The five sonnet sequence recalls a very troubled, wakeful night during Heaney’s pilgrimage to Lough Derg around 1960.
Poetic licence entitles Heaney to introduce the shade of an IRA hunger striker (said to be a composite of Francis Hughes and Thomas McElwee who operated out of the Bellaghy area during the Troubles and eventually starved themselves to death in 1981 for the cause) held prisoner in the Maze prison and fasting very publicly to achieve prisoner-of-war status. The hunger-striker’s ghostly presence sets off a train of reactions that amount to a confession that Heaney’s reluctance to use his public voice has placed him in a less than honourable position and calls for a change of direction.
A hunger striker’s voice describes in graphic detail the mental (brain dried like spread turf) and physical effects (stomach … a cinder … tightened and cracked) of persistent fasting, the evidence of bodily haemorrhage: often I was dogs on my own track of blood on wet grass. Heaney’s deliberate choice of imagery recalls the badly injured Hughes on the run from British troops one of whom he had killed and his dehydration (licked).
Solitary confinement is akin to sanctuary (ambush stillness I felt safe in settled around me).
Pictures conjure up scenes of his locality (lights … in small towns), shock-waves (bomb flash … before the sound) and distant sound memories – the car I could make out years away that transported him to a site of pre-planned paramilitary action, still visible in his mind (me in the back … like a white-faced groom), murder his intention, totally impassive (a hit-man on the brink, emptied and deadly.
When his body was later released for burial, at once dead yet still alive, he felt the same unreality (light) as when I took aim at staked-out soldiers waiting in ambush.
- dry: lose moisture, desiccate;
- cinder: matter left when a combustible material is exhausted;
- tighten: become pinched;
- crack: develop splits and break apart;
- lick: moisten with the tongue;
- ambush: trap, lure, stake-out;
- Glenshane: a townland and pass through the Sperrin Mountains on the road from Derry to Belfast;
- Toome: a County Derry town in the north-east corner of Lough Neagh;
- Francis Hughes and Thomas McElwee operated in this area close to their hometown of Bellaghy;
- hit-man: an assassin hired for contract killings, a gun for sale; mainly of a sectarian nature in the period of the Ulster Troubles;
- groom: man about to be married;
- brink: on the edge of something unpleasant about to happen;
- light: dizzy, slightly faint;
The ghostly voice from blight and hunger fades from the poet’s Lough Derg sleeping quarters (through the black dorm) replaced by the dream recall of a dead IRA man’s vigil (Heaney did actually attend McElwee’s wake), with its surreal fluttering shower of religious trappings (drift of mass cards), the body laid out for interment (shrouded feet) and the paramilitary ‘last-post’ salute (firing party’s volley in the yard).
Subconscious sense data recall damp, deterioration and decline (saw woodworm … smelt mildew) in places from which the fugitive fighter might have had sight over the fields through which post mortem his transported coffin would appear to float (draped coffin would raft through).
Better, to Heaney’s mind for his stormy (unquiet) soul to have been laid to rest and preserved Tollund-Man-like in the medicinal repose of peat (the bog where you threw your first grenade), a ground echoing to the incongruous sound (maimed music) of military opponents and the fitting call of local birdlife, protected from intrusion by the weasel’s whistle, the alarm signal that warned the rest of the detachment not to come near (no other weasel will obey its call).
- blight: a disease affecting plants; of particular significance in Ireland historically associated with the loss of potato crops and famine in the late 1840s; came to be used figuratively for anything that undermined hope or threatened prosperity;
- dorm: shortened form of dormitory, overnight accommodation many beds in the same room;
- drift: accumulation of blown particles
- mass-card: sent to bereaved families to announce a Catholic service to be held in memory of the deceased
- shrouded: wrapped for burial;
- firing party: group detailed to fire a salute at a (para-) military funeral
- volley: single round in unison
- woodworm: infestation; wood-eating larvae or grubs that munch away at woodwork;
- jamb: the vertical section of a door frame;
- mildew: a fungal growth or mould affecting not only plants but internal and external wall surfaces, associated with dampness;
- byre loft: area above a cowshed
- raft: float as if on a flat boat
- unquiet: restless
- curlew: wading bird with distinctive two note call;
- maimed: wounded, impaired;
- sphagnum moss: commonly called peat moss due to its prevalence in wet habitats where it contributes to the formation of peat bogs and wetlands; per se very much part of Heaney’s landscape;
- weasel: one of the world’s smallest carnivores able to pursue mammals down tunnels; it makes a range of sounds including a shrill defensive squeal resembling a whistle; difficult to detect and study; common in the Ulster landscape; folklore suggests that any weaselseen near a house is a bad sign. To hear one squeaking is an omen that death is on its way; weasels are associated with misfortune and bad luck. It is impossible to catch a weasel asleep; and it is bad luck if one crosses your path and appears near your home making its distinctive squeaking sound;
Back in sleep (dreamt and drifted) Heaney-pilgrim felt himself carried through a viscous, apocalyptic nightmare-landscape (waste … mucky, glittering flood) of troubling, liquid floating shapes (strange polyp) and images of decay (huge corrupt magnolia bloom), weirdly anatomical and defeating psycho-analysis (surreal as a shed breast), becoming waterlogged by growing conscience (softly awash and blanching self-disgust).
He hears his own anguished cry in the darkness (cried among night waters), a confession of deep remorse (repent) for never having outgrown (unweaned life) his natural disposition that ensured (that kept me competent) his silence at crucial moments and left him on the wrong side of matters of principle (sleepwalk with connivance and mistrust).
Amidst the alarming mix of subconscious images redemption suddenly beckons (like a pistil growing from the polyp): an emblem of revival entirely in keeping with a Station of the Cross on Lough Derg – a lighted candle rose – that ended his fear of drowning (no more adrift) and restored terra firma to his mind (my feet touched bottom).
- drift: be carried slowly on subconscious waves;
- go to waste: to lie unused and therefore squandered;
- swirl: eddy, revolving water;
- polyp: internal growth joined by a string to the body of growing direct from soft tissue;
- corrupt: (archaic horticultural term) in s state of decay;
- magnolia bloom: creamy pink, waxy blossom;
- surreal: more than real, bizarre, weird;
- awash: under water;
- blanching: turning white, losing its colour;
- unweaned: accustomed only to mother’s milk;
- kept me competent to: ensured I was equipped only to
- connivance: collusion
- mistrust: suspicion, doubt;
- pistil: in plant anatomy the female reproductive part with swelled base and stalk-like extension;
- steady up: add a settling perspective;
- masted thing; boat metaphor;
- retrieve a course: return to a pre-intended direction;
- current: water flow;
- ride: float on;
- adrift: unmoored, disorientated
- touch bottom: have contact with the bed below the waterline;
- revive: regain energy, be braced;
The pilgrim’s final bout of sleep reveals an amorphous shape (something round and clear … like a bubbleskin … a moon in … rippled lough-water) seeking to resolve itself (mildly turbulent). It settles into the shape of a dusty musical instrument hidden in a cobwebbed space, dazzling (molten inside-sheen), spinning larger and larger towards him (polished convexes … close and brilliant) and upending him into the void (headlong fall).
The falling sensation jerks the pilgrim out of sleep. His irrational nightmares are replaced by the clarity of waking, by sunshine and the sounds of pilgrimage (bell) and ablution (gushing taps) in the pilgrim hostel. He has survived the experience to tell the tale (still there for the taking). The memory remains of the trumpet he once found in a farm’s loft thatch but left where it was because it was not his to appropriate: a mystery I shied from then for I thought such trove beyond me.
- turbulent: not stable or calm;
- bubbleskin: the thin soapy film surrounding the fragile spherical bubble that floats in the air thin outer membrane able to change its shape;
- molten: turned to liquid by heat;
- sheen: burnished (surface);
- convex: usually an adjective describing outward -curving surfaces (opposite of concave, inward-curving);
- pitch: tumble, fall;
- headlong: head first
- bell: sound of summons to devotion on Station Island;
- cubicle: small, partitioned area;
- there for the taking: easily obtainable;
- valve and stop: to produce different notes the trumpet uses valves and stops to re-route air through the instrument and offer differing wave lengths that reverberate as notes;
- loft thatch:
- shy away from: the suggestion of ‘shy’, ‘cautious’ of the adjective was extended in the verb to suggest ‘avoid’, ‘shun’ even ‘be scared of’;
- trove: French derivation, literally ‘things found’; associated with treasure(-trove) to indicate a ‘hoard’ of unknown ownership;
His self-disgust swells into a bitter outburst of self-hatred: against what trained him to be meekly obedient (how quick I was to know my place), against his inherited nature (biddable … unforthcoming). His words are leveled silently (mouthed) at his soaped-up, discomfited (half-composed) reflection as he shaves. He once saw a man befuddled by alcohol (drunk … during a party) swinging wildly between such extremes (lulled and repelled by his own reflection).
‘Hang on,’ he says to himself, ‘my nature is what it is – je suis comme je suis – and only by conceding that fact can I move on’. Nature reveals the truth – as if … as if – the cairnstone cannot defy the cairn – it is made of the same material – the eddy cannot reform the pool – it is formed of the same water – the stone being worn down by the cascade is of the same matter so cannot grind itself down to a different core.
The Indians of First Nations’ legend (tribe whose dances never fail) show him the way… for sustenance they keep dancing till they sight the deer. Heaney will create the deer of poetry in the collection’s final piece, the cave drawing of On the Road that comes to life and provides the poet with ‘food’ along the road ahead.
- know one’s place: recognise one’s place in the pecking order and act accordingly;
- biddable: meek, obedient, ready to follow instructions without question;
- unforthcoming: not prepared to share one’s view, opinion;
- mouth: move the lips as if saying something;
- half-composed: in a semi-relaxed state
- lulled: soothed, placated, secure;
- repelled: disgusted, sickened;
- cairn: landmark mound built of surrounding stones;
- defy: be an unmistakable part of:
- eddy: revolving water ;
- cascade: constantly falling water:
- erode: gradually wear away, grind down
- core: (Latin cor, ‘heart’, centre); here end up as a different material;
- tribe: social division;
- see the deer: the final piece ‘On The Road’ reveals the cave-drawn deer as a symbol of change, and moving beyond/ freeing the self of current hang-ups;
- The ghost figure would seem to be a poetic composite made up of Francis Hughes who was known to the Heaney family and Thomas McElwee whose wake Heaney attended. They died in Long Kesh in 1981;
- the poet is angry with himself for having remained attached to Catholic restrictions of the self and its powerful personal inhibitions it generated; he concedes he might have, even should have, had a stronger political involvement;
- Heaney speaks sensitively to DOD about hunger-strikers and the impact on him of the predicament; he felt sympathy for the men, acknowledging that some people would see their sacrifice as a knock-on effect of a ‘war of liberation’ and others that of a ‘war of genocide’, but he was wary of appearing to promote one cause and not the other; he also introduces Thomas McElwee a local man whose wake he was able to attend with its paramilitary ceremonial but whose family respected his presence as a Catholic above and beyond the politics that were distressing everybody (p 259-61);
- The five sonnets … complete the vigil and rigorous self-inquisition that has accompanied it … the poet plummets to his lowest point yet, sucked down in a vortex of ‘self-disgust’ ( ) restorative images in the last three sonnets bear him up (MP(p201);
- Steeped in guilt, anger and frustration, the poem determines neither to endorse not to condemn overtly the striker’s actions … in the second sonnet several phrases recognise the ‘common ground’ shared by the paramilitary and the poetic activist (ibid p201);
- the gutter imagery bears not only the poet’s self-disgust, but also the sickening tide of hatred reactivated by the hunger-strikes and the pressure to conform demanded by Catholic and Republican ideology (ibid p202);
- political suicide is juxtaposed with a dream of release and revival (NC p118);
- In cantos VII, VIII, and IX Four dead men leave Heaney at his most exposed … each of them forces him to live their final moments, to scrutinise his conduct in the face of their deaths; exposure will lead Heaney via lame excuse through accusation , self-accusation to self-disgust and might be said to bea critical requirement of the pilgrimage which is to ‘chastise one’s own soul (MP p198);
- NC asserts that Heaney is no longer content to know his place,to celebrate it as a virtue, to meekly accept servitude to the mores of a community , to renounce worldliness which is the essential prelude to repentance. NC reminds us that No praying is done on the pilgrimage …kneeling is Habit’s afterlife (p120);
- Ambivalence characterises the presentation: tracker and tracked, ambusher and ambushed ’emptied and deadly’,aggressor and victim hints at common grounds shared by the paramilitary and the poetic activist; (ibid p202) Each possesses an ‘unquiet soul’ … shaped by and trapped by the ancient bog, allured by the ‘maimed music’ of tribal loyalties … the sickening tide of hatred reactivated by the hunger strikes and the near irresistible pressure to conform demanded by catholic and Republican ideologies ; MP suggests that the redemptive power of Art is to be found in the candle that illuminates the way ahead; the trumpet that promises harmony (MP p201);
- a sequence of 5 sonnets (S) based on lines of 10 syllables with some exceptions;
- S1: a five sentence construct; enjambed lines contribute to the ebb and flow of the rhythm; variable rhyme pattern; direct speech from hunger-striker; dead but not dead; initial comparison anatomy and peat bog;hunting image replaced by IRA-speak; paradox: incarceration brings relief; use of hyperbole: ‘years away; comparison: nerves of gunman and one getting married’; use of adjectives including a compound; play on words: light in weight after fasting and dizzy in the head;
- S2:4 sentence structure with use of enjambment; cinematic melt of one scene into another; cards compared with snowfall; vocabulary of rot and waste; vocative form of address ‘(O) Unquiet soul’; winged object: birds and military hardware equally present; example of folk-lore;
- S3: 5 sentences; nightmarish events and vocabulary of ugliness to match; direct speech provides a confession of self-disgust; some vocabulary of political nature;
gaudí-esque landscape replaced by symbol of restoration; sailing imagery;
- S4: 5 sentences; start is rich in adjectives; the pilgrim on the edge of sleep; double comparison; emerging instrument of such glare as to cause the falling feeling that shocks one into wakefulness; contrast with the familiar calm of the hostel;
- S5 in 11 sentences; repeated vocabulary of dislike; play on words ‘composed’: not calm; horror-movie style half decomposed, this psychological reflected in the drunk simile; triple ‘as if’ somehow echoes the hopelessness of the individual trying to be anything other than what he is; the climax pays a final tribute to those of old who refused to give up their quest;
- the music of the poem: thirteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhyme , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text:
- Analysis of Heaney’s poems reveals how deliberately he seeks alliterative effects that allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify his assonant melodies. Heaney deliberately deploys pairs or clusters of like consonants; these come and go as the poem develops, entering the sound narrative, dropping out or reappearing at interval; he rings the changes. The simplified phonetic table that follows will facilitate your own analysis. Consonant sounds are formed in various parts of the mouth; plosives and fricatives come in pairs (and Heaney will often deploy both in combination in the same phrase or sentence or stanza): a voiceless version and a voiced version; for example [p] and [b] are identically formed but [b] requires input from the vocal chords whereas [p] is simply air modified by the lips.
- Front-of-mouth sounds and their phonetic symbols:
voiceless bi-labial plosive [p] voiced bi-labial plosive [b]; voiceless labio-dental fricative [f] voiced labio-dental fricative [v]; bi-labial nasal [m]; bilabial continuant [w]
- Behind-the-teeth sounds:
voiceless alveolar plosive [t] voiced alveolar plosive [d]; voiceless alveolar fricative as in church match[tʃ]; voiced alveolar fricative as in judge age [dʒ]; voiceless dental fricative [θ] as in thin path; voiced dental fricative as in this other [ð]; voiceless alveolar fricative [s] voiced alveolar fricative [z]; continuant [h] alveolar nasal [n] alveolar approximant [l]; alveolar trill [r]; dental ‘y’ [j] as in yet
- Rear-of-mouth sounds:
voiceless velar plosive [k] voiced velar plosive [g]; voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] as in ship sure, voiced post- alveolar fricative [ʒ] as in pleasure; palatal nasal [ŋ] as in ring/ anger.
- Sound it out for yourself and witness Heaney’s intricate sonic draughtsmanship.