“The Basket-Maker,” like many other poems about artistic creation, makes a significant statement about its narrator’s attitude toward his own craft. The speaker’s self-conscious allusion to his own creative process as he repeats and mulls over a phrase from earlier in the poem draws the reader’s attention to the parallels between the speaker and the basket-weaver. The craftsman’s skill is ancient in origin, like the Bronze Age artifacts revealed by the receding lake waters, but it requires the poet’s skill to find the poem in the experience. The friend of the poet, with his knowledge of historical lore, is able to appreciate the arm-rings, the quern, the boar-tusk pendants, and the piece of amber, but only the poet recognizes the treasure on which these other treasures rest: the “woven hazel twigs,” which provide historical validation of the basket-maker’s craft. The poet’s ability to appreciate the basket-maker’s art, past and present, is precisely what makes him an artist in his own right.
While the themes of artistic creation and the link between the past and the present are universal, the setting of “The Basket-Maker” is quite specific, and consideration of the poem in that context provides insight into another layer of meaning. The poem is explicitly set in a marketplace, and it can be gathered from the reference to Counties Kerry and Galway that the marketplace is located in the rural west of Ireland. As the poem progresses and the setting becomes more identifiable, the basket-maker’s pride takes on a more patriotic character, and his description of people who use his wares is also clearly intended to present a specifically Irish rural culture: The “old woman out for marketing” suggests the Poor Old Woman, a traditional personification of Ireland; the reference to “potatoes from the pot” alludes to a dietary staple of the region; the harvesting of turf to burn as fuel is likewise a specifically Irish occupation; and the word “kish,” used to denote the woven basket for carrying this turf, comes from the Irish language.
In the penultimate stanza the basket-maker mentions the “Kerry glens” and the arbutus trees that grow there. Significantly, the word “arbutus” is Latin in origin, a later addition to the local language. The tree to which the word refers is an ornamental evergreen, useless for basket-making. The “reeks” the basket-maker traverses are the stacked hills found in Kerry. These topographical references, along with the other specific geographical details, serve to locate the action of the poem in a specific place and to underscore the theme of pride in tradition that the final stanza stresses. They define an Ireland the “length and breadth” of which the basket-maker travels, and over which he feels the sense of “dominion” evident in his voice at the poem’s close.
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