Station Island – the Sequence XI

A poem celebrating the retrieval and the re-energising of the self showcases Heaney’s huge talent for translation in his version of a mystical 16th century poem by San Juan de la Cruz. It suggests that everything can be explained without the necessity of God being present.

The piece begins with the As if repeated three times in the final sonnet of canto IX. The poet dares imagine that his latent aspirations and talents, his prisms of the kaleidoscope once clouded by obstacles imposed on his formative years have emerged with astonishing potential: like a marvellous lightship.

The ghostly face appears of a monk who once confessed Heaney frombehind a grille. The confessor’s lecture to a doubting, nay, lapsed soul is set out. He tells Heaney: to recognise the need and chance to salvage everything; to envision the high point of what he has turned your back on (the glimpsed jewels of any gift/ mistakenly abased); to find a way back to faith. He bids Heaney to inject spiritual messages into his poetry and, in the guise of penance, to use Juan de la Cruz as his exemplar.

Heaney’s memory of the priest is still clear: his return from Spain to a less attractive Irish climate (our chapped wilderness); the way he spoke and his facial appearance. At the time the future poet came over his confessor as a relatively untroubled young man (he made me feel there was nothing to confess); now, stirred by the priest’s sandalled passage, Heaney produces the fruit of his penance: his version of a John of the Cross poem.

John’s symbol of faith is the fountain, a metaphor that extends through the piece offering hope to the soul in darkness: in brief 1 accepts that acknowledgement of the existence of ‘faith’ is not in itself enough; 2 concedes the need to find the place where faith hides; 3 confirms the mystery of a prime-mover, all sources’ source and origin; 4 offers faith as a unique unifying factor: earth and heaven drink their fill; 5 asserts that faith is a spotless, untarnishable source of light; 6 asserts using maritime imagery that faith is limitless; 7 that faith has the irresistible life-giving momentum of water; 8 that its second force gives it infinite reach; 9 that a third faith-force is stronger than all others; 10 that within the living bread that is our life, faith’s fountain hides and splashes us; 11 asserts that every creature who hears its voice partakes of the water of faith although it is dark here. The final lines confirm the unshakeable faith of San Juan de la Cruz I am repining for this living fountain/ Within this bread of life I see it plain/ although it is night.

Heaney leaves a riddle to be solved. Who is speaking? Clearly the poet has his own void to fill; in that sense the poem he has translated offers a secular as well as a religious interpretation. In summary, if it has no relevance to the process of self renewal that Heaney is going through then the inclusion of a prayer amongst so much anti Catholic material would be incongruous.

  • prism: an optical instrument (traditionally triangular)that refracts light, separating it into different wave-lengths that show up as different colours;
  • kaleidoscope: literally ‘an observer of beautiful forms’, a 19th century invention based on the telescope that, by twisting part of the cylinder changed the position of coloured fragments that were internally reflected and produced the ‘constantly changing symmetrical patterns’, hence the figurative use of the word;
  • butt: a barrel-shaped water-container;
  • zenith: ‘highest point’ as opposed to nadir (lowest point); astronomical associations;
  • Juan de la Cruz: (1542 – 1591), John of the Cross, Spanish mystic, Catholic saint, poet; his mystical book Dark Night of the Soul describes the soul’s journey from ‘dark night’ to the ‘divine union of the love of God’ and offers encouragement and comfort to those struggling with faith or the downtrodden and discouraged;
  • chapped: reference to skin cracks caused by exposure to the elements;
  • aspirate: exhaling breath as one sounds the letter ‘H;
  • although it is the night: see above; Heaney uses the phrase as a refrain encouraging transformation of a doubting soul;
  • pellucid: from a Latin word meaning ‘transparent’;
  • sounding-line: a rope with which to measure, fathom, probe the depth of water or other liquid;
  • repining: the ‘re’ is an intensive prefix strengthening the notion of ‘yearning’;
  • the poem-prayer is not quite a prayer in orthodox terms;
  • the kaleidoscope resurfaces as a metonym for Heaney’s future poems; the promise of resurrection pervades the rest of the poem (MP p202-3);
  • In John’s message that the individual soul goes through ‘the dark night’ to find God it is only the final destination that jars; in Heaney’s case his journey ‘through the dark night’ is a means to finding a new self;
  • seventeen triplets (T) in an 18-sentence construct; variable line length dictated largely by the translation of the 16th century text that begins in T6; a faint pattern of rhymes emerges based on the echoing refrain that completes each stanza;
  • T1-6: initial dabbling in the science of light; contrast between what is murky and what outshines the murk;; scene melts into a previous confession; it mimics what was heard using enjambed lines and includes free indirect speech; direct speech sets the challenge of translation; neat description of the effect of cold on the human skin transfers the epithet: ‘chapped wilderness’; the poem itself is a prayer loaded with standard symbolism drawn from natural parallels leading into trans-substantiation;
  • the music of the poem: eleven 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.

  • St John of the Cross’s Cantar del Alma que se huelga de conoscer Dios por fe

(word-for-word translation: ‘song of the soul that is glad to know God by faith’)

Que bien sé yo la fuente que mana y corre,

Aunque es de noche.

Aquella eterna fuente está escondida,

Qué bien sé yo do tiene su manida.

Aunque es de noche.

Su origen no lo sé, pues no le tiene,

Mas sé que todo origen de ella viene,

Aunque es de noche.

Sé que no puede ser cosa tan bella.

Y que cielos y tierra beben de ella,

Aunque es de noche.

Bien sé que suelo en ella no se halla,

Y que ninguno puede vadealla.

Aunque es de noche.

Su claridad nunca es oscurecida.

Y sé que toda luz de ella es venida,

Aunque es de noche.

Sé ser tan caudalosas sus corrientes,

Que infiernos, cielos riegan, y a las gentes,

Aunque es de noche.

El corriente que nace de esta fuente

Bien sé yo que es tan capaz y [omnipotente]3,

Aunque es de noche.

El corriente que de estas dos procede

Sé que ninguna de ellas le precede,

Aunque es de noche.

Aquesta eterna fuente está escondida,

En este vivo pan por darnos vida.

Aunque es de noche.

Aquí se está llamando a las criaturas,

Y de esta agua se harten, aunque a oscuras,

Aunque es de noche.

Aquesta viva fuente, que deseo,

En este pan de vida yo la veo,

Aunque es de noche.

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