Storm on the Island

Heaney addresses the threats alluded to in Honeymoon Flight and Scaffolding using the metaphor of a storm-swept island to calm any niggling insecurities in his wife’s newly-wed mind. His deeper meaning emerges: solid foundation and stoic perseverance will secure the couple’s long-term survival whatever short-term extremities life may throw in their way. The storm (from which there is no shelter) is one such ordeal.

A decisive joint-statement affirms that he and Marie have what it takes: they have come to their island prepared, recognizing the best design for durable construction: no high-rise in this climate (houses squat);   solid foundations and materials (walls in rock); sound roofing (good slate). 

The weather-beaten (wizened) terrain accustomed to ruthless elemental attacks is stripped of what cannot survive there: no hay… no stacks/ Or stooks that can be lost.  

Without trees and their companionable presence in a storm (company when it blows full/ Blast), the pain the storm seeks to inflict is indiscernible to the ear (no tragic chorus in a gale/ So that you listen to the thing you fear) in contrast with the noticeable buffeting (pummels) the house is receiving.

He counsels: do not underestimate far-away threat/ the distant sound of the sea Exploding comfortably down on the cliffs; to doubt its potential impact would be self-delusion (the flung spray hits/ The very windows); on this island/ in this life today’s calm is tomorrow’s mayhem (spits like a tamed cat turned savage). 

The way for him and Marie to survive the repeated impact of Nature’s/ life’s blitz (where the wind is a war plane that dives/ And strafes invisibly and Space fires a salvo of incoming shells) is to batten down the hatches (just sit tight).

The poet plays down the scary paradox he perceives: the air, insubstantial (empty) yet capable of bombardment, impossible to grasp (nothing) yet massively powerful (huge), will not be allowed to threaten their solidity: Strange, it is a huge nothing that we fear.

  • squat: low and sturdy;
  • sink: drive below the surface;
  • slate: easily-split grey rock used as roofing material;
  • wizened: wrinkled with age;
  • hay: grass dried as animal food;
  • stack: tall pile of hay;
  • stook: sheaf of grain piled together;
  • prove company: turn out to be useful for shelter;
  • full blast: with maximum intensity;
  • bran: grain husks;
  • raise: cause;
  • gale: very strong wind
  • pummel: strike repeatedly;
  • spray: water droplets driven through the air;
  • spit: make a hissing, hostile noise;
  • tame: domesticated;
  • savage: feral;
  • sit tight: stay put, firmly where you are;
  • dive: plunge earthwards;
  • strafe: riddle with gunfire;
  • salvo: broadside;
  • The power of elemental forces is extreme;

 

  • 19 decasyllabic lines in a single stanza; loose rhyme is confined to first and last couplets;
  • Heaney uses ingenious poetic ploys to describe the sounds of threatening turbulence: the varying sounds of the wind are rendered not by precise assonance but by use of grouped allophonic (variant) sounds the same vowel: [o] stooks/ lost/ proper/ company/ blows/ know/ exploding comfortably down/ on/ no; [i] hits/ spits/ sit tight while wind dives/ invisibly; [a] space/ salvo/ are/ bombarded/ air;
  • similar practice with adjacent consonant sound [t], [θ] and [ð]: listen to the thing/ Forgetting that it/ there/ tress/ natural shelter;
  • some additional examples of alliteration: rock and roof; stacks Or stooks … spits like a tame cat/ Turned; assonance: me/ leaves; tight/ dives; strafes/ space and so on
  • juxtaposed opposites: the violence of Exploding alongside non-hostile comfortably;
  • strength of first phrase and last: We are prepared; we will not be cowed: a  huge nothing that we fear.;
  • it is worth testing the sonics of the piece (below)to identify sounds that mimic gale conditions;
  • doubts refuted via no/ never/ nor: togetherness confirmed by we/ we/ us;
  • oxymoron: huge nothing; by its assonant make-up the final line ‘huge’ can be lengthened unrestrictedly to make the emphasis;

 

  • Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to;
  • the music of the poem: fourteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text.

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies;
  • the first lines, for example, weave together a cluster of plosives (bilabial [p] [b], alveolar [t][d], velar [k] [g]) alongside labio-dental fricatives [f] [v], bilabial continuant [w] and nasals [n] [m];
  • it is well worth teasing out the sound clusters for yourself to admire the poet’s sonic engineering:
  • Consonants (with their phonetic symbols) can be classed according to where in the mouth they occur
  • Front-of-mouth sounds voiceless bi-labial plosive [p] voiced bi-labial plosive [b]; voiceless labio-dental fricative [f] voiced labio-dental fricative [v]; bi-labial nasal [m]; interlabial continuant [w]
  • Behind-the-teeth sounds voiceless alveolar plosive [t] voiced alveolar plosive [d]; voiceless alveolar fricative as in church match [tʃ]; voiced alveolar fricative as in judge age [dʒ];  voiceless dental fricative  [θ]  as in thin path; voiced dental fricative as  in this other [ð]; voiceless alveolar fricative [s] voiced alveolar fricative [z]; continuant [h] alveolar nasal [n] alveolar approximant [l]; alveolar trill [r]; dental ‘y’ [j] as in  yet
  • Rear-of-mouth sounds voiceless velar plosive [k] voiced velar plosive [g]; voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] as in ship sure, voiced post- alveolar fricative [ʒ]   as in pleasure; palatal nasal [ŋ]  as in ring/ ang