An analysis of the language and imagery in Seamus Heaney’s Storm on the Island

Last week, I explored the context, form and structure of Storm on the Island by Seamus Heaney, which is in the AQA GCSE English Literature poetry anthology for 2017 onwards. What we’re asked to consider is to what extent Heaney’s own personal and literary context influenced the poem, whether or not it is in keeping with his poems exploring conflict in Northern Ireland, or whether it is more in keeping with other poems exploring nature. I think it’s perfectly possible to read it as a poem that is very much influenced by contextual conflict, or to read it as a poem about conflict in nature. It’s your choice. The ‘squat’ form, the enjambment and caesura lifting ideas up and putting them down on other lines, the use of sound in the poem… they’re all important in what they contribute to the meaning of the poem. Today, I’ll look at how the context, form and structure work with the language and images to demonstrate Heaney’s viewpoint.

Not unlike Exposure, the poem starts with a first-person plural subject pronoun. Usually we use subject pronouns to replace a subject, avoiding repetition. So if I say ‘Charles’ in one sentence, I can say, ‘he’ in the next. Subject pronouns can be ambiguous when you don’t know what they are referring to. It’s a substitute for a noun. It’s also an anaphoric reference (a reference to something that’s come before), but to anaphora (a thing that’s come before) that does not exist in the poem. That’s all the fancy subject terminology that means that “We” is usually used when the audience or reader would know who “we” are. It implies familiarity or inclusiveness.

But here, we don’t know who “we” are.

Heaney and his family? Heaney and his wife? A friend? The villagers on the Aran islands (there are other poems in this collection relating to the Aran Islands, like Lovers on Aran and Synge on Aran – it’s therefore not unreasonable that “the Island” is not “Ireland” but one of the Aran Isles in Galway Bay) Irish people in general? People in general? The effect of that “we” is that it becomes both inclusive – we means “me and you” – and therefore includes us in the poem – and also kind of ‘shared world’ – it implies we know who “we” are. We as a reader are as prepared as Heaney for the storm on the island. He brings us into the poem with that word. He also makes it universal. It can be us and every single other person in the world. It turns the poem from one about two people – perhaps Heaney and his wife or family – into a poem about every person and what we do when faced with conflict. We prepare.

The first three words are finished by a colon. That colon is like a little signpost leading us to expect an explanation. It tells us that what follows embellishes or adds to that statement. It tells us how they prepare, by doing what. It’s a little mark also that marks a pause. A little stopping point as well as a signpost to something to come. We stop and we consider the certainty of that statement, “We are prepared:” – it sounds confident, like we are ready for the onslaught. There’s a certainty and safety to it, as well as determination.

As it turns out, that preparation is centuries old, not just like my storm preparations of shutting the shutters and moving my car into the garage. It is a way of life. They build their “houses squat” – storm-readiness is a way of life for them. It sounds like they are quite literally ‘safe as houses’ with the foundations in the rock itself. That sounds sturdy, doesn’t it? But hang on. If, and it is an if, this island is one of the Aran islands, it’s limestone rock. Limestone is a bit of a rubbish rock, not like the granite of other places. Karst limestone (and I know this because I live in a karst limestone region) is remarkably soluble. I dissolved some in vinegar for a science experiment once. It’s ironic because the sea will indeed have its way eventually. In the long run, this preparedness is meaningless. However, for generations to come, the islands will certainly still be there. It just makes me think how fragile things really are, like the thousands-of-years-old statue of Ozymandias, how everything will return to sand or sea eventually. All this preparedness is nothing. Even setting the foundations in the island’s bedrock, or roofing with slate, the most waterproof of all roofing materials, we get a sense of how dramatic the storms are on this island.

In the meantime, that lovely word “squat” is such a lovely word to comment on. It has that lovely sound to it – the sibilant ‘s’ followed by the hard plosive ‘k’, the whispery fricative ‘w’, the short ‘o’ and then that plosive ‘t’ – it’s such a noisy word for such a short one. All those sounds really put a focus on the word, as does leaving it at the end of the line – it resonates there. Like that colon, like the “We are prepared”, there’s a force and strength about it, like the houses themselves. It gives us the sense that the houses are crouching, braced against the storm, but it has another meaning too – if you “squat” a place, you’re inhabiting it illegally. It has a sense of something that has no right to be there and gives me the feeling that the people have no real right to be there.

You’ve also got three present-tense verbs, suggesting a permanence, this is something that is timeless – it could be now, it could be the time the poem was written. It seems to suggest that it will always be this way. The actions are simple, “build”, “sink”, “roof”, short and squat as the houses themselves. That brings me to another point. Look at all those monosyllabic words there. All of the second line is monosyllabic. It’s simple, clear, clean. For me, the effect is to stress that determination from the first line, but I have no idea why it makes me think they are resolute, stubborn in the face of the storm and determined to build their houses here, in such a windswept place. There’s a tenacity in those words and a simplicity that not only evokes the houses, but the way they are built, the people who build them and life on the island itself. It’s uncluttered and uncomplicated.

As we move into line 3, we learn a little of the island itself. It is not the kind of place where farming would work: the constant erosion leaves little topsoil. Heaney calls it the “wizened earth”, giving us the sense that it is something older than the rest of the earth, something shrivelled and dried up. It also has the sense of being weather-beaten too. Heaney turns this lack of crops into a positive, it has never “troubled” them – it’s another sense of how hard life is on the island, with no ability to put food away or grow crops for the future. The simplicity and basic standard of living means there is nothing to be lost. The constant wind has also made it impossible for trees to grow.

You can see what a hard and barren landscape it is, also one that is stark and self-sufficient, insular.

On line 4, we (as readers) are invited into the poem – not unlike My Last Duchess in a way. “so as you can see” is an embedded clause, an aside, an address. It sounds as if Heaney is explaining to us, almost showing us around. This little clause is expecting that we are already visualising the place. It sounds as if we are on a guided tour with Heaney, that he is introducing us to the island. In a way, that is also like My Last Duchess, since the Duke too is presenting us (in the role of the marriage-broker) to the painting. We have a different power here, the power of the ‘interpreter’. I use that word loosely, because they are not translating, only presenting, but presenters have their own power. A presenter is an intermediary (just like me, here, in fact) or a curator, picking through everything and selecting things to show to you. There is a lot of power in that act, the choice of what to show, like the editor in War Photographer. Power, here, is in what we are shown and how things are explained to us. Heaney is no different, explaining and justifying the way the houses are built, the life on the island. He sounds like an insider, someone keen for us to understand. That too is no different from the Duke in My Last Duchess, as he explains his views on the relationship. Heaney does it again later with “you know what I mean”, which is very interesting. It’s a sign of informality – I’m struggling for the precise term for it – more than a filler (like um, er) but not a hedge (which softens a direct statement) and seems to be there to invite our understanding, check that we have understood. These parenthetical statements are more conversational. We use them all the time, like ‘you know’, and ‘you see what I mean?’ or ‘you see?’, ‘you get me?’ even ‘innit?’. It’s a discourse marker, but it’s checking if we’re still engaged, if we still understand, even if we are not actively participating at that moment in time. It asks for our silent participation. You can see four instances of this use of “you”, where we are invited into the poem. For me, it gives it a sense of being like a guided tour of a sort, explaining to us something that we wouldn’t understand unless we lived on the island.

Into line 7 and we have a shift, the first caesura, marking that word “Blast” out from the rest of the line, injecting a little power and might into it.

For Heaney, the trees would provide a relief in that you could spend your time in the wind or a storm thinking about the trees, watching the wind in them, distracting you from thinking about how it is affecting your own home. The personification of the wind itself, which “pummels” the houses, as well as the leaves and branches which “can raise a chorus in a gale” is also part of how Heaney, like Wordsworth in Stealing the Boat, brings nature to life and gives it a power beyond the natural. The trees, branches and leaves which would be allies in the resistance against the wind, however, do not exist. There are no allies in this battle, nobody to support them.

The ‘But’ on line 11 marks a turning point, a change. He has been distracted from thinking about the storm by imagining the trees, and how we look at trees in storms. Ironic, really, that he is distracted from thinking about the storm because he’s thinking about the wind in the trees. We start to pick up on the semantic field related to the wind that Heaney uses, from ‘storm’ to ‘blows full blast’, ‘gale’. The verb ‘pummels’ is a particularly appropriate word – the present tense making it constant and immediate, reminding us that the storm is an ever-present concern on the island. It is a word which makes it sound like an unrelenting attack, something that doesn’t give in.

Heaney then looks to the sea, which may also be an ally or “company” against the wind, but realises it is not, “But no:” and without trees, with the sea as much an enemy as the wind, we realise how defenceless the islanders are, despite their “squat” houses. I particularly like that “exploding comfortably” – the oxymoron reveals that the sea is “comfortable”, it is at home in the storm, and in fact takes sides against the islanders. What seems “tame” most of the time turns “savage” with the wind.

The way he describes the sea is particularly interesting with the simile, “spits like a tame cat/turned savage” and the sounds, the “flung spray hits” which I explored in the last post to create a sense of the sea that is unstopping and angry with the monosyllables, the plosives and the fricatives bringing the sounds of the sea to life.

All there is to do is sit it out. The phrase “while wind dives/and strafes invisibly’ has echoes of Owen’s battle against the invisible forces at work in nature, made evident only in the snow flakes. “Strafes” is a verb taken directly from a military vocabulary. To strafe means to attack ground troops from the air with machine-gun fire. That’s such a precise use from Heaney here, where the wind takes on the qualities of a fighter plane – it makes a change from the fighter plane manufacturers naming their planes after weather phenomena (like the Hawker Hurricane, a popular fighter plane and the Hawker Typhoon) – as the wind dives in and attacks, just like a fighter plane would. At this point, it is more than the sea, spitting like a cat, this is an assault. When Heaney says “Space is a salvo” he continues this use of military vocabulary, as a salvo is also related to an attack, this time a persistent onslaught or a multi-weapon assault that happens all at the same time, a simultaneous attack if you like. Finally, we have the word “bombarded” that completes the military images, creating a vision of a wind that acts like a fighter plane, a blitz on the island below.

The final sentence acts as a conclusion summarising Heaney’s thoughts, “Strange, it is a huge nothing that we fear” which concludes the poem, a wry statement that points out how silly it seems to be afraid of the wind.

I think what I like most about this poem is the conversational style and the way he portrays this battle with the wind, as the people on the island are completely helpless. It compares well with Exposure, but also with Stealing the Boat in how it presents nature as something primeval and terrifying.

Next week: Bayonet Charge by Ted Hughes

If you are interested in a one-to-one lesson with me to find out more about the AQA GCSE English Literature Anthology, please send me an email via the website or Facebook and get in touch. Skype sessions start from £15 for one hour. You can have as many sessions as you feel like you need.

 

 

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