John Donne and Metaphysical Poetry

John Donne
Portrait of Donne in a great hat by unknown English artist, c1595. © Estate of Lord Lothian.   This is possibly the painting ‘taken in shadows’ to which he refers in his will.

John Donne’s poetry experienced a great resurgence in the Twentieth Century, thanks mainly to T. S. Eliot’s influential essay ‘The Metaphysical Poets’  originally published in 1921.  This new found recognition went far in correcting the fact that for the previous two centuries his poetry had been largely overlooked.  Added to this, of course, we must take into account Donne’s own apparent disinterest in his own poems, particularly with regard to their publication.  This disinterest has always been put forward by academics as a reason for this early neglect.  It is well documented that he only published three or four poems in his own lifetime, preferring instead pass round manuscripts of his work among his friends at the universities and at the Inns of Court.

Ben Jonson (c. 11 June 1572 – c. 16 August 1637), the most learned poet of his time, was the closest of such friends.  Like T.S. Eliot many generations later, Jonson left all in no doubt about the admiration he felt for Donne’s poetry; he regarded him as an innovator, ‘the first poet in the world in some things’, and the leader of a new school of poetry in Elizabethan London – this school of poetry has since been called metaphysical poetry.

Donne was certainly not a poet of popular taste.  As far as he was concerned poetry was not for the masses but was an intellectual pursuit where the poet attempted to impress others with his knowledge and education.  He deliberately restricted his audience to those whose education and background equipped them to appreciate a new, more obscure type of poetry.  It is clear that Donne’s poetry shocked his contemporaries just as it still does to this day.  When his poems were first published in 1633, two years after his death, the printer introduced them with a dedication, not to ‘the Readers’ but to ‘the Understanders’.  One can see from this how from the beginning, Donne’s poetry was regarded as being among the most difficult in English literature.

The writers who followed Donne and who were most influenced by his work have since been called the metaphysical poets. This term was of course first used by Dr Samuel Johnston in his famous discussion of Donne, Herbert, Vaughan and Marvell.  In his Life of Cowley (1779) Johnston observed that ‘about the beginning of the seventeenth century appeared a race of writers that might be termed the metaphysical poets’.  Since then the term metaphysical poetry has come to imply a type of poetry that has certain unique characteristics.  Indeed, so widespread has the term become that there is no longer much doubt as to whom we mean when we speak of the metaphysical poets, namely, John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan and Andrew Marvell in particular.

Dr Samuel Johnston’s Life of Cowley did more than establish the term ‘metaphysical poets’; it also contained the first detailed discussion of their works.  Donne’s poetry can be considered in three main groups: the love poetry (The Good Morrow, The Anniversary), the miscellaneous poems and verse letters, and the religious poetry (A Hymn to God the Father, Holy Sonnets), all of which correspond roughly to the early, middle, and later periods of his career.  The first group contains the work for which he is probably best known.  The poetry is remarkable for its realism and its variety, and has all the characteristics by which metaphysical poetry is generally recognised.

What therefore are the main characteristics of the metaphysical poets in general and of Donne in particular? 

What first strikes most readers of metaphysical poetry is its concentration.  Poems in this category tend to be brief and closely woven.  This allows various ideas, words and references to be condensed into groups of short lines, sometimes even into single lines and phrases.  For example, in the opening stanza of The Anniversary, Donne introduces groups of associated images drawn from the royal courts and palaces to suggest the transience of earthly glory:

All kings and all their favourites,

All glory of honours, beauties, wits,

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

Is elder by a year now than it was

When thou and I first one another saw.

Everything, he suggests, is subordinate to love, and he describes in detail the intensity of his feelings.  What need has he of kings and princes when they are inconstant and subject to decay?  Even the sun which appears to measure time, is itself subject to destruction, while love has the power to outlive these mortal things.  Behind this opening stanza, therefore, there is intense personal feeling.  This anniversary represents a permanent moment: it is not an anniversary in the ordinary sense, a looking back on something passed.  It is rather an ‘everlasting day’ which is not affected by the passage of time.  So while man’s world and the world of nature are slowly growing old, the persons in the poem enjoy forever the vitality and permanence of love.  To further his argument Donne makes good use of paradox which acts as a sort of clinching device which upholds and strengthens his argument.  The first stanza of The Anniversary ends with an important paradox which expresses the permanence of love in a world of change:

Running it never runs from us away,

But truly keeps his first, last, everlasting day.

The idea that love unites people in a spiritual bond which even transcends death is expressed throughout The Anniversary.

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

A second characteristic of metaphysical poetry is its vividly dramatic quality, particularly in the opening lines.  Donne’s poetry, in particular, is always, in a special sense, dramatic.  Indeed, all metaphysical poetry springs from the great era of Elizabethan drama dominated, in particular, by Shakespeare.  Donne, we are told, was ‘a great frequenter of plays’ in his youth.  The rhythms of his verse, so misunderstood by many readers, are closer to the ordinary speech found in Shakespeare’s plays than to that of most lyrical poems.  For this reason, Donne’s poems – and those of George Herbert also – are often best considered as dramatic monologues, almost like the soliloquys of an actor on the stage.  Donne specialises in forceful, dramatic openings, e.g. ‘Batter my heart, three person’d God’ (Holy Sonnets XIV); ‘I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I / Did, till we lov’d’ (The Good Morrow); ‘Wilt thou forgive the sin where I begun …’ (A Hymn to God the Father), etc., etc., etc. 

(Probably one of the most daring and dramatic of his opening lines occurs in the sonnet, At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners where he conjures up a marvellous vivid picture of the Last Judgement.  We have to remind ourselves that when this sonnet, often referred to as Holy Sonnet 7, was published in 1633, it was less than 150 years after Columbus had discovered The New World.  Yet here, Donne shows off his new found knowledge that the world is round and yet plays with the old notion that the world was flat and had four corners!)

This dependence on drama leads to a third characteristic of metaphysical poetry which is their constant use of dialogue.  The Good Morrow and The Anniversary depend for their success upon our recognising the presence of an individual speaker involved in each poem.  Indeed, the speakers can even be distinguished by the manner of their speech and by the nature of their arguments.  In the opening lines of The Good Morrow the speaker adopts a very colloquial, unpoetic manner.  He is capable, however, of sudden shifts in attention, and in the second stanza begins to change his tone and emphasis.  The poem suddenly becomes more serious, then very learned in its use of obscure references and peculiar logic, until finally the speaker presents his audience with a definite conclusion:

If our two loves be one, or thou and I

Love so alike that none can slacken, none can die.

In contrast to The Good Morrow, Donne’s The Anniversary is much more contemplative.  What is common to both poems is not only their theme but also their resolution: true love is constant because it is essentially a relationship of minds.  What is uncommon, however, is Donne’s presentation.  In The Anniversary the speaker is not so much intent on displaying the great depth of his knowledge as in arguing his ideas with simple wisdom.  Despite the fact that he sometimes appears to be frivolous and insincere, Donne always wished to express universal truths in his poetry.  Like Shakespeare, when he expresses something profound, Donne often does it quite simply.  The subject of universal destruction is one of the central themes in The Anniversary, and the death of princes is used to symbolise it.  Indeed, the references to princes, kings and courtly life bring this poem very close to the underlying theme expressed in nearly all of Shakespeare’s tragedies, all of which ‘tell sad stories of the death of kings’ (Richard II, Act III, Sc ii, 155).   The dramatic impact of the opening lines of The Anniversary depends upon the emphasis suggested by the word all:

All kings and all their favourites,

All glory of honours, beauties, wits …

All other things to their destruction draw.

The grandeur of princes must inevitably pass away; kings must live in fear of misfortune, treason and death.  The Anniversary has none of the learned references and peculiar logic of The Good Morrow.  He uses a uniform set of royal images throughout the three stanzas, and details of diction reveal ordinary common nouns.  While The Good Morrow displays a superb use of unpoetic words and references the impact of The Anniversary is less rhetorical and more sincere.

A fourth characteristic of metaphysical poets is their use of Wit.  The word ‘wit’ has undergone a remarkable transformation in modern day English.  Our modern idea of a witty comment or image, even though there may be some original thought, does not do the Elizabethan meaning of the word full justice.  The metaphysical poets like Donne, Herbert, Marvel and Vaughan always tried to present brilliant or arresting lines of poetry which surprise the reader by means of unexpected ideas, expressions or associations.  This tendency led in turn to the development of conceits.  A conceit is a comparison made between things which at first sight seem to have little in common: it is a comparison which is more striking than correct.  There are numerous examples of such far-fetched comparisons to be found in the work of the metaphysical poets.  Indeed, it very easy to agree with Dr Samuel Johnson’s remark that in the work of these poets ‘the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together’. Many of Donne’s best poems depend for their effect on the extensive use of conceits.  The Good Morrow, for example, contains a number of paradoxes which are grouped together in the second stanza: ‘And makes one little room an everywhere’; ‘Let us possess one world; each hath one, and is one.’  This poem also contains what is perhaps the most well-known and most famous of Donne’s conceits:

My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,

And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;

Where can we find two better hemispheres

Without sharp north, without declining west?

Together the lovers make one world, each being as hemisphere.  But unlike the real hemispheres, they suffer no shortcomings; their love undergoes neither misery (‘sharp north’), nor cooling of affection (‘declining west’). 

A fifth characteristic of metaphysical poetry is its striking use of imagery and tone.  The principal advantage of the conceits Donne uses in his poems is the degree of inclusiveness they make possible.  They are a means of bringing into his poetry all his interests, activities and new found knowledge.  No part of his experience is regarded as unworthy of poetic investigation, and he prefers to engage our attention not through expected images and associations, but through unusual ideas and comparisons.  Whatever poetic licence is taken, the general effect is to reinforce, modify and generally heighten the reader’s response to each poem.

The Good Morrow is an excellent example of this method.  The poem begins with a realistic description of a morning bedroom.  The poet is waking up beside his mistress and he therefore uses words and images which suggest sleep (‘snorted’, ‘sleepers’, ‘dream’).  In his initial meditation on love there is a strong emphasis on physical activities (‘wean’d’, ‘sucked’, ‘country pleasures’).  Indeed, the number of words relating to physical activities in Donne’s poetry is always very high.  Here, he freely admits to having mistresses in the past (‘If ever any beauty I did see / Which I desired and got,’) but indicates that the pleasures he experienced with them were inadequate (‘pleasures fancies’).  We can see immediately how this stanza with its strong emphasis on sexual fulfilment must have come as something as a shock to Donne’s friends and contemporaries who were used to a completely different, more refined type of love poetry. 

This first stanza alone, with its sense of openness and honesty Donne dissociates himself from the dominant sixteenth-century tradition of Platonic love.  This poem, in contrast, is aggressively personal and ‘muscular’.  We notice the frequent use of personal pronouns which emphasise the presence of an individual speaker.  The overall tone is personal and enthusiastic.  The three stanzas correspond to three stages of his experience: there is a very definite progression from past to present to future.  In the first stanza he defines reality exclusively in physical terms; the questions are abrupt and present striking images of physical activity. 

The second stanza presents a sudden shift from past to present, and contains examples of Donne’s characteristic choice of imagery.  Whereas the Elizabethans relied on images from Greek and Roman mythology for their love imagery, Donne relies heavily on more ‘modern’ sources such as geography, science, history and philosophy.  In this regard, the imagery of The Good Morrow has always impressed readers with its range and variety.  Indeed, this poem illustrates beautifully the range and variety of metaphysical imagery.  From the ordinary activities of breast-feeding and heavy sleeping, Donne progresses to the more exotic activities of explorers, geographers and philosophers.  However, the sea-discoverers with all their topical glamour and novelty are introduced only to be dismissed as lacking in true exploration compared with the relationship he is describing.  Nevertheless, they continue to be present in the poem and eventually lead to the image of  ‘sharpe north’ and ‘declining west’.

The image at the beginning of the third stanza is a simple presentation of the fact that people gazing into each other’s eyes can see themselves reflected there.  It is made more complicated and more meaningful by the line that leads up to it (‘And true plain hearts do in the faces rest’).

Usually the titles of Donne’s poems generally suggest the central image around which the poem revolves.  Therefore, The Good Morrow deals with awakening and with discovery and we can follow how this basic image of discovery is sustained throughout the poem.  Likewise, the major image suggested by The Anniversary is royal and heraldic.  Groups of words appear in each stanza which relate to kings, princes and courtly life.  Donne’s imagery, especially in his religious sonnets is always striking, and always extends the range and understanding of each poem.

Conclusions

Eliot in his influential essay ‘The Metaphysical Poets’ refers to the metaphysical poets’ ability to combine disparate kinds of experience and he goes on to say that these poets possess ‘a mechanism of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience’.  Donne’s great achievement, according to Eliot, was to have substituted a natural conversational idiom for a conventional one, carrying out a revolution of the kind ‘which has to occur from time to time … if the English language is to retain its vigour’ (Winny, 52).

With Herbert, Marvel, Vaughan, and the Catholic poet Crashaw, Donne explored the complex relationships between God and man, lover and beloved, time and eternity.  The Metaphysicals used language in a manner as complex as their themes, drawing their comparisons from astronomy, philosophy, theology and natural science, working out their images with a rigorous logic which still to this day demands great alertness from the reader.  At its worst the metaphysical method of writing resulted in what Dr Johnson called ‘heterogeneous ideas …. yoked by violence together’.  At its best, it resulted in the exciting and muscular poetry well represented by the poems mentioned here.

Further Reading

You might also like to read related blog posts by the same author:

An Introduction to Metaphysical Poetry

An Analysis of Some of my Favourite Poems by John Donne

Works Referred to

Shakespeare’s Richard II

Samuel Johnson’s Life of Cowley

Works Cited

T. S. Eliot, “The Metaphysical Poets“.  First published in the Times Literary Supplement, 20 October 1921.

Winny, J., A Preface to Donne, Longman, 1970.

1887_1_8

The Retreat of Ita Cagney / Cúlú Íde

5Q5T0274
This photograph was taken near Old Barna Railway Bridge by Dermot Lynch, Limerick Leader.

The Retreat of Ita Cagney / Cúlú Íde was first published in 1975 by the Goldsmith Press, shortly after Michael Hartnett’s pronouncement from the stage of the Peacock Theatre in Dublin that he would henceforth write only in Irish. Appropriately, the publication contains an Irish version and an English version of the poem, as perhaps befitted the poet’s conflicted state.  In effect, this poem serves as a Rubicon: the last English poem he would publish, for the time being at least, and the first of his Irish poems. The poet is in transition and is now back in West Limerick and in this poem, he explores deep and ancient resentments and wrongs. Allan Gregory says that the poem, in its bilingual format, ‘expresses to the reader themes of social and historical oppression, sex, pregnancy and birth, protection, exposure and secrecy, and is the finest poem in this period of Hartnett’s writing’ (McDonagh/Newman 145).

Hartnett has documented the ‘schizophrenia’ associated with this new poetic direction and he has said that this poem, in particular, caused him great distress:

The Retreat of Ita Cagney, for example, almost broke my heart and indeed my mind to write, because both languages became so intermeshed. I would sit down and write a few lines of the poem unthinkingly. I’d come back to it and see that it was half in English and half in Irish or a mixture. … One is not a translation of the other. They are two versions of the same poem; but what the original language is I don’t know’ (O’Driscoll 146).

Whatever the mental turmoil generated by the artistic struggles of the poet, the resulting poem is one of Hartnett’s most powerful from this period of his career. In his review of the poem following publication, fellow Munster poet, Brendan Kennelly, says it was,

‘a probing, dramatic exploration of a woman’s loneliness and isolation in a callous and hostile society. This, to my mind, is Hartnett’s finest achievement to date: he pays a relentless imaginative attention to this woman’s fate, and he presents with admirable dramatic balance her loneliness, independence and state of severed happiness. In this condition, Ita Cagney becomes a visionary critic of the society that hounds and isolates her’ (Poetry Ireland Review, Issue 15, p. 26).

The Retreat of Ita Cagney is a pained celebration of a woman’s enforced isolation due to her refusal to conform to the demands of her society. We can surmise that in delving into Ita Cagney’s situation the poet finds common cause with another rural outcast in light of his own recent ‘retreat’ to Glendarragh to dwell ‘in the shade of Tom White’s green hill / in exile out foreign in ‘Glantine’ (A Book of Strays 41). This lonely cottage in Glendarragh was for the next ten years to serve as basecamp for what Declan Kiberd describes as ‘retracing his way to the common source’ (McDonagh/ Newman 37).  However, far from being a  ‘retreat’ to obscurity, as some of his critics predicted, his return to West Limerick precipitated what was arguably the most productive period of his career.  Adharca Broic was published in 1978, followed by An Phurgóid in 1983, Do Nuala: Foighne Crainn in 1984 and his fourth collection in Irish, An Lia Nocht, appeared in 1985.  During this period, he also undertook the translation of Daibhi Ó Brudair’s poems which were published in 1985.

The publication of this dual language version of The Retreat of Ita Cagney / Cúlú Íde in 1975 was a bold step by Hartnett. For added effect, the Irish version was printed in the Old Gaelic script (An Cló Gaelach) which was by then obsolete and no longer being used in schools as it had been up to the 1960s. This probably also had the effect of further isolating the poet and limiting his audience. However, as he told Elgy Gillespie in an interview in March 1975: ‘Listen, it’s impossible to limit my audience, it’s so small already’ (Gillespie 10).  However, academic John Jordon wrote a positive review of Cúlú Íde suggesting that it was ‘a small-town mini-epic, so redolent of Hardy’ (Jordon 7). Cúlú Íde was again published as part of Hartnett’s first collection in Irish, Adharca Broic, in 1978. This time he chose Peter Fallon’s Gallery Books and this new publishing relationship was to last until A Book of Strays was published posthumously by the same publisher in 2002.  Adharca Broic received generally positive reviews and Allan Gregory declared that the twenty-one lyrical poems in the collection ‘oozed with the confidence of a speaker who felt that at last he was being heard’ (McDonagh/Newman 146).

In this analysis, I will focus mainly on the English version of the poem with occasional sorties into the Irish version, especially where they diverge. There are some similarities between The Retreat of Ita Cagney and Farewell to English.  Both poems have a sequence-structure and The Retreat of Ita Cagney is divided into nine dramatic scenes. Both poems were published in 1975.  However, there is one major difference: whereas Farewell to English is a public poem with political overtones, The Retreat of Ita Cagney is an intensely private poem. Though it begins with a quintessential public event, the traditional Irish funeral, it quickly transitions to the act of retreat alluded to in its title. On the face of it, it is a ‘retreat’ from a public event to a more private life, and Hartnett teases out the societal and psychological implications which this act brings about. However, the poem itself may also be read as an act of ‘retreat’ for the poet, away from public pronouncement, towards a more private poetry, which would focus on his own domestic life.  If critics presumed that the blunt polemic of Farewell to English would be a constant in his writing in Irish The Retreat of Ita Cagney would seem to set them straight.  As with Ita, Hartnett’s ‘retreat’ was a once-off symbolic gesture and as such there was no need to repeat the tonic, rather the wisdom or otherwise of that choice would be borne out by the life retreated to, and of course, for Hartnett, the poems which would come from living that life to its fullest.

The English version is composed in free-verse while the Irish version is more formal and adheres to the classical conventions of the Dánta Grá (McDonagh/Newman 144). This divergence in styles between the two languages is perhaps a direct reason for the mental turmoil he encountered during the composition of this poem – there is a constant battle raging between the more disordered English version and the more tamed and formalised Irish version.

As well as being a poet of international standing, Hartnett was also a master translator having translated the Tao, the Gypsy Ballads of Lorca, and later the poems of Ó Haicéad and Ó Bruadair which will forever stand the test of time. Here we find him ‘translating’ his own work and the effort induced in him a kind of artistic schizophrenia. Declan Kiberd argues that in this way, Hartnett suffered from a kind of ‘double vision’:

Every poet senses that all official languages are already dead languages. That was why Hartnett said farewell to English while knowing that Irish was itself dead already too. As he wrote himself in ‘Death of an Irishwoman’, ‘I loved her from the day she died’. Likewise, with English – no sooner did Hartnett write it off than he felt all over again its awesome power, for it had become again truly strange to him, as all poetic languages must (McDonagh/Newman 38).

This poem, then, is an initial effort to find his voice – in two languages.

In this, his last poem in English pro tem and his first poem in Irish, the poet very dramatically tells us the story of a recent widow (the Irish version says that she has been married only a year) who leaves her home in the dead of night and goes to live in secret with another man in his West Limerick cottage and bears him a child out of wedlock much to the disapproval of the locals and the Church.

The poem is not set in any recognisable historic timeframe but maybe there were echoes of some such local ‘scandalous’ incident in the ether when the poet made his return to West Limerick in and around 1975. However, the poem stands on its own and there doesn’t need to have been any particular incident which inspired the poet to take on this subject matter. Hartnett’s prose writing and poetry show him to be a very insightful social commentator and it is not hard to find echoes of Kavanagh’s The Great Hunger in this poem. Here, however, the main subject is a formidable woman which further helps to give the lie to the accepted stereotypes of the day. Readers familiar with Irish poetry will also be aware that in the old Aisling poems Ireland was often depicted as a woman: sometimes young and beautiful, sometimes old and haggard. In effect, Ita Cagney can be read as a  modern Bean Dubh an Ghleanna, Gráinne Mhaol, Roisín Dubh or Caithleen Ní Houlihan – a symbolic representation of Ireland.  Hartnett concisely captures a portrait of the society to which he had returned in the 1970s but crucially chooses to depict Ita’s inner life and not merely as a cypher without agency, whilst also refusing to idealise rural Ireland by showing the repressive and oppressive views which pertained at that time, especially towards women.

The Retreat of Ita Cagney is a more focused portrayal of small-farm Ireland than the broader panorama offered by Patrick Kavanagh’s The Great Hunger. That said, they are very similar and both Ita Cagney and Maguire have to cope with the two conflicting forces of spirituality and sexual mores in the world of their time. Maguire’s idea of sex is deformed, largely due to Church teaching and a repressive society in the Ireland of the 1930s and 40s. In contrast, Ita Cagney’s sexuality liberates her and The Retreat of Ita Cagney is a more recent reminder to all and a typical Hartnett barbed rebuff to De Valera’s notorious St. Patrick’s Day broadcast of 1943 in which he fantasised about a rural Ireland ‘joyous with sounds of industry, the romping of sturdy children, the contests of athletic youths, the laughter of comely maidens; whose firesides would be the forums of the wisdom of serene old age’ (Moynihan 466-9).  Whereas Maguire is beaten down and is forced to live within the strictures imposed by the Catholic Church and the 1937 Constitution, in a sense, Ita Cagney benefits from the work of such women as Nell McCafferty, Mary Kenny, and others in bringing about significant change in how young couples lived their married lives as a result of the McGee v. Attorney General Case. This landmark case was heard in the Supreme Court in 1973 (two years before the publication of this poem) and established the right to privacy in marital affairs, giving women the right to avail of contraception, thereby giving them control over their own bodies.

Another factor which may be relevant here also was that while Kavanagh was a bachelor (and almost certainly a virgin) when he wrote The Great Hunger, Michael Hartnett was happily married (at the time) and living with his wife Rosemary and their two young children, Niall and Lara, ‘in exile out foreign in Glantine’.  Patrick Kavanagh wrote about the destitution and despair of Irish country life of the 40s and 50s and though Michael Hartnett knew that world also from his childhood (for example in A Small Farm) he depicts a changing Ireland in The Retreat of Ita Cagney, an Ireland where women play a more central role.

Section 1
The poem opens in a very dramatic style. We are present at an old-style Irish wake – a scene very common in Hartnett’s poetry (Collected Poems 103). The narrator informs us that ‘their barbarism did not assuage the grief’. These ‘barbarians’ paradoxically are dressed in ‘polished boots’ and ‘Sunday clothes’ and accompanied by the ‘drone of hoarse melodeons’ – all typical features of a traditional Irish wake. It is night-time and it is raining. The poet uses rich similes to describe the atmosphere; ‘snuff lashed the nose like nettles’ and the local keeners fulfilled their ‘toothless praising of the dead / spun on like unoiled bellows’. Now we are introduced to Ita Cagney, the dead man’s widow. Her name is a Saint’s name; Ita or Íde is synonymous with West Limerick, particularly West Limerick’s ancient past.  Her grief on the death of her husband has taken her by surprise and she gives a hint as to their relationship when she says ‘the women who had washed his corpse / were now more intimate with him / than she had ever been.’ This may suggest a great disparity in ages between them although the Irish version gives a slightly different perspective on her grief when it reveals that they had only been married a year: ‘a bhean chéile, le bliain anois’ (his wife, now for only a year). Now, on a whim, she leaves the raucous wake and beats her hasty retreat. This is emphasised by the metaphor, ‘the road became a dim knife’. She has not planned this move but ‘instinct neighed around her / like a pulling horse’.

Section 2
The second movement follows the strict requirements of the Dánta Grá and there are striking stylistic differences between the English and Irish versions. The Irish version consists of eight quatrains each describing Ita Cagney’s classical appearance. The English version is in free-verse and describes in minute detail Ita Cagney’s head from ‘her black hair’ to her throat which ‘showed no signs of age’. Her hair is black save for a single rib of grey which stands out ‘like a steel filing on a forge floor’. The poet here obviously calling on his Maiden Street childhood and scenes from John Kelly’s forge which he had already immortalised in verse (Collected Poems 104).

He then describes her brow, her eyebrows, her eyes, ‘her long nose’, ‘her rose-edged nostrils’, her upper lip, her chin and jawline and finally her throat. The reason for this detail is to give us a sense of the formidable woman at the centre of this poem. She is described as having an almost aristocratic beauty. Having described her head in exact detail the final singular line comes as an anti-climax: ‘The rest was shapeless, in black woollen dress’. The over-riding sense, however, is of a woman in black as befits a woman in mourning but a woman nonetheless with a kind of Patrician beauty, a sense of being noble in her bearing beyond her class: ‘Her long nose was almost bone / making her face too severe’. Ironically, from my own limited meetings with Michael Hartnett, he too had this aura of nobility and even some extant photographs of the poet show that he wore his hair like a Senator of Rome – in my eyes, at least, it is imaginable that he too saw himself as a Patrician character!

I would point out also that there is a difference between the way Hartnett describes Ita Cagney and the way he introduces us to the raven-haired barmaid in the first section of Farewell to English. The barmaid is described with exaggerated classical phrases such as ‘mánla, séimh, dubhfholtach, álainn, caoin’.  Here in this poem, however, Hartnett does not indulge in this kind of hyperbole in his description of Ita Cagney.  She is not idealised or clichéd and Michael Hartnett is at pains to describe her as a real person and this realism makes the symbolism more rich and complex. Deep unhappiness and sadness have furrowed her brow: ‘One deep line, cut by silent days of hate’. Her first marriage was obviously not a happy one and there is even a hint that it was an arranged marriage as was the custom in the past: her ‘eyes / that had looked on bespoke love / seeing only to despise’.

Section 3
In this section of the poem, Ita has reached her destination – by accident or design we do not know. She has turned her back on a society that doesn’t value her and in a sense, the poem is about breaking with convention – as the poet himself has also recently done. Ita Cagney has rejected the old world of snuff and melodeons and observance of religious rituals and she is about to embrace a more sensual world. The half-door of this isolated cottage is opened by a man ‘halving darkness bronze’. The ‘bronze’ light of the gaslight gives way to ‘gold the hairs along his nose’.  He is wearing classic labourer’s garb, a blue-striped shirt without a collar with a stud at the neck which ‘briefly pierced a thorn of light’.  This chink of light in the dark night echoes Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘Advent’ where he says ‘through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder’.  Whereas Kavanagh, in his poetry, comes across as the quintessential 1950s Catholic, Michael Hartnett, in contrast, sees the ‘chink’ or open doorway as a new beginning in Ita Cagney’s life and not something to abstain from.

The poet uses juxtaposition here also to sharply contrast the male-dominated kitchen with its ‘odours of lost gristle / and grease along the wall’ and the arrival of a female whose ‘headscarf laughed a challenge’. The man closes the door on the world and both begin a relationship which will last ‘for many years’.  Again, here we are reminded of the parallels that exist between Ita and the poet who had only recently turned his back on the Dublin literary scene and a burgeoning poetic reputation and had moved with his young family to rural West Limerick to follow his own ‘exquisite dream’ (Walsh 100).

Section 4
In this section, the couple have both decided ‘to live in sin’ ignoring the religious and social mores of the time. Their experience has taught them that having a big wedding for the sake of the neighbours ‘later causes pain’. Ita has already learnt to her cost that a very public wedding can, within a year, end ‘in hatred and in grief’. The expenses incurred in buying ‘the vain white dress’, in having to pay ‘the bulging priest’ and endure ‘the frantic dance’ is not for them. For them, it would be akin to undergoing physical torture, as the insincere well-wishes of their neighbours would ‘land / like careful hammers on a broken hand’.  Anyway, in this house organised religion was not important; here ‘no sacred text was read’.  Instead, life was rudimentary and simple: ‘He offered her food: they went to bed’. Here, there was no ‘furtive country coupling’, hiding affections from friends and priest. Their only sin was that they had chosen ‘so late a moment to begin’.

This is the sensual ideal: their ‘Love’ doesn’t have to be transmuted and elevated to a higher level by the clergy; they don’t seek anyone’s blessing or approval for their actions. However, they are aware that there are consequences to their decision and that their actions will offend the locals and particularly the local clergy: ‘shamefaced chalice, pyx, ciborium / clanged their giltwrapped anger in the room’.  The couple have made their bed and now they must lie in it. They have decided to defy society and do their own thing.

Section 5
Section five sees the woman in labour and being taken by donkey and cart (or pony and trap) to the local town to be delivered.  It is night-time and it is raining.  She is shielded by her shawl and oilskins to protect her but all these layers cannot deflect the ‘direct rebuke and pummel of the town’. The couples secret intimacy now becomes a public matter as they have to call on outside help with the delivery.  Even now at this delicate moment as Ita prepares to give birth, disapproval is vehement:

and sullen shadows mutter hate
and snarl and debate
and shout vague threats of hell.

However, the ‘new skull’ will not wait, and ‘the new skull pushes towards its morning’ and Ita’s hopes and dreams are for the future as a new beginning and a new dispensation beckons.

Section 6
Section six is both a love song and a lament. Ita Cagney addresses her new-born with love and trepidation. She knows what will be said and she will try and protect her son from the venom and vitriol which she knows will come because of her actions. Her newborn is described lovingly with his ‘gold hair’ and ‘skin / that smells of milk and apples’. She wishes to cocoon her baby son and protect him from all the wickedness of the outside world as if he were in Noah’s Ark.  However, she knows in her heart that just as in the Bible story ‘a dove is bound to come’ with messages from the outside world ‘bringing from the people words / and messages of hate’. She knows that the ‘stain’ of what she has done will be passed like a baton of toxic shame, the preferred Irish weapon to ensure conformity, to the next generation:

They will make you wear my life
Like a hump upon your back.

She is also tormented by the fear that her son may come to blame her for the hatred he will be forced to endure and that he may internalise that hatred and that the cycle of hatred will continue.

Section 7
Section seven has echoes of the Garden of Eden. The child is growing up in splendid isolation in the West Limerick countryside. The language is sensual and earthy, ‘each hazel ooze of cowdung through the toes, / being warm, and slipping like a floor of silk…’. There are echoes here also of earlier Hartnett poems depicting his own idyllic childhood, ‘we were such golden children, never to be dust’ (Collected Poems 102). The young boy grows up and learns the lore of the countryside, gathering mushrooms ‘like white moons of lime’ and working the land with his father. His mother watches him grow ‘in a patient discontent’. The seasons come and go, spring, autumn, harvest, Christmas and their little cottage becomes ‘resplendent with these signs’.  There are echoes of an Edenic existence, unspoilt and idyllic, as ‘apples with medallions of rust / englobed a thickening cider on the shelf’.

Section 8
In section eight Ita speaks in a confessional manner. She is preparing for Christmas and decorating her little cottage with the traditional homemade crepe decorations. She is in a reflective mood and Hartnett uses a beautiful image to convey her reverie as she watches ‘the candles cry / O salutaris hostia’. There is a potent mix of residual religious imagery in these lines; the Christmas candles remind Ita of the traditional Catholic hymn sung at Benediction. The hymn invites us to ask for God’s help to persevere in our often difficult spiritual journey. The next image is also very traditional and every small farmhouse in Ireland contained at one time a red Sacred Heart lamp with its flickering flame:

I will light the oil –lamp till it burns
like a scarlet apple

This is clearer in the Irish version and stands as a good example of how both versions complement each other:

Anocht lasfad lampa an Chroí Ró-Naofa
agus chífead é ag deargadh
mar úll beag aibí

We notice here that while Ita Cagney may reject the public rites associated with the Catholic Church she still maintains elements of the traditional Christian practices. In some sense, I think we are also being given a glimpse of Michael Hartnett’s own views on religion here.  Traditional religious symbols and half-forgotten phrases from old Latin hymns are residual echoes of his own early religious experience: and for Michael Hartnett, and for many others of his generation, Catholicism was very much a child’s thing (see ‘Crossing the Iron Bridge’ ).

There then follows Ita’s ‘confession’ where she declares that she has not insulted God but that she has offended the ‘crombie coats and lace mantillas, / Sunday best and church collections’ – she has offended public morality and her chief offence has been that her happiness has not been blessed by the church and condoned by society at large. This is the climax of the drama and encapsulates the enduring tension that exists between the rights of the individual in society and the pressures on that individual to conform to acceptable social mores, especially as it applies to sexual love. As Allan Gregory sees it, ‘The poem shows, with imaginative sympathy and ethical discernment, how Ita Cagney, a widow, lives in a new free union, unblessed by the church and how, because of this, she is feared and loathed by society’ (McDonagh/Newman 145).

Section 9
The final movement in the poem sees the neighbours advance in a concerted ‘rhythmic dance’ to lay siege to Ita’s cottage. The language is violent and carries connotations of evictions carried out in the neighbourhood by the landlord class in the not too distant past. We are told that ‘venom breaks in strident fragments / on the glass’ and ‘broken insults clatter on the slates’. The neighbours are described as a ‘pack’, a mob, who ‘skulk’ and disappear into the foothills in order to regroup and to muster their forces for a final onslaught – waiting ‘for the keep to fall’.  Ita, a virtual prisoner in her own home, protects ‘her sleeping citizen’ and imagines the final attack ‘on the speaking avenue of stones / she hears the infantry of eyes advance’. The Irish version gives us further food for thought and is even more redolent with echoes of recent Irish history.  In the Irish version the phrase ‘she guards her sleeping citizen’ is rendered as ‘í féin istigh go scanrach / ag cosaint a saighdiúrín’ (herself inside terrified / protecting her little soldier boy’).  Furthermore, the final line ‘she hears the infantry of eyes advance’ is translated as ‘ó shúile dearga na yeos’. This word ‘yeos’ refers to the yeomanry, the infamous English Redcoats, and carries very loaded associations in the Gaelic folk memory – they were as hated as the Black and Tans or the Auxiliaries were in more recent history. The use of these words, especially in the Irish version of the poem emphasise and reinforce again the themes of social and historical oppression which are central to Hartnett’s thesis in this major statement of intent.

Conclusion
This poem was the first to be written by Hartnett during the transitional phase in the mid-seventies after he had set up home in Glendarragh. He realises that little has changed since he wrote ‘A Small Farm’ – all the ‘perversions of the soul’ are still to be found in Camas and Rooska and Sugar Hill and Carrickerry.  However, he does seem to hint in this poem that a better way is possible if we are brave enough to take it, like Ita Cagney, like Michael Hartnett himself, and like Mary McGee.

If we accept that Ita Cagney ‘retreat’ is a parallel for his own ‘retreat’ from English, then it seems that he is prophesying tough times ahead for himself and his new artistic direction. His ‘retreat’ will not be received well by either side. In earlier poems, he has depicted the old Gaelic world, represented by Brigid Halpin and Camas, as a perverse, pagan and ignorant place. He will have to be as strong-willed and stubborn as Ita Cagney has been in order to survive, but for Hartnett as for Ita embracing the life retreated to is worth this sacrifice.

The poem depicts Ita Cagney as the modern-day Saint Ita / Naomh Íde, and an able successor to his grandmother Bridgid Halpin, who, according to Hartnett, never adjusted to the ‘new’ Ireland which emerged in the twentieth century.  Hartnett looks towards the hills and the wooded slopes of the Mullach a Radharc Mountains for answers to an age-old torment which has been a blemish on the Irish psyche. And he sees that there is hope – Ita Cagney, a young widow, ‘retreats’ to a new life and though her union is unblessed by the church she is prepared to defend her decision despite the disapproval of society.  She becomes, as Kennelly suggests, ‘a visionary critic of the society that hounds and isolates her’.  In effect, she was, like Hartnett himself, a half-century at least before her time and she deserves to be feted as the patroness of a more modern and liberated Ireland which she longed for instinctually. Those instincts beckoned her to forsake her old life of convention and conformity and create a new beginning and a new world for herself where love reigned over hate, victorious.

Works Cited
Hartnett, Michael. The Retreat of Ita Cagney (Cúlú Íde). Dublin: Goldsmith Press, 1975.
Hartnett, Michael. Adharca Broic, Gallery Books, Oldcastle, County Meath, 1978.
Hartnett, Michael. Collected Poems, ed Peter Fallon, Gallery Books, Gallery Press, Oldcastle, County Meath, 2001.
Hartnett, Michael. A Book of Strays, Gallery Books, Oldcastle, County Meath, 2002.
Hartnett, Michael., ‘Why write in Irish?’, Irish Times, (26th August 1975).
Gillespie, Elgy., ‘Michael Hartnett’, The Irish Times, (5th March 1975),  p.10
Jordan, J., Review, Irish Independent (3rd. February 1979), p.7.
Kennelly, Brendan. reviewing Michael Hartnett, Collected Poems, Volume I, Poetry Ireland Review Issue 15.
O’Driscoll, Dennis., Interview, Metre Magazine, II (2001).
McDonogh, John and / Newman, Stephen. (eds), Remembering Michael Hartnett, Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2006.
Moynihan, Maurice., Speeches and Statements of Eamon de Valera, Dublin, 1980.
Walsh, Pat. A Rebel Act: Michael Hartnett’s Farewell to English, Mercier Press, Cork, 2012.

Other Works Referenced
Patrick Kavanagh, The Great Hunger: A Poem, Cuala, 1942, Irish University Press, 1971.

I would like to acknowledge the considerable assistance given to me by my son, Don Hanley, a Hartnett scholar in his own right, in the preparation and editing of this blog post – one of the many welcome positives emerging from the COVID-19 Lockdown!

 

5Q5T0287
Brigid Halpin’s cottage in Camas. The photograph was taken in 2017 before renovations began by the new owners. Photograph by Dermot Lynch, Limerick Leader.

Poems by my cousin, Bernie Crawford

image

Between the Pages of the Limerick Leader

Sometimes, when she didn’t have the time
to write long letters, my mother would roll up
a copy of the Limerick Leader, wrap a brown
envelope around the middle and address it:
PO Box 10, Mapoteng, Kingdom of Lesotho.
Printed material was cheaper than letter post, much
cheaper than parcel post and my mother loved a bargain.
Afternoons after school I walked
to the tin-roofed post office, its sky-blue walls dulled
with red dust from gravel roads, and in the lazy sunshine
‘Me Vero passed my mail to me. Recognising
my mother’s hand on a newspaper, I’d be full
of excitement for what I’d find between the pages:
a white cotton shirt, mauve and pink sweet peas
from her garden, pressed between photos
of a supper social and the Ballylanders notes,
and once, a matching set of soft, silk underwear.
She told me afterwards she got the nice lady in Todds
to help her choose, but insisted on no underwire.
She didn’t want to give away our little secret.

 

lesotho2-1592

Leaving for Lesotho

My father gave his nod to the morning: he’d shaved,
wore the trousers of his second-best suit,
(was it already flapping a little loose?)
his braces over a portly shape,
a deep wine of summer shirt.
He wasn’t travelling to the airport, said he’d let
my mother go with me. Before we left I went
out to him. He was fixing netting over fruit bushes
to stop jackdaws from taking his harvest. It wasn’t
his way to say much but he offered me a fistful
of freshly picked juicy goose gobs. Our mouths
full of their redolent taste, we walked together
to the front steps to take photos. Later,
much later, I went over and over what
I could/should have said. Instead, I reached up
and flicked a piece of newspaper from his face,
must have nicked himself while shaving.
We posed on the top step, his hands
casually nesting my shoulders, there where
we recorded all our comings and goings.
He came as far as the gate, said he knew
I was well able to look after myself but still . . .
I turned to wave from the car. That was the last time
I saw him, standing under the bough of roses
wiping his face with the back of his hand.

Ballylandersstreet
‘The Street’ – Ballylanders, Co. Limerick

House Work

Since January stole my tongue and tied it
into knots, the house has become a blank verse.
My hands repeat a cleaning rhyme in every stanza,
I pack metaphors into drawers, layer them
on shelves in the hot press among folded towels.
Sparkling saucepans, spilling stolen poetry, hang
from the freshly-painted bracket over the sink.
The old carpet is hoovered pink in borrowed time
and on the windowsill, the amaryllis blooms
its second bloom, overwatered with words.
In the kitchen, I serve page after page of tasty bites,
baked potatoes filled with buttery half-baked similes.
A lattice of deftly crafted pastry lines criss-cross
an apple pie and even the dog hasn’t escaped. Long
walks have compressed her into a revised version of herself.

Allotment-2

Clipped Life

They all said he wouldn’t last a hurry
what with Iris gone
But he knocked their wind ’n all
Two days after funeral
He was down allotment by ten
Took thermos with him
That became his way, bought paper
Meals-on-wheels every other day
Picked up some eggs at corner shop
Pension day he chanced two bob each way
I went with Mum and timed those visits
in cups of Lipton’s, dunked ginger nuts
He said George popped in too
Not regular, mind you
He still went down pub
early evening ’fore crowd came in
Half a bitter, back home
Watched telly an hour or so
The only time I heard him smile
was the day he told Mum and me
about the colour of purple-blue
flowers that came up between the cabbages
from bulbs he’d dug in
two days after Iris passed.

GN4_DAT_9817257.jpg--limerick_farmers_worried_over_cow_dung_court_case

Bringing Home the Cows

He struts
in the middle of the road
in the middle of the afternoon
His buttocks tight in blue denim
jiggle like g’s in the middle
of a giggle
He saunters his strut
all over the road
No one can pass
I shift from fifth to first
feast on his arrogant rear end
so cocksure
He flicks
an occasional switch
off a cow’s backside
Their full udders oscillate
like giant pendulums
and lull me
In my car
behind him
in the middle of the afternoon
on my way to Active Ageing Yoga
I’m thrumming full
of humming birds

d30s299-02181956-244d-4f50-a845-0d554d3eaa58

Impure Thoughts and Beethoven

Confession began
with an examination of conscience:
telling lies, five times,
fighting with her sisters,
stealing gobstoppers,
popping a clove rock under the tongue
when Moll Foley’s back was turned.
These were straightforward sins,
venial things that could be wiped clean
with a swipe of the clerical cloth.
It was the entertainment of impure thoughts
that swamped her. Her fingers played them
in the pocket of her winter coat,
as she dawdled to school
in November rain and January cold.
She tucked them up the puffed sleeves
of her summer dress,
and pushed them high on the swing
until they hovered in the air like dandelion wisps.
They entertained her.
But she must have entertained them too
because when she mastered Für Elise
on the piano they trembled to her tune.
Semi-quavers quivered her belly,
notes staccatoed down below,
and even more so when she glided forward
on the stool to reach the pedals.
Impure thoughts became interwoven
forever after with Beethoven.
Quiet Please
I don’t have one kind thought in my head
This is not the poem I intended to write
The gnawing teeth of a bushman saw
are cutting into my frontal lobe
I swallow down screams
The steady drip of commentary
to her companion pockmark my eardrum
I want to remove my silk sock
and stuff it in her mouth
I believed in freedom of speech
I scan the bus for another seat
Calculate travel time to Dublin
Plug my ears with a scratchy serviette
The words of her mosquito buzz penetrate
I clutch the rolled-up Irish Times in my hand
Brief moments of reprieve
Sweetness like Greek honey
trickling onto a parched palette
Eyes at rest in a dark room
after the dazzle of fireworks
And then it starts again
I look up misophonia on my iPhone
Strong, negative feelings to trigger sounds
Not to be confused with Hyperacusis
An increased negativity to certain frequencies
For me she strikes the wrong note
again and again. Two hours into the journey
the motion of the bus lulls her to a sporadic silence
I am newly disappointed when she pauses
so thoroughly am I wallowing in her lack of modulation.

Bernie-Crawford-300x292

Bernie Crawford, originally from Ballylanders, County Limerick now lives in Galway and in 2019 was awarded a bursary by Galway County Council to work on her first collection. Her poetry has been published widely in journals including Poetry Ireland Review, the North magazine, and Mslexia. A selection of her poetry is featured in The Blue Nib Chapbook 3. She is on the editorial board of the poetry magazine Skylight 47.

Michael Hartnett’s 26 Pubs at Christmas!

Hartnett by the Bridge in Newcastle West
Michael Hartnett in pensive mood by the River Arra in Newcastle West in the 1970s. Photo credit to Limerick Leader Photo Archives

Michael Hartnett arrived back in Newcastle West after nearly fifteen years of ‘exile’, around 1975.  He then imposed a further exile on himself by deciding to settle with his wife Rosemary and his two young children, Niall and Lara, ‘out foreign in Glantine’.  Thus began one of his most productive periods as a poet – a fact which has been largely overlooked by critics and academics to this very day.

The decade from 1975 to 1985 in Glendarragh, Templeglantine was arguably the most productive of his career.  Adharca Broic was published in 1978, followed by An Phurgóid in 1983, Do Nuala: Foighne Crainn in 1984 and his fourth collection in Irish, An Lia Nocht, appeared in 1985.  During this period, he also undertook the translation of Daibhi Ó Brudair’s poems which were published in 1985.    In parallel to this ‘serious’ output, he was writing and entertaining the locals with ballads, some serious or semi-serious like ‘A Ballad on the State of the Nation’, which was distributed as a one-page pamphlet like the ballads of old and even included original lino cuttings by local artist Cliodhna Cussen. Other ballads were more contentious and even semi-libellous (or fully slanderous!) such as ‘The Balad (sic) of Salad Sunday’ and ‘The Duck Lovers Dance’.  These latter creations were written under the very appropriate nom de plume, ‘The Wasp’!

It has to be remembered that at this time Newcastle West and its West Limerick hinterland was booming.  The Alcan plant in Aughinish Island near Askeaton was under construction and every man, woman and child were working there.  Added to this, every spare room was occupied as up to 4,000 workers from all over Ireland were involved in the construction phase of the project.

In late 1980 Hartnett began work on his best ballad and the one which is most loved and recited to this day, the ‘Maiden Street Ballad’.  The ballad stretches out for 47 verses and is a compendium of much of what he had written in prose about Newcastle West in articles for The Irish Times, for Magill magazine and for the local Annual Observer, the annual publication of the Newcastle West Historical Society during the 60s and early 70s.  There are also echoes of other local poems such as ‘Maiden Street’ and ‘Requiem for John Kelly, Blacksmith’ included among the verses of the ballad.

In his own mind, Hartnett had lofty ambitions for the project – the ballad was to be Newcastle West’s own Cannery Row.  Indeed, in the Preface to the ballad Hartnett wrote of his affection for his home place:

Everyone has a Maiden Street.  It is the street of strange characters, wits, odd old women and eccentrics; also a street of hot summers, of hop-scotch and marbles: in short the street of youth.  But Maiden Street was no Tir na nÓg … Human warmth and poverty often go hand in hand … The object of this ballad is to invoke and preserve ‘times past’ and to do so without being too sentimental … But this ballad is not all grimness.  I hope it is humorous in spots.  It was not written in mockery but with affection – part funny song, part social history.

‘Maiden Street Ballad’ was published by local entrepreneur Davy Cahill and his The Observer Press ‘with the help of members of Newcastle West Historical Society’.  Copies of the original are much sought after on eBay and elsewhere to this day.  It carried a very eloquent dedication, ‘This ballad was composed by Michael Hartnett in Glendarragh, Templeglantine, County Limerick in the month of December 1980 as a Christmas present for his father Denis Harnett (sic)’.  His long-time friend and fellow poet, Gabriel Fitzmaurice is fulsome in his praise for the ‘Maiden Street Ballad’:

… it is unquestionably the best ballad he wrote during this period.  It is a celebration of his native place in which he describes mainly the period 1948 – 51, the time of his childhood; it also describes the Newcastle West of the late 1970s during which time he lived in Templeglantine (McDonagh/Newman, p.107).

‘Maiden Street Ballad’ was set to the air of ‘The Limerick Rake’ which Hartnett himself described as ‘the best Hiberno-English ballad ever written in this country’.  Hartnett was drawing on a rich tradition of local balladeers ‘like Aherne and Barry before me’, but there are also echoes here of Patrick Kavanagh and such ballads as ‘If Ever You Go to Dublin Town’.  It is a matter of record that after early skirmishes in various hostelries in Dublin in the early 60s both Hartnett and Kavanagh came to an understanding and Hartnett tells us, ‘I used to drink with him and indeed back horses for him (he owes me £3-10s for the record)’ (O’Driscoll interview, p.144).

Writing in The Irish Times, June 10, 1969, Hartnett relates a story about his father which may have sown the seeds for the famous virtual pub-crawl which is such a central feature of ‘Maiden Street Ballad’ and which is the focus of this essay.  Speaking about his relationship with his father he recalls:

I sat there in the small kitchen-cum-living room, innocently working out the problems my father set me: ‘If it took a beetle a week to walk a fortnight, how long would it take two drunken soldiers to swim out of a barrel of treacle?’  I never worked it out. Or, “How would you get from the top of Church Street to the end of Bridge Street without passing a pub”?  He did supply the answer to that, which indeed is the logical answer for any Irishman: “You don’t pass any – you go into them all.”

‘Maiden Street Ballad’ contains a number of autobiographical segments; from his early days in Lower Maiden Street where they rented from Legsa Murphy; then later he eloquently documents the move to the new housing scheme in Assumpta Park.  However, the most notorious segment is the ten ribald verses from 27 to 37 which describe a virtual pub crawl of all of Newcastle West’s 26 public houses which were doing business in 1980.  These verses portray Hartnett at his best, they are witty, they are caustic, they are slanderous; they poke fun at his friends, and especially at his brothers and cousins.  BUT there is also great sadness.

The ‘pub crawl’ begins in Stanza 27 and the poet bemoans the fact that he visits too many pubs.  The first pub mentioned is Dinny Pa’s, owned and run by Dinny Pa Aherne.  The pub was situated where The Weekly Observer now has its offices.  In more recent times this pub was owned by another doggie man, Ted Danaher from Knockaderry.  By the way, the present pub known as The Forge which was next door to Dinny Pa’s is not mentioned in the Ballad because it was closed at the time and has only reopened in recent years.  This pub was originally the property of J.J. Hough and his wife Nora (nee Dore).  The pub was subsequently bought by John Sullivan from Killarney and he eventually sold it on and it has had a number of incarnations in recent years.  Next, he mentions The Silver Dollar in Lower Maiden Street, which was originally owned by Bill Flynn.  By the 1970s The Silver Dollar had been passed down to his daughter Margaret and her husband John Kelly who was originally from Broadford and who was at that time a Fine Gael County Councillor. He then takes a big jump to the other side of town and mentions Mike Flynn’s in Churchtown, now The Ballintemple.

In Stanza 28 he mentions four more pubs beginning with McCarthy’s in Maiden Street which was owned by John McCarthy and his wife, Clare Finucane, and was known then as The Tall Ships (today trading as Ned Kelly’s).  He then mentions a cluster of three pubs just off The Square, heading up Churchtown.   Pat Whelan was by 1980 probably one of the most successful publicans in the town and he ran a very successful pub next door to what was then Crowley’s Drapery.  Directly across the road was The Greyhound, owned and run by Lena Barrett.  Finally, by all accounts, the poet nearly landed himself in choppy legal waters with the line, ‘and I have been known to peep in to Peep Outs’.  Seemingly the owner was known to occasionally peep out to see if there were any prospective customers on their way and, like many other unfortunates in the town quickly gained a none too complimentary nickname for his troubles.  In an effort to give his ballad added gravitas Hartnett added some ‘scholarly’ footnotes (to the first 20 verses only) and in one he tells us that, ‘It used to be said that if a stranger walked from Forde’s Corner (now Burke’s Corner at the junction of The Square and Upper Maiden Street) he’d have a nickname before he got to Leslie’s Ating House (where, in recent years, Dickie Liston had his shop in ‘Middle’ Maiden Street)’.

In Stanza 29 he mentions two other pubs who were making waves in the town in the late 70s.  Tom Meaney was doing a roaring trade in The Turnpike – also the venue for Zanadu’s Nite Club – and to encourage punters he held quizzes on Sundays in which Des Healy and Joe White excelled.  He also mentions Mike Kelly who at that time was running the Ten Knights of Desmond pub in the Square.  He was leasing the pub from Jimmy and Mary Lee and the pub is now being run by their son, Joe.  Mike Kelly was endeavouring to raise standards and expectations and so had peanuts and cheese available for his ‘better-class clients’ who ‘dine free there on Sundays, the chancers’.

Stanza 30 mentions The Tally-Ho and this was situated across the road from the Carnegie Library which at that time housed St. Ita’s Secondary School, owned and managed by Jim Breen and which, of course, had been Hartnett’s alma mater.  Some ruffians in the town claimed that The Tally-Ho was the unofficial staff room for St. Ita’s – but that’s for another day!  He tells us he’d ‘go there more often but Mike Cremin sings’.  Nearby on the corner was John Whelan’s pub.  John was Pat Whelan’s father and was a legend in GAA circles having given a lifetime to Newcastle West, West Board and County Board administration.  This was the local of Hartnett’s ‘cousin’ Billy O’Connor, or Billy the Barber as he was better known and who was, in fact, married to Hartnett’s aunt, Kit Harnett.

In Stanza 31 he doesn’t name a pub but I presume he is still in The Corner House with his relations and various ‘cousins’!  Hartnett’s brother, Dinny was a postman in town at this time and Michael makes sure to mention Dinny a number of times, and not always in glowing terms.  Here he joins his brother, and some of Dinny’s colleagues, Tony Roche and Davy Horan for a session.   The Christmas flavour of the ballad is maintained when he says, ‘You can hear Dinny laugh miles up the Cork Road / as he adds up his Christmas donations!’.

Stanza 32 is dedicated to Barry’s Pub in Bridge Street.  He describes the pub as being a little above the ordinary.  Of course, we must remember, many of these recommendations were given with a view to future free pints, post-publication! However, the opposite could also be the case and after the publication of the infamous, ‘The Balad of Salad Sunday’, Hartnett rather ruefully declared that as a result ‘I was barred from thirteen pubs’.[1]   According to the poet, John and Peg Barry ran a classy establishment and ‘if you want to read papers you don’t buy at home’ or if ‘you want a hot whiskey with more than one clove’ then you should give them a call!

Stanza 33 is dedicated to another favourite of Hartnett’s, The Shamrock Bar in South Quay.  In the late 70’s Damien Patterson and Tony McCarthy undertook an extensive renovation of Fuller’s Folly, part of the Desmond Castle complex and fronting on to the Arra River near the bridge at the bottom of Bridge Street.  Indeed, to add to their conservation work Tony McCarthy and others decided that they would introduce different species of duck to the river to enhance its attractiveness.  This project, years ahead of its time, entailed setting up a breeding programme and sourcing young ducklings and, as a consequence, this gave rise to numerous fundraising ventures.  The Duck Lovers Committee set up their headquarters in The Shamrock Bar, managed at the time by Tony Sheehan and his wife, Peg (nee Devine), who were both immortalised by Hartnett in his ballad, ‘The Duck Lovers Dance’.   The Shamrock was later acquired by George Daly and his wife Breda and Hartnett was a regular there and benefitted from their generosity and patronage. In return, he penned a beautiful song in their honour, ‘Daly’s Shamrock Bar’.

Hartnett had come back home to find and nurture his Gaelic roots and to immerse himself in the language and traditions of the past.  Here at home, he was universally known as ‘The Poet’ and this title was bestowed on him as a nickname of honour.  However, like the old Gaelic poets such as Ó Brudair, Ó Rathaille, Sean Ó Tuama and Aindreas MacCraith before him, being mentioned by the poet could make you famous for all the wrong reasons.  Suffice it to say that sometimes it was an honour to have a poet in your midst during a drinking session but you needed to be on your best behaviour or you could be shamed for life.  For example, Hartnett tells us that in The Shamrock, ‘You’ll see Jimmy Deere and he making soft farts, / you’ll see Terry Hunt, he’s a martyr for darts – / he spends every weeknight nearly bursting his arse / to bring home a ham or a turkey.’!

Stanza 34 mentions seven iconic public houses.  Many of these were very small premises and they also sold groceries and other items to their loyal patrons.  For example, the poet says he usually, but not exclusively, visits Donal Scanlon’s in Upper Maiden Street ‘when the new spuds come in’.  It is interesting that in South Quay you had four pubs probably within a hundred metres of each other – Seamus Connolly’s, The Shamrock, Gerry Flynn’s and The Crock of Gold, owned by Moss Dooley.  All but one remains today – Gerry Flynn’s is now Clery’s having been owned by Paddy Sammon for a while and then been won in a raffle sometime before the Celtic Tiger began to roar in earnest!   He also mentions Walsh’s which was situated on the corner of Lower Bridge Street and North Quay.  This imposing pub has recently undergone major renovations but regrettably is not open for business at present.  Cremin’s was in Upper Maiden Street where The Dresser now carries on business.  This pub had somewhat of a coloured reputation and was run by the Cremin sisters, Nora, Mary, Gretta and their mother.  Gretta Cremin was also for many years the church organist in the nearby parish church     He also mentions The Heather in Bridge Street which was owned and run by the Duggan family.  However, today Hartnett’s statue in The Square points longingly across to Ned Lynch’s, still run by the man himself, the last survivor of the old stagers.

FullSizeRender (14)
Ned Lynch giving his traditional rendering of  ‘The Balad of Salad Sunday’ during Éigse 2018

Stanza 35 mentions two other very well-known pubs – Dan Cronin’s pub in the Square and Cullen’s in Upper Maiden Street.  Cullen’s was formerly known as Dolly Musgraves (Gearoid Whelan, son of Pat and grandson of John, carries on the tradition today on this site in a newly refurbished Sports Pub).  Dolly Musgraves pub had a special place in Hartnett’s affections because he tells us that it was here (in the company of his great friend and partner in crime, Des Healy) that he had his first pint – no names, no pack drill, but suffice it to say they were barely out of short pants!  He also fondly remembers The Sunset Lounge in The Square (later to become the TSB Bank premises and now Ladbrokes Betting Office) which was owned by Bill Hinchy and his wife Kit.  Hartnett tells us that he had many fond memories of playing chess there with Bill Buckley.  Finally, as if by way of a postscript he mentions the bar in The Motel which was a bit out of the way being situated on the main Limerick – Killarney Road.  He tells us that he didn’t frequent this bar too often because of its political links to Fianna Fáil – Mike himself being a tried and trusted paid-up member of The Labour Party!

Stanza 36 mentions the final two bars close to his heart – The Central Hotel which at that time was owned and run by Arthur and Vera Ward.  It had been known as Egan’s Hotel at one time and even though the title Hotel still remained it was really only a bar – today it trades simply as The Central Bar. Last but not least he mentions Seamus Connolly’s little pub in South Quay.  Hartnett’s fondness for Seamus Ó Conghaile was obvious because he could speak Irish and after his proclamation on the stage of the Peacock Theatre in 1974, Hartnett had returned home with the express intention of henceforth writing only in Irish. He was, therefore, doubly glad of every opportunity to frequent Seamus Connolly’s to imbibe at ease in convivial company and also improve on his Irish language skills.

Stanza 37 ends this section of the Ballad and Hartnett hopes that we won’t consider that he is ‘mad for the drink’!  During the virtual tour of all the 26 pubs in town, he has been wistful and rueful, and only his true friends and relations have felt the full brunt of his devilment and ball-hopping.  Others elsewhere in the ballad, such as employers and charitable institutions do not escape the cold breeze of his displeasure but here he is among friends and in his element.  However, it also has to be said that these verses also tend to paper over the cracks that were beginning to appear in Hartnett’s serious project – to return to his roots in West Limerick and to write only in Irish.  He was drinking heavily by this time and his marriage to Rosemary was beginning to show signs of strain.  The Ballad is dedicated to his father, Denis Hartnett, with love and gratitude.  It has to be seen as a poet’s gift, a poet who was penniless with little else to give except his considerable talent as a poet and who was now finally writing ‘a few songs for his people’.  His father Denis passed away in 1984 and shortly afterwards his marriage came to its inevitable conclusion and Hartnett left his hometown for good to return to Dublin.  So, for me, reading the Ballad today, and despite the jokes and the jibes and the critical social commentary, the overriding emotion is one of sadness.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that there were 56 pubs in Newcastle West in the 40s and 50s.  However, the years have passed, the Celtic Tiger has come and gone in Newcastle West and today, instead of the 26 pubs that were doing business in 1980 there are only 11 open for business – and as I mentioned earlier this figure includes The Forge which didn’t feature in Hartnett’s original 26 because it was not trading in 1980! If you wanted to do the ‘Twelve Pubs at Christmas’ in Newcastle West today you’d have to end up in Hanley’s in Knockaderry for your twelfth!  Or maybe the Golf Club in Ardagh?  

I mentioned earlier his father setting the young Hartnett a riddle: “How would you get from the top of Church Street to the end of Bridge Street without passing a pub”?   In 1975 if you were to visit all the pubs from the top of Churchtown to the end of Bridge Street you would have had to visit nine pubs in all, today in 2019 the number has been reduced to three (if you pass by both banks on your way through The Square) – The Ballintemple, recently under new management, The Central in Bridge Street, and last but not least, Ned Lynch’s in The Square!  If you take the long way round The Square you can add in Dan Cronin’s and Lee’s!

Alas, Shane Ross, our Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, has been instrumental in ensuring that the pub trade in rural Ireland has seen better days and the old dispensation is no more.  In a radio interview on WLR 102 on 26th September 2019 to promote the upcoming Éigse, Gabriel Fitzmaurice recalled a journey home to Glendarragh with Michael Hartnett in the late 70s after having visited a number of the hostelries mentioned earlier in this article.  Gabriel was acting as a willing chauffeur on this occasion and on their way up Old Bearna, Michael turned to him and said: ‘Gabriel, for God’s sake, take it easy – the future of Irish poetry is in this car’.

‘Maiden Street Ballad’ today stands as a unique piece of social history as well as being a very beautiful, and funny poem, which I would strongly urge you to read or re-read. (The full Ballad, including ‘scholarly’ footnotes, is included in The Book of Strays, published by Gallery Books in 2002 and reprinted in 2015). Many of Hartnett’s prose pieces for The Irish Times and elsewhere in the 70s show him to be an astute and acerbic social commentator and we can also see clear evidence of this in the 47 verses of ‘Maiden Street Ballad’:

And in times to come if you want to dip

back into the past, through these pages flip

and, if you enjoy it, raise a glass to your lips

and drink to the soul of Mike Hartnett!

 

I would like to acknowledge the encyclopaedic help received from Sean Kelly and his wife Mary in compiling this piece of nostalgia!

 

 

 Footnotes

[1] In an interview with James Stack in 1987 as part of James’s thesis for his degree in English from UCG.   Audio available in Memories from the Past: Episode 305

Works Cited

McDonagh, J. and Newman, S., Remembering Michael Hartnett.  Dublin, Four Courts Press, 2006.

O’Driscoll, Dennis., Interview with Michael Hartnett, in Metre, Issue 11, Winter 2001-2002

FullSizeRender (9)

Exposure by Seamus Heaney – An Analysis

FullSizeRender (13)
“In the Attic”, a portrait of Seamus Heaney by the artist Jeffrey Morgan now hanging in the HomePlace Centre in Bellaghy, Co. Derry.

Exposure

 

It is December in Wicklow:
Alders dripping, birches
Inheriting the last light,
The ash tree cold to look at.

A comet that was lost
Should be visible at sunset,
Those million tons of light
Like a glimmer of haws and rose-hips,

And I sometimes see a falling star.
If I could come on meteorite!
Instead I walk through damp leaves,
Husks, the spent flukes of autumn,

Imagining a hero
On some muddy compound,
His gift like a slingstone
Whirled for the desperate.

How did I end up like this?
I often think of my friends’
Beautiful prismatic counselling
And the anvil brains of some who hate me

As I sit weighing and weighing
My responsible tristia.
For what? For the ear? For the people?
For what is said behind-backs?

Rain comes down through the alders,
Its low conductive voices
Mutter about let-downs and erosions
And yet each drop recalls

The diamond absolutes.
I am neither internee nor informer;
An inner emigre, grown long-haired
And thoughtful; a wood-kerne

Escaped from the massacre,
Taking protective colouring
From bole and bark, feeling
Every wind that blows;

Who, blowing up these sparks
For their meagre heat, have missed
The once-in-a-lifetime portent,
The comet’s pulsing rose.

– Seamus Heaney

 

Commentary
‘Exposure’ was written in 1975 and significantly is the last poem in the poet’s volume, North. Not only that, but ‘Exposure’ is the final poem in a six poem sequence grouped under the title The Singing School, a phrase borrowed from W. B. Yeats’ famous poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, which concludes that great collection. The poem itself is, to an extent, a reflective self-analysis, as Heaney takes stock of his life and poses a series of questions about his role and function as a poet. The poem depicts Heaney’s anxiety and discomfort with his position in society and with his role as a poet. The poem explores Heaney’s dilemma as ‘The Troubles’ detonate and resonate and invade his artistic space. He has removed himself from the North and like his friend Michael Longley, who had already moved to Carrigskeewaun in Mayo, he has thus acquired a new perspective from his cottage in Glanmore in County Wicklow. He is, however, troubled by self-doubt and uncertainty and hurt by the whispers, the innuendo, the charge that he hasn’t taken sides, that he has abandoned his people and taken the English ‘shilling’.

It is a ten stanza poem that is separated into quatrains. The lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme. They are composed in free verse, meaning there is no pattern of rhyme or rhythm. The poem opens, ‘It is December in Wicklow.’ December is deep winter in Ireland, characterised by its cold bracing wet weather, it is also the end of a year. This sets up a peaceful and tranquil scene providing time for self-reflection and a chance to reappraise his situation. This time affords him an opportunity to analyse his obvious anxiety and discomfort and the horrible tension that has arisen between his private persona and his very public career as a poet. It is a rainy, wintry month, the ‘alders [are] dripping,’ the ‘birches’ are fighting for the ‘last light,’ and ‘the ash tree’ is bare, too cold ‘to look at.’

It is obvious that his main source of frustration is that he feels that he is being dragged unwillingly into the current fraught political situation in his own native place. His former neighbours in Bellaghy have all been forced by circumstances to take sides and here, Bellaghy’s most famous son is seen to be ambivalent and non-committal. Earlier on in North, in the poem ‘Whatever You Say, Say Nothing’, he has made the famous statement:

The famous

Northern reticence, the tight gag of place
And times: yes, yes. Of the ‘wee six’ I sing
Where to be saved you only must save face
And whatever you say, say nothing.

In ‘Exposure’, then, we see the poet is under pressure from all sides to say something and he feels that he is being used by all sides for their own political ends. How then can he solve this dilemma? He tries to wrestle with this dilemma in his solitary walk in the Wicklow hills. He considers the inherent differences between a comet and a meteorite. A comet is predictable and appears after sunset on a set date once every four years or four hundred years. A ‘falling star’ or meteorite is totally unpredictable and appears randomly in the evening sky. The comet ‘visible at sunset’ is expected, it ‘should’ appear. Yet, the ‘falling star’ only ‘sometimes’ appears. Heaney himself admires the meteorite, the ‘falling star’. This is shown through the use of the exclamation mark. Unlike the comet which typically follows a cycle, a meteorite is free, it does not need to keep to a designated orbit. Rather, it is able to float and fall whenever and wherever it wishes. Here, Heaney is making the metaphorical comparison between the comet and the meteorite and his own role as a poet. He wishes to be able to express himself freely yet the political circumstances in Northern Ireland do not allow for such, it forces him to choose sides, and tries to drag him into the conflict. Here, Heaney poses an important question – is he to be simply another insignificant individual pushed around by politics or is he to be an independent figure able to freely voice his own thoughts?

In the next two stanzas, Heaney further ponders his role as a poet. He plaintively asks ‘How did I end up like this?’ There is a certain degree of torment shown through this as he sits, ‘weighing and weighing’ his worth. This repetition places emphasis on his vulnerable psychological state. He identifies two opposing groups: the rational ones with their ‘beautiful prismatic counselling’ and his enemies with their impenetrable ‘anvil brains’. He feels isolated from all groups and becomes an ‘inner émigré’ as he is unable to satisfy the demands of one, without conflicting with the others. Heaney is frustrated that he is unable to change the perceptions of those people, close-minded and devoted to their own beliefs. Once again, he questions his role as a poet; he questions himself as to who he is to please, who should he be serving – the minority, the various political groups or society as a whole?

This poem helps him resolve his dilemma and therefore it is a seminal poem in which he takes his lonely stand as an artist and refuses to be drawn in and forced to take sides – he will be his own man – the epiphany comes like Austin Clarke’s ‘The Lost Heifer’ appearing out of the mist. He clarifies the reference to ‘the alders’ in stanza one and this time the image is clearer and more definite:

Rain comes down through the alders,
Its low conductive voices
Mutter about let-downs and erosions
And yet each drop recalls

The diamond absolutes.

This is more hopeful as Heaney gradually comes to terms with himself. He realises, despite the rain causing ‘let-downs and erosions,’ it is able to ‘(recall) the diamond absolutes.’ Through his self-imposed ‘exile’ in Wicklow, he has ‘grown long-haired and thoughtful.’ He repudiates both extremes – the fanaticism of ‘the internee’ languishing ‘on some muddy compound’ in Long Kesk and the despicable betrayal of ‘the informer’. He emphatically states that ‘I am neither’. Instead, he has gained wisdom and realised that like the ‘wood-kerne,’ the Irish soldiers of old who having lost the battle retreat to the woods to regroup, he is able to use his writing as a way of controlling and fighting for his voice in society. His solitary trek through the winter woods has given him a deeper insight into his role as a poet in a society devastated by violence and divisions.

In ‘Exposure’, Heaney reflects on his changed circumstances and on his present situation living and writing in the quiet backwater of Glanmore in County Wicklow. He reflects on the great expectations being placed on him as a poet of standing. This marks a drastically different approach to that seen in earlier collections such as Death of a Naturalist. In this final poem of The Singing School sequence and the final poem in the collection, North, Heaney wonders whether his move South will have any effect. Will it give him the perspective he craves or will he be exposed to ridicule like the emperor without clothes in the children’s fable. He knows he is taking a risk and giving his critics and the ‘anvil brains’ ammunition to mortally wound him. What if after all the brouhaha he only produces the odd spark to illuminate the daily atrocities taking place further North when what the situation really needs is the arrival of a ‘comet’s pulsing rose’?

seamus-heaney-quote-lby9c9v

Michael Hartnett’s Travails in St. Ita’s Secondary School

Hartnett by the Bridge in Newcastle West
Michael Hartnett in pensive mood by the River Arra in Newcastle West in the 1970s. Photo credit to Limerick Leader Photo Archives

Michael Hartnett began Secondary School in September 1956.  He arrived in St. Ita’s Secondary School with a burgeoning reputation.  By that time he had had his first poem published in the Limerick Weekly Echo as far back as the 18th of June 1955. He was then thirteen and still a student in the Courtenay Boys National School. The poem was entitled ‘Camas Road’, and it described in particular detail the rural vista of the West Limerick townland of Camas at evening: ‘A bridge, a stream, a long low hedge, / A cottage thatched with golden straw’ (Book of Strays 67).  He sat his Intermediate Certificate in June 1959 and later in mid-September the results were published in the Limerick Leader and Hartnett from 28 Assumpta Park was first on the list having received a full set of seven honours.

Patrick J. O’Connor, later to be Dr. Patrick J. O’Connor, who for most of his academic life lectured and published extensively on human geography at the University of Limerick, entered the school as a first year in September 1959 and has vivid memories of the young Hartnett and saw him, in particular, as a shining role model to be emulated.  He describes Hartnett at that time as ‘a small, slight figure, bookish, often solitary, never a participant in play in the field opposite his house’.

In his evocative memoir, The New Houses, O’Connor also suggests that Hartnett, despite his excellent academic record, did not find favour with the school’s Principal and Manager, Jim Breen.  O’Connor held Jim Breen in high esteem and he says that he, ‘made a distinctively personal contribution during the lean years that saw a blossoming of second level education in this country.’  He goes on to say that he, ‘asserted a strong presence and, being a big man physically, he rarely had to repeat anything.  He was a strict disciplinarian, meticulous in attention to detail, but never petty or vindictive.  He led by example in the sense that his own work bore the stamp of discipline and commitment.’  The sight of his green Volkswagen Beetle, registration number AIU 524, was enough to elicit an instant quickening in the step of many a tardy pupil.

According to O’Connor, Mike Hartnett ‘was the target of persistent monitoring on the part of the headmaster, Jim Breen’.  Mike was a voracious reader and it seems that not all of his reading material was on the Prescribed English Syllabus and some of the literary works did not always find favour with the erstwhile headmaster.  According to O’Connor, it was the ‘skewed subject content that bothered Jim Breen’.  He made repeated raids on Hartnett’s gabháil of books.  Following these repeated attacks O’Connor says that in his eyes, ‘From the status of heroic scholar Michael Hartnett sank into disrepute’ as a result of this regular attention paid to him by the headmaster!

It seems he didn’t fare any better with his English teacher, Willie O’Donnell. According to Pat O’Connor, O’Donnell taught English at senior cycle level and employed strategies supremely well suited to cope with the rigours of the examination system.  A man well acquainted with the technicalities of language, he had a particular fondness for the double entendre, and one of his most favoured concerned the numbers of students from the school who would, ‘go down in history’!  Seemingly, he persistently charged his young student, Hartnett, with the indictable offence ‘of meditating the Muse’.  It was only a matter of time before the Empire struck back and Hartnett it seems planned and executed a number of retributions on Willie O’Donnell.  Even long after he had left the influence of St Ita’s, indeed long after he had left UCD, and while carrying out periodic commissions for The Irish Times in the Sixties and Seventies, he made a number of pointed references to his former school which were not seen as complimentary by management.  For example, in an article in The Irish Times on November 11th, 1968 he writes:

I left the national school in 1956 and lost an ally (Frank Finucane).  Secondary school came then, and I wrote many poems (all, fortunately, lost) and made a new enemy, my English teacher.  For five years I was beaten more often for ‘meditating the Muse’, as he called it than for lack of learning.  But my poetry changed for the better, not because of the school, but because I partook of an old Irish custom: the girl I loved at the time entered a convent.  This and the claustrophobia of Newcastle West, its rich and its poor, its bullying priest, turned me to write about myself …….. I was a poor man’s son in a secondary school, a place I had no right to be, as I was often reminded.

Harnett was never forgiven for all these indiscretions, by Jim Breen.  Even when he returned as a recognised poet to Newcastle West in the 1970s and lived for a decade ‘out foreign in Glantine’ he was not welcomed back with open arms to his old alma mater while Jim held sway – even when Michael’s son, Niall, was a student in the school in the early Eighties.

There was, however, one teacher in the school who recognised Hartnett’s latent talent and who was most attuned to this rebel without a cause and that was Dave Hayes. As a teacher, Dave Hayes brought style and panache to bear on the teaching of Latin.  According to Pat O’Connor, he was, ‘unquestionably a classical scholar of stature.’  This assessment was reinforced later during Dr O’Connor’s first year in UCD, when a well-known lecturer and future Minister for Education, John Wilson no less, could, in his view, ‘do no better than stand in the long shadow of Dave Hayes’.  Dave Hayes was probably responsible for ensuring that Hartnett continued his Secondary education in St.  Ita’s until he was nearly twenty years of age.  His earlier scholastic promise failed to develop, however, and he eventually left St. Ita’s with honours only in Irish and English – much to the chagrin of his father, Denis.

Jim Breen retired as Principal in 1977 but continued as Manager and owner of the school until his death in 1984.   Following his death, Des Healy, who had become Principal of the school on the untimely death of Noel Ruddle in 1981, took over the reins as Manager up until the school closed its doors on 29th May 1992.  Des Healy was a past pupil of the school and, indeed, had been a classmate of Hartnett’s during their time in school.  Des remained a lifelong friend of the poet, Michael Hartnett.

I will end this post with a true story.  Honestly!  I was there!  As I mentioned earlier,  Des was Principal of St. Ita’s Secondary School in the 1980s and Michael’s son Niall was a student in the school up until about 1985.  To add to the intrigue Michael’s brother Dinny was the local postman at the time.  One morning Des received a postcard from the poet delivered by hand to the school by Dinny the Postman.  The postcard, which no doubt had also been read by Dinny prior to delivery, read as follows:

Dear Des,

If I ever have any more children I won’t be sending them to your school.  This has nothing to do with the quality of education provided in your school – it’s just the principal of the thing.

I remain,

Yours truly,

Michael Hartnett

Des
Des Healy (former Principal of St. Ita’s Secondary School) poses by the statue of his friend Michael Hartnett in The Square, Newcastle West.

Works Cited

Hartnett, Michael, A Book of Strays, ed. Peter Fallon, Gallery Press, 2002.

O’Connor, Patrick J., The New Houses – A Memoir, Oireacht na Mumhan Books, 2009.

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

Further Reading

Read also blog post ‘Happy Memories of St. Ita’s Secondary School’  here..

‘Dances With Wolves’ by Michael Durack

Kevin Costner in Dancing With Wolves

Dances With Wolves

 

By Michael Durack

Watching ‘Dances With Wolves’ in Pass English,

the buffalo hunt has our undivided attention

until Teacher (aka Knows It All) pauses the video

to draw attention to a clever camera angle and to share

a priceless nugget about Native American tribal customs.

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

The tape rolls again while Dunbar courts Stands With A Fist

and logs his emotions in that classy leather-bound journal

beloved of lieutenants and stocked in Waterstone’s.

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

the braves groan and swear, and fan themselves

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

rees-mogg_tophat
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

thomashardy
Courtesy of AwestruckWanderer -Wordpress.com

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

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

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

Recited by Jeremy Irons

‘Afterwards’

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

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

            And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings

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

            Like an eyelid’s soundless blink

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

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

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

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

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

Recited by Judi Dench

‘In Time of the Breaking of Nations’

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

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

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

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

Read by Tom O’Bedlam

‘During Wind and Rain’

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

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

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

            Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs

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

 

Works Cited

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

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

Further Reading

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

773777-6
Journey of the Magi by Graham Pope

‘JOURNEY OF THE MAGI’ (1927)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ron-DiCianni-Simeons-Moment-Full
Simeon’s Moment by Ron DiCianni

 ‘A SONG FOR SIMEON’ (1928)

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

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

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

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

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

Before the time of cords and scourges and lamentation

Grant us thy peace.

Before the stations of the mountain of desolation,

Before the certain hour of maternal sorrow,

Low at this birth season of decrease,

Let the Infant, the still unspeaking the unspoken Word,

Grant Israel’s consolation

To one who has eighty years and no tomorrow.

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

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

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

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

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

Before the time of cords and scourges and lamentation

Grant us thy peace,

Before the stations of the mountain of desolation.

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

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

 Works Cited

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