Station Island – the Sequence X


During Morning stir in the hostel on Station Island the ‘ghost’ of a drinking-mug drifts into the pilgrim’s sight.

The communal cooking-area is primitive: pot/ hooked on forged links. Soot flakes. Plumping water … open door … hearthsmoke rambling. The heavy thuds of clay utensils take him back in time: a familiar object materialises (the mug). It is beyond his physical reach but clearly recognisable via the motif repeated around it: patterned in cornflower. It has survived across many years as a silent witness, quiet as a milestone It might beaged perhaps (old and glazed and haircracked) but it is still intact in its patient sheen and turbulent atoms. It isa passive, long-neglected household god: unchallenging, unremembered lars that the pilgrim seemed to waken to and waken from.

A significant event surfaces in his mind: the occasion when mug was lent for a theatre production (fit-up actors used it as a prop)’ It became part of different narrative that left him temporarily estranged; its moment of fame was short-lived; it lapsed ordinary when the final curtain droppedand it was returned undamaged to the Heaney household: Dipped and glamoured from this translation … restored … still dozing … its parchment glazes intact.

The memory acts as a cue for the legendary preservation of Bishop Ronan’s psalm-book in Sweeny Astray (see the note below).This dazzle of the impossible provides the catalyst that extinguishes any vestiges of Catholic faith: a sun glare/ to put out the small hearths of constancy. The safe return of a drinking-mug is one thing, belief in miracles is quite another.

  • mug: a solid drinking vessel with a handle;
  • plumping: Heaney uses the term to describe water at boiling point; the word emits a kind of bubbling fullness;
  • sprig: the pattern, repeated around the mug is of cornflower sprays including the flower-head
  • haircracked: with fine cracks in the coating material, paint or glaze; not damage to the clay or porcelain itself;
  • lars: the singular form of lares, ancient deities from Roman times said to protect the hearth and thereby the home as a whole;
  • loving cup: 19th century phrase; a two-handled drinking vessel shared by a couple;
  • parchment glazes: a ceramic technique for special effect;
  • fast: Old English word faest meaning ‘secure’, ‘intact’
  • Ronan: Heaney’s translation, Sweeney Astray,recounts the story of the otter that recovers bishop Ronan Finn’s psalter, miraculously intact, from the lake into which the irascible Sweeney had thrown it;
  • psalter: a religious book of psalms;
  • both the mug in canto X and the kaleidoscope in XI are magic vessels through which the restorative rites of Art can be enacted … for the adult poet it becomes a richly accessible symbol … of cultural origins to be treasured in Mossbawn. Its use in dramatic fiction outside the home and safe return helped to transform the whole audience’s apprehension of reality (MP p202-3);
  • the mug is an inanimate ghost … returned by the local drama group just as Ronan’s psalter is miraculously returned. It becomes another symbol for ( ) the unexpected translations which the known, ordinary and domestic may undergo (NC p118);
  • seven quatrains (Q) constructed in 12 sentences; sentences of 9/ 10 syllables;
  • no formal scheme but a pattern of alternate-line pairs of loose rhymes emerges;
  • Q1-3: initially the eye blinks from object to object before settling into a series of enjambed lines; adjectives and nouns are paired; the use of sense data broadens from visual to sound; appearance of the mug initially objective moves into comparison; its symbolism is classical; vocabulary both of what is tangible then intangible; interesting use of prepositions;
  • Q4-7: the initial question receives an answer; an emotional relationship with the object is suggested by ‘estranged’; textures described; comparison with an incident from ‘Sweeney Astray’; imagery of miracles and religious glow;
  • the music of the poem: fourteen 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; 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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