‘A Drink of Water’ by Seamus Heaney: analysis and preferred criticism

‘A Drink of Water’ by Seamus Heaney is part of a series of poems, written to lament the dead. It is a sonnet which uses Shakespearean sonnet form for its rhyme scheme (abab cdcd efef gg), and the Petrarchan sonnet form for its theme development. In the poem, the speaker is describing an old woman who comes to – presumably – his well every morning to fill her water bucket.

The octave depicts images of the old woman and reminds us of old age and the slow progression towards death: ‘old bat’, ‘whooping cough’, ‘diminuendo’ and ‘grey’.  The use of the word ‘came’ suggests two things. Firstly, ‘came’ is in past tense and implies the woman therefore is no longer there. It also suggest that the speaker is either at the well, or it’s his well, as Heaney used ‘came’ instead of ‘went’.

By the end of the octave, Heaney has used two musical terms: ‘diminuendo’ and ‘treble’. Here we see a similarity between Heaney and Sheers in their combining of music and poetry.

The sestet the looks at the time when the old woman has gone, either for the day or passed away, from the poem physically. There is a shift in the use of onomatopoeia. Heaney has moved to using images in the sestet, as opposed to sounds to describe the woman in the octave.

Heaney writes about the ‘admonishment on her cup’: ‘Remember the Giver’. Therefore if we continue to assume the well belongs to the speaker, the ‘Giver’ would be referring to him. When the old woman was alive, the speaker was the ‘giver’, providing her with water. Now that the woman, is dead, she is the ‘giver’ when the speaker remembers her – she gives him poetic inspiration and memories.



The criticism I preferred is by Aviya Kushner. Reading this criticism, gave me information on both Heaney’s life, as well as an interpretation on A Drink of Water which I can relate to. Her work is concise and uses simple, whilst appropriate language, to convey her ideas. Firstly she introduces Heaney by providing the reader with some information on his life. She then addresses the important ideas in the poem in order, followed by a conclusion concerning the overall meaning of the poem. I found it to be easy to comprehend, as well as a fantastic source of information.


I found the analysis of this poem more difficult that analysis Sheers’ poems. I think this is because after studying Sheers for a while now, I have come to know his style. Not knowing Heaney quite so well yet, it was harder to ‘get inside his head’ and figure out what he might be suggesting in each poem.


3 thoughts on “‘A Drink of Water’ by Seamus Heaney: analysis and preferred criticism

  1. Great analysis. Heaney is well worth knowing, good starting points that are pretty indicative of his style are “Wheels within Wheels” and “Two lorries”. If you want to get to know him better that is. Can’t go wrong with “Digging” either.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A good analysis of the poem at this stage – shows you have learned how to handle poetry. You now need to look at the crits. and pull out what each of the critics claim Heaney has achieved and look for the evidence in the poem. You then need to ‘absorb’ their ideas into your own response to the poem.

    Liked by 1 person

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