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Poor Women in a Church by Seamus Heaney
The small wax candles melt to light,
Flicker in marble, reflect bright
Asterisks on brass candlesticks:
At the Virgin’s altar on the right
Blue flames are jerking on wicks.
Old dough-faced women with black shawls
Drawn down tight kneel in the stalls.
Cold yellow candle-tongues, blue flame
Mince and caper as whispered calls
Take wing up to the Holy Name.
Thus each day in the sacred place
They kneel. Golden shrines, altar lace,
Marble columns and cool shadows
Still them. In the gloom you cannot trace
A wrinkle on their beeswax brows.
Dough-faced, beeswax brows - Both give an image of the colour of the women's faces, and 'dough-faced' also seems to conjure up an image of the way their faces look smooth in the dim candle light
Mince and caper - image related to dancing
Jerking - would this be considered imagery?
Still them - I don't understand what the poet means by this
Of meaning, I think (though I'm not sure) "still them" is the same as "make them calm, quiet, without a move". And if so, it is that strange atmosphere in holy places which brings silence and secrecy.
I would say that "imagery" = the literal sensory elements in a piece of writing; whereas "symbolism" = the meanings those images have beyond their literal elements.
So "the sun" as an image is simply the literal sun in the sky, and "the moon" is merely the moon. But the sun is also a symbol of vigour, masculinity, etc., and the moon is a symbol of fickleness, femininity, etc. Or, more elaborately: in Renaissance painting, lilies and the colour blue are often symbols of the Virgin Mary, centaurs are symbols of bestial behaviour, black birds are symbols of death, etc.
Back in a moment...
Dough-faced: yes, I think it is the way their faces look in the candlelight. It might though refer to the shadowy look of faces in dim light, rather than smoothness: the emphasized creases around the mouth and nose might give a slightly "lumpy" look, like dough. (There may also be a subterranean reference here to the "bread" in communion bread and wine.)
Beeswax brows – yes, as you say. The brows catch the light of the candles.
Mince and caper – yes; caper as in dancing (in fact, "dancing flames" is something of a cliché). "Mince" to suggest the more delicate movements of flame.
Jerking - yes; the flames "jerk" as if to free themselves from the wick.
Still them - "still" here is a verb, meaning "to make still", "to quieten".
Back in a minute or two...
Wax candles, brass candlesticks, the Virgin’s altar, blue flames, women with black shawls, golden shrines, altar lace, marble columns, faces, shadows.
Then we have:
1. Poor Women: pun on "poor"?
2. bright/Asterisks: metaphor.
3. dough-faced: an elliptical simile: "faces like dough".
4. kneel in the stalls: possibly a pun on "stalls" in its a) theatre b) livestock senses.
5. tongues: dead metaphor.
6. Mince and caper: metaphor.
7. Take wing up to: dead metaphor
8. beeswax brows: simile - "brows like beeswax".
I'm not sure about "symbolism". Heaney doesn't seem to me to use any of his images especially symbolically here. I suppose you could say there's a contrast between the liveliness of the candles and the stillness of the women.
Do you think he ran out of steam in the 3rd stanza? It seems a bit perfunctory...
See you later!
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