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.

 

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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.

 

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

Analysis of ‘Upon Westminster Bridge’ by William Wordsworth

 

 Composed+on+Westminster+Bridge_+September+3rd,+1802+by+William+Wordsworth

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

Analysis of ‘The Windhover’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins

 

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Hopkins said that ‘The Windhover’ was ‘the best thing I ever wrote’.  We should first get the feel of the poem by reading it more than once silently and then aloud.  Then we begin to realise what a superb description we are given of a bird in flight.  His words and phrases seem to mime or mimic the energy and grace of the falcon’s flight.  This sight of a hovering falcon is again a relatively common sight today so hopefully, the next time we see such a sight we can recall the words of Hopkins. Hopkins once said that we should read his poetry with our ears, which seems like an impossibility but is not, since many of the sounds we hear create images in our mind.

In ‘The Windhover’, Hopkins uses recurring images of royalty.  The high-flying solitary falcon is a monarch of the sky, surging through the steady air.  The poet uses chivalric terms such as ‘dauphin’, and ‘minion’ to capture the elegant and dignified ‘striding’ falcon, the prince of the daylight.  God, too, is visualised as a ‘chevalier’.  Indeed, there are so many images given to us in these eight lines it is hard to know where to begin! The words ‘rolling level underneath him steady’ are best taken as a compound adjective, qualifying ‘air’.  Next, we find the falcon ringing ‘upon the rein of a wimpling wing’.  Here the bird, by means of a mixture of metaphors, seems to become a bell, hanging by its wings in mid-air.  ‘Wimpling’ means quick beating, fluttering or rippling.  Therefore, we have an image of the falcon, bell-like, swinging back and forth in a wide arc (‘on a bow-bend’), having mastered ‘rebuffed’ the big wind.

However, Hopkins’ imagination is turbo-charged here and the phrase ‘to ring upon the rein of a wimpling wing’ may also be a metaphor from horse-training, the term being applied in a riding school to a horse circling on the end of a long rein held by its trainer.  Also, we must remember that ‘to ring’ is also a technical term used in falconry and this then leads on to the image of a skater doing a figure of eight on the ice!  He compares the swooping movement of the falcon to an ice skater and this image also conveys the speed of the bird’s flight.  At any rate, the idea of the falcon as a hanging bell, filling the heavens with joyful news (‘In his ecstasy’) is confirmed in that other beautiful sonnet ‘When Kingfishers Catch Fire’ where he says:

each hung bell’s

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name

The main feature of Hopkins’s images, then, is the way in which they are loaded with unlimited possibilities.  It is as if Hopkins intended to create multiple ideas in some of his images, each interesting and valid in its own way.  For example, the image of the falcon on a ‘rein’ may represent the motion of a horse at the end of a trainer’s long rein.  However, the term, being ambiguous, could also suggest the spiral climb of the bird.  Perhaps, Hopkins is encouraging us to ‘Buckle’ several ideas in our engagement with the poem.  What is not in doubt, at any rate, is the powerful and original representation, through the falcon, of Christ’s beauty and nobility.  In essence, the poet is like an Impressionist painter striving to capture the essence (the inscape) of the bird.

The word ‘Buckle’ is pivotal in the poem.  This word has been the subject of discussion and debate for many years.  Some believe that the word means ‘Challenge!’ or ‘Tackle!’ or ‘Come to grips with!’ adversity; others believe that it means ‘Collapse’ or ‘Crumple’ before the assault of evil.  There is even a third interpretation which proposes that it means to clasp, fasten together into a single unity all the skills and aspirations.  My own interpretation of the word is that the majestic beauty of the bird as described in the octet of the poem crumbles into insignificance when compared to the beauty and majesty of Christ as we see him in the sestet.

Other original images include that of ‘blue-bleak embers’ representing self-sacrifice and the ‘plough down sillion’ that evokes the hardship and perhaps tedium of daily labour.  In ‘The Windhover’, therefore, Hopkins employs images of flight, of majesty, of sacrifice and of glory ranging from a ‘dauphin’ to a ‘skate’s heel’, from a ‘fire’ to ‘blue-bleak embers’.  Such remarkable and wide-ranging imagery reflects the vivid and precise response of the poet’s imagination to the sight of the falcon at dawn.  More importantly, perhaps, the imagery reveals that the moment created a response of deep spiritual insight.  There is nothing particularly novel in taking a falcon as subject matter.  However, what is original is the way Hopkins engages with the falcon, observes it and concentrates on it in a deeper way and articulates what it revealed to him through an interesting range of original imagery.  The priest-poet is praying!

The last three lines give us two images which stand for triumph arising out of defeat and this echoes the essence of the Christian mystery – Crucifixion gives way to Resurrection.  He uses words like ‘fall’ (Jesus fell three times on his way to Calvery), ‘gall’ (referring to the stale wine or vinegar offered to Jesus on the cross), and ‘gash’ (an open wound), to reinforce this connection in our minds.  The soil that has been ploughed and trodden on gives off a splendid ‘shine’ or radiance; the embers of the fire when they part and fall produce a victorious ‘gold-vermillion’ brightness.

‘The Windhover’ provides us, therefore, with an excellent example of the unique concepts associated with Hopkins: inscape and instress and sprung rhythm.  The effort to describe the bird goes beyond mere description of its physical form or appearance (‘wimpling wing’): there is almost a scientific attempt to ‘capture’ its movements (‘Of the rolling level underneath him steady air’).  This, however, is only part of the process.  The inner form of the bird, its virtues or strengths, are identified (‘Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume’).  There is more.  The hidden ‘meaning’ or symbolic significance of the falcon is uncovered in a moment of mystical recognition that Joyce would call an ‘epiphany’.  T. S. Eliot called it ‘the intersection of the timeless with time.’  It is the moment when the observer recognises God’s plan for mankind in the action of a bird in flight.

To simplify matters, remember this: Hopkins believed in the idea of incarnation.  Christ was both man and God; so, too, the world is a combination of the material and the divine.  Seeing the divine in the world is the same as seeing its inscape.  Feeling the divine presence is the same as feeling its instress.  Sprung rhythm is a poetic device used to reveal the energy of God that pulses through the world.

Now look back again over the poem and note the use of detail that goes to make the poem’s eloquence: note that the poem is a sonnet, with octet and sestet; note his extensive use of alliteration and assonance, his use of exclamation; note the tension between line and sentence, form and sense, by the use of colour and the use of heraldic imagery, the passionate rise and fall of the meditation, by the expert daring of it all.

I can’t get it out of my mind that Hopkins lived and died in the nineteenth century and yet he is one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century.  Hopkins valiantly tries to describe perfection in this beautiful poem yet he once said, ‘Perfection is dangerous because it deceives us – because there is no perfection on this earth’.   As another later twentieth century poet, Leonard Cohen,  says, echoing Hopkins’ image of the falcon as a bell:

Ring the bells that still can ring,

Forget your perfect offering,

There is a crack in everything,

That’s how the light gets in.

windhover

A more detailed analysis of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins can be found here

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Pope Francis, a fellow Jesuit of course, is obviously very familiar with the poetry of Fr. Hopkins S.J.!

Analysis of ‘The Darkling Thrush’ by Thomas Hardy

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                 The Darkling Thrush

                                         by Thomas Hardy

 

I leant upon a coppice gate

      When Frost was spectre-grey,

And Winter’s dregs made desolate

      The weakening eye of day.

The tangled bine-stems scored the sky

      Like strings of broken lyres,

And all mankind that haunted nigh

      Had sought their household fires.

 

The land’s sharp features seemed to be

      The Century’s corpse outleant,

His crypt the cloudy canopy,

      The wind his death-lament.

The ancient pulse of germ and birth

      Was shrunken hard and dry,

And every spirit upon earth

      Seemed fervourless as I.

 

At once a voice arose among

      The bleak twigs overhead

In a full-hearted evensong

      Of joy illimited;

An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,

      In blast-beruffled plume,

Had chosen thus to fling his soul

      Upon the growing gloom.

 

So little cause for carolings

      Of such ecstatic sound

Was written on terrestrial things

      Afar or nigh around,

That I could think there trembled through

      His happy good-night air

Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew

      And I was unaware.

Commentary:  This is a lyric in which Hardy describes how the song of a bedraggled thrush suggests a note of faint hope in the midst of the desolation of winter all around him.  The poem was reputedly written on New Year’s Eve 1899  and published in 1900. (It was originally titled  ‘By the Century’s Deathbed, 1900’).  Many of us will remember the great sense of foreboding and prophesies of doom which accompanied the impending Millennium in 1999 so we can empathise with Hardy’s mood of uncertainty and near despair as the year and the century come to an end.

The death of the nineteenth century seems to be mirrored in the winter bleakness of the wood, and the general decay and hopelessness find an echo in the poet’s heart.  ‘The Darkling Thrush’, laments the passing of a golden age, in this case, the great era of Romantic poetry.  Hardy seems to suggest that as the twentieth-century dawns, with its science and machines, the great age of art and literature is sliding into oblivion.  Poetry, he suspects, will have little place in the new technological age.  The tone is, therefore, for the most part, despondent and gloomy and, of course, this is very much in keeping with Hardy’s perpetual pessimism, nihilism, and atheism. Indeed, it has to be noted that Hardy’s most common theme is humanity’s struggle against fate. Hardy is pessimistic in the way he portrays humanity’s futile struggle against cosmic forces. His work has a tragic vision; a sense that human life has to be endured. Hardy’s vision is often described as stoical.

Hardy is typically morose here and he builds up the scenes of death and desolation with several stark images: ‘Frost was spectre grey’ and ‘Winter’s dregs’.  The personification of the sun, ‘The weakening eye of day’, contributes to this atmosphere of decline and death.  Hardy was conscious of awesome cosmic forces, the dread power of nature, the ominous signs of nature’s disasters and the amazing beauty of nature.  The confusion of trailing plants, ‘the tangled bine-stems’, resemble the broken strings of lyres, this simile adding to the general atmosphere of hopelessness.

The gauntness of the landscape is described in ‘the land’s sharp features’ and again personification is repeated in ‘The Century’s corpse’.  Hardy is keenly aware that civilisations and political arrangements last a limited time, pass and are replaced. Equally, he knows that childhood and youth make way for a different future. Hardy frequently glorifies the past in order to emphasise its passing or to contrast it with the present.  Sometimes Hardy ironically suggests people don’t learn from the past.

The contrast in stanza three is striking, but it is only the thrush’s song that contrasts with ‘broken lyre’s’ and ‘death-lament’.  Just like the landscape, the thrush is gaunt, bedraggled, old.  However, his song is ‘full-hearted’, of ‘joy illimited’ despite his appearance and this also contrasts sharply with the poet feeling  ‘fervourless’ in stanza two.

Modern readers familiar with our Victorian Christmas imagery must find this poem deeply troubling and pessimistic.  Our Christmas Cards may have replaced Hardy’s thrush with a robin redbreast but there are few signs of Christmas cheer here.  The bird’s ‘carolings’ seem to be at odds with the gloomy human and political landscape both near and further afield – indeed, with the benefit of hindsight they are eerily prophetic.  The poet’s emotion is made evident to us in the subtle onomatopoeia of ‘That I could think there trembled through’, and this suggests to us that it is a spiritual rebirth and renewal that the poet longs for.

Hardy shows an awareness of mutability in politics and human affairs. The present differs from the past, often regrettably. Hardy often displays nostalgia for childhood or for a more innocent time. Yet, one thing that doesn’t change in his view is the stupidity of war and human vanity. Sometimes nature illustrates change through its cycles: ‘The ancient pulse of germ and birth was shrunken hard and dry’.  At other times, forces of nature represent permanence, in contrast to human feelings and prosperity.

In ‘The Darkling Thrush’ Hardy comes across as a conventional scientific atheist.  He seems to lament the fact that scientific discoveries have made it harder and harder for a rational person to believe in God.  The bleakness and coldness in this poem, it has been suggested, spring from its somewhat grim atheistic world-view.  It presents us with a universe that has no God and no afterlife, nothing beyond our tiny human lives.

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‘The Darkling Thrush’ by Thomas Hardy. Image by Linda Richardson

For a full analysis of Hardy’s poetry click here

The Poetry of Seamus Heaney: Some Recurring Themes

 

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The main purpose of these notes is to assist you in forming an overview of Heaney’s work.  For this reason, the material is structured as a series of ‘thinking points’, grouped under general headings.  These cover the poet’s main preoccupations and methods, but they are not exhaustive.  Neither are they ‘carved in stone’, to be memorised: ideally, they should be altered, added to or deleted as you develop your own set of notes.  This priceless pearl of wisdom is relevant for Heaney BUT it equally applies to all the other poets on your course as well!

The following ‘grace notes’ presuppose a basic knowledge of the following poems by Heaney on your Leaving Cert Poetry Syllabus:

  • Sunlight
  • The Forge
  • Bogland
  • The Tollund Man
  • A Constable Calls
  • The Harvest Bow
  • Lightenings VIII
  • Postscript

IRISHNESS – HISTORY, MYTHS, POLITICS

  • In his early poems, Heaney was preoccupied with local history, with communicating the experience of his own place with its numerous customs, rituals and ancient rural crafts (See ‘Sunlight’ and ‘The Forge’).
  • Then he began to think of history as landscape, exploring downwards, finding evidence of history in the bogs and the very contours of the land, exploring what myth and prehistoric evidence revealed about Irishness (See ‘Bogland’)
  • Exploring back in time, he makes historical connections between the Iron Age and the present. He draws parallels between ancient human sacrifices and the contemporary violence which was engulfing his native Ulster at the time.  He seems to be saying that violence is indeed endemic in all societies throughout history, that human sacrifice is necessary for the integrity of territory, that myths, however savage, are an integral part of the creation of the identity of a people (See ‘The Tollund Man’).
  • Overall, Heaney’s position has been seen as ambivalent and has been misunderstood by many. His poetry constantly explores the divisions tearing present-day Ulster apart.  His position has often met with criticism from all sides regarding his treatment of recent Ulster history.  Some critics say he has too much politics in his poetry, while others say he should stand up for his people and take sides.  He has been accused of obscuring the horrors of sectarian killings; of endorsing a ‘tribal’ position, or of not endorsing it enough; he has also been accused of evading the issues and being non-committal in his writing.

For many critics, like Elmer Andrews, Heaney doesn’t go far enough: ‘Heaney’s art is fundamentally an art of consciously and carefully cultivated non-engagement’.  Do you agree?  Is Heaney completely uncritical of his own side? (See ‘Bogland’, ‘The Tollund Man’, ‘A Constable Calls’).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMARA
A traditionally crafted Harvest Bow

PLACE AND LANDSCAPE

  • Like Patrick Kavanagh, who is synonymous with his native Inniskeen, Heaney too has immortalised his native place and Mossbawn and Anahorish are mentioned often, especially in those poems which deal with childhood. ‘Sunlight’ presents us with a picture of an idealised childhood, his aunt Mary Heaney’s kitchen is depicted as enveloping him in a womb-like security.  His earlier poems, especially those from his collections Death of a Naturalist (1966), Door into the Dark (1969), North (1975), and Field Work (1979), focus very much on home and family, his relationship with his father and mother and the need for continuity between the generations (See ‘Sunlight’, ‘The Harvest Bow’)
  • Anybody who has read ‘Blackberry Picking’ or ‘Death of a Naturalist’ and other such poems by Heaney will need no convincing that he is a fine descriptive nature poet. Terence Brown says that he has an ‘extraordinary gift in realising the physical world freshly and with vigorous exact economy.  Heaney can bring everyday natural events before the readers’ eyes with such telling precision that his images are both recognition and revelation’ (See any of his poems!).
  • Landscape for Heaney is more than just a subject to be painted: it is a living presence, an ever-present force, a sort of third party to human activity in the poems. This is the same immediate personal presence that we also find in Kavanagh and Wordsworth (See ‘Postscript’, ‘Bogland’, ‘The Tollund Man’).
  • He shows us differing aspects, different faces, of the landscape: from the life force (‘spirit of the corn’) to the threatening, menacing aspect (‘the bottomless bog’). When writing about the farming traditions of his community he also presents us with the juxtaposing ideas of growth and decay.
  • Heaney believes that people have a human and a religious relationship with the landscape (See ‘Bogland’, ‘The Tollund Man’, ‘The Harvest Bow’).
  • The landscape is seen as essentially female, often with erotic associations in its relationship with man (Examine ‘The Tollund Man’ closely).
  • Heaney’s landscape is dominated by the earth rather than the sky, with the bog providing a metaphor for Irish consciousness (See ‘Bogland’, ‘The Tollund Man’).
  • ‘The landscape for me is an image and it’s almost an element to work with as much as it is an object of admiration or description’. Heaney often uses nature metaphors to express his feelings of frustration and loneliness.  For example, in ‘The Harvest Bow’ he describes his frustrating attempts at communicating with his father like this: ‘your stick / Whacking the tops off weeds and bushes / Beats out of time, and beats, but flushes / Nothing’ (See also ‘Postscript’).
  • Driving out west along the now famous Wild Atlantic Way, along by Flaggy Shore near Ballyvaughan on the West Coast of Clare, the poet explores the beauty of the Irish landscape as a tourist would.  Heaney describes the beauty of the landscape and the changing light and the feelings it will inspire.  It is a journey poem where the poet finds himself caught between wild things and settled things, between things earthed and things in flight.  The sonnet-like structure of the poem gives it a postcard quality  ending with simple and powerful words: ‘And catch the heart off guard and blow it open’ (‘Postscript’)
  • Above all, the landscape for Heaney is a source of creativity and insight: ‘poems … come up … like bodies out of the bog of my own imagination’ (See ‘Bogland’, ‘The Tollund Man’).
DAN_tollundmanden_1_face_c (1)
Listen to Heaney read ‘The Tollund Man’ below:

TRADITION AND IDENTITY

  • For Heaney, an awareness of one’s tradition is fundamental to a sense of identity. He explains and explores his own roots, celebrating the ancient skills and crafts that sustained the farming community that nurtured him and his family for generations: the digging, the ploughing, the water-divining, the bread-making, the skills of the farmer, the blacksmith, etc.  These skills are described in a reverential way as if they were sacred rituals. (See ‘Sunlight’, ‘The Forge’).
  • Sometimes he still hankers back to the womb-like security of that life of early childhood. Some interpret these poems describing his Aunt Mary’s kitchen in Mossbawn as a form of regression or escapism from the daily horrors of life in Northern Ireland in the Seventies and Eighties (See ‘Sunlight’).  Sometimes he needs to re-forge, reinterpret and understand his links with family in order to rediscover his identity (See ‘The Harvest Bow’ where he says, ‘I tell and finger it like braille’).
  • ‘Our sense of the past, our sense of the land and perhaps even our sense of identity are inextricably interwoven,’ according to Heaney (The Irish Press, June 1st 1974). Therefore, finding and maintaining a sense of continuity is vital to Heaney: family, traditions, customs and values come to him as memories in his poetry and reassure and comfort him amidst the mayhem and uncertainty of daily atrocities in his home place (See ‘Sunlight’, ‘The Harvest Bow’).
  • He explores his Catholic roots too, as set against the other traditions. According to Robert Welch: ‘Heaney is engaged upon a cultural and tribal exploration; he is testing out his cultural inheritance to see where the significant deposits are located; but he is not engaged upon a mindless submission to the old tradition of the goddess or whatever.’ (See ‘Sunlight’, ‘The Harvest Bow’, ‘Bogland’, ‘The Tollund Man’).
  • There are times in his writing when his personal identity has overtones of victimhood about it. He certainly seems to identify with victims: ‘something of this sad freedom … should come to me.’  (See ‘The Tollund Man’, ‘A Constable Calls’).
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The Forge, situated on the Hillhead Road, near Castledawson and dates from the 19th Century. (www.georgemcintyre.tripod.com)

IDENTITY AND POETRY

  • Heaney’s identity as a poet is inextricably linked in with his historical and cultural identity. The autographical voice we encounter in his first collection, Death of a Naturalist, becomes the spokesperson of his people in the later collection, Door into the Dark  (See ‘Bogland’).
  • He identifies with the bog – he takes on board the implied insult that he is ‘a bogman’ and he owns it! The bog, with all its implications, becomes a kind of subconscious racial memory for him, providing him with inspiration for his poetry.  The Danes weren’t the only ones to bury their dead in the bog – there were numerous victims of violence ‘disappeared’ during ‘The Troubles’ and buried in remote, windswept locations on this island too (See ‘The Tollund Man’, ‘Bogland’).
  • Elmer Andrews describes Heaney’s method in this way: ‘He is proposing an idea of poetry which combines psychic investigation with historical enquiry’. In an essay  entitled ‘Feeling into Words’, Heaney himself spoke of ‘poetry as divination, poetry as revelation of the self to the self, as restoration of the culture to itself; poems as elements of continuity, with the aura of authenticity of archaeological finds, where the buried shard has an importance that is not diminished by the importance of the buried city; poetry as a dig, a dig for finds that end up being plants’ (Preoccupations, 1980) (See also ‘The Tollund Man’, ‘Bogland’).
  • Heaney sees the craft of poetry not just as something mechanical but rather a ‘combination of imagination and skill. He uses a brilliant analogy to describe a poem as ‘a completely successful love act between the craft and the gift’ (See ‘The Forge’).
  • Heaney’s voice in his poems is often indecisive, timid and ambiguous, his position is that of a hesitant observer on the fringes of the scene. For example, in The Forge he is outside looking in, afraid of the darkness within.
  • Heaney and other Northern poets such as Montague, Mahon, and Longley have come to prominence because of their efforts to make poetry relevant in a difficult political backdrop. He feels at times that poetry may be powerless to influence politics but nevertheless, it is vital to a sense of identity.
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“In the Attic”, a portrait of Seamus Heaney by the artist Jeffrey Morgan now hanging in the HomePlace Centre in Bellaghy, Co. Derry.

SAMPLE ANSWER: What are the recurring themes in the poetry of Seamus Heaney?

Heaney’s poetry brings us to our senses!  There is a tactile, sensuous quality to his poetry and his poetry is often multi-layered.  When he says that he will ‘dig’ with his pen he is referring to how layer after layer of meaning can be revealed in the act of writing.  In ‘The Forge’ he records a changing way of life as the horse and car make way for the motorcar, but the poem also reveals a growing awareness of the mystery of the creative process.  It becomes, therefore, a poem about poetry.

His poetry often draws on childhood memories of growing up on a farm in Co. Derry.  In ‘Sunlight’ and ‘A Constable Calls’ he presents us with two contrasting memories, one beautifully tranquil, the other troubled and uneasy.  Place is of vital importance, as in Kavanagh’s poetry, but so too are the people associated with that place: the exhumed Tollund man, his Aunt Mary in the family kitchen, his father ‘making tillage returns /In acres, roods and perches’, and his father making the harvest bow.

There is, therefore, a preoccupation with the past and a fascination with it.  In both ‘Bogland’ and ‘The Tollund Man’ Heaney, like the ‘pioneers’ who keep ‘striking / Inwards and downwards’, prompts us to think across thousands of years.  ‘Bogland’ speaks of how our ancestors’ lives are recorded and contained within the bog.  ‘The Tollund Man’, though it also speaks of a bog find, is a more complex poem in that it relates a violent death that took place two thousand years ago in Jutland to the violent deaths which occurred almost daily in Northern Ireland from 1969 until the signing of the Belfast Agreement on Good Friday in 1998.  Though Heaney writes about contemporary events, he does so sometimes at a tangent.  Heaney himself has said that he has searched for ‘images and symbols adequate to our predicament’.  And despite what some of his critics say, he never shirks or avoids the savage reality of violence: in ‘The Tollund Man’ he writes with stark realism of how the mutilated bodies of four young brothers were dragged along the train tracks, their skin and teeth flecking the railway sleepers.

Heaney’s lyric voice is often straightforward.  Lines can be plain, unadorned, and deceptively simple: ‘His bicycle stood at the windowsill’, but these opening lines open up and at the same time deepen our understanding of a particular experience.  In Heaney’s own words a poem preserves an experience, but ‘it should also open experience up and move it along … so that, first of all, the poet and then the reader, hopefully, gets carried away a little.’

‘So’ is a key word in Heaney’s poetry.  It signals a clear-sighted focus on the scene before.  For example, in ‘Sunlight’ he says, ‘So her hands scuffled / over the bakeboard’.  By his use of this simple word, he achieves an immediate, direct, warm tone in his poetry.  Also in ‘Sunlight’, we can see how his use of a shift in tense from past to present indicates how memory or a remembered event can be given a living quality within the poem.  The poem begins in the past – ‘There was a sunlit absence’ – but ends in the present – ‘Now she dusts the board … now sits broad-lapped …

And here is love

like a tinsmith’s scoop

sunk past its gleam

in the meal-bin.

Throughout his career, Heaney was very interested in poetic form and structure.  ‘The Forge’ is a sonnet and other poems on our course reveal a mastery of many forms – a variety of line lengths and differently shaped stanzas.  In ‘The Harvest Bow’ the intricacies of the making of the bow is mirrored in the intricacies of the poem itself: in a line such as ‘brightens and tightens twist by twist’, with its perfect example of internal rhyme and repetition.

Heaney’s poetry is both sensitive and sympathetic.  He identifies and understands others.  Relationships are at the heart of his poetry, his relationships with loved ones, family, and also his relationship with significant places such as Mossbawn and later Glanmore.  He recognises what is good and he cherishes and celebrates it.  In his poems he is capable of delight and astonishment; the ordinary becomes marvellous, and such moments are conveyed with wonder, humility and gratitude.

Further Reading

You might also like to read some of the following:

  • a comprehensive analysis of ‘The Forge’ here
  • an analysis of ‘The Harvest Bow’ here
  • an analysis of ‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’ here
  • an analysis of ‘Follower’ here
  • a brief analysis of ‘Death of a Naturalist’ here
  • a discussion on the treatment of women in Heaney’s poetry here
  • another sample essay on Heaney’s poetry here

 Digging

 Works Cited

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

Brown, Terence. The Literature of Ireland: Culture and Criticism. Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Heaney, Seamus. The Government of the Tongue, Faber and Faber, 1989.

Heaney here scrutinizes the work of several poets, British and Irish, American and European, whose work he considers might call into question the rights of poetic utterance. The author asks whether the voice of the poet should be governed, or whether it should be the governor.

Heaney, Seamus. Preoccupation: Selected Prose 1968 – 1978,  Faber and Faber 1980.

Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney’s first collection of prose, Preoccupations, begins with a vivid account of his early years on his father’s farm in Northern Ireland and his coming of age as a student and teacher in Belfast. Subsequent essays include critical work on Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Wordsworth, John Keats, Robert Lowell, William Butler Yeats, John Montague, Patrick Kavanagh, Ted Hughes, Geoffrey Hill, and Philip Larkin.

Welch, Robert (ed).  Irish Writers and Religion, Rowman and Littlefield, 1992

Macduff’s Character Explored

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Shakespeare uses the character of Macduff largely as a foil to show the shortcomings of his tragic hero Macbeth. He is a man of great integrity yet he is portrayed as very one-dimensional in the play. He is also a man of ‘high degree’, a Thane and as such he represents a role of freely given allegiance and service to his King. He is without any vestige of personal ambition and is simply content to loyally serve Duncan, his King.

It is Macduff who is the first of the innocent bystanders to discover the fact that Duncan has been murdered. His reaction is one of horror at the sight of Duncan’s body and it conveys clearly his profound sense of the sacredness of majesty, of that ‘divinity that doth hedge a king.’ This emphasises for us the enormity of what has just happened and that the murder of a king is no ordinary crime. To Macduff, Duncan’s murder seems like the ‘great doom’s image’, it signals the end of the world as he had known it.

‘Confusion now hath made his masterpiece!
Most sacrilegious murder has broke ope
The lord’s anointed temple, and stole thence
The life o’ the building.’

We realise from the beginning that Macduff would never be capable of the equivocation that Macbeth has already begun the master following the death of Duncan. This sense of integrity and loyalty is further ratified when we learn that he will not make the journey to Scone to see Macbeth crowned. It is clear that he is already suspicious of the man who is going to succeed Duncan as king, and that he is not prepared to feign a loyalty he does not feel.

‘Well may you see things well done there…
Lest our old robes sit easier than our new’.

An important aspect of Macduff’s role is now already becoming clear at this stage of the play: he is to be seen as the principled dissenter, too honest and too sincerely concerned with Scotland’s welfare to be capable of giving unquestioning allegiance to the new regime under Macbeth. Macduff’s moral courage and ‘manliness’ is shown in the fact that he takes a stance against Macbeth at a time when even Banquo has remained silent.
The next time we hear about Macduff in the play is when he goes to England to interview Malcolm who is Duncan’s son and rightful heir to the throne of Scotland. Lennox tells us in Act IV Scene i that ‘Macduff is fled to England’. He goes there to plead with Malcolm to return to Scotland and restore order and legitimate rule there. It is clearly evident that Macduff’s role has become much more significant in terms of the play’s plot. He is emerging as a pivotal character, a king-maker, in mobilising the forces for good against Macbeth’s corrupt rule. As Act IV progresses, we begin to realise that Macbeth is threatened by the existence of Macduff because he is a respected and mature figure among the Scottish Thanes. The issue of manliness is an important one here. Shakespeare seems to want us to understand, through the principled stance of Macduff, that a single brave man’s opposition can have an effect even in the face of the barefaced exercise of tyrannical power.

Macbeth, it is clear, is not surprised when the first apparition tells him ‘to beware Macduff’, and he comments ‘Thou has harped my fear aright.’ When he hears of Macduff’s flight to England, in an act of temper and fury, he decides to wipe out his enemy’s family as a proxy for Macduff himself. Thus, in a fit of insanely misdirected violence, Macbeth commits a crime against the innocent and uninvolved. In this act of gratuitous violence, he alienates the audience from himself as no other of his earlier crimes have done.

Macduff in deciding to go to England has had to choose between the safety of his family and the safety of his country. Thus Macduff, in being true to Scotland, seems, to his own wife, to be a traitor.

‘To leave his wife, his babes … in a place
From whence himself does fly?
He loves us not, he wants the natural touch.’

Later on, Macduff himself will exclaim with a bitter sense of guilt:

‘Sinful Macduff! They were all struck for thee.’

When we encounter Macduff in England in Act IV Scene iii we again see him in the role of practical patriot seeking to encourage Malcolm to take up arms against Macbeth:

‘Hold fast the mortal sword …
Bestride our downfall’n birthdom.’

In this powerful scene Shakespeare also seems to use Macduff as a spokesperson for suffering Scotland:

‘Each new morn
New widows howl, new orphans cry; new sorrows
Strike heaven on the face… ‘

Macduff’s patriotism is severely tested by Malcolm. Despite the false catalogue of sins which Malcolm claims to have committed, Macduff is too honest and too principled a man to be able to take any more, ‘Fit to govern?’ he exclaims angrily and concludes ‘No, not to live.’ Turning away in misery and despair his thoughts turn towards Scotland:

‘O nation miserable, with an untitled tyrant bloody-sceptered
When shalt thou see thy wholesome days again?’

Once again, it has been made clear in the play that Macduff’s dominant quality is his blunt honesty. This man could never have hung about Macbeth’s court paying him ‘mouth honour’ as many have been doing up to now. The equivocation and hypocrisy associated with the world of evil would always have been alien to this man’s nature.
When he learns shortly after this about the death of his wife and all his children Macduff is shown at his most affectingly human and paradoxically also at his most manly. He cries out in agony:

‘All my pretty ones? O hell kite
Did you say all? All?
What all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop?’

When Malcolm tells him to ‘Dispute it like a man,’ he replies in a tone of quiet dignity and telling rebuke:

‘I shall do so
But I must also feel it as a man
I cannot but remember such things were
That were most precious to me.’

Here, at this point, we cannot but recall Lady Macbeth’s words earlier and of her resolve to dash her baby’s brains out rather than be forsworn. Here, through Macduff, Shakespeare is reminding us that true manliness is not divorced from feelings or diminished by tears.

What follows is Macduff’s determination to bring Macbeth to justice:

‘Front to front
Bring on this fiend of Scotland and myself
Within my sword’s length; if he ‘scape
Heaven forgive him too.’

Macduff is now aware of only one solemn religious duty which is the elimination of Macbeth. When he and Macbeth finally meet, it becomes obvious that we are intended to see Macduff as the instrument of divine retribution. His sense of duty is uppermost in his mind right up to the end:

‘If thou beest not slain and with no stroke of mine
My wife and children’s ghosts will haunt me still.’

The irony of Macbeth’s end is that he is killed by a man whose birth was rationally impossible; Macduff was from his mother’s womb ‘untimely ripp’d.’ Yet the man confronting Macbeth is undeniably real and undeniably ‘manly’. It is therefore appropriate that Macbeth would be ‘unmanned’ by what he has just heard:

‘It hath cowed my better part of man.’
Only now does he realise that the witches were truly ‘juggling fiends that palter with us in a double sense.’

Macbeth’s death at the hands of Macduff now becomes inevitable, as he himself and the audience are fully aware. It is appropriate that at the play’s conclusion it should be left to Macduff the unswerving and selfless patriot, the unassuming manly warrior, the man of absolute integrity to proclaim Malcolm as rightful king and announce at last that Scotland is liberated from tyranny:

‘The time is free.’

In the case of Macduff, Shakespeare has ensured that at every stage in the plot Macduff is credibly human. This was important in the context of this play’s emphasis on the terrifying and real power of evil. Shakespeare reminds us here through his depiction of Macduff that even when a country is enslaved to tyranny and subjected to a reign of terror, a single honest man by his refusal to compromise and by his principled and morally courageous dissent can be seen for what he is, and can certainly make a difference.

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Commentary on ‘A Tuft of Flowers’ by Robert Frost

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Tuft of Flowers by Ken Fiery

The Tuft of Flowers

       

         By Robert Frost

I went to turn the grass once after one

Who mowed it in the dew before the sun.

 

The dew was gone that made his blade so keen

Before I came to view the levelled scene.

 

I looked for him behind an isle of trees;

I listened for his whetstone on the breeze.

 

But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,

And I must be, as he had been,—alone,

 

‘As all must be,’ I said within my heart,

‘Whether they work together or apart.’

 

But as I said it, swift there passed me by

On noiseless wing a ‘wildered butterfly,

 

Seeking with memories grown dim o’er night

Some resting flower of yesterday’s delight.

 

And once I marked his flight go round and round,

As where some flower lay withering on the ground.

 

And then he flew as far as eye could see,

And then on tremulous wing came back to me.

 

I thought of questions that have no reply,

And would have turned to toss the grass to dry;

 

But he turned first, and led my eye to look

At a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook,

 

A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared

Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.

 

I left my place to know them by their name,

Finding them butterfly weed when I came.

 

The mower in the dew had loved them thus,

By leaving them to flourish, not for us,

 

Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him.

But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.

 

The butterfly and I had lit upon,

Nevertheless, a message from the dawn,

 

That made me hear the wakening birds around,

And hear his long scythe whispering to the ground,

 

And feel a spirit kindred to my own;

So that henceforth I worked no more alone;

 

But glad with him, I worked as with his aid,

And weary, sought at noon with him the shade;

 

And dreaming, as it were, held brotherly speech

With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach.

 

‘Men work together,’ I told him from the heart,

‘Whether they work together or apart.’

Commentary:

Robert Frost is reputed to have said that ‘a poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom’.  This statement is definitely true of this beautiful lyric which was written in 1913.  He tells us that the poem reflected ‘my position between socialism and individualism’.  Indeed, the poem ends with a wonderful epiphany which suggests that he is leaning more towards socialism!

This lovely nature lyric creates a wonderful allegory on the position of the poet and his place in the modern world which, for me, is equally as profound as Heaney’s allegory in ‘Digging’.  Frost uses the mower in this poem to represent the artist, the poet, the painter, the creator of beautiful thought-provoking things.   The mower has left a tuft of flowers, just as poets leave their life’s work, as a reminder to all who follow that there is beauty in the world.  However, very often in Frost’s poetry humans are depicted as isolated figures in the landscape.  Not only are they isolated but they represent loneliness, and thereby acquire symbolic status.  Loneliness can be seen as a human condition and man’s efforts to communicate effectively are at best difficult as seen in this beautiful lyric.  This is why poets and artists are still needed by us to act as our trailblazers and scouts, to go before us, to take the risks, and help us discover the hidden beauty that lies in our meadows and pastures, leaving us many ‘a message from the dawn’.

Frost describes how he sets out to ‘turn the grass’ after the mower has earlier cut the meadow with his scythe in the early morning, ‘in the dew before the sun’.  He looks in vain for the mysterious mower who has disappeared and has presumably moved on to another meadow.  Then unexpectedly ‘a bewildered butterfly’ stumbles on the scene.  The poet has a sudden moment of epiphany when he beholds the sight of flowers that have been left untouched by the scythe:

A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared

Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.

Even though the two men are working separately the poet realises that in this tuft of flowers which have been spared by the mower is a message from the man who has gone before him.  Frost realises that the mower too has a deep appreciation of nature’s beauty and has left the tuft of flowers by the brook as a reminder and as a sign of solidarity.  This leads him to believe that he is no longer alone, that in some way he is linked to this enigmatic mower:

And feel a spirit kindred to my own;

So that henceforth I worked no more alone;

So, from an ordinary everyday experience Frost has moved to the appreciation for the need for fellowship in his life:

‘Men work together,’ I told him from the heart,

‘Whether they work together or apart.’

This epiphany strikes Frost like a thunderbolt as he turns the new-mown hay in the meadow but it also strikes the reader and further serves to reinforce for us the simple wonders and powers of nature.  ‘A Tuft of Flowers’ highlights for us how joy can return to the poet’s soul through work and companionship with other people, often through little, unremarkable random acts of kindness.  It reinforces for me how life can offer many different possibilities for choice and human companionship, and how rich and glorious the whole world of nature is.

tall tuft

Stephen Dedalus and Sex

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James Joyce traces Stephen’s sexual development with great care in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  As an infant Stephen is aware that his mother smells nicer than his father does. As a small schoolboy,  he dreams of being kissed by her when sickness makes him long for home.  As a young boy, he imagines that he will marry his playmate Eileen when they grow up.  It is Eileen’s soft white hands and golden hair that first stirs his romantic boyish notions of idealised womanhood, but the way she puts her hand in his pocket and runs away is the first instance of what his relations with attractive girls are to be.  He lacks the maturity to take the initiative in practice or to respond when a girl takes the initiative.  Instead, he glamorises the experience in words.  For Stephen this mental romanticisation of love is one thing; the experience of living girls is another thing altogether!  The two experiences are never brought into harmony.  Thus Stephen indulges in these romantic dreams about Dumas’ Mercedes, but it is significant that he pictures himself grandly rejecting her approaches because she had earlier slighted his love.  This pose of grand, offended isolation is all too attractive to him.

The first fully recognisable sexual encounter occurs when Stephen goes to the party at Harrold’s Cross.  He withdraws from the other children, relishing his isolation, while Emma glances repeatedly and invitingly in his direction.  She rouses him to feverish excitement, and after the party, she goes with him to the tram-stop.  They stand on the tram steps, he a step above hers, and as they talk she keeps coming up to join him on his step.  He knows that she is making an offer; he also knows that the experience is like the occasion when Eileen ran laughing away from him.  But for all his sense of her beauty and his knowledge that she is ready to be held and kissed, he does nothing.  The failure depresses him.  Then, next day, he begins to turn the whole experience  – which should have had a living climax – into a literary matter.  He tries to write a poem to Emma and consciously brushes the realities of the scene out of his mind.  He turns the memory into an exercise in vague, conventionalised poetic verbalism.  And after that, he goes and stares at himself in the mirror.  His own pose as a romantic poet is more fascinating to him than the living girl who has inspired it.

Two years later, on the occasion of the school play, Stephen works himself up into an excited romantic mood in the belief that he will meet Emma after she has seen the play.  Once more the devotion is an uncommunicated obsession based symbolically on a dramatic performance.  After the play, in which he excels in the world of imaginary self-projection, Emma is nowhere to be found and he is plunged into despair.  Stephen’s awakening sexuality, then, is blocked off from real human relationships and diverted into romantic dreams fed by his reading.  The Count of Monte Cristo and Bulwer Lytton’s The Lady of Lyons supply him with imaginary situations of romantic love.  As a result, his suppressed physical urges produce a perverted urge to sin and to force someone else into sin.  The consequence is that when he meets a prostitute in the street one night, he is readily lured to her room and as she takes the initiative and embraces him he finds not only relief from the urges of lust but a new self-assurance.

For a time sexual experience with prostitutes runs alongside his romantic adoration of the Virgin Mary until the retreat sermons convince him of his wickedness and he repents.  We are not told whether, after his loss of faith, he returned to the habit of visiting prostitutes.  But clearly, he fails to make a connection between the romantic sexuality in his mind, which is stirred so deeply by the sight of the wading girl, and the life of real contact with women.  The wading girl becomes the ideal to move the artist to creative dedication.  Real human relationship is not involved.

The fitful references to Emma in the last chapter of the book suggest a very slight interest in living beauty compared to the passionate intellectual interest in the theory of beauty.  Though Stephen chooses to imagine that Emma flirts with Father Moran, the sight of her by the library door stirs the thought that she may be innocent and there is another uprush of emotion – but it all goes into dreams and words, not into real contact with her.  He writes an extravagantly rhetorical poem to her and pictures himself, the priest of the imagination, listening to her confession.  Stephen’s mental life and his concept of himself as the heroic lonely artist are plainly incompatible with a sympathetic understanding of others.  He indulges the notion that Emma is consciously rebuffing him and that Cranly is pursuing her when she ignores him outside the library.  In consequence, he mentally washes his hands of her: ‘Let her go and be damned.’  But the reader lacks evidence to know how far Stephen is deceiving himself.  Indeed the last references to Emma in his diary giver the impression of a girl who is trying hard to make contact with him.  She wants to know why she sees so little of him and whether he is writing poems, and his reply is a churlish rebuff calculated to embarrass her.  Stephen’s final observation, ‘I liked her and it seems a new feeling to me’, is one of the most revealing sentences in the book.  Stephen has expressed a liking for another human being and has conceded that the feeling is a new one to him.

Therefore, it can be said that Stephen’s relationships with girls suffer because of his egotism.  He cultivates an image of himself as an isolated artist.  His sexual instincts are satisfied with prostitutes.  His romantic yearnings are channelled into poems and day-dreams.

 

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