Station Island – the Sequence II

Heaney’s self-scrutiny is pursued in his encounter with the ghost of William Carleton (see below) on the road to Lough Derg. Carleton’s emphasis concerns politics and social turbulence.

Pausing on the journey (parked on a high road)and savouring the sights and sounds of nature around him Heaney’s preoccupations are interrupted: something came to life in the driving mirror. The ghost visitor is quickly recognised: by the urgency of his gait; his rural garb (overcoat and boots), his physical characteristics (bareheaded, big), his purposefulness (determined) and his bustling confidence (sure haste along the crown of the road). The ‘man’ generates a knee-jerk response from the challenged poet: I was suddenly out of the car.

He comes face-to-face with this aggravated figure who raged in his own time about sectarian elements familiar to Heaney now: gun butts … cracking on the door ( ) yeomen on the rampage, theloss of community fellowship (his neighbour among them),the intolerant bullying hammering home the shape of things.

Carleton stands in stark contrast to the obedient shawled women of cantoI: they led the willing Heaney whereas Carleton’s anti-Catholic feelings pursue and taunt the pilgrim as he makes his way to do the station, to do the ‘right thing’ on Station Island.

Carleton’s expletive response sums up his reaction to Heaney’s lack of firm political/ religious stance; his body-language too: His head jerked sharply side to side and up/ like a diver surfacing. More forthright than Sweeney’s his tone is sharp and dismissive: who is this cub/anyhow.

Carleton reins his anger back, taking cognizance again/ of where he was calmed, perhaps by the air, softened by a shower of rain then issuing his advice-warning that personal choices shape the way ahead It is a road you travel on your own.

He recounts what his 19th century experiences taught him: nauseating examples of human behaviour that he read in the reek of flax ( ) hanged bodies rotting on their gibbets ( ) looped slime hanging from the sacks.

Carleton acknowledges that the stance he adopted made him equally unpopular on both sides of the sectarian divide (amongst hard-mouthed Ribbonmen and Orange bigots) and led to his reputation as the old forked-tongue turncoat who sought to expose a dirty trade: mucked the byre of their politics.

Carleton hints that in the light of similar sectarian disturbance in contemporary Northern Ireland Heaney might do well to copy his outspoken stance: If times were hard, i could be hard too./ I made the traitor in me sink the knife.

Heaney feels he is not more outspoken for reasons of personal disposition (no mettle for the angry rôle) and because of an ineffective neighbouring Catholic Order,the Hibernian hall/ where a band of Ribbonmen played hymns to Mary. This first contact was weak (Obedient strains), had no clout, a frail procession more interested in socializing (staggering home drunk on Patrick’s Day) and image (collarettes and sashes fringed with green) than the more aggressive Catholic groups politically committed to an independent Irish State: that harp of unforgiving iron/ the Fenians strung.

Heaney places the social and manual aspects of the pilgrimage (both he and Carleton have visited the pilgrimage site) before any lessons he might have been supposed to learn: the shaky local voice of education. All that.

Aggressive Protestantism was never far away: Orange drums … neighbours on the roads at night with guns.

Carleton’s empathetic four-fold response is followed by advice to all people of conscience fraught with doubt: you have to try and make sense of what comes,/ Remember everything and keep your head.

Heaney’s lyrical retreat into expressions of the traditional landscape contaminated by twentieth century symptoms (melt of shells corrupting,/ old jampots in a drain clogged up with mud) is cut short.

Carleton’s parting-shot pulls no punches: responses à la Heaney will be written off as no more than antiseptic: a trout kept in a spring/ or maggots sewn in wounds – another life that cleans our element. He will be judged solely by the impact he makes: We are earthworms of the earth, and all that/ has gone through is what will be our trace.

His judgment delivered, the ghost continues on its busy, unwavering course: the same hard pace.

  • crown: the top of the curve formed by the carriageway of the road;
  • aggravated: the original 16th century meaning of ‘larger than life’ precedes the modern ‘irritated’, ‘annoyed’; both can apply to this context;
  • yeomen: of medieval origin, variously ‘attendants to a noble household’, ‘villagers’, ‘commoners who cultivated land’, ‘fighting men’;
  • cognizance: 14th century Anglo-French word for ‘recognition’, ‘acquaintance’;
  • reek of flax: the flax plant ultimately used to produce items from linseed oil to linen cloth was notorious for the stink it made as it rotted in the open air;
  • gibbets: the upright posts with projecting arms from which the bodies of criminals were hung after execution; set in public places to act as warnings;
  • Ribbonmen: ‘ribbonism’ was a 19th century popular and secretive agrarian movement of Irish Catholics targeting landlords and their agents; ideologically opposed to the Orange Order,its Northern Irish Protestant equivalent founded earlier in 1796;
  • turncoat: the term used to describe people who changed their principles and affiliations and became traitors to a cause;
  • mettle: used literally and figuratively as ‘the stuff a person is made of’; mettle for: ‘of a disposition to’, ‘disposed to’;
  • Hibernian hall: the Ancient Order of Hibernians was created in response to the persecution of Catholics by the English invaders and colonisers from the 16th century onwards and growing in strength through the 18th and 19th centuries;
  • Heaney recalled permitted marches on St Patrick’s day and August 15th and the small Hibernian hall beside our house in Mossbawn; he concluded: the (Hibernian) movement had no great ideological force or passion to it(DOD pp133-4);
  • brotherhood: association or fellowship of kindred spirits;
  • playing hymns to Mary confirms only passive commitment;
  • Patrick’s day: the anniversary of St Patrick’s death celebrated on March 17th;
  • collarettes: diminutive form of ‘collar’;
  • sashes: wide strips of cloth worn conspicuously across the shoulders and chest to demonstrate membership of an association;
  • harp: musical stringinstrument and symbol of Ireland;
  • Fenians: a 19th/ 20th century brotherhood of Irish Catholics dedicated to the foundation of an independent Irish republic; also used as a demeaning term for Irish Catholics;
  • Flax pulling by hand was a back breaking job and an ideal exercise to test a pilgrim

(practised before the advent of machines) because the whole flax stem from root to tip was required to provide the longest fibre for the finest quality linen cloth;

  • dunged: the noun used for ‘animal excrement’, here employed as a verb;
  • pith: the spongy white tissue between rind and fruit;
  • Heaney explains the involvement of Carleton in the sequence: He was a cradle Catholic, a Northern Catholic, who had lived with and witnessed the uglier side of sectarianism, but still a man who converted to the Established Church and broke with ‘our tribe’s complicity’; Carleton was an unpopular figure: a commentator suggested that Carleton ‘succeeded in offending everybody during the course of his life’ (DOD p 236);
  • William Carleton (1794 – 1869): born Catholic, Carleton eventually became a Protestant; he published a critical account of the island in his Lough Derg Pilgrim (of 1828). Heaney is troubled by his own position vis-à-vis the Catholic Church.
  • Heaney … meets William Carleton, who traveled (sic) the same roads to Station Island in the last century and wrote angrily about Catholic pilgrims. Heaney, characteristically, apologizes to Carleton (though Carleton betrayed his Catholic tribe): ” I have no mettle for the angry role.” Then Carleton softens, encouraging Heaney(Shaun O’Connell: from the February 1985 issue of Boston Review);
  • Carleton probably regarded Irish rural life as disabling rather than ennobling;
  • Heaney drives effortlessly from the twentieth century world into a past which seems contemporaneous (in that he and Carleton faced the same political issues in their lifetimes); it sums up the poem’s consistent perspective on the politics of the North (MP p193);
  • Carleton encountered appropriately on the road and not on the island itself… subsequently renounced Catholicism and wrote the ‘Lough Derg Pilgrim’ as a denunciation of its barbarities and superstitions (NC p112);
  • flax pullings and other activities are relaxed memories of a normal ‘rural’ childhood and adolescence … with Carleton Heaney detects a divided sensibility like his own confirming Heaney’s own Joycean conviction that art must address itself both to lyrical and unlyrical matter (trout/ maggots);the piece demonstrates the ease of commerce between past and present (MP p194);
  • 23 triplets plus a single line; almost exclusively 10 syllable lines; 25 sentence structure (S below);
  • no formal rhyme scheme but an emerging pattern in first and third lines: some tight, some loose, some assonant echo; the last and anti penultimate lines given tight rhyme (trace … pace);
  • S1 the anonymous ‘someone’is defined by a string of adjectives’ so that’: cause and effect;
  • S3 vocabulary of violence, ‘might is right’; use of ‘yeomen’ determines the historical context;

  • S4 reference to actual literary work;

  • S5 reintroduces key-word ‘station’ used to describe responsibility from religious duty to position in life;

  • S7 comparison: human movement, that of a diving bird; start of dialogue; use of archaisms (cognizance) for period-colour; nature’s softening used to blunt Carleton’s anger;

  • S8: about dirty business: grotesque scene offers varied sense data; use of farming terms; allusion to the Augean stables of politics;

  • short, sharp sentences carry personality;

  • S13-15 introduce musical vocabulary to portray differing attitudes; Irish symbol (harp);

  • adjectives imply the powerless educational influence over tribal instinct or propaganda;

  • 17-21: quick-fire dialogue;
  • S22 lyrical picture contaminated by modern developments;
  • S23; alternative medicine;
  • man compared with the humblest of the humble as regards the extent of his significance;
  • the music of the poem: fifteen 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: in S1 listen for clusters of bilabial [p] [b] and alveolar [d] plosives, bilabial effect [w] and bilabial nasal [m]; later alveolar [t] and [tʃ] (challenged will recur later in the sound pattern); S2/3 use sibilant [s] and velar plosive [g], carried through with velar plosive pair [k] [g] and introducing nasals [m] [n] and post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] (shape) that will echo later; in S4/5 listen for fricatives: alveolar [s] and labio-dentals [f] [v]; note the unusual fricative combination into S6: [tʃ] [dʒ] (change. jerked) [ʃ] (sharply); S7 adds velar plosives [k] [g] with added pulses of alveolar plosive [t]; in S8 listen for alveolar trill [r] and mid-mouth plosives [k] [g] [t] preceding bilabial [b] [p]; alveolar pair [t] [d] persist in S9/10 alongside alveolar nasal [n]; S11 combines bilabials [w] and nasal [m], the latter retained in S12/13 with a breath of continuant [h] and trilled [r]; S14 pairs plosives: bilabial [p] [b] and alveolar [t] [d] and velar [k]; in S15 listen for labio-dental [f] and fricatives [s] [z]; S16 uses alveolar pair [t] [d] and voiceless velar [k] alongside the plural (s) sound; in S20/21 listen for velar plosive pair [k] [g]; S22 is rich in fricative variations: [s] [tʃ] (chestnut) [ʃ] (shells) paired with velar [k], before an injection of bilabial nasal [m] and alveolar plosives [t] [d]; [t] and [s] are prominent in S23 prior to a cluster of voiceless dental fricative [θ] (earth) in S24; bilabial [w] overlaps into the final S25;

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