The Poetry of Seamus Heaney: Some Recurring Themes

 

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

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

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

IRISHNESS – HISTORY, MYTHS, POLITICS

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

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

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A traditionally crafted Harvest Bow

PLACE AND LANDSCAPE

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

TRADITION AND IDENTITY

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

IDENTITY AND POETRY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And here is love

like a tinsmith’s scoop

sunk past its gleam

in the meal-bin.

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

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

Further Reading

You might also like to read some of the following:

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

 Digging

 Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Treasured Father-Son Memories Recounted at Opening of Éigse Michael Hartnett 2018

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Michael Hartnett’s son Niall gives the keynote speech on the first night of this year’s festival. “Poetry is my life and my life is poetry,” the words poet Michael Hartnett wrote in a letter to his son, Niall in 1998, the year before Michael died.

 

Niall read excerpts from that treasured letter on the opening night (Thursday 12 April 2018) of Éigse Michael Hartnett, the literary and arts festival which takes place each year in his father’s hometown of Newcastle West, Co. Limerick.

In a keynote speech which took its title from a line of Michael’s, The Possibility we have overlooked is the futureNiall Hartnett spoke movingly about his father and his work:

“He could weave a tapestry of a small town or an epic struggle at the highest level so seamlessly, you could not always tell which was which. Neither could he, I suspect, and did not see the point in separating the two: there is as much drama in Salad Sunday as there is in Sibelius! As much intrigue in Maiden Street as there was in Inchicore.”

“We need to honour this son of Newcastle West and the road less travelled he took to bridge many worlds early on. I feel we can best do this by encouraging ourselves and especially the young to choose unpredictable paths and unexpected destinies. Break the mould and proudly show others that you did. Invite the young, your family and friends to this festival and encourage them to nurture this legacy which will someday will be theirs. The future belongs to the young and they will carry all of this on we hope, but only if we engage them now! As the poet himself said: the Possibility we have Overlooked is the Future!” Niall added.

Officially opening the festival Mayor of the City and County of Limerick Cllr Stephen Keary said: “It is heart-warming to see that Michael is being celebrated in his hometown. Michael was loved by everyone in Newcastle West, who knew him through his words, as the poet, and I’m delighted that his son Niall is here this evening giving us an account of Michael as a father. There are many sides to people, such as Michael and it’s invaluable that we get an insight into these so that we can understand and appreciate the works of Michael Hartnett even more.”

Creative Writing Workshop
Creative Writing Workshop with Dr Robyn Rowland (Picture by Dermot Lynch)

The opening night of Eigse also saw the joint winners of this year’s Michael Hartnett Poetry Award honoured: Macdara Woods for Music from the Big Tent (Dedalus Press 2016) and Mary O’Malley for Playing the Octopus (Carcanet 2016).

“Music from the Tent is a superb orchestra of verbal melodies, a Big Top in which free verse, ballads and haiku sing and cavort,” the judges Jo Slade and James Harpur said in their citation.

In accepting his award Macdara Woods said: “It is delightful to share with Mary O’Malley an award given in memory of my old and dear friend, Michael Hartnett. We had many wild times, and some quiet times, and adventures together, from Dublin to London to Kilkee, but what remains most clearly, and has become even more apparent with the passing of time, is his genius for poetry and the translation of poetry. I intend to take this award as a personal nudge from Michael.”

His fellow award winner Mary O’Malley added: “I am delighted to receive the Michael Hartnett Award, I too knew Michael and he had kind things to say about my young poems, he has remained a touchstone for me.”

Mary O’Malley’s Playing the Octopus was described by the judges as “a beautiful collection of rare gems that sparkle and seduce.” This is a collection that balances beauty and harmony, the poems are restrained but deeply felt, the voice assured, meaning is revealed slowly like an uncovering of essence, something essential and elemental.”

Éigse Michael Hartnett also highlighted readings by authors John Boyne and Mike McCormack, who has just been shortlisted for the 2018 International Dublin Literary Award and young Limerick poet Edward O’Dwyer.

Professor Declan Kiberd delivered the Michael Hartnett Memorial Lecture on Saturday 14th, entitled, Honey I shrunk the kids, in which he raised the question of whether there is a children’s literature, or whether the classic works from Alice in Wonderland to Harry Potter are written by adults, published by adults, often to promote adult agendas.

“It will then raise an even deeper question–whether childhood, as we know it through literature, is an invention of recent centuries, perhaps even an image constructed in the age of print and now fast disappearing with the spread of electronic and digital media. These are troubling questions,” Professor Kiberd said.

Declan Kiberd
Dr Declan Kiberd delivering the Michael Hartnett Memorial Lecture entitled ‘Honey I shrunk the Kids!’ – Is there a children’s literature? (Picture by Dermot Lynch)

Éigse takes place each year in Newcastle West, Co. Limerick, Hartnett’s home-town and is supported by the Arts Council and Limerick City and County Council.  The continuing support received from Sheila Deegan and her team of Aoife Potter Cogan, Dr Pippa Little and ‘the real boss’ Lizanne Jackman was acknowledged at the opening ceremony.  The local organising committee is Vicki Nash, Norma Prendeville, John Cussen Rachel Lenihan, Rossa McMahon and Vincent Hanley.

The Michael Hartnett Poetry Award is awarded in alternate years to books of poetry in the Irish and English language.

For full details of the 2018 programme please check out www.eigsemichaelhartnett.ie

Norma Prendeville
Norma Prendeville at the launch of Gabriel Fitzmaurice’s Milking the Sun – Ag Crú na Gréine (with illustrations by Gabriel’s wife Brenda). The book is a translation of Gabriel’s favourite poems by Sean Ó Riordáin from the Irish.(Picture by Dermot Lynch)

 

Shared with the permission of Limerick City and County Council  Newsroom

The Michael Hartnett Poetry Prize 2018 – The Citations

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Mary O’Malley joint winner of the Michael Hartnett Poetry Prize 2018

Mary O’Malley

Playing the Octopus

Mary O’Malley’s new collection, Playing the Octopus is a wonderful book of finely wrought, delicately woven poems that seduce and excite. The poet has created a world that sustains us, that we recognise and can inhabit. This is a collection that balances beauty and harmony, the poems are restrained but deeply felt, the voice assured, meaning is revealed slowing like an uncovering of essence, something essential and elemental. There is a playfulness and joy in language that at times produces a magical quality – light bounces and refracts – musical intonations interweave with the lyric voice – what is achieved is a virtuoso performance.

This poet is an assured guide through the geography of earth, of body, of soul and she takes us on a journey from her beloved west coast of Ireland to America’s east coast but always beneath an ever-changing sky and always awaiting the hoped-for revelation of light.

There are poems in memory of friends who have died: Firs, for Michael Hartnett where the poet references “Sibelius in Silence”, “From Michael’s book the green gold came: / The name I call them is not their name.” Both poets cherish their native language and music and it is the love of these unique sounds that informs their work.

There are deeply felt, reflective poems: January Aubade, a wonderful meditation on light and life.

“Uilleann”, that takes stories heard and transforms them into a metaphor for life: ‘He has heard the story / Of the octopus who was locked into a room / For a week to practice. / When they let him out the pipes had learned / To play the octopus.”

Women are strong, able, intelligent heroines and Mary celebrates them. There is no hesitation in this poet’s voice, her authority is enhanced by their presence. She has a wry eye that cuts through to the bone, the language is clear and unambiguous, as in: “The Bad Mother Or Bellini’s Pieta”, where the poet states: “She knew the joy he brought / Was mortgaged from the start.”

This is a beautiful collection of rare gems that sparkle and seduce.

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Macdara Woods joint winner of the Michael Hartnett Poetry prize 2018

Macdara Woods

Music from the Big Tent

 

Macdara Woods has honoured poetry throughout his life, consistently rendering the weals and woes of the human condition into poems that sometimes ring from the rooftops, and sometimes whisper with deft subtlety; poems that mix wise and rare insights with a generous heart and an open mind – qualities dear to Michael Hartnett.

Music from the Big Tent is a superb orchestra of verbal melodies, a Big Top in which free verse, ballads and haiku sing and cavort. There are poems that x-ray the body of homo sapiens and reveal the poor, bare, forked animal within; poems that laud the depth and variety of European culture and topography; poems that encapsulate the mysterious beauty of nature – ‘Long dark winter but / See the plum tree in the rain / A sudden whiteness’; poems that never forget the ten thousand things of the city, specifically Dublin, with its smell of ‘Georgian drains’ and where ‘Self serious pigeons / Posture and strut’. And poems that mourn the dead, lament the ailing body, but celebrate the beauty of the human form and the endurance of love.

As, in medieval legend, the minstrel Blondel went from castle to castle singing a song he hoped would be heard and responded to by the imprisoned Richard the Lionheart, so Macdara Woods continues to beat paths along the old green tracks of Europe, a hardy troubadour singing out his enchanting lyrics to the imprisoned imagination.

Note: The judges for the Michael Hartnett Poetry Prize in 2018 were Jo Slade and James Harpur (both former winners of this prestigious prize).

Hartnett bronze by Rory Breslin
Hartnett bronze by artist Rory Breslin in The Square, Newcastle West.

Pulled Pork and Poetry at Éigse Michael Hartnett 2018

Éigse 2018

‘Like many Irish children, I was reared on a diet of folktale, Republicanism and mediocre ballads’.[1]

Éigse Michael Hartnett 2018 has a rich and varied schedule of events which will take place this year from the 12th to the 14th of April. Éigse is proud to welcome John Boyne, Mike McCormack, Declan Kiberd, Emma Langford, Robyn Rowland, and others to Newcastle West for the first time.  This year is also special because Michael’s family, his wife Rosemary, son Niall and daughter Lara will be present for the celebrations.

As part of this year’s Éigse, the organisers have included an interesting food element in recognition of the burgeoning food industry in the town and also as a celebration of the town’s rich agricultural hinterland. The event, which will take place in Desmond Complex on Saturday the 14th of April at 12.30pm,  and is titled ‘Pulled Pork and Poetry’.  It features a cookery demonstration by Tom Flavin, Executive Chef, the Strand Hotel and Pigtown Festival committee member, accompanied by readings from Hartnett’s Collected Poems by Limerick poet and short fiction writer, Edward O’Dwyer. (See Éigse programme for full details).  The organisers are indebted to Tom Flavin and Edward O’Dwyer for their enthusiastic support for this venture. 

The following blog post seeks to explore the link between Michael Hartnett, food, cooking and the kitchens he survived and graced in Lower Maiden Street, Camas and further afield.

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Michael Hartnett returned to his native Newcastle West in the mid-1970’s and bought a cottage in the townland of Glendarragh in the parish of Templeglantine.  The ‘townie’ lamented that now he was forced to live ‘in exile out foreign in ‘Glantine’.  In June 1974 he had made his famous proclamation from the stage of the Peacock Theatre in Dublin that henceforth he would write only in Irish.  In the Autumn of 1977, he was commissioned to write a piece for the upcoming Christmas edition of Magill Magazine which was owned and edited at the time by Hartnett’s friend, Vincent Browne, a fellow West Limerick man making a name for himself in publishing circles in Dublin.

The piece was written and published and showed Hartnett to be a very incisive, insightful and acerbic social commentator.  It was entitled ‘Christmas in Maiden Street’ and evoked memories of life in Lower Maiden Street in the years immediately after the ending of World War Two and is a chilling reminder of the austerity endured during those years.  Poverty and hardship were rife and families struggled to make ends meet.  In the article, he recalls that ‘candles and paraffin-lamps did not brighten the darkness in kitchens in Maiden Street’.  There were no luxuries and the necessities of life were very scarce: ‘coal was bought by the half-stone, butter by the quarter pound, and tea by the half-ounce’.  As Christmas drew near ‘the spectre of Santa Claus loomed malevolently over the slates and thatch’.

For the poor of Maiden Street, the great feast of Christmas was an extra strain.  Members of local charitable institutions visited ‘the meagre kitchens’, ‘the nailed-together chairs, the worn oilcloth topped tables, the dead fires’ and were ‘as hated as the rent-man’.  He tells us that the Victorian Christmas had not yet arrived in Newcastle West:

‘there was no turkey, no plum pudding, no mince-pies … the very poor managed roast meat, usually mutton.  We often rose to two cocks.  The goose was common.  There was a fruit cake, jelly and custard; the dinner of the year.’

The article ends with the bitter hope that ‘There will never be Christmasses like those again, I hope to God’.

This vein of bittersweet nostalgia culminated in December 1980 with the publication of the Maiden Street Ballad, written as a Christmas present for his father Denis Harnett.  This 47 verse poem also contains details of the hardships and austerity suffered by the people who lived in Lower Maiden Street and The Coole.

Nineteen forty-one was a terrible year,

the bread it was black and the butter was dear;

you couldn’t get fags and you couldn’t tea –

we smoked turf-dust and had to drink porter.

He goes on to tell his audience that ‘we were hungry and poor down in Lower Maiden Street / a fact I will swear on the Bible’.  Elsewhere he states that his peers ‘were raggy and snot-nosed and needy’.  The only relief for the Harnett family came in the form of their grandmother, Bridget Halpin, who lived on a small farm five miles away in Camas.

The day of the pension my Nan came to town

In a flurry of hairpins with her shawl wrapped around,

With a dozen of eggs and maybe a half-crown

And a bag of new spuds in her ass-car.

He goes on to recount his childhood diet and it is clear that most of the produce was grown on that small farm in Camas by his Uncle Dinny Halpin and transported to town in his grandmother’s ass and cart!

We had turnips for dinner, we had turnips for tea,

and half-stones of pandy piled up on our plates;

we feasted on cabbage, we fattened on kale

and a feed of boiled meat if we smelt it!

Later he was to immortalise Bridget Halpin in his beautiful poem ‘Death of an Irishwoman’ using, at times, very unflattering language.  He tells us that ‘she ate monotonous food’ such as the rural staples of the time bacon and cabbage.  In her final days, he tells us she was reduced to eating ‘thin diminishing porridge / in a stone-cold kitchen’.  For the poet, Bridget Halpin represents an Irishness which is out of step with modernity and ambivalent to any aesthetic conceptions of the world, ‘Ignorant, in the sense / she ate monotonous food / and thought the world was flat’, and defined by an intuitive spirituality, ‘pagan, in the sense / she knew the things that moved / at night were neither cats nor dogs’.   In an interview with Victoria White published in The Irish Times, Hartnett embellished this idea, that his close antecedents existed in a pre-modern Ireland where the Irish language still predominated, ‘My grandfather couldn’t speak English, and if you couldn’t, you couldn’t get a good price for a pig.  If the pig was worth two and six and you came back with one and six, you got lashed’ (White 14). That Hartnett links the pre-modern sensibility which Irish represents for him with economic loss and subsequent physical pain encapsulates the colonial dynamic which saw the abandonment of Irish as a spoken language more broadly within the country.  In this context Hartnett’s assertion at the very point of his departure from writing in English takes on a further resonance:

… I will not see

great men go down

who walked in rags

from town to town

finding English a necessary sin

the perfect language to sell pigs in. 

Bridget Halpin’s cold kitchen, which is described so well in his poem ‘A Small Farm’, describes the quintessential Irish rural kitchen of the 1950’s:

Here were rosary beads,

A bleeding face,

The glinting doors

That did encase

Their cutler needs,

Their plates, their knives,

The cracked calendars

Of their lives.

 It stands in direct contrast to the warmth of Heaney’s Aunt Mary’s kitchen in Mossbawn and at the same time, Bridget Halpin’s kitchen bears great similarities to Moran’s kitchen in Great Meadow as depicted in John McGahern’s Amongst Women.  In the 1940’s and 1950’s country farming society is built on manners, manners which are best seen at the dinner table.  Hartnett’s later poetry and his attitude to food and cooking are heavily influenced by his formative years spent in Bridget Halpin’s kitchen in Camas.  In his, as yet, limited experience kitchens are seen as scant, depressing places.  Food is frugal and evokes a sense of lacking, not plenty.

Rural Camas in the early 1950’s still moved in a slow, seasonal rhythm.  The annual ritual of killing the pig is described beautifully in the poem ‘Pigkilling’.  Characteristically, Hartnett executes (pun intended!) the poetic tactic emphatically, the human actors in the ritual themselves becoming animalistic, drenched in the animal’s blood:

his smiling head

sees a delicate girl

up to her elbows

in a tub of blood (Collected Poems 125)

Hartnett, the central character in the poem, uses the pig’s bladder as a plaything: ‘I kicked his golden bladder / in the air’.  Killing the pig was one of those joyful rituals in the rural community.  During the killing of the pig, the blood was collected in a bucket for the making of puddings. The carcass would then be hung from a hook in the shed with a basin under its head to catch the drip, and a potato was often placed in the pig’s mouth to aid the dripping process. After a few days, the carcass would be dissected.  The body was washed and then each piece that was to be preserved was carefully salted and placed neatly in a barrel and hermetically sealed.    It was customary in parts of the midlands to add brown sugar to the barrel at this stage, while in other areas juniper berries were placed in the fire when hanging the hams and flitches (sides of bacon), wrapped in brown paper, in the chimney for smoking (Sharkey 166). While the killing was predominantly men’s work, it was the women who took most responsibility for the curing and smoking. Black Puddings have always been popular in Irish cuisine. The pig’s intestines were washed well and soaked in a stream, and a mixture of onions, lard, spices, oatmeal and flour were mixed with the blood and the mixture was stuffed into the casing and boiled for about an hour and then allowed to cool.  It was customary that neighbours were then given some of this black pudding, fresh pork and sausages in the aftermath of every pigkilling putting into practice the old Irish proverb: Faoi scáth a chéile a mhaireann na ndaoine’ – (we all live in each other’s shadow).

Years later, his friend and fellow poet Tony Curtis noted presciently about Hartnett that, ‘While I couldn’t say he loved eating, he did love cooking’ (Curtis 170).  From various interviews and recorded anecdotes regarding his attitude to food (as opposed to drink!) I would guess that food and cooking for Hartnett was a sort of therapy.  While cooking for family or friends the metronomic carrying out of simple physical tasks allowed him to turn off the cerebral for a while at least.  Dennis O’Driscoll in an interview conducted with Michael Hartnett in the Poetry Ireland offices on 12th December 1986 comments on his eclectic culinary tastes and we get a further glimpse of Hartnett the culinary enthusiast.

Most of my personal encounters with Michael were as random as dreams: chance meetings on the streets around his shopping and drinking haunts in central Dublin… Michael might be carrying a rattlebag of fresh oysters or a newly-minted circle of Lombardian focaccia.  His tastes in poetry, as in food, could range far beyond Munster.[2]

Later in the interview, O’Driscoll asks Hartnett if he is content as a writer and if there was something else he would have liked to have been.  Hartnett replies:

I am a chef manqué all right; I trained as a chef for a while.  Again that involves creation and the poaching of other men’s recipes and ideas.  But as I started to write poetry, or verse at least, when I was thirteen years old, any ambitions I had in any other direction were pre-empted by that immediately.[3]

On a totally different level Dermot Bolger who delivered the Michael Hartnett Memorial Lecture during Éigse Michael Hartnett in April 2017 recounted an incident which took place at his local chipshop in Finglas:

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

In local chippers

Queueing for carbohydrates

A dwarfed people.

We queued for our late-night carbohydrates.  Critics can elaborate on Michael’s gift as a poet and contextualise his work.  My interest here is putting down memories for his son and daughter and what struck me was how Michael enthralled the late-night queue and staff in that Finglas chipshop.  He wasn’t attention seeking; they were simply drawn into his quiet magnetism.  The staff had no idea who he was but afterwards always asked for news of my friend in the countryman’s cap.[4]

In the sonnet ‘The Poet Dreams and Resolves’ he paints the very clichéd image of the artist at work, alone but not lonely.  He requires few luxuries only ‘an adequate supply / of stout and spirits (or of stout only) / and some cigarettes, and writing paper, / and a little cheap food, ….’.  This (self-perpetuated) image of Hartnett as a frugal monk, requiring only the very basics to live and create mirrors this ascetic existence dwelling ‘in the shade of Tom White’s green hill / in exile out foreign in ‘Glantine’ during the late ‘70’s and early 80’s.

It is clear that Michael Hartnett had a very varied relationship with Irish cuisine from the relatively vulgar turnips and pandy of earlier days in Newcastle West and Camas to the later more urbane ‘rattlebag of oysters’ in central Dublin.  Section 3 of ‘A Farewell to English’ centres on Hartnett’s dissatisfaction with the cultural, political, and literary misappropriation and misuse of the Irish language.  In it, he rather cheekily attacks W.B Yeats, the most pre-eminent Irish poet and Nobel Laureate of a previous generation, ‘Chef Yeats that master of the use of herbs’.  Yeats’s use of Gaelic literary traditions and myth is criticized.  However, the main reason I mention it here is because the language and imagery used by Hartnett is that of a master chef – ‘pinch of saga’, ‘soupcon of philosophy’, ‘carefully stirred’, ‘Anglo- Saxon stock’, ‘Cuchulainn’s marrow bones to marinate’, ‘simmered slow’ and Hey Presto, like the witches in Macbeth who dance about their cauldron, we concoct ‘the celebrated Anglo-Irish stew’.

As Éigse Michael Hartnett 2018 draws near we hope to likewise celebrate Hartnett’s genius with good poetry, good food (and some drink!) in the company of his family, friends and myriad followers.

Works Cited

Curtis, Tony. A Life in Poetry, p. 170.

Hartnett, Michael. Collected Poems, Oldcastle: The Gallery Press, 2001.

Hartnett, Michael. ‘Wrestling with Ó Bruadair’, in Mac Reamoinn, S., The Pleasures of Gaelic Poetry (London: Allen Lane, 1982).

Sharkey, Olive. Old Days Old Ways: An Illustrated Folk History of Ireland. Dublin: The O’Brien Press, 1985.

White, Victoria. “Heartbreak in Two Languages” The Irish Times, (15th December 1994).

https://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/archive/1994/1215/Pg014.html#Ar01400

Footnotes

[1] Hartnett, M., ‘Wrestling with Ó Bruadair’, in Mac Reamoinn, S., The Pleasures of Gaelic Poetry (London: Allen Lane, 1982), p.65.

2.  This interview first appeared in Poetry Ireland Review (Autimn 1987).

3.   Ibid.

[4] ‘An Enthralling Companion’ – a commemorative article by Dermot Bolger which appeared in The Irish Times on Wednesday, October 12th, 2005. Read the article here

image

‘Crossing the Iron Bridge’ by Michael Hartnett

GN4_DAT_9088199.jpg--the_restored_151_year_old_bridge_which_has_been_reopened_to_pedestrians_in_the_county_town__below__the_footbridge_as_seen_in_a_national_library_of_ireland_photograph
The restored 151-year-old bridge which has been reopened to pedestrians in Newcastle West. Picture: Marie Keating, Limerick Leader

The Iron Bridge referred to here is a commemorative footbridge spanning the Arra River.  it has been used for generations to facilitate Mass goers making their way on foot to the parish church in Newcastle West from Maiden Street and in more recent times from Assumpta Park, via The Mass Steps.  The bridge was erected by the Devon Estate in 1866 to commemorate Edward Curling JP who had been the local agent for the Estate in Newcastle West in the nineteenth century.  It is often referred to locally as the Curling Bridge and following recent restoration, the iconic bridge has once again been restored to its former glory.

Crossing the Iron Bridge

By Michael Hartnett

‘My dear brethren, boys and girls, today is a glorious day!  Here we have a hundred lambs of our flock, the cream of the town, about to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, about to become Children of God, and to enter into a miraculous Union with Jesus ….’

Into the cobweb-coloured light,

my arms in white rosettes,

I walked up Maiden Street

across the Iron Bridge

to seek my Christ.

 ‘It will be a wonderful moment when the very Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ is placed upon your tongues – what joy there will be in Heaven!  So many valuable little souls safely into the Fold!  Look behind the Altar!  There will be angels there, ascending and descending, singing songs of joy…’

Into the incense-coloured light,

my arms in white rosettes,

I walked the marbled floor

apast parental eyes

to seek my Christ.

‘Christ will be standing there in all His Glory, His Virgin Mother will smile and there will be a great singing in Heaven…’

 Under the gilded candlelight,

my arms in white rosettes,

my mouth enclosed my God,

I waited at the rail

to find my Christ.

‘There will be the glow of God in your veins, your souls will be at one with Heaven: if you were to die today, angels would open the Gates of Paradise, and with great rejoicing bear you in …’

Back to the human-hampered light,

my arms in white rosettes,

I walked: my faith was dead.

Instead of glory on my tongue

there was the taste of bread.

Commentary

This is a memory poem and the poet – now an adult – remembers his First Holy Communion Day which probably took place in 1948 or so.  From an early age, we can see that the young Hartnett is not overly impressed by the flowery hyperbole, the sense of ceremony and ritual in his local parish church in Newcastle West.  He tells us that instead of feeling ‘the glow of God in (his) veins’, he says very simply, without any adornment that ‘my faith was dead’.

There are two contrasting voices in this poem – the eloquent words of the priest who speaks in grandiose, biblical phrases and the very sparse, repetitive voice of a young boy of seven.  The poem traces the young poet’s journey from his home in Maiden Street, across the Iron Bridge, up the aisle of the church to the altar rails.  The poet, like a painter or photographer, notices the differing lights as he progresses: ‘cobweb-coloured light’, ‘incense-coloured light’, ‘gilded candlelight’, and finally ‘human-hampered light’.

The priest’s homily is worthy of our attention.  Firstly, we have to remember that for the young listeners and their parents, family and friends these are the only words that they would have understood on this special day because Latin would have been used by the priest for the remainder of the ceremony.  Secondly, while the majority of the homily uses classical biblical symbolism the poet impishly has him mix his metaphors here: ‘Here we have a hundred lambs of our flock, the cream of the town’.   It is highly unlikely that the priest would have used the phrase ‘the cream of the town’ in this context.   However, the allusion to ‘a hundred lambs’ is taken directly from the New Testament parable of the Lost Sheep or The Good Shepherd.  Ironically, in the context of the poem the priest is already down to ninety-nine.  The poet at seven casts himself as The Lost Sheep of the parish.  Little wonder then that later in his seminal poem, ‘A Farewell to English’ he would boldly declare:

Poets with progress

make no peace or pact.

The act of poetry

is a rebel act.

As the poem develops, the exaggerated, formulaic words of the priest are interspersed with the young poet’s reactions – in a word, he is not impressed.  The exaggerated language, the sense of ceremony, the ‘white rosettes’ on the sleeves of his good clothes all fail to impress.  For months now he had been led to believe that as this day unfolded he would not only ‘seek’ but ‘find’ his Christ.  As the ceremony ends his sense of disappointment and anti-climax is palpable.

Instead of glory on my tongue

there was the taste of bread.

As he makes his way on foot with his family across the iron bridge in the early morning he is conscious of the ‘cobweb-coloured light’.   This is soon replaced for the young, observant First Communicant by scenes of grandeur in the church with ceremonial incense wafting through sunlight beams and ‘gilded candlelight’.  As he makes his return journey, deflated and unmoved by the experience in the church, he is aware of the troubling juxtaposition.  Once more he leaves the church, crosses the road and the iron bridge again on his homeward journey to Lower Maiden Street, ‘Back to human-hampered light’.

The poem could be interpreted as Hartnett’s equivalent of Stephen Dedalus’s ‘Non Serviam’ in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; his retrospective rejection of organised religion.  Stephen had often trod the maze of Dublin streets seeking escape of one kind or another, and it is only when he crossed the bridge to Bull Island and stared out to sea that he finally glimpses the vision of true fulfilment.  He cannot find this fulfilment without flight.  So Stephen sets out, ‘to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.’  Hartnett also seeks to escape and in ‘A Farewell to English’ we read his own declaration of intent:

I have made my choice

and leave with little weeping:

I have come with meagre voice

to court the language of my people.

So Hartnett, too, rejects the nets which confine and constrict him and in an article written for The Irish Times[1] in 1975 where he endeavoured to explain his reasons for changing to Gaelic, he declared that ‘I have no interest in Conradhs, Cumanns or churches’ – rejecting at one fell swoop well-meaning Irish language organisations, all political parties and the Catholic Church. Years later, in December 1986 in an interview with Dennis O’Driscoll[2] he makes the rather bold, even outrageous, tongue-in-cheek assertion:

I was never a Catholic …… I was fortunate to be born in a house where my father was not a Catholic.  He was a socialist with Taoist leanings – though to say this is to talk with hindsight; like all poets, I can foretell the past.

Indeed, his poetry and other writing often contain unflattering references to the Catholic clergy, long before this became de rigueur.  In Section 7 of his great poem ‘A Farewell to English,’ he confides in us that his voice is ‘nothing new’.  He is not alone in trying to hew out a place for culture ‘in the clergy-cluttered south’.  However, for those familiar with his poetry it has to be said that he reserves an even greater opprobrium for bishops!

In St. Michael’s Church

a plush bishop in his frock

confirms poverty.

On his homeward journey after the First Communion ceremony the young Lost Sheep again crosses the Iron Bridge and for him, it is akin to crossing his first Rubicon. Even then at that tender age of seven, like Stephen Dedalus, he has already decided to fly the nets of organised religion and in crossing the iron bridge he symbolically turns his back on all that this entails.

[1] Michael Hartnett. Why Write in Irish?  The Irish Times (26th August 1975).

[2] The interview first appeared in Poetry Ireland Review (Autumn 1987).

The iconic Iron Bridge
The Iron Bridge (Curling’s Bridge) as seen in a National Library of Ireland photograph from 1903.

Memories of the Past – Episode 80 filmed by the late John Joe Harrold – First Communion Day in Newcastle West.

Commentary on ‘A Tuft of Flowers’ by Robert Frost

tuft-of-flowers-ken-fiery
Tuft of Flowers by Ken Fiery

The Tuft of Flowers

       

         By Robert Frost

I went to turn the grass once after one

Who mowed it in the dew before the sun.

 

The dew was gone that made his blade so keen

Before I came to view the levelled scene.

 

I looked for him behind an isle of trees;

I listened for his whetstone on the breeze.

 

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

And I must be, as he had been,—alone,

 

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

‘Whether they work together or apart.’

 

But as I said it, swift there passed me by

On noiseless wing a ‘wildered butterfly,

 

Seeking with memories grown dim o’er night

Some resting flower of yesterday’s delight.

 

And once I marked his flight go round and round,

As where some flower lay withering on the ground.

 

And then he flew as far as eye could see,

And then on tremulous wing came back to me.

 

I thought of questions that have no reply,

And would have turned to toss the grass to dry;

 

But he turned first, and led my eye to look

At a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook,

 

A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared

Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.

 

I left my place to know them by their name,

Finding them butterfly weed when I came.

 

The mower in the dew had loved them thus,

By leaving them to flourish, not for us,

 

Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him.

But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.

 

The butterfly and I had lit upon,

Nevertheless, a message from the dawn,

 

That made me hear the wakening birds around,

And hear his long scythe whispering to the ground,

 

And feel a spirit kindred to my own;

So that henceforth I worked no more alone;

 

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

And weary, sought at noon with him the shade;

 

And dreaming, as it were, held brotherly speech

With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach.

 

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

‘Whether they work together or apart.’

Commentary:

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

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

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

A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared

Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.

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

And feel a spirit kindred to my own;

So that henceforth I worked no more alone;

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

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

‘Whether they work together or apart.’

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

tall tuft

A Brief Analysis of Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Death of a Naturalist’

    lint-hole-sm              

 

 Death of a Naturalist

By Seamus Heaney

All year the flax-dam festered in the heart

Of the townland; green and heavy headed

Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.

Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.

Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles

Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.

There were dragonflies, spotted butterflies,

But best of all was the warm thick slobber

Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water

In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring

I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied

Specks to range on window sills at home,

On shelves at school, and wait and watch until

The fattening dots burst, into nimble

Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how

The daddy frog was called a bullfrog

And how he croaked and how the mammy frog

Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was

Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too

For they were yellow in the sun and brown

In rain.

Then one hot day when fields were rank

With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs

Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges

To a coarse croaking that I had not heard

Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.

Right down the dam gross bellied frogs were cocked

On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:

The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat

Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.

I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings

Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew

That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.

Commentary:
In the title poem of his first ever collection, Death of a Naturalist, Seamus Heaney gives a very sensuous and sumptuous description of the goings on at his local flax-hole.  This hole or ‘flax-dam’ contained the flax which had been harvested and was now being soaked in a man-made hole in the corner of the flax-field in August.  When the process was complete the flax was taken out and became the raw material for the thriving linen industry which had long flourished in Northern Ireland but was now showing some signs of decay in the nineteen fifties.  The poem has an added resonance for me because I live in a beautiful part of West Limerick and next door to me is the townland of Ahalin, or Achadh Lín in Irish, which means the ‘field of the flax’. Each time I read this poem I am reminded that at some time maybe in the 1800’s or before just over the road from me was our very own flax-field with its festering flax-dam!

 In this poem, ‘Death of a Naturalist’, Seamus Heaney gives a brilliant description of the local flax-hole.  It is a memory poem, one of the many poems written about his childhood and early school days.  Heaney, in this first collection of early poems mines a rich vein of childhood memory.  It is, however, embellished memory – childhood through a rosy adult lens.  The poem is extremely sensual and evokes the senses of sight and sound and smell to perfection.  Indeed, the poem invites the reader to read it aloud such are the myriad examples of assonance and alliteration scattered throughout.

The flax-dam or flax hole came into its own each August when the flax crop was ready for harvest.  Flax pulling by hand was a backbreaking job, taken on by casual, often transient workers. Hand pulling was necessary because the whole stem, from root to tip, was required to give the longest fibre, for the finest quality linen cloth. The pulled flax was tied up in beats (sheaves) and put in rows or stooks on the flax field.  The stooks were collected and put into flax holes, or dams, and kept under water for ten to fourteen days. This was to `rat’ or `rot’ the inside wood part from the outside fibres.

The ‘flax-dam’ festered and ‘sweltered in the punishing sun’ in high Summer.  We can almost hear the bluebottles as they,

Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell’.

Each August the flax was immersed in the flax hole and sods of earth were used to keep it submerged.

The flax hole may have only been used by the farmers during the harvest but of course, it lay there unused all year round. The young poet, as naturalist, is obviously drawn to the pool at other times of the year as well, especially when there were great clots of frogspawn evident each Spring.  He also visits in May to see the dragonflies and every July and August to spot the butterflies:

There were dragonflies, spotted butterflies,

But best of all was the warm thick slobber

Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water

In the shade of the banks.

The poet uses onomatopoeia to great effect to aid his description: ‘bubbles gargled’, ‘slobber of frogspawn’, ‘coarse croaking’, ‘the slap and plop’, and the brilliant ‘blunt heads farting’.  We are also reminded of his age with the use of the word ‘jampotfuls’ and by the childish simile ‘Poised like mud grenades’.

Like all other budding young naturalists, he is lucky to have a great teacher! ‘Miss Walls’ encourages him and provides him with the necessary information, always appropriate to his age of course!

Miss Walls would tell us how

The daddy frog was called a bullfrog

And how he croaked and how the mammy frog

Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was

Frogspawn.

Her ecology classes sent him out to the meadows to collect samples for the classroom and for the windowsill at home in his kitchen in Mossbawn.  Miss Walls also imparted other vital pieces of information which are seized upon by the young eager naturalist:

You could tell the weather by frogs too

For they were yellow in the sun and brown

In rain.

There is a sense of childhood foreboding and fear of the flax hole and the mating frogs which is recreated with great accuracy by the poet – he knew, or he had been told by his elders, that ‘if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it’.  These stories were obviously very effective in keeping inquisitive young boys away from the vicinity of these dangerous flax dams and he feels threatened and frightened by the scene that confronts him at the flax-dam.

The great slime kings

Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew

That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.

Indeed, the whole poem can be seen as a metaphor for growing up, laden with imagery which could be interpreted as sexual: we sense a child’s revulsion as he discovers the facts of life and his ensuing loss of innocence. He will never feel the same again about the countryside after this encounter with the bullfrogs!  As the poem’s title suggests,therefore, his days as a naturalist are drawing to an end!

 

images (7)
… and I knew / That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.

Analysis of Patrick Kavanagh’s Use of the Sonnet

Patrick Kavanagh
Patrick Kavanagh’s bronze commemorative seat near Baggott Street Bridge in Dublin

Kavanagh is very comfortable and skilled in his use of the sonnet in his poetry.  He manages to express an authentic and simple vision of life and communicate it successfully using the sonnet form.  Indeed, this simple vision has often led to Kavanagh being underestimated and undervalued among his peers.  He never aspired to the greatness of Yeats and neither has he the subtlety of Kinsella.  But within the poetic limits, he set for himself Kavanagh presents a new, inimitable, and sometimes disturbing way of viewing life.  His sonnets are informed by a unique personal vision.

A criticism often levelled at Kavanagh is that often his statements fall into predictable patterns.  His sonnets, for example, do not develop – what we get from him is a series of sincere repetitions of a few basic perceptions.  In the last of his Dublin sonnets, he is saying, in more or less the same way, what he was saying in the first, and his greatness is that he moves us by repetition.  It is this sincerity that prevents his repetition from becoming commonplace.  However, this integrity does not hide the fact that there is little or no growth in his poetic ability.  There is, instead, a kind of lyrical repetition that constantly commands attention.  Kavanagh is stuck in a personal rut of poetic honesty.  He seems almost to be writing the same poem always!

On reading his sonnets one notices how, for him, perception has become an obsession, and how he clings to the importance of delineating visual scenes:

A swan goes by head low with many apologies

Fantastic light looks through the eyes of bridges

And look! a barge comes bringing from Athy

And other far-flung towns mythologies.

Visual perception has assumed an almost religious fascination which will not permit him to remain at rest with one statement of it.  He must tell it to the world all the time and invite others to share in his views:

O commemorate me with no hero-courageous

Tomb – just a canal-bank seat for the passer-by.

Within these limits, however, Kavanagh maintains a moving, coherent and intimate vision of life.  Indeed, the success of his method is particularly noticeable when he tries to break away from it.  As a poet without learning, Kavanagh sometimes tries to overcome or transcend his limitations by placing learned words, ideas or references in his poems.  The intended effect is either to heighten the tone and increase the sense of personal tension, or else to bring a visual image more vividly to mind.  Sometimes he only partly achieves the desired effect; more often he fails completely.  A good example of this occurs in ‘Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal’ where two exaggerated comparisons mar an otherwise perfect poem.  The word Niagariously in line 5 is meant to convey an audible image of sound as water rushes through the locks, and is in contrast to the ‘tremendous silence’ of the next line.  The image of the Niagara Falls is, however, surely too exaggerated a comparison to make with the quiet splash of water over a lock on the Grand Canal.  On a technical level, the word is almost impossible to pronounce and it destroys the gentle rhythm of the opening lines.  Similarly, the allusion to ‘these Parnassian islands’ is inserted too boldly into a poem which depends on simplicity for its effect, rather than on weighty, learned references.  In each case, there is a certain lack of integration of the image.  By way of contrast, however, the reference to Alexander Selkirk in ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’  is seamlessly integrated with the overall theme of the poem.  It expresses an idea repeated by Kavanagh in many of his poems: namely, his separateness, his detachment, the sense that he can participate but never belong.

I have what every poet hates in spite

Of all the solemn talk of contemplation

Oh, Alexander Selkirk knew the plight

Of being king and government and nation.

Kavanagh’s poetic preferences are stated clearly in his prose works.  In From Monaghan to the Grand Canal, he defines the limits of his themes and subject matter.  He states, ‘The things that really matter, are casual insignificant little things.’  Co-existing with this sense of the importance of insignificance is the contrasting idea of the world’s grandeur.  Kavanagh is indeed a nature poet, but not in the manner in which we usually apply the term.  There are no sweeping descriptions of majestic landscapes; only the unseen beauty encountered on an evening’s stroll.  ‘Canal Bank Walk’ is the best presentation of his method.  The still, canal waters ‘pour redemption’ on him.  He thinks of its beauty in terms of religious images.  He feels ‘redeemed’, born again, after his long life of hardship in Monaghan.  God ordained that men should work and suffer.  But even in his inaction, Kavanagh feels that he can clarify the beauty of the ordinary world (‘the habitual’) and that this, too, is the ‘will of God.’  His duty as a poet is seen by himself as a religious vocation.  This spiritual frame of reference continues into line 4 when he says that he will now:

Grow with nature again as before I grew.

He then lists a group of visual images which stress, again, the beauty of unimportant objects.  Indeed, the central portion of this sonnet is characterized by its visionary impact.  Its simplicity stems from a totally coherent and lucid vision:

The bright stick trapped, the breeze adding a third

Party to the couple kissing on an old seat,

And a bird gathering materials for the nest…..

God and the idea of God dominate this sonnet.  In his essay entitled Pietism and Poetry Kavanagh says ‘the odd thing about the best modern poets is their utter simplicity.’  Of  Kavanagh himself, it may be said that he is the only great modern poet who never wrote an obscure poem.  He recognized that, in many cases, obscurity is merely a failure of the poet’s imagination and of his ability to communicate.  Kavanagh saw his simplicity as a gift from God.  He obviously thought a great deal about the nature of simplicity.  In ‘Canal Bank Walk’ he asks for a poetic style that is passive, reposed and serene:

                                 …………………………, give me ad lib

To pray unselfconsciously with overflowing speech.

He also asks for a consuming intimacy with the natural world – a twentieth-century version of Wordsworth’s Pantheism:

For this soul needs to be honoured with a new dress woven

From green and blue things and arguments that cannot be proven.

For Kavanagh, in this sonnet, the rewards of liberty are twofold.  First of all, his sense of wonder deepens, and his expression of it becomes more assured.  The second reward for the liberated, independent imagination is a kind of poetic faith that is inextricably linked with this deepened sense of wonder.  This sense of well-being is described in religious terms and phrases – Kavanagh, after all, is a deeply religious poet: ‘redemption’, ‘God’, ‘the Word’, ‘pray’, ‘soul’.  This poem is deceptively simple.  Its simplicity is achieved with consummate art, through the poet’s personal involvement in the scene.  It is not so much that he observes real things as that he feels the physical presence of these things with a total and alert consciousness:

O unworn world enrapture me….

He does not simply describe the scene, he recreates it, and it is unforgettable.  This is very similar to Wordsworth’s notion of ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ and this exploitation of the power of suggestion in ordinary subjects is the most striking of Kavanagh’s special gifts.

Kavanagh’s poems fall naturally into three divisions: those about the countryside (the Monaghan poems); those about the city (the Dublin poems); and those which, broadly speaking, attempt to express a kind of personal philosophy, or which try to define the nature of personal vision (the sonnets).  There have been many previous attempts to define poetry and I suppose each of us must really define it for ourselves.  Kavanagh found it impossible to define but fascinating to describe.  In ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’ he sees it basically as a celebration of human inadequacy and failure.  All poets are at times taken up, directly or indirectly, with being different from the rest of society, and Irish poets are especially preoccupied with this problem.  A poet is, almost by definition, an individualist: he stands for the private, as distinct from the public values, and for the protection of private feeling ‘against the tyranny of society’.  ‘Inniskeen Road’ could be seen as Kavanagh’s defense of poetry, as a compressed statement of poetic belief.  The octave stresses public concerns, the second line imitates the plain language of village people and is in some sense satiric.  But Kavanagh is never completely at home in satire and in the sestet the tone changes.  The mood becomes meditative with the poet’s feeling of regret and detachment.  What is stressed here is his separateness, his isolation.  The paradox is of course that only by thus withdrawing can he discover himself and his mission as a poet.  He has withdrawn from the world in order to be able to understand it and value it truly.  His observation, therefore, becomes acute, and his power of selecting significant details remarkable.  Though feeling, at first, the weight of his loneliness, the mood changes again in the last line as he suddenly understands himself, and his situation:

                                                            ………..       I am king

Of banks and stones and every blooming thing.

 The sonnet entitled ‘Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal’ is basically different from the other two.  It has neither the sense of frustration communicated by ‘Inniskeen Road’ nor the delicate imagery of ‘Canal Bank Walk’.  It is a public sonnet, a direct address from the poet to the reader and as such its tone is serious.  Its style is very elegant but really more closely akin to prose rather than poetry:

O commemorate me where there is water,

Canal water preferably….

In ‘Inniskeen Road’ Kavanagh tries to define his own relationship with Irish society.  In ‘Canal Bank Walk’ he has rejected society for the intimacies of private experience.  Now, in this last sonnet, there is a new sense of communication: there is a wish to renew his links with others and to share with them his experience and this is why he addresses his listener/reader using terms of affection:

Brother

Commemorate me thus beautifully…

As usual with Kavanagh, the sonnet creates a visual scene.  He has not time to entice his listener with lengthy descriptions but he provokes his interest through simple images; a swan, the light under bridges, a barge.  Compared to ‘Canal Bank Walk’ we notice the economy and compression gained from the absence of adjectives.  Also, this sonnet shows less dependence on imagery and relies more on factual statements.

Indeed, the formal demands of sonnet writing brought out the best of Kavanagh’s poetic ability and many of his poems are superb personal statements.  His imagery often seems plain and unremarkable when compared to that of Yeats or Kinsella, but the images are sharp, descriptive, and precisely used.  In the best of his sonnets, he speaks of a certain time and place; he expresses experiences in the context of his own world.  It is unlikely that he will ever be the source of the industry that has grown up around Yeats: there is so little to unravel, his greatness seems not in himself but in the world he expresses.  And yet it is true to say that, though Yeats is a more universal poet, Kavanagh is, at times, much more Irish, in that he expresses a theme that is less remote from ordinary people’s experience.  It is this simple immediacy of Kavanagh’s poetry that is part of his special appeal.

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The Grand Canal in Dublin. Image by Kaihsu Tai via Wikimedia Commons.

This essay is an edited version of one written by Joseph Ducke for the Inscapes Series (Inscape17: Poetry 2) entitled Patrick Kavanagh, (p.73) and published by The Educational Company of Ireland in 1980.

Some Recurring Themes in the Poetry of Patrick Kavanagh

 

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Those hungry hills….

Patrick Kavanagh, like Yeats, is constantly ‘stitching and unstitching’ old themes in his poems.  These themes can be listed as follows, without giving them any particular order or ranking:

  • Loneliness and isolation;
  • Regret at the thought of lost innocence since the passing of childhood;
  • Meditations on the vocation of the poet and how this vocation has been frustrated;
  • The relationship between the poet and nature;
  • Religion;
  • Meditations on the poet’s poor, deprived background, and on the impoverishment of the spirit induced by the life of the Irish countryside of his youth.

It helps if we distinguish between two distinct phases of Kavanagh’s poetic career.  Put simply his career can be divided between what we will call ‘the Monaghan poems’ and ‘the Dublin poems’.  The poems dealing with life in the grim, forbidding farmlands of Monaghan (‘Stony Grey Soil’   and ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’) are remarkable for their attitude of disillusionment and discontent.  Life in the Irish countryside and its effects on sensitive souls are portrayed with savage realism:

You sang on steaming dunghills

A song of coward’s brood

You perfumed my clothes with weasel itch

You fed me on swinish food.

The tone of this poem, ‘Stony Grey Soil’, is predominantly one of disgust and rebellion.  The poet’s mind has been embittered and stunted by the drudgery of life on a small farm.  His high ambitions and ideals have been frustrated.  He might have pictured himself as a graceful young man, talented and destined to succeed, but the reality has been much different:

You clogged the feet of my boyhood

And I believed that my stumble

Had the poise and stride of Apollo

And his voice my thick-tongued mumble.

There is a kind of savage comedy in the self-mocking contrast between Apollo, the god of light, beauty, poetry and music, and the rustic, awkward, ugly and ill-spoken young poet scraping a miserable living from a poor farm.  It is, however, important to notice that this poem is not uniformly disillusioned in tone.  Life may have been poor, nasty and brutish, but it has to be remembered that in those dark fields of Monaghan, Kavanagh had his first poetic inspiration:

The first gay flight of my lyric

Got caught in a peasant’s prayer.

Another poem which deals with the less attractive aspects of the poet’s early life is ‘Inniskeen Road: July Evening’.  Again we have the theme of the lonely, suffering, misunderstood poet living in a place where the inhabitants cannot be expected to understand or sympathise with him.  He is an isolated figure on the Inniskeen road as the carefree groups of young people pass him on their way to a dance.  They share the ‘half-talk code of mysteries’, and the ‘wind and elbow language of delight’.  He is pointedly excluded.  He must pay this price for being a poet; he must be prepared to be an outcast from the company of those who cannot share his interests and who are overawed by the power of the poet in their midst.  This poem features one of Kavanagh’s characteristic mannerisms: his tendency to use literary allusion (Selkirk on his island the ‘monarch of all I survey’) to illustrate a point.  The pun on ‘blooming’ in the line ‘Of banks and stones and every blooming thing’ is in doubtful taste: Kavanagh is (too) often liable to lapses of this kind.

There is a world of difference between the two poems just discussed and two later poems dealing with the Grand Canal and its surroundings.  Kavanagh’s attitude to the environment changed dramatically following his operation for lung cancer.  He said: ‘As a poet, I was born in or about 1955, the place of my birth being the banks of the Grand Canal’.  The Canal Bank poems show us that he has left behind him the inhibitions and restrictions featured in the earlier poems, and achieved a new freedom of imagination and a new, more positive outlook on life and nature.  The rural nature of Monaghan reminded him of his loneliness; the urban nature of the canal bank offers redemption and hope.  He sits on the canal bank enjoying the sunshine ‘pouring redemption’ for him.  There is a powerful sense of enjoyment, of gratitude and of wonder at the new beauty he is able to feel all around him.  Remember, he has only recently been discharged from hospital after successful treatment for lung cancer.  He now feels as if he has been reborn.  He is almost delirious with joy at the sight of the simple, yet beautiful, natural objects which pass before his eyes.  Even the most commonplace things take on a new meaning for him; he is now content to ‘wallow in the habitual, the banal’.  Nature is now capable of healing his wounds, of giving him the kind of happiness he has always longed for:

O unworn world enrapture me, enrapture me in a web

Of fabulous grass and eternal voices by a beech

This poem, ‘Canal Bank Walk’, is full of a deeply religious awareness of nature, associated with ‘the will of God’, ‘redemption’, ‘eternal voices’, ‘the Word’.

The same joyful mood is present in ‘Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal, Dublin’.  Here again, the tone is optimistic.  Nature and its sights and sounds fill the poet with the deep contentment he finds in ‘the tremendous silence of mid-July’.  It is this close communion with nature that leads him to ask for commemoration near water.  Whereas in his Monaghan poems, the ordinary things of nature, the fields, the soil, the ditches, the hedges, the hills, tended to provoke unpleasant reactions, in his later work he finds novelty, excitement and new inspiration in the most ordinary and banal sights and sounds: the noise of the canal lock gate, the greenness of the trees, the barge, the swan.  This child-like wonder at the sight of common objects is a distinctive feature of his later work.  The discontent, the disillusionment, the loneliness, of his early poems have given way to a new poetry of acceptance, of happy enjoyment of life and nature.

‘Advent’ is a good example of Kavanagh’s treatment of a religious theme.  It is obvious that the poet is very much influenced by traditional Catholic teaching and practice and this may pose problems for some modern readers who may be unfamiliar with these beliefs. It is really a sequence of two sonnets, which do not, however, follow the usual rules observed by writers of sonnets. (It is interesting to note that the poem has twenty-eight lines and that there are twenty-eight days in Advent). This poem, in fact, has much in common with the Grand Canal poems.  Here Kavanagh longs to return to the wonder of childhood, to be able to experience again ‘the newness that was in every stale thing / when we looked at it as children’.  In those far off days of infancy, he could experience wonder at the sight of a hill, a bog-hole or a cart-track.  However, as he has aged and matured, this childhood sense of wonder has been eroded and destroyed.  The poet, like other adults, has allowed contact with the world and with the pleasure of the senses (‘We tested and tasted too much, lover’) to dissipate what he calls ‘the luxury of a child’s soul’.  The problem posed in the poem is how can he recapture this childhood happiness again.  There is, I sense, another more selfish reason for this quest during Advent: this new-found wonder will also help him as a poet.  Now, everything he sees will be suitable subject matter for his poems.  Kavanagh finds the answer in penance, for which Advent (and Lent) were traditional seasons.  ‘The dry black bread and the sugarless tea’ of penance will help to charm back the childhood attitudes to experience.  Now, he will find happiness in looking at the simple, even banal, things of life.  By undergoing penance during the Advent season, the poet sees himself returning sin where it came from and now he will no longer need to go searching ‘for the difference that sets an old phrase burning’.  He will now see everything in a new light, even the talking of an old fool, previously tedious, will now seem delightful.  The sight of men barrowing dung in gardens will be a joyful sign of God’s plenty.  Advent penance and the renewal of religious feeling and fervour will lead to a new found peace of mind.  Metaphorically he is born again!  Now, he will no longer seek reasons or explanations for mysteries, or for griefs experienced.  He will not try to over-analyse the reasons for his new mood now that he has cast off sin.

This newly-acquired delight and celebration of simple, banal things are what connects ‘Advent’ with the Canal Bank poems.

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Patrick Kavanagh by Paul McCloskey

This essay is an edited version of one written by Patrick Murray for the Inscapes Series (Inscape16: Poetry 1) entitled ‘Patrick Kavanagh Some Themes’, (p.78) and published by The Educational Company of Ireland in 1980.

Austin Clarke – Three Poems Revisited

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My beloved copy of Soundings

Recently I was browsing through my precious, dog-eared and scribbled-on copy of Soundings and came across the three Austin Clarke poems featured in that anthology.  ‘The Lost Heifer’, ‘The Blackbird of Derrycairn’, and ‘The Planter’s Daughter’ brought back fond memories of English classes long ago!  The Clarke poems selected in Augustine Martin’s infamous Interim (!) Anthology don’t give a comprehensive view of his range as a poet but they do display his enthusiasm for Gaelic poetry. The three poems selected by Martin are, however, good examples of the way many Irish poets transposed some of the stylistic devices associated with this type of poetry into English verse.  It is also interesting to note that ‘The Blackbird of Derrycairn’ has as its main theme the conflict between pagan and Christian values, here represented by an imagined conversation between St. Patrick and the ‘pagan’ blackbird.  This theme occupied Clarke for much of his poetic career.

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‘The Lost Heifer’

In my experience as a frazzled English teacher ‘The Lost Heifer’ always provoked puzzled reactions from my students.  The title of the poem, taken in conjunction with Clarke’s well-known fondness for Gaelic poetry, gives a clue as to what it may be about.  The cow or heifer in Gaelic poetry, especially in the Jacobite era, was often used as a secret code name for Ireland, as, for example, in such poems as ‘An Droimeann Donn Dílis’.  However, even when we are aware of this background knowledge, useful as it is, it does not get us very far into the heart of the poem.  Clarke himself has told us that the poem had its origins in the Irish Civil War of the 1920’s.  It was written at a time when, as Clarke saw it, the noble ideals and aspirations of the patriots of the War of Independence were lost or obscured in the intense bitterness and disillusionment of the war of brothers.  The heifer of the poem stood for a vision of Ireland, obscured for the moment by mist and rain, which stood for those grim forces already referred to: forces which made it difficult for those who shared the patriotic vision to find it in those grim times.

In defence of my often bemused Leaving Cert students in the 80’s and 90’s, it would be very difficult to arrive at this interpretation without the help of the poet himself!  There are certainly no obvious clues, however cryptic or obscure, to anything like a civil war background, or, indeed, to any other political backdrop whatever.  Without the poet’s explanation no student of mine, lacking the information given above, could conceivably sub-title the poem, ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’.

Part of the reason the poem defies logical explanation is that it is a symbolic representation and therefore impossible to render in logical terms.  Most attempts to convey the ‘meaning’ of such a poem are doomed to failure.  Indeed, no prose analysis could do justice to the impressionistic landscape evoked by Clarke in the poem, or to his tremendous rhythms or delicately suggested sound effects.  The notion that the heifer stands for some obscured ideal of Ireland is certainly borne out in the imagery through which the heifer is suggested, rather than presented or realised.  There is no direct glimpse of the heifer.  He builds up a picture using colour, light and shade and this contributes to the mood.  She is brought to mind; she evokes an image of loss and beauty; her presence is inferred by her tracks in the dark grasses, and by her soft voice coming across the meadow.  These delightfully delicate symbolic evocations of Ireland and of misty Irish landscapes certainly owe something to the poetry of Yeats:

I went out to the hazel wood

Because a fire was in my head

And cut and pulled a hazel wand…

It had become a glimmering girl

Who called me by my name and ran

And faded through the brightening air….

As in all symbolist or quasi-symbolist poems, the imagery is mysteriously echoic, capable of more than one interpretation.  A good example of this is, the implied metaphor in lines 5 and 6, ‘I thought of the last honey by the water / That no hive can find’.  At the symbolic level, one assumes that here we have an image of the heifer (and thus the idealised Ireland) as something remote and inaccessible.  But what is the precise meaning of the words?  The last honey by the water may be wild honey near a stream or river that will never be found by man, or it may be nectar that no hive of bees can reach.

The poem is a fine illustration of Clarke’s ability to manipulate vowels and consonants to provide wholly pleasing sound-effects.  Here he is indebted to features of the Gaelic poetic tradition.  He strives here to copy the Gaelic poets’ use of internal rhyme, consonance and assonance with great dexterity:

When the black herds of the rain were grazing….

And the watery hazes of the hazel….

That no hive can find…..

Brightness was drenching through the branches….

Indeed, the poem has a very elaborate and ingenious sound pattern.  The poet uses rhyme, line-length and sound correspondence in the shaping of this lyric. (You can explore this further by following the ‘ay’ sound through the poem).  And by comparing the first and last lines of the poem I feel that there is a progression, a sense of completeness, and a sense of hope for the future, as the ‘black herds’ in line one, lost and obscured by the mountain mist,  become clearer as the mist becomes rain.

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‘The Blackbird of Derrycairn’

‘The Blackbird of Derrycairn’ is somewhat easier to comprehend than ‘The Lost Heifer’.  Clarke based this poem on another famous poem in the Irish language called ‘Lonn Doire an Chairn’, a standard anthology piece taken from the Irish in a sequence known as the ‘Colloquy of the Old Men’.  Anyone familiar with Clarke’s source will realize that his poem is not a direct translation, but a very free adaptation.  In the Irish poem, Oisin is the speaker, and his main theme is the joyful, carefree life of the Fianna, symbolised by the glorious singing of the blackbird, this life being contrasted with the devout austerities of St. Patrick, who is encouraged to forgo his asceticism for the beauties of the natural life.  Clarke’s poem sets the Christian and pagan ways of life in sharp contrast.  His speaker is the blackbird, who tries to persuade Patrick to abandon the rigours of his religious practice and participate in the joys of nature.  The argument or dialogue, however, is very one-sided and Patrick’s values are given short shrift.  Religion is represented by ‘God’s shadow in the cup’, the ‘mournful matins’, and the handbell ‘without a glad sound’.  Against this, we have the lively evocation of happy nature: the bright sun, the singing of the birds, Fionn’s keen response to the sights and sounds of the natural world.

The most interesting thing about the poem is the twist Clarke provides us with at the end which is not in the original.  The Irish source has no hint of the blackbird’s threat to Patrick and all he represents.  The ‘knowledge’ that is found among the branches is presumably, the kind available to those who give themselves up to the spontaneous enjoyment of, and involvement in, nature.  At the end, the blackbird is suggesting that this knowledge will ultimately overcome the Christianity which now threatens to overthrow it, and will send Christians and their faith packing for good.  The line ‘will thong the leather of your satchels’ seems to mean ‘will cause you to pack your bags and go’.

Here in this poem Clarke again makes use of the main stylistic devices of Gaelic poetry: alliteration, internal rhyme, assonance and consonance: note for instance in the opening stanza the poet uses,

(a) cross-rhyme – ‘bough-top’ / ‘cup now’;

(b) assonance – ‘brighter’ / ‘nightfall’, and the more unexpected internal echoes like, ‘whistling’ / ‘listen’;

(c) alliteration – ‘Mournful matins’ and so on.

You have my permission to explore the other stanzas yourself!

The last two stanzas juxtapose the free and easy life of Fionn and the Fianna and the restrictive and unattractive austerity of the Christian monks in their prayer cells.  The final two lines see a return to the beginning.  The blackbird has the last word and this suggests that the blackbird’s view holds sway and very soon the monks and their asceticism and prayers will be sent packing.  In the light of recent returns from our Central Statistics Office maybe we can say that the poet is being prophetic here!

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‘For the house of the Planter / Is known by the trees’

 ‘The Planter’s Daughter’

The most interesting feature of ‘The Planter’s Daughter’, a very slight poem, is the indirectness of Clarke’s method of presentation of his subject.  She is not named and her family is referred to in a somewhat derogatory manner – they are Planters.  The planter’s daughter, like the lost heifer, is suggested rather than described.  Again, Clarke shows his command of delicate sound effects, particularly internal rhyme and half-rhyme:

They say that her beauty

Was music in mouth

And few in the candlelight

Thought her too proud….

It is a simple lyric and her beauty is registered indirectly, culminating in the three powerful metaphors in the final lines:

As a bell that is rung

Or a wonder told shyly

And O she was the Sunday

 In every week,

The society depicted in the poem is one reminiscent of images of Ireland in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  The Big House belongs to the planter, a landowner brought in by the British and settled on the good land which had already been confiscated.  We have all read in our history books about these Plantations – the most famous or infamous being the Plantation of Ulster.  The planter has so much land he can afford to plant trees around his house for decoration, unlike the peasants who farm the barren hillsides.  Clarke himself commented: ‘In barren Donegal, trees around a farmstead still denote an owner of planter stock’.

The planter’s daughter evokes differing responses in those who see her passing on her horse on in her carriage.  The men admire her elegance and her beauty and the women are jealous and gossip among themselves.  This clever, subtle juxtaposition is very well observed by the poet: the men ‘drank deep and were silent’, suggesting a toxic mix of resentment, envy and awe, while ‘The women were speaking / Wherever she went’.

His indirect treatment of the planter’s daughter creates a mystique around her.  The locals don’t really know her so they fantasise and use their imaginations to fill in the blanks of her life.  She is placed on a pedestal by them and they admire and envy her in equal proportions.  The poet manages to balance this admiration for the planter’s daughter with a sense of a latent resentment among the local population.

So, rummage around in the old familiar places, your bookshelves or even the attic for your own copy of Soundings and take a trip down memory lane…….

About the Poet….

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Austin Clarke (1896 – 1974)
Austin Clarke was born in 1896 in Dublin and educated at Belvedere College and University College Dublin.  He succeeded Thomas McDonagh, who had been executed for his part in the 1916 Rising, as a lecturer in the English Department there in 1917 and continued to work in this position until 1921.  He spent the next 12 years in England working as a critic and book reviewer, until his final return to Ireland in the nineteen thirties.  Clarke was one of the leading Irish poets of the generation after W. B. Yeats.  he also wrote novels, plays and memoirs.  His main contribution to Irish poetry was the rigour with which he used technical means borrowed from classical Irish language poetry when writing in English.
Effectively, this meant writing English verse based not so much on metre as on complex patterns of assonance, consonance, and half rhyme. Describing his technique to Robert Frost, Clarke said: “I load myself down with chains and try to wriggle free.”  His later verse is inclined to be increasingly satirical.  He is regarded by many as one of Ireland’s greatest poet since Yeats.