Heaney dedicates this elegiac sequence to the memory of Colin Middleton the eminent Irish artist who described himself as the only surrealist painter of his time in Ireland. Born in Belfast in 1910 he died at the end of 1983. He became a friend of the Heaneys even selling them a piece of his work (thirty guineas forty-odd years ago).
i Heaney describes the correspondence he perceived between Middleton’s gaze (smoke … already in his eyes) – alluding cleverly to both to his abstract technique and his tobacco addiction – and the intensity with which the contortion of his artist’s eye (the way he’d narrow them to size you up) made Heaney feel like subject matter (a canvas all the while).
He recalls the chain smoker (all the while) adept at rolling his own cigarettes (licking and sealing) dealing perfunctorily with smoking residues (each small ash increment flicked off) resembling elements (as white as flecks on the horizon line) of the Loughanure painting in the Heaney house that has lived on (with provenance and price) after the artist’s death.
Heaney picks out compositional detail (whitewashed gables) with known landscape tinges (like petals stripped from hawthorn), the predominant foundation (heather ground) retaining a strong peaty Donegal Irishness (pother of Gaeltacht turf smoke).
When Middleton visited and took a fresh look his work it was as the potential critic he ever was (gazing, grunting) … and in this particular case well disposed (nodding).
Further background: ‘In Small Townlands’ of Death of a Naturalist portrays Heaney watching Colin Middleton executing a landscape in his own very personal style. The poem creates its own word-canvas of the painting in progress reporting the transformations Middleton imposes en route. Often preoccupied with his own issues of poetic composition and personal imprint on his poems, Heaney observes the techniques and overlays of a creative act exercised within another medium.
- size up: examine to form a judgment;
- licking: wetting of the wrapping paper that seals in the tobacco;
- hand-rolled: as opposed to machine made;
- increment: accretion of smoked ash;
- flick: snap of the wrist;
- fleck: streak, splash;
- Loughanure: village in Co. Donegal of the Irish Republic;
- guinea: 21 shillings in pre-decimal currency; still used oddly in calculating professional fees or prizes for classic horse races;
- whitewash: lime and water solution used to paint brickwork;
- ground: foundation applied to a blank canvas;
- pother: tumult, swirl, agitation;
- Gaeltacht: area of Co. Donegal to the west and north of Letterkenny; said to be the largest Irish speaking district in Ireland; where Irish was generally the spoken language of everyday life reflected in the song, literature and folklore of the people;
- turf: peat used to fuel the household hearth;
- grunt: low inarticulate sound expressing approval;
- nod: show appreciation with a movement of the head;
- 4 triplets; lines based on 10 syllables; no rhyme scheme;
- Assonance:eyes/ size; alliteration: flicked/ flecks; hawthorn, heather;
- Use of present participles expresses something habitual with potentially repeated acts: gazing/ grunting/ nodding
ii As he considers an artefact that has outlived its creator (afterlife) Heaney wonders about the fate of humans post mortem.
The original landscape sits in his home (on the wall) unmistakably Middleton in conception (cloud-boil of grey weather … like murky crystal) and recalling the one-off gaze of his friend deceased (a remembered stare).
What chance is there of returning from the other side of death? The poet compares his here-and-now sense of mortality with two classical giants (Dante of the Inferno and Plato’s Er myth of The Republic) who imagined the happy possibility of re-incarnation (watched immortal souls choose lives to come), not just the privilege of returning but with free choice of identical or different lives (fulfilled or repelled by existences they’d known or suffered).
Odysseus (great, far-seeing) chose a quieter private life; Orpheus, torn to pieces by the Maenads (perished at the women’s hands) opted to float quietly down the stream (rebirth as a swan).
- afterlife: life after death;
- boil: seethe, bubble;
- Dante Alighieri: Italian poet (died 1321) who shapes his perception of Hell in his Inferno from Virgil’s Aenied vi that offers some who have died the possibility of reincarnation when Aeneas comes across the souls on the banks of the Lethe that are going to be ‘reborn under the sky’;
- myth of Erconcludes Plato’s Republic. After death in battle, Er revived when on his funeral-pyre and told of his afterlife journey, including an account of reincarnation; the tale introduces the notion that good people are rewarded and bad people punished after death;
- far-seeing: shrewd and able to see the future
- Odysseus: legendary king of Ithaca and Greek hero during the Trojan War, celebrated in Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad; also as Ulysses in Virgil’s Aenied;
- Orpheus:already encountered in Route 110 and celebrated in Classical literature as an eminent poet and musician, Orpheus was torn to pieces by the female Maenads for spurning his patron god Dionysus in favour of sun-god Apollo; he chose reincarnation as a swan.
- 4 triplets; lines based on 10 syllables; no rhyme scheme;
- Alliteration: cloud-boil/ murky crystal; fulfilled/ repelled; concentration of sibilants [s], [sh] and [z]: Saw/ far-seeing/ Odysseus … choose for himself/ destiny; Orpheus/ perished women’s hands/ Choose/ swan;
iii Well rehearsed in the afterlife dwelling places invented by the Virgils and Dantes of both Classical and Christian eras Heaney poses questions as to what if anything his Catholic foundation might offer him.
Impersonalising the Catholic notion of Kingdom of Heaven (‘Thy’ replaced by the) Heaney wonders whether he might still qualify. Lapsed he might be but he served a very sound apprenticeship in something that eluded his rational understanding (behind its scrim) that was instilled in him since baptism and birth (font and fontanel) and still resonated (breaks like light on water).
Seeking to know triggers the same unbalancing effect as Heaney’s memory of an extraordinary Middleton ploy – to check his composition the artist would perform an incongruous about-face (turn away from the motif) and by providing an alternative peep-hole (spread his legs, bend low) upend his line of sight (look between them) to see how things looked vice versa (mystery of the hard and fast to be unveiled).
Middleton’s grotesque expression (inverted face contorting) resembled the demons of some Renaissance ‘Last-Judgment’ mural inflicting the most degrading treatment (like an arse-kisser’s in some vision of the damned) on sinners about to be forked into hell.
Then, as if nothing was, Middleton would revert to normal (cock an eye), use his paint-brush to check his perspective (at arm’s length) and set himself up to begin composing (readying).
- ‘Thy Kingdom Come’: line from the Catholic Lord’s Prayer (Heaney will have repeated it thousands of times as part of his Catholic training and practice) that introduces the notion that the good will receive God’s Grace and after death enter the eternal kingdom of paradise. Heaney’s faith lapsed over time in view of which, perhaps, he replaces the personal pronoun (‘Thy’) of the original with the definite article (‘the’);
- scrim: tough, open-weave, partly transparent material;
- font: stone receptacle used in baptism:
- fontanel: soft tissue in the head facilitating birth;
- motif: recurrent practice:
- mystery: phenomenon difficult to understand or about which to be certain;
- hard and fast: fixed, definitive
- inverted: upside down;
- contort: screw up, twist;
- arse-kisser: obsequious person, sometimes featured on vast wall paintings such as ‘Last Judgement’; note also vulgar rejection or disregard of ‘kiss my arse’;
- vision: pictorial representation:
- cock an eye: look intently;
- 4 triplets; lines based on 10 syllables; no rhyme scheme;
- alliteration:scrim since font and fontanel (the former a church receptacle for baptismal water, the latter a spot on a baby’ skull where water might be sprinkled at baptism);back/ cock; arse-kisser’s vision;
- cleverly interwoven sound chains: Breaks like light on water; inverted face contorting; spread/ bend;
- mystery of the hard and fast: the use ofoxymoron seeks to explain the artist’s personalised interpretation of visual data common to everyone (all the more since Middleton painted surrealistic canvases);
iv Heaney introduces two more ‘kingdoms’ familiar to him from his middle teens onwards, the first geographical, the second make-believe: the Gaeltacht where traditional Irish language, education, customs, and folklore prevailed. The poem takes him on a journey through time and space that first led him to the Loughanure landscape hanging in the family home.
He acknowledges he missed out on earliest Rannafest acquaintance (had I had sufficient Irish) obstructing his familiarity with Irish lore (seanchas) and its link with place names (disseanchas).
Heaney’s thirst for all things Irish was not yet awakened (too young and too shy); he was unaware of a figure from distant Irish folklore (about Caoilte) who, as Heaney the poet would be, was led via his pursuits (hunting the fawn from Tory) to the supernatural subterranean home (fairy hill) of the Sidhe in the original Fianna story, where he was made welcome (wasn’t turned away), honoured (crystal chair) and entertained by a beautiful spirit (girl with golden ringlets harped and sang).
Thus ignorance of the Irish (language) and as yet undeveloped thirst to learn more (longing) denied him the upward leap (through that cloud-swabbed air) – the narrative turns painterly – that would have opened his eyes to the Loughanure painting he stands before (far ‘Lake of the Yew Tree’ gleamed).
- Rannafest: Rann na Feirste, Gaeltacht townland of NW Donegal; centre, in Heaney’s day, for students from other parts of Ireland stayed with local families and attended courses to improve their Irish language skills; this in turn introduced them to the richness of mythology to be found in the Irish Fenian Cycles:
- seanchas: lore;
- dinnseanchas: places and their folklore seen as one;
- Caoilthe: Irish warrior of the Fianna, the battalion of warrior champions in distant pagan Ireland; legend has it he created a close link with the Tuatha de Danaan an ancient population living on as fairy folk otherwise known as the Sidhe (pronounced Shee) beneath the hill of Ilbrec; in some versions he was said to have been led there by a fawn; he protected the fairy population on more than one occasion against ravaging birds and was regarded as a hero; he did not live there permanently; interestingly there are correspondences with the Scandinavian Beowulf saga;
- Tory Island(Oileán Thoraigh): located nine miles off the Donegal coast, the most distant of the Donegal islands; according to some versions of the legend the story of Caoilthe took place there;
- turn away: reject;
- crystal: clear transparent glass-like substance;
- ringlet: curling lock of hair;
- harp: clairschach version of the plucked instrument that has become an Irish emblem
- swab: wipe, cleanse;
- Lake of the Yew Tree: Irish Loch an iúir> Loughanure the title-village alongside which the lake is sited;
- 4 triplets; free verse based around 10-syllable lines; some end-of-line (loose) rhymes:Rannafast/ stand/ dinnscheanchas; door/ floor; leap/ gleamed;
- sibilant [sh] sounds in stanza 1;
- weave of assonances and alliterations in stanza 2: repeated too; story/ Tory/ door;
- Stanza 3: fairy/ chair; girl with golden ringlets;
- Stanza 4: language and longing/ lightened/ Lake; leap/ gleamed;
- use of the subjunctive reinforces regret: for hadread ‘if only I had…’
v As Heaney reflects Proust-like on time lost and re-found, that early-day distance from Loughanure is no longer an issue (not all that far, as it turns out) thanks to rapid transportation and an iconic Gaeltacht landmark (Mount Errigal), ever visible (skyline … constant thing).
Observing from behind the wheel of his car Heaney’s warm feelings of belonging (unhomesick) are replaced by alienation (unbelieving) from planning reform (grant-aided) that has transformed the village face he remembers (renovated scene).
Enter the nostalgia of an elderly poet-scholar who has enjoyed life to the full delving now into his classical vocabulary hoard (the Greek word) for something strong enough (signifying) to hand him back a domain that is lost (world restored completely): sounds – known people speaking the Mother tongue (Hannah Mhór’s turkey-chortle of Irish); sights of living landscape (swan at evening over Loch an Iubhair , the ‘Lake of the Yew Tree’ of iv); still-savoured memory tastes of brands long disappeared (Clarnico Murray’s hard iced caramels) at 1950s’ prices and weights (penny an ounce) from shops now gone (over Sharkey’s counter).
- In ‘A la Recherche du Temps Perdu’,the much respected 20th century French novelist Marcel Proust sought intimate recall of his past. At certain moments it was a smell or a taste that would trigger involuntary memories; in this piece the memory-taste of a caramel sweet seems to trigger a similar effect;
- Errigal: almost perfect quartzite cone that glows pink in the setting sun; situated in Gweedore, Donegal; tallest peak of the Derryveagh mountains in the Northwest of Ireland; altitude 749 metres(2,457 feet);
- Clarnico: a confectionary firm founded in 1872, eventually swallowed up by a larger conglomerate; its mints are still marketed under the brand-name but Heaney’s favoured flavour seems to have disappeared;
- Grant-aid: subsidies available from higher bodies, say, central government or European Union for specific developments; a modern concept;
- 4 triplets; free verse; a single sentence broken by a colon; the combination of punctuation and enjambement provides for interesting rhythmical dynamics;
- Assonance: one constant; Mhór/ chortle;
- uncoupling the past: unhomesick, unbelieving;
- He is 70 now, and lingering on old age, whether in his grandparents’ or his parents’ generation, his friends’, and, of course, most unflinching, on his own. “So this is what an afterlife can come to,” he mulls in “Loughanure.” The majority of the poems in “Human Chain”are elegiac, eloquently remembering the losses that accumulate around the one who survives to memorialize them Dave Lucas on Cleveland.com, September 22nd, 2010.
- The elegiac sequence “Loughanure”… is an expansive exercise in pushing the bounds of elegy towards a visionary content that surpasses the need to console or be consoled. Consisting of five of the twelve-line units which are the dominant form in Human Chain (Heaney is taking up again the verse form of his metaphysical “Squarings” sequence in Seeing Things), “Loughanure” uses a Middleton painting bought by the poet …as an opening into a country partly real and partly imagined, which features both the mythological figure of Caolite “In a fairy hill” and, at its ending, “Clarnico Murray’s hard iced caramels / A penny an ounce over Sharkey’s counter”. There is no doubting the solidity of the recollection of this sweetshop; but no gainsaying, either, the immaculate architecture of sounds in Heaney’s lines, as though the fitting equivalent to one artwork (Middleton’s landscape) had been found in the verbally perfect miniature provided at the end of this poem. In between, there is the whole complex and contingent material of two lives looking the same way in parallel, aware of the mythic depths in “a cloud-boil of grey weather on the wall”. Peter McDonald, Sunday Times of Oct 13, 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: 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;