Oct 142012
 

Belderg

A specific historical site in Ireland provides Heaney with the catalyst for exploring, in congenial dialogue, the linkage between artefacts, peoples, myths, cultures and ancient languages; the piece tells of doggedness, roots and recurrence.

The speaker cites a comment from a ‘local’ about objects that regularly came to light (just kept turning up); given lack of education no thought was originally given to historical linkage and they were written off as foreign. The stone’s central hole made it one-eyed but (unlike the classical one-eyed Cyclops, perhaps) harmlessly benign. The original finder simply kept them lying about his house just Quernstones out of a bog.

Excavation of the bog, to Heaney, reveals layered evidence of the past; peat is the lid.

The eye of the stone now unearthed becomes a pupil dreaming of its original function: grinding Neolithic wheat. Excavation removed the blanket of peat hiding the soft-piled centuries; the bog Fell open like a glib to reveal retrospective evidence: first the plough-marks signs of agriculture, then stone-age fields (see flint), then an excavated: tomb (see bronze): corbelled (for load-bearing purposes) turfed and chambered, its floor soft with dry turf coomb (small soft tufts).

The characteristics of an ancient settlement retrieved from beneath the peat, a landscape fossilized, can still be seen centuries later, repeated before our eyes in the building style of the stone walls of Mayo.

The speaker’s current interlocutor is knowledgeable and articulate: for him the discoveries bear witness to an ancient dogged persistence, an unbroken link of origin and kinship between peoples old and new, a ‘coming together’ based on tenacity and commonality: A congruence of lives. Using tree-rings as analogy, he describes how his locality, his home, stubbed and cleared of stones has developed its own particular growth rings, archaeological indicators of age based on three periods covering between them more than 3000 years BC: the evidenced signs of iron, flint and bronze.

In response the speaker/philologist explores the evidence of continuity as revealed in place-names; I talked of Mossbawn,/ A bogland name. His companion sees inconsistency: ‘But moss?’ Heaney’s speaker can answer the question, linking the Ulster place-name with a more distant dialect from Scandinavia ( in which ‘mosi’ meant both ‘moss’ and ‘bog’) He crossed my old home’s music With older strains of Norse.

For the philologist, word formations and variants of spoken language follow the contours of historical events as mutable as sound. The same word might carry dual possibilities, cross boundaries via its forked root: on the one hand bawn, associable with alien occupiers from England within their English fort and planter’s walled-in mound; on the other an Irish word it offering sanctuary and comfort within its Persistent if outworn Irishness.

The companion enquires further about the Norse link on the speaker’s tree of life. Heaney comes up with a surreal model that befits the presence of scattered quernstones on the site.

He re-enters the distant past through the eye of the quern, as cereal would have been fed to to the stones: Grist to an ancient mill. His imagination conjures up a world tree of balanced stones, each quern the single vertebra of a backbone now lying in pieces , the life-force squeezed out of it by the quern’s original function: The marrow crushed to grounds.

  • Belderg, an excavated settlement in CountyMayo dating from more than 3000BC, during the neolithic, pre-bog period; excavated remains were largely those of a circular dwelling;

  • The Mayo museum’s website suggests that ‘The discovery of what is now known as Céide Fields really began back in the 1930s when a local schoolteacher, Patrick Caulfield from Belderrig, often noticed piles of stones in the bottom of the bog when cutting his turf. To everybody else these were meaningless but he realised two very important points – firstly, the way the stones were piled up couldn’t be natural so somebody had to put them there, and secondly, because they were down underneath the peat they had to be put there prior to the growth of the bog and so must be very ancient… Anyhow, a meeting with Patrick Caulfield (Heaney himself refers to a Seamus Caulfield in 1972 v. DOD p163) was apparently the inspiration. The poem was pinned to the door of his house by Heaney as a thank you note after a visit in 1974.’ www.museumsofmayo.com

  • fragments of quernstones were discovered; stone slabs characterised by a hole in the centre, they were used for grinding cereals;

  • Old Norse was a North Germanic language spoken by inhabitants of Scandinavia and inhabitants of their overseas settlements during the Viking Age, until about 1300; reference to the Norwegian Vikings who might have dwelt in Ireland at the period;

  • the ‘world- tree’ alludes to the Yggdrasil of Norse mythology, a great ash tree a at the centre of the universe, sustaining the Viking world;the Rosala Viking Centre (.com) offers further background to the legend of Yggdrasil;

  • congruence: mid-15c., from L. congruentia “agreement, harmony, congruity,” ‘coming-together’;

  • bawn is an Irish reference to a populated place (a city, town, village, or other agglomeration of buildings where people live and work); an enclosure with mud or stone walls for keeping cattle; a fortification; a metaphorical place of refuge: sanctuary;

  • mutable (adj):late 14c., “liable to change,” from L. mutabilis “changeable,”;

  • planters: beyond a reference to people who plant crops the term is a bone of contention, associated with a 17th century period of Irish history when the island was colonialized and Protestant English-speaking ‘tenants’ installed by the British;

  • growth rings show he annual growth of trees in particular; the concentric rings are reworked here as a metaphor for linear time; Norse ring: the particular ‘growth ring’ applying to the rôle of the Vikings in the history of Irish culture and language;

  • 9 quintets; lines based on 6/7 syllables; enjambment is clustered so the rhythms within the 11 grammatical unit structure make for interestingly varied oral delivery;

  • varied pattern of tight and loose rhymes: peat/ dreaming/ wheat in (2); tomb/ coomb in (3); fossilized/ eyes; Mayo/ go in (4); stones/ bronze in (5); moss/ Norse in (6); sound/ ground/ mound in (7); sanctuary/ tree; outworn/ quern in (8); stones/ grounds in (9);

  • mutable as sound: sound effects in (l.1-15) produce a variety of (initially paired) assonant flavours: [ʌ] just/ turning/ up; [e] Belderg/ benign; later centuries/ fell [ɜː] were/ Quernstones; later were/ first/ turfed/ turf [ai] eyed/ benign;[au] house/ about/ out [ɒ] one/ bog; after (l.5) injection of [ɪ] lift/ lid/ this/ Neolithic/ stripped/ glib [i:] peat/ dreaming/ Neolithic wheat; further change rung in (v.3) [uː] tomb/etc coomb;

  • in the first 15 lines look out for alveolar plosives [t][d] and dental fricative [θ] that provide an alliterative effect: just/ turned/ eyed/ thought;

  • stanzas (4/5) offer frequent assonant [əʊ] stone/ Mayo/ go/ stones/ home/ growth; consonant sounds made in the same area of the mouth ( bilabial plosives [p][b], fricative [f] and sibilants) are evident in this section;

  • (7/8) hang on to [əʊ] So/ old home’s/ older/ told alongside other vowel (o) variants [ɒ] Moss/ bogland/ crossed; [au] how/ foundation/ sound/ ground/ mound [ɔː] Norse/ bawn/ fort/ or; alliterative effects combine sibilant [s] with bilabial nasal [m] in (7) and with alveolar (n) in (8); [ɪ] think etc and [ai] Irish  recur with strong sibilant accompaniment;

  • the final stanza maintains assonant [ɪ] Grist/ mill; [ai] mind’s eye/ piled with consonant [m] [s] and [sh] support:

  • Characteristic features of style include: dense usage of words and words of Anglo-Saxon or Viking origin … the occasional use of compound nouns and adjectives … Gaelic words (glib), archaic and dialect words (coomb)…set in two- or three-stressed lines (MP 129);

  • This introduction to the peoples of olden times will in later poems explore the vision of a Viking world sustained by terror and savagery (NC p65);

  • Language: use of alternative derivations helps to point out relationships;

  • NC suggests that the ensemble of P1 is devoted to establishing a sense of the ‘world tree of balanced stones’;

  • Belderg … covers much of the terrain to be explored in Part I: bogland, Norse history, etymology, culture and agriculture (MP 129);

  • The poem has a rugged, archaic starkness (MP 130).