An Analysis of Some of my Favourite Poems by John Donne

 John Donne

THE POETRY OF JOHN DONNE

John Donne was a convert to the Established Church from Catholicism and was eventually persuaded to become a clergyman by James I, and also by the fact that he had no job!  Even then he had doubts as to what was the one true Church, and this is reflected in some of his religious poetry.  His death, too, obsessed him throughout his life, and many of his poems deal directly with death and the terror which the sense of his own sins inspires in him, e.g. “What if this present were the world’s last night?” and “I dare not move my dim eyes any way, / Despair behind, and death before doth cast, / Such terror.”  But he is always conscious of God’s mercy.  This is seen in “A Hymne to God the Father.”  It is believed that he stopped writing poetry when he entered the Church as there is no evidence of a ‘conversion’ in his poetry, and the ‘Holy Sonnets’ were written beforehand.  He published very little of his verse, but hand-written copies of his ‘Songs and Sonnets’ had been circulating in the literary world for years.

Much of his poetry reflects the tension between spiritual and fleshly impulses: he was tormented by the idea that passion, even in marriage, was a forbidden thing.  In spite of this his poetry can be very passionate, e.g. ‘The Good Morrow’  and The Holy Sonnets.  He is often flippant, e.g. ‘A Hymne to God the Father’, but there is a seriousness and earnestness underlying all he writes, and it is this as well as his tone of the spoken word that gives the impression that he is talking to us personally.  His qualification, second thoughts and new twists to an idea are perhaps a portrayal of his confusion.

LOVE

There is a touch of arrogance in his love poems, and a lack of formality, and he seems obsessed with the problems of unity: the sense in which the lovers become one – and also the sense in which the soul is united with God.  Frequently the union of the lovers becomes an image of the union with God, e.g. ‘Batter My Heart’.  His special marks are the repeated use of the religion/love association, as well as his constant reference to the lovers’ world and to death.  He said, “All Divinity is Love or Wonder”.

A frequent notion in the ‘Songs and Sonnets’ is that lovers are a complete world to each other.  They are everything that matters in the world, therefore they are the world, e.g. ‘The Good Morrow’.  Here, as in other poems, he airs the view that all the lovers’ experience was an immature preparation for this; that every previous ‘affair’ was only a partial anticipation of this.  But the attachment must be shared; a one-sided love is not love at all.  This love is always exempt from time, e.g. ‘The Anniversarie’.

A METAPHYSICAL

Donne uses the conventional images associated with the Metaphysicals – Science, alchemy, and travel.  He is a master of paradox.  Ben Jonson said of him, “Donne for not being understood, will perish”.  But maybe it is because of these same paradoxes that he has assumed a new importance.  Rupert Brooke wrote of “that wider home which Donne knew better than any of the great English poets, the human heart.”  He also said “Donne could combine either the light or grave aspects of love with this lack of solemnity that does but heighten the sharpness of the seriousness.”  W.B. Yeats remarked “Donne could be as metaphysical as he pleased and yet never seemed inhuman and hysterical…because he could be as physical as he pleased.”

Apart from his imagery his poetry is characterised by a consistent use of the first person, dramatic and conversational tones, and the irregularities in the verse, which in fact fit in with the dramatic emotions involved in his poetry.  One of the exciting things in his work is the element of drama.  Part of this came from his use of the words and speech rhythms which people were using every day.  Speech rhythms are identified by run-on lines, internal pauses, questions, and exclamation marks.  It has been said of his poetry that it offers us “the rhythms of thought itself.”

His variety of mood (and so of tone) has often been compared to that of Prince Hamlet – but it is not certain if all his poems are representative of his feelings.  This does not necessarily mean that some of his poetry is insincere – not if the imagined feeling is well created.

His use of the first person involves the reader in Donne’s private experience and in his self-analysis, and creates a sense of being present, as if Donne is writing as he experiences – this is the sense of immediacy.  Contrast this with Wordsworth’s idea of ’emotion recollected in tranquillity’.  This immediacy adds to the dramatic effect of all of Donne’s poetry.

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At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners

Some knowledge of metaphysical poetry is necessary before we can fully appreciate the sonnets of John Donne.  This term was, of course, first used by Dr. Johnson in his famous discussion of Donne, Herbert, Vaughan and Marvell.  He observed that, “about the beginning of the seventeenth century appeared a race of writers that may be termed the Metaphysical poets.”  Since then the term has acquired a current usage, and it implies a type of poetry that has definite characteristics.

  • The first characteristic of metaphysical poetry is its concentration. Poems in this category tend to be brief, and very closely woven.  This tendency is plainly seen in this sonnet where a list of human woes are strung together giving the verses a slow and heavy movement:

“All whom war, death, age, agues, tyrannies

Despair, law, chance hath slain…”

  • A second characteristic is the vividly dramatic quality of metaphysical poetry, particularly of the opening lines. This poetry belongs to the great era of English drama and many of the qualities more natural to drama came to be used in writing poems.  Donne was, we are told, “a great frequenter of plays” in his youth.  The rhythms of his verse, so misunderstood by many readers, are closer to the ordinary speech found in Shakespeare’s plays than to that of most lyrical poems.  The sextet of At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners, for example, adopts a very colloquial tone:

“But let them sleep, Lord, and me mourn a space.”

  • A third characteristic of metaphysical poetry is the use of wit. This term has undergone a remarkable transformation in meaning in modern English.  However, it still bears the important implication of intelligence and originality.  Metaphysical poets tried to present brilliant or arresting things, to surprise the reader by means of unexpected thoughts or expressions.  This tendency led in turn to the development of conceits.  A conceit is a comparison between things which at first sight seem to have little or nothing in common; it is a comparison which is more striking than correct.  For example:

“At the round earth’s imagined corners blow

Your trumpets, angels and arise, arise….”

  • Indeed the first four lines of this sonnet are impressive and appeal through the apparent contradiction suggested in the first line as well as the immensity of life’s history presented in the third (“You numberless infinities…”)
  • A fourth characteristic of metaphysical poets is that many of their poems are taken up with arguments or with clamorous, passionate addresses. Remarkable illustrations of this technique can be seen everywhere in Donne (“arise, arise from Death..”; “to your scattered bodies go…”;  “let them sleep Lord…”;  “teach me how to repent.”)  Sometimes he cannot refrain from arguing with God, to whom he sometimes addresses outrageous paradoxes: “That I may rise, and stand o’erthrow me, and bend Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new”. (Batter My Heart).
  • A fifth characteristic is the striking use of imagery and tone. Throughout the seventeenth century love poetry and religious poetry often sprang from a common basis of inspiration.  In metaphysical poetry in particular a tradition was soon established whereby imagery taken from Elizabethan love poetry was transferred into poems which expressed love of God.  Donne’s thinking on spiritual love is influenced by this tradition.  In Batter My Heart the speaker’s search for love is powerfully illuminated by the imagery in the sextet: here, the harmonising of apparently different elements, the reconciliation of religious and earthly love is supremely accomplished in the paradoxical images (“for I…never shall be free/Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me”).

With these characteristics in mind one is better able to appreciate the technique Donne employs in his sonnets.   The first five lines of At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners build up with increasing intensity to culminate in a shattering list of destructions at the end of the octave.  The style is clamorous and rhetorical – an impassioned outburst that cannot be read calmly.  The formal devices of metaphysical poetry are made to serve an express purpose: the octave attempts to create the atmosphere of clamour and confusion which Donne imagines will precede the end of the world.  The imagery bears many similarities to traditional Christian representations of the last day, particularly as expressed in medieval theology.  Indeed the octave of this sonnet is in accord with many aspects  of contemporary thought and sensibility, besides constituting a remarkable expression of Donne’s own speculation, scepticism and melancholy.  There is a marked division between octave and sextet.  The grand awakening of the opening lines gives way to a gentle sadness; the pitch is suddenly lowered to a simpler level.  This sudden variation in tone is a marked characteristic of Donne’s best sonnets.  In the sextet the voice is lowered, and the poet’s desire for a revelation changes to a sense of humility.  There is a movement from complexity to simplicity, and the bold theological references are replaced by a simple Christian faith.  In contrast to the rhetoric presented in the octave, there is a definite sense of human interest about the last lines, particularly in the poet’s personal petition for God’s forgiveness: “Here on this lowly ground/Teach me how to repent.”  The poet’s speculation on the Day of Judgement allows him to indulge his imagination somewhat and to use his wide store of religious images.  However, when the frame of reference shifts to the poet himself – to his spiritual needs and condition – he speaks with simplicity about his true feelings.

However, there have some major criticisms of this poem and these focus on five main areas:

  • Poetic rhythm and harmony seem to be totally lacking, and the poem could have been written in prose;
  • In structure the passage is defective;
  • Particularly displeasing are the fifth, sixth and seventh lines;
  • The first eight lines seem to have nothing whatever to do with the last six;
  • The confusion in thought has failed to establish communication, or even comprehension.

BATTER MY HEART

Batter my Heart

This is a religious poem set in secular terms of love and physical passion.  It might be said that such a relationship with God is a true reflection of the poet’s commitment to God as well as his own unworthiness.

The theme might be the paradox that to be a prisoner to God’s will is the only true freedom.  It is a poem of action, but the action is only an image.  It is highly dramatic and he expresses his mental conflict in violent terms that show his inner torment.  The verbs are violent: “Batter”, “O’erthrow”, “bend your force”, “Break”, “imprison”, “ravish”.  It is interesting to note that Donne’s own title for this poem was “Prayer for Violence”.

Dr. Johnson’s objection to metaphysical poetry was that “the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together.”  Most modern critics would admit to the heterogeneous aspect of Donne’s wit, but deny that “yoked by violence” was a fair description of the general effect.  Batter My Heart is a good example of a metaphysical poem which relies on the use of conceits to present a unified experience.  The sonnet contains two extreme comparisons: the poet imagines himself to be a town under siege, in the octave; then the imagery changes and he compares himself to a married woman, in the sextet.  Let us examine these images in turn.

The poem begins as a prayer to the Trinity, expressed in military terms: “Batter my heart.”  To each member of the Trinity he assigns a separate request: “breathe” (Father), “shine” (Spirit), “seek to mend” (Christ).  The third line introduces a metaphysical paradox i.e. a statement which on the surface seems self-contradictory but which turns out, on close examination, to have a valid meaning.  The image presented is of a town or castle under attack.  Donne wishes to be “overthrown” in order that he may “rise”.  Suddenly in line 4  the imagery changes: “break, blow, burn, and make me new”.  Here he wishes God to destroy his former self and to create for him a more spiritual personality.  This line makes demands on the reader’s knowledge of alchemy: as the alchemist breaks down base matter in his furnace (“burn” and “blow”) and transforms it into gold, so God will work on the darkness of the poet’s soul and transform it into his own likeness.  The imagery of a captured town continues in the simile of line 5.  Furthermore, reason – personified in this context as an intermediary between God and man – is also ineffective and has deserted his real function.  Once again in the sextet the imagery changes.  The speaker becomes a woman who wishes to be loved by God.  She is, however, married to God’s enemy and wishes that this marriage bond may be broken.  As in the opening lines, Donne expresses his desire for a union with God in very emphatic terms: “Take me to you….enthrall me.”  The violent sexual union depicted in the last lines represents the poet’s desire to be overcome and united spiritually with God.  Donne attempts to express his meaning through vivid use of paradox: he will never be free until he is imprisoned by God; he will never understand Christian purity until God has ravished him.

The chief advantage of the conceits Donne uses in this sonnet is the quality of inclusiveness they make possible.  They are a way of bringing effectively into poetry all his interests, activities and speculations.  No part of his experience is regarded as intrinsically unpoetical.  Indeed, a marked characteristic of his style in this sonnet is the depictment of religious experience largely in secular terms.  There was, of course, a traditional Christian frame of reference which Donne might have used in composing this sonnet.  However, he prefers to engage our attention not through expected images and associations, but through unusual ideas and comparisons.  Whatever poetic licences are taken, the general effect is to reinforce, modify and generally heighten the reader’s response to each sonnet.  In this regard, the imagery of Batter My Heart has always impressed readers by his range and variety, as well as by its avoidance of the conventionally ornamental.  It was to the endings of his sonnets, however, that Donne attached particular importance.  In one of his unfortunately rare comments on the art of poetry he says: ”In all metrical composition…the force of the whole piece is for the most part left to the end; the whole frame of the poem is a beating out of a piece of gold, but the last clause is as the impression of the stamp, and that is what makes it current.”  Significantly, therefore, Batter My Heart ends with two tremendous paradoxes.

O, MY BLACK SOUL

O, My Blacl Soul

This is another of the Holy Sonnets structured on the Jesuit method of mental prayer.  Here he conjures up the image of his deathbed and supports it with comparisons and then begins to pray.  It is a true meditation.

The theme may be his fear of punishment that can only be avoided by his repentance which can only come from God’s grace which can accomplish anything.

Many religious poems are important only to religious sympathisers.  Some such works may arouse the interest of historians and scholars once the writings are sufficiently dated.  Others remain confined to a small literary audience.  Donne’s religious sonnets, however, have gained more attention than any other English works in that genre, and while the interest in the poet himself accounts for a good deal of that popularity, it is hardly the only reason for his being called “the greatest writer of religious verse in seventeenth-century England.”  Of particular interest is the fact that Donne’s religious sonnets have attracted the attention of readers of different religious persuasions.

Part of the popularity of the religious sonnets rests on Donne’s ability to depict religious attitudes through secular imagery and comparisons.  An intensely secular excitement marks all his devotional works.  He had the power of experiencing keenly his own religious attitudes and of reviewing them against a wider background.  O, My Black Soul, for example, explores the theme of the poet’s sinfulness with images gathered from different sources.  A literal reading of the first two lines reveals much of the nature and content of each sonnet.  Here, the poet returns to the idea of death and judgement, describing again his own lack of readiness to meet God.  Death and sickness are both personified: sickness is death’s “herald and champion”, this image referring to a challenge or duel, and is also contained in the word “summoned”.  Personification of abstract ideas is an old device, common to many poets.  Death and sickness take on human features and are invested with specific powers, thus giving them a dramatic immediacy.  Many seventeenth-century poets describe their terror and fear at the approach of death, often using personification to heighten the effect.  Hamlet, for example, speaks the following line as he lies dying at the end of the play: “this fell (foul, evil) sergeant, death,/Is strict in his arrest.”  An important element in Donne’s personifications is a kind of poetic aptness.  In this context the reference to the poet’s two enemies, who summon him to engage in a trial of strength, makes him turn in the sextet to Christ for courage and support.  The two striking similes in the octave are meant to create the idea of the poet’s terror, as well as of his isolation: he is wandering alone in an unknown foreign land afraid to turn back to God because of the many sins (“treason”) he has committed.  Similarly, the next simile expresses an insoluble predicament: he has complained about his sickness and wishes for death, but now that his moment of execution has arrived, he wants to cling to life for a little while longer.

Until this point the tone of the sonnet is dramatic, and its statements command attention.  As so often in Donne’s poetry, however, the tone suddenly changes.  The emphasis now shifts from fear to optimism: he is not done after all.  What he needs is the grace to repent for his sins, a grace which is only given by God after certain conditions have been met.  The poet must “mourn” for his transgressions, he must “blush” with shame at what he has done.  Only in this manner can he share in Christ’s plan of Redemption which is powerfully evoked in the imagery of the last two lines: “wash thee in Christ’s blood, which hath this might/That being red, it dyes red souls to white.”  This conceit is part of the special language of the period.  Donne’s awareness of the mystical power of Christ’s blood is clearly evident in these lines which rest upon a common alchemical concept, that of the tincture.  This was an enormously strong colouring agent, made during the chemical experiment, which had the power of transforming substances.  Donne uses this image of the tincture to describe the power of Christ to save both body and soul.  Christ, he says, can turn even a black sinful soul into a state of perfection.  Indeed, this sonnet is notable for its colour symbols.  The black for mourning is conventional (as are the black blotches left on the soul by sin), but the use of red for both repentance and sin is a conceit and is carried on in the idea of washing in Christ’s blood which by mixing with the red of sin and shame paradoxically turns red to white.

The Good Morrow

This poem works out the development of love from childish unawareness to mature consciousness, and points out where the difference lies.  It shows what love means to the lovers, its relation to ordinary experience and how its continuance is assured.  It is, in fact, Donne’s concept of true love as a shared experience, a returned love.

The theme may be the unifying of two souls in one, and the conquest by love of all things – even space and time.  But each of the lovers is a person, and the poem flickers between this individualness and union.

Metaphysical poetry is renowned for its striking use of imagery and tone and The Good Morrow is a good example of this.  The poem begins with a realistic description of a morning bedroom.  The poet is waking up beside his mistress and he therefore uses words and images which suggest sleep (“snorted”, “sleepers”, “dream”).  In his initial meditation on love there is a strong emphasis on physical activities (“weaned”, “sucked”, “country pleasures”).  He freely admits that he has had mistresses in the past (“If ever any beauty I did see / Which I desired and got,”) but indicates that the pleasures he experienced with them were inadequate (“pleasures fancies”).  One can see immediately how this stanza with its strong emphasis on sexual fulfilment must have come as something of a shock to Donne’s contemporaries (and  Leaving Cert. Students alike!)  who were used to a completely different, more refined type of love-poetry!

The Good Morrow has always impressed readers with its range and variety of imagery.  From the ordinary activities of breast-feeding and heavy sleeping, Donne passes to the exotic activities of explorers, geographers and philosophers.  However, the sea-discoverers with all their topical glamour and novelty are introduced only to be dismissed as lacking in true exploration compared with the relationship he is describing.  Nevertheless they continue to be present in the poem and lead to the image of ‘sharpe north’ and ‘declining west’.  The image at the beginning of the third stanza is a simple presentation of the fact that people gazing into each other’s eyes can see themselves reflected there.   It is made more complicated  and more meaningful by the line that leads up to it (“And true plain hearts do in the faces rest”).  The titles of Donne’s poems generally suggest the central image around which the poem revolves.  Thus, The Good Morrow deals with awakening and with discovery.

The Good Morrow has always impressed modern critics by the range and variety of his references, as well as by its avoidance of ornamental language.  Throughout the poem Donne refers to the familiar processes of suckling and weaning, snoring, dreaming and waking, but also to voyages, maps and hemispheres, scholarly theories about the nature of matter (“whatever dies, was not mix’d equally”) and general philosophical speculations about our experience of space (“and makes one little room an everywhere”).

Donne’s use of concentration is very evident in The Good Morrow where references to his own life are combined with geographical discoveries and with contemporary developments in science and astronomy.  In The Good Morrow, therefore, we see not only Donne’s love of learning, but also his inclination for using it out of context, applying many references to serve his own purposes in the poem.  The greatest concentration of language is confined to the second stanza.  Man, Donne suggests, is concerned with broadening his physical horizons, but is neglecting to expand his knowledge in a spiritual direction.  Love, in the end, binds all things together and allows man to attain his true destiny.  Suggested in this poem is the idea of the fundamental, and not accidental, limitations of our knowledge.  Science can explain the physical, but not the spiritual universe.  Astronomers may spend their lives studying the heavens but they are always fearful of what they might find.  Similarly, geographical discoveries have brought to man’s attention objects of experience that are not always pleasant (“sharp north”, “declining west”), and the progress of science cannot experiment enough to conquer death (“whatever dies, was not mix’d equally”).  Connected to each of these images is the idea of isolation and lack of real purpose: the lonely astronomer forever watchful, the explorer who spends his life going round the world only to arrive back where he started, the scientist alone in his laboratory making many discoveries, none of which effect the real destiny of mankind.  Donne, therefore, sees the world outside as a symbol of man’s weakness and isolation.  In contrast to this he presents his own rational theory which is itself the result of considerable previous study.  The only true art, he suggests, is the art of love which requires knowledge, patience and effort, which overcomes death and prepares man for eternity.

THE ANNIVERSARIE

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This is not unlike The Good Morrow.  There is the same personal approach; no address to love, but directly to his wife – the intimacy and immediacy of the metaphysical poet.

The theme is that their love on earth is unique, but that, since happiness in heaven is shared by all, they must preserve their earthly love as long as they live.  It has been described as a selfish poem – but lovers are traditionally selfish and like to think that their love is unique.

The Anniversarie depends for its success upon our recognising the presence of an individual speaker.  It is a very contemplative poem.  The speaker is not so much intent on displaying the great depth of his knowledge as in arguing his ideas with simple wisdom.  Despite the fact that he sometimes appears to be frivolous and insincere, Donne always wished to express universal truths in his poetry.  Like Shakespeare, when he expresses something profound, Donne often does it quite simply.

The subject of universal destruction is another of the themes of The Anniversarie, and the death of princes is used to symbolise it.  Indeed, the references to princes, kings, and courtly life bring this poem very close to the underlying theme of Shakespeare’s tragedies, all of which “tell sad stories of the death of kings” (Richard II).  The dramatic impact of the opening lines depends upon the emphasis suggested by the word all:

                     All kings and all their favourites,

                             All glory of honours, beauties, wits…

                             All other things to their destruction draw,

The grandeur of princes must inevitably pass away; kings must live in fear of misfortune, treason and death.  It is true to say, therefore, that the major image suggested by The Anniversarie is royal and heraldic: groups of words appear in each stanza which relate to kings, princes and courtly life.

We know by now that concentration of language is an essential characteristic of metaphysical poetry and The Anniversarie is a perfect example of this.  In the opening stanza Donne introduces groups of associated images drawn from the royal courts and palaces to suggest the transience of earthly glory:

All kings, and all their favourites,

                             All glory of honours, beauties, wits,

                             The sun itself, which makes time, as they pass,

                             Is elder by a year now than it was

                             When thou and I first one another saw.

Throughout his poems, as already stated, Donne manifests a curiously ambiguous attitude towards kings, princes and courtly life.  These opening lines refer to this idea.  What need has he of kings and princes when they are inconstant and subject to decay?  Even the sun which appears to measure time, is itself subject to destruction, while love has the power to outlive these mortal things.  Behind this opening stanza, therefore, there is immense personal feeling.  This anniversary represents a permanent moment: it is not an anniversary in the ordinary sense, a looking back on something past.  It is rather an “an everlasting day” which is not affected by the passage of time.  So while man’s world and the world of nature are slowly growing old, the people in the poem enjoy forever the vitality and permanence of love.

Donne’s love poems have as their basic theme the problems of human love in a physical world dominated by change and death.  In The Anniversarie we are treated to a splendid affirmation of the immortality of true love and friendship.  Like all metaphysical poets he makes great use of paradox and these sometimes serve the same purpose as the rhyming couplet of Shakespeare’s sonnets: a sort of clinching device which upholds and strengthens his argument.  The first stanza of The Anniversarie ends with an important paradox which expresses the permanence of love in a world of change:

                             Running it never runs from us away,

                             But truly keeps his first, last, everlasting day.

From the start of his career Donne declared his independence as a poet.  Independence, however, is not the same as isolation, and throughout this love-poetry Donne affirms his belief in the fundamental bond between one person and another.  The nature of true love is that it makes demands, establishes principles, and expresses the totality which man is striving for.  This idea that love unites people in a spiritual bond which even transcends death is expressed throughout The Anniversarie.

A HYMN TO GOD THE FATHER

DONNE- a Hymn to God the Father

Among the many divine poems that Donne composed A Hymn to God the Father stands out as his own particular favourite.  He had it set to music and it was sung during services At St. Paul’s Cathedral where Donne had been Dean.  We can see this from the following excerpt from his prose writings:

The words of this Hymn have restored me to the same thoughts of joy that possessed my soul in my sickness when I composed, ‘And O! the joy and power of Church music!’  That harmony added to it has raised the affections of my heart and quickened my graces of zeal and gratitude; and I observe that I always return from paying this public duty of prayer and praise to God with unexpected tranquillity of mind, and a willingness to leave the world. (The Poems of John Donne, p. 253).

Many points of contrast are immediately evident in this simple but outstanding poem.  In The Anniversarie, and particularly in The Good Morrow, Donne is constantly striving to display his learning by extending his frame of reference over many different subjects.  This leads to a high concentration of language, a marked dependence on unusual contexts, and an extensive use of imagery.  However, what strikes one most forcefully about A Hymn to God the Father is its simple sincerity.  The inspiration for this short poem came from the poet’s personal feelings rather than from his wide learning.  Throughout his Holy Sonnets and his Divine Poems, Donne limits himself to one subject: his own relationship with God.

Though he never doubted the truth of Christianity, his lack of complete conviction  concerning his own salvation persisted.  There is much evidence to suggest that he endured a prolonged religious crisis which he has recorded in a group of sonnets and shorter lyrics which belong to the best group of religious poetry in the English language.  At times the vision of divine punishment comes to his mind more easily than the vision of God’s love.  In A Hymn to God the Father he is striving to reassure himself of this love which, in spite of his own unworthiness, might still be freely given by God.  Throughout the seventeenth-century love poetry and religious poetry sprang from a common basis of inspiration.  In metaphysical poetry particularly, a tradition was soon established whereby ideas taken from Elizabethan love poetry was transferred to poems which expressed love of God.  Donne’s meditation on spiritual love was greatly influenced by this tradition.  In this poem the theme of unrequited love is placed in a spiritual context as a means of discussing the relationship between God and man.

The greatest single characteristic of this poem is its profound tone of sincerity, as the poet confesses at length his own sinfulness. This dependence on sincerity reduces poetic devices to a minimum: a person who is confessing his sins cannot at the same time consider clever things to say to God.  The tone of the poem is both humble and sincere and emphasises the important question of forgiveness, which is repeated at length. (“Wilt Thou forgive that sin where I begun…?”, “Wilt Thou forgive that sin by which I won/Others to sin?”)  In this penitential lyric Donne strives to dramatise the penitent’s position.  He does this by using a ‘plain style’.  The speaker does not wish to cover up in any measure the immensity or frequency of his sins.  He deplores his condition and realises its seriousness.  He expresses himself in direct statements and unadorned language, presenting his simple wisdom with realistic, concrete detail.  His metaphors are few but apt: he has opened the door to sin for other people while wallowing in his own sinfulness.  As the poem progresses, and the stanzas develop greater complexity, the poet continues to concentrate upon the reality of sin in a language of direct statement.  Indeed, throughout the poem Donne insists on simplicity, directness and passionate humility.  There is of course an implied pun on the poet’s name in the interesting paradox that ends the first two stanzas:

                   When Thou has done, Thou hast not done,

                   For I have more.

The third stanza contains the principal request towards which the poem leads.  For the first time in the poem Donne visualises the moment of death in his contemplation of the last voyage:

                   I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun

                   My last thread, I shall perish on the shore

The fear and love which are identified as the themes of this Hymn are referred to elsewhere by Donne as essential elements of contrition: “The love of God begins in fear, and the fear of God ends in love; and that love can never end, for God is love,” (Sermons of John Donne, p. 113). His greatest sin is, therefore, his lack of faith in God’s forgiveness.

It may be interesting to note that most scholars agree that this was the last poem Donne wrote before his death.

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Note: You might also like the read on this blog: “An Introduction to Metaphysical Poetry”.

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Recent Rambles

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Walk from Puerto del Carmen (Old Town) to Puerto Calero

  1. “El Varadero de la Tinosa”, is the original village of what is now the thriving Old Town centre of Puerto del Carmen. Today it is still a centre for fishing and there is a very strong seafaring tradition in the area.  It is a centre for tourist trips and there is a regular hourly ferry plying between the port and Puerto Calero – the destination for our walk.  We begin the walk in the port itself near the very distinctive Casa Roja restaurant at the beginning of the recently developed Boardwalk.

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  1. Leaving Casa Roja we walk to the end of the boardwalk and take the steps at the end turning right. At the top we turn left along by the Aqua Marina apartments and go to the end where we again ascend some steps and veer left before ascending the recently constructed twenty switch-back steps to the newly paved area at the top.  There are lovely views out to sea and many  viewing areas along this stretch of the walk.

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  1. Leaving “El Valadero de la Tinosa”, we walk south-east along the coast. The distance is 2.2 kms. approx and the walk, taken at a nice brisk pace, will take you about thirty minutes.  The path now changes to a dirt track and runs above a small cliff that permits a glimpse from above, of the intertidal area, it’s coves and small inlets.

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  1. We arrive at “The Barranco (ravine) del Quiquere”, of interest because it’s volcanic sides contain engravings from the indigenous world of the island of Lanzerote. We can get a close look at them by taking the track just 50 metres to the north on the right side of the ravine as you walk from Puerto del Carmen.  We cross down into the gorge and up the other side.  It is also to be noted that this area is one of the two recognised nudist areas on the island so this may add some spice to your evening’s ramble!

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  1. The views of the sea and islands of Lobos and Fuertaventura to the south enhance the beauty of the landscape in this area and eventually we arrive at the newly man-made marina of Puerto Calero. This beautiful port and marina is a fitting ending after our cliff walk and a ramble around the upmarket shops and outlet stores is highly recommended.  There are also numerous high quality restaurants and at least two hotels nearby.  Puerto Calero is renowned as a headquarters for some round the world yacht crews also and after a brief look around you will see why.

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Satin Island by Tom McCarthy

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Satin Island: A Novel for the Google Generation.

I came away from this novel knowing, like the fakir of old, that I was merely touching the flank of the elephant.  So, my review, if such it is, like all reviews is limited and very subjective.  I’m reminded here of the acerbic comment of John B. Keane, the great playwright from Listowel, County Kerry, who once remarked about critics and reviewers of his plays, that, “They are like eunuchs – they see it happening each night in front of their eyes, but they can’t do it themselves”.

The chief narrator of this novel is called U.  He is an anthropologist, an ethnographer working for a nameless, faceless Corporation and he is answerable only to the almighty Peyman (sic).  As an anthropologist, U doesn’t like Corporations: “Forget family, or ethnic or religious groupings: corporations have supplanted all these as the primary structure of the modern tribe.”  U’s assorted, seemingly unconnected, ramblings, dreams, visions and hallucinations are presented to us, the reader, as learned treatise/thesis/dissertation/official report with their accompanying sections and clauses and sub-clauses.

U is a loner, he is obsessive, highly intelligent and a perfect cipher for our modern age.  He is, of course, an expert in all things IT, and is surrounded by the latest gadgetry at all times, laptops, phones, TV’s, servers.  He spends his days in the bowels of this giant Corporation, clicking and scrolling and buffering his way to new, seemingly unconnected, pieces of information, which he then gathers in dossiers for inclusion in his Great Report.  This report has been commissioned by his boss, Peyman, and the mysterious promoters of the Koob-Sassen Project.

Like many a modern protagonist before him, U’s life is narrow and relatively unexciting.  The novel has a number of recurring touchstone motifs; his only friend Petr, his workplace colleague Daniel, his lover Madison and his obsessive building of dossiers on oil slick occurrences across the globe, coupled with the strange recurring incidents of parachutists being killed when their chutes don’t open.

Despite its formal appearance and structure, the novel often reads like a dramatic monologue, a very modern stream of consciousness, akin to Joyce’s, Finnegan’s Wake.  There are long, almost Biblical-like tracts of visions, revelations, fantasies and dreams – and the ever-present references to The Great Report.  So, despite appearing like a report, what we have here is a narrator who has the skills and the training of an academic report writer who decides to cut loose and in the guise of a report, he writes a novel of substance – what we are presented with here, therefore, is a novel masquerading as a report!

In Chapter 11, U recounts a very germane anecdote, which may go far to explaining this conundrum and also the mercurial mindset of the novel’s narrator: How come this very official looking Report/Treatise/Thesis is full of dream sequences, chance meetings and sometimes barely credible events?  U tells us that in his book, Tristes Tropiques, his hero, Levi-Strauss (with a hyphen!), the famous anthropologist, speaks of having spent months with the Nambikwara tribe deep in the tropical jungle, with no prospect of an early egress, marooned by the onset of the rainy season, rivers flooded and un-navigable, all food, wine, bottled water, cigarettes consumed or traded. Then bored out of his skull, he says he fell prey to what he called “a mental disorder” that can sometimes affect anthropologists – he started to compose an epic drama on the back of the sheets of paper containing his research notes. If I could use a rather dated analogy: what U produces here is a vinyl B side – while he psyches himself to compile his Great Report, which will define his career, and be the report to beat all other reports; while he flounders in the urban jungles of Stockholm or New York or London, waiting for inspiration and motivation and for this bout of procrastination to abate and before The Big Idea for The Great Report takes hold – he gives us Satin Island!

U has been patiently waiting for someone like Tom McCarthy to come along and put him under the microscope for some time now.  Who is he?  He is an urban anthropologist of the NOW, the Present, The Contemporary.  He is, like the Jesuits of old, masters of the art of discernment: he is essentially a Discerner of the Zeitgeist.  He tells us himself: “I am an anthropologist. Structure of kinship; systems of exchange, barter and gift; symbolic operation lurking on the flip side of the habitual and the banal: identifying these, prising them out and holding them up, kicking and wriggling, to the light – that’s my racket.”  He tells us that his modus operandi is to feed, “vanguard theory, almost always from the left side of the spectrum, back into the corporate machine”.  He sees his role as one of purveying cultural insight.  By this he means, ‘that we unpick the fibre of a culture, it’s weft and warp – the situation it throws up, the beliefs that underpin and nourish it – and let a client in on how they can best get traction on this fibre so that they can introduce into the weave their own fine, silken (Satin?) thread, strategically embroider or detail it with a mini-narrative, i.e. sell their product’.

U is a proponent, maybe the inventor of the term Present-Tense AnthropologyTM, “an anthropology that bathes in presence, and in nowness – bathed in it as in a deep, bubbling and nymph-saturated well”.  In Chapter 9 he goes to a conference in Frankfurt to deliver a paper, “on the anthropology of The Contemporary”.  He delivers his paper and gets an under-whelming response from those attending.  Typical of his character, he returns to his underground lair in London and in a powerful dream-like sequence delivers the paper he should have delivered in Frankfurt to great imagined acclaim – his fifteen minutes of fame?

Throughout the novel we are treated to glimpses of U’s viewpoint and his wry humour.  By his own admission, anthropologists are two-a-penny, “A famous anthropologist, even one with a real book out, is about as well known as a third-division footballer”.  As already mentioned, he is a firm believer in the Present, the Now.  According to U, “the Future is the biggest shaggy dog story of all”.  Elsewhere he gives us this chilling reminder of our Now world: “Walk down any stretch of street, and you’re being filmed by three cameras at once – and even if you aren’t the phone you carry in your pocket pinpoints and logs your location at each given moment.  Each website that you visit, every click-through, every keystroke is archived: even if you hit delete, wipe, empty trash, it’s still lodged somewhere, in some fold or enclave, some occluded avenue of circuitry”.

So, U, is both a product and a student of our age and this novel is aimed at the many bright, highly qualified, trapped individuals, who do the work for faceless Corporations, quietly in the background in their little well organised, disconnected cadres, in their underground offices, the underworld of bandwidth, servers, computers, cables, bits and bytes and megabytes, memory banks, satellite dishes – and of course, the constant curse of buffering!

As you can see, my focus has been, and rightly so, on U, the main protagonist.  Where then does the title, Satin Island, come from?  If anything the novel should be titled, Staten Island, but maybe that’s already out there!  Satin fits in with his overall obsession with the soft, velvety, viscosity of oil and the earlier references to the weave and warp and weft of the work of an anthropologist.  Anyway, the title comes to U in “a splendid dream” in Chapter 12!  In this dream he flies (like Icarus?) over a harbour, by a city.  Later, he describes beautifully the frenetic movement around, “the half-completed Freedom Towers” where, “the thrum of a sight-seeing helicopter…. its glass nose sniffing the ground…… the intermittent beep-beep-beep of reversing buses broke up the chopper blades deep gut-vibrating frequencies”.  He makes a rather pointless journey to Battery Park and South Ferry to take the ferry to Staten Island only to balk at the very last moment, deciding, rather annoyingly, not to take the ferry after all.

However, I hope you can see that I’ve enjoyed reading Satin Island by Tom McCarthy.  Jonathan Cape pulled out all the stops here.  The book feels good, and it looks good and oily and velvety!  I even liked the typeset Dante MT – all these things are vitally important for booklovers and readers!  There are odd moments in the novel, let’s be honest, when you feel like the little boy who announces that the Emperor has no clothes – but these are very rare.  I haven’t been as excited about a shortlisted Booker novel since Seamus Deane’s, Reading in the Dark, in 1996 – so my run of honourable runners-up continues! Tom McCarthy’s novel is innovative, well crafted and challenging.  It contains great modern insights, great humour and the odd ‘epiphanic tingling’ along the way.

It is, in effect, a novel for the Google Generation. (In fact, how did he write the novel without mentioning that corporate word!).  It is written for all those restless readers who scroll and search and tweet and like and befriend online; those users of WiFi and 3G and 4G – their iPhone and iPad at the ready to comment, to blog, to email their Nowness to the world.

I predict this novel will be a runaway success in the airport bookstores at Torino-Caselle and all the other homogeneous airport hubs around our restless world, wherever people like U and his contemporaries bide their time between connecting flights!

This novel is breaking new ground, a breath of fresh air, at times a tour de force.  I highly recommend you to be bold and to venture forth and feel the elephant’s flank!

Tom Mc Carthy, Literarischer Salon Hannover

Remembering Michael Hartnett

Hartnett by the Bridge in Newcastle West

Michael Hartnett was an esteemed poet from a young age, but his assurance about his creative destiny had its dangers.  In the following edited essay, first published in The Irish Times on February 16th, 2009,  MICHAEL SMITH recalls a significant artist whose early death at 58 on the 13th of October, 1999 can be viewed as an accident of time and place.  

The author, Michael Smith himself, poet and Aosdána member, passed away in November 2014. His contribution to the arts as a teacher, poet, editor, translator and publisher cannot be overstated.  He had a profound impact on the Irish literary scene. He has been described as a classical modernist, a poet of modern life. Born in Dublin in 1942, Michael Smith was the founder of New Writers’ Press in 1967 and had been responsible for the publication of over 100 books and magazines. He was keen to promote the modernist tradition in Irish poetry, publishing the work of Thomas MacGreevy, Brian Coffey, Denis Devlin, Anthony Cronin,  and Michael Hartnett, among others.

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As with many relationships, even the most intimate, it is often extremely difficult to pinpoint the original meeting. I can only say that it was in the early stage of our enrolment in UCD that I first met Michael Hartnett. I cannot recall the circumstances of that first meeting. I can’t even remember what academic subjects Michael had chosen. What I do remember is that James Liddy (and perhaps John Jordan) had agreed to pay his first year’s fees. So the lad from Newcastle West in Co Limerick was indeed going to receive some patronage. This patronage was bestowed purely on the strength of his poetry. Michael was recognised as a gifted poet from a relatively early age, and quite rightly so.

Michael almost never attended a lecture, so far as I recall. I was little better myself. The whole novelty of being university students was more than enough for both of us. Study was for others. Unlike Michael, I was deeply rooted in my Dublin working-class background, whereas, for Michael, Dublin was a kind of playground, despite his Limerick working-class background. But that working-class background was something we shared.

I think Michael had no other ambition than to be a poet. I think he gave little thought to how he would survive financially in the future. Was he feckless in this regard? Probably. Did he come to Dublin with the naivety of Kavanagh, expecting wonderful things? I doubt it. He didn’t have that innocence. On the other hand, he wasn’t cynical. John Jordan and James Liddy had accepted him as a gifted poet. The future was in the lap of the Muse.

What memories I have of him are selective, like all memories, I suppose. Often we would walk home together after a drinking session in McDaid’s, where we were usually treated to drinks by James Liddy and his friend, Patrick Clancy. Patrick Kavanagh was still holding vociferous court there at the time. Michael had already had his first confrontation with Kavanagh in the Bailey at the launch of the first issue of Poetry Ireland, edited by John Jordan and published by the Dolmen Press. That confrontation is too notorious to need detailed repetition. Michael made an adverse comment on Kavanagh’s poem (to Kavanagh himself, although Michael didn’t know who he was) that begins: “I am here in a garage in Monaghan.” Kavanagh’s reaction was violent, upturning a table full of drinks.

Michael was living in digs in a cul-de-sac off the North Strand, so our walk home often overlapped. I recall him voicing his strong disapproval of Kavanagh’s raucous behaviour in McDaid’s, saying that if anyone in Newcastle West behaved like that, he would be barred from the pub, and why should a poet be made an exception of.

He had great admiration for Yeats, though, oddly, not so much as a poet but as a businessman. He admired Yeats’s business acumen.

In his digs, under the bed, Michael had a small brown cardboard suitcase which he opened for me once to show me a huge quantity of beautifully scripted poems. I sometimes wonder what happened to all of this material.

There were, of course, other young poets in UCD at the time: Paul Durcan, Macdara Woods, Brian Lynch, Eamon Grennan, Malachy Higgins, to mention just a few names that come to mind.

In the case of the first three, and including myself, James Liddy was undoubtedly the extraordinarily generous mentor, with John Jordan a reserved encourager.

Of all of us, it was Michael who was held in the highest esteem by both John and James. And that esteem was well-deserved, for Michael arrived in Dublin as an already accomplished poet who was not looking for, nor needing any, teachers in the art of poetry. Much has been made of Lorca’s influence on Michael, largely because of his later version of Lorca’s Romancero Gitano, but really it has more to do with the precocity of the early work of both poets.

I have never met any poet who was more assured of himself as a poet than Michael was. It was his destiny. All else seemed of secondary importance. But however impressed by that I was, I sensed a danger in it, recalling Wordsworth’s lines in his poem “Resolution and Independence”:

We poets in our youth begin in gladness;

But thereof come in the end, despondency and madness.

I knew, and indeed Michael knew, that there was no money in poetry (Kavanagh had learnt that years before) and that he would have to earn his living at some stage in the future – but he seemed unconcerned by this. Writing poetry was a lifetime’s work, regardless. I sometimes think that a lot of Michael’s problems of later years came from that dedication. Yes, he did later earn his living in the international telephone exchange on Andrews Street, but he found it boring and was only too glad to escape from it (even during working hours) and head for O’Neill’s of Suffolk Street to drink pints with some other of his escapee colleagues from the exchange.

And Michael was good company, a wonderful raconteur, witty, and possessing a fund of knowledge of all sorts of arcane subjects. He had an extraordinary memory. Yet always it was as the poet that he was treated, in whatever company he found himself. That was the identity he had chosen or had been chosen for him. I think he never abandoned that. And therein lay a danger, the same sort of danger that beset Dylan Thomas, for one cannot always be a poet. There has to be a life apart from being a poet, at least for poets without personal financial resources or the resources of a generous benefactor. Ezra Pound had his wife’s money behind him, and also financial support from his doting father. Neither Michael nor Dylan Thomas had anything of the sort.

For Thomas there was the horrible scrounging and, later, the equally horrible American readings. For Michael, after his stint in the exchange, there was very little, and he seemed to live a hand-to-mouth existence, even when later he returned to Newcastle West with his wife, Rosemary, and their two children. Later, a cnuas from Aosdána came in useful, and some prizes he won and some royalties he managed to squeeze out of publishers.

To attempt to be a professional poet in Ireland in the late 1960s and early 1970s was a recipe for trouble. The days of the literary salons, such as Æ’s, were well and truly over. That left the pub, which unfortunately became Michael’s court, where he met his admirers who provided him with the kind companionship he needed, treating him to drinks and accepting him as a poet.

Was there anything else he might have done, any alternative? There was not at the time any such thing in Ireland as a poet in residence. So Michael made do with what was available.

A poet is not like a novelist who must toil daily and for long hours if he or she is to be productive. For the poet, the Muse is fickle and her visits are not on demand. So the poet must wait, never sure what the future holds for his work. When his own lyrical gift began to fail (though not until he had written some of the best poems written by an Irish poet in his time), Michael turned to translations from the Irish, translation always being a good means of keeping one’s skills honed.

Why did Michael turn to writing his own poetry in Irish? I think that this, too, was part of his attempt to be accepted socially as a professional poet. After all, in the old Gaelic order there had been such an acceptance. That order, however, was long gone and could never be recovered. After his early-evening court sessions in Doheny and Nesbitt’s, his admirers (often cultivated and literary civil servants) would head off to their respectable homes in the suburbs, leaving Michael as an abandoned court jester (which, in due course, he was becoming). Let it be said that there was no malice in this among those who patronised Michael with drink and small loans of money. But they had families at home and a job to do the next day.

Michael’s early death, whatever the medical causes, can be viewed as an accident of time and place. In a sense, he was a martyr to poetry. Gifted, even a genius, but nonetheless a martyr. If only . . . It’s useless now to ponder such possibilities.

MichaelHartnett

An Enthralling Companion….

"I felt a sense of being in the presence of a man who, while an integral part of the small community he loved, was also marked apart as special."

“I felt a sense of being in the presence of a man who, while an integral part of the small community he loved, was also marked apart as special.”

 

Dermot Bolger movingly remembers his friend the poet Michael Hartnett who died 16 years ago this month.  This is an edited version of a commemorative piece which appeared in The Irish Times on Wednesday, October 12th 2005.

In Ireland there is nothing better for making new friends than an early death and, because in death Michael Hartnett has acquired so many friends, I should firstly say that I didn’t know him well enough to claim any special friendship.  I was far younger than him and even though I edited and published three of his books I never lost my awestruck sense of being privileged to be in his company.  I was a sensation I felt as a young man on the first night we met and a sensation I still experienced on the last morning he phoned me some weeks before his death on October 13th 1999.

The first book of poems I bought, while still a schoolboy, was the small New Writers Press 1970 edition of Michael’s Selected Poems.  On the cover he looks little more than a schoolboy himself.  That book had a huge effect on me and remains among my most precious possessions.  I first met Michael around 1980 when I ran literature events  in the ramshackle building housing  Dublin’s Grapevine Art Centre.  John F Deane had bravely established a new organisation called Poetry Ireland, and Michael travelled from Limerick to give a benefit reading for it. his opening words to me were to inquire if I knew of a bed for the night, and my opening words to somebody whom I viewed as a hero was to offer him one in Finglas.

It was after midnight when we reached Finglas but Macari’s chipshop remained open on Clune Road.  Years later in Inchicore Haiku Michael wrote:

In local chippers

Queueing for carbohydrates

A dwarfed people.

We queued for our late-night carbohydrates.  Critics can elaborate on Michael’s gift as a poet and contextualise his work.  My interest here is putting down memories for his son and daughter and what struck me was how Michael enthralled the late-night queue and staff in that Finglas chipshop.  He wasn’t attention seeking; they were simply drawn into his quiet magnetism.  The staff had no idea who he was but afterwards always asked for news of my friend in the countryman’s cap.

In 1984 I wound up sitting in a pub between Michael and Michael Smith, who had published that earlier Selected Poems.  Both Michaels became emphatic that not only should I re-issue  the long out-of-print Selected Poems, but that the new volume should include every English language poem he had written up to and including his Farewell to English.  Michael Hartnett assured me not to worry about copyright issues, he would take care of that.  I was young and naïve, but even in my innocence I should have been slightly worried when he explained how he cleared copyright permission for his wonderful translations of Lorca’s Gypsy Ballads.  He phoned Lorca’s brother in New York, explained that he was once deported from Franco’s Spain and after he had read aloud one translation the voice at the other end said, “Spread the word”!

Within a few months I was sitting down in his small cottage in Glendarragh, Templeglantine, near Newcastle West in Limerick going through old suitcases of poems with Michael and discovering material either never published or published once in magazines and then forgotten.  I spent two of the most memorable days of my life there working on Volume 1 of his Collected Poems and still like to recall Michael as he was then.

After the executions of the Easter Rising leaders in 1916, a British Army officer declared that while they all died like men, Thomas McDonagh died like a prince.  Wandering with Michael through Newcastle West or sitting down to eat  with his family, I felt a similar sense of being in the presence of a man who, while an integral part of the small community which he loved and understood, was also marked apart as special.

But soon the world that I had glimpsed in Newcastle West was to implode.  Alone in Ireland while his family visited Australia, Michael seemed to drift irredeemably into the engulfing tide of alcohol that had always been a problem.  Aware that he had the proofs for me of some translations, I tracked his progress across Ireland and finally located him and the proofs in Dublin.  He handed me the proofs carried for weeks in his inside pocket and, ever the optimist, asked if by any chance I could loan him €5,000.

At that time the entire assets of Raven Arts Press consisted of a leaking gas heater and a cat, so I brought him for lunch instead and then to a double-bill of afternoon films.  The first – Ruben Ruben – was a comedy about a poet with a drink problem on a reading tour in America.  Michael chuckled through it.  The second – Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumblefish – was shot entirely in moody black and white.  The only object filmed in colour was a solitary fighting fish in a glass tank.  Leaving the cinema and knowing that I could keep him from the pub no longer, I commented to Michael on this cinematic trick.  Michael gripped my arm  and, with the relief of a man who had known the delusional tricks of delirium tremens, whispered, “Oh thank God, you saw the fish too.”

Soon he was living in a bedsit in Inchicore with his marriage over.  His face, which had never aged, was suddenly old.  His chief defence against fate remained his sense of humour.  I brought him over some small sum of money for something.  There were virtually no possessions in that room where he had started writing the Haiku sequence that broke his silence in English.  But his sense of hospitality would not let me leave empty-handed.  He asked if I possessed a copy of the tiny 1969 edition of his poem The Hag of Beare and insisted on giving me the only copy he still possessed – Number 1 of that precious numbered edition.

He brought the manuscript of Inchicore Haiku to my small office in Phibsborough, driven over by two new Inchicore friends with impenetrable Dublin accents.  We launched it in the Richmond House in Inchicore, a whirlwind night.  But if that was a celebratory night in a crowded pub, which cloaked his personal pain displayed in the book, I saw far less happy occasions for him in Dublin pubs in the following years.  I know of nothing romantic about drink and the damage it does.  I do know that his new partner, Angela Liston, prolonged his life and brought some stability to a man now gripped by addiction.

His publishing affairs became complicated and so I drew up a contract between us, giving him back all rights to his work on condition that I acquired non-exclusive rights to his cheese-grater joke: “A man gives his blind friend a cheese-grater for Christmas, meets him in January and asks if he liked his present.  ‘No’, the friend replied, “I tried to read it but it was just too violent.’”

Occasionally after that, he would phone for a chat.  On the last morning he phoned, he told me how he had recently visited one of the men who drove him to my office years before.  The man was dying of cancer, his mouth covered by an oxygen mask, and he grew upset because the words he kept trying to say were indistinguishable.

Michael leaned over and said: “I know you’re upset because you’re dying and I can’t understand what you are saying, but I must tell you that with your accent, even when you were well I could never understand a word you said anyway.”

The man gave up trying to speak and laughed instead.  It takes courage to make a dying man laugh, but Michael Hartnett had courage in spades.  Courage, stubbornness and demons.  I had no idea he was soon to die, but something made me tell him that one of the proudest moments of my life – something I could unreservedly look back on as truly worthwhile – was editing his Collected Poems.

He accepted the compliment, told me his latest joke and then recited an extraordinary raw and heart-felt poem he had written for Angela Liston.  It was the last time I heard his voice and I can hear it still, with his laugh at the end which contained all that pain, humanity and unbroken dignity:

                                    I have been kicked around the place

                                    Been mocked and been pissed on

                                    But I find my way home to you, Angela Liston

                                    And my wrinkled, anxious forehead

                                    Amazingly has been kissed on

                                    And I am blessed by you Angela Liston.

He died on October 13th, 1999.  His Complete Poems and Translations  have since been superbly edited and published by Peter Fallon and The Gallery Press.  When I last passed through Newcastle West I stopped at dawn in Maiden Street where he was reared.  It was deserted but every shop window had a poster for Éigse Michael Hartnett, with his haunting quizzical eyes staring out.  Those eyes and that voice haunt me still.

".. those haunting quizzical eyes staring out."

“.. those haunting quizzical eyes staring out.”