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.
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The Early Poetry of Thomas Kinsella

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The Early Poetry of Thomas Kinsella

(with particular focus on ‘Another September’ and ‘Mirror in February’)

In the years after Yeats there was a general change in the direction of Anglo-Irish poetry.  In his desire to establish an Irish poetic tradition, Yeats had confined himself, for the most part, to subjects of Irish interest, and poets who directly succeeded him were very influenced by his poetry and the underlying philosophy of cultural nationalism which he espoused.  Thus, an older poet like Austin Clarke is very obviously an imitator of Yeats both in his subject choice and in his treatment of it.  Indeed, Clarke’s subject matter is principally confined to three main areas and may be summarised as follows: his judgements on the old heroic Ireland of the past (‘The Blackbird of Derrycairn’), his response to the general contemporary issue of Ireland itself (‘The Lost Heifer’), and his perceptive, lyrical treatment of the theme of love (‘The Planter’s Daughter’).

In the 1950’s, however, a new generation of Irish poets began to emerge.  Born in 1928, Thomas Kinsella belongs to this generation of writers; unlike Clarke, his main concern as a poet was not to limit himself to Irish topics but to explore a wider range of ideas and themes.  In 1892 Yeats had called for the creation of a national literature which would be distinct from all other literatures written in the English language.  Consequently, poets who succeeded Yeats found a constant need to express themselves as being fundamentally Irish, and the nature of their relationship with Ireland was one of their dominant concerns.  By 1950, however, Anglo-Irish poetry had found a permanent place for itself in modern English literature.  The new generation of writers were therefore not restricted to the old stances.  They did not feel it necessary to constantly assert allegiance to subjects of Irish interest, nor were they emotionally involved with dead leaders and causes as Yeats and Clarke had been.  Indeed, their most vivid memories were not of Wolfe Tone or the Fenian, John O’Leary, but of the contemporary holocaust in Europe, and the futile hero-worship of the modern world.  With Thomas Kinsella, therefore, we have one of the first to move into this different area of awareness and exploration.

Kinsella’s considerable talent as a poet has been well documented in many recent studies (e.g. Andrew Fitzsimons, The Sea of Disappointment: Thomas Kinsella’s Pursuit of the Real. UCD Press, 2008). His early work shows his skill at exploring states of feeling, especially feelings that are painful or acute.  His early poems also contain some moment of illumination, or epiphany, as he increases his awareness of some thought, idea, or reality he has previously overlooked.  This emphasis on reflection gives his poems many of the qualities of meditations: they are often, as he called them himself, ‘detailed explorations of private miseries’.  In these poems he usually begins with some simple situation which he advances towards complexity and which he attempts to incorporate into a coherent personal philosophy.

In both ‘Another September’ and ‘Mirror in February’ the speaker is presented as a solitary, humble figure who is confronted with an overwhelming significance in some simple aspect of life.  Though many of Kinsella’s poems deal explicitly with members of his own family he is essentially a poet of abstract ideas and concepts.  Also, throughout his early works nature always figures prominently.  He is conscious of the passing of time and of the seasons, the birth, death and decay of all life, even his own.

In ‘Mirror in February’ he connects his realisation of the decay inherent in modern man with his personal understanding of nature, while in ‘Another September’ he expresses his work as a poet in simple rural terms, ‘this … consciousness that plants its grammar in her yielding weather’.  Both these poems reveal certain similarities; each shares a common effort to find meaning and direction, and both are portraits of a defeated personality.  In ‘Another September’ the speaker is plunged into the bizarre, disorientated and isolated world of his wife’s past.  He is concerned with her immediate rural background, with the ways and customs of the people who still live there, with the culture they have formed from which he is excluded.  But beyond these reflections lie considerations about truth and justice, especially in the idea of a spectral woman who haunts him throughout the poem.  In ‘Mirror in February’ the poet’s self-portrait is made up of naturalistic and personal details through which he contemplates his muted, tragic story.  He experiences a sudden crisis of identity; there is a sense of loss in the feeling that his hold on youth is frail and tenuous.  In the end there is a gallant expression of hope as a faint optimism hesitantly breaks through.  Both poems succeed through a close attention to detail and through the use of natural images to expose the unpleasant and pitiful details of the poet’s life.

The material of each poem is different but the method is the same.  A theme is projected through the narrator, who alternates between apprehension of his immediate surroundings and memories or ideas that impinge upon his mind.  His recurring theme is the gulf between appearance and reality.  In ‘Mirror in February’ he regrets the loss of his youth: but the loss he is even more painfully aware of involves what he appears to be and what he actually is, ‘For they are not made whole that reach the age of Christ’.  The poem moves towards the acceptance of his condition even though his relationship with the world is one of steady and unavoidable decay.  Similarly, ‘Another September’ attempts to find some meaning in chaos.  This poem is also a projection of a state of feeling: the chaos is trivial in a wider sense, but is endowed with significance within the context of the poem.  The theme has possibly a wider application than ‘Mirror in February’, which deals with the poet’s immediate awareness of time.  In ‘Another September’, on the other hand, the initial meditation on his wife’s past gives rise to a meditation on women in general, and then to a consideration of the serious moral concepts that are usually represented as women, ‘Down the lampless darkness they came, moving like women: Justice, Truth, such figures’.  No firm conclusions are made in this poem: it is not ‘rounded off’ with a simple assertion as ‘Mirror in February’ is.  Indeed, the poem ends not with conclusions but with images, the meaning of which are not completely understood by the poet.  The theme of ‘Mirror in February’ is clear enough.  In ‘Another September’, however, the poet is presented with half-formed, shadowy ideas which trouble his consciousness and on which no firm judgements can be pronounced.

‘Another September’ describes an incident of particular importance in Kinsella’s life.  He has returned with his wife to the country house in which she grew up, and the opening stanza gives the poem a particular rural setting: ‘Dreams fled away, this country bedroom…’.  The time is early morning, just after dawn on a damp autumn day, and the poet wakes up in unfamiliar surroundings.  He first becomes conscious of the coldness (‘raw with the touch of dawn’), then of the silence (‘Nearer the river sleeps St. John’s’).  Nature, too, is still sleeping: the garden draws, ‘long pitch black breaths’, and the orchard exhales ‘rough sweetness’.  The poem is set in autumn, a time of ‘minor peace’; for the hard-working country people when the chores of summer are over and the fruits of their labour can be enjoyed.  The harvest is strongly suggested in this opening stanza, and the images provide a sense of simple rural abundance.  The trees are ripe with pears and apples, the rough soil is ‘windfall-sweetened’, the people are momentarily free from labour and secure from all intruders, ‘Locked fast inside a dream with iron gates’.  Being a Dubliner, it is as though Kinsella is experiencing these things for the first time.  This country scene is completely new to him, and he tends to see it in poetic terms.

The presence of autumn is strongly suggested in the images of the first stanza: in the second, it is personified as a domestic animal which, ‘rubs her kind hide against the bedroom wall’.  This sort of imagery is very common in modern poetry.  T.S. Eliot, in particular, specialised in far-fetched, arresting images, which have much of the impact of extended metaphysical conceits.  There is indeed a strong comparison between Kinsella’s description of autumn in this poem and Eliot’s description of the fog in the second section of ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, ‘The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-pane’.  In Kinsella’s poem the image is meant to suggest friendliness and familiarity.  Country people live close to nature; they measure time not by the clock but by the seasons.  As such, autumn represents another aspect of their lives and is ‘long used to handling’ by them.  For Kinsella on the other hand – a city dweller for whom the seasons have no real significance – autumn is seen, prosaically, as ‘weather’.

The main topic of the poem is introduced here. The farm-house and the surrounding countryside are familiar features of his wife’s past; the life they represent belongs to his wife, not to him.  In the first stanza the farm is quiet and peaceful, safe from all intruders.  Here, however, Kinsella begins to realise that he himself is an intruder; he feels isolated and estranged in these new surroundings.  He is only ‘half-tolerated’ by the autumn morning, personified here as a friendly domestic animal which only ‘half-tolerates’ the caresses of a stranger.  The comparisons suggested here are difficult but comprehensible: it is as though a large domestic animal has entered the room sensing that an old forgotten friend has returned after many years’ absence.  Immediately, it is confronted by a stranger who tries to win favour by a vain display of friendship.  However, the poet’s overtures of friendship are ignored: it is not for his sake but for his wife’s, ‘this unspeaking daughter’ that the morning dawns so beautifully.  This use of personification in the poem is meant to suggest a sense of drama.  Indeed, what is difficult in the second stanza is not so much what the poet has to express, but the manner in which he expresses it.  He could just as easily have said that he felt out of place in the small rural community where his wife grew up, but this unremarkable statement would lack the strong sense of urgency that Kinsella wishes to suggest.  Also, by introducing characters in the second stanza Kinsella not only makes us see his personal situation in terms of drama – almost like a short scene from a play – but he also prepares for the important characterisations at the end of the poem.  He continues for the moment with simple poetic description:

                   Wakeful moth-wings blunder near a chair,

                   Toss their light shell at the glass, and go

                   To inhabit the living starlight.

At this point his attention is suddenly directed back to his wife who seems remote and unfamiliar in these strange surroundings.  Almost at once his image of her fades, ‘wanes’, and is replaced by other threatening images, ‘bearing daggers and balances’.

The ending to the poem presents some difficulty of interpretation but its meaning is usually explained as follows: Kinsella’s visit to the house where his wife grew up makes him conscious of those aspects of her life that had previously been ignored.  The poem represents, as it were, a moment of insight into her past which he had never before considered.  Following this epiphany he realises how women’s achievements in general, and their contribution to history, have also frequently been ignored.  Throughout the poem his wife is presented in quiet, placid descriptions: ‘a fragrant child’, ‘unspeaking daughter’, ‘stranded hair stirs on the still linen’.  The final feminine images, however, suggest vigour and movement, representing that part of womanhood which is characterised by energy and endurance.  Down through history, ‘down the lampless darkness’, the deeds of women have been unknown and unrecognised.  Kinsella therefore sees the images as threatening him with retribution, ‘bearing daggers and balances’, and seeking recognition for their personal deeds and achievements.

The situation described at the start of ‘Mirror in February’ is somewhat similar to that of ‘Another September’.  Indeed, both poems are composed of certain personal details and are in some sense autobiographical.  Again Kinsella relies on simple rural description in an effort to create a sense of atmosphere.  It is a damp spring morning; outside the upturned soil is ready for the seed; the trees are dark and still leafless.  The poet is going about the familiar morning chore of dressing and shaving, his mind occupied ‘by some compulsive fantasy’, when suddenly he notices his reflection in the mirror.  In the cold light of morning he is brought back to reality and he considers his advancing years.  His features reveal the relentless progress of time: his eyes are dark and exhausted; his mouth is dry and down-turned.

This moment of revelation, this epiphany, is extended into the second stanza.  The poem is set in springtime, the start of another year.  It is time to look to the future, to take stock, a time to ‘learn’.  In the second line of this stanza the cyclical nature of life is represented in an interesting paradox, ‘this untiring, crumbling place of growth’.  Life and death, he realises, are part of the great system of creation.  Things mature and die in an endless process of death and destruction.  Within the context of the poem, however, this realisation is the cause of some concern for the poet.  The slow, relentless progress of time has not brought him to perfection as it has in the case of Christ.  Instead he has achieved little, apart from a comfortable mediocrity.  The phrase ‘and little more’ is deliberately ambiguous.  The obvious meaning is that he is a ‘little more’ than the age of Christ, and the poem describes a moment of painful revelation for a person who suddenly realises that the best years of his life have slipped away and middle-age is approaching.  Another possible meaning to the phrase is suggested by Maurice Harmon.  What this critic suggests is not so much the idea of time passing, but of time lost: the poet laments that he has merely ‘looked’ his last on youth, almost like an observer, and done ‘little more’ to accomplish anything of importance.  This interpretation certainly fits in with the general tone of the second and third stanzas where the idea of worthwhile achievement is suggested in the extreme comparison with Christ’s life.  In contrast to Christ’s supreme achievements the poet has accomplished little, and he strays into the middle years of his life with little hope of attaining anything of note.  At this point he generalises about life: ‘they are not made whole / That reach the age of Christ’.  In the second stanza life is visualised in terms of sacrifice, and the idea implied is that it only becomes meaningful when seen in goal-directed terms.

In the third stanza this idea is repeated and is made more explicit in the striking references to nature.  Looking through the window the poet sees that the fruit trees have been severely pruned.  He uses this simple observation from nature as the occasion for an important comment on life.  The trees in the garden have withstood these brutal attacks upon them so that they may bear more and better fruit.  The basic idea expressed here is that nothing worthwhile is accomplished  without sacrifice, and that suffering contributes in a mysterious way to the perfection of a person’s character.  Just as Christ attained his destiny through suffering, and just as trees are pruned to make them more productive, so men too must suffer ‘mutilations’ if they wish their lives to be meaningful and enriched.  Unlike Christ, however, man does not submit to suffering willingly: he avoids hardships at each opportunity and cowers, ‘quails’, under every blow of fortune.

One aspect of the kind of suffering Kinsella imagines is described in this poem.  In his moment of anguish he tries to make light of the serious thoughts that weigh upon his mind.  He folds his towel with as much grace as he can manage.  He is no longer young, and unlike the trees he is not ‘renewable’, but he takes comfort in the fact that everybody shares in the same fate.  Life is continuous and irreversible: in the last line, therefore, he attempts to face up to his predicament with courage and conviction.

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Analysis of Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘The Blackbird of Glanmore’.

The Blackbird of Glanmore

 by Seamus Heaney

On the grass when I arrive,
Filling the stillness with life,
But ready to scare off
At the very first wrong move.
In the ivy when I leave.

 It’s you, blackbird, I love.

I park, pause, take heed.
Breathe. Just breathe and sit
And lines I once translated
Come back: “I want away
To the house of death, to my father

Under the low clay roof.”

And I think of one gone to him,
A little stillness dancer –
Haunter-son, lost brother –
Cavorting through the yard,
So glad to see me home,

My homesick first term over.

And think of a neighbour’s words
Long after the accident:
“Yon bird on the shed roof,
Up on the ridge for weeks –
I said nothing at the time

But I never liked yon bird.”

The automatic lock
Clunks shut, the blackbird’s panic
Is shortlived, for a second
I’ve a bird’s eye view of myself,
A shadow on raked gravel

In front of my house of life.

Hedge-hop, I am absolute
For you, your ready talkback,
Your each stand-offish comeback,
Your picky, nervy goldbeak –
On the grass when I arrive,

In the ivy when I leave.

This beautiful, haunting poem is the last poem in Heaney’s celebrated collection District and Circle – and for a very good reason.  The final words of the poem are ‘when I leave’ and thoughts of death and leaving are scattered throughout the poem.  This may be a poem, therefore, where Heaney confronts his own mortality and we also know that he was very ill during the writing of the poems in this collection.  He tells us elsewhere that in order to understand the North he had to leave it  and after his move South, to gain a greater perspective of his home place, Glanmore became his haven, his ‘house of life’; it became, in effect,  a place of inspiration to rival Mossbawn and Anahorish of his youth.  The poem opens as he returns home to Glanmore in his car and as he pulls up on the driveway he sees a blackbird and he recalls lines he has translated,

 I want away

                              To the house of death, to my father,

Under the low clay roof.

He also recalls another earlier poem Mid Term Break which tells of his young brother who died tragically in a road accident.   It is as if the blackbird, presiding spirit in the background, has brought him full circle, to the last word, ‘when I leave’.

Heaney uses an ingenious structure in this poem, alternating between five-line and one-line stanzas. The single lines create a feeling of a set of refrains (repetition), although they are all different. The repeated structures also create a sense of return, so that the poem keeps coming back to the passing moment in which it is set.  The first and last lines of the first stanza, “On the grass when I arrive” and “In the ivy when I leave” are also the first line and last line of the poem itself.   This clever circular composition emphasises the completeness of the moment. It also suggests the cycle of life – and of course there is also an allusion to the title of the collection District and Circle, a reference to the London Underground.   The tight, united form is echoed by the use of half-rhyme throughout the poem, which is particularly noticeable in the second last stanza: “talkback”, “comeback”,  “goldbeak”.

This is a poem about the act of witnessing.   The poet reminds us that our lives are as much about observation as action and in this poem Heaney explores the act of ‘coming home’ through the ironic presence of a blackbird, a creature sometimes associated with being a harbinger of death.

As mentioned earlier, this poem is also an echo and a remembrance of Heaney’s wonderfully poignant earlier poem Mid Term Break which specifically examined the death of the poet’s younger brother Christopher.   This meeting of texts and meeting here  with the blackbird who we are told, had ironically witnessed the earlier death, reveal how we are all mixed up in each other’s exits and entrances into life and death and we always try to make sense of our world less we slip down into the despairing melancholy of utter absence.

Heaney’s evocation of his brother’s absence through death, and yet continued presence through memory,  is a perfectly compressed elegy to tenderness and love:  A little stillness dancer’.  He is always about, haunting the edge of the poet’s consciousness, at the edge of his thoughts and observations, watching him perhaps too, perfectly preserved through time.

There are places in the poem where the sound of the words suggests an influence from Old English poetry, which used alliteration and combined nouns: “Haunter-son” and “Hedge-hop” illustrate this.   “Hedge-hop” is a perfect description of a blackbird, and its two-syllable alliteration mimics the bird’s movement.  In places Heaney uses the sound of words to create specific effects: the car lock “clunks shut”; here assonance of the ‘uh’ sound emphasises the onomatopoeia of  “clunks”.

The paradoxical (seemingly contradictory) image of the “little stillness dancer” is thought provoking, and captures the idea that the blackbird, even though it stays where it is, is filled with energy and the potential for movement.  Coining metaphors like this is one way in which Heaney creates a fresh look at nature.

The imagery of the translated lines about the “house of death” also repeat the idea of a journey between life and death, confirmed in the narrator’s memory “one gone to him [God]”. The “house of death” is then mirrored and reversed by the phrase “my house of life” towards the end of the poem. Whether it’s a metaphorical or real house, this image undoes the narrator’s sadness, and is a reminder of his good fortune at living a long life.   It seems to me that there are echoes here of Emily Dickinson’s poem,  ‘Because I could not stop for Death’

                        We paused before a House that seemed

                        A Swelling of the Ground-

                        The Roof was scarcely visible-

                        The Cornice-in the Ground-

However, despite these associations with death, the poem favours the energy and life of the blackbird. There is the bird’s “ready talkback”, which suggests cheekiness, and although there is “panic” at the sound of the car lock, it is “shortlived”.

The poem seems to be a mixture of sadness and hope or pleasure in the bird, the memories and the moment.  Blackbirds are often used in Irish poetry as mystical, mythical messengers (cf. Austin Clarke’s great poem, The Blackbird of Derrycairn) and this is picked up by the introduction of the superstitious neighbour, but it is not supported by the pleasure of seeing the blackbird in the rest of the poem. In direct address to the bird at the end of the poem, the narrator tells him he is “absolute/for you”, linking back to the love described in the second stanza.  Like the blackbird, the poem is full of suppressed movement, so that although it is only a moment in time and place, it contains much more, allowing Heaney to reflect on the passing of life, and the circularity of life.

The poem contains numerous snapshot moments of the poet’s personal experiences – some remembered moments are up to  fifty years old. He refers to the reported words of a neighbour who once used ‘Yon bird’ to refer to the death (ghost) of this brother. It becomes clearer from this point that the use of the word ‘bird’ suddenly becomes redolent of death. He uses ‘a bird’s eye view of myself’ to say that he reflected on himself and  on his own impending death, ‘A shadow on raked gravel’, with ‘shadow’ being a metaphor for his death or ghost.

So already at the end of District and Circle in the final poem of that collection, The Blackbird of Glanmore, we have the poet doing what poets do best, confronting one of the great elephants in the room, his own mortality.  Like Dickinson, whom we referred to earlier, the poet seems to have had an intimation of sorts, it’s as if this day in Glanmore is the day,

                        I first surmised the Horses Heads

                        Were toward Eternity-

We are also somewhat disconcerted by the realisation that grieving and bereavement is a life-long process and his young brother Christopher’s memory is always but a wingbeat away.  Like the earlier ‘Sunlight’ poems depicting his aunt’s kitchen in Mossbawn this beautiful poem is deceptive at first but like all of Heaney’s work deserving of a second look!