Feb 242012
 

Hōfn

 

The omens and warnings of Anything Can Happen and In Iowa ensure that the mere mention of natural phenomena in decline reinforces fear of global threat. The first-person speaker recounts a personal experience over-flying the massive glacier behind the town of Hōfn in south-east Iceland.
Heaney does not mince words: The three-tongued glacier has begun to melt. The Icelanders foresee  a bleak scenario: boulder milt (a porte-manteau word  combining ‘melt’ and ‘silt’), produced when liquid momentum sends natural geological debris wallowing across the delta flats and miles-deep shag-ice shifts.

Seen from the plane the ‘living’ glacier seems to his untrained eye to be in order ridged and rock-set, old as time. With its Undead grey-gristed earth-pelt, aeon scruff, its textures, the grinding process of ice upon ice and irregular projecting surfaces, it stretches out like skin stripped from an animal.

The glacier is hostile to the speaker who feared its coldness. Its frigor interfered with normality putting an iceblock on plane window dimmed with breath and holding in its permafrost Deepfreeze grip the seep of adamantine tilth (diamond-hard icy conditions prevent both cultivation of the earth and the speaker’s mental ability to compose and transmit the meaning of what he sees): every warm, mouthwatering word of mouth.

The poem’s darkness deepens when first and last lines are juxtaposed, widening the chasm between the three-tongued glacier and the single-tongued human mouth. Man, who is acknowledged by most to be at the origin of the destructive impact on the environment, is inhibited from reporting it.

  • 10 lines based on 10 syllables with 3 tercets and a final line; a loose, variable rhyme scheme;
  • 6 lines contain 7 compound adjectives (Three-tongued) and nouns (boulder-milt)
  • terms part geological/ part poetical: boulder-milt (related to melt); shag-ice coarsely textured ice (see also scruff); vocabulary of cold: iceblock, deepfreeze; of melt: boulder-milt, wallowing, seep, mouthwatering;
  • sound effects. In sentence (1) [i:] three/ we/ deep/ aeon;ʊboulder/ wallowing; [ai] miles/ ice; alliterative effects of [w] aspirated what/ when; unaspirated we/ wallowing; [m] miles/ makes;
  • compounds in line 6: alliterative grey-gristed  contains notions of colour, ground-up matter (grist) and grinding materials (grit); earth-pelt ice stretched like a layer of skin; aeon-scruff roughness, the age of the universe;
  • final lines contain assonances:[ɪə] undead/ breath; [i:] feared/ seemed/ Deepfreeze/ seep; [ɔː] warm mouthwatering  [ɪwindow dimmed/ tilth  [æ] adamantine and alliterative effect: [w]  warm mouthwatering word;     

 

  • Dennis O’Driscoll’s Stepping Stones (p. 411) places the poem in context: Heaney toured Iceland with piper  Liam O’Flynn on a joint poetry/ music venture; en route to their next destination Heaney overflew ‘ this stony grey scar of ice …we learned that the ice is actually melting. As a ‘child of earth’ I’ve rarely felt more exposed ‘
  • Which isn’t to say Heaney has taken his eye off new and distinctly contemporary dangers. Whereas his earlier books gave a voice to the most violent phases of “the Troubles”, this casts wary glances at the peace, and associates its fragility with other and even larger issues. His “adoring” of the natural world is intensified by worry about the planet – about “rising waters” in “In Iowa”, and about a melting glacier in “Höfn”. Digging deep Andrew Motion The Guardian, Saturday 1 April 2006