In the Attic
This four poem sequence eventually reaches its own starting-point. This apparent non-sense is explained by the stages that set Heaney in compositional reverse: a poet begins to notice within himself some of the drawbacks of the ageing process relating to memory; he recalls his grandfather who demonstrated similar memory-loss in his own life-time, a mental confusion relating to a character from the children’s novel Treasure Island; the novel acts as a metaphor reflecting aspects of the poet’s existence; the mistakenly identified character is part of a key event in the original book. Turn it all round and Heaney’s chosen format is revealed!
Its final triplet confirms Heaney’s deeper structural intent. In what was originally Human Chain’s ultimate poem, he chose to return us neatly and deliberately to the collection’s outset. It was precisely the feel of the wind that kick-started Heaney’s engine in the very first poem.
i A desperate moment for Jim Hawkins: the naïve but honourable hero of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island has been pursued to the top of the mast aloft in the cross-trees/ Of Hispaniola . He has no escape route; below him void, nothing between him and still green water and clean bottom sand, the unmistakeable exoticism of a tropical island.
If the angle of drop was confusing, Heaney clarifies: The ship aground, the canted mast far out. The reason for Jim’s flight is explained: the youngster is terrified by the face of Israel Hands, the mutineer who followed him up the mast intent upon his murder. An image of the latter’s face, a frightening spectre brought on by the Jim’s guilt at having shot Hands, even though in self-defence, has materialised on the sea’s surface in a confusion of ship’s-sail and winding-sheet as it rose in the shrouds before Jim shot him dead. Pure illusion: ‘he was dead enough,’/ The story says, ‘being both shot and drowned.’
- Treasure Island is an adventure novel by Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson, narrating a tale of “pirates and buried gold”, first published as a book on 23rd May 1883. It is traditionally considered a ‘coming-of-age story’. It is an adventure tale known for its atmosphere, character and action, and also, unusual for children’s literature, a wry commentary on the ambiguity of morality—as seen in the character of Long John Silver. It is one of the most frequently dramatised of all novels.
- The frightening illusion is brought on by unnecessary guilt: Heaney continues to reflect upon the after-death: the soul-force of ‘The door was open…’ is replaced by the Jim’s conscience-fear of being punished by his victim’s ghost, however deserved the latter’s death might have been.
- Canted: a beached ship leans sideways; its once upright mast is now tilting;
- phrases rich in assonances: underneath/ green/ clean; aground/ out; sand … Hands; shoals/ rose;
- alliteration: sibilant effects of [s], [sh] and [z] dominate the centre of the piece;
- repetition of pass/passed links reality (fish) to nightmare (face);
- Shroud: both a sheet-like corpse garment and the ropes and rigging supporting the mast of a sailing ship; Heaney quotes from the text and also borrows canted mast;
- assonant ‘ow’ of aground/ out/ shrouds/ drowned echoes the response to pain;
ii As crow’s nest is to ship, so attic is to house, its highest vantage point; the former part-refuge for Jim Hawkins, the latter part-cell for Seamus Heaney, a place from which to view the world beneath and in which to reflect and to dedicate himself to bookwork. The poem’s music starts a touch dolente (sorrowfully) but finishes vivace (with vigour).
A landmark of nature has invaded Heaney’s preoccupations like the birds jubilant of Hermit Songs. The birch tree seen from the attic skylight marks twenty years of its growth and two decades of human time gone by; it acts, too, as a barometer of the elements between the Irish Sea and me.
The wind-tossed tree becomes a symbol of survival to the man/ Marooned in his own loft, the shadow of a one-time boy/ Shipshaped in the crow’s nest of a life. Wind is dominant: life’s currents have shaped him Airbrushed to and fro, wind-drunk. He is bolstered, invigorated even intoxicated by the elemental energies so evident from his lofty position: braced/ By all that’s thrumming up from keel to masthead.
Should Heaney meet events that leave him Rubbing his eyes to believe he need look no further than the emblematic survivor out there in Nature: this most/ Buoyant, billowy … birch. In a reference to the topmost sails, the poet acknowledges the courage and dignity required to live another day: topgallant.
- On a square-rigged sailing vessel topgallant sails sit between or topsails and crow’s nest.
- Airbrushes: Heaney’s metaphor of being somehow moulded by wind forces uses th analogy of small, air-operated tools that spray substances including ink and dye, but most often paint by a process of nebulization. They are designed to modify appearances;
- Shipshape: the old naval term for in good shape, trim, neat; Heaney uses the metaphor to describe how his own apprenticeship moulded his existence: Shipshaped in the crow’s nest of a life;
- three triplets composed as a single sentence around the pivotal comes between ;
- no rhyme scheme; assonances: tree/ Sea/ me; keel/ believe; alliteration: man marooned; a clutch of sibilant sounds in the centre; Buoyant, billowy/ birch;
- from birch to birch, the intervening lines create a parallel between Jim Hawkins and Heaney;
- the indefinite article A (birch) of the outset becomes a demonstrative this birch as the tree develops its emblematic significance;
iii A revenant, Ghost-footing his old terra firma / Of hallway linoleum, grandfather now appears. In moments relived, Heaney as a child has returned from a morning showing ofTreasure Island. When he was a child rural communities possessed dedicated cinemas; Heaney’s was a temporary site in the local multi-purpose Club Rooms. The feel of chilly currents around the draught-prone screen finds echo in the old man’s voice a-waver.
His grandfather’s memory of the Treasure Island character is equally wobbly: not Israel but Isaac Hands repeated in perpetuity, once and for all, a memory as vivid as the single splash when Israel’s body fell.
- Heaney offers some local colour, particularly the make-and-do of rural Irish life of the 40s and 50s;
- Terra firma: solid ground beneath the feet. Opposite of water
- Linoleum: a period-piece post-war plasticated floor covering much enhanced since those days
- Matinée: from the French; literally a ‘morning-full’; traditionally Saturday-morning cinema was very popular with youngsters; latterly matinée can refer to any performances earlier than the evening one.
- In the story Jim Hawkins shot Hands whose body plunged into the sea in a direct line beneath the crow’s nest.
- assonance: firma/ earlier; alliteration: voice a-waver; single splash;
iv Heaney confesses he is exhibiting the symptoms of advancing years. His memory playing tricks: I age and blank on names; as regards balance and stamina he is aware of my uncertainty on stairs.
He seeks to brush it off: young people, too, need time to build up lacking confidence: the lightheadedness/ Of a cabin boy’s first time on the rigging.
He recognises his short-term memory-loss as just one stage part of a cycle of deterioration whereby ultimately the memorable bottoms out/ Into the irretrievable. For the time being, however, using a Treasure-Island-like metaphor he issues, as a stark reminder (both to those who might be writing him off and as a spur to himself), that his longer-term memory and poetic impulses remain very much alive to the tiniest variations: That slight untoward rupture and world-tilt/ As a wind freshened and the anchor weighed.Stroke might have becalmed him but his creative force is gathering momentum.
- three triplets; no rhyme scheme; lines of differing length ; written as a single sentence round the negative main verb It’s not and its subsequent double-negative;
- three relative clauses that the main verb seeks to counter;
- a poetic fusion of personal feeling and fiction;
- assonance: age/ names; alliteration untoward/ world-tilt/ wind/ weighed;
- memorable: both ‘things you can remember’ and ‘things worth remembering’;
- irretrievable: what the mind can no longer recall, memorable or not; bears interesting comparison with the IT concept of ‘retrievable memory’;
- world-tilt: dual intention: the receding tide leaves the boat with a list; the incoming tide sets it straight. A man, knocked sideways by illness, is kick-started by the return of his life-force. The momentum of the final couplet is from real but barely discernible change (slight rupture) to final preparation for getting under way (anchor weighed);
- rupture: the discernible jolt as wind enters the sails;