Close Analysis of John McGahern’s ‘That They May Face the Rising Sun’

download

(For those of you who would like to revisit the novel in your own time all page references are from the Faber and Faber paperback edition.)

 

That They May Face the Rising Sun was published in 2001 (published in the United States as By the Lake) and is a portrait of a year in the life of a rural lakeside community.  It mirrors McGahern’s own return to his rural roots and is his paean to place.  I recently tucked this gem away in the hand luggage to reacquaint myself with the master’s work.  Don, my son, mentioned when he saw me reading it again that he would challenge me to date it – in other words, when exactly is it set?

The structure of the novel is unique and yet deceptive.  There are no Chapters or other recognised breaks in the novel – the story slowly evolves and is told in a circular, repetitive manner, a kind of stream of consciousness novel, beautifully crafted and told by a master storyteller.  McGahern throws some light on this layering and repetition in an interview given to James Whyte, ‘I see the whole function of writing as circling on the image […] To try to pick the image that’s sharp, that can dramatise or bring to light what is happening, be it a wedding ring, a Coca-cola bottle, or someone rolling an orange across the floor.’ [1]

The setting is one McGahern knows completely. It’s his own place, a remote and sparsely populated corner of Fenagh, County Leitrim, between Carrick-on-Shannon and the border near Enniskillen. There are a few houses by a lake, a bog stretching away to the distant Iron Mountains, a small town with two bars and a roofless abbey with the remains of a monks’ graveyard called Shruhaun.  This setting is described meticulously and repeatedly, just as it appears in stories like ‘High Ground’ or ‘The Country Funeral’.  The novel is dedicated to Madeline Green, his wife and support in those final productive years by the lake.

In response to Don’s challenge, the novel is hard to tie down time-wise – there are hints dropped here and there and we get outside references to ‘Fords of Dagenham’, ‘the death of de Valera’ (1975), ‘the escape from Long Kesh’ (1975),  ‘the hunger strikes’ (1980’s),  ‘the ring road round Roscommon’ (1980’s),  ‘Blind Date’ and All Ireland Finals on the television and ‘the massacre at Enniskillen’ (1987), etc.    However, McGahern is continually moving from the present to the past and much of the farming practices described are throw-backs to the Seventies, and Eighties – haymaking, single bar mowers, square bales, and the use of the buck rake are all redolent of this era. However, they are characteristic of ‘small’ farming practices on small holdings in poorer regions to this day.  This muddies the waters when trying to accurately date the text.  As a fictional work accounting for the final years of the author’s life and his return to his native place, my guess is that it took a number of years to write.  Therefore, my best guess is that it was written over time but no later than 1990.

However, it is not of vital importance that we accurately pinpoint the time of writing – it is a beautifully layered piece – it is akin to O’Faolain’s ‘A Nest of Gentle Folk’ – describing the locals, their relationships, their hardships, their foibles and peculiarities.  The lake itself is even reminiscent of Chekov’s ‘magic lake’ in The Seagull. This is mixed in with often poetic seasonal observations from the surrounding nature – the hills, the fields, the swans, the herons, the dogs and cats, the sheep and cattle of the small townland – and of course the lake which takes on the mantle of an ever-present vital character in the novel:

‘The banks were in the full glory of the summer, covered with foxgloves and small wild strawberries and green vetches.  The air was scented with wild woodbine’ (p.15).

‘Around him was the sharp scent of the burnished mint.  Close by, two swans fished in the shallows, three dark cygnets by their side.  Further out, a whole stretch of water was alive and rippling with a moving shoal of perch.  Elsewhere, except where it was ruffled by sudden summer gusts, the water was like glass’ (p.15).

In this place all news is local.  The daily visits to each other’s houses bring the usual banter:

‘Have you any news?’

‘No news.  Came looking for news.’

‘You came to the wrong place.  We are waiting for news’ (p. 126-127).

The outside world does not intrude to any great extent – McGahern is reinforcing the notion that all politics is local, that community is everything.  He is painting a picture of a disappearing world, of a close-knit rural community, cut off from the great earth-shattering events we see described on Sky and CNN – here all that matters is news of John Quinn’s latest conquest or other trivial local happenings which have been reported in the local Observer. The one significant ‘international’ story is the continuing ‘Troubles’ North of the border.  What, I wonder, would the locals in this small backwater Border area make of Brexit when it comes to the shores of the lake?

A year’s cycle frames the lives on the lake: haymaking, market day, lambing. We move at one level from Bill Evens’ daily visits to the Ruttledges and his trips to town on Thursdays to the Shah’s arrival round the lake on Sunday’s.  We then move to celebrations of Christmas, Monaghan Day in February, Easter and the arrival of Johnny Murphy on his annual visit home from England.   Food, drink, seasons, weather, the grey heron, the black cat, are re-created continually, different each time, with intense, eloquent simplicity, as if a painter (or a poet) were returning over and over to the same scene:

The surface of the water out from the reeds was alive with shoals of small fish.  There were many swans on the lake.  A grey rowboat was fishing along the far shore.  A pair of herons moved sluggishly through the air between the trees of the island and Gloria Bog.  A light breeze was passing over the sea of pale sedge like a hand.  The blue of the mountain was deeper and darker than the blue of the lake or the sky.  Along the high banks at the edge of the water there were many little private lawns speckled with fish bones and blue crayfish shells where the otters fed and trained their young (p.44).

As we read, we encounter the ones who stayed, the ones who left and return once a year and the blow-ins who come to live in this magical backwater of a place.  The story is told in cycles of time, the seasons melding into each other, Christmas and Easter given their rightful place.  Even the title echoes the Resurrection at Easter-time and helps explain why every Christian graveyard faces the rising sun!  The novel may not have Chapters in the accepted sense but as we read we are lulled by the benign, repetitive rhythms and cadences of rural life: On Sundays the Shah’s black Mercedes rolls round the lake, on Thursdays Billy Evans goes to the local town in the yellow minibus, each summer Johnny comes from London on his holidays and each evening the heron rises out of the reeds and flaps ahead leading Jamesie round the shore.

Joe Ruttledge and his wife Kate ‘came from London in the spring’ having abandoned the mayhem of London’s high life and glamour and purchased a small cottage by the lake.  The auctioneer, Jimmy Joe McKiernan is brutally honest about their prospective purchase telling them that it is little more than a site, ‘a site above a lake, on twenty acres’:

The small fields around the house were enclosed with thick whitethorn hedges, with ash and rowan and green oak and sycamore, the fields overgrown with rushes.  Then the screens of whitethorn suddenly gave way and they stood high over another lake.  The wooded island where the herons bred was far out, and on the other shore, the pale sedge and stunted birch trees of Gloria Bog ran towards the shrouded mountains….. Swans and dark clusters of wildfowl were fishing calmly in the shelter (p.19).

They learn quickly the native ways and discover a place where they belong – all temptations to return to the centre are gently refused.  Through them, we are introduced to the motley crew of neighbours, the mad, the bad and the sad.  Their foibles, their character and flaws are keenly observed – mainly through Joe’s eyes.  Their neighbour, Patrick Ryan remarks:

‘Strange to think of all the people that went out to England and America and the ends of the earth from this place and yon pair coming back against the tide’ (p.80)

They are blessed with their neighbours – particularly Mary and Jamesie Murphy.  From the very beginning, Jamesie and Mary befriend the new arrivals, Joe and Kate, and made them welcome.  Mary is a very deep reflective character, the real strength in the Murphy household.  She had grown up at the edge of the lake and when she married Jamesie she left her father and brother and moved to her new home at the far side of the lake.  Her home place is described as being idyllic:

Cherry and apple and pear trees grew wild about the house, and here and there the fresh green of the gooseberry shone out of a wilderness of crawling blackthorn.  Hundreds of daffodils and white narcissi still greeted each spring by the lake with beauty, though there was no one near at hand to notice’ (p.92).

When she marries she is torn between her new home and having to leave her father and brother to fend for themselves.  She begins to understand that ‘to be without anxiety was to be without love’ (p.94).  Kate Ruttledge recognizes her worth as a friend and compliments her by saying that the spirit of her old home came with her across the lake. Mary and Jamesie live out their life by the lake: her father passes away, her brother emigrates to Boston, she becomes pregnant and Jim is born. He does well in school, winning a scholarship to continue schooling in the local town.  He marries and has children of his own.  He visits infrequently and holidays in Italy.  Mary’s silent reaction is characteristic of her deep and reflective nature:

Completely alone though a part of the crowd, Mary stood mutely gazing on her son and his wife as if in wonderment how so much time had disappeared and emerged again in such strange and substantial forms that were and were not her own.  Across her face there seemed to pass many feelings and reflections: it was as if she ached to touch and gather in and make whole those scattered years of change.  But how can time be gathered in and kissed?  There is only flesh (p.131-132).

Thinking of her brother-in-law, Johnny, who has returned to his bedsit in London she falls into reverie and shares a philosophy which is probably also shared by McGahern himself:

‘People we know come and go in our minds whether they are here or in England or alive or dead,’ Mary said with a darkness that was as much a part of her as the sweet inward-looking smile, ‘We’re no more than a puff of wind out on the lake’ (p. 121).

Jamesie, an inveterate gossip is, however, a great neighbour and, especially in those early days, the difference between Joe and Kate surviving in their new location.  Early on he tells Joe, ‘I’ve never, never moved from here and I know the whole world’.  As the novel ends, a very emotional Joe acknowledges the debt he owes to Jamesie when he says:

‘You do know the whole world,’ Ruttledge said.  ‘And you have been my sweet guide.’ (p. 312).

However, Jamesie and Mary, and Joe and Kate are the exceptions in this novel as the novel is peopled mainly by single men, men who see being single as a state to be coveted and prized: The Shah, Johnny Murphy, Patrick Ryan, Bill Evans, are all single.  The only exception to this general rule is John Quinn whose biblical mantra is ‘that it is not good that man should be alone’.  Quinn’s numerous efforts at fulfilling this ‘commandment’ are described, sometimes with humour, but his abuse of women is seen as abhorrent and crude.  The others are perfectly happy in their bachelorhood and this is one of the social ills that McGahern holds up to inspection in the novel.  Joe wonders why Patrick Ryan had never considered marriage:

This good-looking, vigorous man had lived all his life around the lake where nothing could be concealed, and he had never shown any sexual interest in another.  ‘I don’t have to even countenance that job,’ he joked once to Ruttledge.  ‘John Quinn has agreed to do my share’ (p. 213).

Father Conroy, the Catholic Parish priest is their role model – he lives a comfortable bachelor life, is respected and is seen as a pillar of the community but his power and influence, and the influence of the Church he represents is waning.  He is depicted as a peripheral, marginalized figure. No-one has a bad word to say about him. In his defence, he does use his influence in getting Bill Evans reinstated on the Thursday bus to town and he eventually finds a place for Bill in the new independent living accommodation in town – called ironically, Tráthnóna.  However, the locals have made their assessment of priests in general and what they represent:

‘Anyhow all the priests in England are sociable.  They are not directly connected to God like the crowd here.’

‘Father Conroy isn’t like that,’ Ruttledge intervened.

‘Father Conroy is plain.  The priests had this country abulling with religion once.  It’s a good job it’s easing off,’ Patrick Ryan said (p.86).

Joe Ruttledge sees Father Conroy as a decent man who tries his best not to offend and to blend in as best he can. Joe realizes that the priest is fighting a losing battle with diminishing levels of religious practice in the community.  That They May Face the Rising Sun is one of the last great expositions of a Catholic community moving on into a ‘Post-Catholic’ world and is another non-bitter example of Ireland’s troubled and complex relationship with the Catholic religion.

The novel is suffused with words of easy wisdom – distilled, incisive one-liners that come from a life keenly observed in the solitude and mindfulness of rural existence (and often delivered as banter):

  • ‘He that is down can fear no fall’ (p. 2)
  • ‘The way we perceive ourselves and how we are perceived are often very different’ (p.3)
  • ‘Thought pissed in the bed and thought he was sweating. His wife thought otherwise’ (p.3)
  • ‘You nearly have to be born into a place to know what’s going on and what to do’ (p.3)
  • ‘Those that care least will win’ (p.6)
  • Jamesie’s wisdom: ‘Enter lightly … and leave on tiptoe. Put the hand across but never press.  Ask why not but never why.  Always lie so that you speak the truth and God save all poor sinners’ (p.8)
  • ‘They say we think the birds are singing when they are only crying this is mine out of their separate territories’ (p.21)
  • ‘The borrowed horse has hard hooves’ (p.26)
  • ‘Let nobody try to best the guards or the doctors or teachers. They have their own ways of getting back at you. (p.34)
  • ‘There’s too much fucken drink passed around in this country’ (p.46)
  • ‘There’s nothing right or wrong in this world. Only what happens’ (p.58)
  • ‘There are times when the truth is the wrong thing’ (p.98)
  • ‘Lies can walk while the truth stays grounded’ (p.98)
  • ‘There’s a big difference between visiting and belonging’ (p.99)
  • ‘There’s nothing worse than widows. Even priests will tell you that’ (p.105)
  • ‘With people living longer there’s a whole new class who are neither in the world or in the graveyard’ (p.155)
  • ‘The greatest country in Ireland was always the world to come’ (p.210)
  • Finally, my favourite! It is Christmas Day and Joe Ruttledge is visiting his neighbour Patrick Ryan.  Patrick has a few cattle but they are not well taken care of.  He passes a very pessimistic comment to Joe that ‘I suppose no more than ourselves, lad, it doesn’t make all that much differ whether they live or die’.  Joe disagrees but doesn’t express his thoughts out loud – we, the readers, are the lucky ones with this beautiful, unspoken Christmas epiphany: ‘What do we have without life?  What does love become but care?  Ruttledge thought in opposition but did not speak’ (p.216).

One of the major episodes in the novel is the annual summer ritual of haymaking.  This was often a very hectic, stressful and frenetic time for farmers who, in Ireland at any rate, are open to the vagaries of the Irish weather.  This is beautifully rendered by McGahern in the novel and the various mundane tasks of saving the hay crop are punctuated with many poetic descriptions of high summer by the lake:

Then the settled weather came, the morning breeze from the lake lifting and tossing the curtains on the open windows to scatter early light around the bedroom walls (p.108).

…..

Outside there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.  The ripe heavy grass in the meadow was stirring like water beneath the light breeze (p.110).

…..

The morning wind from the lake that lifted the curtains had died.  The water was like glass, reflecting the clear sky on either side of a sparkling river of light from a climbing sun.  Not a breath of wind moved on the meadows.  The only movement was the tossing of the butterflies above the restful grass (p.110).

…..

When all the meadows were cut they looked wonderfully empty and clean, the big oak and ash trees in the hedges towering over the rows of cut grass, with the crows and the gulls descending in a shrieking rabble to hunt frogs and snails and worms.  In the corners of the meadows, pairs of plump pigeons were pecking busily at grass seed’ (p.111).

…..

Along the shore a boy was fishing out on the stones, casting a glittering spoon out over the water and then reeling it slowly in.  The heron rose out of the reeds and flapped ahead before swinging away towards the farther shore.  A glaring red sun was sinking below the rim of the sky (p.117).

…..

The next morning a white mist obscured even the big trees along the shore.  Gossamer hung over the pear and plum and apple trees in the orchard and a pale spiderwebbing lay across the grass in the field (p.117).

…..

The very quiet and coolness of the morning was delicious with every hour promising later heat.  When the sun had burned away the mist and dried the dew on the swards, the tedding[2] began (p.118).

…..

As the stacks (of hay) disappeared from the meadows and the shed filled, the sun coming and going behind the dark, racing clouds, they were able to stack the last loads at their ease, chatting and idling.  The birds had gone quiet.  The hum of the insects was still.  Swallows were sweeping low above the empty meadows.  The wind beats of swans crossing between the lakes came on the still air and they counted seven in formation before they disappeared below the screen of trees (p. 134-135).

Weather by the lake is also described in detail and is used as a device to show the passage of time.  Without exception, these link passages are again powerfully poetic and show McGahern’s exceptional powers of observation:

Autumn: ‘There were many days of wind and rain.  Uneasy gusts ruffled the surface of the lake, sending it running this way and that.  Occasionally, a rainbow arched all the way across the lake.  More often the rainbows were as broken as the weather, appearing here and there in streaks or brilliant patches of colour in the unsettled sky.  When rain wasn’t dripping from leaves or eaves, the air was so heavy it was like breathing rain.  The hives were quiet.  Only the midges swarmed’ (p. 154).

…..

‘The lake was an enormous mirror turned to the depth of the sky, holding its lights and its colours.  Close to the reeds there were many flies, and small shoals of perch were rippling the surface with hints of the teeming energy and life of the depths.  The reeds had lost their bright greenness and were leaning towards the water.  Everything that had flowered had now come to fruit’ (p. 186).

…..

‘The little vetch pods on the banks turned black.  Along the shore a blue bloom came on the sloes.  The blackberries moulded and went unpicked, the briar leaves changed into browns and reds and yellows in the low hedges, against which the pheasant could walk unnoticed.  Plums and apples and pears were picked and stored or given around to neighbours or made into preserves in the big brass pot.  Honey was taken from the hives, the bees fed melted sugar.  For a few brilliant days the rowan berries were a shining red-orange in the light from the water, and then each tree became a noisy infestation of small birds as it trembled with greedy clamouring life until it was stripped clean’ (p.191).

Winter: ‘The leaves started to fall heavily in frosts, in ghostly whispering streams that never paused though the trees were still.  They formed into drifts along the shore….. Traceries of branches stripped of their leaves stood out against the water like veins.  Under each delicate rowan tree lay the pale rowan stones, like droppings.  In the cold dry weather the hedges were thinned for firewood, the evenings rent with the whining rise and fall of other chainsaws similarly working.  In this new weather, sounds travelled with a new cold sharpness’ (p. 192).

…..

‘A river of beaten copper ran sparkling from shore to shore in the centre of the lake.  On either side of this bright river peppered with pale stars the dark water seethed.  Far away the light of the town glowed in the sky’ (p. 201).

Spring: ‘The fields long sodden with rain hardened in the drying winds.  Small flowers started to appear on banks and ditches and in the shelter of the hedges….. Birds bearing twigs in their beaks looped through the air.  The brooding swan resumed her seat on the high throne in the middle of the reeds.  The otter paths between the lakes grew more beaten.  In shallows along the shore the water rippled with the life of spawning pike and bream: in the turmoil their dark fins showed above the water and the white of their bellies flashed when they rolled.  The lambs were now out with their mothers on the grass, hopping as if they had mechanical springs in their tiny hooves, sometimes leapfrogging one another’ (p.250).

…..

‘There were primroses and violets on the banks of the lane and the dark leaf of the wild strawberry, dandelion in flower and little vetches.  It was too early to scent the wild mint but they could see its rough leaves crawling along the edges of the gravel’ (p. 258).

Summer: ‘The plum trees blossomed, then the apple came and the white brilliance of the pear tree.  May came in wet and windy.  The rich green of the grass in the shelter of the hedges travelled out over the whole fields.  Weeds had to be pulled from the ridges, the vegetable garden turned and weeded.  Foxgloves appeared on the banks of the lane and the scent of the wild mint was stronger along the shore’ (p. 263).

…..

‘The water was silent, except for the chattering of the wildfowl, the night air sweet with the scents of the ripening meadows, thyme and clover and meadowsweet, wild woodbine high in the whitethorns mixed with the scent of the wild mint crawling along the gravel on the edge of the water’ (p. 312-313).

As the novel moves to its climax McGahern revisits the annual commemoration of the massacre at Glasdrum.  This is embedded in the local folk memory and commemorates an ambush carried out by the Black and Tans during the turbulent War of Independence.  The local volunteers had no chance and were mown down in the ambush and their bodies are buried in the graveyard in Shruhaun.  Following the massacre, the locals carried out a reprisal killing and the local Protestant, Sinclair, is taken away from his family and shot.  Each year the deaths of the IRA volunteers are commemorated by a march and speeches are made at their gravesides.  This is orchestrated by the Jimmy Joe McKiernan and is used as a reminder of the brutality and oppression suffered in the past.

The whole area on either side of the Border again suffered greatly during the ‘Troubles’ which divided the people in Northern Ireland during the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties.  Communities on both sides of the Border were convulsed with acts of brutality and violence.  This conflict is close and ever-present; it colours the whole history of the region.  Jimmy Joe McKiernan who is also the local auctioneer, publican and undertaker has his finger in many pies.

In the middle of the crowd, Jimmy Joe McKiernan walked quietly, the head of the Provisionals, North and South, with power over all who marched (p.258).

McKiernan’s every move is monitored by a very Irish form of surveillance: two ‘undercover’ detectives sit in their ‘unmarked’ police car in a laneway across from his bar in the village and record his every move. McGahern’s cipher and benign alter ego, Joe Ruttledge, speaks out fiercely against the violence towards the end of the book – ‘They honoured themselves at Enniskillen.  How many people did they kill and maim?’ (p.238).  We are left in no doubt where the author stands on this important issue – an issue that is raised on the opening page when Joe Ruttledge tells us:

‘We never speak badly about people.  It’s too dangerous.  It can get you into trouble’ (p. 1).

Throughout the novel, in endless, repetitive descriptions of people and places, McGahern is reminding us all of how people lived in the past and how we should live our lives today before it is too late. There is an old Irish sean fhocail or proverb which states ‘Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na ndaoine’ – we rely on our neighbours for our survival.  The pastoral and Edenlike world created by McGahern here in this, his swansong novel, gives us a notion of how this can be achieved; neighbourliness, hospitality, ritual, friendly banter.  In capturing this passing way of life he celebrates its rites and rituals with such dignity that the novel has many of the hallmarks of religious worship. But more important than the living world he celebrates is the natural world which surrounds it – the sun, the sky and the lake – which provides order and an everlasting backdrop to the lives of its inhabitants. The time frame of the novel may be blurred and timeless but the constantly evolving and changing descriptions of the lake are a constant reminder of our strictly human scope within the wider canvas of the natural world.  As Mary Murphy reminds us we are merely passing through – “We’re but a puff of wind on the lake.”  Joe Ruttledge puts it beautifully in his already mentioned Christmas epiphany: ‘What do we have without life? What does love become but care?’

[1] Interview, quoted in James Whyte, History, Myth and Ritual in the Fiction of John McGahern, NY: Edwin Mellon Press 2002, p.229.

[2] Tedding – turning the hay with a hay turner

McGahern (3)

Read also: Amongst Women by John McGahern

Advertisements

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro: A Review

maxresdefault

Kazuo Ishiguro’s recent elevation as Nobel Laureate will surely prompt avid readers to explore his repertoire further. They could do worse than lose themselves in this offering from 2015.  The novel took me back to my undergraduate days in UCC in the 1970’s studying classics like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Beowulf.  Ishiguro’s tale sets out to be a classic Arthurian fable depicting Sir Gawain himself, and others on various quests. Ishiguro exploits the avalanche of recent interest in this genre as seen in Peter Jackson’s cinematic telling of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings saga. While the novel may not lend itself to a film blockbuster, it does have all the attributes for one of those all-consuming RPG’s (an acronym I’ve just newly acquired!) in which you work your way through various adventures and levels and perils on your journey to eventually achieving your Holy Grail.

The novel is set at a certain indistinct time after the death of the legendary Arthur.  Britons and Saxons enjoy a fragile peace: the first tentative steps being taken to assimilate both opposing forces in villages and communities throughout the realm.  However, we soon learn that this peace is maintained only because each community is afflicted by a collective loss of memory surrounding their horrendous war-torn past.  The she-dragon Querig is said to be responsible for this collective amnesia by the spreading of a mysterious mist which envelops the countryside and the hamlets.  Indeed, the novel explores the rather vexed issue of memory, and race memory in particular, in maintaining peace in a fractured – and fractious – post-war political landscape.  This idea, of memory and its loss, is dealt with by Ishiguro on two fronts – the geopolitical and the personal.

The novel has a number of narrators, principally Axl and Beatrice – but others including Sir Gawain, Sir Wistan and the various boatmen also provide necessary insights, observations and reveries as the story unfolds.  The early chapters introduce us to Axl and Beatrice, his princess.  They are Britons who live in an underground, warren-like community, surrounded by monsters and ogres and never-ending mists blowing in from the mountains and fens.  They live ‘on the edge of a vast bog’, where ‘the past was rarely discussed’ because ‘it had faded into a mist as dense as that which hung over the marshes’.  However, they are being increasingly marginalised by their elders in the Great Chamber and eventually decide to leave to seek out their son who has left for some forgotten reason.  Thus begins the great adventure.

Early in their journey, they come upon a mysterious boatman. Their conversation with him lays the foundation for their fears that restored memory will bring disaster and a possible end to their solid, loving relationship.

We meet Sir Gawain who has been given a quest by Arthur to slay the she-dragon Querig.  He has spent his life wandering the hills getting to know her ways and her guile, so much so, that he eventually becomes her protector.  He is mocked by the women for his inactivity in fulfilling his quest, and we find him wandering the foothills on his trusted warhorse Horace, a rather pathetic figure of ridicule – a forlorn relic of a chivalrous past.

We also encounter the warrior, Wistan, and his young protégé Edwin, who it is feared has been affected by a dragon bite.   We learn that Wistan has been sent by his Saxon king in the eastern fens, to seek out Querig and slay her. The motivation behind this seems to be that once Querig has been slain and the people’s memory fully restored, the long-suppressed divisions and hatreds will resurface to aid the king in his quest to gain Saxon control over the kingdom.

Axl and Beatrice continue their journey, accompanied by Sir Gawain and the young boy Edwin.  They detour to visit the wise Father Jonus who lives in a monastery in the mountains, on the pretext of receiving a cure for Beatrice’s mysterious ailment.   The monastery, once a Saxon citadel, holds further dangers for the party as they are forced to escape through secret passages to freedom.  They continue relentlessly upward to the Giant’s Cairn, where Querig reputedly has her lair.  Once Sir Gawain and Querig have been slain by Sir Wistan, Beatrice and Axl are made aware of the tragic consequences which will follow: memory will soon be fully restored and the dogs of war loosed again, with devastating consequences. Once again Britons will be set upon by their Saxon neighbours, ushering in another period of war and unrest, the fragile peace put in place by King Arthur shattered forever.

Axl and Beatrice make their way from the dragon’s former lair and again meet another boatman. Beatrice reveals – her memory now restored – that in fact, their son is dead and is buried on a nearby offshore island.  They undergo the dreaded solitary test administered by the boatman and the novel ends in sadness, as Axl is left on the shore, while the boatman ferries the ever-weakening Beatrice to the mysterious island.

In this novel Ishiguro provides us with a  thinly veiled modern allegory – his thesis seems to be that a collective loss of memory is necessary in the various trouble spots around the world where untold savagery and genocide have been unleashed if reconciliation is to take place.  We can only imagine the difficulties that daily face communities which were once suffused with hatred and division.  The situation in Northern Ireland obviously springs to mind. We see regularly on our televisions and newspapers the efforts made to normalise peace in these communities after almost a quarter of a century of atrocity, a process which requires a near Orwellian stretching of credibility on our behalf.  In fact, we may wonder has Ishiguro’s mist been replaced there with the modern version – sterling, euro and dollar?  We may also remember other recent trouble-spots such as Israel/Palestine, South Africa, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Syria and question: how can normality be restored, how can society pick up the pieces again? Can Humpty Dumpty ever be put back together again?

As well as the geopolitical implications Ishiguro applies the same thesis to the more private area of marital love.  The touching tenderness and faithfulness exhibited by Axl and Beatrice belie the difficulties they have had to face in their long lives together. This has included a period of infidelity by Axl which has been glossed over, and also, the death of their only son.  Surely, this mysterious yet fortuitous amnesia has been a Godsend to them in maintaining their closeness and their touching intimacy. Surely their relationship would not have otherwise endured but for the benign balm of amnesia.

Consider then the gargantuan achievement of Ishiguro in The Buried Giant: it is a masterpiece about characters who all suffer from various degrees of memory loss, and yet we as readers are able to piece the story together, to read between the lines….  It is, however, an allegory in wishful thinking.  In reality, there are no quick fixes to help us cope with our post-traumatic stresses. We cannot rely on the temporary balm of forgetfulness. If anything, in our world we are left to deal with generation after generation of bequeathed toxic memory.  Atrocity on the world stage or infidelity on a personal relationship level are not so easily forgotten, nor forgiven.

images (8)

A Brief Analysis of Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Death of a Naturalist’

    lint-hole-sm              

Death of a Naturalist

  By Seamus Heaney

All year the flax-dam festered in the heart

Of the townland; green and heavy headed

Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.

Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.

Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles

Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.

There were dragonflies, spotted butterflies,

But best of all was the warm thick slobber

Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water

In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring

I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied

Specks to range on window sills at home,

On shelves at school, and wait and watch until

The fattening dots burst, into nimble

Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how

The daddy frog was called a bullfrog

And how he croaked and how the mammy frog

Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was

Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too

For they were yellow in the sun and brown

In rain.

Then one hot day when fields were rank

With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs

Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges

To a coarse croaking that I had not heard

Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.

Right down the dam gross bellied frogs were cocked

On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:

The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat

Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.

I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings

Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew

That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.

Commentary:

In the title poem of his first ever collection, Death of a Naturalist, Seamus Heaney gives a very sensuous and sumptuous description of the goings on at his local flax-hole.  This hole or ‘flax-dam’ contained the flax which had been harvested and was now being soaked in a man-made hole in the corner of the flax-field in August.  When the process was complete the flax was taken out and became the raw material for the thriving linen industry which had long flourished in Northern Ireland but was now showing some signs of decay in the nineteen fifties.  The poem has an added resonance for me because I live in a beautiful part of West Limerick and next door to me is the townland of Ahalin, or Achadh Lín in Irish, which means the ‘field of the flax’. Each time I read this poem I am reminded that at some time maybe in the 1800’s or before just over the road from me was our very own flax-field with its festering flax-dam!

 In this poem, ‘Death of a Naturalist’, Seamus Heaney gives a brilliant description of the local flax-hole.  It is a memory poem, one of the many poems written about his childhood and early school days.  Heaney, in this first collection of early poems mines a rich vein of childhood memory.  It is, however, embellished memory – childhood through a rosy adult lens.  The poem is extremely sensual and evokes the senses of sight and sound and smell to perfection.  Indeed, the poem invites the reader to read it aloud such are the myriad examples of assonance and alliteration scattered throughout.

The flax-dam or flax hole came into its own each August when the flax crop was ready for harvest.  Flax pulling by hand was a backbreaking job, taken on by casual, often transient workers. Hand pulling was necessary because the whole stem, from root to tip, was required to give the longest fibre, for the finest quality linen cloth. The pulled flax was tied up in beats (sheaves) and put in rows or stooks on the flax field.  The stooks were collected and put into flax holes, or dams, and kept under water for ten to fourteen days. This was to `rat’ or `rot’ the inside wood part from the outside fibres.

The ‘flax-dam’ festered and ‘sweltered in the punishing sun’ in high Summer.  We can almost hear the bluebottles as they,

Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell’.

Each August the flax was immersed in the flax hole and sods of earth were used to keep it submerged.

The flax hole may have only been used by the farmers during the harvest but of course, it lay there unused all year round. The young poet, as naturalist, is obviously drawn to the pool at other times of the year as well, especially when there were great clots of frogspawn evident each Spring.  He also visits in May to see the dragonflies and every July and August to spot the butterflies:

There were dragonflies, spotted butterflies,

But best of all was the warm thick slobber

Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water

In the shade of the banks.

The poet uses onomatopoeia to great effect to aid his description: ‘bubbles gargled’, ‘slobber of frogspawn’, ‘coarse croaking’, ‘the slap and plop’, and the brilliant ‘blunt heads farting’.  We are also reminded of his age with the use of the word ‘jampotfuls’ and by the childish simile ‘Poised like mud grenades’.

Like all other budding young naturalists, he is lucky to have a great teacher! ‘Miss Walls’ encourages him and provides him with the necessary information, always appropriate to his age of course!

Miss Walls would tell us how

The daddy frog was called a bullfrog

And how he croaked and how the mammy frog

Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was

Frogspawn.

Her ecology classes sent him out to the meadows to collect samples for the classroom and for the windowsill at home in his kitchen in Mossbawn.  Miss Walls also imparted other vital pieces of information which are seized upon by the young eager naturalist:

You could tell the weather by frogs too

For they were yellow in the sun and brown

In rain.

There is a sense of childhood foreboding and fear of the flax hole and the mating frogs which is recreated with great accuracy by the poet – he knew, or he had been told by his elders, that ‘if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it’.  These stories were obviously very effective in keeping inquisitive young boys away from the vicinity of these dangerous flax dams and he feels threatened and frightened by the scene that confronts him at the flax-dam.

The great slime kings

Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew

That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.

Indeed, the whole poem can be seen as a metaphor for growing up, laden with imagery which could be interpreted as sexual: we sense a child’s revulsion as he discovers the facts of life and his ensuing loss of innocence. He will never feel the same again about the countryside after this encounter with the bullfrogs!  As the poem’s title suggests,therefore, his days as a naturalist are drawing to an end!

 

images (7)

… and I knew / That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.

Early Divisions in Ireland – The Origins of our Counties, Baronies, Parishes and Townlands.

mapofcountiesofireland98kb

The division of Ireland into counties took place shortly after the Anglo-Norman Invasion, led by King Henry II in 1171.  In 1211 King John (1199-1216) divided the whole of the country that acknowledged his government into twelve counties in Leinster and Munster. Very little regard seems to have been paid at this time to the ancient division of Ireland into five Provinces.

In Leinster, he created Dublin, Meath, Uriell (now called Louth), Kildare, Catherlough (Carlow), Kilkenny and Wexford.  These contained all the province of Leinster, except the following: Upper Ossory, inhabited by the Fitzpatricks, Leix which was inhabited by the Moores, Offaly which was inhabited by the O’Connors, Ely O’Carroll which was inhabited by the O’Carrolls, and some other territories which were inhabited by other various Irish septs.  Later in Leinster, the territories of Leix, Offaly and Ely O’Carroll and some others, were reduced into shire-ground in the time of Queen Mary (1553-1558) and then divided into two counties, one called Queen’s County and the other King’s County.  The county of Wicklow, which had up to this been vaguely considered as part of the counties of Dublin and Carlow, was made into shire-ground and formed into a separate county in the third year of James I  in 1606 approx.

In Munster, King John created the five counties of Waterford, Cork, Kerry, Limerick and Tipperary which at that time formed the province.  The provinces of Connaught and Ulster were divided into counties by Statute by Elizabeth I (1558-1603).  Connaught had seven counties: Galway, Clare, Roscommon, Mayo, Sligo, Longford and Leitrim.  Since then Clare has joined Munster and Longford has moved to Leinster.  The province of Ulster was divided into nine counties: namely those of Down, Antrim, Tyrone, Armagh, Monaghan, Cavan, Fermanagh, Donegal and Londonderry (cf. Harris’s Hibernica, p2).

Baronies

The first sub-division of Counties is into Baronies, largely corresponding with that of Hundreds (or Cantreds) in England.  The name, Barony, derives from the sub-division of the conquered land among the Norman barons, hence barony.  Other baronies appear to have been formed successively as a result of submissions made by individual Irish chiefs who ruled over them; the territory of each constituting a Barony.  This may account for the inequality in size between them and the manner in which parts of many are intermixed among each other in some cases.  There were formerly ten baronies in County Limerick: namely Clanwilliam, Lower Conello, Upper Conello, Coonagh, Coshma, Coshlea, Kenry, Oweneybeg, Pubblebrien and Small County.  This was later extended to fourteen, including Limerick City Borough, Kilmallock, Shanid and Glenquin.

My own parish of Knockaderry (formerly the parish of Clonelty) was situated in the barony of Glenquin.


baronies-of-co-limerick

The fourteen Baronies in County Limerick

Parishes

The next sub-division into Parishes is of much greater antiquity than that of Baronies.  Originally it was purely Ecclesiastical and was introduced among the Civil sub-divisions largely out of convenience.  Since all of these sub-divisions were central to the taking up of the Census this particular sub-division has always caused some difficulty as often the Civil and Ecclesiastical arrangements did not always correspond.  In the past, parishes were sometimes found to extend not only into other baronies but even into different counties.  Added to this you sometimes had the anomaly of parishes belonging to the Established Church differing from those of the Roman Catholic Church.  It has to be stated that the establishment of the Parish Rule by the fledgeling Gaelic Athletic Association in the nineteenth century led to a great consolidation of parish boundaries leading to very little room for debate or confusion!

Townlands

The smallest subdivision of the country is that of Townlands.  This name, however, is not universal throughout Ireland: some counties have used the term Ploughlands (Plowlands) instead; each Ploughland being supposed to contain 120 acres approximately.  Townlands have, in many instances, been sub-divided, and in many cases, the name has been changed.  Many names, now antiquated, were formerly used to designate the smaller sub-divisions of land in Ireland.  The following are the most often used:

  • A Gneeve (from the Irish ‘gníomh’ meaning a deed, a feat, an accomplishment). A ‘gniomh’ was seen as the amount of land that could be encircled or encompassed in a day by a ploughman and his horse ploughing a single furrow.  A rule of thumb was that a ‘Gneeve’ contained up to 10 acres but obviously, all depended on the ploughman in question!  This sub-division of land is still remembered today in the name given to the parish of Gneeveguilla in North Cork.  The placename when translated from the Irish means literally ‘Gníomh go Leith’ (a Gneeve and a half).
  • A Gort (or garden in Irish) which usually contained 6 acres.
  • A Pottle contained 12 acres.
  • A Ballyboe (‘Baile Bó’ meaning literally “cow land”) which in some places could be as large as 60 or 100 acres.
  • Sessiagh (Irish: séú cuid, meaning sixth part of a quarter or 20 acres).
  • A Poll (or Pole) containing 50 acres.
  • A Cartron which contained 60 acres.
  • A Tagh (or Tate) containing 60 English acres.
  • A Ballybeatach (Irish: baile biataigh, meaning “victualler’s place”) contained 480 acres (being 8 Ballyboes of 60 acres each)

The Ploughland (Plowland) and the Gneeve are the only names that were noticed by the Census Enumerators in the Censii taken up in 1821 and 1831 that were still in use in some parts of Ireland.  At that time the most common land measurement was either the Irish or Plantation Acre, the Cunningham Acre or the English Acre.  The difference between these arose from the different lengths of the perch used as a standard in each: the Irish perch was 21 feet, the Cunningham perch was 18.5 feet and the English was 16.5 feet.

Thomas Larcom, the first Director of the Ordnance Survey of Ireland, made a study of the ancient land divisions of Ireland and summarised the traditional hierarchy of land divisions thus:

10 acres – 1 Gneeve; 2 Gneeves = 1 Sessiagh; 3 Sessiaghs = 1 Tate or Ballyboe; 2 Ballyboes = 1 Ploughland; 4 Ploughlands = 1 Ballybetagh, or Townland; 30 Ballybetagh = 1 Barony.

It is interesting to note the instructions given to the Enumerators before they set out to gather their information for the Census of 1821.  They were instructed to ‘execute their duty in the mildest and most inoffensive manner; complying in so far as could be with the feelings of the people and never having recourse to the law except in the most urgent necessity.’  There are notes on what constitutes a family and among other points raised were – ‘strolling beggars were considered as forming distinct families and where met with on the road at a distance from their usual place of residence were entered as residing in the house in which they last lodged.’  It also noted that ‘every collection of contiguous houses, if under twenty, was to be considered as a Hamlet; if more than twenty and not under a peculiar local jurisdiction a Village.’

In the final report of the 1821 Census, we find the following comment – God be with those innocent times! – that in organising the data of the Census ‘in the classification of the Sexes no difficulty occurred’ (Report signed by W. Shaw Mason, Record Tower, Dublin.  11th July 1823).

References used:

Kerins, Christy. Archive Records 1800 – 1900 for Ballingarry, Granagh and Clouncagh, County Limerick. A Millenium Project, 2000.

Wikipedia –  search Townlands.

Review of ‘Boyhood – Scenes from Provincial Life’ by J.M. Coetzee

boyhood-by-j-m-coetzee (1)

Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life, offers us great opportunities to explore the world of a young boy who is trying to make sense of the adult world around him.  Coetzee’s novel is set in South Africa between 1945 and the 1960’s and indeed, it is amazing how uncannily similar boyhood in South Africa and boyhood in small-town Ireland in the late 40’s and 50’s seems to have been!  On every page one experiences successive soft shocks of recognition: BSA bicycles, the Meccano set, Superman and Mandrake the Magician on the radio, The Rover and Reader’s Digest, Treasure Island, Swiss Family Robinson, the circus, the head colds in winter and the summer visits to the farm, the secret storms in the heart.  As Philip Larkin ruefully has it, in one of his many marvellous poems about childhood, ‘Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.’

Coetzee is admirably honest in his refusal to romanticise his childhood or to portray it as a time of the trembling veil before the adolescent artist stepped forth in all his glory.  There was, it seems, precious little bliss in that South African dawn.  The young John in Boyhood defines childhood as follows:

Childhood, says the Children’s Encyclopaedia, is a time of innocent joy, to be spent in the meadows amid buttercups and bunny rabbits or at the hearth-side absorbed in a storybook.

This vision of childhood, faintly reminiscent of De Valera’s 1930’s vision of Ireland with ‘comely maidens dancing at the crossroads’, is utterly alien to Coetzee.  Nothing he experiences in Worcester, at home or at school, leads him to think that childhood is anything but a time of gritting the teeth and enduring the pain and the shame.

School plays an important role in the growth of our young protagonist.  The young John (Coetzee) works hard in school, not out of any real love of learning, but in order not to attract attention, to remain unremarked, untouched:

So this is what is at stake.  That is why he never makes a sound in class.  That is why he is always neat, why his homework is always done, why he always knows the answer.  He dare not slip.  If he slips, he risks being beaten: and whether he is beaten or whether he struggles against being beaten, it is all the same, he will die.

(Note: Where Coetzee is concerned, for every ‘he’ read ‘I’!)

The school scenes are very good, catching with shiver-inducing accuracy, the intense, humid, faintly indecent relation that exists between teacher and pupils.

He has three favourite books, Treasure Island, Swiss Family Robinson and Scott of the Antarctic.  He is unable to work out if Long John Silver is bad or good and, ‘he only likes the bit about Titus Oates (in Scott of the Antarctic), the man with frostbite who, because he was holding up his companions, went out into the night, into the snow and ice, and perished quietly, without fuss.  He hopes he can be like Titus Oates one day.’ !!

Race and religion feature strongly in the novel as you would expect.  There are many religious categories and they do not live in harmony, ‘That is how Jews operate, says Norman, you must never trust a Jew.’  In one passage, the young John must choose at school between religious affiliations: ‘Are you a Christian or a Roman Catholic or a Jew?’,  he is asked by an impatient teacher.  From this multiple-choice quiz, the boy from an atheist family picks Roman Catholic and is thereafter (to his relief) exiled from the school’s official Protestant devotions.  But now he has to deal with more than occasional persecution by Protestant bullies – he also arouses the suspicion of his fellow exiles, the Catholic boys who want to know why he is absent from catechism!

A strong feature of the culture of Boyhood is people’s belief in old tales and stories.  This again, has great echoes for me of the stories picked up by the young narrator in Seamus Deane’s Reading in the Dark classic.  Remember the story told of a local couple who married and the husband went away to sea and was presumed dead?  The sailor’s spirit comes back to torment his wife who had taken up with another man while he was away.  The priest drove the spirit out, yet at night, the image of a child in pain could be seen in the window.  The house concerned was a local one, so people continued to tell that story and the young boy is entranced by it.  Similarly, in Boyhood, John welcomes the visits to his grandfather’s sheep farm and the family gatherings that take place there and he listens avidly to the old stories.

Boyhood, I suppose, could be said to be a Portrait of the Artist type novel although the epiphanies are not as major as in Joyce’s work.  It is written, like much of Coetzee’s work, in the third person, in the continuous present.  In my mind it has great similarities with other favourite novels of mine, Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane and Mark Haddon’s masterpiece The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.  Indeed, all three novels share a dystopian view of the world but Coetzee more than the other two has a particularly potent brand of stoic desperation in the face of the world!  I suppose it has to be allowed that his claim to despair is impeccable: South Africa, after all, where he was born and lives and writes, was until recently a very graphic working model of a dystopian, dysfunctional society.  In such richly dreadful circumstances, what novelist could resist writing directly or indirectly about the politics of the day?  However, it has to be said that Coetzee’s fiction is also exemplary in the way in which the author flies by the nets of politics and shows, ‘how not to play the game by the rules of the state’. It surely must be both a curse and a blessing for an artist to live in the ‘interesting times’ of a totalitarian regime, as Coetzee is well aware.  His real achievement is, however, that all his books are so concentrated, so poised, that they do not solely depend for their power on our knowledge of where and in what circumstances they were written.  Surely this is one of the identifying marks of authentic, enduring works of art.

 Coetzee recalls the trials and tribulations of growing up in a provincial South African town at a time when apartheid was on everyone’s lips.  Indeed, the book could be renamed, Portrait of the Artist as an Afrikaner!  South Africa in the 40’s and 50’s was a place very similar to Seamus Deane’s Derry, a place of oppression and cruelty.  Coetzee, however, like Deane in the Irish situation, treats apartheid obliquely, distilling its violence in dark fables of devastation that point a finger at South Africa.  His themes, like Deane’s, lie where the political, spiritual, the psychological and the physical converge: the nightmare of bureaucratic violence; our forlorn estrangement from the land; and a Shakespearean anxiety about nature put out of its order.  Coetzee, in Boyhood, considers it both a curse and a blessing for an artist to live in the ‘interesting times’ of an oppressive regime.  Indeed, it can be said that we are given a very subtle ‘Political Education’ in both novels!

 For most of Boyhood, the young boy has this sense of being ‘unnatural’, ‘damaged’, and ‘deformed’.  But gradually it dawns on him where this apprenticeship in fear and loathing will take him.  The young Coetzee is very perceptive and reflective and he has a very close relationship with his mother.  Walking one day with her he sees a boy running past, absorbed in himself.  The boy is Coloured, as distinct from Native, and is unremarkable, despite having a body that is, ‘perfect and unspoiled, as if it had emerged only yesterday from its shell.’ John knows that if his mother were to call out ‘Boy!’ the coloured boy would have to stop and do whatever she bade him to, such as carrying her shopping basket, and he realises that this boy, ‘who is slim as an eel and quick as a hare,’ is a living reproof to him, and embarrassed, ‘he squirms and wriggles his shoulders and does not want to look at him any longer, despite his beauty.’

He oscillates in his allegiances between his father and his mother.  He joins his father in mockery of his mother when she buys a bicycle and tries to ride it, yet he has never worked out the position of his father in the household, and in fact ‘it is not obvious to him by what right his father is there at all’.  He wishes his father would beat him, ‘and turn him into a normal boy,’ yet he knows too that if his father were indeed to beat him, ‘he would become possessed, like a rat in a corner, hurtling about, snapping with its poisonous fangs, too dangerous to be touched.’  By the close of the book, when the family has moved to Cape Town, the father has sunk into debt, failure, and alcoholism, and as he sinks, the mother rises: ‘It is as though she is inviting calamities upon herself for no other purpose than to show the world how much she can endure.’

However, the young Coetzee is strident in his acknowledgement that he owes much to his upbringing, especially to the influence of his mother.  She has bequeathed to him an artistic vision, an ability to reflect and observe.  He hates the dull, uninspiring essays he is asked to do in class and admits that if he could he would write something far darker, stranger, far more mysterious: ‘Like spilt ink, like shadows racing across the face of still water, like lightening crackling across the sky.’

On the other hand, his father is a major disappointment.  He has waged war on him from an early age but it is only towards the end of the novel that we realise how serious the situation is.  The family are bankrupt as a result of his gambling and alcoholism and he pours scorn on what he considers to be a pathetic figure.  His mother continues to support her husband, to the boy’s amazement, defending him with the barbed comment, ‘Wait until you have children’.  He comes to realise, however, that she is the rock at the centre of his precarious existence and in one of the many epiphanies in the book he comments: ‘This woman was not brought into the world for the sole purpose of loving him and protecting him and taking care of his wants.’  He has huge respect for her and he says towards the end of the novel, ‘he would rather be blind and deaf than know what she thinks of him.’

Overall, Boyhood presents us with a rather bleak vision.  Coetzee has written elsewhere that South African literature is precisely what you would expect from people living in prison.  Boyhood gives us a clear insight into the prison that the notoriously private Coetzee has himself inhabited: drab suburban housing estates; an alcoholic, distant father, his business career decaying; an overly intimate long-suffering mother.  This is the story of millions of 20th. century families everywhere in the developed world.  But Boyhood is more than this.  However, it is primarily an internal account, the story of an exquisitely painful – almost autistic – self-consciousness, a subjectivity so sensitive and so tender that it seems like ‘a crab pulled out of its shell, pink and wounded and obscene.’  The novel seems to suggest that the best we can do is to try to keep ourselves sane by continuous reflection.  No hope is offered.  There is no happy ending and we do not observe an improvement in John’s relationship with his father or his mother.  If anything he manages to maintain a cold detachment from both throughout.

Tony Humphreys, a noted clinical psychologist, author and all-round guru, has written a very popular book called, The Family: Love it and Leave it.  This is the great adventure which the young protagonist in Boyhood undertakes.  He is endeavouring to cope with his family situation as best he can.  Coetzee ends up writing to make sense of the world he lives in. In fact, he appears to be casting about in his childhood for the roots of his success as a writer: Did it spring from his marginal social position as an English speaker from an Afrikaner background; or from his intensely passionate, sentimental attachment to his father’s family farm; or from the smothering affection of his mother, which made him feel like a solitary specimen, both protected and deformed?  Whichever is the correct version, he feels compelled to write his way out of his own South African prison; and we all benefit from his struggle.

About the Author….

JM-Coetzee1

John Maxwell Coetzee is a South African novelist, essayist, linguist, translator and recipient of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature.  Before receiving the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature, Coetzee was awarded the Jerusalem Prize, CNA Prize (three times), the Prix Femina Étranger, The Irish Times International Fiction Prize and the Booker Prize (twice), among other accolades. He relocated to Australia in 2002 and lives in Adelaide. He became an Australian citizen in 2006.

 

 

 

An Analysis of the Character of Christopher Boone

The-Curious-Incident

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is set in an ordinary suburban street in Swindon sometime in the late twentieth century.  Christopher, the main character, suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome and is confined to his house and his mainly scientific hobbies.  He rarely ventures into his neighbourhood and his main venture each day is to attend a special school.  However, later in the novel, he undertakes a major adventure, which leads to his exploring the city of London and discovering its ways.

Christopher’s family unit is under a lot of pressure – mainly due to the stress involved in bringing up a young boy with autism.  Christopher’s parents separate and other family’s in the neighbourhood also experience marriage break-up.  His father lies about the disappearance of Christopher’s mother.  She eventually leaves because she can no longer cope.  She has an affair with her neighbour, whose wife, in turn, has an affair with Christopher’s dad.  He doesn’t really understand these developments and he is more of a loner than a family member.  It can be said that the comings and goings, the trials and tribulations, which befall Christopher are similar to those that befall many who live in a present-day urban setting.

Christopher’s life revolves around maths and what colour cars he sees in the morning. He is innocence in its subtlest form. He lives with his Father. When he finds his neighbour’s dog dead in the garden with a garden fork sticking out of his stomach, he sets out to find who the murderer is. This leads him to many a revelation and a world that Christopher isn’t used to. So, he decides (as does his helper Siobhan) that he should write a book about the events that occur after the dog’s death. So, that’s what he does. And that’s The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time by Mark Haddon.

This debut novel by Mark Haddon introduces us to the irresistible voice of his fifteen-year-old narrator, Christopher Boone, and this is what elevates this novel to fantastic heights.

It was 7 minutes after midnight. The dog was lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn in front of Mrs Shears’ house. Its eyes were closed. It looked as if it was running on its side, the way dogs run when they think they are chasing a cat in a dream. But the dog was not running or asleep. The dog was dead. There was a garden fork sticking out of the dog. The points of the fork must have gone all the way through the dog and into the ground because the fork had not fallen over. I decided that the dog was probably killed with the fork because I could not see any other wounds in the dog and I do not think you would stick a garden fork into a dog after it had died for some other reason, like cancer for example, or a road accident. But I could not be certain about this.

I went through Mrs Shears’ gate, closing it behind me. I walked onto her lawn and knelt beside the dog. I put my hand on the muzzle of the dog. It was still warm.

The dog was called Wellington. It belonged to Mrs Shears who was our friend. She lived on the opposite side of the road, two houses to the left.

Wellington was a poodle. Not one of the small poodles that have hairstyles but a big poodle. It had curly black fur, but when you got close you could see that the skin underneath the fur was a very pale yellow, like chicken.

I stroked Wellington and wondered who had killed him, and why.

“This is a murder mystery novel,” Christopher explains a few pages further on.  Reading was for him a way of opening the doors of his imagination and allowing it to run free.  As a child, he had the ability to think things out in detail.  This ability helped him piece the truth together from the flimsy snippets of information he had acquired.  Christopher Boone is a great fan of Sherlock Holmes and especially his detective masterpiece, The Hound of the Baskervilles.  Indeed, it is this novel which gives him the idea that he should become a detective and investigate the killing of his neighbour’s dog, Wellington.  “In a murder mystery novel someone has to work out who the murderer is and then catch them,” he reasons. “It is a puzzle.”

Christopher is quite good at puzzles.

****

His discovery of letters written by his ‘dead’ mother leads him to try and solve another mystery.  His father tries to protect his son by telling him that his mother has died when in fact they have separated and she has gone to live with her new partner in London.  Christopher’s discovery of letters written by his mother after her ‘death’ gives rise to a major breakdown in trust between himself and his father and also to his heroic efforts to be reunited with his mother.

Christopher is also very good at mathematics, and at remembering, and he proves to us many times in the book how good he is. For fun, and to calm himself down, he squares the number two over and over again. At times it’s rather scary that he can do it, and you wonder what it must be like to be like that. To be so capable of one thing – doing mathematics – and being so incapable of another thing – living a life. It’s heartbreaking. Even when it comes to numbering the chapters in his book the chapter numbers don’t go in order of ascending numbers, as is usual, but Christopher instead uses prime numbers.

Christopher is entirely incapable of delineating among the various grades of human emotion on the scale between happy and sad, which makes for a curious, if not altogether perplexing narrative perspective. Reporting on the conversations and interactions around him with virtually no understanding of their portent, Christopher surely ranks among the most hard-boiled detectives in all of literature. Logic dictates, indisputably. His brain is a one-party political system with no room for checks and balances – no fifty shades of grey here!

Christopher may not recognize them, but emotions lurk behind virtually every clue he uncovers. Still, his pitch never varies. Christopher never slips off course. That dissonance, the weighty, shifting space between the story Christopher is telling and the one we are reading exposes depths of insight and feeling no simple, straightforward narrative could hope to provide in so few pages.  At certain times in the novel we feel great empathy for Christopher’s  father: after all, Christopher is quite content with who he is and it is his father who has to watch him be how he is.

***

The Curious Incident is a unique novel, as Christopher’ narration gives us a powerful insight into the autistic mind.  So while he is brilliant at science and maths (at one point, he quickly calculates 2 to the power of 15!) its people he finds complicated.  With their devious ways and moods, people aren’t ‘logical’.  By allowing us to observe Christopher’s thought processes, Mark Haddon shows us our illogical world in all its duplicity, while at the same time witnessing Christopher’s awkward behaviour getting him into countless rows with his family, friends, and teachers.

“Not liking yellow things or brown things and refusing to touch yellow things or brown things” is, in fact, one of Christopher’s Behavioural Problems. He does not like dirt, gravy, wood, or poo, or anything brown for that matter, including Melissa Brown, a girl at his school. And if on the bus ride to school he was to see four yellow cars in a row, to cite one extreme manifestation of his dislike for all things yellow, it would be “a Black Day, which is a day when I don’t speak to anyone and sit on my own reading books and don’t eat my lunch and Take No Risks.” To Christopher, despite sensible arguments to the contrary, this behaviour makes perfect sense.

Mrs Forbes said that hating yellow and brown is just being silly. And Siobhan said that she shouldn’t say things like that and everyone has favourite colours. And Siobhan was right. But Mrs Forbes was a bit right, too. Because it is sort of being silly. But in life, you have to take lots of decisions and if you don’t take decisions you would never do anything because you would spend all your time choosing between things you could do. So it is good to have a reason why you hate some things and you like others. It is like being in a restaurant like when Father takes me out to a Berni Inn sometimes and you look at the menu and you have to choose what you are going to have. But you don’t know if you are going to like something because you haven’t tasted it yet, so you have favourite foods and you choose these, and you have foods you don’t like and you don’t choose these, and then it is simple.

***

“This will not be a funny book,” Christopher warns readers. “I cannot tell jokes because I do not understand them.” And it’s true: Christopher cannot process anything but the most literal statements. Metaphors, to his way of thinking, are lies. Implying that one thing is another — it’s more than confusing; it’s downright dishonest.

One of the great triumphs of the novel is the way Christopher’s hyper-logical voice comes across to the reader as a brilliant brand of dry, deadpan humour. The story, quite funny to begin with, gets funnier still upon rereading, without the distractions and misdirection imposed by its underlying suspense.

If the book’s economical (and spot-on) dialogue allows a reader to see through Christopher’s obfuscating narration and straight into the heart of the characters — it’s only when we hear the characters speak that we gain a proper context for Christopher’s severely limited perspective — Haddon’s dialogue also provides tremendous opportunities for comedy. Christopher’s exchange with a policeman in a station of the Underground could well have been lifted directly from the vaudeville stage. Christopher is the straight man, nonpareil.

And I said, “What does single or return mean?”

And he said, “Do you want to go one way, or do you want to go and come back?”

And I said, “I want to stay there when I get there.”

And he said, “For how long?”

And I said, “Until I go to university.”

And he said, “Single, then,” and then he said, “That’ll be £32.”

Christopher’s narration can be hilarious on one page, then two pages later you want to cry!

****

When Christopher sets out on his brave but dangerous journey to London, the minutia finally overwhelms him. The swarming crowds, noise raging in every direction, and everywhere signs bearing alien, incomprehensible messages… it’s all too unfamiliar, and before long it’s too much for him to manage.

Here, not for the first time, Christopher’s investigation inadvertently exposes raw, difficult truths about our modern lives. In the bustling train station, Christopher practically collapses from sensory overload; you can almost hear his fuses pop (it sounds like groaning). We don’t exactly empathize with Christopher. There’s a border we can’t cross, despite Mark Haddon’s virtuoso performance. However, at the end of the novel, we finally realize, no matter how great our efforts at empathy, that nothing could ever make us truly appreciate the unending alienation Christopher suffers.

***

And finally, I come to the writing. One of the best elements of the book. As I’ve mentioned its simplicity is its brilliance. Haddon, somehow or other, obviously through months, if not years, of research has managed to get into the mind of a boy who suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome. He’s managed to write an insightful, unbelievably fascinating novel that is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, if not ever. Books like The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time don’t come along very often, so we must cherish it like it’s gold. Because, really, it is. To not read The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time is most certainly the biggest crime of all. To not learn about Asperger’s Syndrome afterwards is an even bigger one.

***

“Here is a narrator who seems to be hugely ill-equipped for writing a book,” the author  Mark Haddon aptly notes, “He can’t understand metaphor; he can’t understand other people’s emotions; he misses the bigger picture. And yet it makes him incredibly well suited to narrating a book. He never explains too much. He never tries to persuade the reader to feel about things this way or that way. He just kind of paints this picture and says, ‘Make of it what you will.'”

Yet, while there are pessimistic elements in the novel: his family is dysfunctional; he is anti-social; he imagines humans becoming extinct; on his journey to London he experiences many of the negative aspects of human behaviour, yet I think the overall vision is a positive one.  He fulfils his life plan and gains an A Grade in his A-Level exams, he solves the murder mystery, he discovers the truth about his ‘dead’ mother and is safely reunited with her, he succeeds in writing a book, and he triumphs over his fears on his London journey.  Christopher’s father makes up with him by buying him a dog, the first step in re-establishing the trust that had been badly damaged by his father’s lying to him.

The greatness of Haddon’s novel is that when we come to understand the young Christopher’s view of the world, we understand his responses and we see the validity and richness of Christopher’s interpretations.  And we come to believe him when after getting an A Grade in his Maths A-Level he says, towards the end, that he WILL go to university and WILL live in a flat with a garden along with his new dog Sandy, his books and his computer.  And he WILL get a First Class Honours Degree and WILL become a scientist.  ‘And I know I can do this because I went to London on my own and because I solved the mystery of Who Killed Wellington … and I was brave and I wrote a book and that means I can do anything.’

 

 

slide_2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Analysis of Patrick Kavanagh’s Use of the Sonnet

Patrick Kavanagh

Patrick Kavanagh’s bronze commemorative seat near Baggott Street Bridge in Dublin

Kavanagh is very comfortable and skilled in his use of the sonnet in his poetry.  He manages to express an authentic and simple vision of life and communicate it successfully using the sonnet form.  Indeed, this simple vision has often led to Kavanagh being underestimated and undervalued among his peers.  He never aspired to the greatness of Yeats and neither has he the subtlety of Kinsella.  But within the poetic limits, he set for himself Kavanagh presents a new, inimitable, and sometimes disturbing way of viewing life.  His sonnets are informed by a unique personal vision.

A criticism often levelled at Kavanagh is that often his statements fall into predictable patterns.  His sonnets, for example, do not develop – what we get from him is a series of sincere repetitions of a few basic perceptions.  In the last of his Dublin sonnets, he is saying, in more or less the same way, what he was saying in the first, and his greatness is that he moves us by repetition.  It is this sincerity that prevents his repetition from becoming commonplace.  However, this integrity does not hide the fact that there is little or no growth in his poetic ability.  There is, instead, a kind of lyrical repetition that constantly commands attention.  Kavanagh is stuck in a personal rut of poetic honesty.  He seems almost to be writing the same poem always!

On reading his sonnets one notices how, for him, perception has become an obsession, and how he clings to the importance of delineating visual scenes:

A swan goes by head low with many apologies

Fantastic light looks through the eyes of bridges

And look! a barge comes bringing from Athy

And other far-flung towns mythologies.

Visual perception has assumed an almost religious fascination which will not permit him to remain at rest with one statement of it.  He must tell it to the world all the time and invite others to share in his views:

O commemorate me with no hero-courageous

Tomb – just a canal-bank seat for the passer-by.

Within these limits, however, Kavanagh maintains a moving, coherent and intimate vision of life.  Indeed, the success of his method is particularly noticeable when he tries to break away from it.  As a poet without learning, Kavanagh sometimes tries to overcome or transcend his limitations by placing learned words, ideas or references in his poems.  The intended effect is either to heighten the tone and increase the sense of personal tension, or else to bring a visual image more vividly to mind.  Sometimes he only partly achieves the desired effect; more often he fails completely.  A good example of this occurs in ‘Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal’ where two exaggerated comparisons mar an otherwise perfect poem.  The word Niagariously in line 5 is meant to convey an audible image of sound as water rushes through the locks, and is in contrast to the ‘tremendous silence’ of the next line.  The image of the Niagara Falls is, however, surely too exaggerated a comparison to make with the quiet splash of water over a lock on the Grand Canal.  On a technical level, the word is almost impossible to pronounce and it destroys the gentle rhythm of the opening lines.  Similarly, the allusion to ‘these Parnassian islands’ is inserted too boldly into a poem which depends on simplicity for its effect, rather than on weighty, learned references.  In each case, there is a certain lack of integration of the image.  By way of contrast, however, the reference to Alexander Selkirk in ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’  is seamlessly integrated with the overall theme of the poem.  It expresses an idea repeated by Kavanagh in many of his poems: namely, his separateness, his detachment, the sense that he can participate but never belong.

I have what every poet hates in spite

Of all the solemn talk of contemplation

Oh, Alexander Selkirk knew the plight

Of being king and government and nation.

Kavanagh’s poetic preferences are stated clearly in his prose works.  In From Monaghan to the Grand Canal, he defines the limits of his themes and subject matter.  He states, ‘The things that really matter, are casual insignificant little things.’  Co-existing with this sense of the importance of insignificance is the contrasting idea of the world’s grandeur.  Kavanagh is indeed a nature poet, but not in the manner in which we usually apply the term.  There are no sweeping descriptions of majestic landscapes; only the unseen beauty encountered on an evening’s stroll.  ‘Canal Bank Walk’ is the best presentation of his method.  The still, canal waters ‘pour redemption’ on him.  He thinks of its beauty in terms of religious images.  He feels ‘redeemed’, born again, after his long life of hardship in Monaghan.  God ordained that men should work and suffer.  But even in his inaction, Kavanagh feels that he can clarify the beauty of the ordinary world (‘the habitual’) and that this, too, is the ‘will of God.’  His duty as a poet is seen by himself as a religious vocation.  This spiritual frame of reference continues into line 4 when he says that he will now:

Grow with nature again as before I grew.

He then lists a group of visual images which stress, again, the beauty of unimportant objects.  Indeed, the central portion of this sonnet is characterized by its visionary impact.  Its simplicity stems from a totally coherent and lucid vision:

The bright stick trapped, the breeze adding a third

Party to the couple kissing on an old seat,

And a bird gathering materials for the nest…..

God and the idea of God dominate this sonnet.  In his essay entitled Pietism and Poetry Kavanagh says ‘the odd thing about the best modern poets is their utter simplicity.’  Of  Kavanagh himself, it may be said that he is the only great modern poet who never wrote an obscure poem.  He recognized that, in many cases, obscurity is merely a failure of the poet’s imagination and of his ability to communicate.  Kavanagh saw his simplicity as a gift from God.  He obviously thought a great deal about the nature of simplicity.  In ‘Canal Bank Walk’ he asks for a poetic style that is passive, reposed and serene:

                                 …………………………, give me ad lib

To pray unselfconsciously with overflowing speech.

He also asks for a consuming intimacy with the natural world – a twentieth-century version of Wordsworth’s Pantheism:

For this soul needs to be honoured with a new dress woven

From green and blue things and arguments that cannot be proven.

For Kavanagh, in this sonnet, the rewards of liberty are twofold.  First of all, his sense of wonder deepens, and his expression of it becomes more assured.  The second reward for the liberated, independent imagination is a kind of poetic faith that is inextricably linked with this deepened sense of wonder.  This sense of well-being is described in religious terms and phrases – Kavanagh, after all, is a deeply religious poet: ‘redemption’, ‘God’, ‘the Word’, ‘pray’, ‘soul’.  This poem is deceptively simple.  Its simplicity is achieved with consummate art, through the poet’s personal involvement in the scene.  It is not so much that he observes real things as that he feels the physical presence of these things with a total and alert consciousness:

O unworn world enrapture me….

He does not simply describe the scene, he recreates it, and it is unforgettable.  This is very similar to Wordsworth’s notion of ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ and this exploitation of the power of suggestion in ordinary subjects is the most striking of Kavanagh’s special gifts.

Kavanagh’s poems fall naturally into three divisions: those about the countryside (the Monaghan poems); those about the city (the Dublin poems); and those which, broadly speaking, attempt to express a kind of personal philosophy, or which try to define the nature of personal vision (the sonnets).  There have been many previous attempts to define poetry and I suppose each of us must really define it for ourselves.  Kavanagh found it impossible to define but fascinating to describe.  In ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’ he sees it basically as a celebration of human inadequacy and failure.  All poets are at times taken up, directly or indirectly, with being different from the rest of society, and Irish poets are especially preoccupied with this problem.  A poet is, almost by definition, an individualist: he stands for the private, as distinct from the public values, and for the protection of private feeling ‘against the tyranny of society’.  ‘Inniskeen Road’ could be seen as Kavanagh’s defense of poetry, as a compressed statement of poetic belief.  The octave stresses public concerns, the second line imitates the plain language of village people and is in some sense satiric.  But Kavanagh is never completely at home in satire and in the sestet the tone changes.  The mood becomes meditative with the poet’s feeling of regret and detachment.  What is stressed here is his separateness, his isolation.  The paradox is of course that only by thus withdrawing can he discover himself and his mission as a poet.  He has withdrawn from the world in order to be able to understand it and value it truly.  His observation, therefore, becomes acute, and his power of selecting significant details remarkable.  Though feeling, at first, the weight of his loneliness, the mood changes again in the last line as he suddenly understands himself, and his situation:

                                                            ………..       I am king

Of banks and stones and every blooming thing.

 The sonnet entitled ‘Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal’ is basically different from the other two.  It has neither the sense of frustration communicated by ‘Inniskeen Road’ nor the delicate imagery of ‘Canal Bank Walk’.  It is a public sonnet, a direct address from the poet to the reader and as such its tone is serious.  Its style is very elegant but really more closely akin to prose rather than poetry:

O commemorate me where there is water,

Canal water preferably….

In ‘Inniskeen Road’ Kavanagh tries to define his own relationship with Irish society.  In ‘Canal Bank Walk’ he has rejected society for the intimacies of private experience.  Now, in this last sonnet, there is a new sense of communication: there is a wish to renew his links with others and to share with them his experience and this is why he addresses his listener/reader using terms of affection:

Brother

Commemorate me thus beautifully…

As usual with Kavanagh, the sonnet creates a visual scene.  He has not time to entice his listener with lengthy descriptions but he provokes his interest through simple images; a swan, the light under bridges, a barge.  Compared to ‘Canal Bank Walk’ we notice the economy and compression gained from the absence of adjectives.  Also, this sonnet shows less dependence on imagery and relies more on factual statements.

Indeed, the formal demands of sonnet writing brought out the best of Kavanagh’s poetic ability and many of his poems are superb personal statements.  His imagery often seems plain and unremarkable when compared to that of Yeats or Kinsella, but the images are sharp, descriptive, and precisely used.  In the best of his sonnets, he speaks of a certain time and place; he expresses experiences in the context of his own world.  It is unlikely that he will ever be the source of the industry that has grown up around Yeats: there is so little to unravel, his greatness seems not in himself but in the world he expresses.  And yet it is true to say that, though Yeats is a more universal poet, Kavanagh is, at times, much more Irish, in that he expresses a theme that is less remote from ordinary people’s experience.  It is this simple immediacy of Kavanagh’s poetry that is part of his special appeal.

grand_canal_dublin_2006

The Grand Canal in Dublin. Image by Kaihsu Tai via Wikimedia Commons.

This essay is an edited version of one written by Joseph Ducke for the Inscapes Series (Inscape17: Poetry 2) entitled Patrick Kavanagh, (p.73) and published by The Educational Company of Ireland in 1980.

Some Recurring Themes in the Poetry of Patrick Kavanagh

 

Kav (3)

Those hungry hills….

Patrick Kavanagh, like Yeats, is constantly ‘stitching and unstitching’ old themes in his poems.  These themes can be listed as follows, without giving them any particular order or ranking:

  • Loneliness and isolation;
  • Regret at the thought of lost innocence since the passing of childhood;
  • Meditations on the vocation of the poet and how this vocation has been frustrated;
  • The relationship between the poet and nature;
  • Religion;
  • Meditations on the poet’s poor, deprived background, and on the impoverishment of the spirit induced by the life of the Irish countryside of his youth.

It helps if we distinguish between two distinct phases of Kavanagh’s poetic career.  Put simply his career can be divided between what we will call ‘the Monaghan poems’ and ‘the Dublin poems’.  The poems dealing with life in the grim, forbidding farmlands of Monaghan (‘Stony Grey Soil’   and ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’) are remarkable for their attitude of disillusionment and discontent.  Life in the Irish countryside and its effects on sensitive souls are portrayed with savage realism:

You sang on steaming dunghills

A song of coward’s brood

You perfumed my clothes with weasel itch

You fed me on swinish food.

The tone of this poem, ‘Stony Grey Soil’, is predominantly one of disgust and rebellion.  The poet’s mind has been embittered and stunted by the drudgery of life on a small farm.  His high ambitions and ideals have been frustrated.  He might have pictured himself as a graceful young man, talented and destined to succeed, but the reality has been much different:

You clogged the feet of my boyhood

And I believed that my stumble

Had the poise and stride of Apollo

And his voice my thick-tongued mumble.

There is a kind of savage comedy in the self-mocking contrast between Apollo, the god of light, beauty, poetry and music, and the rustic, awkward, ugly and ill-spoken young poet scraping a miserable living from a poor farm.  It is, however, important to notice that this poem is not uniformly disillusioned in tone.  Life may have been poor, nasty and brutish, but it has to be remembered that in those dark fields of Monaghan, Kavanagh had his first poetic inspiration:

The first gay flight of my lyric

Got caught in a peasant’s prayer.

Another poem which deals with the less attractive aspects of the poet’s early life is ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’.  Again we have the theme of the lonely, suffering, misunderstood poet living in a place where the inhabitants cannot be expected to understand or sympathise with him.  He is an isolated figure on the Inniskeen road as the carefree groups of young people pass him on their way to a dance.  They share the ‘half-talk code of mysteries’, and the ‘wind and elbow language of delight’.  He is pointedly excluded.  He must pay this price for being a poet; he must be prepared to be an outcast from the company of those who cannot share his interests and who are overawed by the power of the poet in their midst.  This poem features one of Kavanagh’s characteristic mannerisms: his tendency to use literary allusion (Selkirk on his island the ‘monarch of all I survey’) to illustrate a point.  The pun on ‘blooming’ in the line ‘Of banks and stones and every blooming thing’ is in doubtful taste: Kavanagh is (too) often liable to lapses of this kind.

There is a world of difference between the two poems just discussed and two later poems dealing with the Grand Canal and its surroundings.  Kavanagh’s attitude to the environment changed dramatically following his operation for lung cancer.  He said: ‘As a poet, I was born in or about 1955, the place of my birth being the banks of the Grand Canal’.  The Canal Bank poems show us that he has left behind him the inhibitions and restrictions featured in the earlier poems, and achieved a new freedom of imagination and a new, more positive outlook on life and nature.  The rural nature of Monaghan reminded him of his loneliness; the urban nature of the canal bank offers redemption and hope.  He sits on the canal bank enjoying the sunshine ‘pouring redemption’ for him.  There is a powerful sense of enjoyment, of gratitude and of wonder at the new beauty he is able to feel all around him.  Remember, he has only recently been discharged from hospital after successful treatment for lung cancer.  He now feels as if he has been reborn.  He is almost delirious with joy at the sight of the simple, yet beautiful, natural objects which pass before his eyes.  Even the most commonplace things take on a new meaning for him; he is now content to ‘wallow in the habitual, the banal’.  Nature is now capable of healing his wounds, of giving him the kind of happiness he has always longed for:

O unworn world enrapture me, enrapture me in a web

Of fabulous grass and eternal voices by a beech

This poem, ‘Canal Bank Walk’, is full of a deeply religious awareness of nature, associated with ‘the will of God’, ‘redemption’, ‘eternal voices’, ‘the Word’.

The same joyful mood is present in ‘Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal, Dublin’.  Here again, the tone is optimistic.  Nature and its sights and sounds fill the poet with the deep contentment he finds in ‘the tremendous silence of mid-July’.  It is this close communion with nature that leads him to ask for commemoration near water.  Whereas in his Monaghan poems, the ordinary things of nature, the fields, the soil, the ditches, the hedges, the hills, tended to provoke unpleasant reactions, in his later work he finds novelty, excitement and new inspiration in the most ordinary and banal sights and sounds: the noise of the canal lock gate, the greenness of the trees, the barge, the swan.  This child-like wonder at the sight of common objects is a distinctive feature of his later work.  The discontent, the disillusionment, the loneliness, of his early poems have given way to a new poetry of acceptance, of happy enjoyment of life and nature.

‘Advent’ is a good example of Kavanagh’s treatment of a religious theme.  It is obvious that the poet is very much influenced by traditional Catholic teaching and practice and this may pose problems for some modern readers who may be unfamiliar with these beliefs. It is really a sequence of two sonnets, which do not, however, follow the usual rules observed by writers of sonnets. (It is interesting to note that the poem has twenty-eight lines and that there are twenty-eight days in Advent). This poem, in fact, has much in common with the Grand Canal poems.  Here Kavanagh longs to return to the wonder of childhood, to be able to experience again ‘the newness that was in every stale thing / when we looked at it as children’.  In those far off days of infancy, he could experience wonder at the sight of a hill, a bog-hole or a cart-track.  However, as he has aged and matured, this childhood sense of wonder has been eroded and destroyed.  The poet, like other adults, has allowed contact with the world and with the pleasure of the senses (‘We tested and tasted too much, lover’) to dissipate what he calls ‘the luxury of a child’s soul’.  The problem posed in the poem is how can he recapture this childhood happiness again.  There is, I sense, another more selfish reason for this quest during Advent: this new-found wonder will also help him as a poet.  Now, everything he sees will be suitable subject matter for his poems.  Kavanagh finds the answer in penance, for which Advent (and Lent) were traditional seasons.  ‘The dry black bread and the sugarless tea’ of penance will help to charm back the childhood attitudes to experience.  Now, he will find happiness in looking at the simple, even banal, things of life.  By undergoing penance during the Advent season, the poet sees himself returning sin where it came from and now he will no longer need to go searching ‘for the difference that sets an old phrase burning’.  He will now see everything in a new light, even the talking of an old fool, previously tedious, will now seem delightful.  The sight of men barrowing dung in gardens will be a joyful sign of God’s plenty.  Advent penance and the renewal of religious feeling and fervour will lead to a new found peace of mind.  Metaphorically he is born again!  Now, he will no longer seek reasons or explanations for mysteries, or for griefs experienced.  He will not try to over-analyse the reasons for his new mood now that he has cast off sin.

This newly-acquired delight and celebration of simple, banal things are what connects ‘Advent’ with the Canal Bank poems.

kav2

Patrick Kavanagh by Paul McCloskey

This essay is an edited version of one written by Patrick Murray for the Inscapes Series (Inscape16: Poetry 1) entitled ‘Patrick Kavanagh Some Themes’, (p.78) and published by The Educational Company of Ireland in 1980.

Austin Clarke – Three Poems Revisited

download (4)

My beloved copy of Soundings

Recently I was browsing through my precious, dog-eared and scribbled-on copy of Soundings and came across the three Austin Clarke poems featured in that anthology.  ‘The Lost Heifer’, ‘The Blackbird of Derrycairn’, and ‘The Planter’s Daughter’ brought back fond memories of English classes long ago!  The Clarke poems selected in Augustine Martin’s infamous Interim (!) Anthology don’t give a comprehensive view of his range as a poet but they do display his enthusiasm for Gaelic poetry. The three poems selected by Martin are, however, good examples of the way many Irish poets transposed some of the stylistic devices associated with this type of poetry into English verse.  It is also interesting to note that ‘The Blackbird of Derrycairn’ has as its main theme the conflict between pagan and Christian values, here represented by an imagined conversation between St. Patrick and the ‘pagan’ blackbird.  This theme occupied Clarke for much of his poetic career.

8771320547ff83bca253cce98f8ee10d--austin-lost

‘The Lost Heifer’

In my experience as a frazzled English teacher ‘The Lost Heifer’ always provoked puzzled reactions from my students.  The title of the poem, taken in conjunction with Clarke’s well-known fondness for Gaelic poetry, gives a clue as to what it may be about.  The cow or heifer in Gaelic poetry, especially in the Jacobite era, was often used as a secret code name for Ireland, as, for example, in such poems as ‘An Droimeann Donn Dílis’.  However, even when we are aware of this background knowledge, useful as it is, it does not get us very far into the heart of the poem.  Clarke himself has told us that the poem had its origins in the Irish Civil War of the 1920’s.  It was written at a time when, as Clarke saw it, the noble ideals and aspirations of the patriots of the War of Independence were lost or obscured in the intense bitterness and disillusionment of the war of brothers.  The heifer of the poem stood for a vision of Ireland, obscured for the moment by mist and rain, which stood for those grim forces already referred to: forces which made it difficult for those who shared the patriotic vision to find it in those grim times.

In defence of my often bemused Leaving Cert students in the 80’s and 90’s, it would be very difficult to arrive at this interpretation without the help of the poet himself!  There are certainly no obvious clues, however cryptic or obscure, to anything like a civil war background, or, indeed, to any other political backdrop whatever.  Without the poet’s explanation no student of mine, lacking the information given above, could conceivably sub-title the poem, ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’.

Part of the reason the poem defies logical explanation is that it is a symbolic representation and therefore impossible to render in logical terms.  Most attempts to convey the ‘meaning’ of such a poem are doomed to failure.  Indeed, no prose analysis could do justice to the impressionistic landscape evoked by Clarke in the poem, or to his tremendous rhythms or delicately suggested sound effects.  The notion that the heifer stands for some obscured ideal of Ireland is certainly borne out in the imagery through which the heifer is suggested, rather than presented or realised.  There is no direct glimpse of the heifer.  He builds up a picture using colour, light and shade and this contributes to the mood.  She is brought to mind; she evokes an image of loss and beauty; her presence is inferred by her tracks in the dark grasses, and by her soft voice coming across the meadow.  These delightfully delicate symbolic evocations of Ireland and of misty Irish landscapes certainly owe something to the poetry of Yeats:

I went out to the hazel wood

Because a fire was in my head

And cut and pulled a hazel wand…

It had become a glimmering girl

Who called me by my name and ran

And faded through the brightening air….

As in all symbolist or quasi-symbolist poems, the imagery is mysteriously echoic, capable of more than one interpretation.  A good example of this is, the implied metaphor in lines 5 and 6, ‘I thought of the last honey by the water / That no hive can find’.  At the symbolic level, one assumes that here we have an image of the heifer (and thus the idealised Ireland) as something remote and inaccessible.  But what is the precise meaning of the words?  The last honey by the water may be wild honey near a stream or river that will never be found by man, or it may be nectar that no hive of bees can reach.

The poem is a fine illustration of Clarke’s ability to manipulate vowels and consonants to provide wholly pleasing sound-effects.  Here he is indebted to features of the Gaelic poetic tradition.  He strives here to copy the Gaelic poets’ use of internal rhyme, consonance and assonance with great dexterity:

When the black herds of the rain were grazing….

And the watery hazes of the hazel….

That no hive can find…..

Brightness was drenching through the branches….

Indeed, the poem has a very elaborate and ingenious sound pattern.  The poet uses rhyme, line-length and sound correspondence in the shaping of this lyric. (You can explore this further by following the ‘ay’ sound through the poem).  And by comparing the first and last lines of the poem I feel that there is a progression, a sense of completeness, and a sense of hope for the future, as the ‘black herds’ in line one, lost and obscured by the mountain mist,  become clearer as the mist becomes rain.

download (6)

‘The Blackbird of Derrycairn’

‘The Blackbird of Derrycairn’ is somewhat easier to comprehend than ‘The Lost Heifer’.  Clarke based this poem on another famous poem in the Irish language called ‘Lonn Doire an Chairn’, a standard anthology piece taken from the Irish in a sequence known as the ‘Colloquy of the Old Men’.  Anyone familiar with Clarke’s source will realize that his poem is not a direct translation, but a very free adaptation.  In the Irish poem, Oisin is the speaker, and his main theme is the joyful, carefree life of the Fianna, symbolised by the glorious singing of the blackbird, this life being contrasted with the devout austerities of St. Patrick, who is encouraged to forgo his asceticism for the beauties of the natural life.  Clarke’s poem sets the Christian and pagan ways of life in sharp contrast.  His speaker is the blackbird, who tries to persuade Patrick to abandon the rigours of his religious practice and participate in the joys of nature.  The argument or dialogue, however, is very one-sided and Patrick’s values are given short shrift.  Religion is represented by ‘God’s shadow in the cup’, the ‘mournful matins’, and the handbell ‘without a glad sound’.  Against this, we have the lively evocation of happy nature: the bright sun, the singing of the birds, Fionn’s keen response to the sights and sounds of the natural world.

The most interesting thing about the poem is the twist Clarke provides us with at the end which is not in the original.  The Irish source has no hint of the blackbird’s threat to Patrick and all he represents.  The ‘knowledge’ that is found among the branches is presumably, the kind available to those who give themselves up to the spontaneous enjoyment of, and involvement in, nature.  At the end, the blackbird is suggesting that this knowledge will ultimately overcome the Christianity which now threatens to overthrow it, and will send Christians and their faith packing for good.  The line ‘will thong the leather of your satchels’ seems to mean ‘will cause you to pack your bags and go’.

Here in this poem Clarke again makes use of the main stylistic devices of Gaelic poetry: alliteration, internal rhyme, assonance and consonance: note for instance in the opening stanza the poet uses,

(a) cross-rhyme – ‘bough-top’ / ‘cup now’;

(b) assonance – ‘brighter’ / ‘nightfall’, and the more unexpected internal echoes like, ‘whistling’ / ‘listen’;

(c) alliteration – ‘Mournful matins’ and so on.

You have my permission to explore the other stanzas yourself!

The last two stanzas juxtapose the free and easy life of Fionn and the Fianna and the restrictive and unattractive austerity of the Christian monks in their prayer cells.  The final two lines see a return to the beginning.  The blackbird has the last word and this suggests that the blackbird’s view holds sway and very soon the monks and their asceticism and prayers will be sent packing.  In the light of recent returns from our Central Statistics Office maybe we can say that the poet is being prophetic here!

planters-house

‘For the house of the Planter / Is known by the trees’

 ‘The Planter’s Daughter’

The most interesting feature of ‘The Planter’s Daughter’, a very slight poem, is the indirectness of Clarke’s method of presentation of his subject.  She is not named and her family is referred to in a somewhat derogatory manner – they are Planters.  The planter’s daughter, like the lost heifer, is suggested rather than described.  Again, Clarke shows his command of delicate sound effects, particularly internal rhyme and half-rhyme:

They say that her beauty

Was music in mouth

And few in the candlelight

Thought her too proud….

It is a simple lyric and her beauty is registered indirectly, culminating in the three powerful metaphors in the final lines:

As a bell that is rung

Or a wonder told shyly

And O she was the Sunday

 In every week,

The society depicted in the poem is one reminiscent of images of Ireland in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  The Big House belongs to the planter, a landowner brought in by the British and settled on the good land which had already been confiscated.  We have all read in our history books about these Plantations – the most famous or infamous being the Plantation of Ulster.  The planter has so much land he can afford to plant trees around his house for decoration, unlike the peasants who farm the barren hillsides.  Clarke himself commented: ‘In barren Donegal, trees around a farmstead still denote an owner of planter stock’.

The planter’s daughter evokes differing responses in those who see her passing on her horse on in her carriage.  The men admire her elegance and her beauty and the women are jealous and gossip among themselves.  This clever, subtle juxtaposition is very well observed by the poet: the men ‘drank deep and were silent’, suggesting a toxic mix of resentment, envy and awe, while ‘The women were speaking / Wherever she went’.

His indirect treatment of the planter’s daughter creates a mystique around her.  The locals don’t really know her so they fantasise and use their imaginations to fill in the blanks of her life.  She is placed on a pedestal by them and they admire and envy her in equal proportions.  The poet manages to balance this admiration for the planter’s daughter with a sense of a latent resentment among the local population.

So, rummage around in the old familiar places, your bookshelves or even the attic for your own copy of Soundings and take a trip down memory lane…….

About the Poet….

ps_3_19_Austin_Clarke
Austin Clarke (1896 – 1974)
Austin Clarke was born in 1896 in Dublin and educated at Belvedere College and University College Dublin.  He succeeded Thomas McDonagh, who had been executed for his part in the 1916 Rising, as a lecturer in the English Department there in 1917 and continued to work in this position until 1921.  He spent the next 12 years in England working as a critic and book reviewer, until his final return to Ireland in the nineteen thirties.  Clarke was one of the leading Irish poets of the generation after W. B. Yeats.  he also wrote novels, plays and memoirs.  His main contribution to Irish poetry was the rigour with which he used technical means borrowed from classical Irish language poetry when writing in English.
Effectively, this meant writing English verse based not so much on metre as on complex patterns of assonance, consonance, and half rhyme. Describing his technique to Robert Frost, Clarke said: “I load myself down with chains and try to wriggle free.”  His later verse is inclined to be increasingly satirical.  He is regarded by many as one of Ireland’s greatest poet since Yeats.

An Analysis of ‘Follower’ by Seamus Heaney

                             

Follower

 

My father worked with a horse plough,
His shoulders globed like a full sail strung
Between the shafts and the furrow.
The horses strained at his clicking tongue.

An expert. He would set the wing
And fit the bright-pointed sock.
The sod rolled over without breaking.
At the headrig, with a single pluck.

Of reins, the sweating team turned round
And back into the land. His eye
Narrowed and angled at the ground,
Mapping the furrow exactly.

I stumbled in his hobnailed wake,
Fell sometimes on the polished sod;
Sometimes he rode me on his back
Dipping and rising to his plod.

I wanted to grow up and plough,
To close one eye, stiffen my arm.
All I ever did was follow
In his broad shadow around the farm.

I was a nuisance, tripping, falling,
Yapping always. But today
It is my father who keeps stumbling
Behind me, and will not go away.

– from Death of a Naturalist, 1966

 

Commentary:  This poem appears in Heaney’s first collection, Death of a Naturalist, published in 1966. In this collection, Heaney is keen to introduce himself and tell us where he comes from. The collection includes poems such as ‘Digging’, ‘Churning Day’, ‘Early Purges’, ‘The Diviner’ and ‘Follower’.  All of these poems reflect his farming background and they depict a world view and country crafts and skills that are now redundant and no longer to be readily seen in the Irish countryside.  We are introduced to men who dig in gardens, men who cut turf, who sell their cattle at the local fair, and who rid the farmyard of unwanted kittens.  Heaney tells us that he intends to follow in their footsteps – to dig ‘down and down for the good turf’, to plough his lonely furrow as a poet.

The theme of this poem is the relationship between father and son.  In poetry, fathers are constant ghostly shadows offering nostalgic, intimate images of a safe and tender childhood.  Heaney explores this theme here in ‘Follower’ and in many other poems like ‘Digging’ and ‘The Harvest Bow’.  In ‘The Harvest Bow’, Seamus Heaney’s father, Patrick, emerges as a strong ‘tongue tied’ man, a man of action and of few words.  He has fashioned the harvest bow for his son as a ‘throwaway love-knot of straw’.  The poem is a tender exploration of the Father/Son relationship and it is clear that an unspoken understanding has grown between them, lovingly expressed by the harvest bow which Heaney fingers and reads ‘like braille ….. gleaning the unsaid off the palpable’.  Heaney then translates what he has read and puts it into words which he fashions and plaits and weaves into a tender ‘love-knot’ of a poem.  In ‘Digging’ he explores other aspects of this same theme.  He looks down from his window and paints a rather unflattering picture of his father, ‘his straining rump among the flowerbeds’ reminds him of a scene twenty years earlier as his father was digging out potatoes on the home farm.  Here, in ‘Follower’ he juxtaposes his father’s patience with him as a child with his own grown up impatience and annoyance,

                                                But today

It is my father who keeps stumbling

Behind me, and will not go away.

The poem is titled ‘Follower’ and Heaney invites us to explore the various meanings of the word as it is used today – he follows in his father’s footsteps, we follow Man United, she is a follower of Christ, a disciple.  The poem ends with a denouement when the roles are suddenly reversed and now the father is seen ‘stumbling behind me’.  The great irony here, of course, is that Heaney was not a follower – he was a trailblazer, a man outstanding in his own field, so to speak!  Mark Patrick Hederman OSB,  former Abbot of Glenstal Abbey, County Limerick, uses a lovely analogy to describe poets and other artists in his book, The Haunted Inkwell– he says that artists are like the dove that Noah released from the Ark after 40 days to check if the waters were receding. Eventually, the third dove brought back an olive branch – we need trailblazers and scouts like that to go before us, to take the risks, and help us explore our unchartered waters.  Heaney is a poet, like Kavanagh and Hartnett, who has remained attached to his home place and the values and the traditions of his parents, ‘All I know is a door into the dark’.  We can be grateful that our poets are pioneers, working at the frontier of language.  They are translators, translating for us events that we cannot grasp.

These early poems in Death of a Naturalist are all metaphors, endeavouring to crystallise the meaning of art and the role of the artist in our world – the poet is described as gardener, turf-cutter, as diviner, as smithy, as ploughman.  He celebrates this local craftsmanship – the diviner, the digger, the blacksmith and the breadmaker and he hankers back to his childhood and the community of that childhood for several reasons.  Indeed, part of the excitement of reading his poetry is the way in which he leads you from the parish of Anahorish in County Derry outwards in space and time, making connections with kindred spirits, both living and dead, so that he verifies for us Patrick Kavanagh’s belief that the local is universal.  For example in  ‘The Forge’, he appears at first glance to be looking back with fond nostalgia at the work of the local village blacksmith, Barney Devlin.  However, the real subject of the poem is the mystery of the creative process – writing poetry is like ‘a door into the dark’.  The work of the forge serves, therefore, as an extended metaphor for the creative work and craftsmanship of poetry.

In ‘Follower’, like ‘Digging’, he continues to use this extended metaphor as he focuses on his father as farmer and ploughman.  His father is ‘an expert’.  He recalls precious scenes and memories from his childhood with great accuracy.  He mentions the plough and all its individual parts, ‘the shafts’, ‘the wing’, ‘the bright steel-pointed sock’, the horse’s ‘headrig’.  The opening lines cleverly introduce the simile of his father’s shoulders ‘globed like a full sail’ and he then follows this with the exquisite metaphor of his father as ancient mariner using angles and eyesight ‘mapping the furrow exactly’ while the young Heaney struggles and stumbles ‘in his hob-nailed wake’.  His childhood is spent in his father’s shadow and he decides that ‘I wanted to grow up and plough’.  Similar to ‘Digging’, the very first poem in Death of a Naturalist, he wants to follow in his father and grandfather’s footsteps and dig except he realises that ‘I’ve no spade to follow men like them’.  Instead, he decides that he will follow in their footsteps but instead of a spade he will dig with his pen:

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I’ll dig with it.

‘Follower’ ends with a jolt.  The poet is suddenly back in the present, the childhood reverie over.  He juxtaposes the past with the present: his youthful self,

.. was a nuisance, tripping, falling,

Yapping always.

This memory is sharply contrasted with the awkward reality that time has passed and now it is his ageing father who is the ‘nuisance’,

It is my father who keeps stumbling

Behind me and will not go away.

During the last three verses, the poet returns to the present time and he says that nowadays his father is the one who is stumbling behind him because of his age. The word ‘Behind’ used by Seamus Heaney in the last verse, forces us to accept the total reversal of roles which have taken place.  The poet is no longer the follower and now his once stoical and patient father struggles to keep up as his impatient twenty-seven-year-old son sets sail on his own adventure.  He has finally moved out of his father’s shadow and now must plough his own unique and lonely furrow.

The poem is one of many which pays homage to the poet’s humble beginnings in Bellaghy, Mossbawn, and Anahorish.  It is interesting to note that many of the later poems in this collection, Death of a Naturalist, describe his developing relationship with Marie Devlin, his future wife (the collection is dedicated to her).  Surefooted, he begins his odyssey away from Mossbawn and on to Belfast, Glanmore, Oxford and Harvard, and into our hearts forever.

At+the+headrig,+with+a+single+pluck