Station Island – the Sequence V


The poet encounters three figures who have influenced his personal development.

The first is with an old man finding forward momentum difficult: his hands, like soft paws rowing, who groped for and warded off the air ahead. He is identified first by name and then by schoolmaster status: Barney … Master. Murphy’s debilitated shuffle and weakened voice are shadows of his former self: bulling in sudden rage all over again. Respectfully Heaney fell in behind, knowing his place, a lesser mortal, like a man lifting swathes at a mower’s heels.

Murphy’s sockless feet are reminiscent of Nature exhibits in the Primary classroom where he worked: the dried broad bean that split its stitches in the display jar.

The pilgrim’s polite opening word is the same as that uttered once by shy faces that queued to address their Head Teacher as ‘Master’ spokenjust loudly enough for the ghost to hesitate: he stopped but did not turn or move,/ his shoulders gone quiet and small, his head/ vigilant. Heaney overtakes the old man to present himself full-face and to shake the his hand.

Barney Murphy is dressed as of old with winged collar; he possesses an old man’s mottled face, is hesitantly distant in a smile and bears an old man’s voice that husked and scraped an old-fashioned welcomebefore it retreated into the limbo and dry urn of the larynx.

The pump-like external movement of his adam’s apple …yielded nothing to help the helpless smile. Lack of verbal communication is replaced by a series of Heaney’s timeless rural associations with Master Murphy: Morning field smells … the sex-cut of sweetbriar after rain,/ new-mown meadow hay, bird’s nests filled with leaves.

Heaney’s respect for Murphy’s responsibilities as school principal (purgatory enough for any man … You’ve done your station) brings a still, small response from the old man, no more than a little trembling as his breath/ rushed the air softly as scythes in his lost meadows.His regret focuses on the neglect that has befallen his school since he retired.

The ghost dissolves leaving Heaney symbolically facing in the opposite direction towards the other pilgrims absorbed in their spiritual pursuits. Heaney is refreshed by the memory of Latin classes that Murphy freely offered him; they sharpened his intellect like a busy whetstone and helped him through the entrance exam to St Columb’s College, in Derry.

A second master (almost certainly Michael McLaverty who provided Heaney with a Teacher Training placement in Belfast and had an uncle in Heaney’s neck of the woods) spoke reiterating Gerard Manley Hopkins’s assertions that the moving power and spring of verse (the impulses at the root of poetic creativity) are feeling, and in particular, love; he illustrates his own ‘feeling’ and ‘love’ of his Ulster neighbourhood via a description of water he drank on a pilgrimage to the uncle’s farm last year.

Heaney has recognised the man thanks to his rubbed quotation … his cocked bird’s eye dabbing for detail and his clothing (belted gaberdine). The master’s parting advice offers a new angle on everyday human activity: When you’re on the road  give lifts to people, you’ll always learn something.

Finally a third fosterer slack-shouldered and clear eyed. Old photographs of Patrick Kavanagh confirm the narrowness and the fall-away of his shoulders. Subsequent direct speech in the text confirms his identity using simple arithmetic: Kavanagh’s Lough Derg was published in 1942 and Heaney’s Station Island collection in 1984, Forty-two years on and you’ve got no farther! His assertion is ironic: Heaney has retained the same anxieties as ever.

Kavanagh’s parting shot places a much earthier explanation of the pilgrim’s presence on Station Island: ‘In my own day the odd one came here on the hunt for women.’

  • bulling: Heaney blends semantic colour shades: a voice timbre that had something of the bovine male’s bellow about it also showed a hint of bullishness, a bull-dozing temperament tuned interrupt others;
  • Master: the formof polite address equivalent to ‘Sir ‘ in English schools;
  • winged collar: a starched collar the tips of which stand up and point horizontally to resemble wings; relatively common in the 1940s;
  • mottled: probably derived from 14th c. ‘motley’, ‘of mixed colouring’;
  • husked: a neologism possibly borrowed from ‘husky’ meaning ‘hoarse’ and paired appropriately with scraped with its slightly different resonance;
  • limbo: a Dantean region said to exist on the edge of Hell; from the Latin word limbus, ‘edge’;
  • larynx: the tube-shaped organ in the throat that contains the vocal cords;
  • adam’s apple: the projecting swelling in the male throat that moves up and down, for example, when swallowing;
  • plunger: the part that moves up and down within the cylinder of a pump and by creating a vacuum beneath itself draws up water from below;
  • sex-cut: the adjective raises more questions than it answers. Given that Heaney is always deliberate in his use of language, he selects sex-cut as part of a sentence rich in sense data: the fragrant leaves, bright pink flowers, and scarlet hips of the sweetbriar (eglantine) make for an extremely sensual plant. The ‘cut’ of a thing or a person is something about them, a tangible quality that others find attractive. It could also be an early ‘marker’: Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘parting shot’ alludes to young male pilgrims whose motivation for being on Station Islands has less to do with penitence and more to do with girls (canto VI will pursue the theme of sexual experience);
  • Anahorish School: Heaney’s first school close to his home;
  • purgatory: originally ‘a place of cleansing’, later a mythological (Dantean) place of punishment;
  • scythes: agricultural tools for cutting grass by hand comprising a long blade and a wooden handle requiring both hands;
  • Leitrim Moss: the spot where the school was situated;
  • mensa, mensam: technically a Latin female noun meaning ‘table’, known as ‘first declension’, here in its Nominative (subject) and Accusative (direct object) forms; Heaney introduces them here to pay tribute to the classical knowledge that Master Murphy, Principal of his Primary school, was able to share with him in preparation for the entrance exam to St Columb’s College that Heaney would pass; an essential first step en route to the glittering prizes that would follow;
  • whetstone: a stone used to sharpen a blade or a chisel;
  • rubbed; ‘polished’;
  • cocked: an eye that has changed shape so as to indicate concentration;
  • dabbing: used todescribe a bird-like action; the light strike of its beak;
  • gaberdine: alternatively ‘gabardine’, a tough closely woven protective garment, for example, raincoat;
  • Dordogne: an area of SW France popular as a British holiday/ second home destination;
  • parting shot: used figuratively to refer to the final assertive, percussive comment of a departing person at the end of a heated discussion;
  • Gerard Manley Hopkins: the quotation is from a Letter to Robert Bridges of February 15th, 1879 from St Giles in Oxford (‘The Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins to Robert Bridges’, Oxford University Press, 1955)
  • Patrick Kavanagh (1904-67), Irish poet novelist and essayist regarded by Heaney as a mentor; Barney Murphy: principal of Anahorish Primary School attended by Heaney in his formative years;
  • the identity of the second mentor is elusive;
  • Kavanagh is a ‘subversive shade’ … challenging the poet’s old allegiances; … Colloquial, comic, full of easy intimacy his ‘parting shot’ prepares the way for canto VI’s focus on secular secrets, sexual growth (MP pp183);
  • Master Murphy is firmly rooted in the old culture of Co. Derry and the images describing him are generally connected with fertility, energy and rural labour (ibid p197);
  • For MP canto V explores the rôle of disciple (p197);
  • Heaney refers to Kavanagh as slack-strung (DOD p238);
  • Heaney adds to the Murphy picture: ‘the added strangeness of seeing the master in his shirstsleeves (DOD p244);
  • a 32-sentence construct arranged in 3 long sections of unequal length; 63 lines in all;
  • largely 10 syllable lines but many exceptions; no formal rhyme scheme but a number of paired rhymes at apparently random intervals;
  • numerous short sentences and longer ones with enjambed lines help determine the ebb and flow of rhythm and oral delivery;
  • some direct speech that mimics the characters speaking; a quotation borrowed from Hopkins;
  • in Section 1: initial comparison of the old man’ hands; vocabulary of debilitation; the old man, a stickler for polite behaviour, corrects the over-familiar ex-pupil, italics used to emphasise; rural analogy establishes seniority; visual and sound effects in the classroom of old; touch is introduced as the first section ends;
  • Section 2: close description of a man’s voice; adjective ‘husky’ becomes a verb; comparison of anatomical detail with rural pump; injection of lyrical references appealing to the emotions; sound comparison: old man’s breath and rural grass-cutter; vocabulary regretting neglect of old scene; sound comparison: Latin chant and knife blade on sharpening tool;
  • Section 3: wistful outset with spiritual input; temperature effect on the human face; characterisation of master by his expressions; comparison of master and bird; final master whose forthright expressions reveal a potential truth;
  • 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:

  • 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; most of them 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.

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