The Ash Plant – Seamus Heaney – Spirituality

The following poem by Seamus Heaney was written in memory of his cattle-farming father. He wrote it in 1986, two years after his father’s death, and four years after his mother’s.

The Ash Plant

He’ll never rise again but he is ready.
Entered like a mirror by the morning,
He stares out the big window, wondering,
Not caring if the day is bright or cloudy.

An upstairs outlook on the whole country.
First milk-lorries, first smoke, cattle, trees
In damp opulence above damp hedges –
He has it to himself, he is like a sentry

Forgotten and unable to remember
The whys and wherefores of his lofty station,
Wakening relieved yet in position,
Disencumbered as a breaking comber.

As his head goes light with light, his wasting hand
Gropes desperately and finds the phantom limb
Of an ash plant in his grasp, which steadies him.
Now he has found his touch he can stand his ground

Or wield the stick like a silver bough and come
Walking again among us: the quoted judge.
I could have cut a better man out of the hedge!
God might have said the same, remembering Adam.

Seamus Heaney

Carol Rumens the English poet selected this poem as one of her weekly selections. The following is a link to her detailed exploration of the above text. See https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2016/may/23/poem-of-the-week-the-ash-plant-by-seamus-heaney.

Included in that discussion is the following paragraph –

Five solid quatrains, the wonderfully effortless ABBA half-rhyme, a firm pentameter beat, and the emphasised cadence of numerous feminine line-endings: these building blocks have and contain the density of the real world, but they signify more. The father in the poem is waking up after his death, “Entered like a mirror by the morning.” He is uncertain, a new shade, unmoored from life but not far beyond it, like a sentry “unable to remember / The whys and wherefores of his lofty station” (as a sentry’s ghost might be perplexed in a Northern Ireland of future ceasefire). Then “his wasting hand” finds “the phantom limb” of the Ash Plant and “… he has found his touch and can stand his ground”. It’s a lovely image that suggests a frail old man in his later years taking up his stick and, in that moment, finding his balance and becoming sure on his feet, as if recovering a younger body. The shade is transfigured, and, light-filled, he gains full authority. And once again the son gently smiles at the father and teases him as “the quoted judge” for his dry comment, “I could have cut a better man out of the hedge!”

I mention this in particular because the second line ‘Entered like a mirror by the morning’ caught my imagination as a wonderful metaphor for the new life of a ‘shade’. A mirror can never tell us who we really are but on death Heaney implies a walking through the mirror to an understanding of a new self from the other side of the mirror. And then he suggests the generation of a spiritual presence in on-going life as a ‘sentry’.

You can imagine Heaney’s Father in the top bedroom of an old farmhouse looking out over his life’s endeavour and being proud of what he has achieved over the years. The ‘damp opulence’ is an appropriate choice of words. Damp and Ireland are synonymous and opulence is such a good choice (compare to wealth). And here he is being reborn to this environment taking his first tentative steps from on high. It is interesting that he needs the support of the Ash Plant. Rod and Staff and Psalm 23 come to mind. But can he protect the future on the way the land will change as the years unfold. It would be somewhat poetic to think that he had some on-going influence as a ‘shade’.

I think there is a sense of humour in the statement – ‘I could have cut a better man out of the hedge!’. To me it implies that he could have done better. And to suggest that God could have done better is quite entertaining.

The literary significance of the Ash Plant is discussed in detail by Carol Rumens.

It is a very interesting poem showing Seamus Heaney had a somewhat mystical thinking on a resurrection and an after-life.

London Rain – Louis MacNeice

This year many of the the poets visited in our U3A (University of Third Age) sessions have had some connection with religious ministry. When you come to think about it it is not surprising. Ministers are thought-full people – don’t you think!

Louis MacNeice was no exception. His father was a Protestant minister who later became a bishop of the Anglican Church of Ireland. Below is Louis MacNeice’s poem ‘London Rain’, written at a time of conflict in Europe. He wrestles with thoughts on God as he looks out late at night on the rain. Sharing my comments which are shown in italics after each stanza.

 London Rain

The rain of London pimples
The ebony street with white
And the neon lamps of London
Stain the canals of night
And the park becomes a jungle
In the alchemy of night.

London night-time rain … I love that word pimples and the catch of light in the pimple from the street lamps … ebony = rich dark black wood … giving a little gloss to the dark … and there is a whole new mapping of the streets … as in a chemical reaction …the light staining, leaving it’s mark

My wishes turn to violent
Horses black as coal–
The randy mares of fancy,
The stallions of the soul–
Eager to take the fences
That fence about my soul.

This looks like dissatisfaction on where he is in life … in terms of violent horses … he wants to break free … and this may be a spiritual unrest when we look at later stanzas

Across the countless chimneys
The horses ride and across
The country to the channel
Where warning beacons toss,
To a place where God and No-God
Play at pitch and toss.

Well his thoughts travel across the channel to the war and this occupies his mind … God and No-God (the Good and the Bad) playing pitch and toss = a game of skill and chance

Whichever wins I am happy
For God will give me bliss
But No-God will absolve me
From all I do amiss
And I need not suffer conscience
If the world was made amiss.

He is talking about the God/No-God battle going on in his mind. If there is a God – everything will be OK and if No-God then it doesn’t matter about all the conscience problems … these are his on-going thoughts as he watches the rain … his logic…dare I say late-night logic!

Under God we can reckon
On pardon when we fall
But if we are under No-God
Nothing will matter at all,
Adultery and murder
Will count for nothing at all.

Expounding his thoughts from the previous stanza … bad behaviour will not matter … no accountability… and under God we will be absolved of all our missdemeanours.

So reinforced by logic
As having nothing to lose
My lust goes riding horseback
To ravish where I choose,
To burgle all the turrets
Of beauty as I choose.

So his logic suggests to him that this horse can ride amuck with no consequence … taking the No-God ride so to speak … and using this to justify any course of action

But now the rain gives over
Its dance upon the town,
Logic and lust together
Come dimly tumbling down,
And neither God nor No-God
Is either up or down.

It looks as though it has stopped raining for a while … and in sync. with this his God/No-God thinking seems to fall away too … well it is late night and he is a little confused

The argument was wilful,
The alternatives untrue,
We need no metaphysics
To sanction what we do
Or to muffle us in comfort
From what we did not do.

The argument was very wilful = headstrong … and indeed ‘we need no metaphysics = abstract thinking’ … and in his case no ‘God/No-God’ thoughts to work out what we should be doing or to justify our actions. (I might add that those that shout God is on our side are often using God to justify their ungodly actions.)

Whether the living river
Began in bog or lake,
The world is what was given,
The world is what we make.
And we only can discover
Life in the life we make.

Bog and lake are references to his Irish / English heritage. For me this is the key stanza … it is up to us to make what we will of the world, of this gift … and we can only discover how we should live in living life. In a sense it is up to us – our responsibility to create our own God (and if we do happen to believe in an external God then perhaps our understanding of God may come clearer). Focus on the gift of the present, the here and now…don’t worry about what is happening overseas!

So let the water sizzle
Upon the gleaming slates,
There will be sunshine after
When the rain abates
And rain returning duly
When the sun abates.

Well, rain and sun one will follow the other in an endless cycle (good and bad) – that is the way of the world and we have to accept it – (hopefully life improves over time!)

My wishes now come homeward,
Their gallopings in vain,
Logic and lust are quiet,
And again it starts to rain;
Falling asleep I listen
To the falling London rain.

His mind is now back on where he is … in his room looking out on the falling rain … the logic/lust distraction of thought in vain … and the wild horses that took his thoughts away at the beginning of the poem bring him home again … he notices it has started to rain again … falling rain and enough thinking for one night falls asleep… let’s hope he has pleasant dreams!

(The rhyming scheme is a b c b d b – with a repeat end word in lines four and six of each stanza).

The Silken Tent – Robert Frost

THE SILKEN TENT

She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when a sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all the ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
And its supporting central cedar pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul,
Seems to owe nought to any single cord,
But strictly held by none is loosely bound
By countless silken ties of love and thought
To everything on earth the compass round,
And only by one’s going slightly taut
In the capriciousness of summer air
Is of the slightest bondage made aware.

Robert Frost (1874 – 1963)

Here is a fine example of the English sonnet by Robert Frost that takes my fancy. Iambic Pentameter with structure abab cdcd efef for the three quatrains and then the rhyming summary couplet

The opening line although a little cumbersome is perhaps ‘as good as’ … she walks in beauty like the night (Byron)

Interesting word used ‘guys‘ a double take in today’s usage that happens to fit the theme of the sonnet.

… what a wonderful way to walk the world … being special, gentle, at ease with life, and bonded to all in a loose sort of way in love and thought connected … by countless silken ties of love and thought

… and of more importance tied by a strong spiritual sense … not dependent on any one alone but everyone giving something to hold her in place to a heavenly position (to the central cedar pole) … and this heavenly connection making her effective in coverage … making the person effective in life as well as making the tent usable … imagine a sagging tent without an upright central pole

… I really like the suggested ambience in the closing couplet … and the word capricious = fanciful, unpredictable … quite fitting … moving freely in the lightness of a summer breeze – and only by going slightly taught does she (or indeed we) become aware of that heavenly connection that binds – always subtle, always latent

Here is a link to Robert Frost on Wikipedia