much into a single word, and that Heaney couldn’t possibly have intended all those meanings. But I bet he did. Or at least, when the word landed on that birdtable as he wrote, he was aware of that the meanings that (ahem) flocked around it, and saw that they were just what he wanted.