Dedicated to the memory of Ted Hughes, the piece is concerned with poets: their differing backgrounds and cultures, the respect felt, the reverence generated, the tributes due.
Heaney has posed a question to Hughes about meeting T.S. Eliot. Heaney quotes Hughes’ actual response (confirmed via Dennis O’Donnells Stepping Stones, p.406): like standing on a quay/ Watching the prow of the Queen Mary/ Come towards you, very slowly). A welter of ideas and images is conjured up: a top-of-the-range Blue Riband ship (fastest across the Atlantic) for a Blue Riband poet, metaphor for the rich American poet who moved to Europe and settled in London; a massively calm and collected five-star presence; a phenomenon with unstoppable momentum. All in all Eliot’s name and reputation have left the younger poet in respectful awe.
North-country earthiness when Heaney comes to appraise Hughes: quay is replaced by pierhead, as rough and ready, perhaps, as Hughes’s modest Yorkshire origins; Hughes is not a ‘chauffeured’ passenger as Eliot was. He is the one doing the work in trying to progress; he is sitting in a much more humble craft with its wooden, end-stopped stern. Heaney pays tribute to the ‘electrifying’ effect on him of Hughes ’work, knows well his humble background, his modest fortune, his unfortunate private life and transmits a dourness of personality in Hughes via the title.
In contrast to Eliot’s unstoppable advance Hughes is seeking to move away, to distance himself from those watching him. Sitting with his back to the prow Hughes observes those observing him.
In contrast to the easy comfort of Eliot’s ‘Queen Mary’, to Heaney Hughes Labours (stressing the hard graft required for Hughes to achieve his aims) and shimmers ( reflected dappled light-and-shade rather than wall-to-wall ‘shine’) and dips (does not ‘tower’). Heaney is conscious of Hughes’s will to row against the tide without really getting anywhere: Making no real headway.
- Heaney provides insights into his collaborations with and friendship towards Ted Hughes in his dialogues with Dennis O’Donnell (Stepping Stones, pp 390-396): ‘I did feel completely at ease with him; but … to begin with I was certainly that bit shyer’.
- Hughes is alleged to have struggled against his ‘demons’ and in view of his failed relationship with Sylvia Plath and her suicide, he made little ‘headway’ against his critics. Ultimately, of course, the British Establishment saw fit to honour Ted Hughes as its premier poet.
- T.S. Eliot, American poet who settled in Britain, is regarded as one of the 20th century giants writing in English. Ted Hughes, a generation later, eventually became Poet Laureate. We know that Heaney rated Hughes highly; he was reported as saying that Hughes’s use of language ‘electrified’ him. It is also suggested that he found him ‘gruff’.
- wooden, end-stopped stern: sign of the most modest of boats produced not with elegance in mind, rather cost; analogy driving the cheapest of cars;
- Heaney teases with his title: the obvious boating reference to ‘stern’ is explained in the text; ‘stern’ also has a connotation of earthy dourness applying to Ted Hughes to whose memory the poem is dedicated. Finally deliberately or otherwise the title contains the sonic echo of Eliot’s ‘middle’ name Stearns;
- 12 lines in 2 sections, the first based on direct quotation, the second reflecting on the comparative fortunes of the twp poets; no rhyme scheme; line length varies between 3 and 10 syllables; enjambment particularly in (2);
- sound effects in (1): [ai] like/ I/ like; [i:] Meeting/ he/ quay/ Queen carried into (2): seems/ pierhead/ me; alliterative bi-labial effect of [w]: What was/ When watching/ slowly/ Now/ watching/ watching/ rows/ wooden/ headway; also alliterative [st] end-stopped stern;
- triple verbs of effort, light and movement: Labours/ shimmers/ dips;