A Sofa in the Forties
A sequence of four poems is set in the living area of the Heaney family’s farm at Mossbawn.
Heaney reflected on this early period of his life in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: In the nineteen forties, when I was the eldest child of an ever-growing family in rural Co. Derry, we crowded together in the three rooms of a traditional thatched farmstead and lived a kind of den-life.
Make-believe required specific individual contributions that led to family solidarity:
The children are all positioned on the sofa In a line, kneeling/ Behind each other. Whilst there is already a hierarchy (eldest down to youngest) they all demonstrate a common, energetic purpose: Elbows going like pistons, for this was a train.
In real terms the game was restricted to a small area between the jamb-wall and the bedroom door in but in the childish imagination things were no boundaries: Our speed and distance were inestimable. They dramatized each stage: first the locomotive (we shunted, then we whistled); then an elected, appropriately serious inspector of pretend tickets: Somebody collected the invisible/For tickets and very gravely punched it.
Momentum increased As carriage after carriage under us/ Moved faster, chooka-chook and reverberations transmitted downwards: the sofa legs/ Went giddy. The adults joined in the spirit of the pretence: the unreachable ones/Far out on the kitchen floor began to wave (there was peculiarly British habit of waving at passing trains and passengers waving back).
His memory suddenly darkening, the poet alludes to the holocaust atrocities of WWII that the children at that stage could not have known about: Ghost-train? Death gondola?
The sofa’s appearance (carved , curved ends,/ Black leatherette and ornate gauntness) lent it the image of some funeral-barge afloat on a Venetian canal: Made it seem the sofa had achieved/ Flotation. Its design (braid and fluent backboard) and posture (castors on tip-toe) were suggestive of a throne from which to witness outdated ceremonial display: airs /Of superannuated pageantry.
It played another more formal role When visitors endured it, straight-backed,/ When it stood off in its own remoteness, less comfortable and aloof. At Christmas time it reflected wartime shortages and lack of income especially in large families When the insufficient toys appeared on it.
Christmas mornings were significant: the sofa held out as itself, at once Santa’s sky-flying sleigh of the imagination (Potentially heavenbound), yet rooted in reality (earthbound for sure), at once part of rural Irish festivities that endured (might add up) or a Santa myth that would ultimately be dashed (let you down).
A further set of reminiscences focuses on 1940s BBC radio, the ‘wireless’ that transmitted information to the young uninitiated entering history and ignorance and entertained them. The brothers and sisters sat together Under the wireless shelf listening to compulsive Children’s Hour westerns: Yippee-i-ay/ Sang ‘The Riders of the Range’.
Information came out of London via an impeccably-spoken King’s-English voice beyond contention (absolute) totally at odds with the accent they were hearing on a rural Ulster farmstead: A great gulf was fixed where pronunciation / Reigned tyrannically.
The wireless signals were captured from the air by an aerial wire; at Mossbawn it Swept from a treetop down in through a hole/Bored in the windowframe. He worked out the frustrating variations in sound reception: When it moved in wind, The sway of language and its furtherings/ Swept and swayed in us like nets in water. Competing sound-wave shapes from outside included the railway: the abstract, lonely curve of distant trains.
One by one the children born without foreknowledge into history and ignorance presented a blank page upon which the lessons of experience would be imprinted.
The train-sofa, experience has already taught them discomfort (We occupied our seats with all our might, /Fit for the uncomfortableness) and the value of perseverance: Constancy was its own reward already.
The drama-journey unfolds theatrically: people looking out (Somebody craned to the side); the main man (driver or/ Fireman, wiping his dry brow) worthy of hero status after a punishing ordeal (one who had run the gauntlet) with no time to think of anyone else: We were/ The last thing on his mind.
A final obstacle is navigated in pitched darkness: we sensed /A tunnel coming up, releasing them on the other side Like unlit carriages through fields at night.
The routine is set: sit, eyes straight ahead, /And be transported at once conveyed by the train and elated. Without exception they know not to break the spell: make engine noise.
- jamb: the vertical portion of the door-frame onto which a door is secured
- pistons: the parts of a steam locomotive’s engine that pump to impart motion;
- whistled: the British steam locomotives of the 1940s emitted a very particular clear, high-pitched whistle sound immediately recognisable to those who heard it;
- shunted: pushed or pulled (a train or part of a train) from the main line to a siding or from one line of rails to another;
- punched: a pair of clippers was used to make a hole in the ticket; the hole ensured that it could not be used twice;
- chooka-chook: a childish chant that accompanied an imagined journey on a train as it jolted from rail to rail;
- death-gondola: funerals in Venice have still to be conducted using a funeral gondola with its visible black coffin with all its trimmings;
- leatherette: affordable imitation leather
- castors: small swivelling wheels fixed to the legs or base of a heavy piece of furniture so that it can be moved easily.
- fluent: graceful, with flowing curves;
- superannuated: out-dated or obsolete;
- add up: make sense
- Yipee-i-ay: the call of children imitating cowboys! In an expression of wild excitement or delight:
- Riders of the Range: in the late 1940s and early 50s, BBC radio broadcasted a regular evening slot for children that followed the adventures of cowboys working on the open plains of Wild-West America; it regularly attracted an audience of 10 million;
- furtherings: echoes
- crane: to stretch out in order to see something;
- run the gauntlet: a form of physical punishment where a captive ran between two rows – a gauntlet – of soldiers who repeatedly struck them; here ‘worked exceedingly hard’;
- transported: both physical transport, imagined circumstances and emotional bliss;
- “Transportation”, at both the carnal and the spiritual levels, is one of the book’s main themes; and its pages are therefore crowded with vehicles Nicholas Jenkins Walking on Air in the TLS of July 5th 1996:
- the historical setting of the piece: Heaney is in his late fifties when the collection is published; he would not have reached secondary school until 1950; he under ten years of age;
- the final 12 lines are devoted to the sofa game which translates into a kind of parable
- In (‘A Sofa in the Forties’) the children’s pretence that their sofa is a railway train (‘chooka-chook’) is firstly dramatized fondly … but then takes on much darker connotations as this train becomes transparent … to the historically aware, mature consciousness of the poet: (conscious of) the ‘ghost trains’ and ‘death-gondolas’ which ferried their victims to the Nazi concentration camps of Germany and Poland during the Second World War. To enter history and ignorance, then, is to have a pristine childhood delight permanently shadowed by the knowledge first that you do not know, and then by the knowledge of atrocity. NC (p191)
- a time of innocence or ignorance will ultimately be replaced by full historical and political awareness. Heaney’s Nobel Lecture, carries the argument back to when the kitchen really was the cosmos:
(Mossbawn) was more or less emotionally and intellectually proofed against the outside world. It was an intimate, physical, creaturely existence in which the night sounds of the horse in the stable beyond one bedroom wall mingled with the sounds of adult conversation from the kitchen beyond the other. We took in everything that was going on, of course — rain in the trees, mice on the ceiling, a steam train rumbling along the railway line one field back from the house — but we took it in as if we were in the doze of hibernation. … With help from the radio, the nine kids left the three rooms for everywhere: “We entered history and ignorance / Under the wireless shelf Steve King Today in Literature (undated);
- Heaney read this poem at the Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration. (It) juxtaposes the make-believe play of the children with the terror and tragedy of the Jewish people as they are transported across Europe to their deaths English@cc blog Feb 28, 2008;
- 4 poems each of four triplets, in the first, line-length based on 11 or 12 syllables; in the second 9 syllables; thereafter 10 syllables; all pieces are unrhymed;
- The use of punctuation and enjambed lines varies as do therefore the rhythms of individual piece;
- (1), a two sentence construct, contains vocabulary of variable momentum ‘pistons’ to ‘giddy’ reflected in an accelerando ultimately slowing to near stop; period railway usage from ‘shunted’ to ‘punched’; use of simile; use of italicised onomatopoeia;
- (2), a four sentence construct with 2 short questions, seeking answers the fourth a long reflection on the sofa’s different roles contains Venetian references that images of gondolas will vouch for; vocabulary associated with three elements (only fire missing); use of oxymoron ‘ornate gauntness’; word order changed to form a chiasmus (l.11)
- (3), a five sentence construct, contains vocabulary associated with period radio programmes and its power ‘absolute’ ‘ruled tyrannically’; use of simile; coined vocabulary to do with the physics of sound: ‘furtherings’, ‘curve’; combination of objective observation and more abstract responses; mainly air and earth;
- (4), a four sentence construct; children’s game with mature interjections; ; military comparison ‘gauntlet’; use of simile; pun on ‘transported’;
- Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to.
- the music of the poem: thirteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text:
- alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies:
- the first triplet of ‘Sofa’, for example, stirs together sibilant [s] alveolar nasal [n]alveolar plosive [t] bilabial plosives [b] and [p];
- it is well worth teasing out the sound clusters for yourself to admire the poet’s sonic engineering:
- Consonants (with their phonetic symbols) can be classed according to where in the mouth they occur
- Front-of-mouth sounds voiceless bi-labial plosive [p] voiced bi-labial plosive [b]; voiceless labio-dental fricative [f] voiced labio-dental fricative [v]; bi-labial nasal [m]; bilabial continuant [w]
- Behind-the-teeth sounds: voiceless alveolar plosive [t] voiced alveolar plosive [d]; voiceless alveolar fricative as in church match [tʃ]; voiced alveolar fricative as in judge age [dʒ]; voiceless dental fricative [θ] as in thin path; voiced dental fricative as in this other [ð]; voiceless alveolar fricative [s] voiced alveolar fricative [z]; continuant [h] alveolar nasal [n] alveolar approximant [l]; alveolar trill [r]; dental ‘y’ [j] as in yet
- Rear-of-mouth sounds: voiceless velar plosive [k] voiced velar plosive [g]; voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] as in ship sure, voiced post- alveolar fricative [ʒ] as in pleasure; palatal nasal [ŋ] as in ring/ anger.