A nameless ‘foreign correspondent’ –let us call him ‘Correspondent’ – reports back on an unnamed land. For all its anonymity, however, we recognise the voice as ‘Heaney’s and his unspoken nowhere as his own land, the island of Ireland. As it develops the poem will reflect deeply and emotionally on the notion of Irish nationhood.
Heaney very much regrets that those who would might have wished to change the face of Irishness failed and still fail to change the ‘language’.
Correspondent reports first on a neighbouring ‘elsewhere’ (I have heard of) – read ‘France’ – where something ‘absolute’ emerged from its scientific thinking: a unit of length fixed in a durable bar of platinum, accurate to within a few millimeters as it turns out, produced by an intellectually forward and communicative people (logical and talkative nation) – by implication the intellectual base lacking his own nation.
This benchmark (standard of measurement) held good in every circumstance (every calculation and prediction) from the sumptuous trappings of the Ancien Régime (throne room) to the restrictive proportions of post mortem (burial chamber).
Correspondent would have felt at ease (at home … slumbering) within its intellectual turbine (inside that metal core) and enlightened development (very hub of systems).
He turns towards and identifies with his own race (we… us) … scattered to the four winds (dispersed people) … with a disrupted evolution (history) that succeeded in undermining self-belief but never eroded the sensation of solid if nebulous Irishness (sensation of opaque fidelity).
Correspondent speaks with great feeling: separation and dispersion (when or why our exile began) triggered by physical invaders and the power of the English language (speech-ridden) that excluded indigenous Irish cannot snuff out the emotional welling-up of the Irish heart (solidarity comes flooding up) at any mention of fabulous tales of Romantic Ireland – legends of infants dispatched in coracles towards some better place (destiny) or the remains of legendary Celtic monarchs (kings’ biers) aboard boats bearing them (heaved and borne away), on river’s shoulders to some distant horizon (sea roads).
Being Irish is a herd instinct (recognize our own … fall in step) that, using litotes, conceals a wide range of differences (not altogether come up level).
Heaney rrecalls two moments of deepest contact with his Irish heritage: the first during student days’ summer work (three levels below the street, so ‘deepest’) on crowded London transport (underground strap-hanging back to back on a rush-hour train), so poignantly expressed twelve years on in the title poem of District and Circle (‘the only relict of all that I belonged to’); the second (in a museum once) buoyed by the springtime fragrance and sensuality of a pure blooded mid-Ulster wife (I inhaled vernal assent from a neck and shoulder) as she feigned interest (pretending to be absorbed) in Neolithic Irish artefacts (absolutely silent quernstones).
Scrutinizing the things Correspondent took for granted (unspoken assumptions) revealed hidden truths to him (force of revelation) as to the dwindling of the Irish experience. Heaney rounds on those who are part of the process – those who from the outset (the first of us) go along with power and political influence (assent and votes) in a society where wealth is all (rich democracy) are the ones hammering the final nail (last of us) into the coffin of shared Irish legacy (killed our language).
Those who would wish to change the situation must first change the language. Using an extended metaphor Correspondent appeals for direct action, urging those who say they believe in Irishness to credit what it actually is – a physical reality (sight of a fish) and not just some idea that it is there somewhere – the sound of its splash (heard jumping) or signs that it has been and gone (its ripples). Omission, he avers, will sentence Irishness to incremental oblivion (one more of us is dying somewhere).
- unspoken: unstated, voiceless, silent;
- platinum; relatively rare silvery-white metal originating in South America; for 10 years after the French Revolution (1789) thirst for change led to the introduction of the metre as a unit of measurement (now almost universal) based on a bar of platinum kept in Paris;
- The seismic political and societal events ofThe French Revolution that began in 1789 and ended in the late 1790s with the ascent of Napoleon Bonaparte were accompanied by the much less well-known but equally revolutionary scientific development to which Heaney alludes admiringly in ‘From the Land of the Unspoken’.
- For those interested in learning more about Heaney’s reference to the ‘bar of platinum’, I recommend Graham Robb’s ‘The Discovery of France’ (Picador 2007). Robb devotes a chapter (pp187-201) to the trailblazers who mapped France in the 1790s, whose work would produce a standard measurement of length and effectively launch the decimal system used widely today:
- … Delambre submitted his results at the world’s first international scientific conference, held in Paris on 2 February 1799. A metre-long bar of pure platinum was presented to the National Assembly in April. This was to be the permanent standard metre ‘for all people, for all time’ … supposed to be one ten-millionth of the distance from the North Pole to the Equator … That bar of platinum was a monument to one of the great expeditions of the age. Like all great expeditions, the journey along the meridian discovered far more than the explorers set out to find (p 193)
- core: part central to a fruit, existence or character;
- hub: central point around which things revolve;
- opaque: non-transparent;
- ridden: full of something deemed oppressive, bad;
- coracle: primitive small round boat of animal skin stretched over a wooden frame;
- bier: frame used to transport coffins to the graveside;
- fall in step: walk with the same rhythm as others;
- strap: strong leather loop attached to a frame on public transport;
- vernal: of/ in spring;
- quernstones: pairs of flat circular stones from the Neolithic period onwards used, for example, for grinding cereal to flour;
- 4 extended verses + 1 line, variable line-length 8-12 syllables; unrhymed
- unintended (?) pun: assent/ a scent.
- assonant effects: [ʌ] platinum…slumbering…hub…flooding…discovered…unspoken assumptions…could; [æ] a logical…as…standard…strap hanging back to back…last…and have…language; [ei] nation…chamber…calculation…train… inhaled…display; [i] dispersed…history is…fidelity; [i:] people…history…fidelity…solidarity…deepest…museum…meanwhiule…we…see…means; [əʊ] throne… home…unspoken…know…votes
- alliterative chains: front of mouth [h] [l] [w]; reprises of alveolar [t/d], bilabial [p/b], velar [k/g] nasals [m/n], sibilants [s/z/sh], labio-dental [f/v];
- HV comments on the ‘intended genre’ of the ‘From…’ quartet: Generational conflict is, as ‘From the Canton of Expectation’ demonstrates, centrally a matter of conflicting styles; and the same can be said of cultural conflict in which even a habit of reticence and a habit of garrulity – as Heaney tells us in ‘From the Land of the Unspoken’ – can cause a crucial division. Turning the material world of politics into the immaterial world of cultural habit is one of the strategies of these poems (125)
- NC The four poems whose titles begin with the word ‘From’ (‘From the Frontier of Writing’, ‘From the Republic of Conscience’, ‘From the Land of the Unspoken’, ‘From the Canton of Expectation’) in The Haw Lantern could be called strange letters too, letters here in the sense of fictional missives or messages from a foreign correspondent travelling in mysterious and dangerous places … They are all, indeed, ‘dislocated geopolitical phantasmagorias’, even if the island of Ireland and the configuration of Northern Ireland seem within hailing distance of their political and topographical nowhere (147);
- This concept of poetry as the place of conscientiously responsible speech is accompanied in ‘From the Land of the Unspoken’ by the testimony of implicit recognitions – where even the spoken word is unnecessary – among ‘a dispersed people whose history / is a sensation of opaque fidelity’. This need not be limited to, but would certainly include, the members of the Irish diaspora, the Irish abroad. The poem regards them as in imminent danger of losing this kind of fidelity and solidarity by being dispersed irretrievably into the absorptive processes of ‘a rich democracy’, presumably the irresistible force of American money and power (NC150);
- Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to.
- the music of the poem: thirteen 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;
- syllables without highlight are largely the unstressed sound as in common, little [ə]
- alliterative effects allow pulses or beats, soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies; this is sonic engineering of the first order;
- a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;