dedicated to Seamus Deane.
Heaney identifies two systems that brought their repressive regimes to bear on him as an individual with a mind of his own. Such was the trepidation that their rules of conduct generated that in the poem he reprises the notion of incarceration in The Unknown Legislator’s Dream. Though the piece is bedded in Heaney’s real-life experiences in Ireland the title alludes to the bureaucracies of oppressive states in post WWII Eastern Europe. Sandwiched between them is a short account of Heaney’s red-blooded male frustrations!
The initial interjection (well) announces that Heaney is poised to speak – of events from his personal biography – his important places borrowed from Patrick Kavanagh’s Epic of 1938.
His first ‘monument’ (in the Yeatsian sense) is St Columb’s College in Derry where billeted as a soldier in some foreign place Heaney lived out his secondary education. The school set on a steep prominence (lonely scarp) – Heaney transfers the epithet, he was the lonely one – overlooked the neighbourhood where Seamus Deane was born (your Bogside).
This first-year secondary-schoolboy exiled from his rural Mossbawn background was faced with unbelievable contrasts (new worlds) – things that went on after dark (floodlit dogtrack), hoarse, raucous cries of its race-night punters (inflamed throat of Brandywell), his sensed acceleration of the electrically driven dummy that sparked the greyhounds into action (throttle of the hare).
He confesses to having felt rejected and anorexic yet still the enduring prick of conscience (act of stealth) at throwing well-meant rations away good (biscuits to sweeten my exile) He is recalling a date, a place, a moment, a time of day and the lyrical autumnal effects of street lighting (lights … amber in the fog).
Life took him on to the sophisticated undergraduate experiences of Queen’s University (Belfast) and top-of-the-range American University (Berkely) both singing schools … of unageing intellect in the Yeatsian sense.
Alongside education was the rise of the poet (dabbling in verses till they have become a life): the painstaking search for a publisher; the contrasting signs of ‘getting there’ from the bulky envelopes of manuscripts to the slim volumes of the finished article, free copies offered proudly to friends and contacts (despatched ‘with the author’s compliments’).
You, Seamus Deane, he suggests, left me in awe (bewildered) with those pieces torn (wire spine) from your exercise book: assonance and intellect (vowels and ideas) uninhibited expression (bandied free), imagination germinating (seed-pots blowing off our sycamores).
Heaney’s dedication is not there for him to blow his own trumpet. His first attempts at poetry (I tried to write) echoed the land whence he came (South Derry rhyme), the amateur, clumsy efforts of the yokel from beyond the Sperrins (hobnailed boots from beyond the mountain) ‘sinfully’ trampling (walking, by God) the English he was being taught at a school itself known for its well tended swards (the fine lawns of elocution).
How deliberately, Heaney asks, did his school inflame sectarian sensitivity: the alleged superior diction of Protestant schoolchildren peddled by teachers – counter-productive (inferiority complexes) and crass (stuff that dreams were made on).
A daring, almost comic exchange confirming that Heaney was capable of mild impertinence to his teachers also risked exposing him from the very beginning (on my first day) to the prospect of corporal punishment (leather strap) administered with gusto by senior staff (epileptic in the Big Study), there for all to hear (plashing) and forget it if they dared (bowed heads).
Heaney’s letters home told a different story, were filled with litotes (not so bad) and were in line with Heaney-the-man’s same qualms about making public declarations on sensitive ‘political’ issues for which he regularly chided himself (shying as usual).
And so to a second mini-drama more to do with social mores before coming face to face with a daily obstacle to Northern Irish freedom of movement.
The period after Heaney passed his driving-test was empowering (I came to life) – testosterone and dating (the kissing-seat of an Austin Sixteen) … without long-lasting farewells of course (engine running) since groping and grappling after dates (fingers tight as ivy on her shoulders) fell foul of a strict 1960s’ moral code and parental authority (light left burning for her in the kitchen).
The shortening days heralding the return to Autumn studies (loss of summer’s freedom) and the lyrical appreciation of his surroundings enhanced by what Heaney might just have been up to could suddenly be shattered by roadblock – most likely armed Protestant RUC men ordering him to stop (crimson flashlamps … muzzle of a sten-gun in the eye).
Like Graham Greene, who provides a similar title, Heaney possesses a huge sense of drama and screenplay.
He gives vent in the present moment of his poem to his disrespect for the bovine threat of the policemen (black cattle, snuffing and pointing) but was wise enough not to say much at the time all the more since his first name was an automatic Catholic give-away.
The constables felt empowered to handle Heaney’s personal belongings at will, including pieces written in Deane’s cryptic style (hieroglyphics) that were beyond their appreciation (‘svelte dictions’) and typical of Deane’s penmanship (very florid hand). Heaney objects to his friend’s creative talent falling into the hands of brutish agents of repressive control (Ulster was British, but with no rights on The English lyric).
Heaney finds his title for the pervading atmosphere (all around us) hitherto unlabelled (we hadn’t named it) via an allusion to an organ of repressive totalitarian governance (the ministry of fear).
- Ministry: an organ of government/regime that deals with specific issues; associated with post WWII fascist and communist repression of people who had a mind of their own;
- 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 1940 in the Bogside area below the city walls of Derry;
- 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 Kavanagh’s ‘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.
- scarp: steep cliff-like prominence;
- billet: originally accommodate soldiers in civilian premises;
- St Columb’s: a prestigious boys Catholic Boys’ Grammar school in Derry where Heaney was a weekly boarder from Secondary school age to end of Sixth Form Advanced Courses;
- Bogside: Catholic neighbourhood that became the focus point of many Troubles events including the bloodbath known as Bloody Sunday on January 30, 1972;
- Brandywell: neighbourhood and stadium bear the same name;
- dogtrack: stadium where greyhound racing was held as a public event;
- throttle: mechanism that inject power into an engine;
- hare: mechanical dummy propelled round a dogtrack to stimulate the hounds;
- Lecky Road: a thoroughfare in the Bogside;
- stealth: one banished from home or country and unable to return;
- Berkeley: distinguished Californian University where Heaney (and his family) spent a year in 1970-71; this followed in later years by contracts at Harvard University on the esat US coast;
- here’s two on’s: local parlance here are two of them, two examples;
- dabble: take a casual interest;
- bulky: fat and cumbersome:
- spine: point on a book where front and rear sections meet and form a fold;
- bewilder: mystify;
- bandied: passed around; to ‘bandy ideas’contains the original sense of ‘strike back and forth;
- 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: area stretching from the city as far as Heaney’s ‘home ground’ as a youngster near Castledawson ; here he demonstrates his sensitivity to the variant sounds of language and local dialect;
- hushed: quiet and still;
- luled: calmed, soothed;
- hobnailed: hobnails were metal pins used in the construction of rough boots; used figuratively to imply ‘rustic persons’ with implications of backwardness;
- mountains: probably the Sperrins;
- lawn: carefully tended sward;
- elocution: from Latin teaching of ‘proper’ voice production and manner of expression;
- inferiority complex:
- stuff that dreams were made on: reference to Prospero’s assessment of ‘life’ in Shakespeare’s Tempest (IV,I, ll. 156-8) Heaney uses ‘stuff of dreams’ ironically to describe approaches and propagandas that merely served to inhibit youthful Catholic ambitions; ironic since he and Seamus Deane are both academic and famous;
- leather strap: means of applying corporal punishment in schools
- epileptic: epilepsy is an illness characterised by seizures or fits; schoolboys might use the adjective insensitively to describe frenzied activity;
- Big Study: Head-teacher’s office where corporal punishment was meted out;
- plash: splashing sound;
- shy: avoid issues out of timidity;
- kissing seat: 2 adjacent seats without seat rests that inhibit intimate closeness;
- Austin Sixteen: powerful 2 litre motor car of the 1940s; plenty of room inside;
- gable: pitched roof feature on facades and ends of buildings;
- flashlamp: portable flashing light devise used as a warning;
- snuff: breathe noisily as might an animal;
- hieroglyphics: reference to the carved ‘letter’/symbols of Ancient Egyptian writing;
- svelte: both slender and elegant;
- diction: choice and use of words;
- florid: complicated, elaborate;
- lyric: category of poetry of limited length describing a person’s emotions and inner feelings in largely recognizable format;
- 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:
- 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;
- Heaney’s title refers to the Platonic idea of the soul enriching itself through the contemplation of great works of art (MP p146;