The story bears similarities to a snippet from the medieval account (traced back to 500 AD) of the ‘Voyage of St Brendan’ later Abbot of Clonfert. Heaney clarified what led to the poem in conversation with DOD (289): I ( ) came to realize that much of what we accepted as natural in our feelings and attitudes was a cultural construction … The second last poem in the book, for example, ‘The Disappearing Island’, is still a form of aisling, a vision poem about Ireland, even though it is an aisling inflected with irony.
The story is told of a particular occasion (once) when a group of missionary sailors with the common quest (we) felt they had discovered St Brendan’s Land of Promise of the Saints, the ideal site on which to build a permanent settlement (found ourselves for good) amidst its earthly blue hills and on its sandless shores where, exhausted, they spent the hours of darkness (desperate night) seeking God’s approval (prayer and vigil).
However no sooner did they set about building a fire (driftwood … hearth), setting up the cooking pot on its tripod (hung our cauldron) in the shape of the wider scale of things (like a firmament) than their ‘island’, a giant sea-creature in the original legend (blue hills/ blue whale?), falls apart under them (broke beneath us like a wave).
Enter the aisling-shift from missionary saint to Irish spokesman indicating just how close the real island of Ireland itself comes to capsizing – an Irish homeland (sustaining us) with its own buoyancy issues (seemed to hold firm), conditional (only) on the sustained devotion (embraced) of all those who come to its aid in moments of dire threat (in extremis).
In an ironic blend of fancy and truth Heaney suggests that Brendan could hardly have known that his myth (all … that happened) would prefigure the whole Irish reality (vision).
- presume: take it upon oneself;
- found: lay the basis of, establish, create something for posterity;
- for good: in perpetuity;
- driftwood: wood washed up by the tide;
- hearth: fire place, symbol of home;
- cauldron: large, round cooking pot;
- firmament: heavens, solar system and stars beyond;
- broke … wave: apparent reference to chapter 10 of ‘The Voyage of St Brendan the Abbot’ on his search for the Land of Promise of the Saints: in this chapter the unstable island turned out to be a massive sea creature;
- sustain: strengthen, support, provide what is required for survival;
- in extremis: caught in an extremely difficult situation, when destruction is the only other option;
- vision: both seeing ahead, prediction and flight of fancy; visionary: far-sighted, prophetic or fanciful, figment of the imagination;
- 3 triplets in 3 sentences; line length 10-12 syllables; unrhymed;
- balance between punctuated and enjambed lines;
- assonant effects: [ʌ] once…good…once…hung…us…sustaining us; [au] found ourselves…our; [i:] between…we … beneath…seemed… we… extremis…believe; [e] selves……spent our desperate; [æ] and…sandless… had gathered…land…that happened; [ai]night…like…island…like; [ei] made…wave…embraced;
- alliterative chains follow a standard pattern: front of mouth [l] [w][h]; reprises of alveolar [t/d], bilabial [p/b], velar [k/g] nasals [m/n], sibilants [s/z/sh], labio-dental [f/v];
- 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;