Heaney captures moments from his life as a boarder at St Columb’s college.
1 In the Afterlife
When the school day came to an end for a bored schoolboy exiled far from home young Heaney entered a kind of afterlife. Wiling away long hours before lights-out, was not much of a life for him. Were he to awaken on the other side of death, the scene might bear a depressing resemblance to St Columb’s.
The central character is ‘real name’ (Jim Logue, the caretaker), initially engaged in the fortnightly routine of sweeping up hair off that classroom floor behind the school barber (an actual person contracted to the school).
With Heaney in tow (falling into step) Logue follows his upper-floor rounds, a bringer of a frail light (glimmer man) to dark empty spaces (dorms and silent landings) before proceeding to the silent refectory laid out with boy-proof crockery bearing school insignia (solid crest-marked delph).
Logue ends up ‘below stairs’ in the zone where house-keeping chores awaited: clothes to be washed (laundry pile); identifiable footwear in need of repair (boots tagged for the cobbler).
‘You were there, weren’t you Seamus,’ the poet asks himself, ‘did your boots give you away (your name on a label)? Was that life, Seamus, (body), or pre death (soul)? Were you just a number?
- afterlife: life beyond/ on the other side of death
- Jim Logue: his son posted a comment on social media: ‘Jim Logue the caretaker was my dad now deceased . The poem ‘In the Afterlife’ has a special place in my family’s hearts. That was his job for over 50 years … ‘Glimmer man of dorms’. Seamus captured boarding life in St Columb’s brilliantly’;
- barber: traditionally a man who cuts men’s hair;
- fortnight: period of two weeks;
- do one’s rounds: follow a fixed routine as part of a job;
- glimmer: faint, wavering light;
- dorm: large bedroom for a number of people in a school;
- landing: level area at the top of or between flights of stairs;
- crest: heraldic insignia, school badge and motto;
- delph: plates, crockery tableware;
- tagged: carrying an identity label;
- cobbler: shoe repairer;
- 9 lines; a long sentence enumerating observed functions of the caretaker, followed by 2 short questions exploring deeper issues; unrhymed;; line-length 10-12 syllables;
- comparison ‘afterlife’ equals a scene of previous lived life
- assonant echoes: ‘follow…Logue…soul’/ ‘care…where…set…step……refec…crest…delph’/ ‘floor…corridor… dorms…laundry…your’/ ‘name…label’/ ‘cobbler…on…body’/ ‘night…silent…pile’/ ‘falling…into…glimmer…landings…solid’;
- alliterative strands: front-of mouth [w]’following…sweep…once’; sibilant variants [s/z] ‘goes…sweep…class …school…set…step; alveolar [t/d] ‘silent landings…tory…solid, crest-marked delph’; nasals [m/n];
2 Nights or ’57
In the Sixth Form at St Columbs Senior students were permitted to congregate (after night prayers … each night) in the area in front of the school. They trod not on arid, skin-tearing asphodel, just an Irish lawn (mown grass) and used it for for physical exercise (lapped … in bare feet), panting for summer with all the anatomical repercussions: body playing up (heel-bone), increased pulse-rate (heart-thud) and gasps for breath (open-mouthed).
For Heaney who was never a fitness-freak time has passed (the older I get) and fitness levels drooped (quicker and the closer … those labouring breaths), thus perhaps his implied happiness to take things easy (feel the coolth)!
- asphodel: Greek style spiky grass said to carpet both Elysium and hell;
- lap: circle the perimeter;
- lawn: tended grassy area;
- thud: heavy beat;
- labouring: working hard
- coolth: cool; alternative favoured by a Pound or a Kipling with connotations of facetiousness;
- 2 triplets in a single sentence; variable line-length 9-12 syllables; unrhymed;
- enjambed lines add to the sense of momentum;
- reflection on damp Irish conditions; arid southern European ‘asphodel’ would have torn the skin;
- assonant echoes: ‘wasn’t asphodel…on…college’/ ‘mown…open…bone…older…closer’/ ‘prayers…bare’/ ‘asphodel…practised…lapped’/ ‘we…feet…heel…feel’;
- alliterative chains: sibilant variants [s/z]; front-of-mouth [w]’wasn’t…mown…we’; nasals [m/n]; velar [k]’quicker…closer…coolth
3 The Bereaved
At the end of the teaching day St Columb’s boys sat in regulated, supervised evening study , aching to escape the drudgery.
Amongst them a chosen, segregated (set apart) group of souls who will be first to leave (down the aisle like brides) for a specific reason (music practice), viewed, perhaps, as a bonus to them (privileged) but not those who knew what came next (unenvied) – solitary confinement (left alone) in a bleak practice-room (four bare walls) confronted by the unpleasant consequences of piano scales and arpeggios (face the exercise).
Heaney paints the professional style pianist-pose and preparation: in the face, concentration (eyes shut), the posture, proper (shoulders straight back … cold hands).
From the first note, however, it all goes wildly awry (savagery) and any sense of the-right-notes-in-the-right-order goes out the window (piano music’s music going wrong).
- bereaved: bereft of, deprived; modern usage concentrates on the loss of someone or something close;
- set apart: singled out;
- aisle: central walkway between rows of seats;
- bride: newly-wed woman who leads the procession out of church;
- study: supervise work after classes;
- privileged: enjoying special status
- unenvied: no-one wanting to take their place
- exercise (pun): routine pattern designed to improve competence; an irksome thing;
- savagery: brutality, cruelty
- go wrong: break down, go adrift;
- octet in a 3 sentences; line-length 8-11 syllables; unrhymed; balance of punctuated and unrhymed rhythms;
- comparison: chosen ones like brides;
- or ‘in other words’;
- assonant echoes: ’first…early’/ ‘aisle…brides’/ ‘who…music…music’s music’/ ‘privileged…unenvied…left’/ ‘face…straight’/ ‘alone…shoulders…cold…piano…going’;
- alliterative chains: bi-labial [p/b] ‘apart…brides…boys…permitted’; alveolar [t/d]’first…permitted to…study’; nasals [m/n];
- 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;
- syllables without highlight are largely the unstressed sound as in common, little [ə]
- 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;
- a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;