The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 520

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“The Basket-Maker,” by the Irish poet Padraic Colum, is a lyric poem that considers the role of the anonymous artisan in connecting the present with the historical past. The speaker calls attention to the specific roles and uses of baskets in rural Irish life, the solitary role of the itinerant basket-maker, and, ultimately, the importance of the nameless laborers who produce the stuff of civilization.

The basket-maker serves an important practical function in Irish society, illustrated in the poem through the discussion of the functionality of the baskets he produces, but his deeper importance pertains to his position, as a member of the working class and also as an artist, within the larger context of Irish cultural identity. When the basket-maker asserts, toward the end of the poem, “‘I travel Ireland’s length and breadth,’” his tone reveals a unity with his country, even a sense of ownership or propriety: “There was dominion in the way he said it.” The apparent humility of the basket-maker’s station in life is transformed into a pride both in his craft and in his very anonymity.

The poem opens by highlighting connections between ancient and modern, as the speaker, while watching the basket-maker at his craft in the marketplace, is approached by a friend who is versed in “the lore of ancient fields and houses.” The friend bears recently excavated Bronze Age relics, including golden arm-rings, such as would have been given by princes as rewards in Anglo-Saxon times; a quern, a primitive device, consisting of two circular stones, used for grinding grain; and “woven hazel twigs,” the presence of which underscores the antiquity of the basket-maker’s craft: He uses the same methods, and creates the same product, as did basket-makers of a thousand years ago.

The speaker’s stake in the basket-maker’s craftsmanship rests in his identification with his fellow artisan. The speaker is a poet, and he calls attention to his own craft even as he describes the basket-maker’s. Both crafts, poetry and basket-making, are ancient, and both are practiced in relative silence with only simple tools. Further, the speaker’s description of the basket-maker’s youthful apprenticeship “when hazel-nuts were green” connects that craft (and, by extension, poetry) to the work of the natural world. The wren’s “bulky nest” is woven by the same means, using the same materials, as the different varieties of basket—wicker round, creel, and kish—produced by the basket-maker.

As the speaker dwells on the basket-maker’s craft, he also calls attention to his own art, simultaneously watching the craftsman “weave/ Rod over rod” and thinking about the “woven hazel twigs/ Laid down in summer, since the hazel nuts/ were not then filled [ripe].” Observing the weaver’s repetitive motion, the poet-speaker mimics it by repeating and reconsidering the phrase he has just used. This affinity between the basket-maker and the speaker stops short of reducing the basket-maker’s craft to allegorical representation of the process of poetic creation; instead, the comparison allows the speaker to share in the basket-maker’s “dominion” over the Ireland whose “length and breadth” he travels.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 538

The predominant style of “The Basket-Maker” is blank verse—unrhymed iambic pentameter—though Colum uses several shorter lines throughout for variation and emphasis. Blank verse, the most natural and least obtrusive regular meter in English language poetry, is entirely appropriate to the poet’s theme and purpose; in a poem about unpretentious natural craftsmanship and tradition both in basket-making and poet craft, the use of blank verse subtly reinforces the poet’s message, and the parallel between the speaker and the basket-maker, “two of [them] only in the market-place,” is emphasized. The basket-maker uses “No toolbut his own hands, a knife/ That he had used since his apprenticeship,” while the poet-speaker uses unrhymed iambic pentameter, one of the most common and natural tools in English prosody, to depict the craftsman and describe his relationship to his craft and his native land.

Just as the poem’s meter emphasizes its theme, Colum’s careful choice of unfamiliar words serves to highlight the poem’s main ideas. His description of the basket he is purchasing as a “withied shape,” for example, calls attention to the archaic and potentially foreign nature of his subject matter. The word “withied” pertains to willows (the long, supple twigs of which are frequently used in basket-making) or to something tied with twigs. Like several of the more unfamiliar words the speaker uses, the origin of “withied,” in this case, Old English, is just as significant as the literal meaning of the word itself. Its use relates to and prefigures the artifacts introduced by the friend several lines later, for the word itself is an artifact of sorts. Similarly, the speaker’s use of it identifies him as someone who, like his friend, is similarly versed in “the lore of ancient fields and houses.”

The “quern” mentioned several lines later also stresses the speaker’s familiarity with this ancient lore. Again, the word comes from the Old English and denotes a primitive hand-held mill, composed of two round stones, used for grinding grain. Both the word and the object to which it refers would probably be foreign to most of the speaker’s contemporaries, but the poet-speaker knows the raw materials of his trade in the same way that the basket-maker’s “supple hands” know the “woven hazel twigs” with which he works. Thus, Colum’s choice of words, his decision to use archaic words of Old English origin rather than their more familiar modern counterparts, functions in direct support of the poem’s themes and subject matter.

Though the nominal subject of the poem is the basket-maker, the basket he weaves does not bear particular symbolic weight in the poem; the process of its creation is described in detail, but the basket itself is only a “withied shape.” However, the ring the basket-maker shows the speaker is of particular symbolic significance: The Claddagh ring is a traditional Irish wedding ring, formed of “two hands clasped” holding a heart with a crown above it. Though it was presented to him as payment for his wares and not as a token of love, the ring represents faith and a connection, not specifically between the basket-maker and his customer but between him and his region and its traditions.