‘Dances With Wolves’ by Michael Durack

Kevin Costner in Dancing With Wolves

Dances With Wolves

 

By Michael Durack

Watching ‘Dances With Wolves’ in Pass English,

the buffalo hunt has our undivided attention

until Teacher (aka Knows It All) pauses the video

to draw attention to a clever camera angle and to share

a priceless nugget about Native American tribal customs.

Cue outburst from Darren (aka Talks through His Hole).

The tape rolls again while Dunbar courts Stands With A Fist

and logs his emotions in that classy leather-bound journal

beloved of lieutenants and stocked in Waterstone’s.

Then Eddie (aka Breaking Wind) uncorks a silent rasper;

the braves groan and swear, and fan themselves

with A4 copy books of the type beloved of fifth-years

and purchased in Tesco’s.  But peace comes dropping slow

before the bell rings, when all of us, including me

(aka Keeps A Low Profile) and Barry (aka Sleeps Through English)

Spring from our desks, and the entire Sioux nation sets off

On its Trail of Tears to French and German or Ag. Science.

Comment

This is an extremely funny poem by Michael Durack (aka Poet Who Keeps A Low Profile).  Michael quietly taught English for many years in Nenagh CBS in County Tipperary. His work has appeared in journals such as Boyne Berries, Skylight 47, The Stony Thursday Book and Poetry Ireland Review. His publications include a memoir in prose and poems, Saved to Memory: Lost to View (2016) and a poetry collection, Where It Began, published by Revival Press in 2017.

Little did the unsuspecting ‘braves’ who sat before him every day in his English class realise that they were in the presence of a very keen observer of the human condition, and someone with a very wry sense of poetic humour to boot.  In this poem he captures beautifully the mood in a (double) Pass English class on a Friday evening with the young male ‘braves’ of Nenagh and its hinterland!

One of the great emancipations in the Noughties for all English teachers was the rejuvenation and re-imagining of the Leaving Cert English Syllabus brought about by such luminaries as Hal O’Neill and others in the NCCA. One such early new arrival on the English Syllabus was the epic Western, Dances with Wolves, which starred, Kevin Costner  as Lieutenant Dunbar.  Indeed, the film was also produced and directed by Costner.  In the film, Dunbar is depicted as a Civil War soldier who develops a relationship with a band of Lakota Indians. Attracted by the simplicity of their lifestyle, he chooses to leave his former life behind to be with them. Having observed him, they give the name Dances With Wolves. Soon he is a welcomed member of the tribe and falls in love with a white woman, Stands With A Fist, who has been raised in the tribe. However, tragedy soon ensues when Union soldiers arrive with designs on the land.

Looking back now from 2019, those halcyon days seem Dickensian!  The changes in mass media and communications that have taken place since 2000 are simply mind-boggling!  In those days the efforts harried teachers made to ensure that their students could avail of these new developments was often Herculean.  Firstly, you had to come by a VHS copy of the film and then you had to search the school to find a television and a tape machine and wheel it in to your designated classroom.  This was not an easy task as these trolleys containing big, bulky 28” TV’s and a VCR player were like gold dust, in high demand.

TV and Tape Deck on Trolley
The eponymous TV and Video Cassette Recorder (VCR) – the staple piece of equipment long before the arrival of the laptop in every classroom and long before the arrival of the interactive whiteboard, or Netflix or …..

And for those nostalgic for that great, epic Western – sit back and enjoy the trailer to Dances with Wolves (1990).

Bogland by Seamus Heaney

 

Commentary:

 ‘Bogland’ is the final poem in Seamus Heaney’s second collection Door into the Dark (1969).  The poem fittingly brings to a head his emerging, extended exploration of his rural upbringing and all the dying rural crafts associated with it.  It also signals to us that his interest in the Irish landscape is being brought into sharper focus.  The placing of the poem as his final offering in this, his second collection, is no coincidence and we must always be aware that the placing of poems by Heaney in his collections is never accidental.  The poem is a deepening and focusing of his early poetic efforts and it is seen as one of his most important early poems.  In it, the poet finally plucks up the courage to speak for Ireland and in its nine sentences the poem sets out new possibilities and directions for his future writing.

‘Bogland’ turns on a comparison between the American prairies and Irish bogs.  In America, the eye has an unlimited vista, its history immortalises those young men who went West to conquer the wild frontiers and in recent history, those intrepid explorers have continued to explore space as The Final Frontier!   However, in Ireland, the eye is drawn to features of the landscape which continually encroach on our view – here we live in a saucer island with mountains on the rim and ‘bottomless’ bog in the centre!  In America, as the poet sees it, the early pioneers (many of them Irish) moved West across vast empty spaces – save for the occasional presence of Native Americans, Sioux, Apache, Commanche, Arapaho and members of the Cherokee nation who were then being given salutary lessons in oppression and dispossession.  In Ireland, however, Heaney suggests that our pioneers (poets) explore downwards, cutting through the layers of bog, ‘going down and down for the good turf’ (‘Digging’).  Therefore, from early on in his career (1969) he clearly identifies with the bog and by implication, he identifies himself as a Bogman and in this poem he finds his voice to speak on behalf of all Bogmen.

The word ‘pioneer’ has many connotations but here it suggests adventure and discovery – he seems to be suggesting that our pioneers are poets and that poetry is an adventure.  He also seems to be suggesting that the complex work of exploring our past and our complicated national identity is yet another such hazardous adventure.

The issue of Irishness or of not being ‘Irish’ enough has long bedevilled Heaney’s legacy – without great justification, in my opinion.  Heaney deals with the issue in these early collections and in Door into the Dark there are two outstanding examples: ‘Requiem for the Croppies’ and ‘Bogland’.   In reality, of course, he cannot win this argument and his position has been misunderstood by many.  It is the equivalent of our answer to the question, ‘When did you stop beating your wife?’  In my reading, his poetry constantly explores the divisions tearing the Ulster of his youth apart.  His position has often met with criticism from all sides regarding his treatment of contemporary Ulster history.  Some critics say he has too much politics in his poetry, while others say he should stand up for his people and take sides.  He has been accused of obscuring the horrors of sectarian killings; of endorsing a ‘tribal’ position, or of not endorsing it enough; he has also been accused of evading the issues and being non-committal in his writing.  For many critics, like Elmer Andrews[1], Heaney doesn’t go far enough: ‘Heaney’s art is fundamentally an art of consciously and carefully cultivated non-engagement’.  However, surely in ‘Requiem for the Croppies’ (1966) and ‘Bogland’ (1969), he clearly steps up to the plate and is unashamedly ‘tribal’.

In these poems, Heaney steps off the fence and he takes sides.  For him, Bogland is synonymous with Ireland – just as many of the surrounding countries are also named, such as Iceland, England, Greenland, etc.  Indeed, other countries can have their uplands, and Lowlands and Highlands so why can’t we have our Boglands?  Because of his upbringing in rural Ulster, he is only too aware of the pejorative terms used to describe Irishmen such as ‘bogger’ or ‘bogman’.  That is why in this poem he embraces the bog and all its cultural nuances and he is proud to be associated with the bog and all that it represents for him.   He is aware that in Ireland’s recent colonial past the Irish were for centuries oppressed and confined to the bogs and uplands.  These boglands and uplands were also, therefore, the centres of resistance and traditionally the bogs were used as hiding places for weapons and bodies and where the Irish rebels, the Croppies, the pikemen of ’98, looked out like the snipe, the grouse and the pheasant, all the hunted, the marginalised, and all were fair game.

So here in Door into the Dark, Heaney is going deeper than he has already; in hurling parlance, he is ‘lowering the blade’.  He uses the first line from the poem ‘The Forge’ as the title for the overall collection of poems.  This sonnet celebrates the simple, everyday hard work of the local blacksmith, Barney Devlin, who daily undertakes the strenuous task of turning the rough metals into fine works of art and everyday utensils for the local farming community.    Barney’s ‘anvil’ is turned into an ‘altar’ which is set ‘somewhere in the centre’, ‘horned as a unicorn’.  Here Heaney touches upon God’s work, the artist’s work and a blacksmith’s work and weaves them together as in a garland. The sonnet is an analogy for the creative, poetic impulses which are gestating beneath the surface in Heaney’s subconscious.

One of Heaney’s famous poems in this second anthology is ‘Requiem for the Croppies’ which deals directly with an historical event of war and violence.  The terrible battle of ‘Vinegar Hill’ (1798), fought between Irish rebels and the English colonial rulers is the subject of the poem.   One major achievement of the poem is that it craftily conjoins the centuries of Irish violence and political struggle and achieves an organic, indeed germinal resolution: And in August the barley grew up out of the grave’.  Heaney himself gives an elaborate account of the composition of the poem, its historical and political relevance:

“[It] was written in 1966 when most poets in Ireland were straining to celebrate the anniversary of the 1916 Rising  ……   The poem was born of and ended with an image of resurrection based on the fact that sometime after the rebels were buried in common graves, these graves began to sprout with young barley, growing up with the barleycorn that the ‘ croppies’ had carried in their pockets to eat while on the march. The oblique implication was that the seeds of violent resistance sowed in the year of Liberty had flowered in what Yeats called ‘the right rose tree’ of 1916. I did not realize at the time that the original heraldic murderous encounter between protestant yeomen and Catholic rebel was to be initiated again in the summer of 1969, in Belfast, two months after the book was published” (Preoccupations, 56).

The poem’s patriotic fervour and humanitarian zeal are noticeable. The first person narrator is a rebel who has been killed and who hails their uprising as resurrection. The rebels may be killed, but the struggle for justice and liberty would continue.  Although on many occasions he is accused of remaining passive and detached from the cause of Irish independence, this poem is a fitting reply to this unjust criticism of Heaney.

In ‘Bogland’ Heaney reverses his approach and method of presentation. He gives up monologue and refuses to refer to any particular historical-political event.  Instead, he takes recourse to symbol, metaphor, allegory and myth. ‘Bogland’ stands as a metaphor for Ireland.  The poet speaks of a voyage ‘inwards’, and ‘downwards’.  This journey throws up many possibilities. The foremost, of course, is the journey back to the primordial Irish past, its folk history and myth.  The psychic residue or the racial memory of a great people is excavated through the inward journey of the poet. This inward journey may also suggest a spiritual exploration of a plundered nation. It is noteworthy that the poet uses the plural term for the great journey ‘inwards’ and ‘downwards’.   Through the extended allegory of ‘bogland’, the poet simultaneously lays bare the greatness and beauty as well as the suffering and agony of his motherland.

It is obvious that the poet has reflected deeply on the notion of bogs and he uses memorable images such as the Great Elk and bog’s ‘black butter’ to capture (or recapture) his own childish sense of wonder.  This is akin to the elation the poet feels when he excavates a poem from the bog of memory.  The bog is generous in that it preserves and returns the past to us, in the form of ordinary, domestic gifts:

Butter sunk under

More than a hundred years

Was recovered salty and white.

The bog with its watery element is soft and accommodating:

The ground itself is kind, black butter

Melting and opening underfoot.

‘Bogland’ is, therefore, a seminal poem in which Heaney opens himself up to new possibilities, and he delves deeper into the bog of autobiography and history.  The bog contains the history of the island:

Every layer they strip

Seems camped on before.

Therefore, in this way, the bog acts as the memory of the Irish race.  To dig the bog, by ‘striking inwards and downwards’, is to search into the bottomless centre of Irish history.  Although not stated explicitly here (as he does in ‘Digging’, for example), it is clear that the action of digging the bog is seized on by the poet as a symbol of his work as a poet.  The landscape of the poem, therefore, is both the natural landscape of Ireland but also a cultural/visionary landscape.  ‘Bogland’ is a poem that is poised between the literal and the symbolic and the reader must constantly shift between the literal and metaphorical reading of the text.

The bog, as a symbol of Irish history, allows Heaney, in future poems, to speak about the Troubles in Northern Ireland (1969 – 1998).  One of the insights gained in this poem, and developed in his third collection, Wintering Out (1972) in the poem ‘Tollund Man’, is that the soil of Ireland contains its past, including all the spilt blood and the broken bones and bodies of ‘The Disappeared’ and all the other remnants of its violent history.  In both ‘Bogland’ and ‘The Tollund Man’ Heaney, like the ‘pioneers’ who keep ‘striking / Inwards and downwards’, prompts us to think across thousands of years.  ‘Bogland’ speaks of how our ancestors’ lives are recorded and contained within the bog.  ‘The Tollund Man’, though it also speaks of a bog find, is a more complex poem in that it compares and contrasts a violent death that took place two thousand years ago in Jutland to the violent deaths which occurred almost daily in Northern Ireland from 1969 until the signing of the Belfast Agreement on Good Friday in 1998.  The Danes weren’t the only ones to bury their dead in the bog – there were numerous victims of violence ‘disappeared’ during ‘The Troubles’ and buried in remote, windswept locations on this island also.   Heaney himself has said that he has searched for ‘images and symbols adequate to our predicament’.  And despite what some of his critics say, he never shirks or avoids the savage reality of violence: in ‘The Tollund Man’ he writes with stark realism of how the mutilated bodies of four young brothers were dragged along the train tracks, their skin and teeth flecking the railway sleepers.

I suppose it is fitting for a poem written in the late ’60s in Ireland that there is no sense of closure in ‘Bogland’.  In describing the ground of the bog as bottomless, the poem is also describing itself and the endless possibilities of the bog as a symbol.  ‘Bogland’ seems to suggest that poems are found having lain hidden in the subconscious of the poet, awaiting discovery.  In his own words, Heaney states:

‘I have listened for poems, they come sometimes like bodies out of the bog, almost complete, seeming to have been laid down a long time ago, surfacing with a touch of mystery’ (Preoccupations, 34).

‘Bogland’ sees a more confident and spare style emerge and the nine phrases in the poem open and meld into one another, in imitation of the yielding ground of the bog.  The epiphany to be taken from the poem is that there is no bottom to the well of imagination; there is no end to the exploration of the past.  The poem is delivered with a new air of assurance and confidence.  Heaney, like James Joyce in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,  is now finally ready and prepared to speak, with no hint of self-consciousness, on behalf of his race – ‘We have no prairies’, ‘Our unfenced country’, ‘Our pioneers keep striking’…..

Therefore, this is a groundbreaking poem which lays down deeper nuances to the original ideas first expressed in ‘Digging’ and other poems.  Heaney identifies with the bog – he takes on board the implied insult that he is ‘a bogman’ and he owns it! The bog, with all its implications, becomes a kind of subconscious racial memory for him, providing him with inspiration for his poetry.

 

[1] Andrews, Elmer (ed). The Poetry of Seamus Heaney: Essays, Articles, Reviews. Columbia University Press (Icon Books Limited), 1998.

Seamus Heaney talks about why he wrote the ‘bog’ poems.

 

DAN_tollundmanden_1_face_c (1)
https://youtu.be/ZDT2ZdNL9CM

 

Works Cited

Andrews, Elmer (ed). The Poetry of Seamus Heaney: Essays, Articles, Reviews. Columbia University Press (Icon Books Limited), 1998.

Heaney, Seamus. Preoccupations: Selected Prose, 1968 – ’78. London: Faber and Faber, 1980.

 

An Attempt at a Conclusive Etymology of the Placename ‘Ahalin’ in Knockaderry, County Limerick

Aughalin 1837
Aughalin, as it appeared on the 6″ Ordnance Survey map, produced c. 1840. Aughalin Wood is clearly outlined as is the residence of the local landlord, Robert Fetherson. Directly to the South of the Knockaderry/Ballingarry road we can see clear evidence of land reclamation and the field layout is very regular. Also note the ‘Screen’ – the linear plantation to aid drainage of the Ruatach.

On October 24th 2017 I published a piece here about the etymology of the townland placename Ahalin (Aughalin) in Knockaderry in West Limerick.  You can catch up on the original article here.  In it, I focused particularly on the local lore and folk wisdom which still holds that the placename Ahalin (Aughalin) is translated as Acadh Lín (the field of the flax).  I was able to trace the fact that this translation came about largely through the teaching and forceful personality of the local Principal teacher in Aughalin National School, Michéal de Burca in the 1930s.  In fact, with very little encouragement, local people could tell me that Ahalin meant ‘the field of the flax’ and most were also able to pinpoint its location.

Today there are two English variations of the placename, the more official Aughalin, which appears on the Ordnance Survey maps and the townland has also been referred to as Ahalin since at least 1831 when it appears on the Census Returns.[1]  In 1867 a weighty limestone plaque was erected on the new National School recently opened in the area – this read ‘Ahalin National School 1867’.  This plaque can still be viewed today embedded in the wall of the newly constructed set-down area and parking lot in the new school in Ahalin.

There is very little problem with the English versions of the townland’s name and both (Aughalin and Ahalin) are accepted locally and are often interchangeable.  What is problematic is the current official Irish translation (or re-translation) of the placename being used by the Placenames Commission.  P. W. Joyce in the second of his three-volume work on the origin and history of Irish names and places, first published in 1875, tells us that, ‘In the parish of Clonelty, near Newcastle in Limerick, there is a townland taking its name from a ford called Aughalin, the ford (ath) of the lin or pool’ (Joyce, 409).  In the Preface to Volume One, Joyce, a learned Limerick man from Ballyorgan, acknowledges the help received from another placenames expert, Dr John O’Donovon, when he says, ‘I have had the advantage of two safe guides, Dr John O’Donovan and the Rev William Reeves, D.D.’ (Joyce, Vol I. vii). John O’Donovan, of whom more anon, visited the parish of Clonelty, present-day Knockaderry, in July 1840 to carry out a survey as part of the original Ordnance Survey mapping exercise carried out in Ireland.  He also mentions Aughalin and gives its meaning as ‘the ford of the pond or pool’.  This is the obvious literal translation, ‘Áth’ being the Irish for a ford and ‘Linn’ being the Irish for a pool.  (Dublin was once Dubh Linn or Blackpool!).

Amazinly, in spite of this information and scholarship and also local knowledge and traditional usage, the official Irish version of the townland is given as Áith Liní in the Placenames (Co. Limerick) Order 2003.  In Irish ‘Áith’ means ‘a kiln’ and there is evidence from old maps of the area that there were at least two kilns in the area.  However, if we accept that the present anglicised form of the townland, Aughalin, refers to Áith meaning kiln there is still the difficulty that ‘Liní’ has no obvious meaning and no known local connotations or associations.

Surely local lore must count for something in trying to hear the faint whispers of a once rich oral tradition from the past.  Gerard Curtin deals with this in the Introduction to Every Field Had a Name when he says:

The survival of hundreds of minor place-names in the south-west County Limerick, in an area that remained Irish speaking for longer than many other areas of the county, shows the extraordinary richness of the topoynmical tradition in Irish.[2]

According to local knowledge and tradition (more than likely promoted by Michéal de Burca who taught and lived in Aughalin from the 1930s until the 1960s), the correct rendering in Irish of the anglicised word Ahalin (or Aughalin) is Achadh Lín which he translated as ‘the field of the flax’.  This is the Irish version used locally to this day and the ‘new’ Primary School in Ahalin (opened in October 1963) is known as Scoil Mhuire, Achadh Lín.

My original blog post also tried to research the link between the locality and the growing and milling of flax and found that there was a history of flax growing in the locality and that as far back as 1654 the Limerick Civil Survey records a tuck mill[3] for flax (and later for grain up to 1924) in Ballinoe. This mill was known as Reeves’s Mill.  This, in turn, led me to consider other possibilities as to the etymology of the place name and to research the existence of the placename over the centuries.  Art Ó Maolfabhail takes such a longer view in his seminal research, Logainmneacha na hÉireann, Imleabhar I: Contae Luimní, where he outlines the etymology of the placename Áith Liní  as it has appeared in various documents and other official sources  down the years:

  • 1586 it appears as Athlyne in Peyton’s Survey, p. 108
  • 1592 it appears as Allyneghe in F5781
  • 1655 it appears as Athliny in the Limerick Civil Survey IV, 256, and as Athlinye in the Limerick Civil Survey, 298.[4]
  • 1659 it appears as Aheliny in Census of Ireland, c. 1659, 280.[5]
  • 1715 it appears as Athlinny in Clarann na Gníomhas. 16.311.7576
  • 1750 it appears as Aghelinie in Clarann na Gníomhas. 144.378.97897 and again as Aghelinnie in Clarann na Gníomhas. 144.379.97899
  • 1761 it appears as Agaliny in Clarann na Gníomhas. 212.591.140955
  • 1807 it appears as Agalinny or Aghalinagh in Clarann na Gníomhas. 603.137.410629
  • 1840 it appears as Aughalin in O’Donovan’s Field Name Books and áth a linne in pencil in O’Donovan’s Field Name Books.[6] This is the anglicised form which is most commonly seen in the old Ordnance Survey maps of the 19th  Century.

In light of other evidence, however, Ó Maolfabhail’s conclusion is disappointing.  Having weighed all the evidence, he rejects ‘the ford of the pool’ version favoured by P. W. Joyce and O’Donovan and doesn’t even consider Michéal de Burca’s ‘field of the flax’ version.  Instead, he concludes that the official place name translation should be ‘kiln of (unknown)’.  He further adds: ‘Ní léir cad dó a sheasann Liní.  Toisc gan abhainn a bheith san áit, measadh gurbh oiriúnaí áith (meaning kiln) ná áth (meaning ford)’.

Dr John O’Donovan, noted historian and the translator of the Annals of the Four Masters, an Irish-speaking scholar and scribe, was the Ordnance Survey’s overall Names Expert used by the Ordnance Survey during their survey conducted between 1824 and 1846.  It was O’Donovan’s responsibility to enter all the Irish versions of names into the Names Books, in addition to the English spelling recommended for the published maps.  For this reason, the Ordnance Survey of Ireland Names Books are sometimes referred to as O’Donovan’s Name Books.  O’Donovan spent July and August 1840 in Limerick and he signed off on his work on the parish of Clonelty on 25 July 1840.  He was assisted in his work in Limerick by Padraig Ó Caoimh and Antaine Ó Comhraí.[7]  Ó Maolfabhail recognises the validity and status of O’Donovan’s work when he acknowledges that by 1840 there were only four other counties to be completed as part of this nationwide survey and therefore O’Donovan had the advantage gained from having completed twenty-five other counties.  This experience stood him in good stead in trying to make sense of the etymology of the various placenames (Ó Maolfabhail, xvii).

One of the most important functions of the Ordnance Survey was to name the geographical features, prominent buildings and landmarks of each townland so that these could be included on the Ordnance Survey Maps when they were eventually published. We know from these Name Books that John O’Donovan visited and wrote up the account describing the antiquities and topographical features of the then parishes of Clonelty and Clouncagh in July 1840.

Information for each townland was collected and written into the Name Book under five headings: the received name, the name finally adopted for the townland and the one placed onto the 6-inch Ordnance Survey Map in 1837.  The Name Book also provided the Irish form of the name and in many instances what the Irish form of the townlands’ names meant.  This was the last stage of the ‘Topographical’ process.   The orthography section of the Names Books provides the various spellings for each townland or place and the authority section gives the source from which these variations were derived.  This was a controversial part of the Survey, especially in the Irish-speaking areas of Ireland. Thomas Larcom, the head of the Ordnance Survey, and, John O’Donovan, had a clear policy when it came to the variant spellings and meanings of Irish place-names, which was to adopt ‘the version which came closest to the original Irish form of the name’.    Thus, it seems, for O’Donovan the presence or absence of topographical features like ponds or pools made little difference to him when settling on a particular name.  What mattered to him was to settle on an acceptable form which remained faithful to the original in Irish.

O’Donovan‘s observations on the townland of Aughalin are to be found in these Name Books and a transcribed version can be accessed in the Field Name Books of the County and City of Limerick.  It is a collection of more than 1,700 pages of transcribed notes by surveyors during the first Ordnance Survey of County Limerick,  c.1840.[8]  O’Donovan’s entry for Aughalin is as follows:

Aughalin, Áth a linne, ford of the pond or pool.

Aughalin              – is his favoured anglicised version for the townland

-Version found in Tithe Book of Revd. J.Croker

-Version used by Revd. J. Cullinan, P.P.

Ahalin                  – Version found in Barony Book 1834

-Version found in County Presentment Book 1839

-Also found in Census Return 1831

Ahalina                –  as in Barony Map

Athliny                 – as found in Limerick Civil Survey 1654 – 56

In the northeast part of the parish, a quarter of a mile east of Knockaderry Village.  It is bounded on the north by Ballybrown townland and the parish of Rathkeale; east by the parish of Cloncagh; south by Kilgolban townland; and west by the townland of Kiltanna.  It contains 565 acres, statute measure.

This townland is the property of Robert Featherston, Esq., and has a few portions of heathy pasture in the south and south west extremity.  The remainder of the townland is under tillage and pasture.  Aughalin Wood is on its north west boundary, and the road from Knockaderry to Ballingarry passes south of this wood through the townland.  There are also three ancient forts in the townland, one of which is on its southern boundary.  Acreable rent – £1 7s.

It has to be said that O’Donovan is being very diplomatic and circumspect here.  The area he refers to as being ‘heathy pasture‘ is, in fact, a large saucer-shaped marshy area known locally as The Rhootachs.  It is interesting also that he makes mention of Aughalin Wood as being another significant topographical feature of the townland.  This was a large oak wood and probably where the present day parish of Knockaderry gets its name – Cnoc an Doire.

Another local historian and writer, Gerard Curtin, in his excellent book, Every Field Had a Name The Place-Names of West Limerick while agreeing with Ó Maolfabhail’s assessment seems to give equal credence to O’Donovan’s translation:

AUGHALIN, Áith Liní, ‘the kiln of (unknown)’ according to Ó Maolfabhail, while O’Donovan (in Field Name Books, p. 440) believed it was from Áth na Linne, ‘ford of the pool’ (Curtin, 71).

Interestingly, Curtin also mentions that the most striking feature of the landscape in Aughalin up to the present day is the marshy area in the southwest of the townland known as The Rhootachs (also Ruatach or Rhootaigh). This is the area which O’Donavon refers to as ‘a few portions of heathy pasture in the south and south-west extremity’.  This covered over fifty acres c.1913.

I sent a copy of my original blog post to the Placenames Commission for their views and shortly afterwards received a reply from Dr Conchubhar Ó Crualaoich and in the reply, the popular belief that the townland name, Aughalin/Ahalin derives from ‘the field of the flax’ is totally debunked.  He states:

In regard to Aughalin, I refer you to the publication Logainmneacha na hÉireann, Imleabhar I: Contae Luimní, ed. Art Ó Maolfabhail. In that publication one finds a number of historical forms of this place-name such as ‘Athliny’, ‘Aheliny’, ‘Athlinny’, ‘Aghelinie’, and a local version recorded in 1840 namely ‘áth a linne’, which are all incompatible with derivation of the final element from lín ‘of flax’, as that lacks a final vowel. The absence of a final vowel from the later official anglicised form, Aughalin and the variant  Ahalin, is doubtless due to the common loss of unstressed final vowels in anglicisation (see Townlands of Wexford ). It is also noteworthy that the historical forms and the local spoken form do not reflect the long vowel in lín. Therefore, Achadh Lín cannot be the precursor to Aughalin in this instance – it is not at one with the overall historical evidence for this place-name.[9]

However, while this historical evidence certainly rules out a final lín ‘of flax’ in the Irish precursor,  identity of the final element remains somewhat unclear, although it does reflect Liní, or similar, and it is for this reason, I believe, that the phonetic approximation Liní was recommended in the official Irish form of the name.[10]

However, he also puts forward an alternative theory.  He says that more evidence has come to light that the surname Lyn is recorded among the Anglo-Normans in Limerick in 1374.  According to Dr Ó Crualaoich:

This could have generated an Irish version such as An Lineach (gen. an Linigh) “the person called Lin < Lyn”- which in turn could be in the precursor to Aughalin, as in Áith an Linigh ‘the kiln of the person called An Lineach (< Lyn)’.

Áith ‘kiln’ is reflected in early historical forms of the name such as ‘Athlyne’ and ‘Athlini’, as áth ‘ford’ is unlikely given the absence of any river of size here.

In this regard, the presence of disused lime-kilns in this townland is notable (see Ordnance Survey 25” map).[11]

While I have not come across any evidence that a family called Lyn ever lived in the area there is the possibility that Lyn could be related to the Gaelic surname Fhloinn (Flynn) – a name common in the area until recently.

Either way, Dr. Conchubhair O Crualaoich’s final conclusion leaves little doubt – in his mind at least – that Ahalin (Aughalin) has not derived from an association with flax:

It can only be restated that the historical evidence for this place-name does not support derivation from Achadh an Lín.  The word líon (gen. lín) is reflected in the evidence for a number of place-names, but this is certainly not one of them.[12]

So, it seems that the presently widely accepted local re-translation of Aughalin as ‘The field of the flax’ is just fortuitous because the memory of flax growing in the locality in the 19th century was still somewhat fresh in the collective memory in the 1930s.  P. W. Joyce in Volume One of his magnum opus, The Origins and History of Irish Names and Places warns against using recent developments to explain an age-old placename:

It is very dangerous to depend on the etymologies of the people, who are full of imagination and will often quite distort a word to meet some fanciful derivation; or they will account for a name by some silly story obviously of recent invention, and so far as the origin of the name is concerned, not worth a moment’s consideration (Joyce, Vol I, p.5).

When Michéal de Búrca began teaching in Aughalin in the 1930s he used his extensive knowledge of Irish to make the rather tenuous connection with flax.   However, we can now say with 20/20 hindsight that he was in error and this was but a modern example of revisionism or the shoehorning of the translation of a placename to appease the zeitgeist of the 1930s and 40s.  However, in a way, whatever the Placenames Commission may think, his efforts to translate Aughalin or Ahalin,  as Acadh Lín, is far more evocative than the meaningless Áith Liní, ‘the kiln of (unknown)’ proposed by Ó Maolfabhail and now held up as the ‘official’ version by the Placenames Commission and in the Placenames (Co. Limerick) Order 2003.

We already noted that Aughalin was first recorded in the sixteenth century in Peyton’s Survey of 1586 as ‘Athlyne’ (probably from the Irish Áth Linn, ‘ford of the pool’).  There is also no doubt the landscape has changed considerably in the intervening 400 years.  The problems which have arisen with the present Irish versions of Aughalin seem to be that a once prominent topographical feature of the landscape – namely a pond or pool – seems to have disappeared or even dried up.  Gerard Curtin is of the opinion that as the landscape began to be enclosed from the early eighteenth century great improvements to the land by drainage took place over the following 200 years. We can see in the 25-inch Ordnance Survey Map of 1888-1913 that the fields to the north of this marshy area known as the Rhootachs (or Rhootiagh) are very uniform in size, suggesting planned reclamation. The original 6” map of 1843 also clearly shows what seems to have been an L shaped screen of trees planted probably with a view to aiding drainage in the area.  With this drainage on the periphery of the marsh, the level of water fell over many years. It is more than likely that in the medieval period this marshy area may have contained a body of water, such as a pool or a small lake or pond particularly at very wet times of the year.  The same map shows a crossing/trackway running from northeast to southwest through the marsh enclosed by ditches and is wide enough to drive cattle. O’Donovan would definitely have seen more evidence of this pool or wetland in 1840 than would have been in evidence in the 1930s when Michéal de Burca cast great doubt on the translation of Aughalin as ‘the ford of the pool’ because in his view, ‘there isn’t a pool within miles of this place, and there’s no ford in the place because there’s no river’.[13]  In fact, the old Ordnance survey maps indicate a tributary of the Abha na Scáth river rises in The Rhootiagh.  More recent maps show that the watercourse begins further to the north, a little south of the Knockaderry to Ballingarry road.   This land in question is still known locally as The Rootach and is still very marshy and is presently under extensive forestry plantation.   Curtin’s strong belief is that there was a ford through The Rootach from the medieval period, and thus the name, ‘the ford of the pool’ was given to the townland as a whole.[14]

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This is a detail from the 25″ Ordnance Survey map produced sometime between 1888 – 1913. It is interesting to compare both maps. Note the school in Aughalin, directly south of Aughalin Wood, which was not in the earlier map and again the uniformity of the fields directly to the south of the school signifying efforts to reclaim and drain the marshy area of ‘heathy pasture’ and make it more productive.

There are, therefore, a number of plausible translations for the placename Aughalin/Ahalin since it was first mentioned in the sixteenth century. We must remember that all these variations were but phonetic representations in English of the Irish placenames then in use.  Despite the lack of standardisation down the centuries, two elements remain constant – one is the ‘áth’ and the other is ‘linn’, or similar variations such as ‘liny’, or ‘linnie’.  Ironically, the official version in use today is probably the most implausible one of all.  Ó Maolfabhail’s safe translation is ‘Áith Liní’ which he translates as ‘the kiln of (someone unknown)’.  Likewise, Michéal de Burca’s version of ‘Acadh Lín’ which he translates as ‘The field of the flax’, although still favoured today by locals, is probably stretching the language to breaking point as can be seen from Dr Ó Crualaoich’s assessment.

O’Donovan’s translation (ford of the pond or pool) deserves to be taken seriously because he, at least, visited the area and drew up a report on the antiquities, local history and topography of the parishes of Clonelty and Clouncagh as part of the Ordnance Survey team which undertook the mapping of the area in 1840.[15]  It needs to be repeated that John O’Donovan, had a clear policy when it came to the variant spellings and meanings of Irish place-names, and that was to adopt ‘the version which came closest to the original Irish form of the name’.  If we follow this logic then we no longer need to focus merely on topographical features and it doesn’t really matter if there is no pond or pool to be seen in the landscape today or even at the time O’Donovan visited the area.

The question, therefore,  to be considered is was there a time in the dim and distant past when there was a pond or pool in Aughalin? Michéal de Burca cast doubt on O’Donovan’s and Joyce’s versions because, ‘there isn’t a pool within miles of this place, and there’s no ford in the place because there’s no river’.[16]  Ó Maolfabhail follows the same line of argument when he settled on Áith meaning ‘kiln’ instead of Áth meaning ford when he says: ‘Toisc gan abhainn a bheith san áit, measadh gurbh oiriúnaí áith (meaning kiln) ná áth (meaning ford)’ (Ó Maolfabhail, p2).  I have mentioned the presence in the old Ordnance Survey maps of a minor tributary of the Abha na Scáth river but really it was little more than a run off stream.  However, as Curtin points out there could have been a pond or pool in the area of the Rootach in the past with a causeway or path(s) through it and all this has now disappeared because of land reclamation works and drainage over the centuries.

Therefore, there are no easy answers to our difficulty with the etymology of the placename, Aughalin.  The different variations and permutations considered here will definitely not please the local people of the area who for the past three-quarters of a century at least have always translated Aughalin as Acadh Lín (The Field of the Flax).  The reason I undertook this investigation in the first place was that I was unhappy with the official Irish translation given on the Logainm.ie website and the Placenames (Co. Limerick) Order 2003 where the townland of Ahalin is given as Aughalin and the official Irish version of the townland is given as Áith Liní.  The big mystery for me is how did Ó Maolfabhail totally disregard the findings of such an eminent authority as Dr John O’Donovan in arriving at his final conclusion?

Hopefully, the original meaning of Aughalin/Ahalin, going all the way back to its first mention in Peyton’s Survey of 1586, has not been forever lost in translation!  Hopefully, also, to misquote the eminent P.W. Joyce, this present ‘etymology of the people’ is worth more than ‘a moment’s consideration’……

 

Works Cited

Curtin, Gerard. Every Field Had a Name – The Place-Names of West Limerick. Sliabh Luachra Historical Society, 2012.

Joyce, P.W., The Origin and History of Irish Names and Places. Vol I. London: Longmans, Green and Co. Dublin: M.H. Gill and Son. First Published 1869.

Joyce, P.W., The Origin and History of Irish Names and Places. Vol II. London: Longmans, Green and Co. Dublin: The Talbot Press. First Published 1875.

O’Donovan, John. Field Name Books.

 Art Ó Maolfabhail, Logainmneacha na hÉireann Imleabhair: 1 Contae Luimnigh, (Baile Átha Cliath, 1990).

“Ordnance Survey Ireland (OSi) 19th Century Historical Maps,” held by Ordnance Survey Ireland. © Public domain. Digital content: © Ordnance Survey Ireland, published by UCD Library, University College Dublin <http://digital.ucd.ie/view/ucdlib:40377&gt;

Footnotes

[1] O’Donovan’s Field Name Books  –  http://www.limerickcity.ie/Library/LocalStudies/FieldNameBooksofLimerick/ – the information for the Parish of Clonelty is to be found at No. 36 CLONELTY.

[2] In County Limerick in the 1851 Census the baronies of the south-west, Connello Upper and Glenquin had the most number of Irish speakers, 59.4% and 58.2% respectively.  See Breandán Ó Madagáin, An Ghaeilge i Luimneach, 1700 – 1900, (Baile Átha Cliath, 1974) (Curtin, 1).

[3] A tuck mill was used in the woollen industry to improve the quality of the woven fabric by repeatedly combing it, producing a warm worsted fabric.

[4] The Limerick Civil Survey IV, County Limerick (ed. Simington, 1938)

[5] Census of Ireland, c. 1659 (ed. Pender, 1939).

[6] Ó Maolfabhail, xvii, ‘leagan Gaeilge de logainm agus é scriofa le peann luaidhe, foirm gharbh é seo a breacadh síos go direach ó bhéal cainteora Ghaeilge’.

[7] Ó Maolfabhail, xvii

[8] The Field Name Books of Limerick can be accessed here: http://www.limerickcity.ie/Library/LocalStudies/FieldNameBooksofLimerick/ – the information for the Parish of Clonelty is to be found at No. 36 CLONELTY.

[9] Opinion of Dr Conchubhar Ó Crualaoich, Irish Placenames Commission via email correspondence.

[10] Opinion of Dr Conchubhar Ó Crualaoich, Irish Placenames Commission via email correspondence.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Michéal de Burca in correspondence with the Placenames Commission – can be seen at https://www.logainm.ie/en/31678?s=aughalin – Check Archival Records for Aughalin.

[14] Opinion of Gerard Curtin via email correspondence

[15] O’Donovan’s Ordnance Survey Letters, Limerick, Vol 1 – his report on Clonelty and Clouncagh Church ruins is signed and dated 25th July 1840 – the letters can be viewed online at www.askaboutireland.ie and also on The Royal Irish Academy website.

[16] In correspondence with the Placenames Commission – can be seen at https://www.logainm.ie/en/31678?s=aughalin – Check Archival Records for Aughalin.

Observations on ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ by T. S. Eliot

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No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be; / Am an attendant lord, one that will do / To swell a progress, start a scene or two ….

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, commonly known as “Prufrock”, was the first professionally published poem by American-born British poet T. S. Eliot (1888–1965). Wikipedia tells that Eliot began writing “Prufrock” in February 1910, and it was first published in the June 1915 issue of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse at the instigation of Ezra Pound.  It was later printed as part of a twelve-poem pamphlet titled Prufrock and Other Observations in 1917.   The poem has come to represent a generation, an epoch, much in the same way as The Great Gatsby, Waiting for Godot and Ulysses are also seen as seminal works which seek to define an age.

Rightfully, it is regarded by many as one of the very first great modern poems.  It is modern in theme because it expresses the confusion and indecision arising from the self-doubt of modern man facing a world in which the traditional religious and social certainties were losing force.  It is also modern in method, making its impact by means of images and symbols which are not held together by any strict or obvious logic, but by the free association of ideas.  In other words, the confusion and incoherence of Prufrock’s mind and of his world are to some extent reflected in the apparent incoherence of the poem.  Close study of the poem (by you, hopefully) will reveal that it has, in fact, a coherence and logic all of its own.

‘Let us go then, you and I’[1] – and analyse the poem!

While the two opening lines of the poem might well belong to a conventional love poem I don’t think anyone is going to rush out and put it on their Valentine’s Day card – not even Jacob Rees-Mogg!  The essential point to make about Prufrock is that it is a dramatic monologue.  Like many of Hamlet’s soliloquies, the purpose of this monologue is to light up his own mind rather than illuminate ours!  He is using his utterances not so much to expound the meaning of his life as to pursue it.  The meaning he extracts may surprise him, and puzzle him, as much as it does the reader.  This meandering quest to find his life’s meaning accounts for the tone of improvisation in the dramatic dialogue, as well as the speaker’s absorption in what he is saying, and also for his strange lack of any real connection with his audience.  Indeed, in Eliot’s monologue, the listener is mainly Prufrock’s other self.

It is interesting to notice how little dramatic situation there is in Prufrock.  There is, in fact, barely enough situation to serve as a springboard for Prufrock’s self-revelation.  There is the ‘journey’ through ‘half-deserted streets’ to a drawing room where the ladies ‘talk of Michelangelo’ make it easy to avoid ‘the overwhelming question’, and a final retreat to the sea-chambers of fantasy where Prufrock can spend the rest of his days listening to the song of the mermaids.  The relative unimportance of the actual situation is underlined by the fact that Prufrock does not really direct his utterance to the situation at all.  It is important to remember that his utterance is not contemporaneous in tense with the situation.  He speaks, not to alter this situation, but to extract from it the pattern of his life.  In fact, the use of tenses in the poem is a vital element: Prufrock’s utterance is framed almost entirely in the perfect and future tenses.  Thus the crucial situation, the putting of the question, appears not in actuality but as anticipation (‘there will be time’) or as recollection (‘would it have been worth it after all … I have known them all already’).  After the evocation of the tea-party, there is no situation at all, not even the implication of a present tense.  There is only the pattern of the future, blended with the pattern of the past (‘I shall wear white flannel trousers … I have heard the mermaids singing’).

The use of tenses, combined with the Hamlet references, may be considered significant in relation to Prufrock’s indecisive, fearful nature.  As already mentioned, Prufrock’s monologue achieves something of the same effect as Hamlet’s soliloquies.  It reveals a private hell from which there is no escape, not even through fantasy.  There is also another Hamlet-like dimension to Prufrock: fearful anticipation (1-69) and retrospective excuses for failure (70-131), coupled with self-laceration.

Another interesting feature of the poem is that while there is often little sense of logical continuity between its parts, Eliot pays detailed attention to syntactical continuity.  The poem gains in coherence through the extensive use of linking words, phrases and expressions.  No fewer than twenty-one lines are introduced by and, which introduces seven of the verse-paragraphs.  To link the major paragraphs, Eliot makes use of sporadic word-repetition, which in Prufrock is a more significant device than rhyme.  There are repetitions within the paragraphs and echoes linking each paragraph to its successor (yellow fog, yellow smoke, evening, they will say, voices dying with a dying fall, each to each ….).  The word ‘time’ appears ten times in the third and fourth paragraphs.

The voice of the poem is, mainly, one of shadowy, uncertain identity.  The presiding image is of a dream labyrinth (the landscape, the fog, the streets, the sea), an image created by an uncertain mind vainly endeavouring to find itself.  One occasional weakness is illustrated by the Hamlet passage (‘I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be’).  This is, perhaps, too abstract, too clever, too sharp a definition for the generally uncertain and vague identity of the ‘voice’ we have been listening to up to this point.

Many of us, students of the poem, perhaps coming to it for the first time are almost certain to be puzzled by Eliot’s method here.  However, even after several readings, Prufrock can still remain as obscure as ever!  The sources of difficulty are easy enough to identify.  The principal one is the absence of a straightforward sequence of thought and of continuity between the various fragments which go to make up the poem.  The physical appearance of Prufrock reflects Eliot’s method of composition.  It was not composed as a unit: as befitting a poem we have earlier described as ‘one of the very first great modern poems’, some lines were written in America, some in Paris and some in Germany; added to this was the fact that it underwent a good deal of editing and re-arranging of lines before the present version emerged.  One looks in vain for logical connections between the parts.  The speaker proceeds by indirection, implication, suggestion.  Indeed, at one point he declares that it is impossible for him to say just what he means (105).  A good deal of what one might think necessary for an understanding of the speaker and his situation is omitted or else merely hinted at or vaguely implied; even the nature of the ‘overwhelming question’, apparently a central issue in the poem, is left obscure.

The disjointed fragments, put together in an apparently arbitrary fashion, can, however, be related to one another and made to take on the appearance of parts of a unified structure provided that a certain amount of ingenuity is exercised by the reader.  Indeed, it is only by means of such an exercise, involving the discovery of the missing links in the broken chain of events and ideas that Prufrock can be made to acquire the kind of ‘meaning’ that most people look for in any work of literature.  Reading Prufrock in this fashion for its ‘meaning’ is rather like playing a game of charades, solving a puzzle or doing a piece of detective work.  Clues are seen to be left lying around: a journey of some sort is in question; a man seems to be facing a difficult predicament; an urban landscape is described; details of the man’s appearance and character are, apparently, revealed.  The poet’s peculiar use of pronouns is noted.  The reader will naturally try to combine these elements into as orderly and intelligible a sequence as he can, discover logical relations between them, and make out his version of the ‘story’ of the poem.  Each reader’s version may, of course, be somewhat different from that of his neighbour; each will marshal the ‘clues’ to different effect.  The number of possible versions of the poem as a ‘story’ is obviously endless.

What kind of poem, then, is Prufrock? One of Eliot’s images gives us a useful clue to the poet’s method:

It is impossible to say just what I mean!

But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on

a screen ….

The magic lantern will serve as a symbol of Prufrock.  The fragments of the poem are like separate, isolated slides projected onto a screen.  The voice of the speakers invites us to follow it on a dream-like progress from the half-deserted streets to the room full of fashionable women, through the yellow fog, to the staircase and finally to the mermaids in the chambers of the sea.  The only place in which all these different locations could exist together is in the mind of the speaker.

If Prufrock has unity it is not a unity of idea or incident: the streets, stairways, rooms and ‘chambers of the sea’ clearly cannot belong to a single, visible world.  Instead of trying to relate the fragments of the poem to such a world, one should regard them as projections of various states of feeling, some of them contradictory, all originating in a single mind.  This is the only sense in which it is possible to speak with confidence of the ‘unity’ of the poem.  The images of Prufrock correspond to these states of feeling: they objectify them.  The experience of reading the poem should be like that of listening to music: moods and feelings are communicated, emotions stimulated.  It does not really matter where the room is in which the women talk of Michelangelo, or whether this can be the room towards which the speaker may be going; nor does it matter whether the fog has formed before the projected ‘journey’ or after it.  The physical details of the poem, the relationship between its people, places and objects, are as unsubstantial as those in a dream; they dissolve and reappear quite arbitrarily.  The time-sequence is equally chaotic.  Therefore, if Prufrock can be said to be about anything, it is primarily about a state of mind.

 

 

Footnotes

[1] It is essential for our understanding of the poem to realise that the ‘you’ and ‘I’ refer to two aspects of Prufrock’s personality.  The ‘you’ stands for the timid, apologetic, public side of Prufrock; the ‘I’ stands for the inner man with his passionate desire for a more heroic and splendid mode of life.  There is a third person in the poem, the woman, who is the object of Prufrock’s love.  She is constantly referred to as the ‘one’.

Prufrock_And_Other_Observations

Further Reading

You might also like to read a brief analysis of Eliot’s Religious Poetry featuring ‘Journey of the Magi’ and ‘A Song for Simeon’ here.

Three Poems by Thomas Hardy

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Courtesy of AwestruckWanderer -Wordpress.com

For many years during my chequered career as an English teacher, I taught a very limited selection of poems by Thomas Hardy which featured in the interim anthology, Soundings, edited by Augustine Martin.  This was as part of the then Leaving Poetry Certificate course – where the only requirement for selection was that the poet had to be dead!  How times have changed – for the better.   Having now retired I have been able to revisit the poems and glory anew in their darkness – a rather sad, pathetic version of  ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’!

During his lifetime, Thomas Hardy was much engaged with the great issues which exercise the minds of all thinking men; time, death, suffering, immortality.  Three of his finest poems (‘Afterwards’, ‘In Time of the Breaking of Nations’, ‘During Wind and Rain’) deal with these matters.  Students of Hardy’s oeuvre will already know that he was not a particularly cheerful or optimistic observer or commentator on the human condition.  He could not, for example, believe that the universe was the work of a benevolent Creator.  At different times in his writings we can see that he thought creation to be a cruel joke, or as an accident, and he even once suggested that some ‘Vast imbecility / Mighty to build and blend / But impotent to tend / Framed us in jest, and left us now to hazardry’ (‘Nature’s Questioning’).  Human life appeared to him to be devoid of any clear plan or purpose, and personal immortality was clearly an illusion.  He could find nothing to give meaning to the weight of suffering in the world, to the ravages of time, or to the cruelty of death.

The three poems mentioned above embody varying reactions to the predicament of human beings in the face of the remorseless forces of destruction.  In ‘Afterwards’ we find a calm, stoical acceptance; while ‘In Time of the Breaking of Nations’ he affirms the continuity of everyday life against a background of war and turmoil, while in ‘During Wind and Rain’ he portrays a relentless picture of absolute desolation and despairing,  tragic anguish.

Recited by Jeremy Irons

‘Afterwards’

‘Afterwards’ happens to be one of my own personal favourite poems of all time.  The poem was written in 1917 (the same year as Eliot’s, ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’, was published).  Hardy was 77 at the time.  It is not really a poem about death, but about the world Hardy feels he will soon be leaving, and about the ways in which he would like to be remembered after he has gone.  It is a sincere, truthful poem, showing Hardy’s resignation and stoicism, as well as embodying his modest view of his own significance.  At the time of writing, Hardy was nearing the end of a long and illustrious career, as poet and novelist.  In the poem, however, he hopes not for universal remembrance after death, as a great man of letters, but instead that a few kind people will remember him for his lifelong interest in nature and for his fondness for living things.  He does not look forward to death with terror or dread, or even with excitement; he greets the prospect of his ‘bell of quittance’ with quiet detachment.  Detachment, indeed, is the keynote of the poem.  It is as if Hardy were observing his own fate from a distance; the fact that he talks so much about himself in the third person (a la J.M. Coetzee in more recent times) lends force to this impression.

One way of reading ‘Afterwards’ is as the utterance of one returned to life from the past, as a kind of tolerant, objective, kindly observer.  The major focus of interest in the poem is not the poet himself but the things he used to notice while he lived: there is a beautiful tension between the things so lovingly observed and the idea of death which broods over the poem.  Hardy’s ability to be objective about his own demise is finely suggested in the second line:

            And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings

Instead of using morbid nature imagery to portray his death, as he does in poems like ‘The Darkling Thrush’, he instead evokes the joys of early summer.  Furthermore, his claim to have been a close observer of nature during his lifetime is validated in the beautiful image of the hawk in lines 5 – 6:

            Like an eyelid’s soundless blink

This beautiful and powerful simile, combining as it does speed and soundlessness, would occur only to one who had, indeed, looked long and closely at the minutest details of a scene.

The third stanza is both endearing and sad.  Hardy was a firm believer, whether in regard to humans or animals, that the chief aim of man should be to strive to keep pain down to a minimum by loving kindness.  His lifelong campaign against cruelty to animals and birds, referred to here, in this stanza, will, he suggests, come to nothing once he has passed away:

            But he could do little for them, and now he is gone.

I find that it is impossible to read this line in its context without feeling a pang at the absurdity of isolated human effort in the face of the relentless progress of evil in the world.

In the fourth stanza, Hardy moves from the contemplation of every day, local details to glance momentarily at the mysteries of creation and record his interest in such matters.  He is content to contemplate them with due wonder and to reserve his comment for the more homely things he does understand.  There doesn’t seem to be any religious significance to his contemplation of created things or of matters after death other than his reference to the ‘bell of quittance’, obviously the bell of his local parish church.  The very modesty of his hopes and claims make them all the more moving and impressive.  Yet, the long sonorous lines of the poem help paint a picture of Hardy the man: a good neighbour, a keen observer of nature, a man who will be missed when he goes – a man who had an eye ‘for such mysteries’

Recited by Judi Dench

‘In Time of the Breaking of Nations’

Along with ‘Afterwards’, ‘In Time of the Breaking of Nations’, despite its brevity and simplicity, ranks as one of Hardy’s finest achievements.  In three short stanzas, Hardy makes a profound comment on war, and on the basic permanence of simple, everyday things.

Although the poem was written during the First World War in 1915, the subject occurred to Hardy as early as 1870, during the Franco-Prussian War, as we read in his The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy.  He was in Cornwall when he wrote:

On the day that the bloody battle of Gravelotte was fought they were reading Tennyson in the grounds of the rectory.  It was at this time and spot that Hardy was struck by the incident of the old horse harrowing the arable field in the valley below, which, when in later years it was recalled to him by a still bloodier war, he made into the little poem of three verses (p. 84).

The poem makes its powerful, telling and timely point by sharply juxtaposing the momentary aberration of war against a background of centuries of human history.  Hardy asserts the pre-eminence of simple human values in the face of the misuse of power and the disintegration brought about by war.  According to Hardy, there are two kinds of history: that of war, political events and the rise and fall of Dynasties, and the humbler history of obscure people and everyday life.  The man and the old horse ploughing the field, the thin smoke rising from the field, and the two lovers, represent the second kind; the Dynasties represent the first kind.  The Great War (To End All Wars) was meant to mark the passing of these Dynasties, but the ‘maid and her wight’ have greater significance than all the dynasties, since, through their children and their descendants down the generations, they will continue the story of humanity long after dynasties and their wars have passed into oblivion.

Read by Tom O’Bedlam

‘During Wind and Rain’

‘During Wind and Rain’ is a very pessimistic, indeed despairing, comment on life and death, providing an interesting contrast with ‘Afterwards’ and ‘At Time of the Breaking of Nations’.  It is quintessentially Hardy.  As in the other two poems, the powerful effects are achieved largely through contrast and juxtaposition.  Here, each of the four stanzas has the same structural features.  The setting of the poem is a wild, tempestuous autumn day which bears an obvious weight of symbolism.  In each stanza, a happy, beautifully depicted scene from the past is followed by a pathetic refrain whose theme is the havoc wrought by the years, while each final line brings forcefully to life the wildness of the autumn day.

It is said that Hardy wrote the poem with his first wife, Emma Gifford, in mind.  She is seen with her family in a series of happy scenes, the security and comfort of which are shattered in turn by the intrusive, tortured refrain on ‘the years’.  There is a wealth of implication in the first stanza, with its cheerful family music-making followed by the image of the sick leaves which ‘reel down in throngs’, which seems both to describe the autumn day and to suggest the deaths of the participants in the happy gathering.  Again, in the beautiful garden of Stanzas Two and Three, ‘the rotten rose is ript from the wall’, a glance, apparently, at the family’s tendency to madness.

In this poem – one of his darkest and despairing – Hardy finds the origins of death and despair in the past.  Time enjoys a cruel triumph, and a total one here, obliterating without a trace not only the most stable and fortunate families and their carefully tended surroundings, but even those remains which might serve to perpetuate their memories.  This latter idea is graphically conveyed in the great last line, which is almost a poem in itself:

            Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs

Even the very names of the dead carved on their tombstones are not exempt from the erasing hand of time.  The absolute desolation of this poem is appropriately summed up in the slow, lingering pathos of this line, with its crushing air of finality.

 

Works Cited

Hardy, Thomas. The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy ed Michael Millgate (1984). London: The Macmillan Press Limited, 1984.

Martin, Augustine (ed). Soundings: Leaving Cert Poetry/Interim Anthology.  Gill and Macmillan Limited and The Educational Company. 1969.

Further Reading

My overall analysis of the poetry of Thomas Hardy can be accessed here

The Religious Poetry of T. S. Eliot (with a particular focus on ‘Journey of the Magi’ and ‘A Song for Simeon’)

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T.S. Eliot portrait by Baltimore Maryland artist Jerry Breen.

 

‘Journey of the Magi’ (1927) and ‘A Song for Simeon’ (1928) both arose from the poet’s spiritual struggles which eventually gave rise to his conversion to the Church of England.  In an essay first published in 1931, Eliot gives us a fairly vivid account of the process of conversion as he understands it:

The Christian thinker proceeds by rejection and elimination.  He finds the world to be so and so, but he finds its character to be inexplicable by any non-religious theory.  Among religions, he finds Christianity accounts most satisfactorily for the world, and thus he finds himself inexorably committed to the dogma of the Incarnation (Selected Essays, 408).

This description helps us understand Eliot’s personal development during the 1920s, and helps us see how his conversion was not a sudden transformation but an inevitable culmination of a long drawn out process.  His early poetry had been pervaded by a lament for his loss of faith and sometimes hinted that it might someday be recovered.  Thus, even a decidedly secular poem such as ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ is interspersed with familiar Christian references.  In the poem we see references to Lazarus: ‘I am Lazarus, come back from the dead’.  Later we come upon a reference to St. John the Baptist: ‘though I have seen my head …. brought in upon a platter’.  Part of the greatness of Eliot’s Prufrock is that it depicts in a very honest way a personal state of mind and it also serves as an example of normal human misery and Roaring Twenties angst.  In the second section of Prufrock (‘The yellow fog that rubs its back…’) there is a beautiful, extended image of Prufrock’s own individual awareness.  For him, normal day-to-day apprehension is like a fog, but occasionally he feels that just beyond his field of vision there is a different order of reality – a parallel universe.

In ‘A Song for Simeon’ this order of reality is described and clearly defined.  What first strikes us is that Eliot very often has a peculiar tendency to express religious ideas in predominantly secular terms.  Both ‘A Song for Simeon’ and ‘Journey of the Magi’ rely on this relationship between biblical and secular language.  Thus, ‘A Song for Simeon’ is based on the story of Simeon in St. Luke’s Gospel, (Luke 2:25 – 35) while ‘Journey of the Magi’ is modelled on St. Matthew’s account (Matthew 2: 1 – 12).  Both poems could be described as apocryphal, reminiscent of other written accounts of the life and works of Jesus during his life on earth, such as The Gospel of St. Thomas and others, which were seen by Church authorities as being of questionable provenance. 

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Journey of the Magi by Graham Pope

‘JOURNEY OF THE MAGI’ (1927)

St. Matthew begins his Gospel account with an elaborate genealogy that places Jesus as an ancestor of King David and Abraham. Here already Matthew shows his special interest and the intended audience for his Gospel. He is writing for a Jewish audience and presents Jesus as a King, better than David and a teacher greater than Moses.

It is Matthew that tells us about the Three Wise Men (Eliot’s Magi) that came to worship, bringing gifts fit for a king.  Matthew, in his powerful birth account, presents Jesus, in fulfillment of the prophecies and hopes of the Hebrew Scriptures, as the King of the Jews who has been given all authority in Heaven and Earth. He is Emmanuel, God with us.  Matthew, however, is making a powerful distinction for his Jewish audience – the Magi represent those outsiders, those wise men, magicians, or astrologers from the East, from Persia who will now be saved by this Christ child.  The Good News of Matthew, therefore, is that this Christ has come for all people and not just for the Chosen People of Israel.  Eliot sees in the Magi a metaphor for his own conversion – he too has made a long and tortuous journey and has finally made his decision to bow down before the Christian God.

‘Journey of the Magi’ – one of the great classic Christmas poems – is told from the perspective of one of the Magi (commonly known as the ‘Three Wise Men’, though the Bible makes no mention of their number or gender – although it does mention that they brought three gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh). The poem examines the implications that the advent of Christ had for the other religions of the time, and it emphasizes this pivotal moment in human history.  In the Christian calendar, the coming of the Wise Men or Magi is celebrated on January 6th – the Twelfth Day of Christmas.  It is often referred to as the Feast of the Epiphany, when Jesus is revealed to all, Jew and Gentile, as the Saviour of the World.

This is an apocryphal account of the journey made by the Three Wise Men which eventually led them to a humble stable in Bethlehem where the Christ Child lay.  It is narrated to us by one of their number, perhaps over a glass of wine, after their return home.  The story, and it is a beautifully told story, is told not in Biblical language, but in the language of everyday speech and with an amount of detail not found in the Gospel story of St. Matthew.

The opening quotation comes from one of Bishop Lancelot Andrewes’ Nativity Sermons, preached at Christmas during the 1620s. The speaker, one of the Magi, talks about the difficulties encountered by the Magi during the course of their journey to see the infant Christ. It is unconventional in that it  focuses on the details of the journey: their longing for home (and for the ‘silken girls’ bringing the sweet drink known as ‘sherbet’), their doubts about the purpose of the journey they’re undertaking, the unfriendly people in the villages where they stop over for the night, and so on. The hardships of the journey are recounted in some detail.  The details underline the absurdity of the journey in the first place but stress the strong impulses that made them undertake the journey in the middle of winter. The hardship is further stressed by the sharp juxtaposition between what they faced on their journey and what they had left behind in their ‘palaces’. 

Eventually, the Magi arrive at the place where the infant Christ is to be found. The weary travellers trek through a ‘temperate valley’ – a kind of Garden of Eden – and eventually arrive at a tavern with its drunkenness and gambling. The description of the valley is akin to a movie still – the camera pans slowly over the landscape lingering on sharply etched details such as the running stream, the watermill, the three trees, and the old white horse.  Then the camera moves on and picks out the gamblers and the empty wineskins.  There is no mention of Bethlehem or the stable in this account and the narrator simply states that they ‘arrived at evening, not a moment too soon / finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory’.  Neither is there any mention of the star which – the Gospels and a million children’s Nativity Plays tell us – guided the Magi to the spot where Christ lay in a manger. The words ‘not a moment too soon’ are important here because the narrator seems to realize that they, like Simeon later, because of their advanced years, were unlikely to survive to witness the Crucifixion or the Resurrection of Christ and that they can only count themselves lucky to have witnessed the beginning of this powerful new religious movement.

The poem ends with its narrator reflecting on the journey some years later, saying that if he had the chance he would do it all again, but he remains unsure about the precise significance of the journey and what they found when they arrived. Was it the birth of a new world (Christianity) or the death of an old one (i.e. the Magi’s own world)? The speaker then reveals that, since he returned home following his visit to see the infant Christ, he and his fellow Magi have felt uneasy living among their own people, who now seem to be ‘an alien people clutching their gods’ (in contrast to the worshippers of the newly arrived Jesus, who worship one God only, in the form of the Messiah). The speaker ends by telling us that he is resigned to die now, glad of ‘another death’ (his own) to complement the death of his cultural and religious beliefs, which have been destroyed by his witnessing the baby Jesus.

Jesus himself, however, is absent from this poem. One reason for this may be that we are, of course, all too familiar with the story of the Nativity and we don’t need reminding here.  Another possible reason is that the focus here in this account is on the journey, the quest, and the hardship of the search.  Eliot places himself here among and alongside the Persian astrologers as they seek out the face of the baby Christ. The poet empathises with the ‘Wise Men’ who are seeing their once deeply held beliefs being called into question by this new Messiah.

No study of the poem would be complete without reference to the imagery used by the poet.  In carrying out such an analysis we also need to remember that the narrator is one of a band of ‘wise men’, ‘astrologers’ who are learned in the study of signs and omens.  Sadly, it seems, the Magi miss the significance of almost all the images mentioned in the poem!  Much of the imagery foreshadows Christ’s later life: the three trees suggesting Christ’s crucifixion on Calvary; the vine, to which Jesus will liken himself; the pieces of silver foreshadowing the thirty pieces of silver Judas Iscariot will receive for betraying him; the wine-skins foreshadowing the wine that Jesus would beseech his disciples to drink in memory of him at the Last Supper. Even though the narrator is a priest or astrologer, someone trained to look for the significance in the things around him, to read and interpret signs as symbols or omens, he fails to pick up on what they foreshadow.  We, however, living in a Christian (or even a post-Christian) society, can read their significance all too well – and modern society, despite the aid of hindsight’s 20/20 vision seems equally oblivious to the significance of those momentous events in Bethlehem. At poem’s end, the narrator is left feeling perplexed and troubled by his visit and by the advent of Christ: he wonders whether Christ’s birth has been a good thing since his arrival in the world has finally signalled the death of his own old religion and the religion of his people. Now, he and his fellow Magi, like Simeon, are left world-weary and longing for life’s end.

So, therefore, ‘Journey of the Magi’ is partly about belonging, about social, tribal, and religious belonging: the speaker of the poem reflects sadly that the coming of Christ has rendered his own gods and his own tribe effete, displaced, destined to be overtaken by the advent of Christ and Christianity. It is tempting to see the poem – written in 1927, the year Eliot converted to the Anglican faith – as a metaphor for Eliot’s own feelings concerning secularism and the Christian religion, Christianity having itself been rendered effete in the face of Darwin, modern physics, and secular philosophy. The poem, about a people’s conversion from one religion to another, is equally bound up with Eliot’s own conversion.

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Simeon’s Moment by Ron DiCianni

 ‘A SONG FOR SIMEON’ (1928)

‘A Song for Simeon’ relies heavily on the account given in the second chapter of Luke’s Gospel and phrases from this gospel echo throughout the poem.  Simeon comes to see the Christ child as he is being presented in the Temple by Mary and Joseph and he utters his famous Nunc dimittis: ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word.  For my eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people’.  Joseph and Mary marvel at this and Simeon addresses Mary: ‘This child is set for the fall and rise of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed’. 

The poem is not, however, a simple restatement of Simeon’s prophecy.  Indeed, the purpose of the religious references is not to analyse religious experience into a series of logical or dogmatic statements, but to reflect a state of mind.  Eliot diminishes somewhat Simeon’s role as a prophet and brings into focus his human characteristics.  The poem, therefore, has considerable realism.  Simeon is tired and old; like all ordinary men, he neither longs for martyrdom nor for the ‘ultimate vision’ of Christ’s triumph on earth.  He just wants to die peacefully, with no heroics and no rhetoric.  Eliot’s ‘Song’, unlike the original in Luke, is the ordinary prayer of a tired old man who has accomplished his task on earth and who hopes for God’s salvation.  This tone of contemplative piety is maintained until the end, ‘Let thy servant depart / Having seen thy salvation’.  Throughout the poem, the coming of Christ is seen as a victory over the powers of darkness.  Yet, characteristically, the advent of Christ is also seen as involving a painful transformation of attitude. 

This idea is central to all of Eliot’s religious poetry and in particular to ‘A Song for Simeon’; namely that all Christians must endure hardship and suffering in this life if they are truly Christ’s followers.  The quiet strength of the poem enables the allusions to suffering to be used in such a way that the reader is forced to pause and to consider.  Take for example the reference ‘And a sword shall pierce thy heart / Thine also’.  In his address to Mary, Simeon foretells her grief and that of Christ.  But here in their new context, the words extend in meaning to cover the sufferings of all Christians who bear the derision as well as share in the glory of the passion and resurrection.  Thus, Eliot suggests, every Christian enacts the martyrdom of Christ in his own life: this, now and in the future,  will be a prime condition of his life as a Christian. 

Simeon’s case, however, is a special one.  He is the only Christian whose life does not involve participation in the suffering and death of Christ (He will, after all, be dead long before the Crucifixion) – ‘Not for me the martyrdom … / Not for me the ultimate vision’.  Eliot sees Simeon standing at that unique crossroads in human history when the pagan world gives way to the Christian.  Simeon grew up in the old dispensation, and yet he has the foresight to welcome the new Christian age but he knows that he cannot share in it.  He has to be content with the ‘ultimate vision’, the consolation of recognising that he has achieved salvation in the figure of the Christ child whom he has held momentarily in his arms.

Any close analysis of this poem must involve some mention of Eliot’s use of symbols.  As his interest in religious topics increased he continued to invent a symbolic language so as to express his ideas in poetry.  What he does in ‘A Song for Simeon’ is to translate his experience partly into traditional Christian images, and partly into his own private symbols.  Throughout the poem, the presence of familiar Christian references is obvious enough.  Groups of them appear in the third stanza:

Before the time of cords and scourges and lamentation

Grant us thy peace.

Before the stations of the mountain of desolation,

Before the certain hour of maternal sorrow,

Low at this birth season of decrease,

Let the Infant, the still unspeaking the unspoken Word,

Grant Israel’s consolation

To one who has eighty years and no tomorrow.

Next to these familiar images, however, Eliot places various symbols which express very forcefully the waning of the old pagan world and the imminent coming of Christianity.  Stanza One, in particular, is filled with images drawn from nature.  The Roman world, the world of the old dispensation, continues to move in its accustomed way: the hyacinths are ‘blooming in bowls’, but the light of the old beliefs represented here by the winter sun is weak and fading – ‘The winter sun creeps by the snow hills’.  In the fourth line, Simeon is introduced to us using natural imagery – ‘My life is light, waiting for the death wind’.

Another significant feature of Eliot’s poetry after his conversion is his discovery of heroes – as opposed to anti-heroes like Prufrock.  Indeed, one modern critic has summarised Eliot’s religious poetry as ‘explorations of the meaning and nature of heroism’.  In ‘a Song for Simeon’, heroism is seen primarily in a Christian context.  Throughout the poem the coming of Christ is associated with images of desolation and hardship; he is the ‘wind that chills towards the dead land’; he brings ‘cords and scourges and lamentation’; he announces salvation to all men in terms of death and suffering.  The placid images of stanza one  (‘hyacinths’, ‘feather’, ‘dust and sunlight’, ‘snow hills’) give way to images of torment that represent the lives of all succeeding generations of Christians.  Death is the source of life (‘this birth season of decrease’).  This, says Eliot, is the law of sacrifice and renunciation, a law which can be seen mirrored in nature and which is the essence of the Christian way.  This is the essence of the challenge which Eliot outlines in ‘A Song for Simeon’.

Like Simeon, Eliot has longed to find Peace – ‘Grant us thy peace’.  Peace (Shalom) was a sacred word for Jews denoting a positive state of wholeness and productivity rather than our merely negative notion of an absence of hostilities.  It is in this wider sense that Eliot means the word to be understood.  Indeed, the entire poem must be seen in a Christian context, if its message is to be fully understood and appreciated.

________ *************________

Therefore, these two poems, ‘Journey of the Magi’ and ‘A Song for Simeon’, deal with different journeys: the Magi come from the East and traverse difficult landscape at an inhospitable time of the year to seek out their new Messiah.  The hardships experienced on their journey are emphassised by words like ‘cold’, ‘worst time of year’, ‘the ways deep’, ‘weather sharp’, ‘dead of winter’.  Simeon, too, has ‘walked many years in this city’ in order to carry out his religious and charitable works (‘Kept faith and fast, provided for the poor’).  Simeon also foresees persecuted Christians fleeing ‘from the foreign faces and the foreign swords’.  This is closely followed by the stark image of Christ’s journey to Calvary – probably the most poignant expression of the journey-metaphor in all of Eliot’s poetry:

Before the time of cords and scourges and lamentation

Grant us thy peace,

Before the stations of the mountain of desolation.

 Both poems are set in winter representing not only the old age of the narrators but also signifying the end of the ‘old dispensations’ and the advent of the new.  There is also, of course, the underlying notion of the journey which the poet has undertaken during the course of his conversion to his new faith.

To sum up, we can say that ‘A Song for Simeon’ and ‘Journey of the Magi’ mark a decisive turning point in Eliot’s religious faith.  They also mark a change in his poetic style as well as a total shift in his outlook on life. 

 Works Cited

Eliot, T.S., “The Pensées of Pascal”, Selected Essays (3rd Edition), London: Faber and Faber, 1951.

 

The Etymology of ‘Maiden Street’ in Newcastle West

 

 

Maiden Street (1)
Maiden Street with ‘its necklace of sandpits’ as seen in one of Patrick J. O’Connor’s beautiful maps of Newcastle West (O’Connor: p43).

Maiden Street is the longest and oldest street in Newcastle West.  Sean Kelly, its resident historian, says that it was built piecemeal on the edge of an ancient glacial moraine.  This moraine benefited the town and there were at least three working sand pits in production at one time along the street.  Sean Kelly states that ‘It was a street renowned for its trades of all kinds; shoemaking and repair; tailoring and dressmaking; printing; baking; coopers; tinsmiths; blacksmiths; and harness-makers to name a few.’ Patrick J. O’Connor who has also written eloquently about the street confirms this.  Speaking of the new proprietors who bought out their leases during the sale of the town in 1910 he says that ‘there was colour aplenty in Maiden Street’.  These included Michael ‘Boss’ Culhane who traded in ‘hides, skins, feathers and eggs’!  He also mentions George Latchford who had launched a family business circa 1874 which later developed into the well-known bakery and cinema.  This family business thrived well into the twentieth century under the stewardship of his sons Jackie, Paddy and Willie.

Poverty was rife in Maiden Street – particularly Lower Maiden Street – and Michael Hartnett makes constant reference to this fact in both his prose and poetry:

We rented a mansion down in lower Maiden Street,

Legsa Murphy our landlord, three shillings a week,

the walls were mud and the roof it did leak

and our mice nearly died of starvation.

The etymology of the street name has always posed problems.  Again Sean Kelly says that there is no mention of the street name among the earliest known street names going back to 1584-6, although it was in existence by then, ‘what is clear is the street’s graceful, curvilinear form adorning the earliest available town plan, the Moland Survey of 1709’.  Patrick O’Connor suggests that the street name may be derived ‘from the medieval cult of Mariology (Sráid na Maighdine Mhuire)’ (O’Connor:56).

The lower part of the street was sometimes known as Dock Road, in accord with the low status attributed to it.    The gardens of the houses on the south side abutted on to a track known locally as ‘the back of the Docks’.  At intervals, there were ingresses with steps leading down to the River Arra, where the local women came to do their laundry.

Sean Kelly waxes lyrical about this place: ‘Lengthy, capacious and capricious, Maiden Street was – according to the punchline of a popular rhyme – a favoured place for lodgers’.  And while the name of the street remains an enduring enigma, its lower appendage, the Coole (cúil, from the Irish meaning corner or nook) poses no interpretative problem whatever. Sean Kelly himself often claims to belong to Middle Maiden Street and from the records, there is evidence of these subtle divisions as far back as 1776.  The street had a distinct Upper, Middle and Lower division and was, in effect, a microcosm of the nuanced social divisions also evident elsewhere in the town!

Hartnett, the street’s very own Poet Laureate pokes further fun at the perceived reputation of the street when he writes in the Maiden Street Ballad:

Tis said that in Church Street no church ever stood,

and to walk up through Bishop Street no bishop would,

and tis said about Maiden Street that maidenhood

            was as rare as an asses pullover.

In his Preface to that famous ballad, Hartnett says that ‘Everyone has a Maiden Street.  It is the street of strange characters, wits, odd old women and eccentrics: also a street of hot summers, of hop-scotch and marbles: in short the street of youth’.  However, he also adds a disclaimer saying that ‘Maiden Street was no Tír na nÓg’ and we should not forget that the street was but a ‘memory distorted by time in the minds of all who lived there’.  Generations to come will continue to show their gratitude to the poet for his wonderful evocation of the street of his childhood, the nearest Newcastle West will ever come to having its own Steinbeck or, indeed, its own Cannery Row!  As he said himself: ‘Ballads about places however bad they may be, unite a community and give it a sense of identity’.

In his shorter poem, Maiden Street (1967), there is a reference to the ‘small voices on the golden road’ and later he says about the days of his childhood, ‘we were such golden children, never to be dust’.  This may give us some clues as to the etymology of the name originally given to the street.  Maiden Street runs west to east, so the morning sun shines up the street and so a young poet’s imagination turns it into his very own ‘yellow brick road’.  Many of those family names, synonymous with the street, who bought out their leases in 1910 still have links to the town to this day: Reidy’s, Houlihans, Gormans, Morrisons, Mullanes, Byrnes, Aherns, Nashs, Murphys, Fitzgeralds, Bakers, Hartnetts, Quins, Healys, Hartes, Massys, Moones…..

Hartnett says that the street finally ‘gave up the ghost’ in September 1951 when most of the inhabitants were rehoused in one of the 60 new houses in Assumpta Park.  Hartnett describes the operation epically in the Maiden Street Ballad – likening it to the hazardous journey of the Israelites escaping from Egypt to the Promised Land!

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The old street it finally gave up the ghost,

and most of the homes there they got the death-blow

when most of the people were tempted to go

and move to the Hill’s brand new houses.

The moving it started quite soon after dark

and the handcars and wheelbars pushed off to the Park

and some of the asscars were like Noah’s Ark

with livestock and children and spouses.

 

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For we all took our furniture there when we moved,

our flowerbags and teachests and threelegged stools

and stowaway mice ahide in our boots –

and jamcrocks in good working order.

And our fleas followed after, our own local strain –

they said “We’ll stand by ye whatever the pain,

“for our fathers drew life from yere fathers’ veins”

“and blood it is thicker than water”!

 

For many, this transition was effortless and opened up a whole new vista while for others the change of location was a step too far and they found it very difficult to settle in their new environs.  Again Hartnett puts this very colourfully:

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In nineteen-fifty one people weren’t too smart:

in spite of the toilets they pissed out the back,

washed feet in the lavatory, put coal in the bath

and kept the odd pig in the garden.

They burnt the bannisters for to make fires

and pumped up the Primus for the kettle to boil,

turned on all the taps, left the lights on all night – 

but these antics I’m sure you will pardon.

Following their move to the Park residents soon found that there was no ready access back down to Maiden Street other than across often wet fields and down through Musgroves and Gorman’s sandpits.  Eventually, after much lobbying of local Councillors, the Mass Path and Mass Steps were constructed. As Patrick O’Connor says, their arrival ‘opened up a vital line of communication to town’.  It is interesting that this vital piece of infrastructure was ostensibly procured under the pretext of providing ready access to the church, hence their name, but many would argue that these steps were more often used to visit other old haunts such as Latchfords and The Siver Dollar!

However, as a final footnote, or maybe to add fuel to fire, and totally in keeping with his mischievous nature, Michael Hartnett, in his ‘scholarly’ notes to the Maiden Street Ballad, has his own theory about the etymology of the street’s name.  He theorises – and only he would get away with this scurrilous suggestion – that  ‘the street was originally called Midden Street’!

Maiden Street (2)
Detail from the same map as above showing Assumpta Park and the Mass Path in relation to Maiden Street and the church (O’Connor: p43).

 

Works Cited

Hartnett, Michael. The Maiden Street Ballad, The Observer Press, 1980.

O’Connor, Patrick J., Hometown: A Portrait of Newcastle West, Co. Limerick.  Oireacht na Mumhan Books, 1998.

Further Reading

You might also like to read this prose piece by Michael Hartnett where he describes a typical Christmas in the Maiden Street of his childhood here

Check out my analysis of Hartnett’s poem ‘Maiden Street’ (1967) here 

‘My November Guest’ by Robert Frost

My November Guest (2)

My Sorrow, when she’s here with me,

Thinks these dark days of autumn rain

Are beautiful as days can be;

She loves the bare, the withered tree;

She walks the sodden pasture lane.

 

Her pleasure will not let me stay.

She talks and I am fain to list:

She’s glad the birds are gone away,

She’s glad her simple worsted grey

Is silver now with clinging mist.

 

The desolate, deserted trees,

The faded earth, the heavy sky,

The beauties she so truly sees,

She thinks I have no eye for these,

And vexes me for reason why.

 

Not yesterday I learned to know

The love of bare November days

Before the coming of the snow,

But it were vain to tell her so,

And they are better for her praise.

Commentary

This poem, “My November Guest”,  is taken from A Boy’s Will, the first published volume of Frost’s poetry (1913). This is among the best of Robert Frost’s poems where he speaks of the Fall in rural New Hampshire.

The poet at some point of time must have experienced extreme pain and sorrow in the month of November. There is an air of familiarity created by the poet and he and his guest have walked and talked along the ‘sodden pasture lane’.   Sorrow is personified as a woman – a friend, companion, and she is considered a regular visitor and ‘a guest’ in the poem.  He is very comfortable in her company and doesn’t wish to be separated from her – ‘She talks and I am fain to list’.  She is dressed for the weather – that time of year in New England before the first snows of winter – wearing ‘simple worsted grey’.

As the poem commences, Sorrow is personified as a woman and someone whom the poet dearly loves.  In the very first line, “My Sorrow, when she’s here with me,” marks the peak of the poet’s togetherness with sorrow.

My Sorrow, when she’s here with me,
Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;

Walking with the poet, she (Sorrow) speaks of the beautiful Autumn days, finds ecstasy in the withered trees, and the autumnal browns! Fall is a season marked with desolate earth, deserted trees, the sodden pasture lane and the departure of the birds. The poet’s Sorrow finds beauty in the Autumn days. She reprimands the poet for not being able to experience the joy in Autumn and asks for an explanation. The phrase “Simple worsted grey is silver now with clinging mist” reflects the mood of the poem, the coexistence of joy and sorrow.

Not yesterday I learned to know
The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
And they are better for her praise

In the first three stanzas the poet is forced to listen to his ‘guest’ extol the virtues of Autumn, ‘the dark days of autumn rain’ and she seems convinced that he has ‘no eye for’ the beauty that surrounds him at this time of year.  Those of us familiar with the poetry of Frost know this to be false and we know that he does appreciate these beauties.  However, the constant repetition of ‘She’ creates a sense of easy familiarity with his guest, ‘She walks’, ‘She talks’, ‘She thinks, ‘She’s glad’ and, therefore,  out of respect or deference, he doesn’t make any effort to correct his companion, for ‘they are better for her praise’.  In actual fact, it was not just yesterday that he discovered this fact, he has known it for many a long day:

Not yesterday I learned to know

The love of bare November days

The poem is lucid, characterized by a tone which is musical – is written in iambic tetrameter. The poem expresses the poet’s love for November days in an extremely original way. The poet seems to happily embrace the November Guest (Sorrow) and seems to enjoy her company.  The pictorial imagery in the poem is easy, vivid, simple, and rich.

The intriguing question here is, of course, who, if anyone, is being referred to when he speaks of ‘My Sorrow’?   Maybe ‘Sorrow’ represents someone close to him, his wife perhaps, who despite her closeness to him fails to recognise that he too finds November beautiful.  In a famous letter written by Frost in 1939 to his daughter, Lesley, he refers to a letter written by his wife Elinor to their children:

“My, my, what sorrow runs through all she wrote to you children.  No wonder something of it overcasts my poetry if read aright.  No matter how humorous I am, I am sad.  I am a jester about sorrow.  She coloured my thinking from the first just as at the last she troubled my politics.  It was no loss but a gain of course.  She was not as original as me in thought but she dominated my art with the power of her character and nature” (Latham : 397-8).

If we are to assume – and this is dangerous ground – that the speaker is Frost himself then we can sieve through biographical details for clues as to the identity of this Sorrow.  Any such survey, however, will show that Frost’s personal life was plagued by grief and sorrow and loss.  By the time this poem was published in 1913 Frost had buried two of his children: his son Elliot died of cholera in 1900 aged four and his daughter Elinor Bettina died just three days after her birth in 1907.  His mother who had cancer had also passed away – co-incidentally in November 1900!  Maybe it is one of these losses that caused Frost such sorrow?

However, Frost’s life, even after the publication of A Boy’s Will in 1913, continued to be plagued with sorrow and heartache. In 1920, he had to commit his younger sister Jeanie to a mental hospital, where she died nine years later. Mental illness apparently ran in Frost’s family, as both he and his mother suffered from depression, and his daughter Irma was committed to a mental hospital in 1947. Frost’s wife, Elinor, also experienced bouts of depression.   She also suffered from heart problems throughout her life.  She developed breast cancer in 1937 and eventually died of heart failure in 1938.  His son Carol, born in 1902, committed suicide in 1940.

In my view, it is highly unlikely that any of these tragic biographical events formed the basis for this poem – although the loss of his mother in November 1900 may indeed have been a catalyst.  While this literary detective work may have some foundation, I am more inclined to believe that the ‘Sorrow’ in question here may be simply a melancholic mood that comes over the poet during the long month of November, a sense of resignation that Winter is at last upon him.  He tells us that Sorrow’s visit is only a temporary visitation and that it is hugely influenced by the bleakness of nature and the greyness of the weather.  However, the poet owns this blue mood that comes over him during November.  He says it’s ‘My Sorrow’ and it has come to visit annually during November. Indeed, November and Thanksgiving are synonymous and Frost sees the bright side here:  Sorrow teaches him how to appreciate Nature at this time of the year and he is a willing student.

The poem is living proof of that old saying, ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ and that at this time of year these ‘dark days’ hold their own beauty: ‘the withered tree’, ‘the sodden pasture’, ‘the clinging mist’ evoke a powerful and distinctive feeling or emotional memory in the poet.  Even his ‘Guest’ chides him that he cannot see that even in November every cloud has a silver lining!

Frost’s world, the world we perceive in his poetry, is largely a rural world, a world of nature and trees, and soil, and pasture.  His poetry, like that of Kavanagh, Heaney, and others, recreates a local and familiar landscape in which Frost, as a poet and as a person, is in communion.  We sense that he knows nature’s spaces.  We believe that his is a voice of integrity that invites us into fields and pastures and along the brooks of New England.  And we occasionally feel that along the way, we may even discover something of Frost himself.

Works Cited

Latham, Edward, ed., Robert Frost: A Biography, New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1981.

Wikipedia page on Robert Frost

 “My November Guest”,  is taken from A Boy’s Will, the first published volume of Frost’s poetry (1913).  Here it is read by the poet himself.

FURTHER READING:

For a more detailed analysis of Robert Frost’s poetry see here

For commentary on ‘Spring Pool’ by Robert Frost check here

For commentary on ‘A Tuft of Flowers’ by Robert Frost check here

Check out some reflections on Robert Frost’s ‘The Road not Taken’ here

To Kill a Mockingbird – Characters, Themes, and Motifs

 

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To Kill a Mockingbird is a modern reinterpretation of the old fable The Emperor Has No Clothes.  We are given a glimpse of modern American society through the eyes of a seven-year-old girl called Scout.  Even she can see the injustice and yet the adults fail to see the criminal miscarriage of justice and toxic levels of racial prejudice that lie at the heart of the novel.

The novel is a classic bildungsroman where Scout, the central character and narrator, is taken from a state of innocence and brought to a state of enlightenment as a result of a series of misadventures that are recounted in the novel.  A classic bildungsroman forces the young character at its heart to grow up and face harsh adult realities long before he or she should normally have to cope with life’s harsh lessons.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is, therefore, a novel that deceives the reader with its apparent simplicity.  Beneath the surface, however, there exist a number of complex and very important themes and motifs.  Rather than its being simply a novel that explores and exploits the topic of racial prejudice in a small town in the Deep South, it makes Maycomb, Alabama, a microcosm of American society in the 1930’s.

I want to focus for a little while on the setting of both of Harper Lee’s novels, To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman.  It is clear to me that the real-life Monroeville, Alabama of her youth becomes the fictional Maycomb, Alabama of her novels.  She tells us that one went to Maycomb, ‘to have his teeth pulled, his wagon fixed, his heart listened to, his money deposited, his soul saved, his mules vetted’.  She describes it as an isolated place, in effect it is an Everyplace – the town, ‘had remained the same for a hundred years, an island in a patchwork sea of cotton fields and timberland’.  It is, in effect, a remote backwater bypassed by progress, the perfect playground of her youth, and the perfect cauldron for change.

In Go Set a Watchman she says that Maycomb County is, ‘a wilderness dotted with tiny settlements’, it is, ‘so cut off from the rest of the nation that some of its citizens, unaware of the South’s political predilection over the past ninety years, still voted Republican.’  It is so remote, ‘no trains went there’.  In fact Maycomb Junction, ‘a courtesy title’, was located in Abbott County twenty miles away!  However, she tells us that the ‘bus service was erratic and seemed to go nowhere, but the Federal Government  had forced a highway or two through the swamps, thus giving the citizens an opportunity for free egress.’  However, Lee tells us that few took advantage of this opportunity!  Then in one of those Harper Lee epiphany moments, one of those lightning bolts she releases now and then, she perceptively describes her hometown as a place where, ‘If you did not want much, there was plenty.’

In To Kill a Mockingbird she continues in the same rich vein.  Maycomb is, ‘a tired old town’. People moved slowly, ‘they ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything’.  She tells us that, ‘There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County’.

To Kill a Mockingbird is dominated by two very contrasting characters and our first task is to explore in some detail the part played by Scout and Atticus in conveying the difficult and often divisive subject matter to the reader.

SCOUT

Scout is the narrator of the story, and the impressions we get of all the other characters must, therefore, be filtered through her point of view.  All the activities and opinions in the novel are expressed through the mind of this innocent child who does not always understand the significance of the events she is narrating and, as a result, much of the comedy in the book comes from her misunderstandings.  Typical of the central character in a bildungsroman novel Scout changes and matures and gains greater insight as the novel progresses and she learns – as do her readers, young and old – a great deal from her experiences.

She is a very open-minded and clever girl who accepts the people around her at face value.  For example, she is able to go to Calpurnia’s church without making any social distinctions.  Furthermore, she accepts people like the Cunninghams and the Ewells as equal, but during the course of the novel, she learns to make a distinction between these two groups of people.  Ironically, the distinctions that she has to learn involve the differences between different types of whites such as the Cunninghams and the Ewells, and do not involve any judgements about the Negro race.  Eventually, however, she learns not only about the complex white social relationships, but she also learns about the prejudices harboured by the white man for the Negro.

Throughout the novel, we watch Scout as a character change from a belligerent young girl who is always ready to fight her corner to a person with a certain degree of understanding for those around her.  For example, at the beginning of the novel she is willing to play any type of prank on Boo Radley, but by novel’s end she walks him back to his house and she realises that things look the same from Boo Radley’s porch as they do from hers.  She also has the insight to see that Sheriff Heck Tate is right in not charging Boo with the murder of Bob Ewell.  In her view, it would be like killing a mockingbird and at that stage in the novel, one dead mockingbird (Tom Robinson) is enough.  This is one of the many valuable lessons learned by Scout in the course of the novel.

Scout is a very clever girl and she can read and write before she goes to school.  She tends to react emotionally to events, ready to fight first and think later.  As the novel opens she accepts people as they appear on the surface, but later she learns that society is complex and that people can be very prejudiced.  Her own upbringing and personality give her an appreciation of justice, but Tom Robinson’s trial shows her that others are not so fair-minded.  The self-control she has to exercise at this time helps her to mature.  She feels that she would be letting her father down if she were to lose her temper.

She is naturally warm and friendly.  She wants to visit Calpurnia in her home, she rushes in to talk to Mr. Cunningham outside the jail and tries to be polite and put him at his ease even though he is part of a mob.  She can be very sensitive to other people’s feelings.  She feels guilty about the games the children played on Boo Radley and she takes great care to treat Boo with courtesy and dignity when they finally meet.  Because she is a girl, Scout is expected to behave in a way that she finds constricting.  She is more comfortable in her overalls than in a pretty dress, but as she matures she learns that it can take courage to be a real lady.  This is brought home to her at Aunt Alexandra’s tea party on the day of Tom Robinson’s death.

At novel’s end, we see just how sensitive to other people Scout has become.  She realises that Boo Radley is a shy man and that to draw any more unwelcome attention to him would be like killing a mockingbird.  She has also learned how to see things from another person’s point of view.

ATTICUS

Atticus Finch represents the rational man in a world of highly emotional people.  Atticus is a stable and mature figure who is able to cope with the unreasonable and highly emotional element of the town.  He can handle the prejudiced white people and still deal justly with the underprivileged Negro population.  He is one of the few people in Maycomb who understands the individual worth of a person regardless of the color of their skin.  He is able to defend Tom Robinson solely on the basis of justice and does not allow the colour of Tom’s skin to prejudice him against Tom’s case.

It is necessary to have a man with a high and ideal view of justice defending Tom Robinson because even Atticus knows that the case is hopelessly lost before it begins.  He is wise enough to know that the prejudices of the Deep South will never allow justice to be done, but at the same time, he is determined that the truth will be told so that those who convict Tom will be aware that they are convicting an innocent man.

Atticus is also Harper Lee’s spokesman of the moral philosophy of the novel.  He teaches his children that they must learn to be compassionate and understanding of the problems and conditions of life faced by other people.  He frequently advises Scout that she must be able to step into the shoes of others such as the Ewells, Boo Radley, and the Cunninghams.  Consequently, he will not allow the children to torment Boo Radley and wants Scout to try to see things from Boo’s point of view.

Atticus’ relationship with his children is very important in understanding his character.  He has an outstanding rapport with his children because he treats them as mature adults and tries to explain to them how to meet the problems that are presented to them in an adult world.  All of Atticus’s relatives feel that he is bringing up his children incorrectly, and they challenge his methods of handling the children.  However, the incident with Uncle Jack illustrates that his methods are for the best.  Uncle Jack punishes Scout without listening to her side of the story, whereas Atticus always gives her the opportunity to explain her point of view.  As a parent, therefore, he is easy-going but wise, not worrying about petty things, but instead teaching his children important values.

He teaches them to be sensitive to other people like Mrs. Dubose and Boo Radley and above all to be able to step into other people’s shoes and see things from their point of view.  He teaches by example and his children learn kindness, tolerance, courage, self-control, and forgiveness from observing their father.  He listens to them, has patience with them and always tells them the truth.  They respond by loving and respecting him; they worry about him when he is tired or troubled and try their best not to cause him grief.

Therefore, Atticus is the voice of reason and justice in the novel whether he is dealing with the grim ingrained prejudices in Maycomb or whether he is trying to handle a minor problem of discipline with his own children.  He is portrayed by Harper Lee as a responsible citizen, a loving parent, and a true Christian.  He is a just man who deals fairly and sensitively with all people and he is completely lacking in prejudice.  His physical courage is seen when he shoots the rabid dog and also when he faces down the mob outside the jail, while his moral courage becomes obvious in his sincere defense of Tom Robinson, even when he knows he is unlikely to win the case.

He gives us his own powerful definition of courage: ‘It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what’.  He hopes that although they will not admit it, the people of Maycomb will realise that they are convicting an innocent man.  He is modest and never boasts about his talents and even his own children are unaware that he is an exceptional marksman until he is called upon by Sheriff Tate to shoot the rabid dog.  Scout also realises his bravery when she sees how he deals with Mrs. Dubose: ‘It was times like these when I thought my father, who hated guns and had never been to any wars, was the bravest man who ever lived’.

‘I do my best to love everybody’, Atticus tells Scout and Miss Maudie recognizes that he is a real Christian.  She says of him: ‘We’re so rarely called on to be Christians, but when we are, we’ve got men like Atticus to go for us’.  He treats all people with respect and as equals: Mrs. Dubose at her most contrary, young Walter Cunningham when he is a guest in the house, Mayella Ewell on the witness stand.  His kindness and consideration never fail and even in an emergency he is thoughtful; he remembers to rescue Miss Maudie’s favourite chair from the fire that engulfs her home.  His character is such that he may, with some justification, be considered the hero of the novel.

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MAJOR THEMES AND MOTIFS IN THE NOVEL

Several themes and motifs run through the novel and serve to underscore the basic reality of prejudice in both Maycomb and in the rest of America during the 1930’s.

THE MOCKINGBIRD MOTIF

(A motif is a recurring idea or thought that acts as a unifying device in a novel and sometimes develops as a commentary on characterisation or on the action of the novel).

The mockingbird motif, in this case, gives the novel its name.  It represents innocence in the novel and both Miss Maudie and Atticus feel that it would be a great sin to kill a mockingbird because this bird only sings a beautiful song and does not harm anyone.  When Atticus gives the children air rifles for their Christmas presents, he reminds them again that it would be dreadful to kill such an innocent bird:

“Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.’

That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it.

‘Your father’s right,’ she said.

This motif is also the device by which the two plot elements are unified in the novel by Harper Lee.  The first part of the novel is concerned with the Boo Radley mystery and the second part is concerned with the Tom Robinson trial.  Both of these characters can be viewed as being mockingbirds: both are harmless members of society and both are innocent people, yet in some way, both are persecuted by society.

Scout herself comes to realise that Boo Radley is a mockingbird figure because when he rescued her at the end of the novel, he was forced to kill Bob Ewell.  But to bring such a retiring and bashful man to trial would be just like killing a mockingbird.  It is also evident that Tom Robinson is a mockingbird figure because he is destroyed by his willingness to help Mayella Ewell.  His efforts to help her got him into trouble and finally cost him his life.

Ultimately, to kill a mockingbird is equated with performing a deliberately evil and mean act.  Atticus, at one point in the novel, thinks that there is nothing worse than a white man who will take advantage of a Negro.  Yet the entire town is partly responsible for Tom Robinson’s death, which must be viewed as a senseless act of injustice.

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THE GUN MOTIF

In a country which now sees a mass shooting on average every 60 days the time for gun control in the USA is long overdue  Many of the most notorious of these mass shootings have taken place in schools: we remember with sadness the massacre at Columbine High School in 1999 where 24 were killed; Virginia Tech in 2007 where 33 were killed; Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 where 28 were killed; and Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018 where 17 were shot and killed.  Recently, churches and synagogues have been easy targets for depraved gunmen with their own myopic agendas and easy access to automatic weapons.  Harper Lee, writing in what many would consider less dangerous times in the late Fifties and early Sixties thought fit to raise the issue of guns in To Kill a Mockingbird.   In the novel, guns represent false strength. According to Atticus, guns do not prove manhood or bravery, rather they come from a man’s ability to persevere and fight using his wits, his heart, and his character.  Early in the novel, we learn that Atticus does not approve of guns.  He believes that guns do not make men brave and that the children’s fascination with guns is unfounded.

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 EDUCATION

In this novel, the process of education occurs both inside and outside the classroom.  It is not limited only to the education of Scout, for it affects both adults and other children in the story.  Harper Lee’s thesis is that it is education that separates the whites from the blacks, the Cunninghams from the Ewells, and it is education which further separates the Finches from the Cunninghams.  Education – and the lack of education – are responsible for creating and re-enforcing a sort of caste system in Maycomb, a caste system which decrees that black children don’t sit in the same classroom and receive the same education as white children do.

Early in the novel, and several times later in the story, the reader is taken into the classroom with Scout to view the school system in operation.  As Jem tells Scout, the new way of teaching which Miss Caroline is practicing is one which the entire school will use eventually, and is one in which ‘ you don’t hafta learn that much out of books that way’.

And while Miss Caroline is officially the teacher, there is great irony created when we realise that it is she who must actually learn the most during her first few days at school.  The learning-by-doing approach advocated by Miss Caroline has been practiced naturally by Scout and Jem since they were very young and they learned to read by simply observing their father and by reading along with him in the evenings.  Miss Caroline ironically criticises both Scout and her father, Atticus, as having done it all wrong! Yet Atticus’ method is the very same one that she presumes to espouse!

For the children, then, learning has come not from formal teachers such as Miss Caroline and Miss Gates, but through the common-sense wisdom of Atticus, Calpurnia and Aunt Alexandra.  These ‘teachers’ have presented the children with real experiences that over the course of the novel, shapes their beliefs, their opinions,, and actions.  Outside of the classroom, the children enact the very methods which the formal teachers attempt to impart.

Harper Lee does not appear to be criticising education so much as she is attacking those teachers who possess erroneous, rigid beliefs about human nature.  Miss Caroline presumes to teach others, yet she herself knows next-to-nothing about getting along with other people.  Rather than attempting to blend her teaching and her classroom philosophy to suit the young people of Maycomb, she tries to change the students to fit her perceptions.  She fails miserably in her encounters with Burris Ewell and Walter Cunningham and even though Scout does feel some pity for her she won’t offer her any comfort because there has been no friendliness offered in exchange.

Miss Gates teaches the children little about life.  Theoretically, she espouses a system of democracy yet she worries about the Negroes who seem to be trying to ‘get above themselves’, and in particular, she fears that they might start marrying whites!  She is keen to point out examples of racial prejudice in Hitler’s Germany yet fails to point out the obvious prejudice closer to home in Maycomb itself.

In essence, it is Atticus who personifies the attainment of true education, in contrast to the formal schooling offered to the children.  It is left to Scout to make the final assessment of formal education.  At the end of the novel, now in third grade, Scout says, ‘… I thought Jem and I would get grown but there wasn’t much else left for us to learn, except possibly algebra.’ !!!

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 STANDING IN ANOTHER PERSON’S SHOES – A NEW PERSPECTIVE

When Scout comes home after her first day at school she is determined never to return there, because it has been a disaster.  Atticus explains to her that she will get along much better in life if she learns to understand another person and to do this she must consider things from that person’s point of view.  He advises her to ‘climb into his skin and walk around in it’.

When Scout doesn’t understand Jem, Atticus encourages her to try to understand how he might be feeling.  Usually, Scout finds this advice helpful, and her attempts to gain insight into other people’s perspectives on life and the world broaden her moral education and understanding.

When Mrs. Dubose, the mean old woman who lives down the street from the Finch family yells insults at Jem and Scout on her way to town, Jem reacts by returning and cutting up all the flowers in her front yard.  His punishment is to read to Mrs. Dubose for a specific time period every day.  He complains to Atticus that she is an awful woman, but Atticus tells Jem and Scout to try to understand Mrs. Dubose’s point of view.  She is an old woman, very set in her ways, and she is entirely alone in the world.  Jem and Scout agree to visit her.  After her death, Atticus reveals that by reading to her each day, the children were helping her break her morphine addiction.  Atticus explains that she was fighting to regain control over her life even as she knew that she was dying.  Because of this, Atticus says that she is the bravest person he has ever known.  He explains this to the children to try to make them understand the terrible pain she was experiencing, and how their presence helped her to defeat her addiction.  Although she may have said some horrible things to them, Atticus encourages Jem and Scout to try to see the world from her perspective and to realise how brave and strong she was.

It is Atticus’s own ability to do this which makes him such a fair-minded, honourable man.  Even when he disagrees with them he can sympathise with other people’s feelings.  He knows how people like the Cunninghams feel, he understands Mrs. Dubose and her fight against morphine addiction and why Mayella Ewell acts as she does in accusing Tom Robinson of rape.  It is this sympathy for and empathy with other people that he tries to pass on to his children.  We know that he has been successful in doing so when we see Jem’s sensitive nature and also at the end of the novel when Scout stays for a moment on the Radley porch and stands as it were in Boo Radley’s shoes, we know that she too has absorbed Atticus’s and Harper Lee’s message.

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 ‘THE HELL PEOPLE GIVE EACH OTHER’

When Mr. Dolphus Raymond talks to Scout and Dill outside the courthouse during Tom Robinson’s trial, he understands why Dill is upset.  He talks about, ‘the simple hell people give other people – without even thinking.  Cry about the hell white people give coloured folks, without even stopping to think that they’re people too’.  By this, he means the cruelty people inflict on each other in their racial, social and family relations.

Racial prejudice is very clearly depicted in the novel.  Black people are discriminated against in Maycomb.  They are not treated as equals by the white community and even in a law court, they cannot expect to receive justice.  The trial of Tom Robinson illustrates this very clearly.  The teacher, Miss Gates, who is very much aware of racial prejudice in other countries, like Germany, is prejudiced herself towards black people.  Scout hears her outside the court during the Tom Robinson trial saying that she thought it was, ‘time somebody taught them a lesson, they thought they were getting way above themselves, an’ the next thing they think they can do is marry us’.  Scout can see straight away that this statement is in clear conflict with her teaching (about Germany) in her classroom.

There are also many examples of social snobbery among Maycomb people.  Aunt Alexandra is very conscious of family backgrounds and she will not allow Scout to invite young Walter Cunningham to the house because she does not consider him to be from the proper social background.  It is also snobbery that is responsible for the Radleys’ refusal to allow their son, Arthur, to be punished in the same way as the other boys when he gets into trouble with the law as a teenager.

The novel shows us that even families can be extremely cruel places to survive.  The Radley family treat Arthur with great cruelty by keeping him locked up for fifteen years because of a minor misdemeanour he committed as a boy.  Dill’s mother and stepfather neglect him and leave him to the care of his Aunt Rachel who is a secret drinker.  The Ewell children live in squalid circumstances while their father spends his welfare money on drink.  The Ewell children are not sent to school and Mayella, the eldest girl who tries to look after the younger children is abused by her father.  This is probably the most poignant moment in the trial when we are given a horrific image of what goes on inside the Ewell family compound.  This is just one of the masterful storytelling devices used by Harper Lee. In these days when stories of sexual abuse are everywhere in our media, how salutary to come across the true barbarity of it here, revealed in one tiny phrase: ‘she never kissed a grown man before an’s she might as well kiss a nigger.  She says what her papa do to her don’t count.’

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GROWING UP

As mentioned already, the novel To Kill a Mockingbird belongs to a genre of novel called Bildungsroman, or a ‘novel of maturation’.  In such a novel the central character is usually a very young person, and they are usually taken from a state of childhood innocence and brought to a state of experience and enlightenment as a result of a series of misadventures which are recounted in the novel.  He or she should, thus, be ready for adulthood.  In this novel, which covers a period of three years, Scout develops from a state of childish innocence to a state of maturity.

Early in the novel, she learns the meaning of real courage as she witnesses Mrs. Dubose’s struggle to overcome her addiction to morphine.  She also learns to appreciate her father’s physical courage and skill as he saves the town from a mad dog by killing it with one shot.  Up to then she and Jem had looked on Atticus as a feeble, ageing man.

More important to her development is the moral courage her father displays in his fight for justice for Tom Robinson when the black man is accused of raping a white woman.  Most people are ready to condemn Tom because of his colour and race, but Atticus defies the majority opinion and makes every effort to see that justice is administered.  When he fails and Tom is wrongly convicted Scout has to learn that the law is not always fairly applied and that there is a great deal of prejudice in the society in which she lives.  Even her teacher, Miss Gates, who can find fault with people in other countries for being racially prejudiced, shows by her remarks outside the courthouse that she does not recognise prejudice in her own town.  As she matures Scout learns to control her emotions and to act more sensitively to other people.  At the beginning of the story, she is afraid of Boo Radley and she believes all sorts of nonsensical tales about him.  She takes part in schemes to make him ‘come out’ of his house and plays games that make fun of him.  Later she comes to see him as a real person, who not only gives her presents but who also saves both her life and Jem’s.  She even learns to stand in Boo Radley’s shoes and see the world from his point of view.

By novel’s end, she realises that it is like shooting a mockingbird to harm a person who is harmless, that it is possible to understand another person if you see things from his point of view and that ‘nothin’s real scary except in books’.

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I mentioned at the very beginning that To Kill a Mockingbird could be considered as a modern re-imagining of the old fable The Emperor Has No Clothes.   The reason I said this is that the novel masterfully exposes the grim reality of what first appears as a sleepy old southern town.  By novel’s end Harper Lee, mainly through her precocious young narrator, reveals the true nature of the place:  she presents us with a classic tragedy of injustice, prejudice and man’s inhumanity to man.  But it is told to us matter-of-factly by a mere child, ignorant of what rape is, and in whom the ingrained teaching of an upbringing in Alabama in the 1930s has left a belief that black people are only slightly superior to farm animals.  Our greatest fear, as readers, is that Scout and Jem will feel quite differently about these subjects when they eventually grow up!!!

 

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The full list of Junior Cycle English Texts for Second and Third Year is available here

Analysis of ‘Upon Westminster Bridge’ by William Wordsworth

 

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The Romantics, and especially Wordsworth, were unlucky not to have lived in the smartphone era!  Then again maybe we’re lucky that no such modern technology existed in 1802!  If Wordsworth were alive today his camera phone would surely be filled to capacity and the scenes and events he captured would be relived and enjoyed later in the comfort of his study – ’emotion recollected in tranquility’ brought into the twenty-first century!

This poem is noteworthy in particular because of its location.  Instead of the leafy banks of the Wye or the rolling hills and dales of Cumbria, he brings us to the heart of the city in the early morning.  He wants to stress to us that his philosophy of ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ will work just as well in the grubby city as it would by the shores of Lake Windemere.

In this case, he is inspired by the view he saw from Westminster Bridge on the morning of 31st July 1802, although he didn’t write the poem until September of the same year.  In fact, the more correct title of the sonnet is ‘Composed on Westminster Bridge, September 3rd, 1802’.  He and his sister, Dorothy, were crossing the bridge on a coach taking them to a boat for a trip across the English Channel to France.  We know all this because Dorothy mentions the event in her diary:

‘We mounted the Dover Coach at Charing Cross.  It was a beautiful morning.  The City, St. Paul’s, with the river and a Multitude of little boats made a most beautiful sight …. The houses were not overhung with their cloud of smoke and they were spread out endlessly, yet the sun shone so brightly with such pure light that there was even something like a purity of Nature’s own grand spectacles.’

I’m sure we have all experienced a city in the early morning before the sleeping giant awakes.  The early morning light gives the impression that the city has been recently washed and is now clean in the morning air.  The gaudiness of the night before with its neon lights flashing on the water and the constant rumbling and screeching of traffic has yet to begin anew.  This fleeting moment of peace before the storm is what Wordsworth is describing here as he crosses London Bridge on an early morning stagecoach.

The theme of the poem is London as it lies asleep in the early morning sun. We get the impression here of a sleeping giant, perhaps rather terrifying when awake as some cities tend to be, but, now it sleeps so peacefully that those who see him are no longer afraid and are able to admire his elegance and splendour.

The tone of the poem is one of awe and breathless admiration at the sight before him.  He feels a deep sense of peace and contentment at the sight of such man-made things as ships and towers.  These sights are made even more wonderful in his eyes because of the closeness of Nature herself – the fields, the sky, the sun, and the river Thames itself.

His opening line shows that to him this is the ultimate in beauty; he cannot understand how anyone could ignore such a sight.  We must remember that the poem, like most of Wordsworth’s poetry, is one of feelings and emotions.  He refers to this scene of grandeur (‘majesty’) as ‘touching’ whereas often we consider grand and majestic things to be somewhat cold and distant.  The city, to him, is a living thing; it is clothed in the ‘beauty of the morning’.  The city is also silent at this time of the morning and this impression is reinforced by his use of the sibilant ‘s’ sounds in ‘silent’, ‘ships’, ‘sky’, ‘smokeless’ and also in the line:

Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples….

There is a lovely juxtaposition when he uses the word ‘bare’ to describe the ships and towers without their human activity in sharp contrast to the city wearing its beautiful morning ‘garment’.  Wordsworth is suggesting to us that all these man-made things are ‘bright and glittering’ only because they are exposed to Nature; that the air is clean only because man is not yet awake to stain it with his smoking fires.  The idea of the sharp, clear and clean air is suggested by the words ‘sky’, ‘bright’ and ‘glittering’.

His long list of man-made objects conveys to us what makes the city different: not just one ship but many; not just one tower but tower blocks.  The use of alliteration in ‘towers’, ‘theatres’, ‘temples’ also conveys a sense of wonder in the reader and adds to their importance.

There is a sense that the sun is dressing the city to meet another day and that it has never steeped the countryside in the same manner as it does the sleeping city.  Gradually the city comes alive: the river is moving gracefully (‘glideth’), unimpeded by the small boats who ply their trade up and down the Thames all day long.  The houses have yet to come alive and they will do so as soon as their eyes (windows) are touched by the sun’s rays.

The poet’s prayerful exclamation of ‘Dear God!’ is ambiguous and it seems as if the thought has entered his head that everyone in the houses is also dead.  This is a striking example of the poet’s imagination.  The final line reintroduces us to the idea of the heart of the city, our sleeping giant.  The ‘mighty heart’ suggests something huge, whose heart is gently and soundlessly beating.  We all have seen what happens next on our TV screens as the camera uses time-lapse shots to show the ever-increasing flow of people and traffic and shops opening their doors, as the city slowly, relentlessly comes to life – the great giant stirs.

The poem presents us with a very compact series of images.  His use of the classic Petrarchan Sonnet formula shows his discipline and craft.  (The rhyming scheme is abbaabba cdcdcd).  His use of run-on lines suggests the movement of the rising sun over the city.  They also emphasise the poet’s use of ordinary speech rhythms, which was a strong feature of Romantic poetry.  The run-on lines may also mirror the poet’s rush of emotions as he encounters and strives to capture the scene before him.

A poem with such feeling must be musical.  Note his use of broad ‘o’ sounds in the first quatrain, ‘show’, ‘more’, ‘so’, ‘doth’.  These broad vowel sounds combined with the long ‘i’ sounds in ‘by’, ‘sight’, ‘like’ also convey the poet’s sense of awe and wonder.  I have already mentioned the sibilant ‘s’ sounds that occur throughout the poem and these are associated with the silence and calm of the early morning scene.  Finally, in the final three lines, this harmony is brought out by the assonance in ‘sweet’, ‘Dear’, ‘seem’, and ‘asleep’ and in ‘glideth’, ‘mighty’, and ‘lying’.

This poem is similar to ‘Daffodils’ and other masterpieces like ‘Tintern Abbey’ in that it furthers Wordsworth philosophy of what poetry is.  He is yet again storing up photographic images using his ‘inward eye’ so that they can be recalled and enjoyed again in the peace and quiet of his own study at a later time.  Nature is here presented from a different perspective.  It is a delight to the senses and a source of aesthetic beauty and its pleasures can be evoked through memory to fortify the poet at times of distress and amid the ‘din’ of towns and cities.  It is a comforter to those in despair, and it can enrich our physical well-being and restore our mental health, prompting him to exclaim as he does here on Westminster Bridge that he never before ‘saw, never felt, a calm so deep!’

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Read a more comprehensive analysis of William Wordsworth’s poetry here

Read a detailed analysis of Tintern Abbey by William Wordsworth here