Station Island – the Sequence IV

Heaney encounters the ghost of Terry Keenan whom he knew from childhood and who became a missionary father in the tropical rain forests. The certainty of Keenan’s religious convictions conflicts with Heaney’s lapsing/ lapsed status (the pilgrim stands with his backto the religious icons at the outset of the poem). The piece reflects upon religious certainty and the status of the priesthood in Irish society. The irony is that Keenan’s vocation led indirectly to his death.

The pilgrim stands hesitantly in the centre one of Station Island’s penitential ‘beds’ my back to the stone pillar and the iron cross. He ispoised to go through the motions of penitential routine: ready to say the dream words (imagined rather than real)I renounce … (the flesh, the world, the devil … life).

The sunlight blinding his vision (blurred swimmings) resolves into blurred oval prints of newly ordained faces from the pastand with ita picture of the family impact when a son achieves priestly status: ‘Father’ pronounced with a fawning relish/ the sunlit tears of parents being blessed.

Terry Keenan stands out glossy as a blackbird/ as if he had stepped from his anointing/ a moment ago. His priestly vestments are ‘regulation’ except for one incongruous detail: his fashionable real-world polished shoes/ unexpectedly secular.

His memory of Keenan has lain undisturbed for years neglected like an old bicycle wheel in a ditch suffering at the hands of time and climate beneath jungling briars andnow wet and perished.

Heaney has still to complete his act of renunciation: arms ( ) open wide/ but faced with the shade of a man who once repeated similar vows I could not say the word.

Keenan’s ghost recounts the trials of his short-lived foreign experiences in the tropical rain forest: I lasted only a couple of years amongst bare-breasted/ women and fat-ribbed men. The effect resembled the fate of the bicycle tyre (wasted … rotted). He tried to do what he was sent to do (Heaney creates an ingenious double-double meaning based on the duality of sweated, ‘perspired’ and ‘made huge efforts’ and masses both ‘Catholic services and ‘lots and lots’).

Keenan struggles for breath (the legacy of this period as later lines imply is malaria) as he describes the incongruity of the mission scene: sacred vessels (chalice)and churchLatin (in hoc signo)amidst native headdresses … steam off drenched creepers. The breathless intimation of death is enough for Heaney to abandon the act of renunciation altogether and stand aside for other (more serious) pilgrims.

He opens a dialogue reflecting on the Keenan he knew whilst he was still the clerical student home for the summer and formulates the self-destructive paradox of the young man’s vocational orientation: doomed to the decent thing.

The priestly impact on ordinary folk plus his own perception of Keenan as some sort of holy mascot has stretched Heaney’s credulity, He argues religious overkill (too much relief) andover-promotion: kitchen grottoes/ hung with holy pictures and crucifixes.

Keenan is keen to expose a perceived double standard, questioning Heaney’s presence on the island whe, unlike himself, the poet has had a lifetime in which to come to a decision: I at least was young and unaware/ that what I thought was chosen was convention. If Heaney has rejected religion (in the parlance: the god … as they say, withdrawn)why go through these motions.

The tropical sickness Keenan has contracted convulses him as he seeks an answer: he was short of breath/ and his whole fevered body yellowed and shook.

The last look he suggests Heaney is taking at his Catholicism generates a bleak, ironic memory of human aspiration bare as the roads/ we both had grown up besides. The mortally sick young priest is taking his own last look amidst seemingly eternal nature in all its beauty (first breath of spring,/ a knee-deep mist) and pursued on his final rounds of the neighbourhood by the eyes of the poet.

  • prints: copied photos;
  • fawning: Old English derivationoriginally suggestive of ‘exultation’ later of ‘courting favour’, ‘grovelling’, ‘acting subserviently’; Heaney offers both nuances;
  • glossy: to the original idea of ‘shiny’, ‘with a lustre’, may be added a nuance of ‘smoothness’, ‘glibness’;
  • anointing: refers to one act in the official consecration of a priest;
  • stole: a long robe worn scarf-like by clergymen;
  • cincture: a rope that girdles the waist;
  • alb: a white vestment worn by priests;
  • perished: said of materials (rubber, cloth) that disintegrate with age or neglect; this is also the first hint that Keenan has died;
  • chalice: ecclesiastical drinking-cup;
  • in hoc signo: ‘by this sign’ a Latin term used it the litany describing the spiritual significance of the drinking vessel in a communion;
  • missions: the Catholic Church has traditionally invested money and energy into evangelical missions seeking the conversion of heathens in foreign (largely Third World) countries; in this case such a mission is used as a test of faith;
  • renunciation: simplistically put, ‘giving up sin’;
  • ratified: feeling ‘confirmed’, ‘formally approved of’, in receipt of the religious ‘seal of approval’;
  • mascot: talisman, (good luck) charm;
  • grottoes: hidden or special places where, for example, in Catholic households, religious icons might be exhibited;
  • withdrawn: the feeling of emptiness or despair in believers when they can no longer sense God’s presence;
  • circuits: priests rounds, akin to a doctor’s or to a policeman’s ‘beat’ around a particular neighbourhood;
  • What prevents Heaney from completing his renunciation is a hazy image to which he gives definition, and his conviction that the World, the Flesh and the Devil should not be renounced, but rather accepted, relished and confronted(MP pp196-7);
  • the old forgotten bicycle wheel becomes a metonym for Keenan himself trapped under ‘jungling briars’ (ibid);
  • Heaneys’ empathy for a fellow Catholic victim and the terrible price he paid is mixed with anger at the Church and the priest’s connivance with it (ibid);
  • (Heaney) is striving to ‘disentangle the soul’ from what he sees as the pernicious element in his own and the collective Catholic past, in order to clear the ground for future growth (ibid);
  • a priest who had died on the foreign missions shortly after his ordination and Terry Keenan, still a clerical student when Heaney knew him as Heaney explores ratifying role of the priesthood in Ireland and its effect on the priest himself (‘doomed to do the decent thing’)(NC p117);
  • MP refers to the binary opposites (of IV) the ‘blurred swimmings’ of poetic sight that contrast with the seemingly fixed certainty of the Catholic faith ( ) his conviction that the Word, the Flesh and the Devil should not be renounced, but rather accepted, relished and confronted … clashes with orthodox Catholic ‘truths’ … young priests as a group responding to the call of parental piety or ambition… had allowed themselves, body, mind and spirit, to be taken in by ‘dream words (p196);
  • Heaney returns to private spaces to focus on death faith and innocence (MP p195);
  • NC picks out canto IV as an example where clericalism thwarts the lives of those who represent it; In the broader context Catholicism is heavily implicated in the poet’s adolescence of sexual dissatisfaction and guilt and in his unease and regret about his lack of any firmer political commitment (p119);
  • Heaney uses his ‘own version’ of Dantean terza rima, here and in other ‘cantos’ of the collection’s poems (MP p196-7);
  • 19 triplets (T) and a single line in a 32 sentence (S below) construct; the grouping of sentences varies and with it the rhythm and flow, the longest 6 lines, others 2 or 3 to the triplet; the rhythm further influenced by plentiful use of enjambed lines;
  • line length based largely around 10 syllables; no rhyme scheme but a rhyme links the final line with the second previous to it;
  • S1: watery imagery used to suggest uncertainty of conscience if not memory;; S2 vocabulary of emotional and dutiful responses to the priest figure; simile likens priest to blackbird; contrast drawn between specifically described official garb and the man within;S4 time lapse and memory couched in rural image; juxtaposition of ‘jungling briars’ announces the priest’s trying experiences;
  • S6-14 is structurally hectic mimicking the delivery of the priest’s story; use of compound phrases and vocabulary of deterioration: both surroundings and personal health; play on words: ‘sweated masses’, both humidity and spiritual demands of foreign missionary duties;
  • S14 equatorial vocabulary; S18:’s paradox and irony: ‘doomed to do the decent thing’; the man is already dead as a result of his ordeal;
  • S21: comparison of priest with trophy sheds light on the priest’s status within the minds of many; S22: use of military style phraseology depicts salvation brought to those who see their belief threatened by the world outside; the ghost’s questions in S23/24 are deliberately appropriate to the poet’s ‘crise de conscience’; S24/30 represent a flurry of statements delivered staccato;
  • final use of pathetic fallacy accords nature’s responses with memories of a man now dead;
  • the music of the poem: twelve 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 Triplet 1 listen for the combination of bilabial plosives [p] [b] and sibilants and the emerging alveolar trill [r]; in T2 labio-dental fricative [f] precedes injection of alveolar plosive [t] that carries into T3; in T4 listen for voiceless alveolar fricative [s], post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] (polished) and velar plosive [k]; alveolar nasal [n] has a strong presence in T5 alongside plosives [b] [d] [t]; in T6 listen for initial bilabial continuant [w] and velar [k] that run over into T7 with its beats of alveolar plosive [t]; T8 sends out a series of variant (s) (sh) sounds; T9 uses multiple nasals : bilabial [m] and alveolar [n]; T10 consonant sounds centre round velar [k] and bilabial [w]; T11 plays with labio-dental plosives [v] [f] and T12 has a pattern of alveolar plosives [d] [t] preceding a cluster of alveolar fricative [s] in T13; in T14 listen for trill [r] and velar plosives [k] [g]; continuant [w] is conspicuous in T15, T16 and T17; in T18 listen for initial alveolar [l] alongside the plosives [b] [d]; the final four lines are rich in sibilant [s] previous plosives and velar [k].

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