The Underground

Heaney dramatises an incident from his honeymoon, dissolving a panicky rush into a version of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Underground and Underworld merge in a fusion of reality and nightmare.

A London Underground tunnel is the unifying factor: first a memory played out (then),the intimate recollection of a mad rush to get to a Promenade concert at the Albert Hall; the second and third providing (now) imagined associations: first a character from German folklore lost in a dark forest then the scene of an Underworld trap into which a figure from classical mythology fell and lost his wife as a result.

We follow two figures in a vaulted passageway leading to and from the Tube; the ‘she’ figure is a newly-wed in her going-away coat – unmistakeably Marie Heaney – and behind her the poet, her pursuer (like a fleet God) already in mythology mode, fearful of the unpleasant fate that could suddenly befall people in classical mythology: you turned to a reed or to some other thing of delicate beauty  (new white flower japped with crimson).

‘She’ sheds a trail of buttons as her coat flapped wild (having become ‘stones’ the buttons will later lead him back to her as his nightmare unfolds). Their pretext for being there is defined  (Honeymooning) with a touch of intimate secrecy added (moonlighting).

The event dissolves into fairy-story: Hansel seeking moonlit stones to lead his sister out of the dark forest. Our speaker is alone and insecure within an unwelcoming underground stage-set (draughty lamplit station) in the small hours (After the trains have gone). The situation is dangerously ‘electric’ and threatening (wet track/ Bared and tensed as I am). He needs the security of his wife’s presence (your step following) but dares not turn his head lest the mythological nightmare affecting Orpheus come true (damned if I’ll look back).

According to the legend Orpheus secured the rescue of Eurydice from Hades by charming Pluto with his music. To allow him to lead her back to the land of the living a condition was imposed: he must not look back. He did look back and lost her.

  • going-away: traditionally the clothes that a bride changed into before she left on honeymoon were referred to as such;
  • fleet: an adjective from Old Norse meaning ‘swift’;
  • japped: a descriptive participle reminiscent of decorative Japanese painting; part of the technique was to add warm touches to natural objects around the edges;
  • Underground: the contemporary rapid transit system (also known as the ‘Tube’) that links stations in London and Greater London uses over a dozen lines; Heaney employs the parallel of Dante’s 14th century epic poem depicting a journey through the hellish Underworld with its nine underground levels. The Heaneys were using the South Kensington station within ten minutes walk of the Albert Hall one of London’s principal music venues that hosts a classical music festival, known as the Proms (Promenade Concerts) each year between July and September;
  • moonlighting: use of the verbal form invites the more modern sense of being ‘up to no good at night’;
  • Hansel reference to the Grimm brothers’ fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel; Hansel laid a trail of white pebbles so that he and Gretel could find their way home after being abandoned in the forest by a wicked step-mother;
  • tensed: Heaney combines the mental strain and excitement affecting the individual with the dangers of electromagnetic forces associated with the electrified rails; bared adds the suggestion of exposed electric cables;
  • damned: both the sense of ‘doomed’ and the colloquial ‘damned if (‘certainly will not’)
  • Heaney comments on this first piece to DOD (p253):The last poem in Field Work, ‘Ugolino’, was an underground poem of a very different sort, so we’re into this next book at a run, head­ing up and away. I liked it because it seemed to have both truth to life and truth to love. It starts with a memory of running through a tunnel ( ) But in the end, the ‘damned if I look back’ line takes us well beyond the honeymoon. In this version of the story, Eurydice and much else gets saved by the sheer cussedness of the poet up ahead just keeping going.
  • From the outset of the collection dissonant notes trouble the harmony( )The excitement of the chase is captured beautifully, dramatic participles (‘running’, ‘speeding’, ‘gaining’) and emphatic verbs (‘japped’, ‘flapped’, ‘Sprang’,) ( ) He establishes a warm, intimate tone through his direct address to his wife, with his use of features from spoken English (‘There we were’, ‘And me, me then’, ‘damned if I look back’) and by the playful, erotic allusion to Pan’s pursuit of Syrinx. but distance and time make and mar the pleasure. Shared past tenses and first person plurals fade like ‘echoes in that corridor”MP (p184).
  • four quartets; a two-sentence structure; combination of enjambmen, with sporadic use of comma echoes the rush of the two figures and occasional stutters; unrhymed;
  • lines based loosely around ten syllables but variable length adds to the panicky rush;
  • the classical lexis of the classical/ fairy-tale story is woven into the London Tube scene: vaulted tunnels/ fleet god/ reed/ trail/ Hansel/ look back;
  • vocabulary of dark unpleasantness: draughty, lamplit/ wet; the danger to life of electricity: wet track/ Bared and tensed;
  • the music of the poem:thirteen principal 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: v1 has voiced and voiceless plosive sounds [d] [t]; then a pair of voiced velar plosive [g] God gaining; v2 introduces three labio- dental [f] and bilabial [w] alongside voiced and voiceless bilabial plosives [b] [p]; v3 has frequent bilabial nasal [m] alongside alveolar [l], velar plosive [k]; v4 features sibilant [s] sounds, alveolar plosive [t] and labio-dental fricatives [f] [v];
  • the danger implicit in the final phrase is met percussively using plosive [d] and [t]

4 thoughts on “The Underground

  1. ‘Moonlighting’ in the UK and Ireland also means doing some work outside a normal job, eg a lawyer who in his spare time from his day job moonlights as a DJ. I feel the sense of truancy and holiday in the poem is enhanced by this association.

    1. Hi,
      Thanks for commenting. You make a good point … it is part of the magic of poetry that offers new angles and perceptions to the mind of folk who engage with it. I’ll go back and see whether I can work what you say into my commentary (to be able to do so is, in itself, a big plus for blogs).
      All the best, David Fawbert

    1. I agree, Brian. The intellectual promise Heaney was born with + the classical education St Columbs offered him opened myriad doors and offered countless opportunities that he took advantage of … here the sense of insecurity Heaney was also born with finds expression.

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