Poems such as Album trace the development of emotional relationships as the individuals involved change and age, imbuing each moment with a significance that resonates throughout the collection. Fascination with the captured moment may be a theme found in earlier work renewed in Human Chain, but Heaney’s current perspective as a septuagenarian under some threat allows his poems to dip in and out of a lifetime, from his boyhood through…. Christine Fears in The Literateur of 13th September 2010
‘Album is a sequence of vignettes painted in remembrance and with regret. Initial focus on Heaney’s parents and himself, their first born, comes eventually to rest on father ‘Paddy’ Heaney. Heaney’s rueful recollection of his own and his father’s reluctance to be too showy in affection not uncommon between males in the 1940s is superseded by his own son’s impetuous, uninhibited demonstration of affection for his grandad that left the old man neither time nor room to flinch.
I Heaney’s world has shrunk to the size of the room in which he convalesces; the sound of a modern domestic appliance (heating boiler) brings them both to life at the click of a time-clock (abruptly) unobtrusively (drowsily) but somehow predictable cause and effect (timed collapse) at a moment of physical frailty (sawn down tree).
The ignition sound has generated a memory-chain from early life. The unnamed (them) require no introduction – a clement time of year (summer’s long days) a familiar neighbourhood , both memory and waking mind in tandem (it dawns on me), a local incline close to home (Grove Hill), a particular moment (before the oaks were cut) though the ageing process has built in a touch of blur (could have been).
He pictures himself with his mother and father on a regular (often) walk when conditions were right (airy Sundays) in May or June (shin-deep in hilltop bluebells), an oft-visited vantage-point overlooking a familiar aspect (Magherafelt’s four spires).
Those days are gone and his parents dead – too late, alas for him to transmit to them (apt quotation) the message he sets in the eternal present of his poem – thanks, he tells them for your strong parental feelings (love) predicated (proved) on solid values (steady gazing) not of gushing affection (at each other) but in your shared sense of purpose (the same direction).
- oil-fired: using oil as fuel, stored somewhere on the premises;
- drowsy: half asleep, lethargic;’
- collapse: give way, fall suddenly;
- sawn: felled using a saw (a manual job at the time;
- dawn: spring to mind;
- Grove Hill: local gradient associated with a townland collection of fields
- airy: well ventilated, fresh, delicate;
- Magherafelt’s four spires: three spires are evident; the fourth is more elusive and may amount to memory lapse;
- alas; exclamation of grief;
- apt: fitting, appropriate, suitable;
- 4 tercets, 3 devoted to setting the scene; 3 lines combining elegy with a positive judgment on solid, shared parental convictions;
- actual place-names of Heaney’s acquaintance;
- the oak, picked up again in the next piece is symbolic of things durable, strong and constant;
- modal auxiliary verbs (generally could/should/would/must) used, perhaps, to indicate uncertainty of memory or even a moment before Heaney’s birth (Could have been), then another with Heaney present (often stand);
- assonance: by and large in Human Chain, Heaney resists cornering himself into formal rhyme schemes. He keeps his options open and exercises his mastery of form in the composition by providing a rich and varied menu of sound-chains, from identical vowel shape to words that contain a vague sonic echo. Heaney places his assonances in ostensibly random but in fact quite deliberate order, now juxtaposed, now separated by other figures. He has the talent to produce perfectly tuned phrases and uses his skill at playing with the musicality of language and word order to generate beautifully turned passages;
- assonance is a strong feature of the first half: oil/ boiler; season/ been; Grove/ oaks
- velar sounds [t] and [l] measure passing time like a metronome: Too late, alas/ apt quotation; steady; Not at… / but.
II Heaney pursued his Secondary Education in the 1950’s as a boarder in St Columb’s College, a selective Catholic Boys’ Secondary school in Derry. His mother and father entered him for the Entrance Examination prompted by his Anahorish Primary School Head, Master Murphy, who provided young Heaney with Latin lessons. Heaney would become a star Latinist at 6th Form Level.
Two triplets describe in detail the badge and motto of the college (Heaney acknowledges elsewhere the ‘classical’ education that he received there). The poem’s deeper purpose devotes the second half to the moment when his 11 year-old sense of imminent separation and exile was an ordeal his parents shared.
The college symbol of enduring wisdom and knowledge sits at the centre of the shield (Quercus, the oak) – Heaney’s eye moves from its emblems of life and renewal (green leaves and acorns in mosaic) to the college’s motto (quaerite) then upwards again to the dove symbol (Latin Columba) of Colum Cille and celebration of a tree-rich campus protected by one of Ireland’s greatest missionary-saints (Derry’s sainted grove).
The school’s motto is remains immoveable (indelible) despite the footfall of countless pupils (footworn). Heaney translates the Latin (Seek ye first the Kingdom) but stops deliberately short of the motto’s specific reference to God.
His mood music began to change as he stood poised to enter the ‘new kingdom’ of an 11 year old boarder; having competed for his place he would face a big ordeal on merit (fair and square).
The portal through which young Heaney passed (Junior House hallway) echoed the feelings of St Columba sailing to missionary exile in Scotland (see Colum Cille Cecinit iii), permanent (grey eye will look back) in his case, temporary in Heaney’s.
In retrospect Heaney’s sees his parents all the stronger for putting on a brave face (couple… all the more together), acknowledges the parental wrench required to deliver a cherished first born into the hands of boarding-school staff (turn and walk away), as together (close In the leaving (or closer) as they were at the moment they conceived him (the getting).
- quercus, quaerite, columba: Latin words for which Heaney provides the translation;
- acorn: fruit of the oak tree;
- mosaic: image built of tiny tile fragments;
- arms: heraldic shield;
- Columba: a 6th centuryIrish abbot and missionary evangelist credited with spreading Christianity in what is today Scotland; he founded an abbey on Iona, which became a dominant religious and political institution in the region for centuries;
- surmount: place on top of;
- full Latin motto: Quaerite Primum Regnum Dei: seek ye the first kingdom of God; the agnostic poet omits the final reference;
- fair and square: both on merit and of solid regular shape;
- grey eye: see Colum Quille Cecenit in this collection;
- get: possible reference to beget; combine to produce a child;
- if Heaney was not always present in the previous piece, in this one he is;
- as he dips into the past he has the age and experience to understand the complex emotions that as a child he did not yet possess;
- the theme of separation is double-layered: by now his parents are long dead; he relives feelings similar to separation from them as an adolescent;
- 4 tercets; shorter, sharper grammatical units at the outset; declamatory quaerite, Seek ye ; then a long single sentence encapsulating the deeper message phrased so as to provide rhythm and movement in delivery;
- tercet 1 dominated by the velar plosive, hard c [k] sound, then alliterative [d] plosives in the next;
- assonance: Fair and square, indicating ‘justly deserved’;
- for the first time: as if age has added a new perspective (Heaney claimed tongue-in-cheek that it took him 14 years to realise he actually had won the Nobel Prize);
- ‘close/ closer’ offers both an emotional and physical dimension.
III A distant moment (winter at the seaside), his parents’ specific celebration (wedding meal), a not-yet-existent guest (uninvited) – prequel, spirit of his parents’ future, an inescapable future reality (ineluctable), first of nine.
He conjures up their seaside-sharpened senses (skirl of gulls), their main course of fish (plump, dormant silver) both dish and couple like ‘fish out of water’ (stranded silence) his mother’s emotion (tears) a level of restaurant and service to match a special day (bibbed waitress … clinking dish … chandeliers).
They get on with the job, left to it once the serving is completed, in the way that will characterise their married life (the years to come) without anniversary fuss and dust (not ever going to observe or mention).
Once done the anonymous taxi driver (man who drove them here) will return them to the routine that the uninvited Heaney will come to share (by evening we’ll be home)
- ineluctable: inescapable, sure to happen;
- skirl: shrill wailing sound (as of a bagpipe);
- plump: full and rounded, ample;
- bib: upper section of an apron;
- unlid: remove the lid; the smartest restaurants delivered food on a separate platter with lid to keep it hot;
- chandeliers: large decorative hanging with branches of lights;
- his parents’ lack of excitement on a special day echoes Heaney’s view of their temperament; speaking to Robert McCrum he indicated that the Heaney side was much graver and less convivial than his mother’s side. This reluctance to show and respond to emotions of love will resurface in his father-son poems;
- Heaney has inherited some of this ‘aloofness’ from his parents and will reflect on it in the next piece;
- 4 tercets: 1- a presence; 2 – an event; 3 – an atmosphere of silence between two ‘small’ people in a large room; 4 – his future presence confirmed
- rhyme scheme: ineluctable/ table; fish/ dish/ this; tears / chandeliers; come/ home;
- assonance seaside/ meal; unlids/ dish
- plosive [t] sound dominates the first triplet giving way to sibilants [s] [sh] ;
- synaesthesia: skirl of gulls (you hear the one, see the other);
- neat change of personal pronoun in the final couplet ‘them’ to ‘we’
- sentence length and punctuation: the short, discreet phrases of stanza 2 that build in pause and invite changes of modulation sit comfortably with numerous enjambed lines ;
- Heaney uses the same phrase to provide a skilfully contrived bridge: the wedding fish is as stranded and silent as the atmosphere between newly-weds in the restaurant;
IV Heaney explores his own difficulty in communicating emotionally with his father; a lingering sense of missed opportunity and failure finds expression. The piece concludes that the anguish of temporary separation is as nothing compared with permanent severance.
Heaney confesses he missed a first opportunity as they walked together (on the riverbank) immediately prior to his departure as an 11-year-old boarder (that summer before college) when his father was still fit and healthy (in his prime).
Hindsight has brought Heaney recognition that his father’s feeling of imminent separation was real and dismissed by the thoughtless youngster as nuisance (he must keep coming with me because I’d soon be leaving).
The second attempt, years later in New Ferry (by which time Heaney had reached drinking-age) was successful. His embrace came in response to his father’s helpless intoxication (he was very drunk) that had left him in an undignified state (needed help to do up his trouser buttons).
Finally the pathos of kissing a sick father living through his last week and unable to cope with basic needs (helping him to the bathroom). Heaney recalls the close physical circumstances of acting as a crutch (my right arm taking the webby weight of his underarm).
- New Ferry: small mid-Ulster community close to the River Bann, north of Lough Beg
- 4 tercets in 2 halves;
- use of subjunctive: were I to have;
- internal rhyme: prime/ time; arm/ underarm;
- alliteration: webby weight; the adjective alludes to the underarm tendons tensed by a dying man’s struggle to move.
V Heaney reflects on the grandson who had no truck with the emotional inhibitions of his elders and showed them the way (do it properly) using ambush (rush … snatch attack on his neck … sudden) and retreat.
An old man seemingly bereft of outward expressions of affection for those around him was suddenly awakened to the pleasure it could bring (proving him thus vulnerable to delight).
A grand-child’s kiss has provided corroboration of epic proportions (great proofs) – enlightenment (sudden, one-off) – in whose mind precisely, grandfather’s or father’s or both, Heaney leaves us to decide – (steady dawning of whatever erat demonstrandum) ‘was proved’ – said with a smile of good humour.
Heaney contrasts his own Virgilian efforts (a son’s three tries at an embrace in Elysium) that swam up from the Classical Underworld as real-life recollections (into my very arms).
Lest we miss the sincerity and depth of affection the whole incident contains Heaney dips into semantics (in and out of the Latin stem) to distinguish between adjectival and adverbial use of the original ‘verus’.
- snatch: tactic that leaves those targeted with no opportunity to resist;
- vulnerable: exposed to attack;
- one-off: happening just once;
- dawning: both emerging reality and appearance of light;
- QED (quod erat demonstrandum), a Latin phrase denoting mathematical proof; the stolen kiss takes on epic proportions in the case of the Heaney inhibitions;
- Elysium: in the Classical Underworld, famously described by Latin author Virgil in Aenied vi, the Elysian Fields were the final resting places of the souls of the heroic and the virtuous. For some this was a threshold to reincarnation; others were condemned to remain there in perpetuity;
- stem: in grammar the root or main part of a noun or verb that remains unchanged when inflections are added;
- very: in one sense ‘to a high degree’; in others ‘real’, ‘actual’, ‘mere’;
- water imagery, classical allusions and the general tone of the piece go hand in hand: for example three of the 5 rivers of the Underworld represented sorrow, lamentation and forgetfulness.
- the description of a grandson’s assault borrows the vocabulary of military opportunism;
- alliteration of the final consonant: demonstrandum … Elysium … phantom;
- the mythological aspect is maintained: embraces materialised (swam up) from a nether world inhabited by spirits, shades and phantoms;
- 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: fifteen 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;