dedicated to Seamus Deane.
The initial interjection Well announces that Heaney is poised to speak of events from his personal biography: his important places is borrowed from Patrick Kavanagh’s Epic of 1938:important places, times/ When great events were decided.
His first ‘monument’ (in the Yeatsian sense) is St Columb’s College in Derry (where billeted as a boarder Heaney lived out his secondary education), situated on its lonely scarp (he transfers the epithet: he was the lonely one!) overlooking the Bogside where Seamus Deane was born.
For a first-year secondary-schoolboy from the provinces it provided a vision of new worlds and the poet clearly recalls one landmark: the floodlit dogtrack and the raucous cries of its race-night punters: the inflamed throat of Brandywell. The speaker can still sense the acceleration of the electrically driven dummy that sparks the greyhounds into action: The throttle of the hare.
His feelings of being an outcast far from his family brought loss of appetite; the unwanted food that he discarded, biscuits to sweeten my exile, causes a prick of conscience even now: an act of stealth. He recalls moment, time of day and autumnal weather conditions precisely: lights … amber in the fog.
Subsequent steps took him to ‘monuments’ new: the sophisticated undergraduate life of Queen’s University, Belfast, then a top-of-the-range American University. (Both are singing schools … of unageing intellect in the Yeatsian sense.)
Alongside his education and academic career he traces his rise as a poet: Dabbling in verses till they have become/ A life. He recalls the stages: the painstaking search for a publisher; the contrast between the bulky envelopes of manuscripts and the slim volumes of the finished article offered proudly to friends, Despatched ‘with the author’s compliments’.
Seamus Deane, he suggests, wrote poems before he did. Heaney recalls the stimulus of pieces he tore from his friend’s exercise book: Vowels and ideas bandied free/ As the seed-pots blowing off our sycamores. In comparison his own first attempts (I tried to write) were the amateur, clumsy efforts of the country yokel he represents himself as: Those hobnailed boots from beyond the mountain/ Were walking, by God, over the fine/ Lawns of elocution.
Heaney was first awakened to sectarian differences at school: the alleged superior diction of Protestant schoolchildren, used to spur the St Columb boys to greater efforts had the opposite effect, resulting in Inferiority/ Complexes, stuff that dreams were made on.
Whilst a daring exchange confirms that Heaney was capable of mild impertinence to his teachers, overall school discipline was enforced from the outset by ruthless use of corporal punishment: On my first day, the leather strap/ Went epileptic in the Big Study.
Despite the echoes of thrashings plashing over bowed heads Heaney’s letters home concealed his true feelings (shying as usual); the self-assessment of an eleven year-old will find its echo in Heaney the man: the same qualms about making public declarations on sensitive ‘political’ issues for which the poet regularly chides himself.
The late fifties were salad-days for Heaney, a time of testosterone and sexual attraction: I came to life/ In the kissing-seat of an Austin Sixteen its engine left running since groping and grappling after dates (My fingers tight as ivy on her shoulders) in those days was strictly discouraged: A light left burning for her in the kitchen.
Shortening days heralded the loss of summer’s/ Freedom and the return to Autumn studies.
The sensual appreciation of his surroundings on one such occasion was suddenly interrupted when armed Protestant RUC men challenged his freedom of movement: crimson flashlamps/ … muzzle of a sten-gun in the eye.
Like Graham Greene, who provided his title, Heaney possesses a great sense of drama and screenplay! He might give vent in this poem to his disrespect for the bovine threat of the policemen like black cattle, snuffing and pointing, but he knew that then was not the moment for impertinence, all the more since his first name was an automatic sectarian give-away.
The constables took it as their right to handle his personal effects, including Deane’s handwritten pieces that were beyond their intellect: hieroglyphics,/ ‘Svelte dictions’ in a very florid hand. Heaney objects that creative talent was subjected to the brutishness of these agents of repressive control: Ulster was British, but with no rights on/ The English lyric.
Greene provides the mots justes that describe the atmosphere of the period: all around us, though/ We hadn’t named it, the ministry of fear.
In conversation with Henri Cole in The Paris Review No 75, Heaney reveals: in the early 1970s I did surely identify with the Catholic minority. A poem like “The Ministry of Fear” is a very deliberate treatment of the subject of minoritydom. An attempt to encompass that element of civic reality. It’s written in blank verse; there’s not much sport between the words of it;
Talking to DoD (p 65) Heaney refers to similar road-block situations: I was still subject to the usual old Northern Ireland reminders that I’d better mind my Fenian manners. The B-Special Constabulary were on the roads at night.
Graham Greene’s ‘Entertainment’ bears the same title; it describes a man’s journey back into childhood to escape the horrors of the 1940s Blitz;
Heaney’s great friend Seamus Deane was a contemporary at St Columb’s College, destined, like Heaney, to become a distinguished former pupil. Deane has enjoyed a hugely successful academic career in universities and colleges on both sides of the Atlantic and his books and publications include fiction, history and literature, not least Irish studies;
Deane was born in the Bogside area of Derry in 1940;
Patrick Kavanagh (1904 –1967): Irish poet: ‘I dabbled in verse and it became my life’ ; of rural farming stock, PK recounted lean Irish times and rural dreams of a better life;
The first quatrain of his ‘Epic’ of 1938 reads:
I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided : who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
St Columb’s: a boys Catholic Grammar school in Derry where Heaney was a weekly boarder when he reached Secondary school age;
Bogside: a Derry neighbourhood later much caught up in the Troubles including ‘Bloody Sunday; Lecky Road: a thoroughfare in the Bogside;
Brandywell: neighbourhood and stadium bear the same name;
Berkeley: distinguished Californian University where Heaney (and his family) spent a year in 1970-71;
bandied:to ‘bandy ideas contains the original sense of ‘strike back and forth,’ hence to ‘exchange intellectual blows’;
Seed-pots: the sycamore tree has wind dispersed fruit ( a kind of winged pod) released in the autumn and generally carrying over a short distance;
South Derry: Heaney’s ‘home ground’ as a youngster near Bellaghy in the south of County Londonderry; here he demonstrates his sensitivity to the variant sounds of language and local dialect;
hobnailed: hobnails were metal pinsused to make rough boots, the word was used figuratively to refer to ‘rustic persons’ with implications of backwardness;
elocution: from Latin source now referring to the teaching of ‘proper’ voice production, manner of expression;
stuff that dreams were made on: oblique reference to Prospero’s assessment of ‘life’ in Shakespeare’s Tempest (IV,I, ll. 156-8) Heaney seems to be using ‘stuff of dreams’ ironically to describe approaches and propagandas that merely served to inhibit youthful ambitions;
epileptic: epilepsy is an illness characterised by seizures or fits; schoolboys often used the adjective insensitively to describe the frenzied activity that was seen to accompany such seizures;
gable: pitched roof features to be seen generally at roof level on facades and ends of buildings;
hieroglyphics: reference to the carved ‘letter’/symbols of Ancient Egyptian writing;
a lengthy piece comprising sections of approximate sonnet length connected by a broken line or including a short dialogue; two final triplets;
no formal rhyme scheme; few rhymed endings (me/ free), examples of assonant correspondences at ends of line (weak/ eat; spine/ rhyme/ fine);
large variations of sentence length, enjambed lines (the first 14 lines for example have no fewer than 10 enjambed lines in the 6-sentence structure); line length based around 9/10 syllables but numerous shorter/ half lines;
use of both direct and indirect speech;
relaxed vernacular: here’s two on’s are; pre-war usage: throttle of the hare; contrast of country and city manners: hobnailed boots … fine lawns of elocution; yokel country, the back of beyond: over the mountain (the weekly journeys to school did include the Glenshane Pass); schoolboy usage that intended no insult: the leather strap/ Went epileptic; local usage: plashed for ‘splashed’; the oral value of chimes for as opposed to ‘rhymes with’; innovative identification: kissing seat;
adjective/ noun similes: free/ As the seed-pods; tight as ivy;
the long vacation section is especially rich in sense data, appropriate to the circumstances;
an assessment of assonant effects using colour code indicates9 principal phonetic sounds in chains or clusters:
[ɪ][e][ei][ɒ][æ][ʌ][ai] [əʊ] [i:][ʊ];
1. The Ministry of Fear
Well, as Kavanagh said, we have lived
In important places. The lonely scarp
Of St Columb’s College, where I billeted
For six years, overlooked your Bogside.
I gazed into new worlds: the inflamedthroat
Of Brandywell, its floodlit dogtrack,
The throttle of the hare. In the first week
I was so homesick I couldn’t even eat
The biscuits left to sweeten my exile.
I threw them over the fence one night
In September 1951 (nineteen fifty one)
When the lights of houses in the Lecky Road
Were amber in the fog. It was an act
Then Belfast, and then Berkeley.
Here’s two on’s are sophisticated,
Dabbling in verses till they have become
A life: from bulky envelopes arriving
In vacation time to slim volumes
Despatched ‘with the author’s compliments’.
Those poems in longhand, ripped from the wire spine
Of your exercise book, bewildered me-
Vowels and ideas bandied free
As the seed-pods blowing off our sycamores.
I tried to write about the sycamores
And innovated a South Derry rhyme
With hushed and lulled full chimes for pushed and pulled.
Those hobnailed boots from beyond the mountains
Were walking, by God, all over the fine
Lawns of elocution.
Have our accents
Changed? ‘Catholics, in general, don’t speak
As well as students from the Protestant schools.’
Remember that stuff? Inferiority
Complexes, stuff that dreams were made on.
‘What’s your name, Heaney?’
On my first day, the leather strap
Went epileptic in the Big Study,
Its echoes plashing over our bowed heads,
But I still wrote home that a boarder’s life
Was not so bad, shying as usual.
On long vacations, then, I came to life
In the kissing seat of an Austin 16 (sixteen)
Parked at a gable, the engine running,
My fingers tight as ivy on her shoulders,
A light left burning for her in the kitchen.
And heading back for home, the summer’s
Freedom dwindling night by night, the air
All moonlight and a scent of hay, policemen
Swung their crimson flashlamps, crowding round
The car like black cattle, snuffing and pointing
The muzzle of a Sten gun in my eye:
‘What’s your name, driver?’
‘Seamus . .
They once read my letters at a roadblock
And shone their torches on your hieroglyphics,
‘Svelte dictions‘ in a very florid hand.
Ulster was British, but with no rights on
The English lyric: all around us, though
We hadn’t named it, the ministry of fear.
ringing changes: skimming the piece as a whole for alliterative effects suggests, in rough order, clusters of the following consonant sounds: [k] [s] [b] [k] [s] [b] [s/z] [p] [w] [n] [s] [f] [p/b] [k] [r] [t] and finally nasals [n] [m];
Heaney’s title refers to the Platonic idea of the soul enriching itself through the contemplation of great works of art (MP p146;