The second of the 20th Century poems in the Power and Conflict section of the AQA GCSE English Literature anthology, this poem is by one of my favourite modern poets, Seamus Heaney.
Yesterday, I read an article in the Washington Post documenting terrorism in Europe since 1970. I imagine most GCSE students will be surprised to see that very heavy cluster of red over Northern Ireland. Somehow, ‘The Troubles’ as they came to be known, seem to have faded in significance compared to other threats, and there will be many sixteen-year-olds who will have no idea who Tim Parry or Johnathon Ball were, or why a post box in Manchester is a permanent reminder of the conflict over Northern Ireland. If you ask most of today’s students who was responsible for the biggest bomb on mainland Great Britain since the second world war, I’m pretty sure the image of the IRA has all but faded.
Seamus Heaney’s life saw both the escalation of conflict over Northern Ireland at the end of the 1960s and a tentative peace in 1998. In Northern Ireland at this time, politics mattered. Politics and religion. Heaney manages to by-pass most of that in his poetry, yet it’s a theme that very much touches his work. There are poems that tackle issues around the conflict, and in many I find a sense of conflict, an uneasy tension, even if they are not about the Troubles themselves. Storm on the Island very much fits into that tradition. To me, Heaney manages to avoid the conflict, and not avoid it, if you like. It seems to hover over a lot of his poems like a shadow. Some are more overtly about politics, like Requiem for the Croppies and the collection, North, This collection was Heaney’s most controversial: people wanted him to be more political. Some people wanted him to use less violent images. Some people wanted him to write about the present, not the past, or not blend the two. For me, I think the past was very much tied up with the present for Heaney, and with his mixed heritage (he was both Catholic and and an Ulster-man, who then moved into the Republic of Ireland proper) and I think he must have felt profoundly uncomfortable to be expected to be political. What mattered to him was Ireland itself, a place with no boundaries, a place as old as the earth, the landscape of the place, its eternal qualities. But that’s just one English Teacher’s opinion.
Incidentally, I met Seamus Heaney once in the bar in Stratford, during the intermission of Julius Caesar. I told him I was his groupie, which made him laugh. When you have studied Heaney at GCSE, A level and degree, and then spent 20 years teaching it in successive GCSE specifications, those lines stick in your head. He asked me what my favourite poem of his was. It’s Personal Helicon, by the way, but I think he found it funny that I knew it by heart. For me, those final lines, “I rhyme/ to see myself, to set the darkness echoing” sum up much of his own poetry. It’s intensely personal. It’s a story of himself. But it’s also a story of how he looks into the land to find himself, how he looks to the past as a source of inspiration. A poet, for me, who writes to see himself, to reflect upon himself and see the ripples.
You may be right to ask, then, if the Troubles in Northern Ireland had anything to do with Storm on the Island. Isn’t it just a “conflict of man and nature” poem like Exposure or Stealing the Boat? Isn’t it just a reflection on how pointless our best-laid plans are, the way nature and the landscape will always triumph? Of course it is. But I’d be interested to read any interpretation of how it comes to have this dark shadow of Ireland’s Troubles. Ironic, indeed, that the Troubles themselves were a metaphorical ‘storm’ on the Ireland. When he published North in 1975, some critics thought he should have steered clear of politics altogether. I find that there’s a deep sense of discomfort in Heaney’s work. The land of Ireland seems to give him roots, make him strong, remind him of who he is, like the house itself in the poem, but at the same time, how can you be a poet of the time and NOT be influenced by all those red dots on the Washington Post article? It feels sometimes that Heaney is avoiding the huge, great elephant in the room which in itself has a lot to do with who he is.
Heaney, by the way, did an in-depth interview with another Seamus, Seamus Deane, which you can read here if you are very, very interested in what Heaney thought about poetry and politics, or you’re a world-class geeky curious-mind like me. What I particularly like about what he said is this: “Poetry is born out of the watermarks and colourings of the self.” – it’s like a way of seeing yourself. I like to think of Storm on the Island as part of that tradition, that he reveals a lot about himself in the poem. I also think that ‘home’ for Heaney is always tied-up with a sense of conflict. In another poem, Tollund Man, he finishes by saying how much the Iron Age Scandinavian human sacrifices feel familiar to him: “I will feel lost, unhappy and at home” – that internal conflict about home life is something that we see often in Heaney. You know, the kind of conflict you feel about your home town, your family… how you love it because it’s who you are, but at the same time, it often makes you unhappy.
I think it’s important to understand the role of all this internal conflict for Heaney before you start reading Storm on the Island.
Storm on the Island comes from Heaney’s earliest published collection, Death of a Naturalist. This collection seems very much about how he realises that nature is not some gentle, lovely thing, but it has its moments when you realise that we put a real gloss on it. The title poem tells about him being told in school about the “Mammy Frog” and the “Daddy Frog”, which is all very lovely and sanitised, only for the young Heaney to end by feeling that “the great slime kings” were an “obscene threat” and he feels like the frogspawn would grab his hand and pull him into the water if he tried to steal any of it, as if it was some scary B-movie monster. I think that sums up Heaney’s ambivalence about nature. It’s not this lovely, pretty thing. Do a Google Image search for ‘Nature’ and you’ll see how people view it… waterfalls and lovely forests, sunshine and trails. And then do a Google Image search for ‘Scary nature’ and you’ll see what Heaney’s suggesting Nature can be. For him, it’s not one or the other. It’s both. As a whole, this collection is very much about the issues that Nature brings for Heaney, how blackberries ‘rot’, how farmhands drown kittens. The world in itself is a place that gives Heaney not only a sense of wonder and joy, but also a sense of terror and fear, just like the young Wordsworth.
The poem itself makes an easy comparison with Stealing the Boat, especially when you look at the form of the poems.
The poem in itself is one single, solid block. 19 unrhymed lines of 10 or 11-syllables ended by a half-rhyme couplet. The form in itself echoes the “squat” houses, the solidity in the way that they are built to bear the brunt of the Atlantic weather fronts. It also does something else, capturing the storm as one single event, the lines themselves reflecting the unrelenting storm. Like Stealing the Boat, this too is free verse, apart from that final half-rhymed couplet. It seems to bring the poem to an end. Shakespeare often used the rhyming couplet to draw an end to a scene, but also to encapsulate an idea. Those words, “air” and “fear” echo each other, but not quite. It is not harmonious, but not completely dischordant. It serves to bring attention to those lines, but also to give a kind of finality to the lines. They are set apart from the blank verse of the rest of the lines. It heightens the build-up to the content of these lines. Like Wordsworth, Heaney is not bound or restricted by the syllabic length of the lines, and his words do not adhere to the ‘one-TWO’ stress of iambic pentameter. They’re pretty free-ranging.
He also uses the enjambed lines and the caesura to break up and fragment the poem in parts, and to build to a crescendo in others. Like the Duke in My Last Duchess who loses control of his emotions which spill out over several lines and then are broken up by caesura, Heaney is also using enjambment in places where there is a crescendo of emotion, but what marks this poem for me is the use of caesura, not enjambment. Look at the way he takes all those words and dumps them at the beginning of a line before stopping, disrupting the rhythm…
We are prepared:
or stooks that can be lost.
And strafes invisibly.
19 lines, and 6 of them include a caesura that picks up some ideas from a previous line and dumps them on the next.
We should, of course, be asking Heaney’s purpose in doing this. What is the reason for all this caesura? That abrupt stop, particularly on those hard, stressed monosyllabic words ‘blast’ and ‘lost’, really gives the poem some force. Or, rather, it gives the storm itself some force. It’s an uneven rhythm, like the storm itself, picking up ideas in one place and dropping them in another, like a storm picking up trampolines and dumping them in a garden down the road. That pause also makes us stop a moment and adds emphasis and importance to those words. Why does Heaney want us to think so much about that word, “blast” or the word “savage”? Remember that in poetry in particular, the punctuation and line breaks are about where you breathe, and it’s interesting to me how Heaney is playing with the way we breathe here. It’s not a coincidence to me that he’s using these caesuras to drop words onto the next line so frequently.
One of the places in the poem where Heaney uses enjambment very effectively is in the ‘growing’ idea of:
You might think that the sea is company,
Exploding comfortably down on the cliffs
But no: when it begins, the flung spray hits
The very windows, spits like a tame cat
What you get here is a sentence that runs over five lines of the poem, spilling out over those lines, a crescendo in itself, just like the sea. You’ve got some very interesting monosyllables there too, with the “the flung spray hits” and “down on the cliffs”. In fact, with “like a tame cat”, you’ve got three lines there that finish with a very staccato four-word group, and the assonance of the “i” in “cliffs” and “hits” which also adds to that staccato effect. Lots of short vowel sounds, the “uh” of “the” and “flung”, the “i” of “cliffs” and “hits”, the internal rhyme of “spits” and “hits”… lots of things going on here with the words, with the sounds. Short sounds are hard, mitigated by the occasional “ay” or “oh” in “down”, “spray” and “tame”. Couple that with the monosyllables and what you’ve got is words with a very staccato effect. They’re brief, strong and articulated clearly, the words detached from one another in “FLung SPRay HIts”… I’ll write more about this in the next post, looking in more depth at those words, at the way Heaney describes the house, the storm, the wind, the sea. But what the form gives us is this unrelenting, unstopping sentence that keeps coming at you with a wordy assault. P.S. if you know someone who enunciates like Gary Oldman in Friends, stand a good few feet back when they read these lines.
Those plosives and sibilants do have a remarkable spitty effect if you know someone who enunciates like that!
Now why might Heaney want all of those sounds in there?
In terms of the structure, we start with the poet and his use of “we”, which compares well with Exposure, suggesting a sense of community maybe. We notice another thing, too, about the structure, as to why there are no stanzas or verses. Not only does it help create that ‘squat’ effect on the page as I mentioned before, but we realise this is one single moment: there is no structural need for breaks. It helps emphasise once again that sense of relentlessness. Still, as it goes, it provides an internal commentary at first, that they are prepared, a justification for the way they build the houses, a commentary on the landscape and its barren tree-less, feature-less appearance, It moves on with the thoughts, in “you might think”, where I get the impression almost that this is a conversation between poet and reader, that he places us inside the cottage on the island alongside him almost. It takes on properties not unlike My Last Duchess, where we are given a role to play as reader. We’re very much ‘inside’ this poem with Heaney, listening to the wind outside. The poem finishes also with a final reflection:
Strange, it is a huge nothing that we fear
For me, the voice of the poet, the position of the reader, it’s like we’re the “we” together, like we’re with Heaney listening to the wind outside. It finishes as it starts with a kind of commentary on the wind. Much of the poem is focused on us and on our reactions, despite the title being “Storm on the Island”. Apart from the earlier bits where we had the enjambment and the monosyllabic words about the sea, and a few lines about the wind, it is glued together with a kind of personal reflection on them, a commentary if you will, as if the poet is justifying or explaining things to us. It is not so much about the storm as it is about the preparations of the community, the way the community live to counteract the storms, which sound like a regular occurrence.
In the next post, I’ll look at the way that Heaney uses language and imagery in this poem, exploring how he uses words, sounds and ideas as well as the effect that they have.
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