When All The Others Were Away at Mass – Seamus Heaney – Analysis

When All The Others Were Away at Mass
from Clearances III – In Memoriam M.K.H., 1911-1984

When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.

So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives—
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.

Seamus Heaney (1939 – 2013)

This is a personal poem on a precious incident between mother and son that will always be remembered. Both are engaged in a domestic task working in unison and perhaps of more importance is that they had the time together to share in potato peeling while the rest of the family was away at Mass. ‘I was all hers’ are key words as Seamus reveled at having a time of complete togetherness. And he had obviously seen solder melt and form droplets to fall away from the heated iron. And likewise when the potatoes were peeled they would fall and the splash would break the silence of their intense communion and bring them to their senses. You can easily picture this intimate scene.

The sestet lines are much later in the relationship when his mother is dying and the parish priest is in attendance. The priest is dominating the scene with much noise (hammer and tongs). Oblivious to the religious background Seamus remembers that one incident when he was closest to his mother – ‘her breath in mine’ marrying with the octet words ‘I was all hers’.

I think, for all of us, when we empty the purse of life we will treasure such gold coins among the clutter.

Here is a reading of this poem by Seamus Heaney.

This sonnet was chosen by the public (via a poll by the national broadcaster) as Ireland’s favourite poem of the last 100 years. Here is a link to the eight sonnets Heaney wrote in memory of his mother, Margaret Kathleen Heaney.

For a detailed analysis with images of mother and child see this link.

Seamus Heaney – An Irish poet, playwright and translator is widely recognised as one of the major poets of the 20th century. He is the author of over 20 volumes of poetry and criticism, and edited several widely used anthologies. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995 ‘for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.’ He taught at Harvard University (1985-2006) and served as the Oxford Professor of Poetry (1989-1994). ‘Walk on air against your better judgement’ from his poem, ‘The Gravel Walks’ is inscribed on his headstone.

A link to Seamus Heaney on Wikipedia.

The Afternoon Sun – C P Cavafy – Analysis

The Afternoon Sun

This room, how well I know it.
Now they’re renting it, and the one next to it,
as offices. The whole house has become
an office building for agents, businessmen, companies.

This room, how familiar it is.

The couch was here, near the door,
a Turkish carpet in front of it.
Close by, the shelf with two yellow vases.
On the right—no, opposite—a wardrobe with a mirror.
In the middle the table where he wrote,
and the three big wicker chairs.
Beside the window the bed
where we made love so many times.

They must still be around somewhere, those old things.

Beside the window the bed;
the afternoon sun used to touch half of it.

. . . One afternoon at four o’clock we separated
for a week only. . . And then—
that week became forever.

C P Cavafy (1863 – 1933)
translated by E Keeley

I liked this poem on a first reading. The last stanza had a poignancy that only comes from an intimate personal separation. Grief is rekindled by returning to a house and entering a specific room known well from years ago.

Looking at each stanza and the structure of the poem …

S1 – The first sentence tells it all – this room is significant. And the rest of the stanza states what unfortunately has happened to the house.

S2 – This one line stanza returns to the room, and the poet’s familiarity. It has its own space making the one line stand out in thought. We can imagine the person standing at the open door looking into the room and the emotive response as memories flood back.

S3 – Then what follows is a detailed description of how the room used to be – every item gradually brought to the forefront of memory compared to the new look of the room. And then the significant last sentence, remembering the bed near the window where love took place.

S4 –A one line reflection thinking about the items in the room and what happened to them. Time has taken away physical things as well as emotional loss. Again the one line has space making it stand out in thought.

S5 – The bed has now become the main focus of the poem, and how the sunlight played on half of it. Sunlight has wonderful associations and so to the bed of course. And we can imagine the scene without the need for specifics. And the fact that the sun only touched half of the bed just as coming back only touches part of the original experience.

S6 – And then that poignant statement of the partial separation that became the forever. There is no need for any explanation on why this has happened. The reader can bring to mind his or her own personal experience of intimate loss. So both reader and poet share an emotional intensity.

I like the way this poem is structured as the reader walks-through an instant in life. It is a poem of place as well as grief and memory. The poet goes back to a place of great significance. And when we do this we take our time to absorb the new environment holding the image of the past in the mind as a reference. This is why I like the two one line stanzas because they create a sort of time delay in the reading of the event as it unfolds.

For interest, here is a clip of a sung version of this poem in Greek by Yannis Petritsis. It  might bring an emotional response akin to that experienced from reading the poem. (There are subtitles in English.)

C P Cavafy was an Egyptiot Greek poet, journalist and civil servant. He is one of the most important figures in Greek poetry, and in Western poetry. His poems are, typically, concise but intimate evocations of real or literary figures and milieu that have played roles in Greek culture. Uncertainty about the future, sensual pleasures, the moral character and psychology of individuals, homosexuality, and a fatalistic existential nostalgia are some of his defining themes. He was a perfectionist, obsessively refining every single line of his poetry. He left 155 poems plus more that were incomplete. His mature style was a free iambic form, free in the sense that verses rarely rhyme and are usually from 10 to 17 syllables. In his poems, the presence of rhyme usually implies irony.

And more on C P Cavafy fom Wikipedia

I must add as a follow-up that there is a time to move on and look to the future, hard as it might be. And although the world is changing rapidly fast, the new-all-different tomorrow will always provide opportunities to enrich us with joy.

 

The Mower – Philip Larkin – Analysis

The Mower

The mower stalled, twice; kneeling I found
A hedgehog jammed against the blades,
Killed. It had been in the long grass.

I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.
Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world
Unmendably, Burial was no help:

Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.

Philip Larkin (1922 – 1985)

Unmendably – unamendable

We looked at this poem at our U3A Poetry Appreciation Session. The importance of the punctuation was mentioned in any reading of the poem. And comments were made on the word unmendably this being the central word of the poem – when something happens that can never be mended and in this case due to an innocent accident.

And immediate grief is defined so eloquently in that opening line of the third stanza – Next morning I got up and it did not. It is the absence of presence, the empty space that is so hard to accept. There is such irony in the words – is always the same when of course the whole point is that it is not the same but will always be different.

An interesting discussion ensued on whether the last two lines were needed and perhaps the poem should have ended after the third stanza. Is the enjambment after-thought really needed? And after all PL was not unkind to the hedgehog, in fact he was quite kind and used to feed it. Perhaps he is thinking of a human relationship where he would not like to see a sudden death and where he owed that person a little kindness and some mending needed.

Philip Larkin on Wikipedia.

O thou whose face hath felt the Winter’s wind- John Keats – Analysis

O thou whose face hath felt the Winter’s wind

O thou whose face hath felt the Winter’s wind,
Whose eye has seen the snow-clouds hung in mist
And the black elm tops ‘mong the freezing stars,
To thee the spring will be a harvest-time.
O thou, whose only book has been the light
Of supreme darkness which thou feddest on
Night after night when Phoebus was away,
To thee the Spring shall be a triple morn.

O fret not after knowledge- I have none,
And yet my song comes native with the warmth.
O fret not after knowledge- I have none,
And yet the Evening listens. He who saddens
At thought of idleness cannot be idle,
And he’s awake who thinks himself asleep.

John Keats (1795 – 1821)

A draft copy of this sonnet was sent to his friend John Reynolds on today’s date the 19 February. His friend was suffering from pneumatic fever. He wanted to ‘lift a little time from his shoulders’. Apparently the song of a thrush heard while Keats was out walking was the inspiration for this poem.

It is the only unrhymned sonnet that Keats wrote. It forms the traditional break after the first eight lines – after the full stop, and I have inserted a blank line at this point.

Feddest – feed perhaps
Phoebus – Greek God of light; God of prophecy and poetry and music and healing.

John Reynolds was obviously going through a very dark time. It is appropriate that he mentions the absence of Phoebus, the inability of his friend to write. His illness is conceited to darkness in nature and that Spring will be a great happening – and two lines stress this – a harvest-time and a triple morn.

The last six lines stress the lack of knowledge on the illness and its progression. Again two lines are involved – O fret not after knowledge – I have none, but independent of this his song comes native with warmth.

The last lines give hope that although he, John Reynolds, may think of death in terms of idleness and sleep he is actually awake – and will live, hopefully.

John Keats on Wikipedia

The Waking – Theodore Roethke – Analysis

The Waking

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me; so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

Theodore Roethke (1908 – 1963)

This iambic pentameter villanelle was written in 1953. The poem suggests the nature of life and an approach to living through experience.

In a villanelle the repetitive lines appear together in the last two lines –
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go

These are the key lines that emphasise the main thought concept.

How can you wake to sleep … it seems a contradiction … perhaps what he is saying is that even when awake he is never fully aware … never fully appreciative, so in away asleep of all that is around him as he leads his life … so life is a process of awareness and enlightenment? To take my waking slow … this might be a plea to enjoy life as you live!

Another view to the phrase I wake to sleep … indicating a reluctance to face life for whatever reason?

We learn by going … by life-experience … and hopefully we go where we have to go … do we have an ordained path? … a path specific for us to follow? … how do we work out where we have to go? … only by going and following our heart.

In the third stanza there is a humbleness and respect for others when they are involved – I shall walk softly there.

We think by feeling … I think in a way this is true in that our thinking and feeling go hand in hand and as we think we know and experience a ‘yes this is right’ response within. And life throws many situations at us that cause emotional reaction needing thoughtful response. Whether we are fated is another matter.

In the fifth stanza Great Nature is a beautiful guiding force in growth … but we do not know how, how the tree takes light or light takes the tree.

And in the last stanza – What falls away is always. And is near … experience continually falls away fixed … we cannot change the past … but it may be near to us in how we continue to live especially when we have made a few regrettable decisions.

Theodore Roethke on Wikipedia

 

Fidelity – D. H. Lawrence

Fidelity

Man and woman are like the earth, that brings forth flowers
in summer, and love, but underneath is rock.

Older than flowers, older than ferns, older than foraminiferae,
older than plasm altogether is the soul underneath.

And when, throughout all the wild chaos of love
slowly a gem forms, in the ancient, once-more-molten rocks
of two human hearts, two ancient rocks,
a man’s heart and a woman’s,
that is the crystal of peace, the slow hard jewel of trust,
the sapphire of fidelity.
The gem of mutual peace emerging from the wild chaos of love.

D.H. Lawrence (1885 – 1930)

foraminiferae = order of protozoans usually marine organism with perforated shells
plasm = colourless coagulation part of blood in which the corpuscles float

This prose style poem is often used as a marriage piece. It highlights the centuries old soul-bond of man and woman. And the foundation of a relationship is on-going trust and fidelity. This is likened to the formation of a gem in a rock to form the conceit. And the words suggest that it is not easy to maintain trust and fidelity within the wild chaos of love. This phrase is repeated emphasising the nature of love and the demands experienced in developing an on-going relationship.

Of course gems and jewels are usually part of the marriage ceremony so these metaphoric words go hand in hand in stressing fidelity.

The problem is that word foraminiferae – what exactly does it mean and how to you pronounce it if you have to read the poem at a wedding! It is a word trap that takes the mind away from focusing on a smooth reading, never the less the emphasis on fidelity is crystal clear!

D. H. Lawrence on Wikipedia

IF – Rudyard Kipling – Comments

IF

IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
‘ Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

Rudyard Kipling (1865 – 1936) – Text taken from the Net … it could have errors.

This poem consists of four eight line rhyming iambic pentameter stanzas. The whole poem is instruction on the way to live life – a father talking to a son. Instruction is based on the word IF … the Ifs that may happen in life and the advice response is elaborated.

This poem came in #1 in the search for the most favourite poem by the UK Bookworm programme in 1995. So the advice offered must have had some resonance with the UK public. And maybe his father had lived through some harrowing experiences such as risking all his money on one turn of pitch-and-toss.

And if the son succeeds in making that appropriate response then the son becomes ‘a Man’, it being so important for the son to succeed and become ‘a Man‘. The son having more importance than a daughter which is still prevalent in so many societies and situations! The poem must be viewed against the historical context.

The poem can have a universal dimension of instruction with a few amendments such as …
S1 … line 3 … If you can trust yourself when everybody doubts you,
S4 … line 4 … If all peoples count with you, but none too much;
And in the last line … And – what is more – you’ll be some hero!

However, this loses something for it is Father-Son talking and poems must adhere to the concrete of the text of the poet, so the latent universal is there for the reader to accept independent of Father-Son and those looking for some kind of gender equality should do so in this light and not colour appreciation this way.

If you can read a poem for full appreciation
without letting personal preference shade your understanding.

There are, of course, many cases where text is changed for gender equality but poetry is not the case!

Full details of the poem IF on Wikipedia
A link to Rudyard Kipling on Wikipedia

Angels – Mary Oliver – Comments

Angels

You might see an angel anytime
and anywhere. Of course you have
to open your eyes to a kind of
second level, but it’s not really
hard. The whole business of
what’s reality and what isn’t has
never been solved and probably
never will be. So I don’t care to
be too definite about anything.
I have a lot of edges called Perhaps
and almost nothing you can call
Certainty. For myself, but not
for other people. That’s a place
you just can’t get into, not
entirely anyway, other people’s heads.

I’ll just leave you with this.
I don’t care how many angels can
dance on the head of a pin. It’s
enough to know that for some people
they exist, and that they dance.

Mary Oliver (1935 – 2019)

This is all to do with how we and others see the world. We know what we see and how we feel. How we articulate this in a way that others can understand is another matter. And equally the converse is true.

And how much do we understand another person? But to help there is that intersecting commonality between peoples based on common life experience and the fact that we are all of the human variety.

In this poem by Mary Oliver there is a plea to be accepting of what others say however ridiculous it might seem. And she suggests living in the ‘perhaps’ for it is true that we can never really get into the head of another. So if someone says they have seen an ‘angel’ or anything else truly out of the ordinary then who are we to deny the sighting and in due course perhaps we might see the same.

Of course ‘angels’ come in many forms and there is one sitting in the chair across the room at the moment. I don’t know about the dancing element!

Perhaps the first stanza is sufficient combined with the first line of the second, if I might suggest my perhaps on first reading this poem.

Mary Oliver died in January last year … a Wikipedia link