In the Attic

This four poem sequence circles around a young character from children’s fiction: initially the trials, tribulations and conscience that assail a youngster at sea exposed to terror and stress within his short fictional life. The sea-faring metaphor is extended to Heaney’s workspace to illustrate the interplay of reality and imagination triggered by an equally tumultuous existence. Enter thirdly a member of Heaney’s own human chain – his maternal grandfather (also featured in Haw Lantern’s The Old Team and the Clearances sonnets in memory of his mother) who confirmed memory-lapse as one of the drawbacks of the ageing process. Finally Heaney himself, showing symptoms of age in his turn but not done yet!

Its final triplet confirms Heaney’s deeper structural intent. In what was originally Human Chain’s ultimate poem, he chose to return us neatly and deliberately to the collection’s outset. It was precisely the feel of the wind that kick-started Heaney’s engine in the very first poem.

i  Sitting in his attic workroom at the top of the house is ideal for recounting a desperate moment for Jim Hawkins the naïve but honourable hero of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

The drama of an attempted murder unfolds: Hawkins is on watch in the crow’s nest (in the cross-trees of Hispaniola); below him a sheer drop (nothing) into pristine sea (still green water clean bottom sand).

Heaney clarifies the angles (ship aground canted mast far out) and sea life below (striped fish shoals).

With no way of escape Jim is terrified by a ghost (face of Israel Hands) – the pirate mutineer who had pursued him up the mast intent upon stabbing him to death but was killed by Jim (shot him dead) unintentionally yet in self-defence. As in nightmare the face has re-appeared (rose) in a confusion of ship’s-sail and winding-sheet (shrouds).

Jim’s reasoning ends the scare: ‘he was dead enough’, now doubly dead (both shot and drowned).

  • Jim Hawkins: naïve but honourable hero of Treasure Island;
  • Hispaniola: sailing ship named after La Isla Española first occupied by Columbus in 1492;
  • Israel Hands: mutineer killed in self-defence by Hawkins whose gun fired inadvertently;
  • Treasure Island: adventure novel by Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson, narrating a tale of “pirates and buried gold”, first published as a book on 23rd May 1883. It is traditionally considered a ‘coming-of-age story’; reputed for its atmosphere, character and action and also (unusual for children’s literature) a wry commentary on the ambiguities thrown up by morality—as seen in the character of Long John Silver; one of the most frequently dramatized of all novels;
  • cross-tree: masthead support structure;
  • canteda beached ship leans sideways; its once upright mast is now tilting;
  • shoal: fish swimming in large groups;
  • shrouds: ropes that form the rigging of a sailing ship which supports mast and masthead;
  • rose: frightening illusion brought on by unnecessary guilt: Heaney continues to reflect upon the after-death: the soul-force of ‘The door was open…’ is replaced by the Jim’s conscience-fear of being punished by his victim’s ghost, however deserved the latter’s death might have been;
  • phrases rich in assonances: underneath/ green/ clean; aground/ out; sand … Hands;  shoals/ rose;
  • alliterationsibilant effects of [s], [sh] and [z] dominate the centre of the piece;
  • repetition of  pass/passedlinks reality (fish) to nightmare (face);
  • Shroud:both a sheet-like corpse garment and the ropes and rigging supporting the mast of a sailing ship; Heaney quotes from the text and also borrows canted mast;
  • assonant ‘ow’ of aground/ out/ shrouds/ drownedechoes the response to pain;

ii  As crow’s nest is to ship, so attic is to house, its highest vantage point with sight through the skylight of the world below – fore ground (birch tree) forming  barrier and barometer after two decades in relation to the ocean beyond (Irish Sea), viewed now by a  poet stranded in his own crow’s nest (marooned), moulded by personal experience (shipshaped in the crow’s nest of a life), buffeted (airbrushed to and fro), intoxicated by the dominant element (wind-drunk) and bolstered (braced) by the sounds and vibrations (thrumming) of everything holding his house and existence in one piece (from keel to masthead).

Caught between attic real life and crow’s nest imagination (rubbing his eyes to believe) there, in front of Heaney, bridging the gap, stands Nature’s emblematic weather station (most buoyant, billowy birch)  dominant and heroic (topgallant).

  • marooned: cast ashore alone;
  • shipshape: old naval term for ‘in good shape’, ‘trim’, ‘neat’;
  • airbrush: small, air-operated tools that spray substances including ink and dye, but most often paint by a process of nebulization; designed to modify appearances;
  • drunk: befuddled, high;
  • thrum: vibrate, produce a constant rhythmic hum;
  • keel: base timber of a ship supporting the whole framework;
  • rub one’s eyes: an action to offset disbelief;
  • buoyant: light, vigorous;
  • billowy: swirling;
  • topgallant sails: between topsails and crow’s nest of a square-rigged ship
  • shipshape: Heaney uses the naval metaphor to describe how his own apprenticeship moulded his existence: Shipshaped in the crow’s nest of a life;
  • three triplets composed as a single sentence around the pivotal comes between;
  • no rhyme schemeassonances: tree/ Sea/ me; keel/ believe; alliteration: man marooned; a clutch of sibilant sounds in the centre;Buoyant, billowy/ birch;
  • from birchto birch, the intervening lines create a parallel between Jim Hawkins and Heaney;
  • the indefinite article A (birch) of the outset becomes a demonstrative this birch as the tree develops its emblematic significance;

iii   Enter the shade of Granddad McCann (ghost-footing) treading his old home (terra firma) in New Row, Castledawson with its upmarket  period flooring (hallway linoleum) and his trembling, ageing voice (a-waver) that links in Heaney’s imagination with the lost domain of childhood – the chilly currents of air (draught-prone screen ) inside the local multi-purpose Club Rooms from where he has returned after a morning showing of Treasure Island.

His grandfather’s recall of the Treasure Island character is equally wobbly (a-waver too): not Israel but Isaac Hands as he always said (mistake perpetual) predictably (once and for all) as anyone forgetting the pirate’s double death (single splash when Israel’s body fell).

  • Heaney offers some local colour, for example the period chic of his maternal grandparents home in of the 1940s and 50s;
  • terra firma: solid ground beneath the feet. Opposite of water
  • linoleum: post-WWII plasticated floor covering regarded at the time as modern chic;
  • screen: free-standing partition deployed to divide the space;
  • matinée: from the French literally a ‘morningful’; traditionally Saturday-morning cinema was very popular with youngsters; latterly matinée can refer to any performances earlier than the evening one.
  • In the story Jim Hawkins shot Hands whose body plunged into the sea in a direct line beneath the crow’s nest.;
  • assonance: firma/ earlier; alliteration: voice a-waver; single splash;

iv Heaney acknowledges that he too (I age) exhibits the symptoms of advancing years. His short-term memory plays tricks (I blank on names); his balance falters (my uncertainty on stairs) linked perhaps to the aftermath of stroke.

He seeks to play it down by spurring himself on, quoting young Jim Hawkins’ lack of confidence in Treasure Island as he faced a terrifying prospect (lightheadedness of a cabin boy’s first time on the rigging).

Yes, he concedes the deterioration of what was once a photographic memory (the memorable bottoms out Into the irretrievable).

However I still have things to say, he says… so just let me remind anyone who might write me off that my hard-wired poetic impulses remain very much alive to the tiniest variations around me (slight untoward rupture and world-tilt). Age may have becalmed me but my creative antennae remain on the qui-vive (wind freshened) and what drives me to compose is ever good to go (anchor weighed).

  • blank: forget completely;
  • cabin-boy: young recruit who waits on crew and passengers;
  • bottom out: reach a low point;
  • untoward: unexpected, unforeseen;
  • rupture: tear;
  • weigh anchor: prepare to sail, leave port, set out;
  • three triplets; no rhyme scheme; lines of differing length ; written as a single sentence round the negative main verb It’s not and its subsequent double-negative;
  • three relative clauses that the main verb seeks to counter;
  • a poetic fusion of personal feeling and fiction;
  • assonance:age/ names; alliteration untoward/ world-tilt/ wind/ weighed;
  • memorable: both ‘things you can remember’ and ‘things worth remembering’;
  • irretrievable: what the mind can no longer recall, memorable or not; bears interesting comparison with the IT concept of ‘retrievable memory’;
  • world-tilt:  dual intention: the receding tide leaves the boat with a list; the incoming tide sets it straight.A man, knocked sideways by illness, is kick-started by the return of his life-force. The momentum of the final couplet is from real but barely discernible change (slight rupture) to final preparation for getting under way (anchor weighed);
  • rupture: the discernible jolt as wind enters the sails;
  • 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;

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