In this assignment, I will compare ‘The Otter’ by Seamus Heaney (page 191-2 in The Faber Book of Beasts) to ‘The Mower to the Glow-Worms’ by Andrew Marvell (page 159 in The Faber Book of Beasts) and explore the ways in which these poets write about animals.
‘The Otter’ is a twentieth century poem and comprises seven quatrains, with no regular rhyme scheme or meter, and the lines differ in length. Throughout the poem, Heaney uses the otter as a conceit to describe a woman who swims with the smooth and graceful movements of an otter. The mood throughout the poem is reflective and emits admiration, intrigue and romantic desire, and Heaney likely uses the image of the otter to convey sensuality. Otters are beautiful and graceful animals, but they are also playful and intriguing, and Heaney attributes these characteristics to the woman.
The first three stanzas are written in the past tense, and the speaker recalls watching as the woman “plunged” and “swung” into the pool, remarking how “the light of Tuscany wavered” from her dive, emphasising the swimmer’s strength and agility, comparable to that of an otter. As the woman swam, the speaker appreciated her “wet head” and “smashing crawl” and admired her “fine swimmer’s back and shoulders”, which serves to further emphasise her powerful strength and her otter-like appearance in the water. The ‘s’ sound is repeated throughout the second stanza, perhaps to emphasise the description of woman’s strong physical build. In the third stanza, the speaker recalls observing the woman as he sat “dry-throated on the warm stones”. The contrast between the “dry-throated” observer and the swimmer’s “wet head” suggests a barrier between the two, and this idea is further reinforced when the speaker addresses the woman directly, stating “you were beyond me”.
From the fourth stanza onwards, the speaker writes in the present tense. He says, “thank God for the slow loadening”, suggesting that his relationship with the woman developed slowly, and he thinks about how when he holds her, they are as close as the water and the atmosphere, implying that the couple are now united. He states that his hands are “plumbed water”, suggesting that his hands are now like the water, holding her. In the fifth stanza, the speaker envisions the woman as an “otter of memory”. The memory of her is “palpable” and “lithe”, almost able to be touched, but she is swimming in the “pool of the moment,” and is soon gone. This suggests that the division between the speaker and the swimmer conveyed in the third stanza is now only a memory in the speaker’s mind, as the two are now unimpeded in their love, as an otter is free in the water. The speaker’s focus then returns to the woman swimming before him, and he watches as she turns to swim on her back, like an otter, and swims with “silent, thigh-shaking” kicks, once again highlighting her great physical strength. Then, fast as an otter, she gets out of the water, “heavy and frisky” in her “freshened pelt”, personifying the appearance of an otter. She is dripping with water, “printing the stones”, perhaps representing the couple’s unification, as the speaker previously sat on the “warm stones” alone, observing the swimmer. This could also symbolise that the woman has ‘left a mark’ on the speaker, like she marks the stones with water.
Throughout ‘The Otter’, Heaney uses imagery heavily to play to the reader’s senses. He recalls the “warm stones” and the “grape-deep air”, appealing to the reader’s senses of touch and smell, and he describes the woman’s physical appearance, citing her “wet head” and her “fine swimmer’s back and shoulders”, painting a visual picture of her in the reader’s mind. He also portrays the woman as swimming with great energy and strength by using harsh adjectives to describe her movements in the water, such as “smashing crawl” and “thigh-shaking kicks”.
‘The Mower to the Glow-Worms’ is a sixteenth century poem and is significantly shorter than ‘The Otter’, comprising just four stanzas. Each stanza is composed of four lines of iambic tetrameter, each of similar length, with a rhyme scheme of ABAB, unlike ‘The Otter’ which lacks both a rhyme scheme and meter and has lines of differing lengths. The poem is spoken by a mower, who addresses the glow-worms lighting his way through the dark field. He praises them for providing light but laments that their light is wasted because he is not focused on mowing the grass, as he is distracted by thoughts of Juliana, the woman he loves. However, his love for Juliana is unrequited, a theme that runs throughout the poem. This theme of unrequited love is also evident in the first three stanzas of ‘The Otter’ but differs from the fourth stanza, in which the woman returns the speaker’s love. The mood throughout the poem grows progressively gloomier and what begins as an appreciation of nature’s beauty, ends as an expression of hopelessness evoked by the mower’s one-sided love for Juliana, a stark contrast to the reflective and admirative mood of ‘The Otter’. Furthermore, Marvell plays with the contrasts of light and dark throughout the poem, which could be interpreted emotionally as well as literally, due to the speaker’s glum outlook. Unlike the otter in ‘The Otter’, the glow-worms are not used as a conceit, straying from the fashion of conceits that was popular in European poetry in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Traditions, 2019, p. 182).
The speaker begins by referring to the glow-worms as “living lamps”, who provide the nightingale with light as she sings late at night. This depiction connects natural light to man-made light but suggests that these “living lamps” are naturally beautiful and attain a level of magnificence that artificial light cannot. The speaker then describes the nightingale’s song as “matchless”, suggesting that the nightingale is without a mate, indicating a theme of unrequited love. In the second stanza, the glow-worms are labelled “country comets” – up to the sixteenth century, comets were considered bad omens foreboding coming catastrophes, from natural disasters to political turmoil (Observational history of comets (2020)). However, the speaker states that the glowing presence of these “country comets” does not forecast tragedy, such as “war” or a “prince’s funeral”, and instead simply foretells the “grass’s fall”, denoting their beautiful simplicity. The speaker then continues to commend the glow-worms for their “officious flame” that guides him through the field at night. However, his reference to “foolish fires” can be interpreted as symbolising the burning fires of desire and passion that illustrate unrequited love. In the final stanza, the speaker tells the glow-worms that their “courteous light” is wasted on him, as his mind is not focused on mowing the grass because it is “displac’d” by thoughts of Juliana. The speaker then states that he shall never “find [his] home”, suggesting that without Juliana, he will never feel a sense of belonging so no matter how brightly the glow-worms shine, they will never lead him home.
Unlike ‘The Otter’, ‘The Mower to the Glow-Worms’ is not steeped in imagery. Marvell uses little descriptive language but through the speaker’s addressing of the glow-worms, the reader can construct a vague mental picture of a field lit up by glow-worms in the darkness.