The Romantics, and especially Wordsworth, were unlucky not to have lived in the smartphone era! Then again maybe we’re lucky that no such modern technology existed in 1802! If Wordsworth were alive today his camera phone would surely be filled to capacity and the scenes and events he captured would be relived and enjoyed later in the comfort of his study – ’emotion recollected in tranquility’ brought into the twenty-first century!
This poem is noteworthy in particular because of its location. Instead of the leafy banks of the Wye or the rolling hills and dales of Cumbria, he brings us to the heart of the city in the early morning. He wants to stress to us that his philosophy of ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ will work just as well in the grubby city as it would by the shores of Lake Windemere.
In this case, he is inspired by the view he saw from Westminster Bridge on the morning of 31st July 1802, although he didn’t write the poem until September of the same year. In fact, the more correct title of the sonnet is ‘Composed on Westminster Bridge, September 3rd, 1802’. He and his sister, Dorothy, were crossing the bridge on a coach taking them to a boat for a trip across the English Channel to France. We know all this because Dorothy mentions the event in her diary:
‘We mounted the Dover Coach at Charing Cross. It was a beautiful morning. The City, St. Paul’s, with the river and a Multitude of little boats made a most beautiful sight …. The houses were not overhung with their cloud of smoke and they were spread out endlessly, yet the sun shone so brightly with such pure light that there was even something like a purity of Nature’s own grand spectacles.’
I’m sure we have all experienced a city in the early morning before the sleeping giant awakes. The early morning light gives the impression that the city has been recently washed and is now clean in the morning air. The gaudiness of the night before with its neon lights flashing on the water and the constant rumbling and screeching of traffic has yet to begin anew. This fleeting moment of peace before the storm is what Wordsworth is describing here as he crosses London Bridge on an early morning stagecoach.
The theme of the poem is London as it lies asleep in the early morning sun. We get the impression here of a sleeping giant, perhaps rather terrifying when awake as some cities tend to be, but, now it sleeps so peacefully that those who see him are no longer afraid and are able to admire his elegance and splendour.
The tone of the poem is one of awe and breathless admiration at the sight before him. He feels a deep sense of peace and contentment at the sight of such man-made things as ships and towers. These sights are made even more wonderful in his eyes because of the closeness of Nature herself – the fields, the sky, the sun, and the river Thames itself.
His opening line shows that to him this is the ultimate in beauty; he cannot understand how anyone could ignore such a sight. We must remember that the poem, like most of Wordsworth’s poetry, is one of feelings and emotions. He refers to this scene of grandeur (‘majesty’) as ‘touching’ whereas often we consider grand and majestic things to be somewhat cold and distant. The city, to him, is a living thing; it is clothed in the ‘beauty of the morning’. The city is also silent at this time of the morning and this impression is reinforced by his use of the sibilant ‘s’ sounds in ‘silent’, ‘ships’, ‘sky’, ‘smokeless’ and also in the line:
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples….
There is a lovely juxtaposition when he uses the word ‘bare’ to describe the ships and towers without their human activity in sharp contrast to the city wearing its beautiful morning ‘garment’. Wordsworth is suggesting to us that all these man-made things are ‘bright and glittering’ only because they are exposed to Nature; that the air is clean only because man is not yet awake to stain it with his smoking fires. The idea of the sharp, clear and clean air is suggested by the words ‘sky’, ‘bright’ and ‘glittering’.
His long list of man-made objects conveys to us what makes the city different: not just one ship but many; not just one tower but tower blocks. The use of alliteration in ‘towers’, ‘theatres’, ‘temples’ also conveys a sense of wonder in the reader and adds to their importance.
There is a sense that the sun is dressing the city to meet another day and that it has never steeped the countryside in the same manner as it does the sleeping city. Gradually the city comes alive: the river is moving gracefully (‘glideth’), unimpeded by the small boats who ply their trade up and down the Thames all day long. The houses have yet to come alive and they will do so as soon as their eyes (windows) are touched by the sun’s rays.
The poet’s prayerful exclamation of ‘Dear God!’ is ambiguous and it seems as if the thought has entered his head that everyone in the houses is also dead. This is a striking example of the poet’s imagination. The final line reintroduces us to the idea of the heart of the city, our sleeping giant. The ‘mighty heart’ suggests something huge, whose heart is gently and soundlessly beating. We all have seen what happens next on our TV screens as the camera uses time-lapse shots to show the ever-increasing flow of people and traffic and shops opening their doors, as the city slowly, relentlessly comes to life – the great giant stirs.
The poem presents us with a very compact series of images. His use of the classic Petrarchan Sonnet formula shows his discipline and craft. (The rhyming scheme is abbaabba cdcdcd). His use of run-on lines suggests the movement of the rising sun over the city. They also emphasise the poet’s use of ordinary speech rhythms, which was a strong feature of Romantic poetry. The run-on lines may also mirror the poet’s rush of emotions as he encounters and strives to capture the scene before him.
A poem with such feeling must be musical. Note his use of broad ‘o’ sounds in the first quatrain, ‘show’, ‘more’, ‘so’, ‘doth’. These broad vowel sounds combined with the long ‘i’ sounds in ‘by’, ‘sight’, ‘like’ also convey the poet’s sense of awe and wonder. I have already mentioned the sibilant ‘s’ sounds that occur throughout the poem and these are associated with the silence and calm of the early morning scene. Finally, in the final three lines, this harmony is brought out by the assonance in ‘sweet’, ‘Dear’, ‘seem’, and ‘asleep’ and in ‘glideth’, ‘mighty’, and ‘lying’.
This poem is similar to ‘Daffodils’ and other masterpieces like ‘Tintern Abbey’ in that it furthers Wordsworth philosophy of what poetry is. He is yet again storing up photographic images using his ‘inward eye’ so that they can be recalled and enjoyed again in the peace and quiet of his own study at a later time. Nature is here presented from a different perspective. It is a delight to the senses and a source of aesthetic beauty and its pleasures can be evoked through memory to fortify the poet at times of distress and amid the ‘din’ of towns and cities. It is a comforter to those in despair, and it can enrich our physical well-being and restore our mental health, prompting him to exclaim as he does here on Westminster Bridge that he never before ‘saw, never felt, a calm so deep!’
Read a more comprehensive analysis of William Wordsworth’s poetry here
Read a detailed analysis of Tintern Abbey by William Wordsworth here
Commentary: Dr Andrew Barker called ‘Digging’ – the first poem in Heaney’s first collection – his Mission Statement Poem. If that is so, ‘The Diviner’ is an early codicil to that Mission Statement! It is yet another of Heaney’s poems about rural crafts and craftsmen. These earlier poems focussed on his rural roots and the local crafts which were synonymous with his local place. Similar to ‘Digging’ and ‘The Forge’, and ‘Follower’, this poem also explores the poet’s early search for poetic inspiration. Heaney discovered his own gift by seeing the connection between the local craftsmen and his own burgeoning desire to be different yet the same.
The first thing to notice here is that Heaney doesn’t name the poem ‘The Water Diviner’ – instead, he uses the more generic title ‘The Diviner’. This allows him to make ancient connections with the meaning of the word. In the ancient world of Greece and Rome, a diviner was a wise man, a seer, a prophet, a mystic, an oracle. Even in ancient Ireland in the Bardic tradition, the diviner was a saoi, literally a ‘wise one’, a poet at the pinnacle of his powers. So, it is evident that Heaney here is making a clear analogy between the work of the local diviner in Bellaghy and the work of a poet. Heaney is making this connection very early on in his career and so he has already accepted the onerous responsibility of following in the ancient footsteps of the Filí and Bards who had gone before him.
Water is, of course, a vital element and it has to be understood by the modern reader that in Ireland even in the 1950’s, houses, especially in rural areas, did not have water on tap as they do today. Instead, water for daily household use was still being drawn by bucket from communal wells in each locality. Therefore, it is no surprise that the person who could locate the presence of water in such springs and wells would be given great recognition and elevated status in the community.
Heaney speaks of this in some of his early poetry in such poems as ‘Personal Helicon’ and ‘Sunlight’. In ‘Sunlight’, one of two poems dedicated to his Aunt Mary’s home place in Mossbawn, he speaks of the ‘helmeted pump in the yard’; this pump which was the centre of his boyhood universe, where ‘water honeyed in the slung bucket’. In ‘Personal Helicon’ he tells us that he is inspired by and attracted to the water in wells and springs. He tells us that as a child ‘they could not keep me from wells’. However, as an adult, it seems that this activity is frowned upon, so instead, he became a poet! In a beautiful concluding sentence, he says, ‘I rhyme / To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.’ There is a clear connection suggested here between the young Heaney’s activities and the older Heaney’s poetry.
The diviner in this poem is seen in the same light as his father and grandfather are in ‘Digging’. The diviner is exploring the hidden depths, the unexplored layers of landscape, seeking out water-bearing aquifers. This is similar to his father or grandfather toiling in the bog, ‘going down and down for the good turf’.
The jury is still out on whether it is even possible to divine the presence of water by holding a forked hazel stick in one’s hands! Scientists still seem to frown on the idea yet in Heaney’s home place of South Derry there would have been one or two men with this innate power, just as there would have been a person who had a cure for burns or had the ability to fix a bad back or rid a person of warts. These cures or remedies had been handed down through the generations from father to son, from mother to daughter. Heaney has realised that he too has a rare gift and he normalises his own talent as a poet by comparing it to those with rare gifts in his own rural community.
The diviner described here was a real expert and he put on a performance for the onlookers present. His actions were ceremonial, just like a priest at the altar on Sunday – he refers to the diviner ‘Circling the terrain’. The poet creates a mood of tension as the ritual performance commences; words like ‘tight’, ‘hunting’, ‘pluck’, ‘nervous’, sharp’, ‘sting’, ‘jerked’, ‘convulsions’, convey tension, urgency, doubt, and expectation in the reader. The tone of the final stanza is far more relaxed and of course, this is because the diviner has been successful in his quest for water and so he ‘nonchalantly’ grips the ‘expectant’ wrists of those who have asked to have a turn and see if the hazel stick will work for them.
Notice the poet’s clever use of the word ‘nervous’ here in stanza one. He is referring to the fact that our nervous system carries messages to the brain – but here it is the diviner who is the path along which the message from the underground water will be carried.
The poet tries to demystify the work of the diviner by using the analogy of a radio signal picking up foreign radio stations as one turned the dial on the old cumbersome radios that were a feature in many rural homes in the Fifties. The hazel stick is likened to ‘a green aerial’, which picks up the unseen signals the water gives off from underground caverns. We know the diviner has picked up the signal when Heaney says in the second stanza, ‘The rod jerked with precise convulsions’. This image of the water broadcasting its position presents us with the notion that the diviner is the receiver and interpreter of messages that ordinary mortals cannot experience or understand. In Heaney’s view, this is also an exact analogy with his work as a poet.
The word ‘convulsions’ suggests to me that the diviner is not in control of his movements and of course the fact that these ‘convulsions’, these involuntary movements, are visible to the bystanders adds to their sense of wonder and awe.
The style of the poem is very matter-of-fact – as if the poet is reporting for his local newspaper! There is also the subtle innuendo that it’s all some kind of hoax that is being perpetrated here by the diviner – that he is some kind of charlatan, pulling the wool over the eyes of his unsuspecting, gullible audience. These notions are finally dispelled and underlined by the final short sentence: ‘The hazel stirred’.
Another interesting feature of the poem that we need to explore is that we are not told what the diviner looks like. This helps the poet to create the feeling of awe and wonder. This is in marked contrast to other poems such as ‘The Forge’ and ‘Digging’, for example, where we are given little pen pictures, sometimes uncomplimentary, of his father and the blacksmith. In ‘Digging’ he looks down from his upstairs study window and sees his father digging in the flower garden: ‘I look down / Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds / Bends low’. In ‘The Forge’ he describes the blacksmith, Barney Devlin, in a very Chaucerian manner: ‘Sometimes, leather-aproned, hairs in his nose, / He leans out on the jamb, …’. However, in ‘The Diviner’ he refrains from making any of these derogatory comments and therefore the mystique of the diviner is maintained right to the end.
The reason Heaney is drawn to these rural craftsmen and their various trades is that he is in awe of the power of the diviner, the turf-cutter, the ploughman, talents that he doesn’t possess but ones that he admires. In ‘Digging’ he tells us, ‘But I’ve no spade to follow men like them’. He is drawn to these people who divine for water, dig in gardens and plough the land and shoe horses because he wants to follow in their footsteps but in his own unique way.
In many ways, these poems, particularly the ones from the collection Death of a Naturalist, are efforts to pacify and appease worried parents who have suspicions that their young son is different. In this, his first collection, he is reassuring them that he’s not that different but that they will have to accept his choice of career: he will be a poet to be reckoned with, he will dig and plough and divine – but with his pen. Fittingly then, thirty or so years later, The Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Seamus Heaney in 1995, “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past’.
For rose-moles all in stiple upon trout that swim;
Fresh–firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He father’s-forth whose beauty is past change:
The poem shows Hopkins at his innovative best. Everything is condensed, distilled, pared back to the bare essentials. His use of comma and semi-colon, compound words, alliteration and simile are examples of his craft. The poem packs a huge amount of detail and contrast and comparison into its ten short lines.
The theme of the poem is the gratitude he expresses to God for the variety and imperfection in Nature, in the implements used by man, for the lesser earthly things, for the two-tone things in life that add beauty by simply being different. He may also be pointing out that God is perfect in sharp contrast to all the imperfection seen on earth. Maybe the message is that variety is the spice of life!
The overall tone of the poem is one of praise and wonder – wonder at the variety and contrast to be seen everywhere in God’s creation. The word ‘pie’ is of Medieval Latin origin and here it means spotted, two-toned or striped. We still use the word today in words like magpie or piebald; someone is said to be pie-eyed drunk; we’ve all heard of pie in the sky; of course Simple Simon met a pieman going to the fair; and where would we be today without our pie charts? When dealing with Hopkins we need to give ourselves permission to think outside the box and there is even room to think of a pastry pie made of assorted fruits – mother’s award winning apple pie even!
The opening line introduces us straight away to the idea of variety and mixture with the word ‘dappled’ (streaked) and, from then on we are among things that have two aspects, the ‘couple-coloured’ are compared, by way of a simile, to a spotted (‘brinded’) cow. We have no problem with this comparison today because all our Irish cows are ‘couple-coloured’ anyway but this wasn’t always the case. The ‘rose-moles’ on the sides of the speckled trout are compared to the once fashionable moles applied to a woman’s cheeks to enhance her beauty. The sound of the word ‘dappled’ is echoed through the poem in words like ‘couple’, ‘stipple’, ‘tackle’, ‘fickle’, ‘freckled’, ‘adazzle’. Hopkins’ use of compound words like ‘fresh-firecoal’ and ‘chestnut-falls’ adds to the overall sense of compression in the poem. The coals of the fire are both red and black, and the windfall chestnuts are often mahogany and beige. The similarity between the coals and the chestnuts is classic Hopkins. Some of these innovative compound words are very unusual, but their very oddness helps the poet to convey the idea of diversity, variety and imperfection as well as adding freshness to the poem.
Hopkins then mentions the birds with their variety of feathers. He is ever the priest looking for good material for his Sunday homily and he once spoke of the sun, stars, birds and bees giving glory to God without their realising that they were doing so. Man can also give this glory to God and mean it. Perhaps he is contrasting and juxtaposing his own intentional praise of God in this poem with the finches instinctive song of praise.
Next we are given the beautiful patchwork quilt image of the landscape with its pastures, meadows, cornfields and ploughed fields. ‘Fold’ suggests a sheepfold, ‘fallow’ suggests land being rested after producing a crop and ‘plough’ suggests land newly tilled and ready for a new crop. It should be very easy for us today to imagine such a sight with our ever increasing use of aerial photography and the use of drones to take photographs from the air. Hopkins, on the other hand, seems to be suggesting that this is a God’s-eye view looking down on the things He has created.
In the fifth and sixth lines the poet is praising the work of man and here also there is an infinite variety in the different types of work performed by man and also a great variety in the implements he uses to carry out his various tasks. All these also give glory to God.
The final five lines are a masterclass in the compression of ideas: God creates all the varying contrasts in life, all things odd, original, spotted. We are then dramatically ordered by the poet to praise God for these things. ‘Fathers-forth’ is a strange compound word. To me this suggests and echoes the creation story in Genesis: God magically clicking his fingers and saying ‘Let there be light!’ ‘Counter’ means contrasting with what is usual, as in ‘counter argument’, ‘spare’ can mean both ‘scarce’ or ‘more than enough’ or ‘left over’. This is exactly what Hopkins is about here: he is trying to show us that there are contradictions within things (even in words). Hopkins uses great technique here in line 9 by placing these contrasting words together side by side without any connecting word or verb and also with his use of alliteration.
A FURTHER NOTE ON HOPKINS’S TECHNIQUE
Hopkins deliberately set out to be innovative and to create a new type of verse, and so he broke many of the accepted ‘rules’ of poetry – rules of grammar, the order of words in the sentence, making up his own words, especially compound words, and so on. In fact, to give further credence to the idea of compression used here, the poem actually reads like a ten line sonnet! His words and phrases are actions as well as sounds, ideas and images. He uses very few verbs and this is accommodated by his repeated use of the semi-colon. The words must be read with the ear and the body as well as the eye. He obviously feels what he sees. This is the challenge for us when we come to study any poem by Hopkins. In coming to our own interpretation of the poem we must not forget the music, and his appeal to our sense of sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell.
Hopkins has been called ‘the poet of energy’. Notice the rush of words in the first three lines and then he pauses as he ticks off his ‘shopping list’ as it were: ‘fold, fallow and plough; / And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim’. The energy is also made possible by the scarcity of verbs and by his use of alliteration. In his great poem, ‘God’s Grandeur’, he says that the earth and all things in it are ‘charged’ with God (like a battery – and long before they were even invented!). This poem, too, like many others is full of God – it is, in fact, a prayer, a spiritual meditation.
As I said earlier the poem reads like a shortened sonnet and Hopkins called it a ‘Curtal Sonnet’ (curtailed). There are only ten and a half lines instead of the usual fourteen lines and unlike the usual sonnet, which is concerned with the number of syllables, Hopkins here is only concerned with stressed syllables. Therefore, in this poem, there are five stressed syllables to each line, with two in the final line. This, however, is just something for you to know; don’t let it interfere with your enjoyment or reaction to the poem.
A more comprehensive analysis of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins is available here
Hopkins said that ‘The Windhover’ was ‘the best thing I ever wrote’. We should first get the feel of the poem by reading it more than once silently and then aloud. Then we begin to realise what a superb description we are given of a bird in flight. His words and phrases seem to mime or mimic the energy and grace of the falcon’s flight. This sight of a hovering falcon is again a relatively common sight today so hopefully, the next time we see such a sight we can recall the words of Hopkins. Hopkins once said that we should read his poetry with our ears, which seems like an impossibility but is not, since many of the sounds we hear create images in our mind.
In ‘The Windhover’, Hopkins uses recurring images of royalty. The high-flying solitary falcon is a monarch of the sky, surging through the steady air. The poet uses chivalric terms such as ‘dauphin’, and ‘minion’ to capture the elegant and dignified ‘striding’ falcon, the prince of the daylight. God, too, is visualised as a ‘chevalier’. Indeed, there are so many images given to us in these eight lines it is hard to know where to begin! The words ‘rolling level underneath him steady’ are best taken as a compound adjective, qualifying ‘air’. Next, we find the falcon ringing ‘upon the rein of a wimpling wing’. Here the bird, by means of a mixture of metaphors, seems to become a bell, hanging by its wings in mid-air. ‘Wimpling’ means quick beating, fluttering or rippling. Therefore, we have an image of the falcon, bell-like, swinging back and forth in a wide arc (‘on a bow-bend’), having mastered ‘rebuffed’ the big wind.
However, Hopkins’ imagination is turbo-charged here and the phrase ‘to ring upon the rein of a wimpling wing’ may also be a metaphor from horse-training, the term being applied in a riding school to a horse circling on the end of a long rein held by its trainer. Also, we must remember that ‘to ring’ is also a technical term used in falconry and this then leads on to the image of a skater doing a figure of eight on the ice! He compares the swooping movement of the falcon to an ice skater and this image also conveys the speed of the bird’s flight. At any rate, the idea of the falcon as a hanging bell, filling the heavens with joyful news (‘In his ecstasy’) is confirmed in that other beautiful sonnet ‘When Kingfishers Catch Fire’ where he says:
each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name
The main feature of Hopkins’s images, then, is the way in which they are loaded with unlimited possibilities. It is as if Hopkins intended to create multiple ideas in some of his images, each interesting and valid in its own way. For example, the image of the falcon on a ‘rein’ may represent the motion of a horse at the end of a trainer’s long rein. However, the term, being ambiguous, could also suggest the spiral climb of the bird. Perhaps, Hopkins is encouraging us to ‘Buckle’ several ideas in our engagement with the poem. What is not in doubt, at any rate, is the powerful and original representation, through the falcon, of Christ’s beauty and nobility. In essence, the poet is like an Impressionist painter striving to capture the essence (the inscape) of the bird.
The word ‘Buckle’ is pivotal in the poem. This word has been the subject of discussion and debate for many years. Some believe that the word means ‘Challenge!’ or ‘Tackle!’ or ‘Come to grips with!’ adversity; others believe that it means ‘Collapse’ or ‘Crumple’ before the assault of evil. There is even a third interpretation which proposes that it means to clasp, fasten together into a single unity all the skills and aspirations. My own interpretation of the word is that the majestic beauty of the bird as described in the octet of the poem crumbles into insignificance when compared to the beauty and majesty of Christ as we see him in the sestet.
Other original images include that of ‘blue-bleak embers’ representing self-sacrifice and the ‘plough down sillion’ that evokes the hardship and perhaps tedium of daily labour. In ‘The Windhover’, therefore, Hopkins employs images of flight, of majesty, of sacrifice and of glory ranging from a ‘dauphin’ to a ‘skate’s heel’, from a ‘fire’ to ‘blue-bleak embers’. Such remarkable and wide-ranging imagery reflects the vivid and precise response of the poet’s imagination to the sight of the falcon at dawn. More importantly, perhaps, the imagery reveals that the moment created a response of deep spiritual insight. There is nothing particularly novel in taking a falcon as subject matter. However, what is original is the way Hopkins engages with the falcon, observes it and concentrates on it in a deeper way and articulates what it revealed to him through an interesting range of original imagery. The priest-poet is praying!
The last three lines give us two images which stand for triumph arising out of defeat and this echoes the essence of the Christian mystery – Crucifixion gives way to Resurrection. He uses words like ‘fall’ (Jesus fell three times on his way to Calvery), ‘gall’ (referring to the stale wine or vinegar offered to Jesus on the cross), and ‘gash’ (an open wound), to reinforce this connection in our minds. The soil that has been ploughed and trodden on gives off a splendid ‘shine’ or radiance; the embers of the fire when they part and fall produce a victorious ‘gold-vermillion’ brightness.
‘The Windhover’ provides us, therefore, with an excellent example of the unique concepts associated with Hopkins: inscape and instress and sprung rhythm. The effort to describe the bird goes beyond mere description of its physical form or appearance (‘wimpling wing’): there is almost a scientific attempt to ‘capture’ its movements (‘Of the rolling level underneath him steady air’). This, however, is only part of the process. The inner form of the bird, its virtues or strengths, are identified (‘Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume’). There is more. The hidden ‘meaning’ or symbolic significance of the falcon is uncovered in a moment of mystical recognition that Joyce would call an ‘epiphany’. T. S. Eliot called it ‘the intersection of the timeless with time.’ It is the moment when the observer recognises God’s plan for mankind in the action of a bird in flight.
To simplify matters, remember this: Hopkins believed in the idea of incarnation. Christ was both man and God; so, too, the world is a combination of the material and the divine. Seeing the divine in the world is the same as seeing its inscape. Feeling the divine presence is the same as feeling its instress. Sprung rhythm is a poetic device used to reveal the energy of God that pulses through the world.
Now look back again over the poem and note the use of detail that goes to make the poem’s eloquence: note that the poem is a sonnet, with octet and sestet; note his extensive use of alliteration and assonance, his use of exclamation; note the tension between line and sentence, form and sense, by the use of colour and the use of heraldic imagery, the passionate rise and fall of the meditation, by the expert daring of it all.
I can’t get it out of my mind that Hopkins lived and died in the nineteenth century and yet he is one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century. Hopkins valiantly tries to describe perfection in this beautiful poem yet he once said, ‘Perfection is dangerous because it deceives us – because there is no perfection on this earth’. As another later twentieth century poet, Leonard Cohen, says, echoing Hopkins’ image of the falcon as a bell:
Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering,
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.
A more detailed analysis of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins can be found here
The following story is taken from the Journal of the Newcastle West Historical Society, No. 2, 1996. The story is memorable for many reasons but particularly because of its importance as a window onto social history as the twentieth-century dawns but mainly it is notable because of the eloquence and storytelling ability of its author, the legendary Frank Phelan of Walshstown, Castlemahon.
I used to like going to the calf mart in Rathkeale every Wednesday in the Springtime. I would go down the shortcut over Knockaderry hill, through the flatlands of Ballyallinan and then join the road coming from Ballingarry into the verge of the town. The first thing that met your eye was the long queue of trailers towed by cars and jeeps and tractors stretching away back as far as the eye could see. Nearly everyone coming from our side double queued at the big wide spacious junction at Well Lane and waited for the friendly nod to pull in before your turn.
On this particular morning a few years back it was an elderly man who gave me the friendly nod and I gladly pulled into the vacant space in front of him. I then went back to thank him and maybe have a short chat about the weather, the prospects for farming or anything topical etc. He asked me where I came from and my name and then he asked if I was any relation to the owners of Phelan’s hardware which was just on the point of closing down at the time. I told him that I was and that the man who started the hardware shop about a hundred years back was an uncle to my father and came out of our old place.
“I knew him”, he said, “I knew him, a grand old gentleman and a good businessman. I was with my father in the shop a few times when he was alive and well and I was only a very small boy and even then you could see what a great character he must have been in his heyday”. 
“Did you ever hear the story”, he asked, “how he sold the first Woods Mowing Machine in West Limerick?”
“No”, I said, “I know a little about him but I’d like to know a lot more”.
“He was”, he said, “a man before his time, a great innovator and loved to see work made easier for everyone in town and country. In the 1890’s all the meadows were still being cut with the scythe like they had been for generations before. A good scythesman would cut an acre in the day and the top men at the job would travel the countryside in search of work. They were known as spailpíns. The clever farmer would have four scythesmen contracted, with the best cutter out in front setting the pace for the others. It was a matter of pride that they all would have to keep up with him and so a big field of hay was cut in a day much to the farmer’s satisfaction”.
When the horse-drawn mowing machine started to come on the market hardly anyone was interested in it, in fact, most were hostile to it, especially the scythesmen, as it would be taking their livelihood away. Nearly all the farmers were also reluctant to change and so it was a very hard job to convince any of them that this would be the greatest boon ever in Irish farming up until then.
Willie Phelan was tired of looking out at his new Woods Mowing Machines on display and no takers until one day his old friend Florry McCarthy from Ardagh was in the shop and they got to talking amongst other things about the harvest and the need for taking advantage of the fine weather. It was July and the meadows were ready for the cutting. “If only I could sell one Woods Mowing Machine my problems would be solved”, he said to Florry.
“Can I help you in any way”, asked Florry.
“You can indeed”, said the wily merchant, “you can indeed. I have a suggestion for you. Take away one of those new mowing machines outside and earn a bit of money for yourself. When you’re into your stride at full throttle pay me back seven and six a month”.
“But I’ve only one horse “, said Florry.
“Can’t you get the loan of a horse from one of your neighbours, you’ve good ould neighbours back there, sure they’d give you the shirt of their back”, said my granduncle.
“I’ll see, I’ll see”, said Florry, needing time to think it over.
Going home that evening he thought to himself that it was a brilliant venture and that he was on the brink of making a historical landmark in the area. He could picture himself being the focus of attention from farmers big and small over a vast sweep of countryside.
“I’ll go up to Din Connors this very evening”, he said to himself, “and ask him for the loan of his grand chestnut steed. Then I’ll go into town in the morning with my common car, hitch on the mowing machine with the long shafts resting on the body of the car and sail away home at my ease”.
There was a rare smile on the face of my granduncle next day as he helped Florry on the way to launch a new chapter to what was to revolutionise life in the countryside of West Limerick for generations into the future. The hum of the mowing machine was a new sound that was to be added to that of the corncrakes and the cuckoo.
Next morning, Florry called on his old neighbour Din Connors for the big chestnut. Din himself came on to do the edging of the blades and to take possession of the new carburundum edging stone and the new flintstone which were thrown in free with the mowing machine. He also got a jampot full of water to dip the flintstone in. They both tackled up in Florry’s yard leaving nothing to chance and drove onto the nearest pasture field. Having cut a round or so without a hitch they were ready for Florry’s big meadow at the back of the house.
The hum of the mowing machine could be heard all day long and the edge was good as a new blade was put in every five or six rounds or so. A few of the neighbours had gathered towards evening as the last of the swathes were flattened and quite a few corncrakes could be seen running or half flying towards the safety of the hedges. There was shaking of hands and congratulations from all the neighbors to Florry and Dinny and a request from the said neighbours to cut their own meadows when time was available.
Dinny’s big roadside meadow was next on the list and the audience of neighbours became bigger including a couple of scythesmen on their own who by their looks did not approve of the new operation. In fact, the only mishap suffered during that whole first season was in Dinny’s big meadow when an unseen stake planted by someone hostile to the revolutionary change brought the mowing to a temporary halt. But Florry was equal to the occasion and using a couple of the spare sections and rivets also thrown in free and having his own hammer and punch he had the blade back as good as new in half an hour or so.
Gradually one by one the neighbours’ meadows were cut clean and white and the smell of new mown hay was like honey in the air. At half a crown an acre charged by Florry everyone was happy with the outcome except Florry himself but he didn’t show one sign of that unhappiness only the reverse. It sounds funny to say that everyone paid him in the same way – not with cash but with hay. I suppose the ould money might be very scarce at the time but anyway what he got paid was two wynds  of hay for every acre he cut and as he had cut upwards of sixty acres that first year it was a mighty lot of hay. All the neighbours whose hay he had cut that first year helped him with his own hay and also with the hay that they paid him with. With his great sense of humour, he enjoyed immensely working with the huge meitheal who came to build the three enormous shiegs or ricks that stretched the length of the haggard which they also covered and thatched with rushes.
In the recesses of his mind, Florry was wondering what William Phelan, merchant, would have to say when he informed him of his financial position after all the meadows he had mown in record quick time. He was therefore pleasantly surprised when at the first opportunity they met on a wet day after a spell of fine sunny weather that the reaction of the man was one of philosophical satisfaction.
“Florry”, he said, “you gave me the start I wanted, you broke the ice when no one else would take the risk and you’ll get your reward some fine day. Pay me when you have it in your pocket”, he concluded.
Florry’s sense of humour was a wonderful asset to him in the fall of that year and also the following Winter and Spring. Anywhere he went, to Mass, at the pub, at funerals or fairs or football matches he would be asked if he knew where there was any hay for sale.
“I do indeed”, he would say, “I actually have some myself to sell but I’m waiting for the price to rise”.
The second mowing season Florry cut almost as much again, even though there was a second mowing machine in the area. And, strange to relate, the payment was exactly the same – two wynds of hay for every acre he cut.
The big problem for Florry was that he might run out of space in his haggard for the enormous amount of hay that was headed in that direction. It was a repeat again of the big meitheal, plenty of porter and banter and craic and at the end of it all three more big shiegs reared their mighty forms into the western sky. Their shadows darkened the narrow roadway into Florry’s house and they resembled a series of gigantic silent ships at anchor in a quiet bay.
Many people now regarded Florry as either a rural celebrity or an eccentric of some sort or a cross between both but that was only in their own minds because outwardly or inwardly it had changed him not one iota. His sense of humour remained intact and his confidential belief that his day would come in some form or other remained unshaken. Strangely he found it much easier to cope with the little arrows of jokery that were thrown at him from time to time whenever the occasion arose that he was amongst a crowd, which was often enough.
The fall of that second year was very wet and cold and cows had to be housed much earlier than usual. There were a couple of big freeze-ups and plenty of snow that Winter. There was no sign of the Spring right up to the end of April and even into May and a lot of farmyards had no fodder left. Florry put an advertisement in the local paper early in April saying that he had an unlimited amount of the best saved hay for sale. Almost immediately he was invaded by a convoy of long scotch cars, with big coils of rope at each rear corner and drawn by a variety of animals, from big chestnut steeds to thick brown cobs and piebalds. They were driven by big rough-looking weather-beaten mountainy men.
Florry went to summon all his neighbours and they arrived as a big meitheal, laden with hay knives and two prong pikes and in no time the cars were being loaded with the finest of hay and the mountainy men were rolling it and packing it in layers the way it should be done. A big jar of porter arrived and they all drank their fill and took a good rest, exchanged a few jokes and yarns and then with renewed energy the mountainy men filled each load to the top like the specialists at the job that they were. Then the ropes were slung across each load, two men on the ground pulled like supermen and firm as the jobs of hell the ropes were tied diagonally to the shafts in front.
The only problem now for Florry was that he might run out of hay such was the demand for it and almost every day he had new customers arriving and he was almost getting the asking price for it. When at last the grass started growing as the sun grew warmer that historic year not a rib of hay was left in Florry’s haggard, only the pale outline of where once those mighty shiegs had been. It was with a light heart that he made his way to town and then into the hardware shop to pay the proprietor in full and after a good chat those two men heartily agreed that old hay was indeed old gold if one only had the patience to wait and sit it out when skies were grey.
This blog post is dedicated to Peg Donoghue who was probably the first to see this article which had been submitted in Frank Phelan’s graceful longhand and who lovingly typed it for publication in the Journal of the Newcastle West Historical Society
 The old farmer is referring to Frank’s grand uncle, William Phelan. William managed what became known as Phelan’s Mill and in 1910 he founded a hardware store and ironmongery in Bishop Street, Newcastle West. In 1915 William set up the Newcastle West and District Power and Light Company and electricity was supplied to the town until the scheme was taken over in 1935 by the ESB. In 1916 he opened the Palace Cinema in part of the mill and this continued up to 1926. The business was later managed by his brother Jim and he expanded the business to include a sawmill and a corn mill. His headed notepaper proclaimed that he was a Machine Implement Agent and Undertaker, a general ironmonger, funeral director, furniture dealer and haybarn erector!
 ‘A common car’ was the phrase used to describe a horse-drawn cart.
It is encouraging to see Shadows on Our Skin back on bookstore shelves again, thanks mainly to its inclusion on the new Junior Cycle Text List for Second and Third Years. The novel tells the story of a young dreamer called Joe Logan who lives with his ailing, cranky, sick father and harsh, resentful mother in a Northern Ireland beset by ‘The Troubles’. He has a gentle soul, the environment does him no favours, he escapes through thinking up and writing poetry but each day he faces the reality of the world he lives in. It was first published in 1977, eight years after British troops were deployed onto the streets of Derry and Belfast. The purpose of this move by the British Government in Westminster was to prevent further civil strife between the increasingly polarised Protestant and Catholic communities. While the initial reaction of the beleaguered Catholic community was a guarded welcome for the British soldiers, this over time turned to suspicion and hostility and finally hatred, especially in such ghettoised areas as The Bogside in Derry and The Falls Road and Ardoyne areas in Belfast. Many Catholics came to regard the British as an army of occupation, much as Joe Logan’s father does in Shadows on Our Skin. For example, on Bloody Sunday, 30 January 1972, in the Bogside area of Derry, British soldiers shot 28 unarmed civilians during a peaceful protest march against internment. Fourteen people died: thirteen were killed outright, while the death of another man four months later was attributed to his injuries. Many of the victims were shot while fleeing from the soldiers and some were shot while trying to help the wounded. Other protesters were injured by rubber bullets or batons, and two were run down by army vehicles. The march had been organised by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA). The soldiers involved in this infamous incident were members of the Parachute Regiment. The inevitable result of incidents such as this was that increasing numbers of young men joined the newly formed Provisional IRA.
‘Over and over again, the same stories’
The background to Shadows on Our Skin, therefore, is the plight of these poor Catholics living in deprivation in mean streets, their lives constantly disrupted by street fighting, ambushes and British army raids on their homes, leading to the destruction of their property and the arrest and internment of many fathers and sons. This struggle between the authorities and a large section of the Catholic population is mirrored in the tensions within the Logan home. Two distinct points of view on the IRA campaign are represented by Joe’s father and mother. The father’s background, reflected in his political outlook, helps to explain why the struggle against the British occupation of part of Ireland persists from generation to generation. He has, for years, filled his son Brendan’s head with tales of his own achievements as an Irish freedom-fighter during the War of Independence in the early 1920’s. We are never quite sure whether these heroic stories are to be believed; his wife, for one, has her doubts. Whatever the truth about the days in which, as Mrs. Logan sarcastically remarks, he ‘ran the Movement’, he creates a persona for himself by means of which he impresses and indoctrinates Brendan. Since childhood, Brendan has been close to his father, feeding off his romanticised accounts of the part he has played in the downfall of the British power in Ireland, ‘listening to the stories, over and over again the same stories, of the glamorous days, the fairy tales’.
What matters is not whether these stories are true, but the effect they have on Brendan’s imagination, outlook and actions. He can repeat the names of the heroes of the War of Independence, the Civil War and the new IRA as one might repeat a litany of saints: Liam Lynch, Ernie O’Malley, Liam Mellows, Sean Russell. He has been taught that these men were uniquely men of principle as well as heroic men of action. Even Joe, young as he is, has been affected by the mythology of republican nationalism. The world his father imaginatively inhabits is peopled with heroes, ‘with patrols and flying columns and sad songs that used to drift down to Joe below, songs about death and traitors and freedom and more heroes’. Much of his father’s patriotism is a matter of bar-room rhetoric, of purely negative emotions such as hatred for the British and contempt for ‘the Free state’ authorities for shirking their ‘legitimate responsibilities’. He is in total sympathy with the military campaign of the new IRA. He believes that the organisation could do with the expertise of people like himself. He longs for a part in the guerrilla campaign as an armchair general (‘If they’d ask me … I have it all at my fingertips … Not only have I the experience but I’ve read the books … They need the old fellows so they do’).
A selfish father
The value of these ideas and of Mr. Logan’s present career as ‘a retired hero’ is consistently challenged in the novel by his wife. From her point of view, he has been living far too long on the legacy of a wound acquired in the Civil War. For her, this has meant living with his self-pity and sentimental reminiscences. It has also meant that she must support the family while he wallows in the misery of his decaying health, tears trembling in his voice as he remembers the days when he was in his prime. Now his life is divided between his sick-bed, the dinner-table and the pub, and dominated by wasteful, futile regrets (‘I should have died then, instead of being mutilated, body and soul. Aye, soul too. I have wasted away my life since’). Apart from having to endure this ever-present sickness of body and soul, the yearlong tears which have left their grey tracks on his cheeks, Mrs. Logan must live with a man whose outlook on issues of life and death differs fundamentally from hers. He is the great life-denying force in the novel, not only in regard to himself but in regard to others as well. He is sustained by memories, drink, and hatred of Britain, none of which find a sympathetic echo in his wife’s heart.
Mr. Logan’s visual appearance suggests a sinister significance: ‘He was like some evil old demon propped up there in his grey pyjamas with an old jersey pulled over the top of them. His eyes were a dirty grey like his pyjamas.’ His response to the killing of two British soldiers provokes a bitter argument with his wife, in which the play of contrasting ideas on violence which dominates the novel is given free rein. When Joe tells him that the two soldiers are dead he smiles happily (‘That’s as good as a tonic … Cause for celebration … A nation once again … Two of the enemy are dead’).
A worn out mother
Mrs. Logan finds this gloating over the deaths of two young soldiers offensive and absurd. What she has to say exposes the poverty of her husband’s outlook on the political situation. Their arguments show how defiantly he lives in a world of abstractions, most of them quite meaningless and alien to her practical mind. His hackneyed celebration of freedom gives her an opening to express the point of view of all those, particularly women and children, who suffer on behalf of political causes. She turns his own terminology of freedom back on him. She wonders, for example, if ‘liberated’ southern Ireland enjoys any more freedom than the occupied North. To her practical mind, freedom has no real purpose unless it results in a better way of life for people. Her comments on the Southern Republic bring some of the major issues raised in the novel into sharp focus:
Is there a job for every man? And a home for everyone? Have all the children got shoes on their feet? Are there women down there scrubbing floors to keep the home together because stupid, useless olds men are sitting round gassing about freedom? Singing their songs about heroes?
A dominated brother
This suggests that Mr. Logan’s notions about Irish freedom reflect an absolute lack of concern for practical urgent realities. There is, of course, more to them than this, because of their profound influence on Brendan. The son precisely echoes and mirrors his father’s reactions to the deaths of the British soldiers. ‘Not too bad … a couple of soldiers killed’ is how Brendan responds when Kathleen Doherty asks him if anybody has been hurt. The depth of his father’s influence is further suggested in conversation with his mother. She believes that the young men of the area who have been arrested for IRA involvement deserve their fate. He sees them as leaders in the struggle for a better life for people like his mother, and argues, as his father does, that nobody will have a decent life until after the British have been dislodged. He regards those who oppose the aims and methods of the IRA as traitors to their class and to their religion, and therefore finds the killing of British soldiers can be easily justified. Her condemnation of this idea and of her husband’s patriotic outbursts is absolute. ‘Does it not enter your head,’ she asks Brendan, ‘that there’s a rare difference between sitting around and listening to a bunch of old men telling their hero stories and what is happening now?’ Words, she knows, can be as deadly in their effect as bullets. She can even defend the actions of the British soldiers in pillaging the Logan home by fixing the blame on her husband and son: ‘They’re no worse than the next man. They only do what they do because of people like you and your father.’
Joe, a victim of his environment
Shadows on Our Skin is a novel of blighted childhood. The adult world casts an ugly shadow on Joe’s youth. He is the innocent victim of a hopelessly inept, irresponsible father and a selfish brother. His school life is as unhappy as his home life. His one pleasant human relationship is ruined by his brother’s interference. The most remarkable thing about Joe is his ability to endure all the cruelties that life can heap on his head and still remain buoyant for so much of the time. Jennifer Johnston renders the sordid atmosphere of the Logan home and its effect on Joe with disturbing realism. Images of decay, filth, and tedium pervade the novel. Down-to-earth details of the domestic scene can suggest the silent, frightening desperation of so many lives like Joe Logan’s: ‘they were eating their Sunday dinner, Mass behind them, an endless Sunday afternoon in front of them …’ the atmosphere of sickness is also ever-present in the Logan household. His father’s sick spells are liable to last for weeks: ‘Ill, shaking all the time and giving off a terrifying smell of illness that made Joe want to keep away from him.’ The father’s predicament has made him so repulsive that Joe is afraid to touch him: ‘He was always afraid that his fingers would sink through the soft, mouldering skin.’
All of this leaves Joe with a diminished capacity for optimism. Everywhere around him there is evidence of human despair and unhappiness. Apart from his father, who has been bemoaning his own fate for years, those closest to him often seem close to tears, particularly his mother. ‘He was’, we are told, ‘frightened by tears, not by children’s tears of rage or pain, nor his father’s blubberings of self-pity, but adult tears like hers and Kathleen’s which made him feel that the world might crack open suddenly.’ Towards the end of the novel, we are given a pitiful glimpse of the effect of his morbid experience on his vision of the world. In his natural resentment of his brother’s interference in his personal life, Joe instinctively destroys Brendan’s relationship with Kathleen by revealing the identity and occupation of her fiancé Fred Burgess. Having performed his act of what he calls ‘deliberate destruction’, Joe runs away for a while, speculating on the kind of world that might lie beyond the sea. The real world beyond the confines of Derry may not, he decides, be any different from the world he knows. His account of the world of his own experience shows that nothing he has so far learned about human relationships gives him cause for hope. As far as he can judge, people are helpless victims of their mutual cruelties, doomed to have their hopes dashed:
Perhaps everywhere you went people were lost, searching with desperation for something they would never find, mutilating themselves and each other in their desperation. There was no safety.
Joe is puzzled by some of the unhappiness he finds in the lives of others, such as Kathleen Doherty, for example. She is telling him about Fred Burgess, the British soldier she intends to marry when he notices how unhappy she is. She eventually confesses that her life is without purpose and she is extremely unhappy with her lot. Even the prospect of marriage to Fred fails to give purpose or meaning to her daily activities. She is unable to find happiness in what she calls ‘the birth, marriage, death routine’. Joe can understand why he himself might have cause for unhappiness but what he finds hard to understand is that ‘safe’ people like Kathleen could or should be unhappy with their life. This he finds unfair. He thinks it unacceptable that life should ‘gnaw at her in this way’. Kathleen’s unhappiness induces a ‘clotted sadness’ in his head.
A world of grief
Joe views the world as a place where people mutilate themselves and each other and where nobody is really secure from grief. The endless domestic conflicts between his parents have helped to condition his responses to the unhappiness of most human relationships. His mother’s predicament is a further lesson in the horrors of home life for so many people of her social class. The burdens of family life have almost crushed her spirit. We learn that her voice is ‘tired to death’, and that she cries quietly. Her face is ‘full of pain at having to move into yet another week’. She is not, however, the burnt-out wreck of humanity that her husband is. She responds with animation to every domestic challenge, repairs the ruins of the house after the British soldiers have wrecked it, devotes herself untiringly to the basic needs of her family, does all she can to further Joe’s moral education, and keeps a home going heroically against the odds. Her husband does little to deserve it, but her love for him shines through in subtle ways. After they have quarrelled bitterly over politics, he leaves her in tears with Joe for company:
‘There’s no sign of your Daddy.’
‘He must have someone to have a drink with.’
‘He’d have been home otherwise.’
Despite his total inadequacy as a husband, she can still look forward to his return and worry about his late homecoming.
Three themes in the novel
Three interwoven themes in Shadows on Our Skin are the past, the family and betrayal. (These same themes are also dealt with powerfully in Seamus Deane’s brilliant novel Reading in the Dark also about a young boy’s experience of ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland). The legacy of the past haunts the Logan family and has a profound effect on the present outlook and activity of its members. Betrayal by family members and close friends of each other’s interests is a disturbing feature of the novel. Indeed, Jennifer Johnston herself has written:
The way I see the world, we are constantly at risk from the people we love most. They are, after all, the only people who can do us serious damage, a damage that lasts forever. I’m a very optimistic person, but I can see this happening.
Mr. Logan is the vehicle through which the past constantly intrudes into the lives of his wife and two sons. He himself lives much more in the past than in the present and keeps an idealised version of his own past before the minds of all who will listen to him. The continuity between past and present which he enforces is based on an ongoing hatred of the ancient crimes of the British enemy against the long-suffering Irish people. He sees to it that his eldest son remains conscious of the grievances of the past and all its bitter memories. His emphasis on past wrongs means that his eldest son sometimes approaches the British-dominated world around him in a spirit of revolt. Love or forgiveness of enemies can have no place in this scheme of things: ‘Look around. Hate is a better word. I can understand that.’ Mr. Logan’s insistence on living in a mythical past in which he was a wounded hero disables him from living in the present in any useful sense and from making any positive contribution to the welfare of his family. Indeed, he invokes the past to poison the atmosphere of the present, to hand on his peculiar version of old events to the next generation.
The novel offers some small (prophetic?) glimmer of hope that the terrible dominance of the past may eventually be broken. Brendan has been indoctrinated by his father’s view of the past, but his commitment to its influence is far from absolute. Kathleen Doherty recognises this. Far from being totally committed to the legacy his father seeks to pass on to him, Brendan is, as Kathleen observes, ‘in a state of great confusion’, with ‘a lot of wrong ideas pushing the right ideas rather hard’. Towards the end, the ‘right’ ideas, the rejection of the violent heritage represented by Mr. Logan, achieve the upper hand, at least temporarily. Brendan tells Joe that he always sees himself carrying on the struggle against the British where his father left off. When the IRA people gave him a gun, this ended his dream of violent activity: ‘It was the gun finished me off. I wouldn’t be any use to them.’
A sense of betrayal haunts the novel. Mr. Logan betrays the interests of his wife and children by refusing to take a constructive interest in anything relating to their welfare. His life is a betrayal of decent standards, an outpouring of totally negative and destructive emotions. Joe practises his own understandable but very deadly form of betrayal. When Brendan infringes on his pleasant relationship with Kathleen, Joe’s jealousy and hatred begin to dominate his life. Kathleen has indicated to Joe her intention of marrying a British soldier, Fred Burgess, but he has kept the identity of this man a secret from Brendan. Joe has promised Kathleen that he will tell his brother nothing about Fred. When Brendan confides in him that he may marry Kathleen, he betrays Kathleen’s secret, taunts Brendan to fury with revelations which shock him, telling him that his rival is ‘a British soldier. She wears his ring, you know. And she tells him everything.’ It is this final betrayal which leads to frightening consequences for Kathleen and darkens the close of the novel.
This series of events split Joe’s world apart, and he is left to process the consequences of the things he has done and the choices he has made. Shadows on Our Skin is a book that is quick and enjoyable to read, but also evokes sadness and seriousness as you absorb the life of the characters within it. It’s a fairly low-key story, and not much seems to happen plot-wise, but there is something about Shadows on our Skin which is strangely compelling and incredibly moving. There’s an aching quality to the story, the type of pain which feels like a knot in the throat which cannot be swallowed away.
And of course, there’s also a bigger picture at work here, which is the political and sectarian war being waged on the streets of Derry. Jennifer Johnson ensures that this is the ever-present backdrop to the novel but it is never the main focus for the reader. However, its presence is felt on almost every page, whether it is reports of bombs going off, soldiers raiding Catholic homes in search of IRA weapons or boys having their sports bags searched en-route to school.
In essence, this is a coming of age story as Joe deals with some very serious situations that he faces, choices he makes and who he is becoming. It’s a poignant and powerful book that really does reflect the awful times that children had to live in during the 1970’s in Northern Ireland. Joe is depicted as an innocent victim of the ‘troubles’ and strife that is going on all around him.
This novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 1977 and I am not surprised. It is very well written and has stood the test of time with many readers. I think the author did a marvellous job of portraying the characters of Joe’s father and mother. We really are transported right to their tiny little kitchen as his mother pours the tea and his father complains about how he was once a hero but no more.
The full list of Junior Cycle English Texts for Second and Third Year can be viewed here
The main purpose of these notes is to assist you in forming an overview of Heaney’s work. For this reason, the material is structured as a series of ‘thinking points’, grouped under general headings. These cover the poet’s main preoccupations and methods, but they are not exhaustive. Neither are they ‘carved in stone’, to be memorised: ideally, they should be altered, added to or deleted as you develop your own set of notes. This priceless pearl of wisdom is relevant for Heaney BUT it equally applies to all the other poets on your course as well!
The following ‘grace notes’ presuppose a basic knowledge of the following poems by Heaney on your Leaving Cert Poetry Syllabus:
The Tollund Man
A Constable Calls
The Harvest Bow
IRISHNESS – HISTORY, MYTHS, POLITICS
In his early poems, Heaney was preoccupied with local history, with communicating the experience of his own place with its numerous customs, rituals and ancient rural crafts (See ‘Sunlight’ and ‘The Forge’).
Then he began to think of history as landscape, exploring downwards, finding evidence of history in the bogs and the very contours of the land, exploring what myth and prehistoric evidence revealed about Irishness (See ‘Bogland’)
Exploring back in time, he makes historical connections between the Iron Age and the present. He draws parallels between ancient human sacrifices and the contemporary violence which was engulfing his native Ulster at the time. He seems to be saying that violence is indeed endemic in all societies throughout history, that human sacrifice is necessary for the integrity of territory, that myths, however savage, are an integral part of the creation of the identity of a people (See ‘The Tollund Man’).
Overall, Heaney’s position has been seen as ambivalent and has been misunderstood by many. His poetry constantly explores the divisions tearing present-day Ulster apart. His position has often met with criticism from all sides regarding his treatment of recent Ulster history. Some critics say he has too much politics in his poetry, while others say he should stand up for his people and take sides. He has been accused of obscuring the horrors of sectarian killings; of endorsing a ‘tribal’ position, or of not endorsing it enough; he has also been accused of evading the issues and being non-committal in his writing.
For many critics, like Elmer Andrews, Heaney doesn’t go far enough: ‘Heaney’s art is fundamentally an art of consciously and carefully cultivated non-engagement’. Do you agree? Is Heaney completely uncritical of his own side? (See ‘Bogland’, ‘The Tollund Man’, ‘A Constable Calls’).
PLACE AND LANDSCAPE
Like Patrick Kavanagh, who is synonymous with his native Inniskeen, Heaney too has immortalised his native place and Mossbawn and Anahorish are mentioned often, especially in those poems which deal with childhood. ‘Sunlight’ presents us with a picture of an idealised childhood, his aunt Mary Heaney’s kitchen is depicted as enveloping him in a womb-like security. His earlier poems, especially those from his collections Death of a Naturalist (1966), Door into the Dark (1969), North (1975), and Field Work (1979), focus very much on home and family, his relationship with his father and mother and the need for continuity between the generations (See ‘Sunlight’, ‘The Harvest Bow’)
Anybody who has read ‘Blackberry Picking’ or ‘Death of a Naturalist’ and other such poems by Heaney will need no convincing that he is a fine descriptive nature poet. Terence Brown says that he has an ‘extraordinary gift in realising the physical world freshly and with vigorous exact economy. Heaney can bring everyday natural events before the readers’ eyes with such telling precision that his images are both recognition and revelation’ (See any of his poems!).
Landscape for Heaney is more than just a subject to be painted: it is a living presence, an ever-present force, a sort of third party to human activity in the poems. This is the same immediate personal presence that we also find in Kavanagh and Wordsworth (See ‘Postscript’, ‘Bogland’, ‘The Tollund Man’).
He shows us differing aspects, different faces, of the landscape: from the life force (‘spirit of the corn’) to the threatening, menacing aspect (‘the bottomless bog’). When writing about the farming traditions of his community he also presents us with the juxtaposing ideas of growth and decay.
Heaney believes that people have a human and a religious relationship with the landscape (See ‘Bogland’, ‘The Tollund Man’, ‘The Harvest Bow’).
The landscape is seen as essentially female, often with erotic associations in its relationship with man (Examine ‘The Tollund Man’ closely).
Heaney’s landscape is dominated by the earth rather than the sky, with the bog providing a metaphor for Irish consciousness (See ‘Bogland’, ‘The Tollund Man’).
‘The landscape for me is an image and it’s almost an element to work with as much as it is an object of admiration or description’. Heaney often uses nature metaphors to express his feelings of frustration and loneliness. For example, in ‘The Harvest Bow’ he describes his frustrating attempts at communicating with his father like this: ‘your stick / Whacking the tops off weeds and bushes / Beats out of time, and beats, but flushes / Nothing’ (See also ‘Postscript’).
Driving out west along the now famous Wild Atlantic Way, along by Flaggy Shore near Ballyvaughan on the West Coast of Clare, the poet explores the beauty of the Irish landscape as a tourist would. Heaney describes the beauty of the landscape and the changing light and the feelings it will inspire. It is a journey poem where the poet finds himself caught between wild things and settled things, between things earthed and things in flight. The sonnet-like structure of the poem gives it a postcard quality ending with simple and powerful words: ‘And catch the heart off guard and blow it open’ (‘Postscript’)
Above all, the landscape for Heaney is a source of creativity and insight: ‘poems … come up … like bodies out of the bog of my own imagination’ (See ‘Bogland’, ‘The Tollund Man’).
TRADITION AND IDENTITY
For Heaney, an awareness of one’s tradition is fundamental to a sense of identity. He explains and explores his own roots, celebrating the ancient skills and crafts that sustained the farming community that nurtured him and his family for generations: the digging, the ploughing, the water-divining, the bread-making, the skills of the farmer, the blacksmith, etc. These skills are described in a reverential way as if they were sacred rituals. (See ‘Sunlight’, ‘The Forge’).
Sometimes he still hankers back to the womb-like security of that life of early childhood. Some interpret these poems describing his Aunt Mary’s kitchen in Mossbawn as a form of regression or escapism from the daily horrors of life in Northern Ireland in the Seventies and Eighties (See ‘Sunlight’). Sometimes he needs to re-forge, reinterpret and understand his links with family in order to rediscover his identity (See ‘The Harvest Bow’ where he says, ‘I tell and finger it like braille’).
‘Our sense of the past, our sense of the land and perhaps even our sense of identity are inextricably interwoven,’ according to Heaney (The Irish Press, June 1st 1974). Therefore, finding and maintaining a sense of continuity is vital to Heaney: family, traditions, customs and values come to him as memories in his poetry and reassure and comfort him amidst the mayhem and uncertainty of daily atrocities in his home place (See ‘Sunlight’, ‘The Harvest Bow’).
He explores his Catholic roots too, as set against the other traditions. According to Robert Welch: ‘Heaney is engaged upon a cultural and tribal exploration; he is testing out his cultural inheritance to see where the significant deposits are located; but he is not engaged upon a mindless submission to the old tradition of the goddess or whatever.’ (See ‘Sunlight’, ‘The Harvest Bow’, ‘Bogland’, ‘The Tollund Man’).
There are times in his writing when his personal identity has overtones of victimhood about it. He certainly seems to identify with victims: ‘something of this sad freedom … should come to me.’ (See ‘The Tollund Man’, ‘A Constable Calls’).
IDENTITY AND POETRY
Heaney’s identity as a poet is inextricably linked in with his historical and cultural identity. The autographical voice we encounter in his first collection, Death of a Naturalist, becomes the spokesperson of his people in the later collection, Door into the Dark (See ‘Bogland’).
He identifies with the bog – he takes on board the implied insult that he is ‘a bogman’ and he owns it! The bog, with all its implications, becomes a kind of subconscious racial memory for him, providing him with inspiration for his poetry. The Danes weren’t the only ones to bury their dead in the bog – there were numerous victims of violence ‘disappeared’ during ‘The Troubles’ and buried in remote, windswept locations on this island too (See ‘The Tollund Man’, ‘Bogland’).
Elmer Andrews describes Heaney’s method in this way: ‘He is proposing an idea of poetry which combines psychic investigation with historical enquiry’. In an essay entitled ‘Feeling into Words’, Heaney himself spoke of ‘poetry as divination, poetry as revelation of the self to the self, as restoration of the culture to itself; poems as elements of continuity, with the aura of authenticity of archaeological finds, where the buried shard has an importance that is not diminished by the importance of the buried city; poetry as a dig, a dig for finds that end up being plants’ (Preoccupations, 1980) (See also ‘The Tollund Man’, ‘Bogland’).
Heaney sees the craft of poetry not just as something mechanical but rather a ‘combination of imagination and skill. He uses a brilliant analogy to describe a poem as ‘a completely successful love act between the craft and the gift’ (See ‘The Forge’).
Heaney’s voice in his poems is often indecisive, timid and ambiguous, his position is that of a hesitant observer on the fringes of the scene. For example, in The Forge he is outside looking in, afraid of the darkness within.
Heaney and other Northern poets such as Montague, Mahon, and Longley have come to prominence because of their efforts to make poetry relevant in a difficult political backdrop. He feels at times that poetry may be powerless to influence politics but nevertheless, it is vital to a sense of identity.
SAMPLE ANSWER: What are the recurring themes in the poetry of Seamus Heaney?
Heaney’s poetry brings us to our senses! There is a tactile, sensuous quality to his poetry and his poetry is often multi-layered. When he says that he will ‘dig’ with his pen he is referring to how layer after layer of meaning can be revealed in the act of writing. In ‘The Forge’ he records a changing way of life as the horse and car make way for the motorcar, but the poem also reveals a growing awareness of the mystery of the creative process. It becomes, therefore, a poem about poetry.
His poetry often draws on childhood memories of growing up on a farm in Co. Derry. In ‘Sunlight’ and ‘A Constable Calls’ he presents us with two contrasting memories, one beautifully tranquil, the other troubled and uneasy. Place is of vital importance, as in Kavanagh’s poetry, but so too are the people associated with that place: the exhumed Tollund man, his Aunt Mary in the family kitchen, his father ‘making tillage returns /In acres, roods and perches’, and his father making the harvest bow.
There is, therefore, a preoccupation with the past and a fascination with it. In both ‘Bogland’ and ‘The Tollund Man’ Heaney, like the ‘pioneers’ who keep ‘striking / Inwards and downwards’, prompts us to think across thousands of years. ‘Bogland’ speaks of how our ancestors’ lives are recorded and contained within the bog. ‘The Tollund Man’, though it also speaks of a bog find, is a more complex poem in that it relates a violent death that took place two thousand years ago in Jutland to the violent deaths which occurred almost daily in Northern Ireland from 1969 until the signing of the Belfast Agreement on Good Friday in 1998. Though Heaney writes about contemporary events, he does so sometimes at a tangent. Heaney himself has said that he has searched for ‘images and symbols adequate to our predicament’. And despite what some of his critics say, he never shirks or avoids the savage reality of violence: in ‘The Tollund Man’ he writes with stark realism of how the mutilated bodies of four young brothers were dragged along the train tracks, their skin and teeth flecking the railway sleepers.
Heaney’s lyric voice is often straightforward. Lines can be plain, unadorned, and deceptively simple: ‘His bicycle stood at the windowsill’, but these opening lines open up and at the same time deepen our understanding of a particular experience. In Heaney’s own words a poem preserves an experience, but ‘it should also open experience up and move it along … so that, first of all, the poet and then the reader, hopefully, gets carried away a little.’
‘So’ is a key word in Heaney’s poetry. It signals a clear-sighted focus on the scene before. For example, in ‘Sunlight’ he says, ‘So her hands scuffled / over the bakeboard’. By his use of this simple word, he achieves an immediate, direct, warm tone in his poetry. Also in ‘Sunlight’, we can see how his use of a shift in tense from past to present indicates how memory or a remembered event can be given a living quality within the poem. The poem begins in the past – ‘There was a sunlit absence’ – but ends in the present – ‘Now she dusts the board … now sits broad-lapped …
And here is love
like a tinsmith’s scoop
sunk past its gleam
in the meal-bin.
Throughout his career, Heaney was very interested in poetic form and structure. ‘The Forge’ is a sonnet and other poems on our course reveal a mastery of many forms – a variety of line lengths and differently shaped stanzas. In ‘The Harvest Bow’ the intricacies of the making of the bow is mirrored in the intricacies of the poem itself: in a line such as ‘brightens and tightens twist by twist’, with its perfect example of internal rhyme and repetition.
Heaney’s poetry is both sensitive and sympathetic. He identifies and understands others. Relationships are at the heart of his poetry, his relationships with loved ones, family, and also his relationship with significant places such as Mossbawn and later Glanmore. He recognises what is good and he cherishes and celebrates it. In his poems he is capable of delight and astonishment; the ordinary becomes marvellous, and such moments are conveyed with wonder, humility and gratitude.
You might also like to read some of the following:
Andrews, Elmer (ed). The Poetry of Seamus Heaney: Essays, Articles, Reviews. Columbia University Press (Icon Books Limited), 1998.
Brown, Terence. The Literature of Ireland: Culture and Criticism. Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Heaney, Seamus. The Government of the Tongue, Faber and Faber, 1989.
Heaney here scrutinizes the work of several poets, British and Irish, American and European, whose work he considers might call into question the rights of poetic utterance. The author asks whether the voice of the poet should be governed, or whether it should be the governor.
Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney’s first collection of prose, Preoccupations, begins with a vivid account of his early years on his father’s farm in Northern Ireland and his coming of age as a student and teacher in Belfast. Subsequent essays include critical work on Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Wordsworth, John Keats, Robert Lowell, William Butler Yeats, John Montague, Patrick Kavanagh, Ted Hughes, Geoffrey Hill, and Philip Larkin.
Welch, Robert (ed). Irish Writers and Religion, Rowman and Littlefield, 1992
“I have two doctors, my left leg and my right” – G.M. Trevelyan
I have recently spent a glorious week in Puerto Rico in Gran Canaria rambling up hill and down dale, so to speak. This place is challenging enough and rambles in the early morning or after five in the evening are recommended. I hope I’m never there during an earthquake!
We have been coming here now for the past ten years and each visit uncovers new delights, improved pathways, steps and roadways. Our favourite walk is the Cliff Walk between Puerto Rico beach and the man-made Amadores Playa. This is an easy ramble and often a preamble to more strenuous excursions.
We invariably book accommodation on the lower level, Corona Cedral would be our favourite place of all but we have also stayed in Monte Verde, Letitia del Mar, Maracaibo, Canaima and also Rio Piedras with its terracotta terraces overlooking the beach. All these are very central – near the main Shopping Centre and also the beach and its many restaurants.
Our favourite restaurants are all on the beachfront. We’ve been evangelists for Oscar’s Restaurant for years and recently it seems to have amalgamated with its near neighbour Restaurante Aguaviva but I’m glad to report that the standards haven’t slipped – the most fantastic prawn cocktail, salmon, fillet steak, Crepes Suzette and all washed down with copious amounts of Marques de Caceres Crianza! The nearby El Greco apartment complex also has three restaurants which are worth a visit, especially La Cantina which is the best of the three El Greco options. The new kid on the block is Frank’s Gourmet Restaurant and after our one visit on this trip, it is guaranteed to keep the others on their toes!
The only drawback I find with Puerto Rico is its distance from the airport – approximately 40 kilometres. However, Gran Canaria has a first class public transport system and once free of Arrivals and the terminal building you can go to the bus terminal and get the 91 bus to Puerto Rico for €5.45 – as opposed to €50 for a taxi. Alternatively, Ryanair and others provide reasonably priced shuttle services to and from the airport.
As one becomes familiar with the area one becomes more confident in foraging out new trails, loops and challenging treks. The one thing to notice is that there are steps everywhere linking the various levels. The local authority has done fabulous work in the past five years building a series of steps from the beach to the high point near Puerto Azul apartments. In all, there are 756 steps in this series – individually counted! – and depending on your exertions you can decide to descend the 756 or take on the more daunting challenge and ascend – or even decide to work both into your evening ramble!
I am reminded that numerous philosophers and novelists have also wandered and wondered. Kierkegaard did so in the countryside near Copenhagen, and suggested that it might be good for his niece, Jette, to do likewise. Prompting her in 1847, he came up with a notion I repeat on my own travels:
“Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. I walk myself into a state of wellbeing and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it” (A Letter to Henrietta Lund from Søren Kierkegaard, 1847, trans. Henrik Rosenmeier, 1978).
I haven’t read many of HG Wells’ novels, but there’s another mantra from one of the non-fiction works, Modern Utopia, that I’ll happily take to my deathbed: “There will be many footpaths in Utopia.”
And whether I’m rambling in the Ballyhouras or in the hills above Bormes Les Mimosas or in Puerto Rico my favourite nugget of wisdom is, of course, T.S. Eliot’s evocative words from The Waste Land (1922), surely one of the most beautiful poetic lines ever written,
“In the mountains, there you feel free.”
In conclusion, I am often reminded of the lovely Latin phrase, Solviturambulando – ‘it is solved by walking’ – sometimes attributed to St. Jerome or Diogenes, or St. Augustine, maybe even Thoreau or Chatwin, inter alia…..
Michael Hartnett’s son Niall givesthe keynote speech onthe first night of this year’s festival. “Poetry is my life and my life is poetry,” the words poet Michael Hartnett wrote in a letter to his son, Niall in 1998, the year before Michael died.
Niall read excerpts from that treasured letter on the opening night (Thursday 12 April 2018) of Éigse Michael Hartnett, the literary and arts festival which takes place each year in his father’s hometown of Newcastle West, Co. Limerick.
In a keynote speech which took its title from a line of Michael’s, The Possibilitywe have overlooked is the future, Niall Hartnett spoke movingly about his father and his work:
“He could weave a tapestry of a small town or an epic struggle at the highest level so seamlessly, you could not always tell which was which. Neither could he, I suspect, and did not see the point in separating the two: there is as much drama in Salad Sunday as there is in Sibelius! As much intrigue in Maiden Street as there was in Inchicore.”
“We need to honour this son of Newcastle West and the road less travelled he took to bridge many worlds early on. I feel we can best do this by encouraging ourselves and especially the young to choose unpredictable paths and unexpected destinies. Break the mould and proudly show others that you did. Invite the young, your family and friends to this festival and encourage them to nurture this legacy which will someday will be theirs. The future belongs to the young and they will carry all of this on we hope, but only if we engage them now! As the poet himself said: the Possibility we have Overlooked is the Future!” Niall added.
Officially opening the festival Mayor of the City and County of Limerick Cllr Stephen Keary said: “It is heart-warming to see that Michael is being celebrated in his hometown. Michael was loved by everyone in Newcastle West, who knew him through his words, as the poet, and I’m delighted that his son Niall is here this evening giving us an account of Michael as a father. There are many sides to people, such as Michael and it’s invaluable that we get an insight into these so that we can understand and appreciate the works of Michael Hartnett even more.”
The opening night of Eigse also saw the joint winners of this year’s Michael Hartnett Poetry Award honoured: Macdara Woods for Music from the Big Tent (Dedalus Press 2016) and Mary O’Malley for Playing the Octopus (Carcanet 2016).
“Music from the Tent is a superb orchestra of verbal melodies, a Big Top in which free verse, ballads and haiku sing and cavort,” the judges Jo Slade and James Harpur said in their citation.
In accepting his award Macdara Woods said: “It is delightful to share with Mary O’Malley an award given in memory of my old and dear friend, Michael Hartnett. We had many wild times, and some quiet times, and adventures together, from Dublin to London to Kilkee, but what remains most clearly, and has become even more apparent with the passing of time, is his genius for poetry and the translation of poetry. I intend to take this award as a personal nudge from Michael.”
His fellow award winner Mary O’Malley added: “I am delighted to receive the Michael Hartnett Award, I too knew Michael and he had kind things to say about my young poems, he has remained a touchstone for me.”
Mary O’Malley’s Playing the Octopus was described by the judges as “a beautiful collection of rare gems that sparkle and seduce.” This is a collection that balances beauty and harmony, the poems are restrained but deeply felt, the voice assured, meaning is revealed slowly like an uncovering of essence, something essential and elemental.”
Éigse Michael Hartnett also highlighted readings by authors John Boyne and Mike McCormack, who has just been shortlisted for the 2018 International Dublin Literary Award and young Limerick poet Edward O’Dwyer.
Professor Declan Kiberd delivered the Michael Hartnett Memorial Lecture on Saturday 14th, entitled, Honey I shrunk the kids, in which he raised the question of whether there is a children’s literature, or whether the classic works from Alice in Wonderland to Harry Potter are written by adults, published by adults, often to promote adult agendas.
“It will then raise an even deeper question–whether childhood, as we know it through literature, is an invention of recent centuries, perhaps even an image constructed in the age of print and now fast disappearing with the spread of electronic and digital media. These are troubling questions,” Professor Kiberd said.
Éigse takes place each year in Newcastle West, Co. Limerick, Hartnett’s home-town and is supported by the Arts Council and Limerick City and County Council. The continuing support received from Sheila Deegan and her team of Aoife Potter Cogan, Dr Pippa Little and ‘the real boss’ Lizanne Jackman was acknowledged at the opening ceremony. The local organising committee is Vicki Nash, Norma Prendeville, John Cussen Rachel Lenihan, Rossa McMahon and Vincent Hanley.
The Michael Hartnett Poetry Award is awarded in alternate years to books of poetry in the Irish and English language.