The five section sequence laments a clutch of Scottish poets all of whom have passed away in the period preceding Electric Light. ‘Deer’ emerges as a unifying motif. In Station Island’s ‘On The Road’ the prehistoric deer inscribed on a Dordogne cave wall became Heaney’s emblem for the creative force that his quartet of elegised poets have undoubtedly bequeathed to Gaelic and Scottish literature and heritage. Shakespeare’s three witches from Macbeth melt in and out of the narrative in their capacity to prophesy.
A couple on a Scottish visit chance upon Highland wildlife. ‘His’ sharp eye has spotted a quartet of elusive creatures hiding in the heather, deer camouflaged against the Highland background. The sight will have allegorical consequences.
What appeared to be an empty landscape from the browns of heathland (colour of meadow hay) to its flowers (meadow-sweet) and coarse grasses (liver-spotted dock leaves) is not so.
The spotter’s eye zooms in to reveal the presence (there before we noticed them) of deer – on the qui vive in the dusk (all eyes and evening), scarcely visible above the growth (up to their necks in the meadow).
The spotter steers his eager but unseeing companion via a muffled dialogue (‘Oh yes. Of course, yes. Lovely.’)
The creatures were not spooked (didn’t move away) – they brought an electricity to the circumstances (like the air agog) freezing the moment (step of light on grass, halted mid-light). Both watchers and watched underwent adrenaline surges, the accelerated thud of blood flow (heartbeat) and sharpened vision (pupil).
The creatures maintained their charged presence (match for us) knowing all along that they were not alone (watching).
- ‘Would They Had Stay’d’, Shakespeare from Macbeth Act1, iii: Banquo queries the disappearance of the 3 witches (‘Whither are they vanished?’); Macbeth (‘Into the air, and what seemed corporal/ Melted, as breath into the wind. Would they had stayed’); the hags have foretold that Macbeth will be king; he wishes they had stayed longer and told him more;
- meadow-sweet: cream-flowered herb growing prolifically in damp fields;
- liver: shade of reddish brown, colour of the mammals’ organ;
- spot: patch of discolouration;
- dock: coarse broad-leaved weed;
- up to one’s neck in: almost submerged, with very little showing
- agog: excited, eager for more
- pupil: circular, light sensitive centre of the eye;
- match (pun?): competing with us, returning our gaze; a flare that lit up surroundings and spirits;
- 9 lines including half lines of dialogue; variable line length (first and last of 12 syllables; unrhymed;
- first quartet in a single sentence; dialogue and afterthoughts generates further 11 sentences;
- dialogue probably between poet and wife (‘lovely’);
- both humans and animals presented anonymously ‘we…they’;
- assonant echoes ‘meadow…necks…meadow…there…them…next…meadow…where…there…yes’/ ‘sweet…leaves…evening’/ ‘like…like…light’/ ‘agog…on…halted…watching’;
- alliterative chains [w]’were…we’ to ‘watching’; alveolar [t] ‘light…halted…heart…heartbeat…match…watch’;
- comparison: presence of deer and their subjective influence on the senses;
- pun ‘match’ objective ‘standing their ground and lighting up the surroundings;
- emphasis ‘and watching’ on animal caution to signs of danger;
Heaney summons the shade (come forth) of Norman MacCaig from the water meadows of an Oxford college with its own herd (deer of Magdalen) – shy creatures (startlers standing still) out of context, both deer and MacCaig himself, in an incongruous Oxford riverside habitat (fritillary land) far removed from their Highland origin (heather-sentries far from the heath).
Elements of Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ intervene – a role (Be fawn), the forces of opposition in play (redcoat, gallowglass), period-theatre staging (Globe), the threat of tragedy – dire warnings from the witches to Macbeth – that he will be vanquished when woodland moves against him (tidings of trees that walked and were seen to walk).
No response forthcoming: the deer remained still (they did not move); no sign of MacCaig’s shade emerging (he did not come forth).
- Norman MacCaig (1910-96): studied classics at the University of Edinburgh; registered as a conscientious objector during WWII spending time in prison; reader in poetry at the University of Stirling; his mother’s Highland ancestry was an important part of his identity; wrote only in English—something of an anomaly for a Scottish poet of his generation; his poetry frequently drew on the Highland landscape and Gaelic culture which he loved; published by Oxford University Press;
- Magdalen: Oxford University college; the only one to have its own herd of deerwithin the College’s grounds (extensive water-meadow land);
- startle (v): alarm, surprise;
- startler: something easily spooked;
- fritillary: both bell-shaped plant and butterfly that flourish in watery setting;
- heath: open land of heather, gorse and coarse grasses;
- fawn: young deer, light brown colour
- redcoat: British Army soldiers since the English Civil War (red the standard colour)
- gallowglass: historical Irish/ Scots mercenary soldier serving a Gaelic chieftain; mentioned anachronistically in ‘Macbeth’ (the Western isles of kerns and gallowglasses)
- Globe: theatre in Southwark, London associated with Shakespeare built in 1599 by his theatre company The Lord Chamberlain’s Men; its realistic reconstruction on the south bank of the Thames was opened in 1997;
- tidings: news
- walking trees: from ‘Macbeth’ Act IV,i ; the witches’ foretold that Macbeth would only be vanquished when Great Birnam Wood marched on Dunsinane;
- 6 lines (1+4+1 in 3 sentences;; unrhymed but assonant repetition ‘Magdalen…fawn…walk…forth’;
- line length 10-12 syllables; balance between punctuated and enjambed lines;
- assonant echoes: add ‘Norman… come’ to line echoes above/ ‘’standing still in fritillary’/ ‘coat…gallow…Globe
- alliterative chains sibilant [s] ‘startlers standing still…sentries’; nasals [m/n]; interlabial [w] ‘gallow…walked…were…walk’; velar [k/g]; labio-dental [f] ‘fritillary…far…fawn…forth’;
- imperative/ invitation ‘come forth’ dashed ‘did not come forth’ suggestive perhaps of a reclusive soul;
- parenthesis ( ) suggests quiet anti-climax;
Heaney commemorates Iain Crichton Smith via his piece ‘Deer on the high hills ‘ (to Heaney’s mind it showed how Smith’s Gaelic identity was overtaken by English: Englished lain MacGabhainn. Ironically Heaney whose home and poetic language was English spent a lifetime pursuing and confirming his Irish identity.
Smith assembled 14 pieces evoking the expanse and isolation of the Scottish Highlands (linked verse), wandering wherever his muses took him (where the spirit listeth), producing confident rhythms (perfectly sure feet).
Recalling how Macbeth’s witches melted away (‘into the air, as breath into the wind’) Heaney regrets Iain Crichton Smith’s passing as with the other Gaelic writers in the sequence (‘would they had stay’d’ that too).
MacGabhainn encapsulated Heaney’s feelings in ‘When Day is Done’ (where sorrow just sits and rocks – ‘Sorrow remembers us when day is done. / It sits in its old chair gently rocking’).
- ‘Deer on the High Hills’: 1962 meditative 14-section sequence Crichton-Smith regarded as his masterpiece; ‘the deer step out in isolated air’;
- lain MacGabhainn: Iain Crichton Smith (1928-98); born Iain Mac a’ Ghobhainn – Scottish Gaelic surname ‘son of the smith’; English was not his first language.
- listeth: archaic usage of 3rd person present indicative of OE ‘lyst’ – hears, hearkens;
- sorrow: from Crichton Smith’s: ‘When Day is Done’;
- 2 quintets in 5 sentences; line length 5-8 syllables; unrhymed;
- ‘englished’ neologism to suggest ‘first language overwhelmed by English ‘;
- literary terms: ‘linked verse…’feet’;
- alliterative chains: breathless [h] ‘high hills’; velar [k/g]; sibilant variants [s/z/sh] ’verse…goes…listeth…sure…Shakespeare’s’ …spirit; interlabial [w] ‘wind…would…sorrow’; alveolar [t/d] in final triplet;
- assonant echoes ‘hills…Englished…into linked…spirit listeth’/ ‘goes…goes…poem…sorrow’/ ‘sorrow…rocks
A single allegorises an admired Gaelic poet Sorley Maclean rising above destructive reality. Maclean materialises as a Saharan illusion (mirage), a Highland icon in silhouette (stag on a ridge) soldiering in North Africa (western desert) amidst WWII chaos (above the burnt-out tanks).
Sorley Maclean 1911-1996 : regarded one of the major Gaelic-speaking Scottish poets of the modern era; drafted into the Royal Corps of Signals in September 1940 he served overseas to North Africa’s western desert from December 1941. In a Guardian article of November 2002 Heaney saluted MacClean as the author of ‘epoch-making poems that brought Scots Gaelic poetry to life between the early 1930s and the late 1950s’;
- mirage: optical illusion caused by atmospheric/ light conditions;
- western desert: reference to a long African campaign (1940-43) between Allied and Axis forces in the deserts of Egypt and Libya;
- a single couplet in 3 sentences;12 syllables per line; unrhymed;
- alliterative pairs/triplet: nasal [m] ‘Mac…mirage’; sibilant [s/z] ‘stag …western desert’; alveolar [d/t] ‘ridge…desert…burnt-out tanks’;
Heaney elegises Gaelic-speaking poet George Mackay Brown in the context of the island where the poet spent most of his life. Brown’s Gaelic pedigree goes hand in hand with Orkney’s landscape and fauna (drinking deer that glittered by the water – human soul in mosaic), providing the richly textured past from which the poet was fashioned.
A hardy poet (allegory hard) born of watery, invasive Orcadian flora (wet celandine and ivy) as solid and skilful a wordsmith as the island’s metalworkers of old producing weapons (figured shield smithied in Orkney) for christianized Scandinavians in present-day Constantinople on medieval missions against Muslims (for Christ’s sake and Crusades). The weapon’s rich finish (polished undersurface) was a reminder of its far-distant bog-land provenance (like peat smoke mulling through Byzantium).
- George Mackay Brown (1921-96): considered one of the great Scottish poets of the 20th century; poetry centred in the Orkney archipelago off the north coast of Scotland ; poems of land and seascapes, history and legends, celebrating the generations of his parents and grandparents and Orkney’s richly textured past;
- mosaic: picture produced by arrangement of small pieces of stone, tile or glass;
- celandine: common plant of buttercup family;
- ivy: invasive evergreen climbing-plant;
- allegory: story, poem, picture interpreted to reveal a hidden/ alternative meaning;
- figured: adorned with a device or pattern;
- smithy (v): forge, beat into shape;
- mull (ME grind to a dust): spread like thin, lightweight muslin; coincidentally an island in the Scottish Hebrides;
- septain strophe in four sentences; 9-11 syllables per line; unrhymed;
- balance of punctuated and enjambed lines;
- alliterative chains: [w] ’what…saw…water…wet’; nasal [m/n]; richness of sibilant variants [s/z/sh] in the final quartet; bi-labial [p/b] ‘polished…peat…Byzantium’;
- assonant echoes: ‘saw…water…Orkney’/ ‘drinking…glittered…figured’/ ‘by…celandine…ivy…Christ…Byz’/ ‘until…under…mulling’, ‘soul …mosaic…smoke’/ ‘human…Crusades…through’,/
- 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;