Hermit Songs

Heaney dedicates his nine-poem sequence to long-time friend, American academic and author Helen Vendler.

He celebrates those who have demonstrated resolute dedication to ‘books’ and scholarship,  who have shut themselves off to a greater or lesser degree from wider society. Some hermit-scholars are legendary and monastic, scribes of illuminated texts; other ‘greats’ are much more recent. With characteristic modesty, Heaney includes his own experiences as part of the chain.

The introductory couplet sets out the price of scholarship: its scholar-scribe has shut himself away to follow the mechanics of medieval manuscript production with its ruled quires.  Secluded in his cell he cannot, however, shut out the external sounds of Nature’s joie-de-vivre:

Above the ruled quires of my book

I hear the wild birds jubilant.

  • The epigraph is to be found on pp.1 (in Irish) and 10 (in translation by James Carney) of Patrick Crotty’s Penguin Book of Irish Poetry,
  • ruled quires describes both the inscribed lines that the text will follow and the standard eight leaf format in units of 4 folded sheets of vellum.
  • Hermit Songsis dedicated to Helen Vendler, the scholar and critic whom Heaney once described as “the best close reader of poems to be found on the literary pages” Alan Taylor, Herald Scotland Review 15th February, 2011.

A 1940’s schoolboy ‘covered’ (jacketed) the books he brought home from school (issued) a regular practice to prolong their active life particularly during the post WWII period of austerity.

Prime materials available to him were leftovers from wartime when nothing was thrown away (cut-offs of black calico remnants of old blackout blinds) retrieved, smoothed (ironed) and sewn (tacked with criss-cross threads) at the overlap-point inside the cover where, nowadays, sticky tape might be used. A more easily torn (less durable) alternative was available (mealy textured wallpaper), of recognizable 1950’s vintage, with decorated edges (bosomed roses) readied for the job (pressed and flattened under smoothing irons).

A pecking order existed (parcel paper if need be) down to least attractive (newsprint, even).

Heaney suggests he has retained two important lessons from the exercise: that the volume and content were there to enlighten him (newness); that, in an immediate sense, the books would be returned to school and perhaps of greater immediacy immediacy that literature is only ever on loan to those who are mortal (learn you were a keeper only).

  • cut-off/ remnant: pieces of cloth saved from previous sewing;
  • calico: type of thick-woven cloth;
  • black-out: observed during WWII during hours of darkness; any sign of internal lights, helpful to enemy pilots on bombing missions, was forbidden and punishable in law;
  • blind: window screen;
  • tack: fasten with long sewing stitches;
  • criss-cross: lattice of intersecting lines;
  • jacket: fit a protective covering;
  • mealy: providing a fine-powdered floury finish to the touch;
  • wallpaper: strips of paper with a decorative design pasted to internal walls;
  • brede(n): braid, decorative edging:
  • covert(n.) : protective thicket in which wild life can safely hide; covering or place that serves to conceal or protect something;
  • the 12 line format is adopted throughout the sequence; there is no rhyme scheme; lines based around 8 syllables provide a noticeable rhythmic contrast when delivering the poem orally with standard 10 syllable lines;
  • mealy: Heaney involves two senses to suggest colour and texture;
  • when delivered orally smoothing takes on an onomatopoeic quality;
  • five sentences with only one main verb; full stops in the final stanza permit pauses in delivery that might allow an audible response, say, a chuckle from the listeners;
  • in a clever  alliterative use ofvoiced bi-labial [b] and voiceless velar [k] plosives Heaney weaves a sonic criss-cross alongside the text; later use of voiced alveolar plosive [d]: durable…desired;
  • Heaney’s alliteration in brede of bosomed roses compares with that of Keats’ line: ‘brede/ Of marble men and maidens overwrought’(Ode on a Grecian Urn);
  • alliteration: brown parcel paper(note: [b] and [p] are both bilabial plosives, one voiced, one voiceless);
  • assonances: mealy/ brede; need/ even/ keeper;

ii  Heaney traces the four stage routine followed by the scribe as he prepares to work (open, settle, smell – as if to check the quality of the vellum- begin). He follows the hermit as he rehearses letter sound (spelling out) and letter shape (finger trace).

Scribes, however modest, were on a par with a famed breed (Fursa, Colmcille) committed to unravelling complex questions of personal faith (riddle-solving ) from personal seclusion (anchorites) at one, too, with a less world-trotting abbot (Macóige of Lismore) active in  Co. Waterford in the 8thcentury to whom is attributed the choice of strongest characteristic in a scholar- cleric (‘steadiness’)  once committed to seeing things through (set his handpersevere) … furthermore a trait that places him beyond reproach (never fault-found).

Such were the challenges scribes faced within their personal cell as they worked to shape (tongue-tried words finger-traced) and pass on culture and wisdom (retraced, lip-read).

  • settle: both relax physically and turn one’s attention intellectually:
  • spell out: test a letter’s sound;
  • trace: follow a letter’s shape, copy, reproduce;
  • Fursa: 7th century Irish monk in the Colum Cille tradition who travelled across Britain to spread Christianity; in tandem two of the greatest Christian missionaries ever to leave Irish shores;
  • riddle: matter beyond the comprehension;
  • anchorite: hermit, religious recluse;
  • Macóige of Lismore: Irish saint of the 8th century associated with Lismore monastery in Co. Waterford
  • attribute: positive feature;
  • steady: stable, balanced, firm
  • set one’s hand to: commit oneself to undertake something;
  • persevere: see something through;
  • tongue-tried: sounds rehearsed;
  • lip-read: understand from lip lovement
  • Heaney pursues his exercise in sound. He creates a sonic chain with sounds that are produced from the same place in the mouth. The first couplet makes frequent use of the sibilant [s] sound of silence and concentration; from then on the voiceless alveolar plosive [t] dominates and its voice counterpart [d] add a staccato precision to the diction; this is particularly evident in tandem with [s] in Macóige’s judgment: Steadiness for it is best;
  • alliterations:Fault found; Tongue-tried words/ Finger-traced, retraced;
  • combination of compound adjective and sibilant [s]:riddle-solving anchorites;
  • assonances:settle, smell/ spelling;
  • he introduction of famous identities and quotation invites apt deference via changes in modulation and cadence;

iii Heaney takes us back to his Anahorish Primary era (age of lessons to be learnt) where the smell of manuscript in hermit’s cell was replaced by classroom equivalents still alive  in his sense-memory (bread and pencils musty satchel)

Speaking to us directly (Reader) as Master Murphy would have addressed  his school in Assembly Heaney recalls the atmosphere – the importance of the 3 Rs (‘reading books’), the elevated titles (‘scholars’) the privilege (our good luck) of being an Anahorish pupil (get such schooling in the first place)! Even so its pedagogy remained unchanged from one year to the next (for all its second and third handings) as confirmed by its barely literate farmhand alumnus (herdsman by the roadside) or wiseacre local oracles chit-chatting by the fireside (sibyls of the chimney-corner).

Teaching methods might have proven immutable but for Heaney-schoolboy it was all about magical discoveries (age of wonders, too) – the soft centre of a loaf (bread-pith) erased pencil-marks; tiny coloured designs came onto the market (transfers stamps from Eden) that could be relocated on another surface when wetted … albeit onto school property (flyleaf)!

  • musty: giving off a stale, mildew odour;
  • herdsman: farmhand in charge of cattle;
  • sibyl: from Classical mythology woman said to foretell the future; wiseacre;
  • wonder: miracle;
  • rub out: erase;
  • pith: spongy dough;
  • transfer: small coloured design that could be relocated to another surface using heat or water;
  • Eden: The fortuitous brand-name Eden may permit the reader to infer some parallel between privileged schooldays and the biblical account of paradise;
  • flyleaf: blank page at beginning or end of a book;
  • initially short sentences setting out sense-data and scene;
  • sudden flurries of alliteration: sibilant [s] is dominant; sibylsechoes the whisperings of fire-side gossip; Rubbings out with balls of bread-pith, plosive recognition of something worth reporting;
  • assonance: adds to the incongruous mixture of smells: Bread and pencils;
  • The age of picks up a motif from Route 110; it hints at Heaney’s overall intent: less a collection brooding over sickness and death, more a definition of links in a chain not even broken by man’s mortality;

Iv  Heaney brings to mind a1940s’ Aladdin’s cave: Master Murphy’s storeroom, treasure house of Primary school writing materials that would become very much part of the poet’s life.

In those distant first school days it struck him as a fairy cavern (an otherwhere).

Iconic dip-pens of a previous age stripped down and reassembled in the poet’s mind – the handheld stems (penshafts), metal sleeved (sheathed in black tin – was it?),  designed human finger-like (tight nib-holding cuticle)

Items sold separately in bulk (nibs in packets by the gross) or dehydrated (powdered ink), quality pencils (cedar) in bundles (bunched), writing pads for rough work (jotters) and for best work (exercise books), tools to ensure accurate measurements and straight lines (rulers) … in all a treasure-trove excavated from the tomb of ancient Celtic chief (stacked like grave goods on the shelves).

Pupil Heaney basked in the role of trusted ‘monitor’, (privilege of being sent) bringing teacher aids (box of pristine chalk) or ‘perfect’ handwriting templates (copperplate examples) on card (headline scripts for copying out.

The poet latched onto his taste for writing early thanks to a pedagogy that sought in its own way to introduce all Irish children to the skills required of a medieval scribe.

  • master: headteacher; Master Murphy of Anahorish Primary;
  • penshaft: long, wooden main body of old-model pens to which the nib was attached
  • sheath: cover, sleeve;
  • tin: flexible silvery metal
  • wrap: sleeve;
  • cuticle: the point at which the human fingernail enters the finger: Imagining the penshaft as a slender human finger with cuticle at the base offers a clear image of the way a nib fitted into it;
  • gross: in the duodecimal days before decimalisation was adopted in the U.K. in 1971, items were routinely sold by the dozen (12 units); a gross was 12 dozen, that is 144 units.cedar:
  • jotter: notebook;
  • ruler: wooden, straight edged measuring tool;
  • grave goods: items placed in burial mounds or graves of important Celtic chiefs;
  • pristine: in minte condition, flawless;
  • chalk: white or coloured sticks used to write on blackboards;
  • copperplate(mainly 19th) writing style such as found on engravings and etchings in printmaking; distinctive cursive style with a thin nib still employed where standard neat written form was the aim;
  • headline script: letters written on individual cards:
  • mild assonance: store/ otherwhere;
  • alliterative effects in stanza 1 in a criss-cross of bilabial [b] and [p] and sibilant [s], [sh] and plosive [t] all produced in the dental/ alveolar area of the mouth; bilabial [b] and [p] carry through, with [p] becoming the dominant sound (there are 7 examples + being and boxin a final stanza of 22 words).

Re-enter the untutored herdsman eager to show how bright he is to callow pupils. His test – the three ways to spell the phonetic [tu]When the Primary school pupils cannot yet meet the written challenge of to, too and two, his scoffing is barely hidden (‘Ask the master if he can’) – education has a long history of former pupils prepared to ridicule those who taught them!

To cock a snook at farmhand and pay indirect tribute to scholar-scribes and Master Murphy who taught him Latin to prepare for Secondary entrance exams, Heaney draws a citation from Caesar (regarded as ‘above grammar’ by ancient grammarians) signalling the absence of written texts amongst peoples regarded as more backward than Rome (nor do they think it right to commit the things they know to writing).

Heaney pinpoints the moment two hundred years after the fall of the Roman Empire when Ireland took its first step via a Christian retrieval associated with Colum Cille (psalm book called in Irish catach), its nom de guerre (battler) indicating its ritual use (borne three times round an army) to get God on the side of warring factions.

  • commit: entrust to; set down;
  • psalm-book: psalter, assembled biblical Psalms;
  • Cathach: also known as ‘Battle Book’, sometimes referred to as The Psalter of St. Columba (Colmcille); derived from the oldest surviving Irish manuscript psalter of which only fifty-eight leaves survive; dated as far back as the sixth century; kept on the Royal Irish Academy;
  • late 6th Irish ‘clan’/family leaderswould seek to get Colmcille on their side in battle (and via him Christian backing)  as a means of assuring victory; the Hastings ‘Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics explains the ritual (p.657): ‘the catach of the O’Donnells was always borne three times right-hand wise round their army before battle’;
  • assonance: askscan’t/ ask; right/ writing; alliteration: strong chains of sibilant [s] overtaken by alveolar plosive [t]; battler/ born; Not;
  • Notas first word is  dramatically poised to set the records straight, as if accompanied by a wagging finger;

vi  Heaney selects two scenes from the Ulster Cycle, extant thanks to the scribes who ensured the safe passage of what otherwise were legends handed down by story-tellers. He continues his journey across recorded Irish folk lore with snippets linking epic medieval characters and and primary school pen-nibs in a fusion of surreal Disney animation.

The period as recorded in a 12th c. manuscript (Dun Cow scribes) routinely featured violent confrontations between armed men (sparks the Ulster warriors struck off wielded swords) without regard for host or hospitality (made Bricriu’s hall blaze like the sun)

In the second tale legendary Irish superhero Cú Chullainn treated artisans (embroidery women) to a magical gravity-defying demonstration (glittering reeling chain) using the tools of their trade (needles).

Heaney conjures up (as in my dream) his own version: an equally unreal but much more positive display from Master Murphy’s storeroom – a gross of nibs taking to the air (spills off the shelf) and propelled upwards (airlifts) to form a carefree if a touch unsteady glowing crown (giddy gilt corona).

  • spark: fiery particle thrown up by the collision of 2 hard surfaces;
  • wIeld: brandish, flourish;
  • Bricriu: hospitaller (briugu), troublemaker and poet in the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology. Bricriu’s name crops up in the Saga of Cú Chulainn who is depicted as a magician here; the story of the needles is recounted in slightly different versions.
  • Lebor na huidre or the Book of the Dun Cow is an Irish vellum manuscript dating to the 12th century. It is one of the oldest extant manuscripts in Irish held in the Royal Irish Academy . Only 67 leaves remain and many of the texts are incomplete. Legend has it that it was made from the hide of a cow by Saint Ciarān of Clonmacnoise;
  • embroidery: decorative needlework;
  • point/eye: opposite ends of the needle;
  • reel: sway, wobble;
  • giddy: unsteady, carefree:
  • corona: glowing crown;
  • punctuation: the piece is written in a single sentence broken into 3 by a semi-colon [;] and a dash [-], the former distinguishes war from peace and the latter separates ancient from modern.
  • the outset is all light and violence; the sibilants [s] and [z]  dominating the first stanza are now a threatening sound; voiceless velar plosive [k] mimics the sound of blows:Sparks/ struck/ Bricriublaze expresses the anger of confrontation;echo chains: Ulster/ sun/ dun; needles/ reeling/ dream; alliteration: point/ Partnered;
  • Heaney chooses the word corona, from a Latin root meaning ‘crown’; referring to the atmosphere of the Sun most easily distinguished during a total solar eclipse, it describes something truly amazing to the eye;
  • the word chain and its associatedlinks  is used infrequently in the volume; here  it serves to echo the sense  of ‘connectedness’ implicit in the title of the collection; the vocabulary is of shaky unreality: reeling … airlifts …giddy. The final stanza displays frequent use of the voiced velar plosive [g]: glittering … gross … giddy gilt.

vii The monitor’s tale. An Anahorish happening revisited (vision of the school) that, given the school’s subsequent demolition and disappearance (the school won’t understand) plus a sixty year time-lapse, tests Heaney’s memory recall (nor I, not quite).

A trusted boy sent outside to do a job (my hand in the cold of a running stream) happy to make the occasion last as long as he can (suspended), equipped for the task (beaker dipped) as water and time moved ever onwards.

Monitor (privileged one) tasked to perform a miracle (turn ink powder into ink). His reward: a double bonus enabling him to be outside (the open, the land and sky on his ownsome (playground silent) whilst at the same time skipping a lesson (singing class) with  official permission.

As with the scribe in the sequence’s epigraph child-Heaney cannot shut himself off completely from the sounds around him (opened windows); nor can the ageing poet detach himself from the resonance of a real event, fixed in time past (still and all a world away).

  • beaker: container of glass or plastic;
  • A past memory is told in a kind of historic present using  passive tenses: I’m sent; I’ve been excused
  • Vocabulary with biblical overtones:vision; privileged one; the monitor is ‘chosen’ to bring about the ‘miracle’ of what is, after all, the banal chemical reaction of water and ink-powder! Stanza one uses nasal [n] In preparation for 2 negatives: vision/ won’t understand/ nor not quite; fricative [f] in stanza 2 gives way to alveolar [t] with assonances added: powder/ out/ ground;
  • Sibilants [s] and [z] of stanza 3 followed by contrasting adverbs: going on/ Coming out;
  • The use of going onis subtle: the  phrase can be used in English to describe a persistent grumble as in ‘What’s he going on about’;
  • Still: Heaney invites selection from different layers of meaning: fixed/ not moving; at peace (when paired with silent); even now;
  • The inexorable passing of time underlies the narrative. Heaney sets up an intriguing contrast between the still photo aspect (Suspended)and onward movement (flow); this subtext is implicit, too, in the singing which is of measurable duration.

viii  A poet- philologist traces the development of language: the term ‘Inkwell’, already almost a historical artefact around 1950  (after all, Heaney was presented with a de-luxe Conway Stewart fountain pen for passing his Scholarship at the age of 11) is scarcely accessible to the modern reader (robbed of sense) even more remote is the Colmille-scribe version (‘inkhorn’) perhaps even the tip of cow’s horn after which Dun Cow manuscript was named.

The piece recounts the reaction of a short-fused scribe with important work to accomplish to a bull in a china-shop!

Heaney recalls the anecdote: Colmcille at work – his space (cell) and accessories set out (inkhorn … at dipping distance) wedged so to retain its ink (stuck upside down In the floor).

A sudden double infringement – noise and trespass (loudmouth lands breaking the Iona silence) – prompts the scribe’s impromptu response (extempore) confirmed by Heaney’s unpolished translation (it roughly goes).

ColmCille blows a fuse at being deprived of the calm required to pursue his work by some bigwig (harbour shouter staff in hand ) and the prospect (note the tense change) of major disruption  – an uninvited intruder bowing and scraping (inclined) to ingratiate himself (kiss the kiss of peace) but showing crass inconsideration (blunder in) and committing the ultimate crime (catch and overturn my little inkhorn).

No writing fluid, life’s work on hold (spill my ink)!

  • sense: meaning;
  • inkhorn: ink holder, literally an animal’s horn;
  • stuck: the shape of the horn requires it to be stabilised to fulfil its function;
  • dun: greyish brown in colour; note the manuscript in vi above
  • dip: insert quill’s nib into ink:
  • extempore: spontaneous response, impromptu;
  • Iona: small island of the Scottish Inner Hebrides adjacent to Oban; site of the ruins of Colm Cille’s Abbey church;
  • roughly:
  • inclined: approximately, in general terms;
  • blunder: lurch;
  • Heaney demonstrates clear evidence of his multiple talents as poet, scholar and skilled translator from several languages;
  • assonance in stanza 1: dun/ stuck upside; alliteration: dipping distance;echo: cell/ -cille;
  • Stanza 2:extempore voices a terseness; alveolar [l]: loudmouth lands/ silence;
  • The piece has a timeless dimension: the scholar’s search for seclusion and privacy is a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign whether in the 6thor 21st

ix The final piece is at once epilogue, tribute and epitaph. It draws together the threads of ‘books’, scholars and scholarship; it offers acclaim from one Nobel Laureate to two others (Milosz and Yeats); it salutes the legacy left by scribes; it provides an obituary to those whose faith, determination and creativity have left a legacy that outlives them (akin, say, to those in another field, who built the Pyramids or Machu-Picchu). It offers a prayer for the survival of books. It reflects too that as with all those cited now deceased his own time to say important things is a dwindling resource.

Heaney introduces his first great one and the importance he attached to what is meant by a word, text or idea (‘meaning’). The personal experiences of Milosz (identified by poetic association) made truth imperative (faith in ‘meaning’) to be recorded for posterity (runs through space like a word) at the top of its voice (screaming and protesting). The second Yeats – as drawn directly from ‘The Tower’, (‘Poet’s imaginings and memories of love’) – saluting the power of words to rebuff the decaying power of old age.

Heaney himself may be old but he is not done yet (mine for now). He clings to the Macóige of Lismore criterion of perseverance in ii (steady-handedness maintained in books) as the benchmark that will ensure the written word’s survival (maintained against its vanishing)

Heaney announces his Roll of Honour – five principal manuscripts – each separated by a pause for ovation. The fifth is the cathach, the emblem (‘battler’) of engagement still proudly bearing the warmth of its medieval dye (berry-browned) and still manifest(enshrined).

Final tribute to the medieval legacy – the enduring vellum (cured hides) and  the replication (much tried pens)  be it the much-used quills, or metonymically  the hermit-scribe- scholars who sacrificed so much and endured trial and tribulation in pursuit of a goal that has benefited civilisation.

  • the first great is Polish poet, Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004. The final sentence of his poem, ‘Meaning’(Collected Works, p.569) reads:

There will remain/ A word wakened by lips that perish,/ A tireless messenger who runs and runs/    

            Through interstellar fields, through the revolving galaxies,/ And calls out, protests, screams.

Milosz has expressed his ‘meaning’, aimed loud and clear (despite exile and personal danger) at the totalitarian regimes that imprisoned his native Poland: Hitler’s outrages of WWII, replaced, in their turn, by Stalin’s ruthless control over the post-war Eastern Block;

  • Yeats’ The Tower (1928) continues as follows: ‘Memories of the words of women,/ All those things whereof/ Man makes a superhuman,/ Mirror resembling dream.’
  • Kells: gem of Irish history; illuminated Bibble containing the four Gospels and exhibited in Trinity College , Dublin;
  • Armagh: 9th century Irish illuminated manuscript in Latin exhibited at TCD;
  • The Yellow Book of Lecan (Leabhar Buidhe Lecain) is a medieval Irish manuscript written in two stages, 1391 and 1401. It currently resides at Trinity College, Dublin. Written on vellum and containing 344 columns of text, the first 289 lines were written by 1391; the remainder were written by 1401. It is written in Middle Irish.
  • assonances: faith/ space; maintained/ against;
  • alliterative effects of bilabial nasal [m]: imaginings/ memories/ mine;
  • meaning … screaming … protesting …imaginings … memories … steady-handedness:key words contribute each in its different ways to creativity, each provides a link in the chain; each helps to maintain faith in the survival of books and scholarship irrespective of age and threat.
  • Much tried pens: metonymy and synecdoche are similar figures of speech. Metonymy replaces words with other closely associated terms e.g. the Crown for the Monarchy; in synecdoche the part stands for the whole e.g.100 sail, meaning 100 ships. Here ‘pens’ for ‘scribes’.

Other Comments:

  • ‘Hermit Songs’ explores the meaning of writing and writing paraphernalia, and follows the poet learning to read and preserve books by covering them with calico sheaths. This respect for the potential of the item resembles the steady craft of the ancient scribes of Ireland working on illuminated manuscripts. The blended father/Colmcille figure brings the paternal presence deep into the heart of Heaney’s creative life, as an inspiration, a teacher and a craftsman in his own right. Part of the joy of Human Chainis tracing these subtly submerged connecting chains between the people who inhabit Heaney’s poetic world, both in this collection and in his past writings… Heaney focuses on the human experience of work, with particular attention to scholarly labours… in “Hermit Songs,” where Heaney evokes the sensual experience of book-work, remembering with amusement his schoolboy days and the pride and reverence he took in study. Christine Fears Literateur Magazine of 13th Sept 2010
  • He begins with his schooldays, carefully covering books with whatever is to hand to protect their covers, books being sacred objects, as they were in much earlier times, as they were to saints such as Fursa and Colmcille, “the riddle- solving anchorites”. Thus Heaney makes the connection between himself, the Irish seers and Virgil’s Aeneid, between poet and priest, the one kept in our consciousness by the other, the past linked to the present and vice versa. Alan Taylor, Herald Scotland Review 30/08/2010
  • 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;

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