A sequence of 3 poems dedicated to Carolyn Mulholland (born in Lurgan, Co Armagh in 1944; a student at the Belfast College of Art from 1962 to 1966, where she won the Ulster Arts Club prize for Sculpture in 1965).
In the epigraph a sculptress orbits the Renaissance’s most celebrated painter/ scientist/ engineerand scholar, Italian Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519). Heaney quotes from da Vinci’s notebook (Leonardo said: the sun has never/ Seen a shadow) to prepare us for Mulholland’s world of light, shade, and changing perspectives: Now watch the sculptor move (orbiting her work-piece as a planet orbits the sun) Full circle round her next work, like a lover / In the sphere of shifting angles and fixed love; he salutes her contemplative approach and her devotion to her work.
- Full circle: returning to the position from which an object departed;
- sphere: field of operation; spherical object; domain, realm
- shifting … fixed: opposites, the first fluid, the second unchanging;
Heaney is standing next to Mulholland’s chair weighing it up: it stands in a light-and-shade location, Angling shadows of itself , is prominent (what/ Your ‘Poet’s Chair’ stands to and rises out of); is sited in a sun-stalked inner-city courtyard and, alert to being stealthily pursued: On the qui vive all the time; its feet are set firmly on the ground: its four legs land/ On their feet; of a style selected by the sculptress from the alternatives on offer: catsfoot, goatfoot, big soft splay-foot. Part chair and part tree the piece appears to be alive: Its straight back sprouts two bronze and leafy saplings.
A piece of art in a public setting has generated interest amongst those who frequent Dublin’s city-centre: restless gossips (Every flibbertigibbet in the town); the aged and inebriate (Old birds and boozers), those tipped out by the pubs with full bladders or courting couples (late-night pissers, kissers) … All have a go at sitting on it some time.
Heaney’s imagination takes off: he invents a fairy-like contagion that affects those who have perched on the chair so that they walk away from it elevated (the air behind them’s winged and full); as if part of its organic design has rubbed off on them a graft has seized their shoulder-blades and cheers them up: makes them happy.
He hopes that the tree magic will endure and that, wherever the folk end up, Once out of nature, / They’re going to come back in leaf and bloom their new spiritual dimension intact (angel step).
Reality kicks in (Or something like that): the people he is talking about, insensitive to the artistic merits of the chair, actually say things like this: Leaves/ On a bloody chair! Would you believe it?
- stands to: is ready and prepared for;
- stalk: sense of obsessive pursuit of an object/person; sun-stalked: also suggests the movement of the sun as it probes into every corner of the site;
- qui vive: on the alert or lookout;
- catsfoot, goatfoot … splay-foot: images of the chair are revealing of Heaney’s attempts to describe its feet; he settles upon a foot turned outward;
- land on your feet: have a stroke of luck that changed your fortune
- saplings: young trees;
- flibbertigibbet: frivolous, flighty, or excessively talkative person; idle chatterer;
- birds: informal reference to young women;
- boozers: regular pub-goers, drinkers of large quantities of alcohol;
- winged: creating an upward draught;
- graft: living plant shoots transplanted into the human body;;
- nature: inborn or hereditary characteristics;
- angel: benevolent spirit;
- bloody: a very mild swearword in common usage and intensifying the response;
- Mulholland’s sculptures are often described as Giacometti-like, (stretched figures or tumbling acrobats in the act of performing), abstracted works that manipulate vertical, lateral and at times diagonal movement to achieve a feeling of tension; the chair to which Heaney is referring is more organic in its design
- her ‘Tree Seat’ was one of a number of sculptures commissioned by Dublin City Council in June-July 1988 for the ‘Dublin Millennium Sculpture Symposium’. The full-sized work was originally located at the Dame Street end of South Great George’s Street in Dublin.
The chair ‘is imagined as part of the setting for a death-ritual … Socrates’ exemplary and stoical death
Heaney switches focus, painting the word-picture of a classical canvas depicting the death of Socrates: Next thing I see the chair in a white prison / With Socrates sitting on it (recognizable from the others present bald as a coot). The philosopher continues to argue philosophically as if to demonstrate his indifference to death: Discoursing in bright sunlight with his friends.
But time is not on his side; the slow but inexorable poisoning process that will kill him has begun His time is short.
Athenian superstition and religious ritual slowed the sentencing and execution: The day his trial began/ A verdant boat sailed from Apollo’s shrine / In Delos, for the annual rite / Of commemoration.
The ship’s voyage forbade, for its duration, the execution of condemned men: Until its wreathed / And creepered rigging re-enters Athens / Harbour, the city’s life is holy. No executions. No hemlock bowl. And, with executions forbidden, no emotional outpourings: No tears.
Those assembled to witness Socrates’ last hours are calm: (No tears now as the poison does its work). The briefing they receive is impassively business-like: the expert jailer talks the company through / The stages of the numbness.
Socratic rhetoric is reassuring about death: Socrates/ At the centre of the city and the day/ Has proved the soul immortal. Only Mulholland’s chair listens on, incredulous at the composure: The bronze leaves / Cannot believe their ears, it is so silent. The hemlock will complete its inexorable work: Soon Crito will have to close his eyes and mouth.
The final sentence builds to a crescendo of inevitability: mild early distress (everything’s an ache) is part of a gradual process (Deferred) its predictable outcome is already recorded in history (foreknown); as yet hopefully illusory (imagined); but, let there be no doubt, most real.
- bald as a coot: completely bald; coots are water birds whose heads have the appearance of baldness owing to their white markings;
- discoursing: engaging in formal spoken debate;
- verdant: lush, bright green in colour;
- Apollo’s shrine/ In Delos: the Greek Olympian deity, son of Zeus who had an oracle site in Delphi;
- wreathed and creepered: to do with flowers, leaves and stems; to do with stems and branches; reminiscent of the design of the original Mulholland’s chair
- rigging: system of ropes or chains employed to support a ship’s masts;
- hemlock: highly poisonous plant of the parsley family offering a potion used to kill;
- soul immortal: view that the soul does not die and eventually receive salvation;
- Crito: a wealthy friend; shown in paintings alongside the Greek philosopher Plato;
- Socrates was born circa 470 BC, in Athens, Greece. His students included Plato. His so-called “Socratic method,” laid the groundwork for Western systems of logic and philosophy. In 399, Socrates was brought before a jury of around 500 Athenians on charges of not recognizing the official State gods, of inventing new deities, and of corrupting the youth of Athens. An equally likely reason for this trial was Socrates’ close association with a number of men who had fallen out of political favour in Athens. Socrates was found guilty by a narrow margin and sentenced to death by hemlock poisoning. He accepted this judgment rather than fleeing into exile.
- A painting of 1787 by French neo-classical artist Jacques-Louis David (Death of Socrates) depicts the drama of the situation, showing Socrates prepared to die and yet continuing to discourse on the immortality of the soul with his disciples. His wife is seen in the distance leaving the prison. Only Plato, at the foot of the bed, and Crito grasping his master’s leg seem in control of themselves.
- pathetic fallacy : the attribution of human feelings and responses to inanimate things or animals, especially in art and literature.
In a landscape celebrating rural Irish life, family and love the poem offers a moment of poetic aspiration. In its published form Heaney’s bequest to posterity (alongside the poet’s chair in a public place and the painting for public consumption in a gallery) will outlive its creator.
A scene from Heaney’s farming past (My father’s ploughing one, two, three, four sides / Of the lea ground) is being observed by his watcher-son all-seeing/ At centre field, his back to the thorn tree/ They never cut (superstitious country folk saw pruning this tree as a bad omen). Two details of the horses stand out: their legs all hoof and their healthy, glistening coat: burnished flank.
Watching the plough at work produces an enlightening moment (I am all foreknowledge), the belief that the power of poetry can impact on the world around like a ploughshare that turns time / Up and over; working with the images he carries, be they organic sculptures or superstition, in the way he knows how (the chair in leaf/ The fairy thorn is entering for the future) make him confident he will leave his personal mark and his work for all time: being here for good in every sense.
- lea ground: an open area of grassy or arable land;
- white thorn tree: traditionally considered in Irish folk-lore bad luck to cut, being sacred to the fairies;
- burnished: shining as if polished;
- flank: (an animal’s) side section;
- ploughshare: the main cutting blade of a plough (behind the vertical coulter blade fixed to the front of the plough) that digs under the surface and turns the earth over and creates a furrow;
- in selecting the ploughshare as a metaphor for poetry Heaney is perhaps mindful of the etymology of ‘verse’ as associated with the Latin verb vertere which means to ‘turn over in the ploughing sense;
- for good: (multi-purpose) forever; for pleasure; as a positive force; out of virtue;
Heaney talked about her to DOD ‘We knew Carolyn when she was an art student in Belfast; in I967 or I968 she did a head of me, a straightforward classical bust that has stood the test of time and has been in the house ever since… then the commissions started to come in for public pieces. The poem’ “Poet’s Chair” , is a response to one of them, a bronze chair with sprouting leaves she made for a little courtyard at the foot of George’s Street in Dublin. Unfortunately, the leaves proved too easy to pluck, too vulnerable to the vandals, so the sculpture had to be removed… I did the first version of’ “Poet’s Chair”, quickly, to be read out at an exhibition of Carolyn’s work that I had agreed to launch. I was thinking about sculpture in a public setting, how it might centre the world for you, so the poem started from there. And from some thing in Leonardo’s notebooks that’s quoted in the opening lines: ‘The sun has never seen a shadow’.’ (p256)
HV(p168) sums up the three phases: ‘in turn ordinary life, its violation by some event and its restoration of ‘keeping going’ afterwards’; she suggests that this pattern is common to other pieces in the collection.
- Heaney has famously likened his craft to the farming activities of his childhood, comparing his pen to his father’s spade; here he extends that analogy: “the poem as ploughshare that turns time/ Up and over.” Noonday Press edition of June 1996
- the epigraph is a single italicized quatrain in 2 sentences; line length based upon 10 syllables; a very loose rhyme scheme abab; 3 lines of 4 enjambed;
- the ‘solar’ citation attributed to Leonardo influences the lexis; light/shade; planets orbiting stars as artists walk around their work;
- contrast: ‘shifting’ changes of position, ‘fixed’ set emotional commitment;
- poem 1: 15 lines in 8 sentences; variable line length of 10+ syllables; unrhymed; plentiful use of enjambed lines;
- the sun and changing light effects remain centre-stage; linear shapes; slightly sinister reference: ’stalked’;
- poet addresses his sculptress;
- an inanimate object personified (the chair has a mind on the qui-vive); organic references to growth (sprouts, graft);
- vocabulary of furniture design;
- warm picture painted of inner-city wanderers; hints of magical powers
- comparisons: air ha swings; a branch can seize hold of a passer-by;
- final question is down-to-earth; use of mild expletive of common street usage;
- poem 2: 19 lines based on 10 syllables; unrhymed (1 exception);
- 10 sentence structure; short sentences crowd the middle section alongside the repetition of negatives;
- ‘Next thing’ suggests the speed with which a creative mind switches focus and the poet’s inability to control the direction his imagination takes him in;
- elements reminiscent of the original chair present in the decoration of ships involved in the religious event (verdant, wreathed, creepered);
- philosophical terminology (discoursing, proved the soul immortal) contrasts the obsessive pursuit of Socrates’ rhetoric with the impassive explanation of the death process already under way;
- continuum of past participles in the final line explore the mental stages involved;
- Poem 3: the third with an odd number of lines (11); line length based around 10 syllables; unrhymed;
- 5 sentence structure; sparse punctuation and abundant use of enjambed lines;
- the time the ploughing takes ticks away in the enumeration of the numbers; in later comparison the future seems eternal: ‘for good’
- the superstitious/ magical elements from the previous poems in the sequence is reintroduced (never cut, chair in leaf, fairy thorn);
- ever modest about his own gifts Heaney suggests here that he possesses a visionary dimension (all-seeing, all foreknowledge, future);repetition of ‘all’;
- comparison (poem/ ploughshare) compare the ‘pen/ dig’ of his very first poem ‘Digging’;
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 epilogue, for example, stirs together abundant sibilant [s]sounds including voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] ‘shadow’ and voiceless alveolar fricative as in watch [tʃ] alongside nasal [m] [n] and alveolar approximant [l]; 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 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.