An elegiac sequence dedicated to the memory of Colin Middleton, the eminent Irish artist (who described himself as the sole surrealist painter of his time in Ireland); he died at the end of 1983. He was a friend of the Heaneys even selling them a piece of his work for thirty Guineas/ Forty-odd years ago.
i Heaney portrays the expressiveness of the artist’s face, fusing the effects of Middleton’s addiction and the intensity with which his artist’s eye focussed on you: as if there wereSmoke … already in his eyes/ The way he’d narrow them to size you up.
Recalling Middleton as a chain smoker, all the while/ Licking and sealing a hand-rolled cigarette, Heaney likens Each small ash increment flicked off/ As white as flecks on the horizon line, as subtle colour shades present in the painting that has lived on after the artist’s death.
His attention drawn to the canvas, Heaney picks out compositional detail: Whitewashed gables/ Like petals stripped from hawthorn; the predominant heather ground of an area of Donegal retaining traditional Irishness with its pother of Gaeltacht turf smoke. Middleton’s artistic routine as he sized up a potential composition was identical whenever the two met: gazing, grunting … and nodding.
- The Donegal Gaeltacht is in the West of the County and is the largest Irish speaking district in Ireland. In these areas Irish is the spoken language of everyday life and is reflected in the song, literature and folklore of the people.
- 4 triplets; lines based on 10 syllables; no rhyme scheme;
- Assonance: eyes/ size; alliteration: flicked/ flecks; hawthorn, heather;
- Use of present participles expresses something habitual with potentially repeated acts: gazing/ grunting/ nodding
ii Heaney reflects on afterlife, a painter-friend reduced by death to memories and to the painting on the wall : cloud-boil of grey weather …/Like murky crystal, a remembered stare.
The poet compares his own, mortal, here-and-now take on ‘afterlife’ with the views of two classical authors who watched immortal souls: Dante Alghieri (he of the Divine Comedy) and Plato (he of The Republic).
Heaney’s chosen characters appeared in their works where they were portrayed as privileged individuals permitted not only to return to earth after death but to Choose lives to come according, as they were/ Fulfilled or repelled by existences they’d known/ Or suffered. In line with classical mythology, Odysseus chose a far humbler life than his previousgreat, far-seeing existence; Orpheus, who had perished at the women’s hands chose rebirth as a swan.
- The myth of Er concludes Plato’s The Republic. After death in battle, Er revived when on his funeral-pyre and told of his afterlife journey, including an account of reincarnation. The tale introduces the idea that moral people are rewarded and immoral people punished after death.
- Odysseus: legendary king of Ithaca and Greek hero during the Trojan War, celebrated in Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad; also as Ulysses in Virgil’s Aenied;
- Orpheus: already encountered in Route 110 and celebrated in Classical literature as an eminent poet and musician, Orpheus was torn to pieces by the female Maenads for spurning his patron god Dionysus in favour of sun-god Apollo; he chose reincarnation as a swan.
- 4 triplets; lines based on 10 syllables; no rhyme scheme;
- Alliteration: cloud-boil/ murky crystal; fulfilled/ repelled; concentration of sibilants [s], [sh] and [z]: Saw/ far-seeing/ Odysseus … choose for himself/ destiny; Orpheus/ perished women’s hands/ Choose/ swan;
iii Moving from classical to contemporary ‘philosophy’, Heaney, as a creative individual rooted in the here-and-now, ponders his position in relation to what his Catholic training might tell him about life beyond death. He is contrasting mysterious with real, sizing up the gamble of living life without keeping one eye fixed on propriety. The answer is elusive.
Heaney’s initial questions suggest religious lapse and lack of certainty. Whilst acknowledging the Christian notion of the Kingdom of God he queries his own efforts to achieve it. The subsequent question, echoing the Lord’s Prayer, asks whether it can ever be a reality. The prayer’s invitation ‘Thy Kingdom come …’ instilled in him since baptism and throughout his subsequent relationship with the Catholic church, behind its scrim since font and fontanel is deep-seated: Breaks refracted like light on water.
Seeking spiritual truth possesses the same unbalancing effect on Heaney as his memory of a seemingly absurd, irrational yet clearly remembered habit of Middleton’s: to check his composition the artist would turn away from the motif,/ Spread his legs, bend low, then look between them; his pretext for this incongruous act of seeing things upside-down was to seek For the mystery of the hard and fast / To be unveiled.
Middleton’s posture, his inverted face contorting/ Like an arse-kisser’s in some vision of the damned conjured up that corner of Renaissance ‘Last-Judgment’ murals that depicts sinners being forked down to hell or the incongruous postures to be found in a Breughel canvas.
Then, as if nothing was, Middleton would revert to normal stance, cock an eye and use his paint-brush to check his dimensions, poised to begin: readying.
- Scrim: an tough, open-weave, see-through material used in upholstery;
- 4 triplets; lines based on 10 syllables; no rhyme scheme;
- alliteration: scrim since font and fontanel (the former a church receptacle for baptismal water, the latter a spot on a baby’ skull where water might be sprinkled at baptism);back/ cock; arse-kisser’s vision;
- cleverly interwoven sound chains: Breaks like light on water; inverted face contorting; spread/ bend;
- Mystery of the hard and fast: the use of oxymoron seeks to explain the artist’s personalised interpretation of visual data common to everyone (all the more since Middleton painted surrealistic canvases);
iv Heaney introduces us to another kingdom familiar to him dating from his middle teens: the Gaeltacht where traditional Irish language, education, customs, and folklore prevailed.
His regret is that, a beginner at the time, he now realizes that he missed out on much of what he has since learnt: Had I had sufficient Irish in Rannafast. The lack of Irish language obstructed early familiarity with Irish terms: seanchas (lore) and disseanchas (the lore associated with places).
Rann na Feirste He was young and immature: too young and too shy. Nor had his previous reading included the folk story about Caoilte/ Hunting the fawn from Tory and entering the mythical subterranean kingdom (identified as the house of the Sidhe in the original Fianna story): a fairy hill where he wasn’t turned away with its crystal chair on the hill floor/While a girl with golden ringlets harped and sang.
The strength of his unfulfilled longing to know more and his thirst to know the Irish language were not sufficiently evolved at that moment to permit him the upward leap through that cloud-swabbed air, that would have opened myth-horizons to where the far ‘Lake of the Yew Tree’ gleamed.
- is a Gaeltacht townland of NW Donegal; every summer it is filled with thousands of students from other parts of Ireland who come to the area, stay with local families and improve their Irish language skills. In turn this introduces them to the wealth of mythological stories to be found in the Irish Fenian Cycles.
- Tory Island (Oileán Thoraigh) is located nine miles off the Donegal coast and is the most distant of the Donegal islands According to legend he story of Caoilthe took place there.
- 4 triplets; free verse based around 10-syllable lines; some end-of-line (loose) rhymes: Rannafast/ stand/ dinnscheanchas; door/ floor; leap/ gleamed;
- sibilant [sh] sounds in stanza 1;
- weave of assonances and alliterations in stanza 2: repeated too; story/ Tory/ door;
- Stanza 3: fairy/ chair; girl with golden ringlets;
- Stanza 4: language and longing/ lightened/ Lake; leap/ gleamed;
- use of the subjunctive reinforces regret: for had read ‘if only I had…’
v As he drives along Heaney reflects Proust-like on notions of time and space and change. In one dende physical distance has shrunk thanks to rapid transportation; what seemed a distant image in iv is Not all that far, as it turns out. As his thinking evolves the natural landmark he can see On the skyline the one constant thing, Donegal’s tallest peak, becomes the exception confirming a conviction that too much has been lost.
At the very instant when he is yearning for the warm feel of belonging, his exposure to transformations wreaked upon the man-made landscape has left him with a feeling of alienation from his roots: unhomesick; he is incredulous at the extent to which subsidised modernity has taken away the individuality and variety he knew: unbelieving,/ … A grant-aided, renovated scene.
Scouring his memory for the Greek word signifying/ A world restored completely would offer little reassurance in the here-and-now since restoration would not be complete without: people familiar to him speaking the Mother tongue: Hannah Mhór’s turkey-chortle of Irish; a landscape cleared of human development: The swan at evening over Loch an Iubhair (the ‘Lake of the Yew Tree’ of iv); tastes and brands long disappeared, Clarnico Murray’s hard iced caramels, A penny an ounce over Sharkey’s counter bought at 1950’s prices from shops now disappeared.
- In ‘A la Recherche du Temps Perdu’, the much respected 20th century French novelist Marcel Proust sought intimate recall of his past. At certain moments it was a smell or a taste that would trigger involuntary memories; in this piece the memory-taste of a caramel sweet might have acted as a catalyst to reflection;
- Errigal Mountain or Errigal situated in Gweedore, Donegal, is the tallest peak of the Derryveagh mountains in the Northwest of Ireland with a height of 749 metres(2,457 feet);
- Clarnico: a confectionary firm founded in 1872, eventually swallowed up by a larger conglomerate; its mints are still marketed under the brand-name but Heaney’s favoured flavour seems to have disappeared;
- Grant-aid: subsidies available from higher bodies, say, central government or European Union for specific developments; a modern concept;
- 4 triplets; free verse; a single sentence broken by a colon; the combination of punctuation and enjambement provides for interesting rhythmical dynamics;
- Assonance: one constant; Mhór/ chortle;
- uncoupling the past: unhomesick, unbelieving;
- He(aney) is 70 now, and lingering on old age, whether in his grandparents’ or his parents’ generation, his friends’, and, of course, most unflinching, on his own. “So this is what an afterlife can come to,” he mulls in “Loughanure.” The majority of the poems in “Human Chain” are elegiac, eloquently remembering the losses that accumulate around the one who survives to memorialize them Dave Lucas on Cleveland.com, September 22nd, 2010.
- The elegiac sequence “Loughanure”… is an expansive exercise in pushing the bounds of elegy towards a visionary content that surpasses the need to console or be consoled. Consisting of five of the twelve-line units which are the dominant form in Human Chain (Heaney is taking up again the verse form of his metaphysical “Squarings” sequence in Seeing Things), “Loughanure” uses a Middleton painting bought by the poet …as an opening into a country partly real and partly imagined, which features both the mythological figure of Caolite “In a fairy hill” and, at its ending, “Clarnico Murray’s hard iced caramels / A penny an ounce over Sharkey’s counter”. There is no doubting the solidity of the recollection of this sweetshop; but no gainsaying, either, the immaculate architecture of sounds in Heaney’s lines, as though the fitting equivalent to one artwork (Middleton’s landscape) had been found in the verbally perfect miniature provided at the end of this poem. In between, there is the whole complex and contingent material of two lives looking the same way in parallel, aware of the mythic depths in “a cloud-boil of grey weather on the wall”. Peter McDonald, Sunday Times of Oct 13, 2010