Elegy

Heaney pens his farewell to American poet Robert Lowell.

He had become familiar with Robert Lowell’s poetry as early as the Group led by Philip Hobsbaum in the poet’s undergraduate period at QUB around 1963, via meetings in which Heaney was able to share his rookie poems with like-minded fledgling poets. Heaney acknowledged that Lowell’s poetry (‘all through the sixties I was reading him, constantly) was to his liking as he was searching for his own poetic voice.

Heaney first met Lowell in 1972 at a party thrown for the American poet and his second wife Elizabeth Hardwick in London: he sums up their first conversation (DOD217) ‘he was well clued into the Northern Ireland situation. It was a genuine enough meeting, and he was immensely charming and even more immensely intelligent; but I’d read Norman Mailer’s account of him in ‘Armies of the Night’, where his powers of flattery are very accurately set down, so in spite of my delight at how well we got on, I was still a bit on my guard … then three years later Heaney admits Lowell’s influence in the second half  of ‘North’ (1975)  …  in the blank verse, ‘why not say what happened’ bit of the ‘Singing School’ sequence, and in particular in the ‘Fosterage’ section. This ‘say-how-it-was’ style is present in ‘Elegy’ where Heaney purtrays Lowell warts and all.

Heaney was shocked by Lowell’s death. ‘Elegy’ was begun within days of the last occasion Lowell and third wife Caroline Blackwood made to the Heaney home in Dublin: ‘I certainly had no sense that he was near the end, he told DOD (219). He left a copy of the American edition of ‘Day by Day’; when we heard the news of his death, it was still lying there on the coffee table where he’d put it.

Heaney acknowledges the broad-range of human natures: how people go about existence (way we are living) varies from person to person – himself (timorous) and Lowell (bold) – individual traits hard-wired from the start (have been our life).

The deceased (Robert Lowell) sat only recently in the very spot where Heaney is composing his elegy – it is evening (sill geranium is lit … lamp I write by) with the tang of ozone and onshore gusts (wind from the Irish Sea is shaking it). Lowell was there with third wife Caroline and the Heaneys. Within days he has passed away.

Heaney is admiring of the American’s skill as a writer of memorials (master elegist) fusing language at high temperature (welder of English) but less enthusiastic about his company – Lowell led the conversation (swayed the talk) his responses dictated by his bi-polar mood swings (rode on the swaying tiller of yourself), was insensitive to Heaney’s feelings (ribbing me about my fear of water) and regarded himself the cock of the walk (what was not within your empery?).

Heaney has a view of Lowell’s inner conflicts: a man who toasted the land of his birth (drank America) with high-octane Russian tipple (heart’s iron vodka) whose brand of forceful individuality (promulgating) was characterized by a wilful (deliberate) challenge-me-if-you-dare (peremptory) blend of magnetic and antimagnetic creativity (love and arrogance).

Lowell’s lines were never throw-aways (eyes saw what your hand did) and his versions, say, of Pasternak (you Englished Russian) resembled a heavy metal-crafting process – poems beaten into shape (bullied out), stress inducing (heart-hammering), in tradition-breaking format (blank sonnets) especially those addressed to the most enduring affections of his emotionally tumultuous life (love for Harriet and Lizzie – his daughter born in 1957 with his second wife Elizabeth Hardwick) their names recurrent in a further collection ‘Dolphin’ (briny water-breaking dolphin) that introduced a newly buoyant (dorsal nib) best voice (gifted at last) permeated with trickles of flattery (inveigle … plash) to off-set his top-dog mentality (helmsman) and gladiatorial competitiveness (netsman, retiarius).

Suddenly, and Heaney may be playing with words – ‘hand’ as the distinctive handwriting that penned the poems or, who knows, the metaphorical playing cards that Fate and genetic inheritance dealt him – both would contribute to an image of Lowell with his protective hand-round the-shoulder (warding), flattering (grooming) bi-polar mannerisms (amphibious).

Pen in hand Heaney is into the small hours (Two a.m) and, triggered by a squall (seaboard weather), has found a nautical comparison between Lowell’s elegant sailing-ship style (the proud sail of your great verse) and the weather-exposed battles (our night ferry) of a man at odds his demons (thudding in a big sea), something out of a Hephaestus-like metal-beating workshop (whole craft ringing) a combatant fashioning chain-mail (an armourer’s music) engaged on a deliberate cross-current route (course set wilfully) that ran out of his control (ungovernable and dangerous).

For a second time the pathetic fallacy of Heaney’s immediate surroundings intervenes in Lowell-like guise (now a teem of rain) and sight of a domestic plant that all but demonstrates the symptoms of alcohol dependence (geranium tremens) reviving the complicated paternal relationship that Lowell recorded (A father’s no shield for his child ) not a million miles from Heaney’s own (you found the child in me).

Heaney reflects on a previous moment of good-bye in a place dear to him (full bay tree by the gate in Glanmore) with everything the cottage had to offer his own well-being and taste for language (opulent and restorative) at an optimal moment (that lingering summertime).

The poem’s initial thesis that folk do not change holds good: the American poet’s abiding attentiveness (fish-dart of your eyes), the irony of his (Heaney realises it inly now) ailing man’s intercession (risking) for the good of Heaney’s soul (‘I’ll pray for you‘).

  • Events leading to ‘Elegy’: he and Caroline (Blackwood) called on us on two or three occasions in Dublin. They’d get bored out in Castletown House – a vast Georgian pile near Dublin, where Caroline had rented an apartment from her cousin, Desmond Guinness – and they would hit town and the vodka and us in one single swoop. Their life was pretty turbulent, wherever they were, and they probably regarded Marie and me as freakishly domesticated’;
  • Heaney added a post-script to ‘Elegy’ (DOD219): In ‘Pit Stop Near Castletown’ (poem published much later by Heaney), I conflated two things that happened that evening (this took place at Glanmore Cottage). One was the stop we made near the gates of the demesne so that he and I could relieve ourselves by the side of the car; and the other (possibly later in Dublin) was a quick coded exchange between us in the hallway before I drove them home … ‘Will I be seeing you soon again?’ I asked and he replied, with that high neigh that sometimes came into his voice, and one of his lightning­flicker looks over the glasses, ‘1 don’t think so.’

 

  • Robert Lowell: American poet (1917-77) b. in Boston, Massachusetts; suffered bi-polar symptoms; three times married; early influence on Heaney’s readings; later personal relationship with the Heaneys once Lowell had based himself in the UK; died of a heart attack in a cab on the way to visiting his second wife Elizabeth Hardwick in New York City;
  • timorous: easily frightened, fearful
  • sill: shelf;
  • Irish Sea: separating Ireland from the Britain; the reference suggests the poem is written in Dublin;
  • weld: join metal parts by bringing components to melting point;
  • sway: both influence (a discussion) (transitive) and move rhythmically from side to side (intransitive);
  • tiller: bar attached to rudder used for steering;
  • rib: tease, poke fun at;
  • empery: absolute power, sovereignty;
  • promulgate: promote strongly; notion of enacting as a law;
  • peremptory: demanding immediate obedience, not open to challenge;
  • arrogant: self-important, full of oneself, superior in attitude
  • bully out: produce using coercion’
  • heart-hammering: produced under stress causing the heart to pound
  • blank verse: verse without rhyme, especially that which uses iambic pentameters;
  • dorsal: relating to upper side e.g. dorsal fin
  • nib: pointed projection extending to the [part of a pen that produces writing;
  • inveigle: persuade using flattery
  • plash: make splashing sound:
  • helm: position from which a ship is steered, by extension the spot where skipper, leader stands;
  • retiarius: ancient gladiator using a net to ensnare his opponent;
  • ward: fend off, deflect;
  • groom: spruce up, preen;
  • amphibious: suited both to land and water; Gladiators might participate in simulated naval battles (naumachiae) on large artificial lakes even in the arena of the Colosseum, which originally could have been flooded for such shows;
  • seaboard: coastal;
  • thud: dull heavy sound;
  • big sea: agitated by stormy conditions;
  • armourer: maker and repairer of weapons and armour;
  • wilful: intentional, deliberate;
  • teem: relative to a sustained heavy downpour;
  • tremens: a violent delirium with tremors said to be induced by excessive and prolonged use of alcohol;.
  • ‘A father’s no shield/ for his child./We are like a lot of wild/spiders crying together,/but without tears’: lines from Lowell’s ‘Fall 1961’
  • bay tree: evergreen shrub with deep green aromatic leaves used in cooking;
  • opulent: prolific;
  • restorative: invigorating, energizing;
  • linger: wait around, stay put;
  • dart: sudden, rapid movement
  • risk: say something that may be taken as audacious, disrespectful;

 

  • HV 60 Work in the field, in this sense, rises from the obligation of survivors to celebrate those who have died: with each person, the poet has had a separate relation; in each poem, an indi­vidual must be characterized and valued. The Heaney style, earlier so apt in conveying the immemorial and the immobile- is now called on to sketch the living as they were before their annihilation, and to do justice to the moment of extinction …The problem of elegy is always to revisit death while not forgetting life, and the structure of any given elegy suggests the relation the poet postulates between those two central terms

74 … what one chiefly takes away from Field Work is Heaney’s deliberate choice to remain on the human, colloquial, everyday level – to remain there even for elegies, which normally tend towards apotheosis …There are conspicuously no gods in these Field Work elegies, and one could read them all as part of the distinctive (and often successful) modernist effort to rewrite, in more believable terms, the heroic, sublime and religious conventions of the classical elegy.

  • Heaney suggested to DOD (215) that his elegy for Robert Lowell is modelled on Lowell’s unrhymed sonnet-portraits of writers in ‘Notebook’ and ‘History’… the same pitch and head-on approach to portraiture … definitely present in Field Work in the memorial poem for Sean O’ Riada, and of course, in the one for Lowell himself;

 

  • fourteen quartets in thirteen sentences (including suspension points, interrogative and a direct borrowing);
  • the relative balance between sentence length, punctuation marks and enjambed lines goes in phases and determines the flow and rhythm within the oral delivery possibilities; S4 and S9 heavily enjambed;
  • variable line length between 4-10 syllables; Heaney suggested his own lines were more iambically tight than Lowell’s sonnets;
  • very occasional rhyme with no pattern ; occasional assonant echoes or alliterative effects around final syllables;
  • no apotheosis in this poem; things set out as Heaney saw them; construction interweaving Heaney thinking (broad and more focused), outer calm of the poet in composition mode, largely comforting local colour, revelation of a character who could be a burden and might overstay his welcome;
  • overall the sensitive portrait of a man who was bi-polar/ a manic depressive with whom Heaney dealt very sensitively even though Lowell himself was totally insensitive; opposites are present;
  • use of pathetic fallacy; potentially negative/ unappealing traits of Lowell’s treated in veiled fashion; the generous-minded Heaney as ever leaves the reader to measure the depth of any anti-feelings he might be harbouring;
  • vocabulary of metal-bashing used to reveal Heaney’s view of Lowell’s compositional style;
  • vocabulary to do with the sea plus elemental effects let in the comparison between Lowell and unsophisticated work-horse ‘ferry’;
  • references to addiction that colours day-to-day behaviour: the house plant manifests the man’s bodily symptoms of addiction;
  • direct citation and references to characters and collections that form part of Lowell’s turbulent life;
  • ultimately Heaney pens a genuinely moving valediction heightened by local colour that sides with life;

 

  • 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;
  • the opening quatrains echo the front-of-mouth sounds of Lowell’s name: breathy [w] alongside alveolar [l] labio-dental fricatives [f] [v], bi-labial plosives [p] [b]; less prominent are sibilants [s] [z] [sh], nasals [n] [m] and alveolar [t] [d]

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