A mini-epic in 5 parts in which Heaney showcases both his scholarship as a classicist and translator (what he modestly describes as ‘a certain amount of book work’) and his lyrical talent. He recounts the return to Mycenae of Agamemnon and his murder at the hands of his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus.
The fineness of the writing, the density and sustained intensity of the narrative, the richness of its symbolic plane and allegorical possibility, its shifts in structure, tone and style place the sequence at the very highest level of late twentieth century lyric poetry.
In conversation with DOD Heaney revealed the event that triggered the sequence; in doing so he invited us to watch the narrative unfold against the backdrop of contemporary Northern Irish problems; though the poem was written after the 1994 cessation (see Foreword), the impulse was to give a snarl rather than sing a hymn. ( ) It wasn’t a matter of what was happening just then, more a rage at what had gone on in the previous twenty-five years. ( ) I remember coming back from the Melbourne Writer Festival in October I994, going upstairs to the attic a few days later and starting in with the couplets the way a construction worker starts in with a pneumatic drill. Call it a rage for order. (pp349-50)
One of the memorable aspects of the poem is the way the events of a remote place and time are absorbed into the poet’s own experience, perceptions, and idiom … Heaney allows private and public, past and present, the classical and the contemporary, the epic and the vernacular, to merge imperceptibly, or play off each other tellingly. IU Review, 2009
HV(p156) The sequence takes a summary look, through the aftermath of the Trojan War, through the aftermath of Northern Ireland’s quarter-century of civil conflict … the emotional centerpiece of The Spirit Level ( ) speaks from the impotent position of the ordinary citizen caught in the crossfire of civil atrocity and it predicts the endemic resurgence of violence in culture.
Classical Greek tragedy generally depicted high-ranked individuals brought low by their failure to recognise driving passions within or around them, here principally lust and revenge.
The main protagonists in the drama are drawn from an episode in classical mythology portrayed by Aeschylus (an Athenian tragic dramatist alive around 500BC) in the Oresteia. Agamemnon, king of Mycenae (close to Argos), led the Greek expedition that besieged, entered and sacked Troy following the abduction of Helen by Trojan prince, Paris. Clytemnestra, wife of Agamemnon, took Aegisthus, his cousin as her lover during his absence. She murdered Agamemnon after his return. Cassandra was the daughter of Priam, defeated king of Troy. Agamemnon took her as a concubine following the sack of Troy. She had been granted prophetic powers by God Apollo in return for sexual favours, but broke the promise and was punished to the effect that the truth she was telling would never be believed; she perished with Agamemnon at the hands of Clytemnestra.
The poems are voiced to the watchman at the royal palace at Mycenae, a man riven with anxiety, caught between Clytemnestra’s adultery and Agamemnon’s imminent return. Like the poet himself in Ireland, Heaney’s watchman is involved as witness commentator, analyser, confident, and insider.
The sequence is Heaney’s way of speaking out: ‘a truly great poet cannot and will not look away’ Martina Evans
The ox is on my tongue
The epigraph’s metaphor warns of the inert dead-weight that will prevent the watchman from revealing what he knows, thereby fulfilling his moral duty to Agamemnon his master.
1 The Watchman’s War (i)
The nationalistic response of people faced with war was shocking to the watchman: Some people wept, and not for sorrow – joy. Hungry to avenge Paris’s misdeed the king had armed and upped and sailed for Troy.
The watchman senses (inside me like struck sound in a gong) only the impact of war’s consequences: the bloodlust of fighting-men out of control (That killing-fest); the distorted existences of the victims of conflict (the life-warp); the crime against humanity (world-wrong) that war brought to pass; in short his foresight augured distress and hardship to be endured.
The prospect brought on nightmares (blood in bright webs in a ford ( ) bodies raining down like tattered meat/ On top of me) and confirmed dereliction of duty: asleep – and me the lookout, deployed on the roof and left there unchecked: posted and forgotten. Reminiscent of the boy-watcher In the Treetop from Sweeney Redevivus (Station Island), the watchman is left to his own devices.
His presence on the roof would be the one flaw in the queen’s plans (a blind spot her farsightedness relied on) were it not for the fact that his loyalty to his master is compromised; whenever he was prompted to speak out his voice would stick in his throat: the ox would lurch against the gong / And deaden it.
The nasty fate reserved for Agamemnon generated a dramatic immediacy as powerful as the fearful stampede of cattle delivered for slaughter to the Irish abattoirs Heaney was familiar with as a boy: my tongue / Like the dropped gangplank of a cattle truck, / Trampled and rattled, running piss and muck. His nightmare translated into a whirl of victory-beacons and death: All swimmy-trembly as the lick of fire,/ A victory beacon in an abattoir.
Sleep did nothing to clear his head (I would waken at a loss) or clarify the confusion between man and role (For all the world a sheepdog stretched in grass), like it or not a witness Exposed to what I knew, conscious of his moral obligation (still honour-bound) and his job to watch for beacon fires as commanded: concentrate attention out beyond/ The city and the border, on that line/ Where the blaze would leap the hills when Troy had fallen. The watchman’s sense of foreboding is justified: the fires signaling the end of the war will ignite a further conflagration.
- upped: moved away
- (killing-)fest: festival or gathering of a specific kind …That ‘killing-fest’, as the poem calls it … Sometime in the 1970s I’d heard the writer Alan Garner give a lecture with that same title to a conference of English teachers, and it stayed in my mind. Then, when I was reading different translations of Aeschylus, wondering if I mightn’t have a go at the whole trilogy, the phrase kept developing a stronger and stronger magnetic field around itself. ( ) Who’s to say where a poem begins? There was a certain amount of book learning involved; more important was the sensory depth charge contained in the phrase itself. The splatter of cow’s feet on the floor of a byre in Mossbawn, the charge of bullocks up the ‘tripper’ of a cattle lorry, the child’s register of the weight and danger of those clattering beasts. Slaughterhouse panic. It all added the necessary irrational charge and kick-started a couplet attack on the subject. Heaney talking to Henri Cole in The Paris Review 75
- (life-)warp: cause to bend or twist out of shape, typically as a result of heat or damp but in this case violence
- world-wrong: unjust, immoral act of global scale;
- augured: an event’s occurrence and impact foreseen;
- webs: filmy networks;
- blind spot: a point at which one’s view is obstructed so that nothing is visible;
- farsightedness: the ability to see events or objects at a great distance;
- gangplank: a removable means of getting on or off;
- abattoir: a place where animals are slaughtered;
- honour-bound: morally obliged (to do something);
- blaze: (metonymy) beacon fire;
The Watchman’s War (ii)
The lookout’s posting that placed him at the interface between events was predestined (My sentry work was fate); it became a way of life (a home to go to), a temporary situation to navigate (An in-between-times that I had to row through).
Long service (Year after year) provided repeated opportunity to savour the landscape and express his lyrical sensitivity when the mist would start/ To lift off fields and inlets or at daybreak when morning light / Would open like the grain of light being split.
Endless repetition never dulled by his senses: Day in, day out, I’d come alive again, his metabolism kick-started by solar energy (Silent and sunned as an esker on a plain), committed to the task (Up on my elbows), focused and patient: gazing, biding time/ In my outpost on the roof .
The decade-long posting (ten years’ wait that was the war) only fixed the bleak images he foresaw (Flawed the black mirror of my frozen stare).
Were there a god of justice feeling down for someone to hold the scales of justice (a strong beam to hang his scale-pans on) with which weigh one factor against another then a watchman tormented by conflicting forces would have made the ideal candidate, perfectly positioned and braced for the task: tensed and ready-made.
All-seeing, the lookout between premonition (saw it coming) and trepidation: balanced between destiny and dread The fall of Troy will trigger proceedings: clouds bloodshot with the unhealthy red tinge of victory fires. The signal of victory (the raw wound of that dawn) will detonate a cataclysmic chain of events: Igniting and erupting, bearing down/ Like lava on a fleeing population .
Sounds of lovemaking from the bed-chamber below will precipitate a crime passionnel. Despite his every effort to block them out they expose him to his own involvement and guilt: Up on my elbows, head back). The ear-piercing cries of sexual pleasure (The agony of Clytemnestra’s love-shout/ That rose through the palace) compete in intensity with the clamour of the returning army (like the yell of troops / Hurled by King Agamemnon from the ship).
- in-between-times: an interim task between other actions; an interim position;
- row: navigate (using an oar to guide a boat);
- esker: a winding ridge of gravel and other sediment deposited by melt-water from a retreating glacier or ice sheet;
- flawed the black mirror: left an indelible imperfection on his retina;
- frozen: fixed coldly in one position;
- beam: sturdy length of squared timber used to support a roof;
- pans: bowl-shaped containers into which counterweights may be placed;
- ready-made: available immediately; not needing to be specially created or devised;
- bloodshot: (of eyes) inflamed by fatigue;
- love-shout: the outburst of sound made by a person reaching a paroxysm of physical pleasure;
Heaney introduces the Trojan princess taken as a concubine by Agamemnon in the original Greek play. She is portrayed as an anti-establishment, unkempt, heavily made up, underfed, aggressive and monosyllabic 1970s ‘punk’.
Those who bear witness are complicit: No such thing/
as innocent/ bystanding.
The dishevelled figure under observation is standard punk: filthy (soiled vest); masculine in build (little breasts); with badly cut, spiky hair that does nothing for her(clipped, devast-/ated,/ scabbed / punk head). Her heavily made-up eyes, skinniness and frozen stare (the char-eyed/ famine gawk ) suggest her dull acceptance of being abused camp-fucked/ and simple.
Observers fail to notice in her eyes a missed /trueness ( ) a focus,/ a homecoming. What they do see is bemused, defeated resignation (to what has happened and will come about) visible in her dropped-wing, / half-calculating/ bewilderment. Those who watch her are complicit: No such thing / as innocent.
The alpha-male has returned from Troy: testosterone-fuelled Old King Cock / of-the- Walk/ was back; a Herod-figure indifferent to suffering (King Kill- /the-Child); eager for the spoils of war (Take-/ What-Comes); all virility and swagger: King Agamem / non’s drum-/ balled, old buck’s / stride was back.
Cassandra speaks but her power of prophesy (clair/ voyant dread), her foreknowledge of her murder (a lamb [to the slaughter] at lambing time) will go unheard because the sexual frustration of divine Apollo (gene-hammer( ) roused god) commanded that she would speak the truth but not be believed.
Her presence far from provoking debate about justice arouses the basest sexual appetites of the men present: a result/ant shock desire/ in bystanders/ to do it to her/ there and then, to inflict successive rapes that mutilate her (Little rent / cunt of their guilt). Their actions only compound the poem’s initial proposition.
Cassandra bows to her fate of dying alongside the man who enslaved her: In she went/ to the knife,/ to the killer wife,/ to the net over/ her and her slaver, / the Troy reaver.
Her final words are despairingly visionary: it takes no more than minor changes of pattern to erase past crimes and injustices from the records: ‘A wipe/ of the sponge, / that’s it./ the shadow-hinge / swings unpredict/ably and the light’s/ blanked out.’
HV(p172): Cassandra has ‘the last truncated words of this merciless poem and she uses them to pronounce the irrationality of human event. Unpredictably some epochs are suffused with light, others with darkness; what is certain is that each is erased, after its fated time by ‘a wipe of the sponge’.
- char-eyed: with heavy black charcoal-pencil make-up around the eyes;
- famine gawk: (a conflation of ideas) ‘wearing the fixed dazed stare of exhaustion or deprivation of food’;
- camp-fucked: ‘exhausted by repeated sexual abuse’;
- dropped-wing: the appearance of birds worn out by long exposure to trying conditions;
- Cock-of-the-Walk: dominant ‘alpha’ male figure; ‘king of the castle’ with a lust connotation;
- drum-balled: within this context Heaney seems to go for a description that combines the shape of pendant male testicles with the a taut skin that covers them;
- clairvoyant: said of a person with a supernatural ability to perceive events in the future or beyond normal sensory contact;
- gene-hammer: (elusive) the heavy tool for driving in nails becomes a metaphorical means of insemination to create the next generation in one’s own image;
- roused god: reference to Apollo’s sexual desires in the original Cassandra story;
- rent: mutilated (‘forcibly torn’ p.p. of OE verb ‘rend); an alternative idea of ‘for sale’ is also possible given the shocking response of male bystanders; perhaps both sex-for-sale and vaginal disfigurement;
- cunt: a crude and shocking reference to female genitalia;
- reaver: plunderer
- shadow-hinge: an elusive metaphor juxtaposing the everyday piece of hardware that connects linked objects (door and frame) and notions of fate playing with the monochrome shape of a body cast by the sun;
- blanked out: replaced by darkness, snuffed out (of light, of life);
- “Cassandra” was written very quickly. It came out like a molten rill from a spot I hit when I drilled down into the Oresteia bedrock that’s under “Mycenae Outlook.” When I went home from Harvard in 1994, the really big shift—big at all levels, personal and public—was the IRA ceasefire the following August. That was a genuine visitation, the lark sang and the light ascended. Everything got a little better and yet instead of being able just to bask in the turn of events, I found myself getting angrier and angrier at the waste of lives and friendships and possibilities in the years that had preceded it. It was 1994 and we had got no further, politically, than we had been in 1974. Had slipped back, indeed. And I kept thinking that a version of the Oresteia would be one way of getting all of that out of the system, and at the same time, a way of initiating a late-twentieth-century equivalent of the “Te Deum.” Heaney talking to Henri Cole in The Paris Review 75
- from the generalized violence of the opening section, with its panoramic perspectives and the epic feel of its heroic couplets, we move to close-up. In the ‘Cassandra’ section (with its terse, short-lined ‘artesian’ triplets) as in the earlier ‘Punishment’ poem from North, the bystander-poet acknowledges his own complicity in brutality ( ) even more disturbing is his awareness of the shocking fact that the sight of the girl’s suffering stirs, not feelings of pity, but violent sexual responses (freelibrary.com)
- Cassandra represents a complete contrast in form with short, sharp rhyming triplets, abrupt and clipped tones;
- the section is heavy with demotic references to sex, possibly because of Cassandra’s supposed history of sexual favours.
- The Spirit Level has a gritty, tough, bricks-and-mortar side. This makes itself felt in several ways: for instance, in some of Heaney’s most verbally truculent work to date – “piss”, “shite”, “fuck”, “fucked”, “cunt” and “balled” all crop up at various points (with just a sense of dutiful coarseness). But the outspokenness is more than merely linguistic. Nicholas Jenkins Walking on Air in the TLS of July 5th 1996.
3 His Dawn Vision
A new day has brought fresh appraisal as the watchman reflects on the growing cycle of death and revenge threatening his home turf: Cities of grass. Fort walls. The dumbstruck palace. He is at his post on the palace roof with the night wind on my face and feeling restored Agog, alert again. He is distracted from his job (far, far less / Focused on victory than I should have been).
Suddenly watchman and poet become indivisible: Heaney’s increasingly acerbic comments are aimed at the impediments to progress in his native Ulster. His respect is in short supply for the ancien régime in Northern Ireland: still there, still made up of sycophants who scheme together, and insist loudly on their share of media exposure: Still isolated in my old disdain/ Of claques who always needed to be seen/ And heard as the true Argives.
He denounces those involved as exhibition-standard talkers (Mouth athletes), peddlers of spurious facts and figures (Quoting the oracle and quoting dates), exploiters of public opinion by Petitioning, accusing, taking votes, beggaring belief by their insistence on resolving past wrongs before conceiving of moving forward: No element that should have carried weight/ Out of the grievous distance would translate.
The outcome: ongoing conflict mired in incoherence: Our war stalled in the pre-articulate. Their greatest shortcoming: disregard for the blessings bestowed on them by the world around: The little violets’ heads bowed on their stems, / The pre-dawn gossamers, all dew and scrim/ And star-lace.
His beloved landscape only intensifies his sense of waste (it was more through (Nature’s beauty)/ I felt the beating of the huge time-wound / We lived inside) and the prospect of ongoing bleakness generates despair: My soul wept in my hand / When I would touch them, my whole being rained / Down on myself.
The historical settings that have been reduced by time’s erosion to cities of grass, still stand for unfulfilled human aspirations and death: Valleys of longing, tombs.
The watchman recounts a final example of man’s shocking capacity for violence. The drama is set within a classical landscape (far-off, in a hilly, ominous place) a mere step away from streets of Ulster: Small crowds of people watching as a man / Jumped a fresh earth-wall; another man, ostensibly on the same side followed him, not to embrace but to murder one of his own: ran / Amorously, it seemed, to strike him down. (Romulus’s fratricide at the time of Rome’s creation referred to here is as odious as the awful oxymoron (‘neighbourly murder’) of Funeral Rites in North).
- dumbstruck: shocked so as to be unable to speak;
- agog: eager to hear or see something;
- claques: sycophantic followers, ‘yes’-men;
- Argives: one of a series of names for Greeks, here specifically from the Argos area;
- oracle: priest or priestess acting as a medium through whom advice or prophecy was sought from the gods in classical antiquity and regarded as an infallible authority; the place where this happened;
- grievous: very severe or serious;
- pre-articulate: before a time when the ability to communicate fluently and coherently had been developed;
- gossamer: a thin, insubstantial and delicate substance consisting of cobwebs;
- scrim: a thin and delicate gauze fabric;
- star-lace: a fine open fabric of cotton or silk, its more substantial knots resembling the heavenly constellations;
- time-wound: (whether applying to the Trojan War or the Northern Irish Troubles) an event that scarred the onward progress of humanity;
- rained down: fell as a deluge;
- amorously: relating to love;
- the watchman decries the inadequacy of existing discourse, mocking the politicians and ideologues; What he recognizes are the dark, unspoken erotics of violence that seem to underlie the whole of human history, from Paris’s lustful abduction of Helen which triggered the Trojan War, to Clytemnestra’s orgasmic cries, to the violation of Cassandra which only excites the bystanders’ violent sexual urges, and finally Romulus’s ‘amorously’ fratricidal killing of his brother Remus … in (this) spectacularly beautiful but horrific vision of the future ( ) is a premonition of eternal civil and fratricidal conflict, simultaneous love and hate, not just at Troy, or Mycenae, or Athens, but further away in distance and time (at the founding of Rome where Romulus kills his boundary-crossing brother Remus. Nicholas Jenkins Walking on Air in the TLS of July 5th 1996;
4 The Nights
Lookout cum father-confessor cum care-worker: the watchman has counselled Clytemnestra and Aegisthus separately (They both needed to talk). Both pretended they wanted his advice. Privately (Behind backs) they confessed to addiction (sexual overload/ every time they did it), a fact missed by no-one in the palace: (a child could have hardly missed it)/ their real life was the bed).
The watchman confesses his burden of knowledge and his failed loyalty: The king should have been told, / but who was there to tell him/ if not myself? He had hoped vainly for a solution that would have let his conscience off the hook: I willed (silent wish rather than spoken word) them /to cease and break the hold / of my cross-purposed silence but, to his own shame, acknowledges that he condoned and colluded with them by demonstrating no sign of disapproval, even toadying to them: kept on, all smiles/ to Aegisthus every morning, /much favoured and self-loathing.
Sounds of adultery from within the palace were unmistakable (The roof was like an eardrum) yet he said not a word: The ox’s ton of dumb / inertia stood, head-down/ and motionless as a herm. He calls on a kindred spirit, a mythological Titan serving a punishment (Atlas, watchmen’s patron), working 24 hours a day (up at all hours), stooping beneath the inert weight of the Earth that he is condemned to carry in perpetuity (ox-bowed / under his yoke of cloud/ out there at the world’s end). Atlas, too, witnesses sexual activity emanating in his case from The loft-floor where the gods / and goddesses took lovers / and made out endlessly/ successfully.
Such is Atlas’s complicity: those thuds/ and moans through the cloud cover / were wholly on his shoulders. The pair of them might well qualify as the privileged attendants of the goddess of love herself: apotheosized to boulders/ called Aphrodite’s Pillars. The speaker alludes to pairs who synchronize their actions (and not without a sexual connotation): High and low in those days / hit their stride together.
The pretext that precipitated the Trojan war demonstrated the wafer-thin gap between sexual lust and thirst for battle: Helen was a seductive symbol capable of exciting those sworn to silence in the Trojan Horse to the point of uncontrollable climax: When the captains in the horse / felt Helen’s hand caress/ its wooden boards and belly / they nearly rode each other.
Defeat was especially hard on the womenfolk: in the end Troy’s mothers/ bore their brunt in alley,/ bloodied cot and bed. Soldiers lost their reason in conflict (The war put all men mad), whether cuckolded by their wives back home (horned) or cavalrymen (horsed) or sentries (roof-posted), in victory or defeat: the boasting and the bested.
The watchman was locked away with his conscience (My own mind (was) a bull-pen): he owed a duty of loyalty to a cuckolded husband returned to his home where horned King Agamemnon / had stamped his weight in gold; he failed in his duty at the very moment when he should have spoken (hills broke into flame).
Rendered complicit by sounds of the queen’s ecstasy (when she wailed on and came) he betrayed his master (it was the king I sold), dishonourably (beyond bad faith) (see note about ‘mauvaise foi’). As a result of the watchman’s dereliction, Agamemnon’s power and riches (his bullion bars) were no use to him and his ‘reward’ was a humiliating death: his bonus / was a rope-net and a blood-bath.
And the peace had come upon us: Heaney achieves savage ironic effect in the suggestion that peace had ‘broken out’ Aeschylus’s trilogy will move on to the next phase of the cycle of violence with Orestes avenging his father Agamemnon’s death by killing his mother Clytemnestra. The second irony was that in Northern Ireland the cessation of 1994 brought no immediate, lasting peace.
- They: Clytemnestra and Aegisthus; ‘she’ the wife of Agamemnon who had remained in Argos during the ten years her husband was away at war with the Trojans; ‘he’ a cousin with whom she was conducting an affair;
- overload: excess;
- willed: urged;
- cross-purposed: leaning in neither direction, ambivalent, hypocritical;
- dumb inertia: combination of silence and immovability;
- herm: squared stone pillar with a carved head on top (typically of Hermes), used in ancient Greece as a boundary marker or a signpost
- Atlas … patron: a Titan, punished for his part in their revolt against Zeus by being made to support the heavens; images depict him bearing the earth’s globe on his shoulders;
- ox-bowed: stooping beneath the immovable weight of the ox;
- yoke: oppressive or restrictive burden on the shoulders;
- world’s end: where the heavens begin;
- loft-floor: room above the domestic living quarters used metaphorically to refer to the ‘bed chamber’ of the gods of classical mythology;
- made out: Heaney finds a neat Americanism ‘engaged in sexual activity’;
- apotheosized: raised to divine status;
- boulders … Aphrodite’s Pillars: Aphrodite was the Greek goddess of love and beauty; her mythical birthplace was on the island of Cyprus; two pillars of an ancient temple dedicated to her stood on the site until the 18th century
- horse: the wooden Trojan horse containing Greek warriors and allegedly dragged into Troy as a gift from the Greek besiegers was said to have led to the city’s downfall;
- rode: had sex;
- brunt: worst part or chief impact of a specified action;
- horned: cuckolded by an unfaithful wife;
- bested: outwitted;
- bull-pen: (Americanism) large cell in which prisoners are held before a court hearing;
- came: reached orgasm;
- bad faith; borrowing from French existentialism (J-P Sartre); ‘mauvaise foi’ describes the state of a person under pressure from societal forces who adopts false values and thereby loses innate freedom;
- bullion: gold or silver in bulk, valued by weight;
- rope-net: such as might be thrown over gladiators to immobilize them;
- bloodbath: (pun) death whilst in the bath; people killed in an extremely violent way;
- His Reverie of Water
Hopes for peace remain in the balance (Reverie).
Heaney is familiar with two classical sites sharing a symbol of renewal At Troy, at Athens, what I most clearly / see and nearly smell/ is the fresh water. The Mycenaean bath filled with clean water is as yet uncontaminated by the bather: still unentered / and unstained, waiting behind housewalls.
The sound effects of suffering, echoes of the fall of Troy and the massacre that followed (the far cries of the butchered on the plain) enter the bath-house with Agamemnon, agent of contamination (the hero ( ) surging in incomprehensibly / to be attended to and be alone). He still bears the marks of battle (stripped to the skin, blood-plastered, moaning / and rocking) and intends to cleanse himself by splashing, dozing off. After ten years away he is like a visitor accommodated as if he were a stranger then murdered.
Heaney considers the significance of the well at Athens: its location requiring use of the old lifeline leading up / and down from the Acropolis); access via a flight of relatively fragile purpose-built timber steps slatted in between the sheer cliff face, defendable thanks to a covering spur of rock); its strategic importance as a vital secret staircase the defenders knew/ and the invaders found during the wars that were fought between the City states (where what was to be / Greek met Greek) and out of which the Greek nation was born: the ladder of the future / and the past, besieger and besieged.
What in war served as a conveyor-belt of fighting-men seeking to climb up unseen (the treadmill of assault) was transformed in peacetime into a water-source (turned waterwheel). Once the rungs of stealth for fighting men, they became the rungs of habit a tentative, laborious quest for those on water-duty; a: bare foot extended, searching.
Heaney’s reverie craves a positive outcome for his own community: the excavation of the well at Mossbawn (this ladder of our own that ran / deep into a well-shaft being sunk/ in broad daylight) serves his purpose.
The labourers digging it out (men puddling at the source / through tawny mud) re-emerged from below ground edified by the experience: deeper in themselves for having been there, akin to discharged soldiers released from war duty but still cautious about stumbling blocks: testing the safe ground.
Those excavating for peace in Ireland deserve the title ‘miracle-workers’ (finders, keepers), prophetic diviners (seers of fresh water) uncovering an uncontaminated abundance that will bring life back to the whole community via the bountiful round mouths of iron pumps/ and gushing taps.
In the final section, despair gives way to hope, hope which lies, not in sentimental otherworldly abstraction or mystic symbolism, but in ordinary communal effort, in the image of men working together.
for Cynthia and Dmitri Hadzi
Heaney and his wife were on holiday in Greece with the Hadzis in 1995 at the moment when news broke of the Nobel Prize award; Heaney had enjoyed recent familiarity with the Greek capital and its landmarks, including the secret well.
- HV(p174) ‘Heaney-the-Watchman has returned to the pump at Mossbawn, described in Preoccupations as the centre, the omphalos, of the child’s world’
- ‘Mycenae Lookout’ ends on ( ) a moment of liberation but only after the hard work of the diggers has been done; only then can the poem begin to establish the ground of hope for the future. IU review 2009
- Reverie: a state of being pleasantly lost in thought, daydream;
- dying into: do not carry as far as the bathroom; also connotations of death;
- lifeline: a rope or line used for life-saving, typically one thrown to rescue someone in difficulties in water, by extension a thing on which someone or something depends;
- Acropolis: the ancient citadel at Athens upon which are built the Parthenon and other notable buildings, mostly dating from the 5th century BC;
- slat(ted): image created around the idea of thin, narrow pieces of wood, especially one of a series which overlap or fit into each other, as in a fence, a Venetian blind or as here a narrow pathway;
- treadmill of assault: a large wheel turned by the weight of people or animals treading on its internal steps; used to describe an unending flow of attackers;
- puddling: wallowing in mud and shallow water;
- tawny: orange-brown or yellowish-brown in colour; peaty Irish groundwater is slightly discoloured;
- finders, keepers: Heaney’s juxtaposition echoes the informal ‘finders keepers’ the claim that those who find things by chance are entitled to keep them;
- seers: persons of supposed supernatural insight who see visions of the future;
- bountiful: generous, abundant;
- well projects nourish the human spirit, do not debilitate; men must rise above the inexorable driving forces which maim them individually and collectively … the watchman, torn between conflicting allegiances, burdened with the gift of prophetic vision, and filled with guilt for not acting to avert the tragic course of events that are about to unfold, is, like other lookouts, watchmen, voyeurs, witnesses, and bystanders in Heaney’s poetry, a figure of the artist–of any of us–silenced by ‘the ox’s tons of dumb / inertia’ Poems that Matter, Irish Universities’ Review;
- In contrast to the viciousness which the bystanders discover in themselves, the diggers have penetrated to their true selves, and found the true source of their being in communal work and a renewed relationship with sacred nature. (ibid)
- flowing water is Heaney’s recurrent image for the dynamic flow of the spirit ( ) the pure source ( ) manifests itself in the dynamic form of lyric poetry, in the poet’s magical transformation of language into art, his summoning of an ideal of harmony and justice against which the actual can be judged. (ibid)
- Introducing selections from the work of Seamus Heaney in The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing III, Seamus Deane writes: “His poetry is excavatory in every sense, reaching down into the ground and back into the past.” And so it is especially in “Mycenae Lookout.” From Archaeology Archive of Mar/Apr 2000
Comments on the sequence as a whole:
- In conversation with DOD Heaney reveals the event that triggered the sequence; thereby he invites us to watch the narrative unfold against a totally new Northern Irish backdrop; though the poem was written after the 1994 cessation (see Foreword), the impulse was to give a snarl rather than sing a hymn. ( ) It wasn’t a matter of what was happening just then, more a rage at what had gone on in the previous twenty-five years. ( ) I remember coming back from the Melbourne Writer Festival in October I994, going upstairs to the attic a few days later and starting in with the couplets the way a construction worker starts in with a pneumatic drill. Call it a rage for order (pp349-50).
- The Spirit Level’s main sequence, “Mycenae Lookout”, placed at its solid centre, is far less sanguine, far more bloody … Ostensibly, “Mycenae Lookout” is Heaney’s investigation of the “peace” wrought after the fall of Troy. The Irish parallels, though, jut out like bones in the grass. The speaker is a familiar Heaneyan observer, at times a voyeur, a tongue-tied prophesier, so indecisive that finally, almost self-parodically, he even moves “beyond bad faith Nicholas Jenkins Walking on Air in the TLS of July 5th 1996;
- DOD (p349) In a radio programme to mark your sixtieth birthday, Helen Vendler said that she found ‘Mycenae Lookout’ one of the central poems in The Spirit Level – ‘shocking’ when she first read it. SH I can’t remember when exactly Helen first saw it; it could have been at the manuscript stage, The shock element was in the crudity of the language in the ‘Cassandra’ section, ( ) and in the rendering of the cruelty of that Mycenaean world. But I always had confidence in the sequence, and whatever revision I did was done with- out advice. Even though the poem was written after the 1994 cessation, the impulse was to give a snarl rather than sing a hymn.
- … in the lengthy sequence ‘Mycenae Lookout’, which is unpredictably quite unlike anything else in Heaney’s work, the watchman who opens Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, the first play in the trilogy of the Oresteia, meditates on episodes from the gruesome story of the house of Atreus and the ten-years’ Trojan war in a way that has manifest, if tangential, relevance to the history of Northern Ireland since 1969. In addition, the watchman himself, a kind of supernumerary chorus who in the original plays nothing like the large role Heaney assigns him here, has congruence with the figure of the poet himself at a time of violent inter-familial civil war. This is foregrounded when the watchman describes himself as ‘the lookout / The queen’s command had posted and forgotten’, the very terms in which the Sweeney figure – that free translation of the poet – in ‘Sweeney Redivivus’ represents himself in the opening line of ‘In the Beech’: ‘I was a lookout posted and forgotten.” In both cases, the point is that the figure, posted and forgotten as he may have been by the significant actors in the political drama, is taking it all in and now, in the end, articulating it all for everyone’s attention. NC 191
Why Mycenae Lookout is a poem that matters to the Irish:
- For many who have lived in Northern Ireland over the last forty years or so, the ‘spirit that plagued us so’ isn’t just imaginary. Far from merely playing shivery mind games, many people have known first-hand the hard realities of crisis, alienation, apocalypse, and desperation … a poem born out of personal experience, but personal experience that has been distanced and ritualized …a poem which reacts against the apparently tragic pattern of history and the inhuman assumptions of the current cult of desperation and extremism … Heaney searches for some kind of understanding of a phantasmagorical violence, some principle of order and meaning in the face of death, loss; Poems that Matter IU Review 2009
- The text itself represents a principle of form and order which redresses its powerful evocations of the chaos resulting from lust, revenge, and the abuse of power( ) Without insisting, he juxtaposes actual circumstances and the transcendent ideal which, he implies, is what we all long for … Against the pressure of history and politics, Heaney reasserts eternal values of order, meaning, and beauty. (ibid)
- It is a poem with the power to do good, to encourage, and to heal. This power derives from the poet’s faith, not religious faith in any conventional sense, but faith in a transcendent, ethical order of being which is anterior to, independent of, our-all-too fallible human models of reality and meaning … Heaney refuses to give up on the possibility of truth and meaning, however difficult they may be to come by. He re-works an old-fashioned vocabulary of the sacramental and the mystical which he first absorbed through his Catholic upbringing and education. (ibid)
- “Mycenae Lookout’ is a great poem because it succeeds in making that faith real and convincing (at least for the duration of the poem), even for readers who may not think of poetry in terms more usually associated with religion–as redemption, solace, healing, redress, transcendence. ‘Mycenae Lookout’ …The transcendence which the poem finally affirms is rooted in earthly realities, in history, in communal experience, in an inclusive human vision which takes the poet beyond tribal and nationalistic pieties, beyond ideology, beyond the oppositional calculus of ‘us’ and ‘them’. (ibid)
- The attraction of classical myth is that it liberates Heaney from a sectarian politics of Catholics and Protestants, it creates aesthetic distance from the difficult facts of everyday life and grants him larger perspectives on present realities …’Mycenae Lookout’ rebalances the actual and the ideal, envisioning a new place which is not just ‘all idea’ but one which is generated out of the memory of the old place in better times, transformed by an act of communal re-imagining into a vision of a hopeful future. (ibid)
- ‘Mycenae Lookout’ may thus be seen as a meeting ground of the earthly and the transcendent, a point of intersection between demoralizing historical reality and the suggestion of spiritual possibility, a liminal space between what is and what might be (ibid)
- By insisting on its own values, poetry refuses to take sides in the immediate conflict and resists the rigid monoliths of ideology … the poem occupies the in-between ground where the actual (‘what is going to happen’) meets the ideal (‘what we would wish to happen’). It is not partisan, and it does not blame or criticize, but creates the space where we can imagine an alternative scenario founded on notions of co-operation, work, fellowship, and inclusiveness. (ibid)
- Ultimately, the voice we hear is a truly inclusive voice, freed and controlled at the same time, capable of transcending the subjective and the immediate, the parochial and sectarian, the merely accepting and the profoundly sceptical. In the end, it is not merely acceptance and resignation that Heaney settles for: the climax of the poem is a triumphant proclamation of new visionary possibilities, an assertion of the perennial human capacity to imagine a better world. (ibid)
- The uneasy, disrupted, episodic narrative of the watchman’s inner drama, shifting through five different sections and a range of stanza shapes, line-lengths, metres, and rhyme-schemes of varying degrees of formality and complexity, comes to a close with his acquisition of a loose, informal, mellifluous style of long, open vowel sounds, variable line-lengths and flexible patterns of assonance and consonance in place of predictably recurring end-rhyme
IU Review 2009
- (1,i) 22 lines in a single verse; regular 10 syllable lines; rhymed abab/cdcd etc save the emphatic final couplet that is unrhymed;
- four-sentence construct; copious use of enjambed lines makes for a smooth flow;
- unusual verbal use of up’, more often adverb or preposition;
- use of simile; three compound nouns linking reality and non-reality: life-warp, killing-fest;
- metaphor of webs/ nets will recur;
- lexis referring to liquid substances is introduced and will recur: blood, ford, raining sailed;
- deliberate anacoluthon: ‘queens’ forget, ‘commands’ have no memory;
- ‘ox’ metaphor repeated from epigraph;
- farmyard mayhem brings huge contrast in vocabulary and mood;
- invention of ‘verbal’ adjectives ending in ‘y’;
- (1,ii): 23 lines in a single strophe; irregular line length 9-11 syllables;
- rhyme becomes sporadic; 5-sentence construct; many enjambed lines;
- use of simile, like/ as;
- repetitious nature of life echoed in time references: year after year; Day-in, day-out; biding time; foreseen/ pre-planned future: fate/ destiny;
- synesthetic effect: sound thrown of ‘yell … hurled;
- conditional clause ‘if’;
- comparisons:: light/cereal; watchman/arctic landscape; mirror/gaze; weather feature/ soft tissue; victory/ molten lava;
- cluster of present participles
- (2) 21 triplets + 1 concluding line; irregular line length between 1 and 5 syllables; unrhymed; 9 sentence structure;
- HV(p169)’by writing … in the shortest possible lines (monometer, dimeter) cutting off each line almost before it has begun he makes it savagely in tune with the abduction and abuse of the raped girl’;
- vivid description of punk stereotype; monosyllables dominate;
- use of coarse, demotic language: direct as in ‘fuck’; less obvious: ‘cock’, ‘do it to her’, ‘gene hammer’ ‘roused’; Old English ‘reaver;
- comparisons: posture/ injured bird, girl/ lamb to slaughter; man/ male animal buck;
- pun: ‘rent’; emphatic presentation of the sexual drive in men;
- inventions: ‘char-eyed’, ‘famine gawk’
- multiple use of compounds adjectival, verbal, nicknames, as nouns;
- (3) eight triplets in 9 sentences; regular 10 syllable lines; fair balance between punctuation and enjambed lines;
- initial aaa/bbb/ccc rhyme scheme loosens later; only the final emphatic line does not rhyme;
- the activities of lobbyists expressed in present participles ‘ing’;
- synesthetic effect ‘mouth athletes’ heard and watched; ‘grievous distance’ emotion/ space
- adjectival compound ‘pre-articulate’, noun omitted; others juxtapose contrasting notions, for example to create personification ‘wind-swept’;
- shocking irony ‘Amorously, it seemed;
- (4) six sections (4×9; 1×12; 1×1); line length typically 6-8 syllables; unrhymed;
- sixteen sentence construct; copious use of enjambed lines;
- simile roof/ eardrum; sexual allusions, cuckold wearing horns; watchman’s’s mind/ in a cell
- pun: on his shoulders Earth/ burden of responsibility;
- compounds used to mental, emotional physical effects: cross-purposed; self-loathing, ox-bowed;
- comparisons: ox preventing speech/ classical columns decorated with heads; domestic space/ Olympian abode of classical gods and goddesses;
- compromising one’s values: recurring allusion to the competition between intense passion and beacon fires;
- return of ‘net’ motif;
- irony: peace breaking out;
- (5) twelve unrhymed triplets in 5 sentences; irregular line length between 5-11 syllables;amole use made of enjambed lines;
- last three triplets set in Heaney’s familiar Irish landscape;
- references to water take different forms: water, surging, splashing etc; similarly the contamination of clean water by ‘soiled’ man;
- ‘dying’ pun: people perish, sounds fade
- unusual juxtaposition ‘nearly smell’;
- use of simile ‘as if’ ‘like’; cluster of present participles ‘ing; compound phrases are a neat and economical way of weaving ideas together: blood-plastered, free-standing; personification and apotheosis: pumps have mouths and are generous;
- ’metaphors associated with ‘ladder’ and its component parts; history, time past and present, war and peace, Irish well-digging;
- 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: seventeen 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:
for Cynthia and Dmitri Hadzi
- alliterative effects allow pulses or beats, soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies:
- for example, the first lines of Cassandra with its terse, clipped versification are rich in ‘negative’ sounds: alveolar nasal [n] bilabial and alveolar and velar plosives [p/b], [t/d], [k];
- 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.