An Architect

Evidence suggests that the unnamed Architect is Robin Walker who died in 1991. Heaney’s poem becomes an elegiac tribute to one of Ireland’s most eminent 20th century architects.

He paints the portrait of a man in his professional and personal spaces. Observation of the architect’s demeanour and environment confirms an artistic kinship sensed by Heaney even acquaintance without implying close friendship.

The architect’s success in life is predicated on his personal traits: healthy mind in healthy body (he fasted); special talent (gift); self-motivation (exacting more); a sense of self-preservation (minding) when for example indulging his taste for Japanese design (boulder and raked zen gravel).

A man equally full on (no slouch either) when consuming the ‘hard stuff’ (whenever it came to whiskey), whether on his own (lash into it) or in company (lash it out).

Robin Walker – never less than politely refined (courtly always), a responsive listener (rapt), unafraid to cause shock (astonishing) – totally uninhibited (the day he stepped out of his clothes and waded along beside us) in the buff (his pelt), airing his views as if nothing was (speculating, intelligent and lanky) preoccupied like some hero in a classical underworld paradise (taking things in his Elysian stride).

Returning from this nether world (talking his way back) Walker would hold forth about places he had designed (sites)  or matters pertaining to his profession (truths the art requiredwhat his life came down to), his design priorities from natural materials (blue slate) and minimalist, Irish colour (whitewash) to matters of draughtsmanship (shadow-lines, projections) or effects designed to deceive the eye (things at once apparent and transparent) or drawing technique: lines clean-edged, fine-drawn, drawn-out, redrawn still clear to the poet (remembered).

Heaney pictures Robin Walker leaving life’s stage (exit now) dressed in his own very personal style (tweeds), on his way out (down an aisle) of a receding drawing-office (boards as far as the eye can see) to the distant point at which he can no longer be seen (where it can’t) without an architect’s drawing to pinpoint him (until he sketches where).

  • Robin Walker (1923 -1991): one of Ireland’s most eminent 20th century architects; graduated from UCDublin in 1946; worked in France with Le Corbusier and later spent two years at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago before making a permanent home back in Ireland.
  • fasted: went without food, starved himself; reference to zen suggests Buddhism which in turn suggests the Buddhist practice of eating less;
  • exacting: making demands;
  • zen gravel: a Zen garden is an enclosed shallow sandpit containing sand, gravel, rocks, and occasionally grass; within this formula the sea is symbolized not by water but by sand raked in patterns that suggest rippling;
  • lash into… lash it out (play on words): in the first case ‘partake without constraint’; secondly ‘offer generous helpings of’;
  • courtly: polite or refined, as would befit a royal court;
  • rapt: fascinated, absorbed;
  • in his pelt: naked;
  • lanky: ungracefully thin and tall;
  • taking in his stride: dealing calmly with monumentally difficult or challenging things;
  • Elysian: reference to Elysium the mythological place to which certain favoured heroes were conveyed by the gods after death, known to Heaney through his classical and post-classical studies (Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid , Dante’s Divine Comedy)
  • came down to: (the factors) that figured in his professional life;
  • shadow lines: interplay of linear light and shadow effects projected onto different surfaces (e.g. a staircase onto a wall)
  • projections: presentations of an image on a surface;
  • clean-edged: sharply delineated;
  • fine drawn: with thin, sharp lines;
  • drawn out: lasting or seeming to last (longer than is necessary);
  • tweeds: clothing tailored inrough-surfaced woollen cloth, typically of mixed flecked colours, originally produced in Scotland, worn perhaps to create a personal image;
  • drawing boards: large adjustable surfaces on which paper may be spread for artists or designers;
  • to where it can’t: at the point in space where perspective lines converge;
  • An Architect focuses on aspects of a famous man; the following unattributed comments (it might yet be Heaney himself) shed light on aspects of character and attire present in Heaney’s portrait:
    I knew him in two parts of the year. August in west Cork, in Bothar Bu, near Ardgroom and Kilmacillogue on the Beara Peninsula where he and Dorothy were generous hosts – and at Christmas in Saint Marys Lane, in Dublin. His dress was extraordinary … he wore home spun, hand-woven white wool tweed pants and jackets, sometimes dark colours and I recall often pepper and salt colour. Shirts were invariably starched oxford button-down collar cotton, occasionally linen with brightly coloured fine loose knitted ties.
  • In The Redress of Poetry Heaney talks about Robin Walker’s way of using words which have architectural resonances, words like squarings, pulleys, negotiation and crossing from the domain of matter of fact and the imagined. We need only to consider that two of these nouns figure as titles to sections of the Seeing Things collection of 1991.
  • 6 triplets; line length based on 10 syllables; unrhymed;
  • constructed in 4 sentences; the third contains an enumeration introduced by colon;
  • good balance between punctuation and enjambed lines
  • adjectives with varying properties come in threes: courtly/rapt/ astonishing; speculating/ intelligent/ lanky;
  • vocabulary pertinent to design and drawing, at first in pairs (slate/ whitewash; apparent/ transparent); then 5 together;
  • litotes: no slouch either;
  • architect plays a stage-role: exit;
  • final chuckle;
  • the music of the poem: fourteen 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:
  • the title and first triplet, for example gather together velar plosives [k] [g] and alveolar plosives [t] [d];
  • it is well worth teasing out the sound clusters for yourself to admire the poet’s sonic engineering:
  • Consonants (with their phonetic symbols) can be classed according to where in the mouth they occur
  • Front-of-mouth sounds 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 sound 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/ ang

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