May 312016
 

The Last Mummer

Heaney revealed that his ‘last mummer is, like the servant boy (of the previous poem), an alter ego of sorts, He, too, is ‘resentful and impenitent’(DOD130).

The narrative interlaces themes of dispossession, endangered tradition, ‘progress’, superstition, remnants of Scottish New Year ‘good luck’ custom and symbols of Catholic communion set against a landscape literally as old as the hills of Ireland. The poem moves from action to elegy.

If Heaney’s servant boy symbol of Irish subjugation was disgruntled but placid by nature, his last mummer, portrayed as the last survivor of an age-old Irish mystery-play tradition, is driven beyond ‘patience’ and ‘counsel’.

I

The representative of Old Ireland has come prepared for direct action: a stone in his pocket,/ an ash-plant under his arm. Emerging furtively and unseen out of the fog he moves stealthily towards the twentieth century equivalent of the Big House, of the sort once confiscated from Irish landowners by English and Scottish colonists and given to their own.

The residents, mesmerized by new-fangled television sets (The luminous screen in the corner has them charmed in a ring) regard as superfluous the mummer and the traditional rural entertainment he and his cast of actors had to offer. As he pauses and reflects a long time behind them, his vexation comes to the boil: no one gives a hoot that once extinct, the magic of mummery and its stock characters are lost forever: St. George, Beelzebub and Jack Straw can’t be conjured from mist.

His frustration turns to violence: He catches the stick in his fist and (his identity shrouded by his disguise) starts beating the bars of the gate. The noises of his powerful attempts to resist the disappearance of what is old Irish are audible: His boots crack the road. The stone/ clatters down off the slates.

II

Heaney expresses his solidarity with this country-boy alternate who resembles him: both were formed (and inhibited) by rural, tribal existence (trammeled in the taboos of the country); both are members of a community conscious of its resistance to subjugation over the centuries but careful not to step out of line (picking a nice way through / the long toils of blood and feuding [‘which make up the national repertoire’ MP97]); both have been two-faced (His tongue went whoring) and paid lip service to their non-Irish ‘bosses’ (the civil tongues ); both sensed the way the wind was blowing (he had an eye for weather-eyes); both were adept at putting it on (could don manners), both knew they were under scrutiny (at a flutter of curtains); neither advanced the Catholic cause.

In the present context the aggressive mummer, while he is the stuff of theatrical legend (His straw mask and hunch were fabulous), is not a million miles away from the guerilla fighter, as shadowy and insubstantial as the fog from which he materialized and into which he returns, disappearing beyond the lamplit / slabs of a yard.

III

Heaney switches personal pronouns, his ‘you’ addresses both himself and his Irish audience. As he reflects on the empty space between rosy fictional images of the New Year and the uglier reality of Catholic destinies (You dream a cricket in the hearth / and cockroach on the floor) the mood moves towards elegy: they are witnessing a terminal moment: a line of mummers/ marching out the door , their presence on the Irish stage no more than a momentary current of air: the lamp flares in the draught.

Paradox is in the air: the damp patch left by the mummers seals their solitude, is not comforting (Melted snow off their feet/ leaves you in peace).

Heaney questions what could possibly be lucky about this low point of recurrent isolation (Again an old year dies). He paints what is left: a reassuring (elevated), wintery moonlit landscape in which a woodcut of Celtic holly trees stands in silhouette against Catholic symbols of kinship (host/ monstrance). What also endures is a memory … of an Irish figure who beat first trail (dark tracks) and cut away the obstacles (untousled) to the promise of warmth and renewal: a first dewy path/ into the summer grazing.

  • mummer: actor in a traditional dumb mimes/ mystery plays dating from medieval times, often performed on Christmas Eve;
  • stone: there is a touch of the Biblical in the link between aggression and justice, between sinlessness with casting first stones (v. St John’s Gospel);
  • ash-plant: Irish dialect word for a type of stick;
  • pad: move with the stealth of an animal;

  • luminous screen: slightly disparaging reference to television set akin to ‘goggle-box;’
  • St. George: mummer character; legendary giant-slaying patron saint of England; symbol of good (unless perhaps you are an Irish victim of invasion);
  • Beelzebub: devil figure; symbol of evil;
  • Jack Straw: a mummer dressed in full straw regalia;
  • shrouded: covered up
  • trammeled: tied up with but restricted by;
  • taboos: restrictive social or religious customs;
  • toils: blood, sweat and tears;
  • feuding: prolonged disputes between families or communities;
  • nice: the blandest of adjectives ostensibly expressing contentment and acceptance, its concealed meaning, however, only discernible through its context; here it smacks of sarcastic distaste and hints at hypocrisy;
  • went whoring: engaged in unworthy pursuits;
  • weather-eye: those who monitored closely for signs of change;
  • don: put on; sense of pretend;
  • flutter: tremulous movement;
  • hunch: the humped deformity of someone’s back;
  • fabulous: both stupendous and the stuff of legend;
  • cricket: grasshopper-like insect; allusion, perhaps to Dickens’ Christmas novella ‘Cricket on the Hearth’;
  • cockroach: an ugly beetle-like scavenger;
  • draught: current of cold in confined spaces;
  • hearthstone: flat stone base;
  • host: sacramental bread referred to as the Body of Christ;
  • monstrance: decorated receptacle in which the Host is displayed in a Roman Catholic church;
  • untousle: clear, unblock;
  • As with ‘The Last Mummer’ Heaney notes ironic links between the mummer/ servant boy and his own Irish identity; he feels caught in a similar clockwork: ‘The last mummer is, like the servant boy, an alter ego of sorts.’ (DOD130);
  • My inspiration was the ‘Christmas rhymers’. I never heard the word ‘mummer’ until years later. But I realized that mumming was what I had witnessed in my early days when neighbours’ young­sters would blacken their faces and dress up in old clothes and come into the house rattling a collection box … The practice was in its last gasp when I encountered it … now you have thriving troupes of mummers all-over he place …’(DOD131);
  • As a minority Catholic from a non-sectarian neighbourhood respectful of affiliations ‘you resented the overall shape of things because you also knew that the Orange arches erected in the vil­lages and at various crossroads were what the Romans might have recognized as a form of jugum or yoke, and when you went under the arches you went sub jugum, you were being subjugated, being taught who was boss, being reminded that the old slogan, ‘a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people’, now had real con­stitutional force. So, ‘resentful and impenitent, you carried the warm eggs of your smile to your marching neighbour and walked tall in defiance of the jugum.’ (DOD133);
  • The historical and political themes in Wintering Out are carried, in a number of poems ( … ) by particular imagined or recalled human figures (for example) ‘The Last Mummer’ (NC30);
  • Heaney himself could be said to act as the brother and keeper of his characters in ‘Bog Oak’, ‘Servant Boy’ and ‘The Last Mummer’, where he gives a place in poetry to those who have usually been excluded from it’ (NC31);
  • In ‘The Last Mummer’, resentment breaks out into retaliation: the mummer, as the ‘last’ representative of the dying forms of rural life casts his stone in anger at one of the homes in which the culture of television has rendered him obsolete and redundant’ (NC32);
  • Another major legacy of colonialism, broached first in ‘The Last Mummer’… is the linguistic dispossession of the Irish people. Though on one level these poems mourn the ‘Vanished music’ (‘A New Song’) of Gaelic, on another they deny silence and loss. Acknowl­edging the debt contemporary Irish writers owe to Joyce, Heaney has commented that thanks to (Joyce) English is by now not so much an imperial humiliation as a native weapon’ (MP97);
  • In ‘The Last Mummer’, the more complex companion piece to ‘Servant Boy’, Heaney again employs a persona to examine and renew his vocation as a poet’ (MP97);
  • In order to understand Heaney’s work at this stage in his career and since, it is essential to try to define his complex and ambivalent attitudes towards Catholicism and Christianity… if Christianity and Christian allusion did indeed possess neither relevance nor moral force, why would it feature in such major poems as ‘The Last Mummer’? … Clearly Catholicism permeates both his poetic consciousness, with its weighty emphasis on ritual supplication, on awe, grace, guilt, humility, responsibility, discipline, and its burdened and burdening vocabulary’ (MP114-5);
  • Sequence of 3 pieces; each of 7 couplets; unrhymed;

  • (i) 7 sentences; (ii) 3 sentences; (iii) 4 sentences;

  • line length largely 7/8 syllables , the shortest of 4 syllables;

  • the balance between enjambed lines and punctuation reflect the staccato aggression of (i);the performing narrative of (ii) and the regret of (iii);

  • (i) the title carries into the first line;

  • story narrated in the present tense ‘as it happens’;

  • vocabulary of insubstantiality/not-precisely-real: ’fog’, ‘pads’, ‘mist’, ‘shrouded;’

  • Vocabulary of hostility and direct action: visual weaponry, resounding verbs;

  • figures from the traditional Irish figures of masque confronted by modernism: synecdoche (‘screen’ for TV set);

  • (II) thinly disguised juxtaposition of masque/ mummer character and the Irishman inside the stage-costume; vocabulary suggest both follow/have followed a script: ‘trammelled’, ‘taboos;

  • stark antithesis: character navigating turbulent history: ‘nice way’/ ‘long toils of blood’;

  • acting talent includes deception in speech and expression: ‘whoring’, ‘eye for weather eye’; who can don a costume can don manners;

  • dual meaning: fabulous to the eye, the stuff of fable;

  • (iii)personal ‘you’: the poet talks to himself and those of his ilk who remember;

  • reference to literature juxtaposes traditional warmth (‘cricket’) and poverty (‘cockroach);

  • vocabulary of severance; contrast of light and dark; juxtaposition of religious and pre-christian; move from the hardship of winter to the productivity of summer *reminder of farming communities);

  • 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 two lines of (1), for example, brings together bilabial [m] and velar plosive [k] and sibilant sounds [s], [z], [ʃ] ;
  • 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.