All I know is a door into the dark. Outside, old axles and iron hoops rusting; Inside, the hammered anvil’s short-pitched ring, The unpredictable fantail of sparks Or hiss when a new shoe toughens in water. The anvil must be somewhere in the centre, Horned as a unicorn, at one end and square, Set there immoveable: an altar Where he expends himself in shape and music. Sometimes, leather-aproned, hairs in his nose, He leans out on the jamb, recalls a clatter Of hoofs where traffic is flashing in rows; Then grunts and goes in, with a slam and flick To beat real iron out, to work the bellows.
“The Forge” appears in Seamus Heaney’s second volume of poetry, Door into the Dark (1969), and the title of the collection is taken from the first line of this poem. Like many other poems by Heaney this poem explores and glorifies country crafts, many of which are now redundant. This, in time, may pose problems for those younger generations who come to explore the poems of Heaney and other great poets: few of our young people have reason to visit the forge today, fewer still know what a diviner did and in these ecological times turf is no longer our default fuel! However, not too long ago, the forge was an essential part of Irish rural life and farmers, in particular, used the services of the blacksmith to shoe their horses and make and repair their ploughs and iron gates and other farm utensils. Indeed in harsher, more troubled times the forge also doubled as an ‘armaments factory’ where ancient pikes, and rudimentary spears and swords were forged and tempered in a clandestine way and often ‘hidden in the thatch’!
Many of his earlier poems evoke, “a hard, mainly rural life with rare exactness,” according to critic Michael Wood. These early poems use descriptions of rural labourers digging, turf-cutting, divining for water, purging unwanted farm animals, and their many and varied other tasks and contemplations of natural phenomena — and they are filtered through childhood and adulthood.
‘The Forge’ was owned and worked by local blacksmith Barney Devlin and it had been handed down to him by his father before him. Heaney used to pass by this mysterious cornucopia of scrap metal, farm machinery and the obligatory three or four strong farm horses on his way to school at Hillhead near Bellaghy, in rural County Derry. Heaney’s boyhood fascination with the mysterious goings on at the local forge is compounded by the eerie darkness of its interior. Later when he began to write, he uses the forge and the work of the blacksmith as an extended analogy or metaphor for his own artistic development and creations – as he does also in “Digging” and other poems.
‘The Forge’ is a sonnet with a clear division into an octave (the first eight lines) and a sestet (the final six lines). While the octave, apart from its initial reference to the narrator, focuses solely on the inanimate objects and occurrences inside and outside the forge, the sestet describes the blacksmith himself, and what he does. Interestingly, the transition from the octave to the sestet is a run-on or enjambment containing one of the key metaphors of the poem, the anvil as altar:
Set there immovable: an altar
Where he expends himself in shape and music.
The poem can be read as elegy to the past, and a lament to the lost tradition of the blacksmith. The anvil is constructed as an altar, and the blacksmith is beating out “real iron”, which the world in 1969, was beginning to dispense with, as cars and tractors began to whizz by ‘flashing in rows’ to the few and far between main dealers!
In one of the many other ways of reading this poem, the blacksmith figure can also be compared to the creative role of the poet as one who opens “door[s] into the dark”, “expends himself in shape and music”, and who “grunts” with the exertion of forging his poems. Heaney drags us back into the earliest reaches of civilization. The blacksmith, after all, was one of the most important members of the agricultural community – he kept horses shod, he kept ploughshares sharp after having cast them in the first place; he was able to transmute iron and other metals into the tools humans needed to build civilization.
Heaney’s blacksmith evokes Vulcan, the Roman God of the forge. He doesn’t speak – he only “grunts”, and is described as “leather-aproned, hairs in his nose,” like a caricature from Chaucer. He is powerful as well, able “to beat real iron out.” It’s also wonderful the way Heaney compares the blacksmith’s forge to a church. The anvil sits in the centre, “immoveable: an altar / Where he expends himself in shape and music.” And yet, this is all pretty subtle in the poem. It’s not overtly religious; it allows the reader to stick to a literal interpretation about a man whose job is disappearing as the world changes around him, while also allowing a reader who wants to grasp those deeper images another path into the poem.
We have focussed much on the forge and the blacksmith so far but it is essential that we also concentrate on the wordsmith and his craftsmanship at work here also. One effect of this is to enable us to experience the anvil or altar as a magical point of transition between the material and immovable world of objects and the fluid, musical world of human consciousness. We have already mentioned that this is a sonnet, but even here the poet is experimenting and the rhyme scheme of the sonnet is: abba cddc efgfef, which is a departure from the standard Shakespearean (abab cdcd efef gg) or Petrarchan (abba abba cde cde).
Heaney uses the extended analogy of the forge as a centre of creativity and he posits the thesis that the blacksmith’s work is synonymous with the creative work of the poet. He uses the beautiful simile “horned as a unicorn” to compare the anvil at the centre to the mythical ancient unicorn. He also cleverly introduces the metaphor of the anvil as altar, comparing the poet’s devotion to the creation of a poem to religious worship or prayer. The poet uses juxtaposition to contrast the exterior of the forge, which may symbolise the mundane, unpoetic world of modern life (“the traffic is flashing in rows”), which the blacksmith/poet seems to scorn in favour of the remembered past (“recalls a clatter of hoofs”) and the supposedly more real activity of beating “real iron out” inside the forge, i.e. poetic activity. There is also the sharp contrast made between the old and the new – the “clatter of hoofs” and “traffic .. flashing in rows”. The poem abounds with examples of alliteration and assonance, “a door into the dark”, “outside, old axles”. Another grace note used by the poet is the combination of repeated long syllables with assonance, as in “new shoe” and “beat real iron out”. The noisy, boisterous forge is brought to life also by numerous examples of onomatopoeia: “hiss”, “clatter”, “grunt”, “slam”, “flick”. In truth, whether one is a wordsmith or a blacksmith, a playwright or a wheelwright, one has to stand amazed at the sensual delights conjured up by phrases like, “the hammered anvil’s short-pitched ring”, or “the unpredictable fantail of sparks”.
For me the satisfaction of reading Seamus Heaney’s work is the way in which he leads you from the local, from the parish of Anahorish, from his homestead in Mossbawn, or later Glanmore, outwards in space and time, proving Kavanagh’s theory that the local is universal. In Ireland, our greatest poets are poets of place and they depict the people who live in those places ‘warts and all’, and despite some criticism that Heaney labours the analogy here in this poem, I agree wholeheartedly with P.R. King  when he states:
The precise and unadorned diction of the poem represents as honest a piece of craftsmanship as the subject he describes … (The Forge) is accurate, it comes alive as it records the last moments of a dying craft, and after it has been read it lingers in the mind.
 King, Peter R., Nine Contemporary Poets: A Critical Introduction, London: Methuen, 1979. (Selections from the work of Philip Larkin, Charles Tomlinson, Thom Gunn, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Seamus Heaney, Douglas Dunn, Tom Paulin, and Paul Mills).
Mahon’s poetry does not flinch from exposing human inadequacy, especially, but not exclusively, the pathology of the Northern Protestant people. Oates’s heroic gesture in ‘Antarctica’, the naked aggression in ‘As It Should Be’, the narrow bigotry in ‘Ecclesiastes’, and Bruce Ismay’s self-absorption in ‘After the Titanic’ – all are testament to human shortcomings. However, while Mahon deplores the ‘stiff rhetorical intransigence’ of his people (as Seamus Deane puts it), he also sympathises with them in their isolation and fading presence.
For Mahon poetry is essentially an artistic activity: it is more concerned with shape and form than with content or politics. Like the great modernist poets T.S. Eliot and W.B. Yeats, he takes pleasure in and is consoled by the order and formality of poetry – an order that is notably absent from many of the livers he describes. This might suggest that his poetry is removed from everyday concerns, and indeed he sometimes yearns for what he calls poetry’s ‘palace and porcelain’ – a place or state that is elegant, decorative, and decorous.
However, this desire is only one of the warring instincts within him. Mahon has also suggested that poetry is capable of improving humankind. He has invoked Shelley’s claim that poetry enlarges the circumference of the imagination, which is ‘the great instrument of moral good.’ Looked at in this way, poetry is an unacknowledged legislator of the world, not isolated from it.
In the opinion of one critic, Gerald Dawe, Mahon’s primary concern is to understand the imagination and find a place for it in the modern world. Mahon himself maintains that poetry can contribute to the creation of a life that is nearer the ideal. ‘A good poem is a paradigm (model or example) of good politics,’ he has written – ‘of people talking to each other, with honest subtlety, at a profound level. It is a light to lighten the darkness.’
Seamus Deane remarks that Mahon’s poetry ‘expresses a longing to be free from history’; but his poems on civility and barbarity (the greatest of which is probably ‘A Disused Shed in County Wexford’) contradict that longing. He has had good reason to yearn to be ‘through with history,’ since he belongs to a country that has violently enacted its versions of history, with deadly effect. However, history is not his only preoccupation. His themes also include the age-old conflict between the individual and his community. In Mahon’s case, poetry is also especially a statement about what it means to be a poet today, distanced from, but implicated in, the historical world. So he does not escape from history; instead it is incorporated or woven into the oasis of peace and aesthetic order that is each poem.
What are the main characteristics of his style? He displays a combination of brevity and detail, and this is achieved with a cadenced precision. How effective and economical a description is ‘a writhing glimmer of fish’ in ‘Day Trip to Donegal’, for example! In addition, his elegant and playful rhymes and adroit control of assonance are impressive. He endorses traditional poetic forms, such as the sonnet and the villanelle, and yet subverts them. His pared-down vernacular idiom is combined with a prodigious learning, which Mahon wears lightly and which makes an oblique and understated appearance in the poems.
The voices of his poems – and they are many – are sophisticated yet possessed of a heartfelt, if weary, empathy with their subjects. They are often still, small voices, educated but understated, learned but not pedantic, always self-aware and often self-mocking. They are the voices of men of conscience who are implicated in the guilt of being human beings. (Women figure only in a small, marginal way in the selection of poems by Mahon on the modern Leaving Cert course, for example.) Their agonised intelligence is often close to despair, but they still go on. The critic Terence Brown uses the phrase ‘terminal pathos’ to describe this distinctive note in Mahon’s poetry, which can also be found, incidentally, in the work of Samuel Beckett. Brown is referring to that quality of poetic speech that can excite in the reader extreme pity or sorrow.
However, the poems are not all delivered in a tone of mortal sadness. Central to Mahon’s poetry is the use of irony. Often his meanings have a different or opposite tendency to that expressed by the words used. When he rails against bigotry and hatred in ‘Ecclesiastes’, and against violence in ‘Rathlin’, he is severely critical, but his gentle mockery in ‘Grandfather’ is impish and mischievous. He tempers the cruel precision of his observations with compassion, amusement, and pain. Witty and darkly humorous, he relishes the absurd and the lyrical simultaneously, as this extract from ‘After the Titanic’ illustrates:
a pandemonium of
Prams, pianos, sideboards, winches,
Boilers, bursting and shredded ragtime.
The settings for his poems range from the readily identifiable Portrush and Belfast to the metaphorical sites of past political failures and violence, like Kinsale and Rathlin Island, and the psychic wasteland of Antarctica. Harshness predominates. Surfaces are unyielding, climates are bracing. Even cities may be empty, as in ‘Ecclesiastes’, or their citizens voluntarily withdraw into isolation, as in ‘Grandfather’. We sense that, although the poems are set ‘in one place only’, the feelings they evoke are universal. Always there is a consciousness of the vastness of the universe and the limitations of human struggle. The reader is aware that, whatever the setting of a particular poem, it engages in dialogue with or provides a foil to, that desperate, barren place, Belfast, which so informs Mahon’s imagination.
Frequently places are viewed from elsewhere, from a distance that may be historical, geographical, or ironic. The titles of the first and last books from which the poems on the Leaving Cert course are taken, Night-Crossing and Antarctica testify to his shifting ground. Frequently too the speaker is a traveller, a tourist or a reporter, traversing difficult country. The unyielding terrain becomes a metaphor for the existential, regional or global anxieties from which he suffers.
In certain poems there is an inkling of an ‘elsewhere’ that is nearer the ideal state than that now inhabited. That place or state is suggested by, for example, post-historical Rathlin Island, now a bird sanctuary, or by the glimpse of Co. Donegal beyond the shores from Portrush, or by those faraway places where a thought might grow. It is beyond reach, and the speaker is often aware of its fictional nature, as he is in ‘The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush’.
Estranged loners crowd the poems. In works such as ‘After the Titanic’ and ‘Rathlin’ their distance from other humans, whether temporal or spatial, gives some idea of the extent of their isolation. Sometimes, as in ‘Day Trip to Donegal’ and ‘A Disused Shed’, their alienation is suggested by his comparing them to fish or fungi.
Mahon holds a special affection for scapegoats and failures, such as the murdered dreamer in ‘As It Should Be’, or Bruce Ismay in ‘After the Titanic’, seeing in their particular brand of failure a kind of successful avoidance of the mundane. As he writes in a 1997 poem, ‘The greatest men fail, or seem to have failed.’
A distinctively Mahon outsider is the detached observer, at one remove from reality yet part of it. He is to be found, for instance, in ‘A Chinese Restaurant in Portrush’, ‘Day Trip to Donegal’, and ‘A Disused Shed in County Wexford’. His role is to interpret and comment on the poem’s action, as would the chorus of a classic Greek play, or to lament man’s inhumanity, as did Old Testament prophets such as Jeremiah. Unlike a Greek chorus, however, Mahon’s outsider is implicated in the conditions and predicaments the poems express. His watchful presence also ignites an inquiry into the relationship between the poet and the historical world around him.
Mahon has a special gift for selecting telling images of the commonplace, material world and investing them with resonance. Tied-up swings, Peruvian mines, burnt-out hotels, a red bandana – the images are acutely visual and activate a series of associations in our minds. Mahon is at pains to catch the quality of light that falls on his landscapes and has a visual artist’s awareness of shape and colour. ‘The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush’, for example, is replete with precise visual detail – such as open doors, the girl swinging her bag, the chow mein, the photograph of Hongkong, the yacht – which he then invests with significance.
Derek Mahon is one of the most important poets writing in Ireland today. His poetry is memorable because his technical excellence, contemporary idiom and serious subject matter combine with an urbane yet passionate sensitivity.
DEREK MAHON – A MODERN DAY ENIGMA?
‘There must be three things in combination, I suggest, before the poetry can happen: soul, song and formal necessity’ writes Mahon, and his own work most surely meets these requirements. Mahon’s poetry has the sensibility of a thinking, feeling self, a music and a mastery of construction; ‘Grandfather’ is a sonnet, ‘Antarctica’ a villanelle and, in general, his organisation of his stanzas, his line length and rhyme are very impressive. He is a formalist, he believes in pattern and structure and has said: ‘Look at rap – that’s the best poetry being written in America at the moment; at least it rhymes.’
Derek Mahon writes about landscape, seascape; he writes about what Edna Longley calls the ‘conflict between poetry and the ethos of Protestant Ulster’ (this is very evident in ‘Ecclesiastes’). He is very much a poet of place (Donegal, Co. Wexford, Portrush, Rathlin, Antarctica, Kinsale), he is also a philosophical poet, a poet of ideas and a poet with a broad literary background. The literary, philosophical aspect of his work can be seen in his poem ‘Heraclitus on Rivers’, when he writes:
The very language in which the poem
Was written, and the idea of language,
All these will pass away in time.
‘For Mahon, the past is significantly present’ says Thomas Kinsella and this can be seen particularly in ‘Rathlin’ and ‘A Disused Shed in Co, Wexford’. His sympathetic nature is evident in ‘After the Titanic’, ‘The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush’, and ‘Antarctica’. In these three poems Mahon demonstrates his ability to enter into the lives of others. In one he speaks in the voice of Bruce Ismay; in another he imagines what the owner of the restaurant is thinking, feeling, dreaming and in ‘Antarctica’ he recreates a scene from an Antarctic expedition where an individual makes an extraordinary choice for the benefit of others. He is drawn to solitary, forgotten figures and in his poetry Mahon often reveals himself to be a solitary, observing figure.
Sean O’Brien points out that, ‘For the most part Mahon’s world exists outdoors’ and the, ‘wide-open spaces are, naturally enough, rather thinly populated, but even when Mahon writes about the city … it is somewhere whose population is hardly to be seen.’ Belfast, for example, in ‘Ecclesiastes’, is ‘the / dank churches, the empty streets, / the shipyard silence. The tied-up swings’. There is also, however, a sense of beauty and celebration in Mahon’s response to the physical world, as in his description of Donegal, (‘the nearby hills were a deeper green / Than anywhere in the world’) or Kinsale (‘sky-blue slates are steaming in the sun’).
He is a very visual poet, as captured in such details as
‘the grave / Grey of the sea’,
‘the empty streets, / The shipyard silence, the tied-up swings’,
‘a pandemonium of /Prams, pianos, sideboards, winches / Boilers bursting’,
‘Between ten sleeping lorries / And an electricity generator’,
‘a flutter / Of wild flowers in the lift-shaft’,
‘one / By one the gulls go window shopping’,
‘The whole island a sanctuary where amazed / Oneiric species whistle and chatter’,
‘The tent recedes beneath its crust of rime’,
‘yachts tinkling and dancing in the bay’.
‘The strongest impression made on me when I read any poem by Derek Mahon’ says Eamon Grennan, ‘is the sense that I have been spoken to; that the poem has established its presence in the world as a kind of speech … What I hear in these poems is a firm commitment to speech itself, to the act of civil communication enlivened, in this case, by poetic craft’. The poems on our course speak to us in a voice that is calm, reflective, self-aware and never self-important. The speaker sometimes uses ‘I’, sometimes ‘we’ or ‘us’, and all the time the reader is invited into the poem. Mahon’s poems ask us to reflect on a range of themes:
the dispossessed and neglected in ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’,
loneliness and longing in ‘The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush’,
history’s legacy in ‘Rathlin’,
the solitary selflessness in ‘Antarctica’,
changing times viewed optimistically in ‘Kinsale’,
from an individual’s mystery and elusiveness in ‘Grandfather’,
uncertainty and failure in ‘Day Trip to Donegal’,
guilt and suffering in ‘After the Titanic’,
cultural inheritance and community in ‘Ecclesiastes’,
threat and violence in ‘As it Should Be’.
His best known poem, seen by many as his greatest masterpiece, is ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’. There the mushrooms become a symbol of lost voices struggling to be saved and the poems references to Peru, India, Treblinka and Pompeii allow the poem a huge historical and cultural framework and create what Hugh Haughton calls ‘a wonderful long perspective of historical time’. When Declan Kiberd says that Mahon ‘has the mind of a conscience-stricken anthropologist’, we can see what he means when we read this particular poem.
In his recent poetry (not on the course!), especially in The Yellow Book, Mahon casts a cold eye on our consumer driven society and our image-obsessed world. He writes of how now ‘Everywhere aspires to the condition of pop music, / the whole noise of late-century consumerism’ and of how our lives are affected by ‘road rage / spy cameras, radio heads, McDonalds, rowdytum, / laser louts and bouncers, chat shows, paparazzi, / stand up comedians and thug journalists’. But the same poet can also write a poem called ‘Everything Is Going To Be Alright’ where he offers the following heartening lines:
The sun rises in spite of everything
And the far cities are beautiful and bright.
In the 1991 Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, Declan Kiberd describes Derek Mahon as ‘the most underrated Irish poet of the century’ and Michael Schmidt, in his Lives of the Poets, says that Mahon’s work has been ‘consistently undervalued for fifty years, not that neglect has seemed to bother or inhibit him.’ Derek Mahon is more interested in his poetry than in his reputation. He knows that,
The lines flow from the hand unbidden
And the hidden source is the watchful heart.
‘Derek Mahon’s imagery is vivid, evocative and striking.’
Discuss this statement using some of the poetry you have studied to support or refute this viewpoint.
In his poetry, Derek Mahon engages with the ordinary, sometimes the unique, always the actual experiences of life. His observations are of real places and real people; he refers to real events in an outdoor world of shorelines, rocks, hills, moorland, and island.
Mahon is a very imaginative and perceptive poet. He responds to objects and landscapes in ways that are surprising and at times remarkable. Usually he communicates his very personal observations in imagery that is vivid, evocative and striking. In his poems, however, the use of landscape transcends the mere descriptive. Landscape and seascape frequently reflect the poet’s insight, his hope, his frustration and his despair. Much of this deeper resonance is achieved through imagery.
Mahon is a very visual writer. His images vary from the domestic, where his grandfather bangs ‘around the house like a four-year old’, to the sublime where ‘A thousand mushrooms crowd to a keyhole. / This is the one star in their firmament’. One of the principal functions of his imagery is to evoke moments of private and public suffering that have been ignored or forgotten. On of the most striking images in his poems is that in ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’ where mushrooms wait ‘in a foetor / Of vegetable sweat since civil war days’. For those who have not yet shed their ‘pale flesh’ into the earth, their long, tortuous existence, has almost destroyed their hope of ever being heard, ‘so long / Expectant that there is left only the posture’. The extended image encompasses words such as ‘nightmares’, ‘prisoners’, ‘rached by drought’, to portray the chilling misery and despair of thousands who have died or survived in squalor. These vivid images also evoke the terrible realisation that the poet is speaking of human suffering and torment, displacing their lives and their hurt on to the mushrooms in a striking association of men and object. The power of the image is unquestionable, for it leaves us with diverse feelings of revulsion and of guilt for what has occurred in our history, the history of humankind, and for the unforgivable way in which the plight of the innocents has been forgotten.
This ability to use natural objects, such as mushrooms, to represent the human experiences and the poet’s own feelings and perspectives on those experiences, is also evident where Mahon evokes the elements of the Irish landscape. In ‘Rathlin’, the poet once again recalls historical violence on an island that is now a ‘sanctuary’ of peace and ‘through with history’. However, this refuge also witnessed ‘unspeakable violence’ and ‘screams of the Rathlin women’ when blood was shed in territorial battles. Mahon connects the past with the present, and Rathlin with Belfast in the image of the bombs that ‘doze in the housing estates’. It is a chilling reminder that violence has shattered the ‘dream-time’, the lives of men, women and children.
Mahon’s concern for the future helps us to understand his frustration in ‘Ecclesiastes’ when he witnesses ‘tied-up swings’, and listens to Godspeak from people who ‘love the January rains’ when people ‘darken the dark doors’ of ‘dank churches’. Mahon deplores those who can ‘promise nothing under the sun’. These vivid images of a bleak, oppressive urban landscape reflect the poet’s desolation, and his anger that ‘people still await’ understanding, forgiveness, and encouragement to embrace the ‘heat of the world’. Sadly, the elemental rain beats down relentlessly.
Or does it? In one of his later poems, ‘Kinsale’, there is a welcome and long-awaited moment of light and hope. The poet himself seems to savour the parting of clouds in the opening lines when he says, ‘The kind of rain we knew is a thing of the past – / Deep-delving, dark, deliberate.’ The image of the yachts ‘tinkling and dancing’ is not only striking in its beauty but it is also positively uplifting. There is a renewal of energy, of possibility. It has come as a welcome respite, and not just to the reader, for the poet too utters his relief in the phrase ‘at last’. The sun, that eternal image of hope, promises ‘a future forbidden to no-one’.
Derek Mahon is, therefore, a poet with a precise and imaginative eye. He is capable of creating imagery that is vivid, evocative and striking. His images reveal for us the bleak condition of society and of man yet the final note is more hopeful. Like his mushrooms, perhaps, Mahon’s poems ‘have come so far in darkness’; but ‘contemplate at last / shining windows, a future forbidden to no one’.
FINAL WORDS ON MAHON’S POETRY
His Themes include the darker side of life where Mahon reveals private and public suffering, pain, and violence. He also examines landscapes and seascapes and the way people interact with such places. Alienation is another recurring theme. Some poems also explore the area of personal sacrifice while in ‘Kinsale’ a belief in the future concludes the selection on a more hopeful note.
Mahon can explore subjects that are not usually considered material for poetry, such as mushrooms, a derelict shed and a Chinese restaurant. His observations are very precise without being pretentious. He also delves into the mindset of those who suffer, those who fail, and those who are fanatical in their politics or their religion.
Mahon employs a range of poetic forms. He can create very precise short stanza forms or longer, quite formal stanzas. In the poems on our course he uses the couplet, tercet, quatrain, sonnet and villanelle. Many of his longer stanzas are written in blank verse.
Rhyme is often internal although end-rhyme is also used. Mahon can make very effective use of alliteration and assonance.
The atmosphere that emerges from his poems is threatening, violent, and intimidating but there is also a definite feeling of love, sincerity and hope in other poems.
Mahon’s imagery shows his precise observations and gives a painterly quality to his poetry. Images are frequently related to the poet’s own experiences. Colloquial language is another feature of his style.
There is great irony in the fact that I am putting the finishing touches to this blog post the morning after the dreadful terrorist attack on Paris on Friday 13th November 2015. The great sense of outrage and helplessness described in this poem after the events of 17th May 1974 transcends time and place. All Irish thoughts and prayers are with the innocent victims of this barbaric premeditated attack on the people of France.
Child of our Time
Yesterday I knew no lullaby
But you have taught me overnight to order
This song, which takes from your final cry
Its tune, from your unreasoned end its reason;
Its rhythm from the discord of your murder
Its motive from the fact you cannot listen.
We who should have known how to instruct
With rhymes for your waking, rhythms for your sleep,
Names for the animals you took to bed,
Tales to distract, legends to protect
Later an idiom for you to keep
And living, learn, must learn from you dead,
To make our broken images, rebuild
Themselves around your limbs, your broken
Image, find for your sake whose life our idle
Talk has cost, a new language. Child
Of our time, our times have robbed your cradle.
Sleep in a world your final sleep has woken.
– Eavan Boland
‘The Troubles’ began in Northern Ireland in the Summer of 1969 and during the early Seventies the violence escalated. It was a time when, as Eavan Boland herself says, ‘the sounds of death from the television were heard almost daily’. Attitudes in the Irish Republic were at best ambivalent, with many remaining detached and turning a blind eye while others became involved and active.
On the 17th May, 1974 a coordinated series of four car bombs were detonated during rush hour traffic in Dublin and Monaghan, killing 34 civilians including two infants and a full term unborn child and its mother. In all, 27 died in Dublin as a result of the three car bombs detonated there and 7 died as a result of the Monaghan bomb. This poem, ‘Child of our Time’, from the collection The War Horse (1975), is Eavan Boland’s response to this barbaric event.
Eavan Boland herself describes the genesis of the poem:
I wrote it inspired – and I use the words with care – by a photograph I saw two days later on the front of a national newspaper whose most arresting feature was the expression on the face of the fireman who lifted that child, an expression of tenderness as if he were lifting his own child from its cradle to its mother’s breast.
Further on in this article entitled ‘The Weasel’s Tooth’ (Irish Times, 7th June, 1974), she writes of, ‘that greatest of obscenities, the murder of the innocents’ and refers to the poem as, ‘one among many other statements of outrage’.
The infant victims of the bombings include Anne Marie O’Brien (5 months) and her sister Jacqueline (17 months) along with their parents John (24) and Anna (22) – the entire family killed in the Parnell Street explosion. Baby Doherty, was the full term unborn child of Talbot Street bomb victim, Collette Doherty. Three months later in August, 1974, Baby Martha O’Neill, the stillborn daughter of Edward (39) and Martha O’Neill was delivered. Edward was killed, and his two sons seriously injured in the Parnell Street bombing.
So, it is obvious that there is heartbreak and unbearable loss at the centre of the poem and to further expand this notion of bereaved families, the poet dedicates this beautiful poem to Aengus, a friend’s child, the victim of a cot death. So, although the poem is rooted in the conflict in Northern Ireland and the overspill of that conflict south to Dublin and Monaghan, the poem is addressed to all families who suffer loss and it highlights the damage inflicted on children in all wars and all situations and obviously from a casual look at our local and international news stories today, it is as relevant now as it was then in 1974.
This is a beautifully constructed formal lament or elegy and because the victim is a child it is couched in the language of a lullaby, suitable for a young child. The words used eloquently pinpoint this: it is a ‘song’, ‘a lullaby’ which has a ‘rhythm’ and a ‘tune’. Bedtime is that sacred time which Boland refers to in many of her poems when parent and child are never closer. Here bedtime is conjured up with ‘rhymes’, and ‘tales’ and ‘legends’. Despite the focus on musical terms the poet wants to point out the horrible juxtaposition of the child’s ‘final cry’. The poet’s outrage at this meaningless terrorist act is stated unambiguously at the end of the fifth line with her use of the word ‘murder’ which jolts us into outrage as well. Death is final and the child cannot ‘listen’ anymore to our feeble justifications for political violence.
The second stanza evokes a stereotypical happy childhood lived in a secure home, safe in the natural ‘rhythms’ of life, waking and sleeping, playing with favoured soft toys. The child is protected by language, ‘tales to distract, legends to protect’ – indeed much of the poem is couched very cleverly in language terminology. Indeed it is normally the adults, the parents, who develop and teach the young a language they can use to explain the world that surrounds them. This natural cycle has been subverted here and it is now the child who instructs us:
And living, learn, must learn from you, dead.
The sound patterns and structure of the poem illustrate the chaos and confusion that reigns within the poet after such an atrocity and tries to mirror the immediate aftermath of a car bomb explosion in a busy rush hour street. The poet manages this by creating opposing tensions within the poem: waking/sleeping, adults/child, the ‘living’/’dead’, ‘song’/‘cry’, ‘tune’/’discord’. The poet struggles to impose some sort of order on the chaotic aftermath and so there are three stanzas with six lines in each. Each stanza seems to represent a phase, a stage in the process of coming to terms with the awful events which have occurred:
Stanza 1: This death is meaningless
Stanza 2: We are responsible
Stanza 3: There is an urgent lesson to be learnt
The poem can, and should, be read as a comment on the failure of communication. The only way forward from this conflict and violence is described as a ‘new language’. Our ‘idle talk’ about Nationalism and Unionism, North and South has given us this ‘broken image’ of a dead baby being carried from the carnage of a street bomb by a fireman and used the following morning in the newspapers to encapsulate the tragedy. The dead child becomes, for the poet, an emblem of hope as her eternal sleep is juxtaposed with the world waking up to the absurdity of indiscriminate violence. The poet ends with an exquisite metaphor of ‘robbing the cradle’, an image that sharply contrasts violence and the innocence of childhood. ‘Our times’ have done this, we are all responsible. Our ‘tales’ and ‘legends’ and our interpretations of history have created quarrels and division and the hopeful plea from the poet is that the child’s needless death will encourage us to ‘wake up’ and think differently.
As I said at the beginning this poem is an elegy and traditionally the functions of an elegy were to lament, to praise and to console. The tone of the poem oscillates between tenderness and outrage throughout. There is also another important dimension to this poem which is also in-keeping with an elegy and that is its political dimension. In hindsight, this powerful poem has become, like Longley’s “Ceasefire”, a clarion call for change. The poet’s anger is not directed at the bombers but at society in general who have allowed this situation to develop and fester and get out of control.
This is why we need poets like Boland to act as our trailblazers and as Mark Hederman has so eloquently put it, ‘to express what they perceive in a prophetic and irresistible rhythm, shape and form.’ Our poets and artists are forever busy, whether in their studios or their nurseries, ‘writing the icon of our future face, preparing the skins that can carry the new wine, digging the trenches into which the waters can flow…’ Boland wrote these game changing verses in her suburban home where she was busy raising her young family. However, it still took some time for her voice to be heard, for the critical mass to tip things in favour of peace; it took an Enniskillen, a Shankill and an Omagh atrocity for the penny to drop that we in Ireland needed ‘a new language’, a new way of communicating with one another that does not include violence and murder of innocent children and pregnant women. From her suburban vantage point, this woman has done the state and our republic some service.
Hederman, Mark P., (2001), The Haunted Inkwell: Art and our Future, The Columba Press, Dublin.
Eavan Boland talks to Eileen Battersby about her work, marginalised by the Irish poetic tradition which has little space for the realities of women’s lives.
This interview was first published in The Irish Times on the 22nd of September, 1998
When she was 14 and living in New York, Eavan Boland met the poet Padraic Colum, then a very old man at a party her parents were giving. She asked him had he known Padraic Pearse. “Yes, I did,” he said. It was the answer she wanted. Boland’s work and her life has been shaped by the need to establish and question identities and relations. The role of the poet within his or her country is crucial to her. So, too, is defining a woman’s place and most problematically, the rights of the woman poet and the tensions between those words. “There seems to be no difficulty in being perceived as a woman poet. The trouble appears to lie in being fully accepted as an Irish poet”, she says.
Having left Ireland aged five to live in London during her father’s ambassadorship and then moved on to New York, she found her return home as a teenager left her feeling deprived of the dialect and nuances of belonging. Aware of being different, she saw of herself that “like a daughter in a legend, I had been somewhere else”.
Diplomat father’s daughter, artist mother’s daughter, she has always been an outsider, Boland’s poetry, was born of a fierce intellectual determination. Her first collection, New Territory, was published at 22, her first poem at 17; her apprenticeship was cerebral. As a university student, she had worked at her craft, engaging in the poet’s business of debate and argument. She was part of an emerging poetic movement. Above all, she was an equal. By her mid 20s, however, she was married and had moved to the suburbs. This began the process which as always set her outside the ruling body of Irish male poets.
“I’m not a separatist – I’ve never believed women poets can walk away from the body of poetry that exists. In the powerful debate which exists in and out of the academy, I agree with those who think the real opportunities for women in poetry lie in destabilising the canon, not separating themselves from it. Besides, I have lived in the ambiguity as a woman poet of deeply honouring the work of male poets while at the same time wishing to contest ‘some of the assumptions around that work”.
Nor is she a post-feminist. “I don’t accept that womanhood is a state we can somehow historically transcend. It is a human condition, not a historic one and as such is a very rich central part of imagination, not only of social consciousness.” Though a feminist, she is not a feminist poet: “Poetry begins where the certainties end. I would have to say as someone who has benefited from, and is honoured to consider themselves a feminist, that literature must not be bend out of shape to accommodate an ethical position. Freedom is single. Women writers have struggled to be heard in this century and it is very important they are not part of silencing anyone else.”
Boland has often been attacked on ideological grounds. “It’s important not to silence the written text. On the other hand it is also crucial to prevent the literary discourse of a small country from becoming a higher form of exclusion”.
Celebrated in the United States, her work has been, and continues to be, criticised in Ireland for her concentration on the domestic. The business of poetry, however, is to capture a moment and the freeze-frame of a child’s smile, the private conspiracy of a night feed or the memory of an abandoned bike are a s real as battles or love affairs. “When I was young, I think, there was a hidden struggle over subject matter going on in Irish poetry which I blundered into. I was aware that it was easier to have a political murder as the subject of an Irish poem than a baby or a washing machine.”
Boland turned 56 on 24th September 2000 and she is now Professor of English and director of the Stegner Creative Writing Course at Stanford University in California. Her eight volume of poetry, The Lost Land, was published in 1998, while there have also been two volumes of selected work including Outside History (1990), An Origin Like Water – Collected Poems 1967 – 1987 and an outstanding memoir Object Lessons (1995) which is as much a powerfully argued evocatively-written poetic manifesto as autobiography.
No one is more aware than she – and no one has argued as convincingly and combatively – of the dilemma facing the woman poet, particularly the Irish woman poet. “We have a powerful tradition here of the male poet. Irish poetry was male and bardic in ethos. Historically the woman is the passive object of poetry. We aren’t supposed to write poems, we are supposed to be in them.”
“Sean O’Riordain wrote a poem in Irish in the 1940’s, in which the opening line read, ‘A woman can be a poem, she can never be a poet’ – I’m not saying that male poets support that position. But there is a reluctance to welcome the new energies that are being brought into Irish poetry by a whole range of younger woman poets.”
“Challenge” is a word which appears frequently in her conversation, so does “responsibility”. Few major contemporary Irish writers have been as dismissively treated, none have juxtaposed the intellectual and abstract with the routine as effectively. For all her intensity, her poetry is not without humour: “for all time / as far as history goes? We were never / on the scene of the crime” (From ‘It’s a Woman’s World’, Night Feed, 1982).
Long recognised as a formidable critical intelligence, Boland is highly articulate, logical, even patrician. Her opinions are presented with an often rhetorical articulation and precise textual references. She exudes an awkward rigour. Interestingly, her spoken voice is very close to her poetic one. In many ways a traditional lyric poet, her language is exact, deliberate and measured.
Her work is personal without being confessional. “Who is the poet?” and how is that identity constructed are the questions she seems to be addressing, and what are the issues poetry should explore? By focusing on the real, the realisation of the loss of a child – “I turned around. / I turned around. / She was gone. Grown. No longer ready / to come with me, whenever / a dry Sunday / held out its promises / of small histories. Endings.” (From ‘The Necessity for Irony’, The Lost Land, 1998) – she has been marginalised by poets and readers far more prepared to see the heroism in a stolen kiss than to acknowledge the pain which accompanies a mother’s realisation that her child no longer needs her.
Boland’s poetry consistently expresses the relentless passage of time, “A child / shifts in a cot / No matter what happens now / I’ll never fill one again.” (From ‘Endings’, in the ‘Domestic Interior’ sequence, Night Feed, 1982). “I think these small moments are immensely important and have their place in poetry. I think, and I have to be careful here, but it should be said, I know so many men who sneer at the suburban life and yet it is the very life their wives and their daughters have led and are leading. And not to see through its circumstances to its vision and power and importance seems to me to be both wrong and illogical.”
Moving to Dundrum in the early 70’s, she saw “town and country at each other’s throat” (From ‘Suburban Woman’, The War Horse, 1975) but she also witnessed a village becoming a city suburb, “a real communal adventure”. She has no regrets about living there. “We have the same neighbours. I love living there.”
In Object Lessons she writes: “It could be a shelter; it was never a cloister. Everywhere you looked there were reminders – a child’s bicycle thrown sideways on the grass, a single roller skate, a tree in its first April of blossoms – that lives were not lived here in any sort of static pageant but that they thrived, waned, changed, began and ended there.” She remembers a conversation with a neighbour whose children were teenagers while hers were still babies. “Hers is the life mine will become, while mine is the life she has lost.”
From assertive young Trinity published poet, to suburban housewife and mother, to Stanford professor, Boland has taken part in many debates. For her, the most important and the one that became the most clouded by bitterness involved the under-representation of women in The Field Day Anthology in 1992. “I feel it has the making of a worthwhile debate. It is at the heart of Irish literature now. No post-colonial project, however distinguished, can sustain itself if it continues the exclusions for which it reproaches the original colony. I felt this was a post-colonial anthology which was not sufficiently alert to that contradiction. There were 28 sections; not one was edited by a woman.”
One of only three female poets among 34 male, Boland is well represented, “yet I felt it would have been extremely wrong not to try to challenge these contradictions. Ireland is a small country. It is hard to have these arguments without everything becoming personal. But I don’t despair of these arguments being addressed.”
Colonies and identities, fictional lands and how we make and unmake them continue to haunt her. Of The Lost Land she says: “This is the book in which I think place and history and time and the ageing body which is the cypher of these categories – all of these run together like the colours in a child’s drawing.”
The purpose of these notes is to guide you in your exploration of the poetry of Eavan Boland. The notes are structured as a series of ‘thinking points’ ranging over the main themes and issues evident in her work. They are not exhaustive and neither are they ‘carved in stone’. They should be altered, added to or deleted as you develop your own understanding of the poet’s work.
You are expected to study six poems by Eavan Boland from your Anthology. The poems we will concentrate on are:
‘Child of Our Time’,
‘The War Horse’,
‘The Black Laced Fan My Mother Gave Me’
Boland’s view of Irish history and her idea of nation
Boland deals with the reality of Irish history, the familiar story of oppression, defeat and death (‘The Famine Road’). The sense of national identity that comes across from ‘The Famine Road’ speaks of victimisation, being downtrodden and living out pointless lives; see also the suffering in ‘Outside History’.
Opposed to that view is the male-created myth, involving heroic struggle, battle, and glorious defeat: see the image of the dying patriot immortalised by art in ‘An Old Steel Engraving’. The woman poet feels excluded from that cultural tradition – ‘One of us who turns away.’
Boland resists the myths imposed on us by our history (and the way it was taught!!) and she insists on the necessity of confronting the reality, facing the unburied dead of history and laying them to rest (‘Outside History’).
She shows concern for the unrecorded history, for the significance of lives lived on the margins of history, away from the centre of power, far from the limelight of action. She mourns the forgotten lives in ‘That the Science of Cartography is Limited’.
In her prose writings Boland explores the idea of nation and the difficulties it produces for her as a woman poet. In Object Lessons she says:
So it was with me. For this very reason, early on as a poet, certainly in my twenties, I realised that the Irish nation as an existing construct in Irish poetry was not available to me. I would not have been able to articulate it at that point, but at some preliminary level I already knew that the anguish and power of that woman’s gesture on Achill, with its suggestive hinterland of pain, were not something I could predict or rely on in Irish poetry. There were glimpses here and there; sometimes more than that. But all too often, when I was searching for such an inclusion, what I found was a rhetoric of imagery which alienated me: a fusion of the national and the feminine which seemed to simplify both.
It was not a comfortable realisation. There was nothing clear-cut about my feelings. I had tribal ambivalences and doubts, and even then I had an uneasy sense of the conflict which awaited me. On the one hand, I knew that as a poet I could not easily do without the idea of a nation. Poetry in every time draws on that reserve. On the other, I could not as a woman accept the nation formulated for me by Irish poetry and its traditions. At one point it even looked to me as if the whole thing might be made up of irreconcilable differences. At the very least it seemed to me that I was likely to remain an outsider in my own national literature, cut off from its archive, at a distance from its energy. Unless, that is, I could repossess it. This proposal is about that conflict and that repossession and about the fact that repossession itself is not a static or single act. Indeed, the argument which describes it may itself be no more than a part of it.
Violence in society
‘The War Horse’ explores suburban, middle-class attitudes to political violence. It is really a psychological exploration of the theme ‘how we respond to violence’.
Race memory and the old antagonisms to English colonial rule still exist just beneath the surface (‘The War Horse’).
The real human consequences of political violence are portrayed in ‘Child of Our Time’. The poet here acts as the conscience of our society.
Violence is seen as the result of a failure of language, an inability to communicate (‘Child of Our Time’).
The significance of myth
While in much of her poetry myth is seen as a positive thing, Boland often challenges the image of woman in mythology (also in art in mythology), particularly when it shows woman as marginalised, silenced, subservient to her husband the hero, as in ‘Love’.
For her our history (indeed all history) is laced with myths. The unreality, the coldness and the distance of myth from real lives is symbolised in the stars of ‘Outside History’.
The experience of being a woman
Boland’s strong feminine perspective lends an extra dimension of insight to all her themes. But she also considers specific issues relating to the portrayal and the treatment of women.
The sufferings of women are equated with the oppression of the nation (‘The Famine Road’)
The traditional role of woman is validated in such poems as ‘This Moment’, which show woman as mother. That maternal gesture of catching the child in her arms is the key to the poem. The protectiveness of mothers features also in ‘The Pomegranate’. Also her wisdom is displayed in allowing the daughter freedom to learn for herself.
Woman as lover features in ‘The Black Laced Fan My Mother Gave Me’ and ‘Love’.
Suburban woman features in many of the poems: ‘The War Horse’ and ‘This Moment’.
The puzzling relationship between men and women features in ‘The Black Laced Fan My Mother Gave Me’: the mistimings, the tempests of love, the sensual allure. Love diminishes in time, like the importance of the fan. This makes an interesting alternative view to the blinkered one of idyllic romance.
Boland challenges the patriarchal tradition of Irish poetry. In Object Lessons she elaborated on her objections to the images of women in literature:
The majority of Irish male poets depended on women as motifs in their poetry. They moved easily, deftly, as if by right among images of women in which I did not believe and of which I could not approve. The women in their poems were often passive, decorative, raised to emblematic status. This was especially true where the woman and the idea of the nation were mixed: where the nation became a woman and the woman took on a national posture. (Note: This is very obvious in the poetry of Yeats where he refers almost obsessively to Maud Gonne).
The trouble was [that] these images did good service as ornaments. In fact, they had a wide acceptance as ornaments by readers of Irish poetry. Women in such poems were frequently referred to approvingly as mythic, emblematic. But to me these passive and simplified women seemed a corruption. For they were not decorations, they were not ornaments. However distorted these images, they had their roots in a suffered truth.
What had happened? How had the women of our past – the women of a long struggle and a terrible survival – undergone such a transformation? How had they suffered Irish history and rooted themselves in the speech and memory of the Achill woman, only to re-emerge in Irish poetry as fictive queens and national sibyls?
The more I thought about it, the more uneasy I became. The wrath and grief of Irish history seemed to me, as it did to many, one of our true possessions. Women were part of that wrath, had endured that grief. It seemed to me a species of human insult that at the end of all, in certain Irish poems, they should become elements of style rather than aspects of truth.
Poetry in the suburbs
A good deal of her poetry is set in the suburbs, a setting not associated traditionally with poetic inspiration.
The fragile nature of the beauty and order created in the suburbs is brought out in ‘The War Horse’.
The toy-house neatness of suburbia is no match for the wild, elemental attractions of nature in ‘White Hawthorn in the West of Ireland’.
In the later poems we encounter a romantic evocation of a suburban twilight (‘This Moment’). Nature has colonised the suburbs (‘Stars rise / Moths flutter’, ‘one window is yellow as butter’).
But the real bleakness of the suburban street is not hidden: ‘The rain is cold. The road is flint-coloured’ – ‘The Pomegranate’.
The arrival of the Renaissance and the Church Reformation and the humanism that followed paralleled the advent of the Metaphysical period in poetry. This period also coincided with the death of Elizabeth I and the subsequent weakening of the strong monarchy of the Tudors.
The Metaphysical poets were few in number. They reacted against the Elizabethan literary style and ideas. They rejected the conventional ideal of love held by Elizabethan poets and their indifference to real experience. Where the Elizabethans saw love as a romantic pleasure to be described in general terms the Metaphysicals attempted to analyse personal and intimate experiences of love (and indeed other experiences) on particular occasions. The emphasis was on the experience – things happening now, and so, immediacy was a particular characteristic of their poetry.
They rebelled against accepted ideas, e.g. the deification of nature and the notion of the greatness of kings. Their themes were usually serious, and often satirical. Religion was a constant topic because there was an uncertainty as to what was the true religion. There was little reference to contemporary matters, political or otherwise, but the problems of the time were often reflected in the poetry, especially the religious issues.
The poems were not aimed at a ‘public’ readership, but rather at the intellect of their own closely-knit group.
With the reaction against Elizabethan ideas and techniques, the old rhetorical contrived style gave way to a more condensed style, following more closely the wording and rhythms of everyday speech; and to Metaphysical ‘wit’ (not necessarily funny or amusing, but an awareness, an intelligence, an application of learning); and to the ‘conceit’ (a figure of speech with a fanciful image, or an unusual comparison between two very dissimilar things based on something alike in the two)
There was a variety of tone and imagery in a single poem. The style was argumentative and logically worked out, but often there was no relation between the start of the poem and the finish. The form, i.e. the technique of a poem was less important than the content, the meaning. There was often a dramatic approach, an abruptness of phrase, a question, a dramatic use of punctuation.
T.S. Eliot wrote that in the last 250 years brainwork and emotion have tended to become separate in poetry, to its loss. This is worth remembering when we discuss ‘sincere feeling’. In Elizabethan and Renaissance poetry the first person was used, but since the lyric poetry of the time was linked with the music, the ‘I’ was ambiguous: it might have been as sincere as the ‘I’ of the Romantics, but also as insincere as the conventional ‘I’ of contemporary ‘Pop’ music. Even the devotional poems of Vaughan are not certain to be sincere. Yet the conventions of the poetry of the time were important, and ‘wit’ (with its cryptic ‘crossword puzzle’ approach) was as important as emotion, sensibility, or piety in poetry. So while spontaneous cries from the heart may have been lacking, so also were self-pity and sentimentality. There was no question of ‘sincere feeling’ being essential to a poem if the imagined feeling was well created. It is essential to understand that our own experiences are often recounted and ‘‘adorned’’ in the retelling; yet the original emotion is nonetheless sincere for this.
This also applies to humour in Metaphysical poetry. We sometimes fail to realise that a dry humour may accompany some great crisis in our lives, and that sometimes people die with a joke on their lips. The Metaphysicals often deliver spectacular philosophical ideas, and set out highly emotional situations in an off-hand way, and accompany them with humour and sometimes with paradox.
Finally, Samuel Johnson suggested that the Metaphysical poets were clever men, anxious to show off their cleverness, who had little real ability or interest in poetry. “There is”, he writes, “no freshness of thought or accuracy of description, nor are their words chosen carefully.” It is a point of view!