Synge on Aran

Synge on Aran

Heaney compares the wind’s erosive force with a poetic voice capable of equal abrasiveness. He portrays a much respected literary figure who accepted a sick man’s exile for a time on one of the Aran islands in Galway Bay in an attempt to overcome a life-threatening illness.

Winds, from all points of the compass, sharpened by Salt off the sea, are like knives that peel and pare down the landscape. Nothing, neither locked rock nor rind of shrivelled ground has resisted their cutting-edge. Chisel-like, these winds fashion Nature, producing bull noses… on cliffs.

The Islanders, too, are for sculpting by sea-winds. Clearly products of their environment, their features and their inner emotions reflect each other: the pointed scowl .. the upturned anchor of the mouth, carved by the wind, the polished head impregnated with thoughts of maritime misfortune.

Enter Synge, his literary characteristics acknowledged by Heaney: his abrasiveness, a hard pen/ scraping in his head; the cutting blade of his pen, a nib filed on a salt wind; his biting commentaries written in ink drawn from the keening sea.

  • Edmund John Millington Synge (1871–1909) was an Irish playwright poet and prose writer also a collector of folklore. He is perhaps best known for the play The Playboy of the Western World, which caused riots during its opening run at the Abbey theatre.
  • Synge suffered from Hodgkin’s disease, a form of cancer at the time untreatable. Yeats recommended he spend time on the Aran Islands in Galway Bay as a health-cure. Despite any benefit he might have derived, Synge eventually died just weeks short of his 38th birthday;
  • the final couplet sets out the physical and intellectual similarities between the man and his chosen environment. Heaney’s description of the elemental power of Nature over things that stand in its way is a deliberate preparation; his human protagonist demonstrates the same uncompromising potential;


  • 16 lines between 5 and 7 syllables in stanzas joined by half lines; varied rhythms from the use of enjambed lines and full-stops in mid line; no formal rhyme scheme (one couplet only);
  • the hissing sibilants [s] of the first couplet are followed by the plosive [p] of peel/ pare; [sk] sculpting/ scowl;
  • vowel echoes are sometimes juxtaposed, sometimes distant: [[i:] sea/ peel; keening sea; [ɒ] locked rock; [ɪ] shrivelled/ chiselled/ cliffs ; nib/ dipped; [au] scowl/ mouth/ drownings;
  • the vocabulary of sharpening and cutting edge, shaping and moulding recurs: whets/ blades; chiselled/ sculpting; carved/ polished/ filed;
  • keening bridges the gap between the sharpness of a keen cutting edge and its equal connotation of grief implicit in drownings; the abiding atmosphere is one of biting, hurting and lamenting;
  • different senses and emotions are well catered for: salt/ peel/ rind of taste; sound: pen scraping; the joint touch and textures of the erosive/ sculpting process: chiselled/ sculpted/ pointed/ carved/ polished.