Seamus Heaney - Album - Poetry Analysis

Nov 072011
 

Album

‘Album is a sequence of pictures painted in remembrance and with regret. A motif is introduced: a father-son relationship and the rueful recollection of ‘the Irishman’s reluctance to be too showy in affection, especially in affection between men’.  Thomas McCarthy writing in the Irish Examiner September 2010

  Heaney’s world has shrunk to the size of the room in which he convalesces; he allows a modern domestic sound to act as catalyst to a fund of memories within him. He pays tribute to the nature of his own parents’ love for one other.

As the heating boiler comes to life/ Abruptly, drowsily, its ignition sound sets off a memory-chain from early lifeemerging like the timed collapse/ Of a sawn down tree . His focus is revealed: them, unnamed but requiring no introduction. Familiar neighbourhood and time-of-year follow, summer’s long days (echoed in it dawns on me);  the period, too: Grove Hill before the oaks were cut. Use of the modal auxiliary Could have been  may allude to a time before Heaney’s birth.

He pictures himself with them at a later date, gazing from an oft-visited vantage-point overlooking Magherafelt’s four spires … on airy Sundays and at an earlier time of year: shin-deep in hilltop bluebells.  

Heaney laments his parents’ passing: Too late, alas  for him to transmit to them the apt quotation  to salute the sense of security they gave him as a child, sharing to Heaney’s mind a single-minded, practical if unshowy love … proved by steady gazing/ Not at each other but in the same direction.

  • 4 tercets, 3 devoted to setting the scene; 3 lines combining elegy with a  positive judgment on solid, shared parental  convictions;
  • actual place-names of Heaney’s acquaintance;
  • the oak, picked up again in the next piece is symbolic of things durable, strong and constant;
  • modal auxiliary verbs (generally could/should/would/must) used, perhaps, to indicate uncertainty of memory or even a moment before Heaney’s birth (Could have been), then another with Heaney present (often stand);
  • assonance: by and large in Human Chain, Heaney resists cornering himself into formal rhyme schemes. He keeps his options open and exercises his mastery of form in the composition by providing a rich and varied menu of sound-chains, from identical vowel shape to words that contain a vague sonic echo. Heaney places his assonances in ostensibly random but in fact quite deliberate order, now juxtaposed, now separated by other figures. He has the talent to produce perfectly tuned phrases and uses his skill at playing with the musicality of language and word order to generate beautifully turned passages;
  • assonance is a strong feature of the first half: oil/ boiler; season/ been; Grove/ oaks
  • velar sounds [t] and [l] measure passing time like a metronomeToo late, alas/ apt quotation; steady; Not at… / but. 

 

ii Heaney is a former pupil of St Columb’s College, a selective Catholic Boys’ Secondary school in Londonderry that he attended as a boarder in the 1950’s. This poem recalls the badge and motto of the college and reminds us of the classical education that the poet received there. The poem’s deeper purpose reports Heaney’s appreciation, with hindsight, that his sense of imminent separation and exile was an ordeal his parents shared but had the strength to hide.

Heaney focuses on the green leaves and acorns in mosaic of St Columb’s badge: the oak tree is quercus. He selects one of the Latin words from its motto: quaerite (avoiding, perhaps by design, the religious elements of the motto}; he selects the dove symbol (Latin Columba) of St Colum Cille.  His privilege is to stand in the college precincts, a place of refuge protected by one of Ireland’s greatest missionary-saints: Derry’s sainted grove. The school’s motto has stood the test of time, footworn (by the imprint of countless pupils)… indelible, a word that will recure later in the collection.

Heaney clarifies the Latin, if you have not understood: Seek ye first the Kingdom but stops short of the motto’s specific reference to God. He stands poised to enter this new kingdom as a 11 year old boarder, a moment of huge emotional upheaval for self and parents. He has won his place via a selection process: Fair and square.

Heaney selects a line from the 11th/12th century text he will weave into the later poem, Colum Cille Cecini (iii). In the latter, unlike Heaney, the exiled Saint’s expatriate grey eyenever again saw what he had left behind. In contrast Heaney’s sees his parents now as a couple… all the more together, all the stronger for putting on a brave face. For the first time he recognises the parental wrench required to deliver a cherished son to the unknown, to the hands of boarding-school staff. Heaney acknowledges their duty to turn and walk away, and their solidarity: as close/ In the leaving (or closer) as in the getting or begetting (of a son).

  • if Heaney was not always present in the previous piece, in this one he is;
  • as he dips into the past he has the age and experience to understand the complex emotions that as a child he did not yet possess;
  • the theme of separation is double-layered: by now his parents are long dead; he relives feelings similar to separation from them as an adolescent;
  • 4 tercets; shorter, sharper  grammatical units at the outset; declamatory quaerite, Seek ye ; then a long single sentence encapsulating the deeper message phrased so as to provide rhythm and movement in delivery;
  • tercet 1 dominated by the velar plosive, hard c [k] sound, then alliterative [d] plosives in the next;
  • assonance: Fair and square, indicating ‘justly deserved’;
  • for the first time: as if age has added a new perspective (Heaney claimed tongue-in-cheek that it took him 14 years to realise he actually had won the Nobel Prize);
  • ‘close/ closer’ offers both an emotional and physical dimension.

iii A different season: winter at the seaside; a distant retrospective: his parents’ wedding meal. Heaney is uninvited, non-existent, a ‘prequel, a spirit of his parents’ future, a ‘twinkle in their eye’, but ineluctable, an inescapable future reality. He describes the impact on the senses: a skirl of gulls (with all the nasal stridency of bagpipes); a fish: Plump, dormant silver; both platter and couple like ‘fish out of water’: Stranded silence; an emotion: Tears; a level of restaurant service to match a special day: Their bibbed waitress unlids a clinking dish … chandeliers.

No fuss from the waitress: they are left to it once the serving is completed. Heaney recalls that the absence of heightened emotions between the newly-weds on their wedding-day will characterise their married life. Its anniversary is an event that They are not ever going to observe/ Or mention even in the years to come. 

Though as yet unborn he remains part of their destiny: a man drove them here  … and by evening we’ll be home.

  • his parents’ lack of excitement on a special day echoes Heaney’s view of their temperament; speaking to Robert McCrum he indicated that the Heaney side was much graver and less convivial than his mother’s side. This reluctance to show and respond to emotions of love will resurface in his father-son poems;
  • Heaney has inherited some of this ‘aloofness’ from his parents and will reflect on it in the next piece..
  • 4 tercets: 1- a presence; 2 – an event; 3 – an atmosphere of silence between two ‘small’ people in a large room; 4 – his future presence  confirmed
  • unusually a rhyme scheme: ineluctable/ table; fish/ dish/ this; tears / chandeliers; come/ home;
  • assonance seaside/ meal; unlids/ dish
  • plosive [t] sound dominates the first triplet giving way to sibilants [s] [sh] ;
  • synaesthesia: skirl of gulls (you hear the one, see the other);
  • sentence length and punctuation: the short, discreet phrases of stanza 2 that build in pause and invite changes of modulation sit comfortably with numerous enjambed lines ;
  • Heaney uses the same phrase to provide a skilfully contrived bridge: the wedding fish is as stranded and silent as the atmosphere between newly-weds in the restaurant;

iv Heaney explores his own difficulty in communicating emotionally with his father; a lingering sense of missed opportunity and failure finds expression. The piece concludes that the anguish of temporary separation is as nothing compared with permanent severance. 

Demonstrating openly to his father that he loved him presented him with few opportunities! Heaney’s desire to embrace his father might have been fulfilled, but wasn’t, immediately prior to his departure as an 11-year-old boarder: on the riverbank/ That summer before college when his father was in his prime

With hindsight he recognises that his father’s attentions at their point of separation was the latter’s own inhibited attempt at closeness. Heaney, as boys of that age tend to, wrote it off as nuisance: he must/ Keep coming with me because I’d soon be leaving.

The second attempt was successful; it happened years later in New Ferry, by which time Heaney had reached drinking-age. His embrace came in response to his father’s helplessly undignified state and his inability to oppose it: he was very drunk and needed help/ To do up his trouser buttons.

On the final occasion he kissed a sick father living through his last week and reduced to basic needs: helping him to the bathroom. Heaney recalls his father’s inability to hold himself up: my right arm/ Taking the webby weight of his underarm.

 

  • 4 tercets in 2 halves;
  • use of subjunctive: were I to have;
  • internal rhyme: prime/ time; arm/ underarm;
  • alliteration: webbed weight; the adjectival past participle alludes to the underarm tendons tensed in a dying man’s struggle to move.

 

  Heaney reflects upon generational differences: the grandson has no truck with the emotional inhibitions of his elders: It took a grandson to do it properly. His method: rush his grand-dad With a snatch attack on his neck….. a sudden one-off.

Heaney suggests that his father’s discouragement of outward expressions of affection from his own son, resulting perhaps from his own embarrassment and fluster, actually deprived the old man of pleasure, the sudden kiss Proving him thus vulnerable to delight.

The grand-child’s kiss with its sudden epic quality, brought awareness, delivered a great proof , leading to slow enlightenment (in whose mind precisely, son’s or father’s or both, Heaney leaves us to decide): the steady dawning/ Of whatever erat demonstrandum (‘was proved’).

In a reference to Aeneas’ success in finding his father’s shade in Virgil’s Aenied vi, Heaney contrasts his own insubstantial efforts: a son’s three tries/ At an embrace in Elysium; real-life recollections that Swam up as from the Underworld into my very arms

Heaney wants the truth to be known and clarifies the sincerity and depth of his affection for his father via a linguistic ‘tip’: very … in and out of the Latin stem. As an adjective ‘verus’ meant true in Latin; this is lost in the English adverbial use of ‘very’.. 

  • beyond QED (quod erat demonstrandum), a Latin phrase denoting mathematical proof, the stolen kiss gives what is a familiar event for most families epic proportions in the case of the Heaney men;
  • in the Classical Underworld, famously described by Latin author Virgil in Aenied vi, the Elysian Fields were the final resting places of the souls of the heroic and the virtuous. For some this was a threshold to reincarnation; others were condemned to remain there in perpetuity;
  • the mythological aspect is maintained: embraces materialised (swam up) from a nether world inhabited by spirits, shades and phantoms;
  • in grammar the root or main part of a noun or verb that remains unchanged when inflections are added is referred to as the stem;
  • water imagery, classical allusions and the general tone of the piece go hand in hand: for example three of the 5 rivers of the Underworld represented sorrow, lamentation and forgetfulness.
  • the description of a grandson’s assault borrows the vocabulary of military opportunism;
  • alliteration of the final consonant: demonstrandum … Elysium … phantom.

 

The sequence:

  • Poems such as Album trace the development of emotional relationships as the individuals involved change and age, imbuing each moment with a significance that resonates throughout the collection. Fascination with the captured moment may be a theme found in earlier work renewed in Human Chain, but Heaney’s current perspective as a septuagenarian under some threat allows his poems to dip in and out of a lifetime, from his boyhood through…. Christine Fears writing in The Literateur of 13th September 2010