Station Island – the Sequence XII

The returning pilgrim is setting foot on the mainland still filled with the memories and echoes of his three-day pilgrimage and still beset by the host of personal questions and doubts that have remained unanswered. The ghost he meets will tell Heaney in no uncertain terms that his anxieties serve no purpose. Clues from the text reveal this final ghost to be that of James Joyce, confirmed by Heaney in his notes.

Drained by his experience and stepping ashore Like a convalescent from the Station Island ferry the returning pilgrim accepted a helping hand and sensed again/ an alien comfort. The stranger’s fish-cold and bony grip does not release his hand but whether to guide/ or to be guided is not yet clear.

Heaney sifts through the clues as to the identity of the man walking in step beside him, automaton-like, appearing sightless; yet erect (straight as a rush), supported by a walking-stick, his eyes fixed straight ahead.

Then on the tarmac among the cars comes recognition in the flesh of a man out of his time-zone, his nature wintered hard and sharp as a blackthorn bush. Heaney recalls the voice before ever the man speaks, eddying with the vowels of all rivers … like a prosecutor’s or a singer’s and the persona that the voice reveals: cunning, narcotic, mimic, definite/ as a steel nib’s downstroke.

Joyce’s first utterance is preceded by an act of violence (suddenly he hit a litter-basket/ with his stick), heralding strong disapproval of Heaney’s decision to ‘clear the decks’ by sharing a a ritual pilgrimage with others: Your obligation/ is not discharged by any common rite.

Heaney will fulfil his ambitions on your own; he needs to buckle down to the task: so get back in harness. Joyce’s lecture demands passionate commitment: writing for the joy of it … a work-lust; he urges senses unleashed and imagination left to wander at will: like your hands at night/ dreaming the sun in the sunspot of a breast.

The pilgrim’s penitent’s deprivations have left him light-headed, dangerousproviding the ideal springboard and the appropriate moment to shed earnest care, to abandon repentance, to give creativity his all, to take flight: Let go, let fly, forget. Joyce’s final imperative is musical: make your individual voice heard : Now strike your note.

Heaney requires nothing more than the confirmation of his deepest convictions; he is renewed, ratified: Raindrops blew in my face/ as I came to. He responds with huge respect quoting a pivotal incident from Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (its date, time and the character who delivers the message) and its impact on him: Joyce has provided him with the impetus to shed his Catholic orthodoxy and reveal a new self: a sort of password in my ears/ the collect of a new epiphany.

Joyce scornfully dismisses Heaney’s respect for him: he jeered. Joyce pulls no punches: raking at dead fires is out of date, a fruitless pursuit at your age. Catholic propaganda is swallowed by fools (a cod’s game) and childish (Infantile, like your peasant pilgrimage).Behaving ‘properly’ and toeing the orthodox line is self-emasculating: You lose more of yourself than you redeem/ doing the decent thing.

His imperatives include a welter of images and sense data: do not follow the crowd (Keep at a tangent); make use of every available opportunity to act singly (swim out on your own); produce your own individual music (fill the element/ with signatures on your own frequency) add your own ‘musical’ dynamics: echo-soundings, searches, probes, allurements/ elver-gleams in the dark of the whole sea.

His message delivered, Joyce makes a dramatic (straight walk) exit from the stage accompanied by an elemental crescendo: shower becomes cloudburst becomes the downpour into which he disappears and as if to match the ‘fire and brimstone’ of his comments the tarmac fumed and sizzled.

  • rush: a marshy plant that grows erect even in strong wind;
  • ash plant: Irish reference to ‘walking-stick’;

  • blackthorn: a small tree also known as the sloe, wrinkled, gnarled with sharply pointed spines;

  • nib: the sharp end of a pen or quill for writing, so called because of its resemblance to a bird’s beak;

  • The pen ’s downstroke recalls Joyce ‘s poetic voice ; is also a characteristic of Irish lyric in general; the downstroke is the first step in the act of writing; the word also denotes the musical conductor’s first beat to start each piece or each bar;
  • sackcloth and ashes: the wearing of coarse, uncomfortable garments alongside the ash of burnt wood was both a sign of mourning for personal loss and an act of repentance required on pilgrimages;
  • ‘Feast of the Holy Tundish’ refers to a moment when Stephen Dedalus is freed from his sense of inferiority by the discovery that the Dean of Studies who had mocked him for his use of an ‘irishism’ (‘tun’ is ‘funnel’ in English mainland usage) turns out to be both ignorant and arrogant (MP p204);
  • collect: a short Catholic prayer uttered on the day to which is specifically assigned;
  • echo sounding: a sophisticated method of establishing the depth of water or of an object in water by sending out sound pulses and timing the echo so as to be able to calculate depth;
  • allurements: the means or act of attracting or appealing to someone;
  • elver: young eel;
  • the return to the mainland features the ghost of James Joyce who urges the complete opposite of the orthodoxy of collective pilgrimage in favour of individualism and isolation without which poetic creativity cannot flourish; Joyce … recommends a course antithetical to that of the orthodox Catholic pilgrimage, a striking out on one’s own in an isolation which, he claims, the only way the poet’s proper work can be done NC (p118);
  • Joyce is Heaney’s most important guide bearing the emblem of paternal authority, an ashplant, offering the clearest, straightest of directions (urging Heaney to) abandon the earnest, penitential mode, promoting an antithetical individualistic view of the poet’s role and responsibilities, stressing self-assertion and the dream of lyric fulfilment when faced with orthodox Catholic ‘virtues’ of self-abasement, collective solidarity, self denial. ( )Restored from torpor and exhaustion ( ) Heaney feels ratified (MP p203-4);
  • This mystical impulse—embedded in the sanctified symbols of ordinary life, water and bread—is modified by the poet’s final encounter, with Joyce, his “voice eddying with the vowels of all rivers.” (Note Heaney’s intricate motif patterns: eddies, streams, rivers course Shaun O’Connellin the February 1985 issue of Boston Review
  • after the Joyce meeting Heaney is implicitly the repository of a new kind of personal and cultural health; Carleton and Joyce are highly politicized artists offering, on the mainland, their alternatives to the orthodoxies of the island NC (p121);
  • the music of the poem: thirteen 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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