These past two years, I’ve tremendously enjoying taking part in Reading Ireland Month, the annual blog event celebrating Irish literature, movies, music, and culture, hosted by Cathy Brown and Niall McArdle. I’m afraid this year’s contribution won’t match the volume of last year’s, but hopefully you’ll still enjoy this longish essay on one of my favorite Irish poems.
“Glanmore Sonnets, X”
by Seamus Heaney
I dreamt we slept in a moss in Donegal
On turf banks under blankets, with our faces
Exposed all night in a wetting drizzle,
Pallid as the dripping sapling birches.
Lorenzo and Jessica in a cold climate.
Diarmuid and Grainne waiting to be found.
Darkly asperged and censed, we were laid out
Like breathing effigies on a raised ground.
And in that dream I dreamt—how like you this?—
Our first night years ago in that hotel
When you came with your deliberate kiss
To raise us towards the lovely and painful
Covenants of flesh; our separateness;
The respite in our dewy dreaming faces.
Form and Function
The first thing to notice about this sonnet is that it is a sonnet. That’s significant for two reasons: first, the sonnet is considered the traditional vehicle for love poetry. Whatever else this is, it’s first and foremost a love poem.
Not only that, the sonnet is also the traditional vehicle of English love poetry. Though the form was invented in Italy, English poets like William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, and Phillip Sidney experimented with it to arrive at the sonnet form we know and love today. You could say that, like Ireland itself, the sonnet was taken from another people and claimed by the English as their own. This may be why so many critics have suggested that Heaney’s continual use of the sonnet form was a type of protest against the British literary establishment, who, despite expecting Northern Ireland to give up its own native culture and embrace England’s, still would not take seriously any “Ulsterman’s” attempt to participate in that culture. This is Heaney asserting both his right to be present and the worth of Irish culture and literary traditions when compared with England’s. More on that in a bit.
You all probably know already about the different types of sonnets, but just in case: the two most popular forms of the sonnet are the English (or Shakespearean) sonnet and the Italian (Petrarchan) sonnet. Both types consist of fourteen lines of rhymed iambic pentameter, but the division of those lines and the specific rhyme scheme used are where these two forms differ. In an English sonnet, the rhyme scheme runs ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. It establishes its subject and then discusses or describes that subject for the first twelve lines, only to give some fresh insight or to address the subject from a different angle in the last two lines, called the “couplet.” One of the best examples of this form that I can think of is Shakespeare’s 130th sonnet, the one that begins “My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun.” After spending twelve lines describing all of the ways in which his mistress is not an ideal beauty, Shakespeare suddenly turns around in the final two lines and says,
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
At the tail-end of the poem, he turns what would have been a string of insults into a sort of backhanded compliment. Not good wooing, but good poetry.
The Italian sonnet’s rhyme scheme can vary somewhat, but the most common pattern is ABBAABBA CDECDE. It uses an almost halfway division to explore two different ideas, or the same idea from two different angles. The first eight lines, called the “octet,” establish the theme for the poem and the last six lines, the “sestet,” either shed new light on the topic or present another idea, complementary to the first, but not exactly the same.
Each form has its comparative merits. In my own reading, I’ve always preferred the English rhyme scheme to the Italian. Because the rhymes are less spread out in an English sonnet, I think it gives the whole poem a better sense of cohesion. And where the Italian sonneteers have to get along with only five rhymes, the English sonnet gives the poet seven. This further adds to the cohesion of the piece by continuing the pattern of multiples of seven (14 lines, 70 feet, 140 syllables, 7 rhymes). My Christian friends will probably also remember that in church tradition, seven is the number of completion, and therefore a symbol of perfection. So, if you want to read it that way, more sevens is always better.
On the other hand, the English sonnet can be rather top-heavy. Twelve lines out of fourteen is a long time to treat a single topic, especially if the whole point of the poem is to turn the entire thing around in the last two lines. The Italian sonnet gives a more balanced approach by assigning eight lines to the first idea and six to the second. It divides itself almost in half, but not quite, an imbalance which I think well-suits a poetic form that has been so often called upon to express the deepest thoughts and longings of imbalanced mankind.
What I love about Heaney’s sonnets is that, with some exceptions, he gives us the best of both worlds: the tight, instantly recognizable rhyme scheme of the English sonnet with the more balanced and more approachable organization of an Italian sonnet.
And that nearly-balanced Italian structure is put to good use in “Glanmore Sonnets, X.” In my reading of it, the whole poem is preoccupied with duality, paradox, and contradictions.
What It’s About: the Octet
Right away, you notice that between the octet and the sestet, things are the same but also very different. Both stanzas show us a pair of lovers, presumably the same two lovers, but in two almost opposing situations and moods.
Starting with the octet, we meet the lovers in an idyllic setting. The speaker himself tells us it was a dream, leading us to imagine some beautiful little hidden spot in a forest. They are lying on a river bank sleeping, while a light rain falls on them, a rain whose soft, steady beat you can hear in the repeated unaccented syllables in “dripp-ing sap-ling bir-ches.” So still and tranquil are they that the speaker compares them to “breathing effigies on a raised ground.” Here of course, “effigy” refers to the statues which once adorned the tombs of kings and queens and which depicted them laying down dead: I don’t think you can get any stiller than a rock imitating a dead person.
There’s more than one way to read the “asperged and censed” line (that too I’ll talk about more below) but in my readings, it had the sense of benediction. “Asperges” refers to a rite in the Roman Catholic Church in which the priest sprinkles his parishioners with holy water, while “censed” refers to the burning of incense, another common practice in the Catholic Church. Both asperges and incense can be used on many different occasions, but in all cases they are a sign of purification and consecration, of something or someone being singled out for a holy purpose. Because the water and the fragrant aroma in this poem are coming not from a priest but from nature, this phrases gives the idea that even the environment in which these people exist has blessed their union and is commending them on their future life. There’s a sense of assurance that the path these people are on is the right one.
At the same time, there is an element of foreboding and anxiety in this stanza, especially in the literary references Heaney makes: “Lorenzo and Jessica in a cold climate. / Diarmuid and Grainne waiting to be found.” In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Jessica is the daughter of Shylock—the stereotypical, Christian-hating Jew—while Lorenzo is a friend of Shylock’s enemy Antonio. He is also a Christian. Not only would each’s family disapprove of the union, it was also illegal for Christians and Jews to marry each other in seventeenth-century Venice. In defiance of society and of their families, Jessica and Lorenzo run away together to another city. From this allusion, we get a sense of some significant obstacle trying to force our two lovers apart.
The second reference heightens the sense of foreboding even further. In Irish mythology, Grainne was a princess brought to Ireland to wed the legendary king Finn MacCool. The night before her wedding, while Finn and his warriors the Fianna were feasting in the royal banquet hall, Grainne happened to meet one of the warriors, Diarmuid, and fell in love with him. Some versions say that Diarmuid fell in love with Grainne too, while others say that Grainne, schooled in the art of witchcraft, put a spell on Diarmuid so that he would love her. Regardless, the two ran away together into the forests of Connacht, where Finn and the Fianna found them weeks later. Grainne was still alive, but as for Diarmuid, he had been killed by a wild boar, in accordance with a prophecy given at his birth.
So where Lorenzo and Jessica eventually got a happy ending, the Diarmuid and Grainne story ended in tragedy. And really, there’s no other way it could have ended: even if the boar hadn’t killed Diarmuid, Finn MacCool would have. Maybe it’s this precariousness in their situation that leads Heaney to give them the phrase “waiting to be found.” They go into their new life expecting it to be taken from them, probably by death. It’s just a question of when.
One critique I read of the “Glanmore Sonnets” sequence chose to focus primarily on the darker tones of this stanza and the idea of death as expressed through funereal imagery: the reference to effigies, but also to asperges and incense, both of which, though they can appear at joyful occasions as well, are often used in Catholic funerals. And while I agree with this writer that the speaker obviously fears the separation that death will bring, I don’t think of this as an entirely mournful scene. The idea that they are “exposed all night” to the elements and to whatever malevolent forces may lurk around them, but that they still stay there, laying next to each other, gives me the idea that they each draw a sense of peace from their love, regardless of what goes on around them. Their love perseveres despite outward threats.
In the next stanza, things are not quite so idyllic. Turning to the speaker’s dream within a dream, we see the lovers in a hotel. Just the very fact of their being in a man-made, commercial space instantly kills the dreamy allure of the octet. The action changes completely too: where they once slept peacefully by each other’s sides, they’re now about to have sex for the first time. Before, the mood was tranquil but with an underlying tension; now it’s dominated by passion, both in the modern sense of overwhelming desire, but also in the more ancient sense of suffering, with the word “painful” adjoined to “lovely” and the man and woman’s eventual separation being described as “respite.” Previously, the pain in the relationship came from outside forces: now it arises from the relationship itself.
And so what Heaney does with these two stanzas—and the reason why the sonnet form fits this poem so perfectly—is that he presents two visions of love which not only contrast with each other but which also have contradictions inherent in them. The first stanza is the dream of love—peaceful, surmounting every obstacle, braving every danger—while the sestet is the reality—messy and painful. At the same time, the dreamy sense of calm in the octet is undercut by fear, while the pain in the sestet does not subtract from the “loveliness” of the moment. From this, we realize that the relationship itself is full of anxiety and pain–whether that comes from circumstances outside of the couple’s control or from each other. And still, this is the best thing that could have happened to them. It’s the road they need to be on. It is a strange and complex reality, but it is the reality of this couple, and Heaney captures it brilliantly.
A Poem about Poetry
Those are some of the reasons why I believe that “Glanmore Sonnets, X” is one of the best sonnets that I’ve ever read. But it’s not just Heaney’s skillful use of form or his insight that make this such a great poem. I think his use of allusion, especially literary allusion, is worth taking a look at also.
Some of the connections between this poem and older literature are obvious. In addition to the references to Shakespeare and Irish mythology, the phrase “how like you this?” is taken directly from “They flee from me,” a sixteenth-century love lyric by Sir Thomas Wyatt. In this poem, the speaker muses over his past relationships with women, all of which have since ended. Because this quotation comes directly after the octet, in which Heaney’s speaker preoccupied himself with worries about death and the impending end of his relationship, this quote helps give us better insight into the mind of the speaker, one that is already beginning to identify with the man who has been abandoned by his lover.
Elsewhere, the references are a bit more subdued. For instance, according to the scholar A. J. Smith, there’s long tradition in classical poetry of setting love poems on the edge of some body of water.1 Heaney was no stranger to the classics, so the octet’s setting on “turf banks” could be a nod to that tradition.
Heaney also shares at least one metaphor in common with love poet extraordinaire John Donne: in “The Ecstasy,” Donne compares two lovers—who, fittingly enough, are laying on a bank—to “sepulchral statues,” a comparison which is brought to mind in Heaney’s “breathing effigies.”
So, what does this abundance of references and homages tell us about the poem and Heaney’s intentions for it? A few things:
First, it’s not always a good idea to assume that poets are writing about themselves or people they know, but in the (very likely) case that Heaney is writing about himself, references like these flatter the loved one (and consequently, the lover) by comparing them to great lovers from history. It used to be a very common technique in poetry: evoke the lovers from past romances to make yours seem just as beautiful.
Second, these references put Heaney in conversation with the poetic greats of history. By the time this poem was published in 1979, Heaney was a mature poet, a Noble-Prize-worthy poet even. According to Harold Bloom, Field Work, the collection in which this poem appears, is the book whereby Heaney officially entered the Western Canon. He could bandy about references to Shakespeare and Wyatt because, unlike he was fifteen years ago, he’s closer to their level now.
By invoking common cultural touchstones, Heaney also creates something universal. Shakespeare, Donne, and Wyatt are all considered canonical authors and their works are fairly well-known to most of the English-speaking world. In a sense, they belong to everyone now, not just to Heaney but also his to readers. Forming a connection to a shared past makes this poem feel like it is, just like that older literature, a type of communal property.
However in the octet, we see that the places and characters Heaney alludes to are not necessarily universal. Not everyone knows where Donegal is and most people outside of Ireland will have to look up Diarmuid and Grainne. At the same time that Heaney wants to reach out into the broader world, he also wants to keep things close to home, grounded in what is familiar and important to him, even as the world around him dismisses it. By combining the hallowed literary canon of Great Britain with the places and folklore of Ireland, Heaney is attempting to put both on the same level, to assert the value of this specially Irish material when held against the “approved” literature. In his allusions, he is simultaneously universal and private, just as he is in the poem overall.
Thanks for staying till the end! Let me know in the comments what your favorite Heaney poem is and whether you agree or disagree with my thoughts on this one.
1 The Complete English Poems by John Donne, edited by A. J. Smith, Penguin Books. Pg 368.