The poem should be read in the context of the Troubles in Ulster at a time of internment without trial, of H-Blocks at Long Kesh and hunger strikers.
Heaney is holding a stone that he once picked up on the border separating Ulster from the Irish Republic. It comes to symbolise the speaker’s inner conflict in face of the whole swirl of events, feelings and insecurities to which both he and his native island are subjected, not least his sense of political restrictions imposed upon the north by the Brirish.
He has kept the stone for a host of reasons: its reddish colouring (russet);its texture and fruit shape (solidified gourd);its geology of natural, local materials eroded by water: chalky …sedimentary. His ‘frontier’ stone has real substance (so reliably dense),has the quality of basic, hard-wearing building materials: bricky.
For all these associations he regularly handles the stone: I often clasp it and throw it from hand to hand (the paradoxically defiant posturing of a man who, in his own mind, lacks the courage to speak out, who falters like fellow writer Chekhov in the previous poem).
The keepsake, retrieved from the river at Inishowen during a wading walk, revealed a hint of contusion when he found it, emblematic of the injured community in which it was found. The ‘bruising’ is juxtaposed with the sight of an internment camp built for political prisoners across the river Foyle where light after light came on silently.
The free rein of his imagination transports the speaker into Dante’s Inferno. Surely, he contends, the ruddiness of the Foyle stone was that of a stone fromPhlegethon,/ bloodied on the bed of hell’s hot river.
The ambient conditions on the Foyle that day (frost … salt water) that caused vapour to rise from the speaker’s skin conjured up a story of 13th century political murder and the fate that awaited the perpetrator (Guy de Montfort) in Hell, his act all the more heinous for the venerated status of his royal victim.
Heaney snaps out of his dream, holding his wet red stone and staring across at the watch-towers. He is entitled, unlike the political internees to express himself (from my free state of image and allusion – he is of course standing in what was once known as the ‘Irish Free State’).
The tables are suddenly turned: the watcher is watched from the camp, zoomed in on by security binoculars then discarded as insignificant: a silhouette not worth bothering about, just a frail looking fellow stooping along on a walk and of no threat: not about to set times wrong or right. Heaney’s anguish over his poetic voice, his wish to ‘make a difference’, well known to the reader but of no interest to the camp security.
Heaney chides himself; he understands only too well that doing nothing is tantamount to approval of the repression taking place, making him one of the venerators.
- The beach at Inishowen where Heaney discovered the stone is just the Irish Republic side of the Foyle estuary; over the water in Ulster lies Magilligan Point, the site of an internment camp set up by the British in 1971;
- His reference to my free state echoes the ‘Irish Free State’ of the 1920s and 30s;
- keepsake: an object kept for the sake of, in memory of;
- gourd: a hard bulbous waxy fruit;
- Phlegethon: one of the 5 rivers of the Underworld; its name translated as ‘flaming’, ‘fire-flaming’ and was referred to by Plato as a ‘stream of fire’;
- Guy de Montfort :Dante’s Infernodepicts levels of increasing torment. In canto XII : ‘further along Dante and Virgil come across some sinners immersed up to their throats in hot blood. Nessus names one as Guy de Montfort (who murdered Prince Henry in revenge for the deaths of father and brother at the Battle of Evesham 1265) who smote the heart, / Which yet is honoured on the bank of Thames’;
- venerate: 17th century, to ‘reverence’, ‘worship’;
- discussing the H Blocks and hunger strikes DOD suggested to Heaney: ‘it must have been impossible not to feel something like guilt at not being able to help alleviate the situation or contribute to its resolution’ Seamus Heaney replied: This was during the time when Station Island was being written, and the ‘self-accusation’ of those days is everywhere in the sequence. Also in individual poems like Sandstone Keepsake (p259);
- whether Heaney’s poetry should be politically engaged or disengaged surfaces at intervals in the collection. The stone is ‘an emblem of the poet’s division’ (MP185).
- The stone acts as a spur to meditation leading to his self-portrait as political outsider with peripheral status(MP p187);
- Station Island will be about risking the backward look, enduring exposure ( ) (in) Sandstone Keepsake the old anxieties about doing the decent thing (resurface) … the poet is forced to scrutinise his conduct as an artist … engagement with the major questions about the relationship between art and action (should poetry engage in politics; is poetry active participation in history; does/ will it make any difference to Ireland?) … the poet treads water(MP p185);
- the final lines perhaps reflect his uncertainty whether his verses can indeed set wrongs right(MP p187);
- another stone (cf.Granite Chip) acts as a spur to a meditation in which Heaney paints a wry self-portrait of the artists as a political outsider ( ) which is characteristic in its shrug of uneasy self-deprecation ( ) The incapacity for the political rôle is rebuked (NC p114);
- reference to the Irish Free State is turned into a phrase for the disengagement of poetry; ‘Sandstone Keepsake’ inherits the guilt and anxiety of ‘Exposure’ [the final poem of the ‘North’ Collection of 1975](and somehow confirms) the poet’s peripheral status ( ) Heaney is prompted into mythologising the stone in the terms of a Dantean analogy (NC p114);
- six quatrains; line length based loosely on ten syllables; no rhyme scheme;
- vocabulary seeking to translate colour and texture; geological terms, fruit, building materials; allusions to human injury, the latter reflective of reported beatings in the internment camps;
- vocabulary of repressive imprisonment; reference to hellish classical (Dante) examples;
- vocabulary used to indicate yes/no votes: ‘venerated, ‘venerator’;
- physical frailty associated with inaction; yet ‘from hand to hand’ suggests rather sadly that he should perhaps be a ‘hard’ man to be reckoned with;
- 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:
- alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies: Q1: velar plosive [k], sibilant [s]; Q2: predominant alveolar plosive[t] and alveolar [l]; Q3: a weave of [k] [s] and bilabial [p]; aspirate [h] ‘hell’s hot’, later ‘hand’ ‘heart’; Q4: velar plosive pair [k] [g]; nasal [m]; Q5 and Q6: variant sounds of (t) [ð] plus [w] and variant [s] (z) sounds;