Once upon a time, the ghost of an iconic WW1 poet made an appearance on a road familiar to the poet conjuring up the ghosts of other WW2 survivors. Heaney describes the place, the event and the supporting cast in some detail.
Heaney provides a dramatic continuo sound effect of approaching footsteps … an incoming ‘presence’ as yet unseen: a step on the grass-crowned road, footsteps with purpose echoing the whip of daisy-heads on the toes of boots.
However the stage is not yet prepared for his entrance … a man and woman in their lovers’ hide-away are engaged in passionate but amateur sexual foreplay (fully clothed, strong-arming each other); they hear, sense they are intruders and are minded to leave.
The scene is now ready for epiphany (the road is empty) a minimalist stage-set, all nature: nothing but air and light between their love-nest and the bracken hillside.
His memory is of a superlative moment: utter evening, age-old as it was in the beginning … and unchanging (‘is now and ever shall be’, unsaid but invited parody of the religious doxology of praise).
He picks out out a real memory (the remembered come-and-go of lovers) that provided the poetic charge that brings on the ghost.
Edward Thomas with his unmistakable appearance (his long-legged self), on leave from the army,
… in uniform … resembling similar young Irish WW2 fighting-men of two generations later, demobbed (officially released from military duty) and judged, much to the relief of their nearest and dearest ‘not much changed’ by the trauma.
Survivors of both wars were often broken, shell-shocked men, even if physically uninjured. These Leitrim demobbed soldiers bore the signs of health (sandy-moustached and freckled), standing tall from being, they said, with Monty in the desert.
- Lagans Road: Denis O’Driscoll’s interviews with Heaney in Stepping Stones, Faber 2009 are accompanied by hand-drawn maps that set out the Heaney neighbourhood ; the Lagans Road is very much part of it;
- crown: the highest point;
- whip: lashing sound;
- daisy: grassland plant with yellow centred and white petalled flowers;
- hedge: bushes forming a boundary;
- strong-arming: testing one’s strength;
- sensed him: felt a presence;
- love-nest: secret place where lovers meet;
- bracken: tall, ground-covering ferns;
- utter: complete;
- as it was in the beginning: mimicking Christian doxology in praise of … God … Lagans Road?
- bring on: introduce;
- Edward Thomas: British poet who was killed in WW1 in France;
- khaki: hard-wearing brownish fabric used in military clothing;
- tunic: short uniform coat
- Leitrim: county on the north western border between the Irish Republic and Ulster
- demob: release from military service;
- sandy: light yellowish brown in colour;
- freckle: marks on the skin exaggerated by sunlight;
- Monty: Field Marshall Montgomery was a WW2 ‘hero’, leading his so-called Desert Rats to victory over Rommel in North Africa; there was some kudos attached to having been a Desert Rat;
- some 20 lines composed of sections linked by half lines; lines based on 10 syllables; no rhyme scheme;
- the poet’s use of the present tense lends actuality to his memory
- a single line that sets out the huge spiritual pleasure of the moment stands apart;
- the use of punctuation including dashes and enjambed lines invites the rhythms and emphases of oral delivery;
- early assonant effect of [e] is carried through the piece step/ heads/ hedge/ Theresa Brennan later senses/ empty/ nest/ remembered/ long-legged self/ Edward/ Evans/ freckled/ said/ desert; also paired [ei] daisy/ Eamon/
- Initial [əʊ] road/ toes/ clothed/ go is interwoven with a cluster of [ɒ] strong/ gone/ on and [ai] quiet/ I/ rise/ light/ hillside where I lie; [ʌ] utter/ Until;
- some alliteration: lovers/ long-legged self/ Lagans/ Leitrim/ freckled
- sandy desert sand and gingerish complexion;
- 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: thirteen 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, soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies; this is sonic engineering of the first order;
- for example, the final four lines are rich in nasals [m] [n] and alveolar plosives [t] [d] [ch] alongside front-of-mouth sounds: bi-labial plosives [p] [b], labio-dental fricatives [f] [v], continuant [w] and sibilant variants [s] [z][sh];
- a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;