Dedicated to the memory of Ted Hughes, the piece is concerned with two poets: their differing backgrounds, personalities and cultures, the respect felt, the reverence generated, the tributes due. Heaney acknowledges the ‘electrifying’ effect Hughes ’ work had on him, knows well his humble background, his modest fortune, his unfortunate private life and his dourness of personality.
Heaney teases with his title: beyond the obvious reference to a boat’s rear end, ‘stern’ might also describe Hughes’ earthy dourness. Finally deliberately or otherwise the title contains the sonic echo of Eliot’s ‘middle’ name Stearns;
Heaney has posed a question to Hughes about the time he met T.S. Eliot. Heaney quotes Hughes’ actual response (DOD p.406): like standing on a quay watching the prow of the Queen Mary come towards you, very slowly. Boats on water will resonate metaphorically through the poem.
The ocean-liner reference conjures up a welter of ideas and associations: a top-of-the-range Blue Riband ship (fastest across the Atlantic) for a Blue Riband poet, metaphor for a renowned American poet who moved to Europe and settled in London; a massively calm and collected five-star presence; a phenomenon with unstoppable momentum. All in all, Eliot’s name and reputation left the younger poet in respectful awe.
So what of Hughes? Heaney watches him rowing his own boat: the middle-class connotations of quay are replaced by pierhead, rough and ready perhaps like Hughes’s modest Yorkshire origins.
Hughes does not possess the well-heeled ‘chauffeured’ image he associated with Eliot. He is having to work hard to progress, sitting in a much smaller humbler craft with its cheaper-to-produce wooden, end-stopped stern .
In contrast to Eliot’s unstoppable advance Hughes is moving away, sitting with his back to the prow and looking back at those observing him.
In contrast with the buoyancy stabilizers and easy comfort of Eliot’s ‘Queen Mary’, Hughes labours in his determination to achieve his poetic aims, as yet only shimmers in pursuit of his desire to ‘shine’, dips (does not yet ‘tower’).
Hughes’s propensity to row against the tide, as Heaney sees it, only makes his struggle that much harder for him: making no real headway.
Hughes is alleged to have struggled against his ‘demons’ and in view of his failed relationship with Sylvia Plath and her suicide, made little ‘headway’ against his critics. Ultimately, of course, the British Establishment saw fit to honour Ted Hughes as its premier Poet Laureate.
- quay: dockside platform where boats berth, load or unload;
- prow: pointed front end, bow;
- Queen Mary: famous Cunard Line ship that carried passengers on the North Atlantic route to and from New York between 1936 and 1967;
- pierhead: seaward end of a projecting platform;
- row: propel a boat with oars;
- end-stopped: with a flat, unrounded stern, sign of the most modest of boats produced with cost rather than elegance in mind; akin to a bottom-of-the-range car;
- stern: rearmost part; labour: struggle, make heavy weather;
- dip: sink downwards (in the swell)
- headway: forward momentum, progress;
- Heaney provides insights into his collaborations with and friendship towards Ted Hughes in his dialogues with Dennis O’Donnell (Stepping Stones, pp 390-396): ‘I did feel completely at ease with him; but … to begin with I was certainly that bit shyer’.
- he was reported as saying that Hughes’s use of language ‘electrified’ him. It is also suggested that he found him ‘gruff’.
- T.S. Eliot, American poet who settled in Britain, is regarded as one of the 20th century giants writing in English.
- 12 lines in 2 sections, the first based on direct quotation, the second reflecting on the comparative fortunes of the twp poets; no rhyme scheme; line length varies between 3 and 10 syllables; enjambment particularly in (2);
- sound effects in (1): [ai] like/ I/ like; [i:] Meeting/ he/ quay/ Queen carried into (2): seems/ pierhead/ me; alliterative bi-labial effect of [w]: What was/ When watching/ slowly/ Now/ watching/ watching/ rows/ wooden/ headway; also alliterative [st] end-stopped stern;
- triple verbs of effort, light and movement: Labours/ shimmers/ dips;
- 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: twelve 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 six lines are rich in nasals [m] [n], alveolar plosives [t] [d] and sibilant variants [s] [z] alongside front-of-mouth sounds: bi-labial plosives [p] [b], continuant [w] aspirant [h];
- a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;