I realise that in my pieces on Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist, I have not written an exploration of the poem Storm on the Island.
Storm On The Island
We are prepared: we build our houses squat,
Sink walls in rock and roof them with good slate.
This wizened earth has never troubled us
With hay, so, as you see, there are no stacks
Or stooks that can be lost. Nor are there trees
Which might prove company when it blows full
Blast: you know what I mean – leaves and branches
Can raise a tragic chorus in a gale
So that you listen to the thing you fear
Forgetting that it pummels your house too.
But there are no trees, no natural shelter.
You might think that the sea is company,
Exploding comfortably down on the cliffs
But no: when it begins, the flung spray hits
The very windows, spits like a tame cat
Turned savage. We just sit tight while wind dives
And strafes invisibly. Space is a salvo,
We are bombarded with the empty air.
Strange, it is a huge nothing that we fear.
This is an immense poem that carries so much in such a heart and compact form. Heaney talks in Digging of ‘going down and down’ for the good turf and this poem is such a good example of this. The layers of meaning are complex and develop each from the other so that it’s tricky to develop a single consistent interpretation. Each time I return to it my own mood will colour my interpretation.
What we have here is a poem that is at face value about Nature and the difficulty of living on one of the far-flung islands off the west coast of Ireland. Yet Ireland is also an island and one beset by storms. These storms have been natural and political. The political storms have seen oppression and cruelty, the natural have brought death and the rape of the land as seen in the Potato Famine of the 1850s and introduced to the anthology in At a Potato Digging and the Eliza. And so we go on.
Written in 1966, 2 years before the rioting and violence of what became known as ‘the troubles’, the poem uses military imagery to convey the force of nature, but I am reluctant to see this as a direct representation of what would explode so violently. Heaney uses this imagery throughout the anthology – nature is violent and cruel and life in the County Derry of Heaney’s youth was hard and to those not aware of the reality of nature – cruel. Heaney expresses this so powerfully in the poem The Early Purges as he discusses the drowning of kittens and reflects on the inability of the townie to comprehend the necessity of such ‘cruelty’. Elsewhere, the boy/rat meeting in Advancement of Learning is portrayed as a military action at ‘bridgehead’. So whilst it is the case that the first 8 letters of the title spell Stormont – the seat of British power in Northern Island and therefore the seat of aggression against the Irish Catholic minority of the time, I feel this is one of the layers that is buried well down for a reason. I do not believe that Heaney would have published a poem that contained such obvious wordplay by accident, and therefore the word gag is probably deliberate, the emotive power of Stormont was not yet evident in the way it would be in two years’ time. Bette to focus on the poem and the content thereof to build a picture rather than to dive to this conclusion, which seems to me to be rather a dead end.
One of several ‘island’ poems in the collection, here we have an unnamed island (not Aran) which allows for a wider interpretation to be made – yes, the whole island of Ireland is certainly a reading and the small unnamed speck in the Atlantic described acts as a synecdoche for an exploration of the Irish character and the heritage which is explored so strongly in the rest of the anthology.
The single block of iambic lines, alternating between 10 and 11 syllables presents a short passage of strength and power and reflects the message of the opening couplet: The Irish are strong and built to last, whatever is thrown at them. Heaney foregrounds the Irish opening with ‘We’ in a trochaic inversion of the iambic first foot. The short statement is powerful in itself, the caesura allowing a strong break in the line and creating a three-part structure to the couplet. I read this statement as a musical whole much in the way that a symphonist like Beethoven or Mozart might structure the opening arguments of their 5th Symphony or the last movement of the 35th respectively (listen to them). It has organic growth which seems to present a convincing whole. Of course Heaney is referring to more than bricks and mortar: ‘houses’ reflects lineage and heritage – the Irish are here to endure.
Endurance seems to be the rule on the island. Heaney uses enjambment to provide a slight turn for the reader – ‘The wizened earth has never troubled us / with hay’ presents a surprise. Surely ‘hay’ would be a good thing rather than a trouble. Maybe, elsewhere, but on the island such fragile structures as ‘stacks or stooks’ would simply be unable to survive the harsh conditions. The alliterative aggression the two monosyllabic words seems to suggest a dismissive attitude to such examples of softer nature. Here the earth is ‘wizened’ -ancient and crinkled and barely fertile. Pretty farm pictures are not par to this world.
The same idea is developed in the discussion of the trees. Here the conversational ‘you know what I mean’ as Heaney turns to the reader as though to his neighbour, punctures the power of the initial description of the storm. The line has begun, before the colon-caesura, with the word Blast -the first of many military images used to describe the storm. The preceding line has galloped through a fractured iambic pattern to culminate in the spondee of ‘blows full’ and spills with the force of the squall into the climactic stress of ‘Blast’, creating a triplet of blows which are dissipated swiftly by the conversation. The explanation which follows is iambic and relaxed, using enjambment to suggest a relaxed mood, utterly at variance with the power being displayed outside. Heaney and the Irish endure. The tragic chorus picks up Heaney’s engagement with Ancient Greece. The chorus comment on the action of the play, they are not actors as such. Here the trees (if there were any) are commentators on a scene of aggression and survival. Their absence is delayed until the single sentence of line 11, which suggests that to allow such anthropomorphism of natural events is, again, something which is not only futile but has no place in such a harsh environment. I do enjoy the music of this poem, as I have suggested. Moving from the forte setting of the blast to a rolling piano of relaxed discussion, Heaney finds the word ‘pummels’ to describe the beating of nature at this point – a word both harsh (plosive P) yet strangely soft – the labial double M serving to reduce the force of the blow, giving a sforzando effect.
As the poem develops from this point, so the military imagery and the suggestion of an implacable and omnipotent foe is developed. Heaney again addresses the reader directly in Line 12 in order to disabuse them of any suggestion of comfort – the sea ‘exploding comfortably’ in its oxymoronic power can provide no company because of the power it unleashes: another enjambment is deployed to provide a turn as spray ‘spits like a tame cat / Turned savage’. The closed I vowels and the harsh and tight monosyllable suggest the aggression of the attacker – one who we had thought we might trust, but that we learn has turned against us – the shock evident as the idea of the attacking ‘tame cat’ is placed at the end of the line and ensures that we pause, however briefly, somewhat puzzled by what we read, before reality dawns in the subsequent line.
However, the sea is a slight foe compared to the wind which is described as a fighter bomber attacking defenceless people. It ‘dives’ and ‘strafes’ and is gone as soon as it arrives, leaving only destruction. This image and that of the previous lines do not need to be linked directly to the ‘troubles’. The poem comes only 20 years after WW2 and 10 after Korea. These images would be such common sights in newsreel and even in the psyche of those who had survived the conflicts. Even the assonance of the I vowels in ‘spits’ might pick up the name of the most famous aircraft of the era – the spitfire.
At this stage, there is a shift in the poem. Were it not so important structurally to present this single block of text – the endurance is whole – there might have been a stanza break. For at this point Heaney moves to the philosophy behind the poem. He muses on the emptiness and intangible nature of the aggressor. The use of ‘Space’ reinforces the minuteness of the island in the context of a wider universe, and emphasises the puny nature of those under attack (who are prepared and will survive). The military image continues here but now we get an additional layer of meaning – if we are bombarded by ’empty air’, then we assume that the power to destroy is itself empty and the idea of a people enduring through all events is reaffirmed.
The idea of the ‘huge nothing’ suggests to me an absence of humanity or of soul. It is very different from us fearing nothing and presents the foe as ultimately without being. the ‘We’ by contrast, therefore must be a ‘something’ – something full of heart, soul and humanity. The Irish (we) will endure.
In an attempt to explain the slightly opaque musical reference, I have done my best here: