Derek Mahon

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Brian Donnelly (essay date February 1979)

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SOURCE: Donnelly, Brian. “The Poetry of Derek Mahon.” English Studies 60, no. 1 (February 1979): 23-34.

[In the following essay, Donnelly suggests that Mahon's poetic talent lies in his ability to merge lightness with serious subjects and technical and formal brilliance. Donnelly emphasizes Mahon's strong control of his poetic voice and skillful use of verse forms, rhyme, pacing, and the sound of the language.]

With three published volumes of poetry behind him—Night-Crossing (1968), Lives (1972), The Snow Party (1975)1—Derek Mahon has now clearly emerged as one of the most talented of the present generation of Northern Ireland poets. Indeed, in the wider context of English poetry of the last ten years, his work has retained qualities that looked increasingly likely to disappear with Auden's death—qualities of wit and wry humour in poems that reveal a lively and quirky intelligence. He has early shown a technical mastery in poems where humour and a lightness of touch often combine to achieve an unexpected seriousness. Taken as a whole, one can discern in his work a preoccupation with man's spiritual loneliness and isolation which is reflected in the large number of poems that deal with individuals or groups forced by temperament or circumstances to live outside the normal social framework. At its most sombre, Mahon's verse reveals an acute awareness of the brevity of all human life and the futility and pathos of man's existence as a finite being. It is these central themes in his work that I propose to explore as well as the imaginative richness and wealth of formal skills that Mahon has brought to his task.

As a northern Irishman Mahon has, on several occasions, dealt with the state of the Six Counties in his poetry. These handfuls of poems are, in their way, as valid and moving as many of the more historically conscious probings of Seamus Heaney and John Montague, poets who have made the evolution of the province their chief concern as artists. These poems are, moreover, part of Mahon's preoccupation with the individual's sense of isolation, for in them the speaker is usually looking at events in his native place from the outside, at a safe, if uncomfortable, vantage point. In ‘Glengormley’ (Night-Crossing), a poem written before the present unrest began, Mahon celebrated the then unheroic quality of life in a Belfast suburb. The tone and humour of the opening lines recalls to mind much of MacNeice's verse: ‘Wonders are many and none is more wonderful than man / Who has tamed the terrier, trimmed the hedge / And grasped the principle of the watering can’. Ulster's mythic and violent history is alluded to in the same mock-heroic vein: ‘Now we are safe from monsters, and the giants / Who tore up sods twelve miles by six / And hurled them out to sea to become islands / Can worry us no more’. Admitting that much was lost with the passing of the more perilous ages in the country's history, he concludes:

                                                            … I should rather praise
A worldly time under this worldly sky—
The terrier-taming, garden-watering days
Those heroes pictured as they struggled through
The quick noose of their finite being. By
Necessity, if not choice, I live here too.

Viewed in retrospect, few utterances by Ulstermen can have proven so ironic given the course of events in the province over the past six years. When Mahon has confronted the troubles in his subsequent collections it has been as an exile (he has resided in England for several years) and the state of exile, of being isolated...

(This entire section contains 4896 words.)

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in place and time, is a condition which he explores over and over again in his verse. ‘Homecoming’ (Lives), for instance, has a lightness and springy rhythmical flow that almost conceals the full import of its admission:

Bus into town
and, sad to say,
no change from when
he went away
two years ago.
Goes into bar,
affixes gaze
on evening star.
Skies change, but not
souls change; behold
this is the way
the world grows old.
Scientists, birds,
we cannot start
at this late date
with a pure heart,
or having seen
the picture plain
be ever in-
nocent again.

But there is no mistaking the note of pain and self-reproach in the final stanzas of ‘Afterlives’ (The Snow Party) as the speaker recounts his stepping ashore in Belfast off the boat from England:

And I step ashore in a fine rain
To a city so changed
By five years war
I scarcely recognise
The places I grew up in,
The faces that try to explain.
But the hills are still the same
Grey-blue above Belfast.
Perhaps if I'd stayed behind
And lived it bomb by bomb
I might have grown up at last
And learnt what is meant by home.

This specific instance of a general feeling of being cut-off from the goings on of the majority of men occupies a central place in Mahon's poetry. In many of his best and most characteristic poems the speaker or central character is a lonely, isolated figure, an odd man out. We encounter him in all three collections, in such poems as ‘Grandfather’, ‘My Wicked Uncle’ (Night-Crossing), ‘The Last Dane’, ‘A Dying Art’ (Lives) and in ‘A Refusal to Mourn’ (The Snow Party) in which Mahon memorably recreates the life of an old man living alone in the small but telling details of his lonely existence:

But the doorbell seldom rang
After the milkman went,
And if a coat-hanger
Knocked in an open wardrobe
That was a great event
To be pondered on for hours

However, it is those characters who are totally alienated from any form of normal social life and aspirations that he has so vividly given voice to in his poetry. His affinity with Beckett in this respect is first made apparent in the fourth section of ‘Four Walks in the Country near Saint Brieuc’, entitled, ‘Exit Molloy’ (Night-Crossing):

Now at the end I smell the smells of spring
Where in a dark ditch I lie wintering—
And the little town only a mile away,
Happy and fatuous in the light of day.
A bell tolls gently. I should start to cry
But my eyes are closed and my face dry.
I am not important and I have to die.
Strictly speaking, I am already dead,
But still I can hear the birds sing on over my head.

In this short monologue Mahon has succeeded in capturing the tone of the Beckett hero, a tone of bewildered and resigned detachment from the sufferings of the body heightened by characteristic pedantry.

Life's failures appear again and again in all three of his collections. Yet, no matter how bleak or desolate man's fate seems, the verse usually displays a grim, ironic wit and humour which holds final despair at arm's length. Sometimes, however, this proves almost malicious as in the address to the poets of the ‘tragic’ generation in ‘Dowson and Company’ (Night-Crossing):

Did death and its transitions disappoint you
And the worms you so looked forward to?
Perhaps you found that you had to queue
For a ticket into hell,
Despite your sprays of laurels.
Then ask no favours of reincarnation,
No yearning after the booze and whores—
For you, if anyone,
Have played your part
In holding nature up to art …

But it is in the dramatic monologue that Mahon's alienated characters come most fully and convincingly to life. The monologue is a form that he has perfected and which allows his wit full play behind the mask of the speaker. ‘Legacies’, the final poem in Night-Crossing, is a case in point. This poem is a free imitation of François Villon's ‘Le Lais’ in which the poet, cold and destitute, writes a will which pours scorn on the world which has rejected him. The measure of Mahon's achievement is that he succeeds in vividly recreating the mood and spirit of the original French, a task that defeated Robert Lowell in his rendering of Villon in Imitations. Villon's eccentric character is alive in the sardonic irony and humour with which Mahon manages to impart a final touching pathos to his plight and to that of all who are destitute like himself:

Item, to her who, as I said,
So cruelly discarded me
That now I feel my senses dead
And pleasure mere vacuity—
My broken heart, empty and numb,
For her to dispose of as she chooses.
Although she treated me like scum
God grant the mercy she refuses.
Item, to master Jean Cornu
And master Ithier Marchand,
To whom some recompense is due—
My sword, as sharp as it is long,
Which at this moment lies in pawn,
That they may rescue it from thence
Before its time is overdue
And split two ways on the expense.

This poem displays fine technical control. The eight line stanza with its ‘abab’ rhyme pattern is perfectly employed, in keeping with the original, to make the narrative flow lucidly and to capture the speaker's distinctive epigrammatic wit and tone of voice:

And since I have no choice but to go
And cannot vouch for my return
(I am not above reproach, I know,
Not being cast in bronze or iron—
Life is unsure, and death, we learn,
Gives no redress in any event)
For all those whom it may concern
I make this will and testament.

In a poem like ‘Legacies’ Mahon is restoring to English poetry qualities which are rare at the present time—conversational narrative combined with wit, intelligence and humour capable of realising a deep seriousness. The fact that ‘Legacies’ and many other poems have a literary basis (often in foreign literatures) is not a limitation, as some critics and reviewers have suggested.2 What is important is that Mahon almost always transcends the merely literary which can be seen to serve as starting points for his exploration of important human conditions and concerns.

The skill and ease in handling a colloquial narrative apparent in ‘Legacies’ is seen to good advantage in the long verse letter ‘Beyond Howth Head’ which concludes Lives. In this poem Mahon's wit is given wide scope. The form of the verse letter allows him to relax and to be discursive in his comments on life in general and Irish life in particular, much in the manner of Auden in his Letter to Lord Byron. Here Mahon is less intense in his view of life than in many of his other poems, although the swiftly moving narrative, carried along in neatly rounded couplets, contains a good deal of trenchant criticism of such issues as American involvement in south east Asia, the depopulation of the west of Ireland and Irish sexual morality. Yet, overall the mood is light as, for once at least, the poet has managed to put his more usual apocalyptic view of life into perspective, allowing that ‘the pros outweigh the cons that glow / from Beckett's bleak reductio’. The poem ends on a well judged note of self-mockery which succeeds in keeping its comments on life from appearing pretentious:

and here I close my Dover Beach
scenario, for look! the watch-
ful Bailey winks beyond Howth Head,
my cailín bán lies snug in bed
and the moon rattles the lost stones
among the rocks and the strict bones
of the drowned as I put out the light
on Mailer's Armies of the Night.

The lighthearted mood of ‘Beyond Howth Head’ is atypical of the prevailing atmosphere of Night-Crossing and Lives which in general create sombre visions of the human condition. This view of man's fate is extended and deepened in Lives as in ‘Gipsies Revisited’ in which the life of the homeless and social outcasts is used as a metaphor of the real fate awaiting us all, only thinly disguised by the veneer of domestic well-being. Here the speaker, addressing the gypsies, says that ‘on stormy nights our strong / double glazing groans with / fore-knowledge of death’ and admits that ‘the fate you have so long / endured is ours also’. The projected vision of the world returned to its most primitive state is one that haunts Mahon's imagination. In ‘Entropy’, ‘What Will Remain’ and ‘Consolations of Philosophy’ (Lives) he approaches the bleak and unappealing negations of Beckett's Lessness. In ‘Consolations of Philosophy’ there is neither the expected wit nor irony to relieve the macabre prediction of the suffering awaiting the decomposing dead among whom

          … a few will remember with affection
Dry bread, mousetrap cheese, and the satisfaction
Of picking long butts from a wet gutter
Like daisies from a clover field in summer.

That concluding image is finely judged to deepen the morbidity of a poem that could challenge many an Old Testament prophecy. It is the supreme memento mori of an imagination always painfully aware of the brevity of life, of human frailty and insignificance when seen in the vistas of historic time.

Such awareness, however, rarely excludes that sad, almost nostalgic note apparent in, for instance, ‘An Image from Beckett’ (Lives), a poem built upon Pozzo's anguished cry in Waiting for Godot, ‘They give birth astride a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more’. The speaker in this terse monologue succeeds in conveying the poignancy of loss which death awakens in the most eschatologically orientated imagination:

Our hair and excrement
Litter the rich earth
Changing second by second,
To civilisations.
It was good while it lasted;
And if it only lasted
The Biblical span
Required to drop six feet
Through a glitter of wintry light,
There is No-one to blame.

Lives also includes poems that are sheer tours de force of the imagination. Such is the title poem, a play on the doctrine of reincarnation of the body. The speaker recounts the various lives that he has lived from having been ‘a torc of gold’ to his present incarnation as, appropriately, an anthropologist. Some of the most accomplished works in the volume are characteristic of the earlier Night-Crossing in which a lonely, socially isolated character takes a dispirited look at his situation. In ‘I am Raftery’ Mahon assumes the persona of the blind, late eighteenth century Gaelic poet, Anthony Raftery, encountering the alien life-style of one of the new English universities. In it we hear again the mocking, pedantic voice of many of Mahon's suffering aliens:

I have traded in simplistic maunderings
that made me famous for a wry dissimulation,
an imagery of adventitious ambiguity dredged
from God knows what polluted underground spring.
Death is near, I have come of age, I doubt if
I shall survive another East Anglian winter.
Scotch please, plenty of water. I am reading
Joyce in braille and it's killing me.

The convoluted diction, the chilly objectivity of the speaker's assessment of his physical condition and the clever ironical joke in the last lines all bring the character vividly alive against his uncongenial surroundings.

Taken together, Night-Crossing and Lives show Mahon exploring and dramatising an attitude to life in a variety of forms. There is less a sense of development between them than a growing awareness on the part of the reader that the two parts of a single whole have been completed. In his most recent collection, The Snow Party, he has succeeded in moving far beyond the achievement of the earlier works. His central preoccupations remain the same, but there is clearly an attempt to encompass more in a wider diversity of forms and situations. Some of the poems in this collection would fit unobtrusively into either of his preceding volumes—‘Afterlives’, ‘The Gipsies’, ‘Epitaph for Flann O'Brien’, ‘September in Great Yarmouth’, ‘A Refusal to Mourn’ and the amusing concrete poem, ‘The Window’. But in the poems that give The Snow Party its distinctive mood and character there is reflected a significant deepening of the imaginative range of the earlier work.

Poems such as ‘The Last of the Fire Kings’, ‘Thammuz’, ‘Matthew V. 29-30’ and the title poem all dwell upon the inability of the individual to escape from violence. ‘The Snow Party’, based upon the travel accounts of the seventeenth century Japanese poet, Bashō,3 is a skilful juxtapositioning of an evocative scene of ceremonial elegance and calm with the reminder that ‘Elsewhere they are burning / Witches and heretics / In the boiling squares’ and that ‘thousands have died since dawn / In the service / Of barbarous kings’ whilst ‘there is silence / In the house of Nagoya / And the hills of Ise’. That an old, complex civilisation can exist side by side with barbarity and, perhaps, depends for its existence upon such bestiality is an irony which is delicately suggested here. The obvious parallel with present day Ireland comes readily to mind, a parallel which is made explicit in the next poem in the book, ‘The Last of the Fire Kings’. In this poem the use of the old Irish legend of Beltaine points to a central similarity underlying the very different cultures of Ireland and Japan.4 The speaker is one of the rulers whose destiny is to undergo ritual sacrifice in order that the life of his kingdom may be perpetuated. He pledges that he will break with tradition by taking his own life ‘Rather than perpetuate / The barbarous cycle’. Yet he is forced to acknowledge the justice in his people's probable refusal to allow his dreams of escape and anonymity to be fulfilled:

But the fire-loving
People, rightly perhaps,
Will not countenance this,
Demanding that I inhabit,
Like them, a world of
Sirens, bin-lids
And bricked-up windows—
Not to release them
From the ancient curse
But to die their creature and be thankful.

The metaphoric structure of these and other stanzas makes plain that the poet is confronting the present through the past. On one level it can be read as very much an ‘exile's’ poem harbouring the same feelings of guilt that we find in the concluding stanzas of ‘Afterlives’. But on the deepest level the poet is dwelling upon one of the oldest of all ironies—the perpetuation of fertility through violent death, an irony that has preoccupied his fellow Ulster poet, Seamus Heaney.5

The speaker in the third poem in this group, ‘Thammuz’ (a Babylonian prototype of Adonis), offers a more composed and detached view of the inevitable destruction of man and civilisation, seeing it as a sleep before the awakening of a new civilisation in which ‘Once more I shall worship / The moon, make gods / Of clay, gods of stone / And celebrate / In a world of waste / Their deaths and their return’. Each of these poems employs similar and, for Mahon, characteristic verse forms—the short, pointed stanza controlling the brief and self-contained utterance, often powerfully graphic yet simple and delicate in achieving their effects:

Once more I shall rise early
And plough my country
By first light,
At noon lie down
In a warm field
With the sun on my face,
And after midnight
Fish for stars
In the dark waters.


The final poem in this group, ‘Matthew V. 29-30’, is a strange and powerful tour de force originating out of Christ's injunction to his people in the Sermon on the Mount:

And if thy right eye offend thee pluck it out, and cast it from thee … And if thy right hand offend thee cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.

The speaker in this poem, cursed with a neurotic sense of wrongdoing, accepts this message literally with the ironic twist that his acute and morbid sense of guilt requires that he destroy not only his own body but all created things in order to remove the undisclosed ‘offence’. That one of his members alone should perish is patently insufficient to the demented imagination:

Erosion of all rocks
From the holiest mountain
To the least stone,
Evaporation of all seas,
The extinction of heavenly bodies—
Until, at last, offence
Was not to be found
In that silence without bound.
Only then was I fit for human society.

Whether or not this poem is intended as a serious ironic commentary on the limitations of the Christian notion of evil, it is remarkable for its horrifying and compelling force in creating a vision of self-mutilation. Its pace is breathtaking, its images nakedly explicit, and, as in so many of his monologues, Mahon manages to be grimly funny as in the case of the speaker's bafflement at his continued lack of success:

Lord, mine eye offended
So I plucked it out.
Imagine my chagrin
When the offence continued.
So I plucked out
The other but
The offence continued.
In the dark now and
Working by touch, I shaved
My head, the offence continued.
Removed an ear,
Another, dispatched the nose,
The offence continued.
Imagine my chagrin.
Next, in long strips, the skin—
Razored the tongue, the toes,
The personal nitty-gritty.
The offence continued.

Yet perhaps the most curious preoccupation in The Snow Party is the attitude to the world of inanimate objects which, because they are the paraphernalia of everyday life that we take for granted and discard after they have served their purpose, can be seen as an extension of Mahon's concern with the plight of the human outcasts in the earlier collections. These poems are not all meant to be taken wholly seriously as in ‘After Nerval’ where we are warned that the ‘great mistake is to disregard the satire / Bandied among the mute phenomena’:

                                                                                What do you know
Of the revolutionary theories advanced
By turnips, or the sex-life of cutlery?
Everything is susceptible, Pythagoras said so.

‘The Apotheosis of Tins’ is in a similar vein, one of the two delicately organised prose poems in the book, in which a tin in a rubbish heap asserts the independence of the world of objects against human ‘patronage’ and ‘reflective leisure’. This poem is skilful and clever, and Mahon is able to use the occasion to poke fun at aesthetic pretentiousness. The stilted academic jargon of the speaker, the mocking allusion to Hamlet, the threatening tone are all controlled in beautifully balanced periods:

Promoted artifacts by the dereliction of our creator, and greater now than the sum of his skills, we shall be with you while there are beaches. Imperishable by-products of the perishable will, we shall lie like skulls in the hands of soliloquists. The longest queues in the science museum will form at our last homes saying, think now, what an organic relation of art to life in the dawn of time, what saintly devotion to the notion of permanence in the flux of sensation and crisis, perhaps we can learn from them.

These poems are, admittedly, lighthearted and quirky. Yet readers who may be prepared to dismiss Mahon for entering such quaint and obscure corners of the imagination will have to pause for further reflection on the poet's imaginative processes at the final poem of this kind, ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’. This is the concluding poem in The Snow Party and in it Mahon once again brings the inanimate world to life—in this instance ‘a thousand mushrooms’ locked away in a shed of a derelict country hotel. His evocation of their plight builds up into a convincing and moving metaphor of all the persecuted and forgotten peoples in human history:

They are begging us, you see, in their wordless way
To do something, to speak on their behalf
Or at least not to close the door again.
Lost people of Treblinka and Pompeii!
Save us, save us, they seem to say,
Let the god not abandon us
Who have come so far in darkness and in pain.

That this response to a growth of semi-decayed fungi strikes one as appropriate and unsentimental is due to the poet's success in creating the detail and atmosphere of the scene which works upon his speaker's imagination. The slow, meditative opening is both melancholy and sinister in its suggestive creation of encountering a world in a state of entropy:

Even now there are places where a thought might grow—
Peruvian mines, worked out and abandoned
To a slow clock of condensation,
An echo trapped for ever, and a flutter of
Wildflowers in the lift shaft,
Indian compounds where the wind dances
And a door bangs with diminished confidence

The third line perfectly captures the condition of exhaustion in the cluttered vowel and consonant sounds of ‘to a slow clock’ which halts the fluid movement of the verse. The eerie aura of desolation is achieved in the graphic image of surviving life in the wildflowers with its skilful use of strong alliteration, leading to the fine modulation of mood in the final two lines, so that ‘diminished confidence’ perfectly states the overall atmosphere of the place which will penetrate the speaker's sensibility. The condition of the abandoned mushrooms is vividly described in a series of lucid images which poignantly create a feeling of suffering and loss:

A thousand mushrooms crowd to a keyhole.
This is the one star in their firmament
Or frames a star within a star.
What should they do there but desire?
They have been waiting for us in a foetor of
Vegetable sweat since civil war days
The outside world has become for them
A keyhole rusting gently after rain.
Spiders have spun, flies dusted to mildew,
And once a day, perhaps, they have heard something—
A trickle of masonry, a shout from the blue
Or a lorry changing gear at the end of the lane.

The delicacy and precision of observation here is wonderfully evocative of a silent, uninterrupted decay, perfectly rendered in the tentative note of the third line with its heavy pause on ‘perhaps’. The description of the human entrance upon their solitude is achieved in a paragraph of controlled dramatic force whose power makes possible the leap in the speaker's imaginative sympathy in the final stanza:

A half century, without visitors, in the dark—
Poor preparation for the cracking lock
And creak of hinges. Magi, moonmen,
Powdery prisoners of the old regime,
Web-throated, stalked like triffids, racked by drouth
And insomnia, only the ghost of a scream
At the flash-bulb firing squad we wake them with
Shows there is life yet in their feverish forms.
Grown beyond nature now, soft food for worms,
They lift frail heads in gravity and good faith.

The halting movement of the first four lines is imitative of the gradual opening of the rusted door and, along with the graphic, staccato description of the mushrooms, builds up to the climax of the moment of entry by the humans. The effect of daylight on them is skilfully caught in the paradox, ‘only the ghost of a scream’, and in the superbly judged and powerful metaphor of the following line, all of which deepens our awareness of the suffering involved in such a silent and rarefied existence—the suffering of ‘lost people of Treblinka and Pompeii’.

Most critics, even those who see Mahon's poetry as ‘tenuous stuff’, the result of a talent ‘thinning itself away into arbitrariness and whimsy’6 are agreed that this is an impressive achievement. Indeed, one reviewer regarded it as ‘the consummation of his writing so far, simply one of the finest poems of the decade’.7 Whether or not one is prepared to agree with this placing of the poem in a hierarchy—and I for one am—it is right to stress that ‘A Disused Shed’ is the culmination of Mahon's work to date and not an isolated and fortuitous success. It treats that theme that has been central to his work since Night-Crossing—exclusion from ordinary life and harrowing solitude—in a way that reveals one of the undoubted strengths of his poetry which is its ability, because of its eccentric perspectives on the world, to offer a fresh view on central human concerns.

It would be a mistake to conclude an evaluation of Mahon's poetry by claiming for it a narrow seriousness. His work is serious, as I have attempted to suggest, but it contains, too, a good deal of whimsy spiced with intellectual mockery and word play which is none too common in English poetry today. Yet, it is when this lightness, or seeming lightness, and quirky vision combine with his assured technical mastery to create a poem like ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’ that the full potential of Derek Mahon's poetic talent becomes apparent.


  1. All published by Oxford University Press.

  2. See, for instance, Terence Brown's assessment of Mahon in Northern Voices (Gill and Macmillan, 1975). On the other hand a few critics see Mahon's cosmopolitanism as a positive feature of his work. John Montague regards his reaching ‘out towards Europe’ as the only way that contemporary Irish poetry can avoid insularity and confront the issues of the modern world. See ‘Order in Donnybrook Fair’, T.L.S., p. 313, 17-3-72.

  3. Bashō's own account of this particular episode can be found in a Penguin paperback translation entitled, The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches (1966), pp. 75-6.

  4. I was made aware that Mahon is using this legend in Douglas Dunn's review of The Snow Party in Encounter, Nov. '75, p. 80.

  5. See, for instance, J. W. Forster's essay ‘The Poetry of Seamus Heaney’, The Critical Quarterly, Spring '74, p. 43.

  6. Anthony Thwaite in T.L.S. review, ‘At the Point of Speech’, 7-11-75.

  7. Douglas Dunn, op. cit., p. 80.


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Derek Mahon 1941-

Irish poet, playwright, and journalist. See also Derek Mahon Literary Criticism.

Derek Mahon's poetry expresses the feelings of exile and the oppressiveness of history that characterize the modern individual. His is a pessimism that sees great beauty in mundane aspects of life—a frying pan, mushrooms, cigarettes—but despairs at their impermanence and eventual meaninglessness. Part of Mahon's art, however, has been to apply exceptional technical ability and light humor to these weighty themes. Mahon made his reputation as one of several young authors constituting a renaissance in the literature of Northern Ireland, but he has not identified himself with Ireland as closely as some of his contemporaries have; instead, Mahon has most often written as an outsider and observer, and in doing so has developed an original poetic voice that eschews provincialism and explores the role of the artist in a larger world.

Biographical Information

Mahon was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1941, and was raised in Glengormley, County Antrim. He attended school at the Protestant-run Royal Belfast Academical Institution from 1953 to 1960 and graduated from Trinity College, Dublin, in 1965 with a degree in French, haven taken a year of his college education to study at the Sorbonne. While in Dublin Mahon met many present and future Irish authors, including Michael Longley, John Montague, and Louis MacNeice. Like Longley, Mahon received the Eric Gregory Award for poets under 30 in 1965. After leaving Trinity he traveled through North America and Europe, then published his first book of poetry, Twelve Poems (1967), and held posts teaching English in Toronto, Belfast, and Dublin.

During the 1970s Mahon established himself as a journalist in London, providing book and theater reviews for several prominent publications, including the Observer, the Listener, the New Statesman, and the Times Literary Supplement. He also launched a short-lived literary magazine in 1970, Atlantis, along with Seamus Deane and W. J. McCormack. In 1974 he took a post as features editor for Vogue. During these years he also published several of his important early works, including Night Crossing (1968), Ecclesiastes (1969), Beyond Howth Head (1970), Lives (1972), and The Snow Party (1975). The last of these includes his most anthologized poem, “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford.” By the mid-1970s Mahon was well known as a poet; in 1977 he accepted a post as writer-in-residence at the New University of Ulster, Coleraine, County Derry, in Northern Ireland. While there he published a collection of poems with Seamus Heaney, his own The Sea in Winter (1979), and an early collected works, Poems 1962-1978 (1979).

In 1979 Mahon left Ulster, vowing never to live in Northern Ireland again. He went to London to work for the BBC developing features, including screen adaptations of Irish novels, and later worked for Radio 3 writing profiles, in order to earn money to support his writing career. He renewed his relationship with the New Statesman in 1981, taking the post of poetry and fiction editor. That year he also published the well-known poem Courtyards in Delft, and then produced his first translation, Gérard de Nerval's The Chimeras (1982). He followed these with The Hunt by Night (1982), which like Courtyards in Delft reflects Mahon's interest in the visual arts.

In the 1980s Mahon produced the first of his verse adaptations of plays by Continental writers when he reworked two plays by Molière: the first, High Times (1985), is a version of the French playwright's School for Husbands; the second is a rendering of School for Wives (1986). In 1986 he began a weekly book column for the Irish Times, which ran through 1989. Mahon was awarded the Scott-Manriet Prize in 1987 for his edition of Philippe Jaccottet's Selected Poems, and in 1990 he received the Lannon Literary Award for Poetry; the following year he published a celebrated edition of his Selected Poems, which won the Irish Times' Literature Award for Poetry. In 1995 he was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship.

Throughout his career Mahon has served as a visiting professor of writing, at institutions including Trinity College, the Cooper Union, New York University, the University of East Anglia, and Barnard College. He has been widely recognized for his accomplishments in literature, and a 1999 survey in the Irish Times ranked him one of the ten most important Irish writers of all time. His recent works include Birds (2002), a translation of Saint-John Perse's Oiseaux, and an adaptation of Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac (2004). Mahon is divorced with two children, and lives in Dublin.

Major Poetic Works

Central themes in Mahon's poetry include exile, art, and modern culture. Mahon addresses his own alienation from his homeland throughout his works, as in “Afterlives” from The Snow Party, where the poem's speaker returns to Belfast and finds it unfamiliar, or in “Rage for Order,” from Lives, where he describes the poet as “far from his people” and too distanced from the everyday violence of Irish politics to comprehend it. While Mahon's depictions of the artist's separation from society tends toward the self-condemning, he writes more sympathetically about other exiles, unwilling outcasts who have been ignored or excluded from the larger community. Poems from Lives and The Hunt by Night are among those which seek to give voice to the voiceless and forgotten. Mahon has adopted the personas of Vincent Van Gogh, the Roman poet Ovid, Norwegian novelist Knut Hamson (who was disgraced after meeting with Hitler), the eighteenth-century Gaelic poet Anthony Raftery, and Samuel Beckett's character Pozzo from Waiting for Godot to explore the thoughts and feelings of the exile, and he has voiced the plight of nameless, faceless souls struggling against violence and persecution.

Mahon's most famous evocation of the downtrodden and forgotten appears in “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford,” which describes the “thousand mushrooms” in the shed, finally exposed to daylight: “They are begging us, you see, in their wordless way / To do something, to speak on their behalf, / Or at least not to close the door again.” Despite this call to speak for the voiceless, Mahon's poetry most often casts doubt on the relevance of his art. In “The Sea in Winter” Mahon compares his poems to the shouts of drunks at closing time and likens them to “farts in a biscuit tin.” Similarly, in his poems about the visual arts he admires the skill of the artist—Pieter de Hooch in “Courtyards in Delft,” Edvard Munch in “Girls on the Bridge,” and Paolo Uccello in “The Hunt by Night”—but suggests that the very beauty of the artwork is deceptive, failing to account for the suffering and brutality that is a constant in human life.

Particularly in his later poetry, Mahon's characteristic attention to detail focuses on the minutia of popular culture. “The Hudson Letter” (a verse letter in the collection The Hudson Letter, 1995) reflects on life in New York City, focusing on graffiti, television shows, cigarette ads, and other samplings of a cluttered cultural landscape. The Yellow Book, the 1997 follow-up to The Hudson Letter, takes a more global view of postmodern culture, drawing from sex scandals in the British tabloids, the worldwide spread of McDonalds and Disney, and violent computer games to depict a world that has embraced conformity and sensationalism, while pushing aside genuine feeling—and, Mahon suggests, genuine art.

Critical Reception

Mahon is generally regarded as one of Ireland's leading poets, with a career that emerged during an intense flowering of literary activity in Northern Ireland. He formed his reputation early on, publishing in the school paper at Royal Belfast Academical Institution and later at Trinity College. By the time he published his first book of poetry, he was widely admired in the literary community as a unique and important voice. The success of The Snow Party established him as a one of the leading poetic voices of Northern Ireland, and perhaps of all Britain. As early as 1979 Brian Donnelly proposed Mahon as the heir of W. H. Auden, suggesting the extent to which Mahon had impressed both readers and scholars of poetry. Even in his later verse, John Redmond has noted, the connection to Auden is apparent.

Auden is only one of the poets frequently identified with Mahon, however. Many critics cite Louis MacNeice as Mahon's most immediate predecessor and most significant influence. Dillon Johnston has seen in Mahon a substantial debt to MacNeice, and Peter McDonald has suggested that Mahon and his peer Michael Longley are the poets who have taken up MacNeice's mantle, not merely as Irish writers, but as authors concerned with history, the future, and the potential of art to last. Critics have also written about Mahon's relationship to poets as varied as the eighteenth-century master of the heroic couplet, Alexander Pope, American Hart Crane, fellow Irishman Seamus Heaney, and the authors he has translated, including Jaccottet and Nerval.

Although critics have routinely admired Mahon's technical skill, few have discussed it at length, beyond remarking on its uniqueness and brilliance. More often, commentators have focused on thematic issues in the poems. Throughout his writing career Mahon's thematic interests have been fairly consistent, but his ambivalent treatment of them has resulted in varying interpretations of his work. Some scholars have found Mahon entirely pessimistic, even cynical, but a few have argued for the presence of hope in the poems. Kathleen Mullaney has suggested that instances of silence in Mahon's poetry could represent the potential for peace, and John Byrne has proposed that the very ambivalence Mahon writes about leaves open the possibility for positive change.

Mahon's status as an Irish poet has also been a frequent subject of discussion. Most critics have noted that Mahon has self-consciously distanced himself from Ireland, embracing poets of many nationalities as influences and making the international city of New York his home base for many years. Tim Kendall has read in Mahon's work a rejection of his Irish roots; David Williams has written that Mahon himself questions whether an objective distance might disguise callous indifference toward the violence of Northern Ireland. On the other hand, it may be, as Robert Taylor has concluded, that Mahon's attempts to distance himself from Ireland have allowed him to write about his homeland with more compassion than he might have otherwise.

Dillon Johnston (essay date December 1980)

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SOURCE: Johnston, Dillon. “Unaccommodated Mahon: An Ulster Poet.” The Hollins Critic 17, no. 5 (December 1980): 1-16.

[In the following essay, Johnston looks at the tension between art and history in Mahon's poetry, focusing on the poems from Poems 1962-1978. Johnston also considers Mahon's relationships with previous authors, through allusion, indirect homage, and influence.]


If we concede that Derek Mahon does not fit squarely into the Irish poetic tradition, we may establish the idea that this tradition is multilateral. The facts that this young Belfast poet has lived outside of Ireland during most of the last decade and that he addresses the Troubles in Ulster only rarely and indirectly have misled one TLS reviewer to label him “the least locally attached” of the recognized Ulster poets, such as John Hewitt, John Montague, Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, James Simmons, and Paul Muldoon. Except in Montague's Rough Field and Heaney's North, however, Ulster poets have chosen to treat the Troubles obliquely. We can also recall that writers such as Joyce, O'Casey, Beckett, and MacNeice have made living outside of Ireland seem very Irish.

Derek Mahon was conceived, according to my fallible math, during the first Nazi bombings of Belfast, or perhaps in an “all-clear,” and born in November, 1941, to Protestant parents. His father, who followed his grandfather into the Belfast shipyards, became an inspector of engines. Derek enrolled in Trinity College, Dublin, attended the Sorbonne for one year, and returned to Trinity to earn a degree in French, as well as in English and philosophy in 1965. He tried out Toronto and Boston and endured a year of teaching in Belfast and two in Dublin before his hegira to London in 1970. An attempt to return to Ulster, as poet-in-residence at the New University between 1977 and 1979, left Mahon depressed and in bad health and resolved “never to live in Northern Ireland again.” Disaffected particularly by his repugnance for the Protestant extremist (“God, you could grow to love it, God-fearing, God- / chosen purist little puritan that”), he may appear, to the undiscerning, to be at home in the English tradition. For example, one critic, Roger Garfitt, has misplaced him with the British minimalist poets such as Empson, Fuller, and Porter, in this manner: “His very English insistence on the limitations of poetry inhibits him from proceeding to any … imaginative restructuring.” Although Mahon looks forward to the day when the question, “Is so-and-so really an Irish writer?” will clear a room in seconds, mislabeling leads to misinterpretation, as Garfitt demonstrates, and therefore a more helpful characterization of Derek Mahon is required.


Mahon extends the tradition of those Irish exiles—Joyce, Beckett, and MacNeice—whose writing elevates character and place, or setting, over history and ideology, particularly the Irish version of history. Goaded by killing Irish rectitude, they reject political formulations about humanity and find man most human among the waste spaces, alone or with his own fool. Throughout the four volumes, Mahon's poems are set in an actual specified place, Belfast, or more frequently, in some barren, primitive, or post-holocaust site. Value resides not in society or the force-march of history but in the respite when one knows love or light from the hills. Through his four volumes Mahon discards social and historical values, stripping his subject to the bare forked creature.

The history Mahon discards includes the Troubles in Ulster but is not restricted to that ineluctable homicidal process. As Terence Brown has characterized it, “History for Mahon is no saga of land and people but a process, … which casts one man as coloniser, another as colonised, and man in innumerable roles.” The stripping of these roles down to unaccommodated humanity, Mahon's emerging theme, was obscured among other concerns in his first volume, Night-Crossing (1968), much of which was written at Trinity. The volume opens with an ironic love poem, worthy of MacNeice, that is addressed to “Girls in their Seasons” (“matches go out in the wind”). It includes four cock-sure love poems that have been dropped from Poems 1962-1978, the poet's personal selection, published in 1979. Mahon often loses his deftness in love poetry and either unzips emotions or tarts them up. Within the four volumes only one love poem seems totally successful, “Two Songs,” a recent harmonious marriage of short poems that were printed separately in Lives. Despite a distracting arrangement, several poems in Night-Crossing—“Four Walks …,” “An Unborn Child,” “Epitaph for Robert Flaherty”—point to the remarkable archaeological poems of Lives (1972) and Snow Party (1975), in which the survivor of an unspecified holocaust locates himself:

We are
Holing up here
In the difficult places—
In caves,
Terminal moraines
And abandoned farmhouses,


or artifacts of a dead civilization disclose themselves:

Having spent the night in a sewer of pre-
cognition, consoled by moon-glow, air-chuckles,
and the retarded pathos of mackerel, we wake
among shoelaces and white wood to a raw wind
and the cries of gulls. Deprived of use, we
are safe now from the historical nightmare …

(“The Apotheosis of Tins”)

We hear also the voice of the archaeologist who fingers shards and reflects on the striae of civilizations within himself:

So many lives,
So many things to remember!
I was a stone in Tibet,
A tongue of bark
At the heart of Africa
Growing darker and darker …
I know too much
To be anything any more—
And if in the distant
Future someone
Thinks he has once been me
As I am today,
Let him revise
His insolent ontology
Or teach himself to pray.


All three excerpts are from poems animated by an elaborate rhetoric and florid diction which may be the most valuable artifacts of the otherwise defunct culture. Precisely when the culture collapsed remains uncertain, even vaguer in Mahon's revisions of earlier poems for Poems 1962-1978. In these revised poems trade names on the junk have peeled off, the Citroen has become “the car,” and topical references, to Mailer, the CIA, Cambodia, etc., have been erased. More significantly, in the new poems, a quarter of the volume, he has chastened his diction, simplified his rhetoric, and shifted most of the irony from his tone to the formal strategies of the poems. In the new poems we may miss the bite of lines such as these from Snow Party:

Your great mistake is to disregard the satire
Bandied among the mute phenomena.
Be strong if you must, your brusque hegemony
Means fuck-all to the somnolent sun-flower
Or the extinct volcano.

(“After Nerval”)

In the new poems, Mahon's distinctive voice is nearly submerged in the stream of a conventional British diction and rhetoric:

Yet even today the earth disposes
Blue bells, roses and primroses,
The dawn throat-whistle of a thrush
Deep in the dripping lilac bush,

(“Ford Manor”)

Even if we find the adroit control of assonance and rhythm and onomatopoeia of the last two lines an inadequate compensation for the biting imperatives and rich diction of the earlier poetry, as several reviewers have, we must recognize Mahon's intention to shuck off ostentatious personality and to comment on history through his form. Whatever our opinions of Poems 1962-1978, it seems reasonable for me to accept the poet's own selection and revisions as canonical and to base the following observations on this volume.


In “The Last of the Fire Kings” the escaping monarch declares,

                                                                                I am
Through with history—
Who lives by the sword
Dies by the sword.
Last of the fire kings, I shall
Break with tradition and
Die by my own hand
Rather than perpetuate
The barbarous cycle.

He recognizes, however, that

… the fire-loving
People, rightly perhaps,
Will not countenance this,
Demanding that I inhabit,
Like them, a world of
Sirens, bin-lids
And bricked-up windows—
Not to release them
From the ancient curse
But to die their creature and be thankful.

The Belfast battlescape establishes grounds for arguing that Mahon's “ancient curse” is more malign than Stephen Dedalus's “nightmare,” to which Mahon alludes. … [In “Snow Party” observe that]

Snow is falling on Nagoya
And father south
On the tiles of Kyoto.
Eastward, beyond Irago,
It is falling
Like leaves on the cold sea.
Elsewhere they are burning
Witches and heretics
In the boiling squares,
Thousands have died since dawn
In the service
Of barbarous kings;

“Barbarous Kings” directs us to “The Last of the Fire Kings,” the next poem in this volume. “Snow Party” also mirrors the last sections of Yeats's “Lapis Lazuli” and points in other directions: toward the slaughter of Aughrim and the Boyne, contemporary with Basho's tour to Nagoya and to northern Japan, but also away from history toward Gabriel Conroy's snow-dream in “the Dead” that life is brief compared to our endless citizenship among the dead.

Mahon is not so concerned with history's indeterminacy, one of Joyce's themes in Finnegans Wake, as with its determinism, which Stephen attempts to evade in Ulysses. In the Ithaca episode, when the typal characters Stephen the artificer and Bloom the voyager practice an ancient rite under the ageless constellations, they seem to rise out of history's causal net. Mahon terms such a liberating perspective “the theoptic view.” His comments on Hugh MacDiarmid could apply to Joyce as well: “He had a lively sense of the planet earth as one stone among many, albeit the most interesting because peopled by the peculiar creatures we call people.” To achieve this theoptic view of man's fragility and ephemerality, Joyce would not sacrifice his alternative realistic view of the urban world (as Bloom re-enters from under the dizzying heaventree of stars, he knocks his head against a walnut sideboard). Mahon, too, maintains a dialectic between a historical urban setting, usually Belfast, and some point beyond history. Early poems, such as “DeQuincey At Grasmere,” “Van Gogh in the Borinage,” “Teaching in Belfast,” and “Canadian Pacific,” a poem from the middle volume's “Afterlives,” and the new poem “The Return” provide a historical perspective to which the poet occasionally commutes. He usually resides in a perspective we might term “phenomenological.”

The term seems appropriate when Mahon attempts to ease “the metaphysical disjunction between ‘subject’ and ‘object,’ between the perceiving sensibility and everything external to it,” an intention he attributes to Beckett. His most effective attempts, in Lives and Snow Party, are forays along the border that barely separates the animate from the inanimate, the inert, articulate Beckett-like character from the bones, tins, and shards. “Consolations of Philosophy” concludes with Mahon's recurrent image for this border:

                                                                                                    … When the broken
Wreath bowls are speckled with rain-water
And the grass grows wild for want of a caretaker,
Oh, then a few will remember with delight
The dust gyrating in a shaft of light;
The integrity of pebbles; a sheep's skull
Grinning its patience on a wintry sill.

Interchanges across this sill between the animate and inanimate are maintained through Mahon's sound effects, his metaphors, and even his titles. In the excerpt above he relates the quick and the dead through assonance and feminine rhyme (“integrity,” “grinning,” “wintry”) and through the near-anagrams, “rain-water” and “caretaker” (in Lives he pairs sugar and Fergus).

Even more than by rhyming effects his phenomenological intention is served by metaphors that confuse the living and insensate. For example, in a trope on the metaphor of leaves as souls of the dead, as developed by Virgil, Milton, and Beckett, Mahon writes,

The prisoners of infinite choice
Have built their house
In a field below the wood
And are at peace.


He describes “A stadium filled with an infinite / Rustling and sighing,” lines that are echoed in a poem on gypsies, “after Jaccottet”:

There are fires under the trees
Low voices speak to the sleeping nations
from the fringes of cities.
perpetual murmur
around the hidden light.

The two poems collaborate to render gypsies and leaves referents for each other.

A more concentrated metaphorical exchange occurs in the highly praised “Disused Shed in Co. Wexford”:

Deep in the grounds of a burnt-out hotel
Among the bathtubs and the washbasins
A thousand mushrooms crowd to a keyhole.
This is the one star in their firmament
Or frames a star within a star.
What should they do there but desire?
So many days beyond the rhododendrons
With the world waltzing in its bowl of cloud,
They have learnt patience and silence
Listening to the rocks querulous in the high wood.

The Irish critic Seamus Deane has written that the actual subject of this poem is dispossessed humans, “the lost people of Treblinka and Pompeii” to whom the mushrooms are compared, whereas the engaging subject, the one Mahon is engaged with, is the tenacious marginal life of the mushroom colony.

The most interesting of such metaphorical inversions occurs between wraiths and shift-workers in “Going Home,” a poem that might appropriately exchange titles with the next poem after those from Lives, “Afterlives.” “Going Home” clearly begins beyond mortality:

Why we died
Remains a mystery,
One we shall never solve.

In the ninth stanza these spirits move into an indefinite metaphorical relation to dispirited laborers from Hull:

For ours is the afterlife
Of the unjudgeable,
Of the desolate and free
Who come over
Twice daily from Hull
Disguised as shift workers
And vanish for ever
With a whisper of soles
Under a cindery sky,

Stepping upon the material sense of soles, the poem continues within a sterile and recognizably contemporary landscape:

A sunken barge rots
In the mud beach
As if finally to discredit
A residual poetry of
Leavetaking and homecoming,
Of work and sentiment;
For this is the last
Homecoming, the end
Of the rainbow—
And the pubs are shut.
There are no
Buses till morning.

By rendering a metaphor's reference and referent interchangeable, Mahon often exposes the animistic roots of poetry.

Mahon does entertain ideas of animism. He says of the Irish novelist Brian Moore:

An object, for Moore, is more than the sum of its atoms. It preserves within it the racial memory of its raw material, as a wardrobe might have heard of the crucifixion.

He wittily extends to the Ulster Calvinists this notion of things having memory:

The chair squeaks in a high wind,
Rain falls from its branches,
The kettle yearns for the
Mountain, the soap for the sea.
In a tiny stone church
On the desolate headland
A lost tribe is singing ‘Abide With Me.’



At this point we might remind ourselves that Mahon is not a pioneer in following Husserl's first directive, to return to the ‘things themselves.’ For example, Mahon's fellow Irishmen, Thomas Kinsella and Seamus Heaney, employ a peculiar hinged image and a textured language, respectively, to restore the aseity of things. Mahon's method is distinguishable from theirs, however, and from that of such poets as Ted Hughes and Gary Snyder, because his wit and elaborate rhetoric remind us of the observing speaker and of “the metaphysical disjuncture between ‘subject’ and ‘object.’” Mahon's objects usually speak only through their eloquent attorney: “Your great mistake is to disregard the satire / Bandied among the mute phenomena.” Whether the speaker is unidentified or identified as an anthropologist or survivor, we are charmed by his advocacy of objects' ‘viewpoints,’ as of umbrellas in this poem:

We know they have also shivered
In the cold draught of despair
And are, therefore, the more
Ecstatic after rain—

(“A Kind of People”)

The new poems depart from earlier verse by dispensing with eloquence and advocacy and making the poet's relation to nature an important subject of the poem. For example, one of four “Surry Poems” begins as if it were from Lives or Snow Party:

Ancient bathtub in the fallow field—
midges, brown depths where once
a drift of rainbow suds,
rosewater and lavender.
Now cow faces, clouds,
starlight, nobody there.

Then imagination returns home to the poet, as it has not in the earlier poems:

Nobody there for days and nights
but my own curious thoughts
out there on their own
in a rainstorm or before dawn
peering over the rim
and sending nothing back to my warm room.

(“Field Bath”)

We become aware of the “watchful heart” that encounters the blank of nature in this gentle extension of poems about nothingness, such as Shelley's “Mont Blanc,” Stevens' “The Snow Man” and perhaps Frost's “For Once, Then, Something.”

Tracing the point of view becomes one of the pleasures of such new poems as “Midsummer” where the speaker takes up his vigil only “when the people have gone home” or “The Home Front” where the innocent source of the poem's recollected journalistic images is revealed in the closing lines:

Americans in the art-deco
Milk bars! The released Jews
Blinking in shocked sunlight …
A male child in a garden
Clutching The Empire News.

The angle of vision and the source of light become the actual subjects of the suite of twenty-five short lyrics entitled “Light Music,” as we can see in this poem about the poet's son:

He leads me into
a grainy twilight
of old photographs.
The sun is behind us,
his shadow in mine.


In the new poems the watcher is neither the anthropologist, master of the meter,” nor the voluble survivor. In “The Attic” Mahon writes from the home of the poet John Montague in Cork: “Listen can you hear me / Turning over a new leaf?” He has suppressed the imperative voice, active verbs, ornate diction, and elaborate rhetoric of the early poems. He frequently pleads ignorance and asks only for a little room in nature. To the trees and grasses he says, “there is no need for fear— / I am only looking …”, and he makes the meager claim,

I have a right to be here too.
Maybe not like you—
like the birds,
say, or the wind blowing through.

(“Dry Hill”)

He even contemplates conversion, “into a tree / Like somebody in Ovid / —a small tree certainly / But a tree nonetheless—” (“The Return”). This suppression of self one reviewer labels “Eastern.” Certainly relative to the earlier poems the new poems move Laotze's way, as the new title of the restructured prose poem “Mayo Tao” suggests.

Many of the new poems seem autobiographical; we identify the poet as the unassuming watcher at the window, his eye attracted to landscape and light rather than to society. He is represented as isolated, especially, from the Catholic and Protestant citizens of Ulster, “un beau pays mal habité.” He shares with the speakers of the earlier poems an alienation from Gaelic traditions (“In the Aran Islands”) as well as from the majority of his countrymen. An earlier poem, “As It Should Be,” which demonstrates Mahon's deft control of idiom, makes a wry, allusive comment on the poet's role. An outlaw, perhaps an IRA pariah, is gunned down “in a blind yard / Between ten sleeping lorries / And an electricity generator.”

Let us hear no idle talk
of the moon in the Yellow River.
The air blows softer since his departure

The middle line refers to Denis Johnston's play “The Moon in the Yellow River” and therefore makes his association of the lunatic, the bomber, and the poet, by alluding to Johnston's source in a Chinese poem, but the line substitutes the poet for the bomber. In either case the opposition represents a homicidal methodology:

Since his tide burial during school hours
Our kiddies have known no bad dreams.
Their cries echo lightly along the coast.
This is as it should be.
They will thank us for it when they grow up
To a world with method in it.

In “Afterlives” he considers the alternative to his exile:

Perhaps if I'd stayed behind
And lived it bomb by bomb
I might have grown up at last
And learnt what is meant by home.

More likely, “The Return” suggests, he would have gained the harsh tenacity of a thorn tree, grotesque but nearly tragic, like Milton's “burnt-out angel / Raising petitionary hands.”

Eschewing “the fire-loving people” of Ulster, Mahon turns to an audience of one reader, the confiding tone implies, or to that sizable lodge of writers and friends to whom poems are dedicated. One-fourth of the poems that appear in the new volume are dedicated there or in earlier editions. As in the two verse-letters—“Beyond Howth Head” and “Sea in Winter”—the dedications render the poems confidential and the addressee complicit in a poetic ideal. Through translations, allusions, and references the poet recognizes, beyond the implied reader, a poetic community that includes MacNeice, Beckett, DeQuincey, Van Gogh, Villon, Munch, Guillevic, Cavafy, Lowry, Bashō, Sophocles, Fraser, Nerval, Seferis, Dowson, J. G. Farrell, Jaccottet, Botticelli, Mozart, Corbière, Dante, and Matthew Arnold.

The community is international. We would be seriously misreading the new poems if we inferred that one nation, England say, was freer of historical illusions than another. Consider “Penshurst Place,” which takes as epigraph “And if these pleasures may thee move …,” Marlowe's opening to “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love”:

The bright drop quivering on a thorn
In the rich silence after rain,
Lute music from the orchard aisles,
The paths ablaze with daffodils,
Intrigue and venery in the air
A l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs,
The iron hand and the velvet glove—
Come live with me and be my love.
A pearl face, numinously bright,
Shining in silence of the night,
A muffled crash of smouldering logs,
Bad dreams of courtiers and of dogs,
The Spanish ships around Kinsale,
The screech owl and the nightingale,
The falcon and the turtle dove—
Come live with me and be my love.

As the historical references to Elizabethan intrigue imply, treachery resides at Penshurst as well as in Belfast. Whatever comfort the poem offers derives from the playful extension of the troping poems by Marlowe, Ralegh, Donne, and modern poets, such as Day Lewis, whose refrains the poem borrows, from the imported title of Proust's novel, from more remote allusions to Dunbar and others, and from evocation of the tradition of topographical poems that celebrate the home of Philip Sidney, such as Waller's “At Penshurst” or Ben Jonson's “To Penshurst.” The irony of the speaker's invitation arises less from his tone than from the conflict of traditions, literary and historical.

The tradition of literature and art offers an escape, or at least a diversion, from the world of method, determined roles, and homicidal causality. In “The Sea in Winter” the speaker finds nested in the patterns of art our various dreams of an ideal future:

In Botticelli's strangely neglected
Drawings for The Divine Comedy
Beatrice and the rest proceed
Through a luminous geometry—
Diagrams of that paradise
Each has his vision of. I trace
The future in a colour-scheme,
Colours we scarcely dare to dream.
One day, the day each one conceives—
The day the Dying Gaul revives,
The day the girl among the trees
Strides through our wrecked technologies,
The stones speak out, the rainbow ends,
The wine goes round among the friends,
The lost are found, the parted lovers
Lie at peace beneath the covers.

Some months ago in a public but premature conjecture I inferred from this and other passages that Mahon's new volume celebrates a perpetual, ideal world comprised of the colors and patterns of art and the timeless features of a landscape that was recognizably the west and north coast of Ireland. Furthermore, because this world abounds with Ovidian nymphs or Herrick's rustic maidens, offering “a glimpse of skin in the woods,” I suggested Mahon's ideal might be Tir na Mná (the land of women), one version of the otherworld from which the ancient Irish poet derived his authority. One week after delivering these remarks, I finally obtained an essay by Mahon on MacNeice in which he characterized his compatriot and predecessor at BBC in these terms:

The Islands of the Blest, the Hesperides, Tir na nOg, the Land of the Ever Young—call it what you will, it crops up regularly in MacNeice's poetry and is usually associated with the West of Ireland. Although he was born in Belfast, his father and grandfathers before him grew up in the West of Ireland and MacNeice cultivated the fact as a private romance.


Beyond the coincidental mythological naming lies a deep attraction, shared by Mahon and MacNeice, for the permanencies of Irish landscape. Although Mahon has composed poems specifically about the Aran Islands and Mayo, the landscape that pervades his poetry, not merely as setting but as a source of value as well, could as easily be Ulster as Connaught. The principal features of this poetic landscape are variability (created in fact by saturated land and sky), stark outlines yielding a sense of bound spaciousness, and that capricious light, which must be peculiar to Ireland. In Mahon's home-city, although the sky is “cindery” and changes have occurred “bomb by bomb,” “the hills are still the same / Grey-blue above Belfast,” (“Afterlives”), and major avenues lead toward the West where “the fields are bright with sunlight after rain” (“Teaching in Belfast”). The West radiates a distinctive light and color, “a dream of limestone in sea light” (“Thinking of Inishere in Cambridge”). In “The Mayo Tao” we hear that

The nearest shop is four miles away.
          When I walk there
                    through the shambles of the morning
for tea and firelighters,
          the mountain paces me
                    in a snow-lit silence.

Mahon's poems depict this peculiarly Irish light, undependable and therefore a gift, a sign of grace; “the light / of heaven upon the mountains of Donegal,” he says in one poem, or:

The fields dark under
a gunmetal sky, and one
tiny farm shining
in a patch of sunlight
as if singled out
for benediction.

(“October,” from Light Music)

In addition to light and the stark outlines, this Belfast poet celebrates the spaciousness of rural Ulster and of the West of Ireland. “Yet distance is the vital bond / Between the window and the wind” he states in “The Sea in Winter.” Of this sense of spaciousness in other Irish writing Norman Jeffares has said,

This is what the Irish writer realizes Irish space can do for him or his characters; it can take them out of time, out of the past—a thing particularly to be hoped for—into a blessed sense of timelessness. …

Both Mahon and MacNeice find the English landscape always within earshot of machines and too humanized to escape change (cf. Mahon's “Ford Manor” and MacNeice's “Woods”). For both poets the permanencies of Western Ireland can win us, or give us respite, from the illusory concerns of society. MacNeice seems closer than Mahon to society which he represents in specific and political terms:

All over the world people are toasting the King,
Red lozenges of light as each one lifts his glass,
But I will not give you any idol or idea, creed or king,
I give you the toy Liffey and the vast gulls,
I give you fuschia hedges and whitewashed walls.

(“Train to Dublin”)

MacNeice's glances westward seem wistful beside Mahon's more developed “cold dream of a place out of time.” On the other hand Mahon's returns to Belfast offer us few particulars of that city mangled by history.

MacNeice never imagines an inhuman view of nature nor attempts to penetrate its otherness. He offers impressions that are often magical:

White Tintoretto clouds beneath my naked feet
This mirror of the wet sand imputes a lasting mood
To island truancies …

(“The Strand”)

They are transmitted, however, through the viewpoint of a civilized observer who does

… not envy the self-possession of an elm-tree
Nor the aplomb of a granite monolith.
All that I would like to be is human, having a share
In a civilised, articulate and well-adjusted
Community …

(Autumn Journal, XII)

This contrasts sharply with Mahon's attitudes and approach, especially as reflected in the phenomenological poems of Lives and Snow Party in which he explores imaginatively the unconscious state of rock, trees, and shards. He reminds us that this is the world toward which man, in his relatively brief life, moves so fast. His view seems darker than MacNeice's although somewhat less tragic than Beckett's, whose “bleak reduction” he rebuts in “An Image from Beckett.” He answers Pozzo's complaint that we are born astride the grave:

In that instant
There was a sea, far off,
As bright as lettuce,
A northern landscape
And a huddle
Of houses along the shore.
Also, I think, a white
Flicker of gulls
And washing hung to dry—
The poignancy of those
Back-yards—and the gravedigger
Putting aside his forceps.
Then the hard boards
And darkness once again.
But in that instant
I was struck
By the sweetness and light,
The sweetness and light,
Imagining what grave
Cities, what lasting monuments,
Given the time.
They will have buried
My great-grandchildren, and theirs,
Beside me by now
With a subliminal batsqueak
Of reflex lamentation.
Our hair and excrement
Litter the rich earth,
Changing, second by second,
To civilizations.
It was good while it lasted,
And if it only lasted
The biblical span
Required to drop six feet
Through a glitter of wintry light,
There is No one to blame.
Still, I am haunted
By that landscape,
The soft rush of its winds,
The uprightness of its
Utilities and schoolchildren—
To whom in my will,
This, I have left my will.
I hope they had time,
And light enough, to read it.

Through the legacy of poetry, the poem affirms the thing itself, “unaccommodated man.” Although life is accepted on its most minimal basis, the poem seems no more minimalist in its intention than, say, Lear or Waiting for Godot. I cannot see that it reflects “an English insistence on the limitation of poetry,” as our critic charged. When asked if poetry makes nothing happen, Mahon has invoked Shelley's assertion in the Defense that “poetry enlarges the circumference of the imagination” which is “the great instrument of moral good.” Mahon might adopt as the basis for his theoptic view Shelley's belief that the emotions aroused by poetry make “self appear as what it is, an atom to a Universe.”

Poetry's legislative powers, therefore, seem to Mahon no basis for arrogance. When he departs from his family in Kensington and crosses London twice daily, in the guise of a BBC editor and writer, as MacNeice did for two decades, he knows that poetry cannot free us physically from the roles in which history has cast us. He knows too that if poetry helps shape man's acceptance of mortality, it also shares mankind's fate:

You will tell me that you have executed
A monument more lasting than bronze;
But even bronze is perishable.
Your best poem, you know the one I mean,
The very language in which the poem
Was written, and the idea of language,
All these things will pass away in time.

(“Heraclitus on Rivers”)

Principal Works

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Design for a Grecian Urn 1967

Twelve Poems 1967

Night Crossing 1968

Ecclesiastes 1969

Beyond Howth Head 1970

Lives 1972

The Snow Party 1975

In Their Element: A Selection of Poems [with Seamus Heaney] 1977

Light Music 1977

Poems 1962-1978 1979

The Sea in Winter 1979

Courtyards in Delft 1981

The Chimeras [translator; from Gérard de Nerval's poetry collection Les Chimères] 1982

The Hunt by Night 1982

A Kensington Notebook 1984

Antarctica 1985

Selected Poems of Philippe Jaccottet [translator] 1988

Selected Poems 1991

The Yaddo Letter 1992

The Hudson Letter 1995

The Yellow Book 1997

Words in the Air: A Selection of Poems by Philippe Jaccottet [translator] 1998

The Collected Poems of Derek Mahon 1999

Resistance Days 2001

Birds [translator; from Saint-John Perse's Oiseaux] 2002

High Time: A Comedy in One Act [adaptor; from Molière's play School for Husbands] (verse play) 1985

School for Wives [adaptor; from Molière's play] (verse play) 1986

The Bacchae: After Euripides [adaptor; from Euripides' play] (verse play) 1991

Journalism: Selected Prose, 1970-1995 (essays and reviews) 1996

Racine's Phaedra [translator; from Racine's play] (verse play) 1996

Cyrano de Bergerac [adaptor; from Edmond Rostand's play] (verse play) 2004

Adrian Frazier (essay date winter 1983)

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SOURCE: Frazier, Adrian. “Proper Portion: Derek Mahon's The Hunt by Night.Eire-Ireland 18, no. 4 (winter 1983): 136-43.

[In the following essay, Frazier suggests that The Hunt by Night reflects a change in Mahon's work, away from regionalism, and away from attention-seeking tricks of poetic form and style.]

In a review of Derek Mahon's Poems 1962-1978 (Spring 1981), Arthur McGuinness concluded that the poet's work had undergone an “overall change in theme and tone” as a result of the revision of old poems and the addition of new ones. Instead of writing about the despair of cities, Mahon was turning toward the curative comforts of the countryside. Along with John Hewitt and Seamus Heaney, he had become a regionalist; along with Heaney, he was looking for “doors out of the dark.” The dark was one the young poet once sought: twilight of the gods, soul's dark night, eternal darkness of world annihilation. Now the aging man was looking for doors out in the form of archaic myths of renewal, the rhythms of rural life, and the framework of a classical tradition. In his study of changes made in old poems, McGuinness found that Mahon had revised out self-pity and revised in happiness. These changes were welcome to the reviewer, although he observed a slight loss of intensity.

Now that Derek Mahon's new collection, The Hunt By Night,1 is before his public, we are in a position to judge the accuracy of McGuinness's impressive formulation of a trend. Unless later developments at the home office change matters once again, it appears no longer true, if it ever was, that Mahon is to become a regionalist, in the strict sense. The new poems in the last collection giving the impression that he might do so were written of Mahon's place of residence in a pleasant part of Surrey. But, in 1977, after a two-year stay, he left Surrey, in order to teach at the New University of Ulster in Coleraine; he also left there after two years, eventually moving to London, with occasional trips to the Continent and the United States. There are poems in The Hunt By Night set in Portrush, Derry, Brighton, London, Oxford, Berlin, Maine, North Carolina, and New York City. Of course, it is possible, as Hewitt, Heaney, and even Yeats have all shown, to be the poet of a region in which one actually spends very little time. But Mahon's collection not only shows that, in recent years, his passport has been much stamped—writing perfect postcards and everlasting letters from many places—but that he has paused here and there to look, and to reflect, but nowhere to sink roots.

One poem in The Hunt By Night, “The Woods,” casts a backward glance upon those years in Surrey. Comparison of this poem with “Sunlight” by Seamus Heaney—a dedicatory poem for North—shows the difference between a regionalist and an expropriated, even deracinated poet. Both poems concern living in the country; both celebrate married happiness; both lovingly list the things about the house and place that made for happiness. But there exist important differences about the nature of the places, the kinds of things listed, and the relation the poet draws between the Happy Place and the future life of man.

The country Heaney writes about is Ireland, the county is Derry, and the townland is Mossbawn: his nation, region, and home. Mahon is writing of a stopover in England in a borrowed house.

Heaney's Mossbawn cottage in “Sunlight” is the result of careful interior decoration: he shows great care both in what he has kept in, as a thing making for happiness, and in what he has left out. There is a pump in the yard with a water bucket; there is a woman with an apron making bread, and dusting the bakeboard with a goose's wing; there is a tinsmith's scoop and a mealbin. This is the white-washed, well-swept cottage of any decade in the last fifty except our own, in which cottages have, most likely, running water, electric stoves, bread from the market, etc. Heaney's image of the Happy Place is created by means of exclusion: he leaves out all that might make us sad, all that has happened in recent times, and all that we have to be.

Mahon's image of the Happy Place, on the other hand, works by inclusion. He delights in incongruity—mementoes of the past, signs of transience—and forceful present facts jostle one another in the poem. He notes that he lives in the outhouse of a “once great estate,” near a manor where French and Russian royalty once came to dine; he gives a stanza to mark his discovery of gas masks from the last war in a disused garden shed; he lets us know that he fetches in his groceries by car. Here we do not have an image of all sweet things come together; instead, we have the grand things that are gone, the bad things that linger unforgotten, and all that does not fit with happiness, while still not quite destroying it.

Finally, Heaney's poem, although it begins in the past, ends with an eternal present: “And here is love.” We are to understand that this moment is everlasting, unassailed by man's fickle fate. Mahon's poem begins forthrightly as a memorial to a time over and done with, and it never tries to pull the past back into the present. The green retreat is seen as having been a sort of sanatorium: a place of therapeutic unreality, from which those made well go forth again to the pains of the world:

But how could we
survive indefinitely
so far from the city and the sea?
Finding, at last,
too creamy for our taste
the fat profusion of that feast,
we travelled on
to doubt and speculation,
our birthright and our proper portion.

I am not making distinctions of value between these poems. In fact, Heaney's “Sunlight” is wonderfully well made, one of his best poems, while “The Woods,” though careful, smart, and lapidary like all Mahon, is not among the better poems in even A Hunt By Night. There is nothing contemptible about Heaney's making an idyll his fortress against the armies of the night, but it is worth observing that Derek Mahon will not for long hole up in any fortress. He will soon be out again wandering on the battlefield, not happy, not at home, not certain of any verities. While Heaney shows his skill in how he creates and preserves a pastoral mood, Mahon excels in destroying such moods. He can hardly write a pastoral without bringing in wolves, slaughterhouses, a short disquisition on the varieties of sheep-dip, and an observation that the shepherd is wearing dacron.

The poems in The Hunt By Night that are set in the area around Coleraine might be made the basis for a claim that, if Surrey is not his region, then the Ulster seacoast is. In “North Wind: Portrush,” for instance, we might find the poet properly situated in the landscape of his spirit. There he is listening on a barren coast to the keen of the wind, like “a lost Lear-spirit in agony,” condemned forever to wander. The poet himself says that the hard climate and barren seascape is more in keeping with our time of trouble than the warm shelters of the South. But his contentment is deeply undercut with irony when he says that in Ulster people are raised on an expectation of chaos, their hearts “starred with frost / Through countless generations.” This is to say that one is at home where no one is; that one finds happiness in perpetual sadness; that one discovers a reason to live in hopelessness. The poems written of the region round Coleraine have, in general, none of the constructive, optimistic program of regionalism—its archaic plan for human society in a natural world.

Whether he writes about a “Derry Morning,” “Rathlin Island,” or “A Lighthouse in Maine,” Mahon has the same relation to place. He is everywhere at a point of view on man's fate. “A Garage in Co. Cork” is a “milestone of earth-residence,” and so are all homes, his own or others. These milestones, these millstones, implicitly speak to us of two imperatives: that we must be here on earth; that we will not be here forever. If Mahon's seriousness is shown by his conception of place, his skill emerges in his descriptions of each place, his “sure sense of its intrinsic nature” in “A Garage in Co. Cork.” A quick sketch artist, Mahon can describe the structure of a Dutch painting “Courtyards in Delft” the perspective of an Italian one “The Hunt By Night” or the light absorbed in a lighthouse wall “A Lighthouse in Maine” in a brief elegant phrase. But he never stops with the sight of a thing; he also puts it in its social and historical setting. “A Bar in Manhattan,” for instance, is not complete with its beer sign glowing in the smoky gloom, until we have allusions to the conquest of space (impossible), overpopulation (inevitable), and capitalism (purposeless), which, taken with our fate to be here but not for long, adds up to a pretty complete summary of our state. For a poet, and certainly compared with regionalist poets, the activities of Mahon's intelligence are remarkably abstract. The truth of every thing that is here and now is not for him just the thing itself, but also its social nature and its ultimate fate.

That fate is for Western man neither happy nor long off, if we judge by many poems in The Hunt By Night. However, I do not believe that McGuinness was perfectly mistaken in his sense that the poet is less pessimistic than he once was. Certainly, Mahon has been writing poems about the end of the world since the start of his work, and he is still doing so. But, without changing what for him is both a personal disposition and conviction—that catastrophe is soon to come—Mahon now seems more ready to believe that our lives before the end need not be a series of moments of unrelieved terror.

At forty-two, the Dean of Poems on World Destruction, Mahon has come to learn that the feeling the World might any minute end can go on for years and years. Certain chiliastic sects throughout the centuries have learned this lesson too, when they unwisely set a date for Armageddon and, having climbed the mountain on Tuesday the twelfth to watch the fire fall, had to climb back down again on Wednesday to make new arrangements. In a number of poems in this volume, we see Mahon beginning to make some new arrangements.

One such “arrangement” is a new kind of humor, from a chastened sense of his own seriousness. This humor is not easy to distinguish from the wit of his early work, found again in its old form in some of these new poems. Mahon has never served up seriousness straight, and he has always had doubts about the importance of art, doubts that were desperate and self-destructive, leading to a self-flagellant wit. In this volume, one finds that despairing humor in “Table Talk” when his writing desk, laughing that it will outlive him, tells him to shut up and listen to the silence of the wood. And wood as symbol of nature is all that remains of those Sussex trees. The same gesture occurs in the beautiful poem here about “Ovid in Tomis,” in which Ovid at last decides to listen to the page—metamorphosed wood-nymphs—rather than write upon it. Or there is the skepticism about art in “Rock Music”: bothered by the heavy metal blasting through his window, he gives up trying to write—“as if such obsolete bumf could save us now!”—and goes to listen to another kind of “rock music”: “Whisper of algae, click of stone on stone” by the sea shore.

But, in addition to this wit that humiliates the spirit, there is a humor in the new work that merely humbles it. In “Another Sunday Morning,” he offers a charming spoof on himself as prophet. He does not there see himself as a worthless if not positively evil creature, but as a slightly pretentious man now approaching forty, who ought to be sober and wise.

A chiliastic prig, I prowl
Among the dog-lovers and growl;
Among the kite-fliers and fly
The private kite of poetry—
A sort of winged sandwich board
El-Grecoed to receive the Lord;
An airborne, tremulous brochure
Proclaiming that the end is near.

A second “arrangement” is simply to enjoy the little comforts of the “late bourgeois life” while it lasts. If on Sunday we find that God is not in the churches, that the rich have left us for their weekend retreats, and that the Third World has taken over our world, we can still sleep late, free of the bell that rings us to work in “Another Sunday Morning.” Or, there are the pleasures of “Morning Radio” piped into each suite of the Titanic Mahon imagines our bourgeois life to be: if we learn that the world we know is coming to an end, at least the word comes from “the merciful voice of Tom Crowe,” and is followed by a horn concerto.

A third means of making it through to the end of the world is love of friends, of family, of a woman. McGuinness perceptively noticed that Mahon had written few genuine love poems, and nothing in The Hunt By Night quite changes the truth of that observation. Mahon has, however, always written well of male friendship—rather, he has written well in the spirit of male friendship. And a new poem, “Brighton Beach,” dedicated to Paul Smith, is an admirable addition to that group. It begins by recollecting with his friend old times in Ireland—parties in Belfast flats, unlit country cottages, junkets to fishing villages. The times were good, the poem implies; but it is good they are gone, because they were adolescent and drunken, and he and his friend are now at a stage where they should be sober and wise. What remains, then, is a memory that binds two men together, sustaining them as they go on alone to meditate the night at the end of the pier. This is a poem of male friendship, but in other poems when Mahon uses the first person plural, he is not speaking of “we friends” or “we men who must die,” but of “we lovers.” This is the couple that, in “The Woods,” decides it is time to travel on; that, in “Another Sunday Morning,” lies late in bed listening to the children arguing in the next room. Such casual indications that the poet is not alone in the world do not make the poems love poems, but they do suggest that love is what makes living in the world possible—and, even in our last days, sometimes comfortable.

The most impressive set of reflections on the darkness settling on our planet is “The Globe in North Carolina,” a verse letter to the woman he loves, and a third to be added to Mahon's two earlier poems in this form: “Beyond Howth Head” and “The Sea in Winter.” The verse letter shows Mahon at the top of his talent: the form implies both the solitude of the sender and his affectionate relation to the receiver; it requires the writer to describe his whereabouts and take stock of his life; it encourages reflections on that common ground between sender and receiver, which is the life of man at the moment of composition. The couplets show off Mahon's wit in connecting the trite with the eternal, the stanzas exhibit the march of his philosophical intellect, and the tone of the epistle shows his relaxed, colloquial superiority to the constraints of form. This poem has all these qualities, and it also speaks directly to the issue of whether Mahon now wants a door out of the dark.

The scenario is simple: the poet spins a globe as he watches the sun set beyond Tennessee. The abstract oppositions of the poem's argument are all drawn up out of this scene: the region and the universe; daylight and approaching night; perpetuity and gradual deceleration; the celestial zodiac and the frantic whiz of life on the face of the earth. Moving by way of these oppositions into darkest night thoughts, Mahon poses the question of whether our culture can last. He allows that “No doubt we could go on like this / For decades yet,” but if we refuse to conceive our own end, “nemesis / Awaits our furious make-believe.” Every journey, it is clear, must still begin with that door that leads into the dark.

But it is also apparent that Mahon is no longer content to be discontent. “The Globe in North Carolina” includes, as did his earlier work, an elegy to the beauty of nature, an apotheosis of tins, and a recantation of his art, but it then goes beyond these gestures of despair. In stanzas eight and nine, Mahon offers something that resembles what McGuinness calls “an archaic myth,” though of redemption rather than renewal:

Out in the void and staring hard
At the dim stone where we were reared,
Great mother, now the gods are gone
We put our faith in you alone,
Inverting the procedures which
Knelt us to things beyond our reach.
Drop of the oceans, may your salt
Astringency redeem our fault!
Veined marble, as if we only knew,
In practice as in theory, true
Salvation lies not in the thrust
Of action only, but the thrust
We place in our peripheral
Night garden in the glory-hole
Of space, a home from home, and what
Devotion we can bring to it!

The worship of the moony night suggests a religion after the death of religions, a faith in the midst of skepticism, hope through despair, and trust commensurate with terror. But instead of a door out of the dark, the door leading more deeply into the dark takes us out of despair, when Night is accepted as the Goddess of both our annihilation and our salvation.

If that final consolation is ambivalent, there is a provisional consolation as well, also woman-spirited. The entire poem, we must remember, is a kind of love letter, to a woman who lies an ocean to the east. She also calls forth his hope and faith:

And what misgivings I might have
About the true importance of
The merely human pale before
The mere fact of your being there.

I am not certain that “The Globe in North Carolina” has attained its final form; revised since its publication in Courtyards in Delft, it may be in for further clarifications. As it stands, it is a meditation remarkable both for its breadth and balance. Few other poets can admit so much of the world into a poem, and still compose it in a form both intimate and elegant, urbane and profound.

We are left with the question of whether Mahon's verse continues to show a loss of intensity or other technical diminishment. Though there are poems here which seem merely clever, like “Table Talk,” and others which are only formal feats, like the two villanelles “Dawn Chorus” and “The Andean Flute,” Mahon seems to have edited away the more startling conceits and snazzy rhymes. He is becoming more like Herrick, one might say, and less like Donne, now regarding clever effects as dangers to his verse, rather than the goal of it. The goal would now seem to be sober, wise, congenial—and brave. And the tetrameter, couplet-rhymed octaves he borrowed from Robert Lowell's “Waking Early Sunday Morning” have just the edge and weight he now wants in “Derry Morning,” “Another Sunday Morning,” “Knut Hamsun in Old Age,” and “A Postcard From Berlin.” But, perhaps the new virtues do come at the cost of the old virtue of intensity.

The apparent technical flaw in the new work is an occasional rigidity in the syntactic forms. Mahon's fine judiciousness is his seeing just what the qualities of things are—that is, his selecting the right adjectives for nouns. But in some stanzas, nearly every noun comes introduced by a single adjective, so that the sentence rhythms become predictable and stiff:

Surely you paused at this roadside oasis
In your nomadic youth, and saw the mound
Of never-used cement, the curious faces,
The soft-drink ads and the uneven ground
Rainbowed with oily puddles, where a snail
Had crawled its slimy, phosphorescent trail.

Those verses succeed better in which he varies his syntactic procedure, giving the nouns sometimes two or three adjectives, or even sending some forth naked and without introduction.

But these are quibbles. The poems of The Hunt By Night in general have technical expertise for which the only remark can be applause. “The Hunt By Night” and “Girls on the Bridge”—both poems about paintings, one by Ucello, the other by Munch—pass through the constraints of an intricate stanza with no strain whatsoever. And the opening poem, “Courtyards in Delft,” silences criticism of any kind. It is an excellent piece of art criticism on a painting by a Dutch Master, and a profoundly autobiographical poem by an Irish Master. Along with the other poems about paintings and two about writers—Knut Hamsum and Brecht—they remind us that the pastoral hinterland of Derek Mahon is Art. I doubt he will appropriate another artist's “framework” or “tradition,” but he certainly finds styles of courage in the lives of great writers and emblems of the Night in the works of great painters, as in the final lines of the beautiful title poem:

                              As if our hunt by night,
                                                  So very tense,
                                        So long pursued,
                              In what dark cave begun
          And not yet done, were not the great
Adventure we suppose but some elaborate
                              Spectacle put on for fun
                                        And not for food.

Despair so lovely certainly brightens the dark, for all of us.


  1. The Hunt by Night, by Derek Mahon, pp. 63, Winston-Salem, N.C.: Wake Forest University Press, 1983.

David E. Williams (essay date September 1984)

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SOURCE: Williams, David E. “The Poetry of Derek Mahon.” The Journal of Irish Literature 13, no. 2 (September 1984): 88-99.

[In the following essay, Williams describes Mahon's affinity for the perspective of the exile or outcast as one of the great strengths of his poetry. Williams also considers Mahon's stance towards the violence of Northern Ireland and the fine line between objectivity and indifference in the position of the outsider.]

In Derek Mahon's great poem “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford,” by a wonderfully managed transition, the “thousand mushrooms” growing within an abandoned and burnt-out hotel in Ireland are gradually transformed into the passive victims of history, the “lost people of Treblinka and Pompeii,” appealing to the camera-carrying visitor to save them from their perpetual oblivion:

“Save us, save us,” they seem to say,
“Let the god not abandon us
Who have come so far in darkness and in pain.
We too had our lives to live.
You with your light meter and relaxed itinerary,
Let not our naive labours have been in vain!”(1)

This poem is at the heart of Mahon's achievement, for it reveals his compassion for the ignored or neglected lives of people and objects. One of his greatest strengths is his ability to project himself into the most humble existences, whether human or non-human, and bring them to life, enabling them to present their otherwise disregarded autobiographies.

Something of this can be seen in his poems about the lives of artistic outcasts or exiles. Many of the writers or painters who appear in Mahon's poetry led miserable and lonely existences, but Mahon gives a dignity to all of them, often telling the poem through their eyes in monologue form. In “Van Gogh in the Borinage,” for example, Van Gogh, dismissed from his work with the miners in Belgium, anticipates how he will go to the Mediterranean and paint his vision of the “dying light of faith” as it transfigures the faces of the miners:

Theo, I am discharged for being
Over-zealous, they call it,
And not dressing the part.
In time I shall go south
And paint what I have seen—
A meteor of golden light
On chairs, faces and old boots,
Setting fierce fire to the eyes
Of sunflowers and fishing boats,
Each one a miner in disguise.(2)

In “Knut Hamsun in Old Age,” from his latest book, The Hunt by Night, Mahon presents a series of imagined recollections from the life of the Norwegian novelist, the author of Hunger; despite being publicly condemned for a wartime meeting with Hitler, Hamsun still defiantly asserts pride in himself and his past:

Yes, I shook hands with Hitler; knew disgrace.
But time heals everything; I rose again.
Now I can look my butcher in the face.
Besides, did I not once, as a young man,
Cure myself of incipient tuberculosis
Inhaling four sub-zero nights and days
Perched on the screaming roof of a freight train?(3)

In passages like this we can see Mahon's ability to get inside the thoughts and imagination of the outcast, to see the world in his terms and then express that view of the world with sympathy and insight. It's important to note here, however, that Mahon's feeling for the outsider isn't part of a specifically political program, and in fact his poetry proposes no political or economic solutions; the compassion comes instead from a simple concern to speak on behalf of the victims of history and society, to find a voice for what Mahon calls the “lives unlived or lived beyond all fear.”4 In his greatest poem he gave memorable expression to the pathos of these victims of “the historical nightmare”:5

A half century, without visitors, in the dark—
Poor preparation for the cracking lock
And creak of hinges. Magi, moonmen,
Powdery prisoners of the old regime,
Web-throated, stalked like triffids, racked by drought
And insomnia, only the ghost of a scream
At the flash-bulb firing squad we wake them with
Shows there is life yet in their feverish forms.
Grown beyond nature now, soft food for worms,
They lift frail heads in gravity and good faith.(6)

Even more central to Mahon's achievement are his self-assimilations into objects or states of being which most of us would either ignore or dismiss. There is a chameleon-like quality to Mahon's imagination which enables him to lose his own personality and enter into the most disregarded types of existence. He is fascinated by non-human and mineral life: the “lives” of objects, places, natural processes of growth and decay; in his best poems his imagination is always trying to work itself inside these lives, to imagine how the world seems to them. Through these empathies with the imagined existences of objects and places, Mahon is able to make us look at these phenomena with a new sense of their significance. Sometimes indeed, by a strange ventriloquism, Mahon is able to make these objects speak for themselves and state their claims for our attention. In “The Apotheosis of Tins,” for example, the casually discarded tins make this confident assertion, in the dandyish and playful phrasing which is an important of Mahon's stylistic accomplishment:

Promoted artifacts by the dereliction
          of our creator, and greater now
                    than the sum of his skills,
we shall be with you while there are beaches.
Imperishable by-products of the perishable will,
          we shall lie like skulls
                    in the hands of soliloquists.
The longest queues in the science museum
          will form at our last homes
                    saying, ‘Think now,
                              what an organic relation
                    of art to life
          in the dawn; what saintly
devotion to the notion of permanence
          in the flux of sensation
                    and crisis, perhaps
                              we can learn from them.’(7)

In a poem actually called “Lives,” Mahon dons the persona of an anthropologist who enumerates the succession of metamorphoses which he has undergone in previous incarnations: the idea of metamorphosis through the imagination is basic to Mahon's work:

First time out
I was a torc of gold
And wept tears of the sun.
That was fun
But they buried me
In the earth two thousand years
Till a labourer
Turned me up with a pick
In eighteen fifty-four
And sold me
For tea and sugar
In Newmarket-on-Fergus.
Once I was an oar
But stuck in the shore
To mark the place of a grave
When the lost ship
Sailed away. I thought
Of Ithaca, but soon decayed.(8)

Through these acts of imaginative retrieval, Mahon is able to awake in the reader a new responsiveness to seemingly commonplace objects and experiences which are literally before our eyes. He is able to give to the mysterious and inarticulate world of objects “the mute phenomena,” as he calls them, in a poem of the same name, its own pathos and beauty.

For Mahon the fact that we do dismiss objects as “commonplace” is significant in that it shows how we tend to ignore things which have no obvious utility or appeal. Mahon's fascination with objects, whether natural or artificial, only serves to sharpen his sadness at the way in which they are abused by man's acquisitive or warlike instincts; in one of his shorter poems, “The Antigone Riddle,” he suggests, through a series of condensed and menacing images, the frightening effect of man on the natural world in which he lives:

Elocution, logic, political science,
Antibiotics, do-it-yourself,
And a plover flops in his oil slick.
Shy minerals contract at the sound of his voice,
Cod point in silence when his bombers pass,
And the windfall waits
In silence for his departure
Before it drops in
Silence to the long grass.(9)

In The Hunt by Night man's estrangement from other forms of life on earth, his tendency to treat the earth as though it were a mere set of resources to be exploited as and when it suits him, is seen as the source of many of the maladies of modern life: emotional dissatisfaction, disorder and a pervasive violence. The Hunt by Night is remarkable for its sense of man's capacity for hatred and cruelty; this is reflected in many different contexts in the book: in the rubble and destruction of Londonderry at dawn (“Derry Morning”); in memories of the violence in Germany during the Weimar Republic (“A Postcard from Berlin”); in the morning news broadcasts (“Morning Radio”); in fears of a nuclear attack (“One of These Nights”); even the beautifully composed stasis of a Dutch painting, Pieter de Hooch's “Courtyards in Delft,” is threatened by a wilful destructiveness in man which cannot bear the precision of the painting, and sees it as a comment on the randomness and contingency of nature:

For the pale light of that provincial town
Will spread itself, like ink or oil,
Over the not yet accurate linen
Map of the world which occupies one wall
And punish nature in the name of God.
If only, now, the Maenads, as of right,
Came smashing crockery, with fire and sword,
We could sleep easier in our beds at night.(10)

In the fine title poem, “The Hunt by Night,” looking at Uccello's painting of the same name, and watching the excited figures of men, horses and dogs chasing deer through a forest, Mahon comes to the grim suspicion that violence may sometimes stem not from some basic necessity to survive, but rather from a squalid wish for fun:

                              As if our hunt by night,
                                                  So very tense,
                                        So long pursued,
                              In what dark cave begun
          And not yet done, were not the great
Adventure we suppose but some elaborate
                              Spectacle put on for fun
                                        And not for food.(11)

But in The Hunt by Night, Mahon does far more than simply itemise these varied manifestations of violence: he tries to understand why modern life is so marked by random acts of inhumanity. His answer goes beyond traditional political/economic explanations to a deeper psychological analysis of the causes of violence; in the final poem of the book, “The Globe in North Carolina,” he suggests that it is our naive pride in our own intellect, our increasing alienation from other ways of knowing and experiencing the world which has brought us to the brink of extinction:

No doubt we could go on like this
For decades yet; but nemesis
Awaits our furious make-believe,
Our harsh refusal to conceive
A world so different from our own
We wouldn't know it were we shown.
Who, in its halcyon days, imagined
Carthage a ballroom for the wind?(12)

While Mahon's diagnosis of the causes of our present discontents is interesting and far-reaching in its implications, one has equally to say that the solutions which he proposes can seem vague and unhelpful, as if Mahon were unable to bring into sharp enough focus the alternative world-views which he is advocating; towards the end of “The Globe in North Carolina,” for example, there is this somewhat unclear petition to a tutelary Earth-goddess who seems to be the source of renewal for us:

Out in the void and staring hard
At the dim stone where we were reared,
Great mother, now the gods have gone
We put our faith in you alone,
Inverting the procedures which
Knelt us to things beyond our reach.
Drop of the oceans, may your salt
Astringency redeem our fault!(13)

At the end of “Ovid in Tomis,” in which Mahon uses the persona of Ovid, exiled among the Scythians, to meditate on the way out of our contemporary impasse there is also a sense that the remedies being proposed are not really adequate:

Are we truly alone
With our physics and muths,
The stars no more
Than glittering dust,
With no one there
To hear our choral odes?
If so, we can start
To ignore the silence
Of infinite space
And concentrate instead
On the infinity
Under our very noses—
The cry at the heart
Of the artichoke,
The gaiety of atoms.(14)

A major weakness of Mahon's work is that he is often unable to convince the reader of the efficacy of his alternatives to modern scientific thought: his remedies can seem perilously close to a solipsistic passivity which appears unlikely to effect any fundamental change in our ways of seeing and understanding the world.

One of the main ways in which Mahon seems to see a reintegration of man and nature coming about is in the destruction, or, at least, the running-down of modern industrialised society. Time and again, in some of his most memorable poems, he returns to scenes of entropy and terminal silence. Sometimes, as in “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford,” or the more recent “A Garage in Co. Cork,” his explorations of these abandoned and overgrown landscapes stem from a fascination with places where the evidence of human living has almost disappeared, and Nature is about to efface the signs of man's presence. More often, however, he writes about these places because, paradoxically, he sees in these derelict backwaters possibilities of new orders of feeling and being. In “The Golden Bough,” for example, Mahon describes a blank silence following “the twilight of cities,” and yet sees in that silence a chance for man to restore a fuller relationship between himself and the earth; the millennial life envisaged remains, however, rather literary and unconvincing:

There will be silence, then
A sigh of waking
As from a long dream.
Once more I shall rise early
And plough my country
By first light.
At noon lie down
In a warm field,
My head in the shade,
And after midnight
Fish for stars
In the dark waters.(15)

In a better, less self-consciously winsome poem, “The Banished Gods,” Mahon conjures up a wonderful picture of the silent, animistic world of the old gods and compares it with the polluted world of modern technologies:

Where the wires end the moor seethes in silence,
          Scattered with scree, primroses,
                    Feathers and faeces.
          It shelters the hawk and hears
In dreams the forlorn cries of lost species.
It is here that the banished gods are in hiding,
          Here they sit out the centuries
                    In stone, water
          And the hearts of trees,
Lost in a reverie of their own natures—
Of zero-growth economics and seasonal change
          In a world without cars, computers
                    Or chemical skies,
          Where thought is a fondling of stones
And wisdom a five-minute silence at moonrise.(16)

The very terms of Mahon's comparison imply that we have made a bad exchange and, this time, the reader is more convinced by the nature of the alternatives offered.

Mahon has been criticised for dwelling too much in these deserted landscapes,17 but he does so not from an indifference to the details of ordinary human life, but rather from a belief that these places, at the margins of existence, can offer us valuable and humane ways of seeing now that the bankruptcy of our present attitudes has finally become evident. The silences in Mahon's poetry do not derive from an Absurdist sense of the insignificance of human communication, but more from a conviction that in these silences man will be able to slough off the accumulated sophistications of modern scientific and technological ways of thought and rediscover a more sane relationship, a “long-lost archaic companionship,”18 as Edwin Muir calls it in “The Horses,” with the world of Nature. The problem is that Mahon is often unable to convince the reader of the superior truth-claims which he is making for these post-apocalyptic ways of thought, and, as a result, they can come across as rather thin and ineffectual correctives to the existing world-views, flawed and destructive though these may be.

Given Mahon's peculiarly sceptical attitude towards many of the priorities of modern life, it is not surprising that his reactions to the public world of politics, especially the politics of his native Ulster, are highly wary and ambivalent. His work shows a conflict between his natural sympathy with the sufferings of the people of Ulster and, on the other hand, his wish, as a writer, to preserve an independence from the competing claims of the various political and religious groups in the province. Against a background of sectarian bitterness, Mahon's instinctive reaction is to stress the neutrality of art. He is, however, perceptive enough to see the limitations of this position and the accusations of aestheticism and fence-sitting that could be made against it. He captures his unease at these accusations, his doubts about the value of art at such a time, and yet his reluctance to become the creature of any faction, in a poem called “The Last of the Fire Kings.” In this poem, “the fire-loving / People” refusing to accept, “rightly perhaps,” the fire king's “… cold dream / Of a place out of time, / A palace of porcelain” demand that he inhabits:

Like them, a world of
Sirens, bin-lids
And bricked-up windows—
Not to release them
From the ancient curse
But to die their creature and be thankful.(19)

It is this dislike of being compelled to conform which we can see again in “As It Should Be,” a wry dramatic monologue, where the murder of “the mad bastard” represents Mahon's fear of the extinction of the artistic imagination by the forces of political and social uniformity:

Let us hear no idle talk
Of the moon in the Yellow River.
The air blows softer since his departure.
Since his tide burial during school hours
Our kiddies have known no bad dreams.
Their cries echo lightly along the coast.
This is as it should be.
They will thank us for it when they grow up
To a world with method in it.(20)

His anxiety that he might be forced to take sides in the turmoil of Ulster and lose what artistic autonomy he has is perhaps one of the factors which has led Mahon to spend some time away from Ulster during the years of the recent troubles; this voluntary exile has sharpened his sense of distance from the factionalism of Ulster politics. His view of Ulster is often that of an outsider, a man contemplating a society he knows well, but no longer feels at home in; for example, in “The Return,” he compares the “richly forested slopes” of Surrey, where he had been living, with the bleak landscape of Ulster, to which he is returning:

Out there you would look in vain
For a rose bush; but find
Rooted in stony ground,
A last stubborn growth
Battered by constant rain
And twisted by the sea-wind
With nothing to recommend it
But its harsh tenacity
Between the blinding windows
And the forests of the sea,
As if its very existence
Were a reason to continue.
Crone, crow, scarecrow,
Its worn fingers scrabbling
At a torn sky, it stands
On the edge of everything
Like a burnt-out angel
Raising petitionary hands.(21)

In this passage Mahon sees the very landscape as an image of the bitterness and violence of Irish history; in a more recent poem, “North Wind: Portrush,” the harshness of landscape and climate symbolises a “stricken” state of mind:

Elsewhere the olive grove,
Le dejeuner sur l'herbe,
Poppies and parasols,
Blue skies and mythic love.
Here only the stricken souls
No spring can unperturb.
Prospero and his people never
Came to these stormy parts:
Few do who have the choice.
Yet, blasting the subtler arts,
That weird, plaintive voice
Choirs now and for ever.(22)

However, in some of his work, Mahon seems to turn on himself and attack this tendency to distance himself from the problems of Ulster. He even seems to imply that this unwillingness to become caught up in the struggle might cloak something much worse: an aesthetic indifference to the sufferings of Ulster. He raises this self-accusation in a poem called “Afterlives,’ where, returning to Belfast “For the first time in years,” he says:

And I step ashore in a fine rain
To a city so changed
By five years of war
I scarcely recognize
The places I grew up in,
The faces that try to explain.
But the hills are still the same
Grey-blue above Belfast.
Perhaps if I'd stayed behind
And lived it bomb by bomb
I might have grown up at last
And learnt what is meant by home.(23)

In an earlier poem, “The Spring Vacation,” he puts this indictment in even sharper terms:

One part of my mind must learn to know its place.
The things that happen in the kitchen houses
And echoing back-streets of this desperate city
Should engage more than my casual interest,
Exact more interest than my casual pity.(24)

We see here a perfect example of Mahon's ambivalent attitude towards the troubles for, on the one hand as a writer, he wishes to try and maintain some sort of distance and impartiality, yet he can see that “impartiality” can become indifference, “distance” can become callousness. Mahon's poetry records this dilemma with great honesty. He is well aware that some of his attitudes contain the danger of a sort of dispassionate contemplation of public tragedy, and he criticises this tendency in himself; at the same time he refuses to compromise his independence as a writer by becoming the tool of any faction.

Despite Mahon's evident uneasiness about his responsibilities as a writer in a society in conflict, and his pervasive scepticism about the importance of art at such a time, his final reaction to Ireland is not one of rejection but, as Seamus Deane puts it in a useful phrase when talking of Louis Macneice: “… a kind of rejection-in-acceptance of Ireland which is typical of the Northern Protestant mind in one of its subtler manifestations.”25 For, ultimately, despite his dislike of many of the more repugnant features of life in Ulster: “Un beau pays mal habite, / Policed by rednecks in dark cloth / And roving gangs of tartan youth,”26 Mahon recognises that he is what he is because of being an Ulsterman:

When I returned one year ago
I felt like Tonio Kroger—slow
To come to terms with my own past
Yet knowing I could never cast
Aside the things that made me what,
For better or worse, I am. The upshot?
Chaos and instability,
The cool gaze of the RUC.(27)

One of Mahon's main claims on our attention is the honesty and ironic self-scrutiny which he shows when he describes his feelings towards the troubles. Mahon's poetry registers perfectly the conflicting allegiances, towards his society and his art, which Ulster's long agony has produced in him. Other Ulster poets have approached the situation in a different way: we do not find in Mahon's poetry that direct and moving description of actual incidents of violence that we find in some of James Simmons' poems; nor does Mahon attempt to analyse what it is in Irish history and culture that has brought about the crisis, as Tom Paulin does in A State of Justice and Liberty Tree, or Seamus Heaney does in North. Mahon's approach is both more personal and more indirect, tracing the impact of the troubles not in large-scale public and historical events, but rather in terms of the conflicting loyalties within his own life.


  1. Derek Mahon, “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford,” Poems 1962-1978 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 80. Referred to hereafter as Poems. (It should be noted that in Poems Mahon has omitted one or two of his earlier poems and revised or retitled several others.)

  2. “Van Gogh in the Borinage,” Poems, p. 14.

  3. Derek Mahon, “Knut Hamsun in Old Age,” The Hunt by Night (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 20. Referred to hereafter as Hunt.

  4. Derek Mahon, “Job's Comforter,” Lives (London: Oxford University Press, 1972), p. 21. This poem is not included in Poems.

  5. “The Apotheosis of Tins,” Poems, p. 73.

  6. “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford,” Poems, p. 80.

  7. “The Apotheosis of Tins,” Poems, p. 74.

  8. “Lives,” Poems, pp. 40-41.

  9. “The Antigone Riddle,” Poems, p. 67.

  10. “Courtyards in Delft,” Hunt, p. 10.

  11. “The Hunt by Night,” Hunt, pp. 30-31.

  12. “The Globe in North Carolina,” Hunt, p. 62.

  13. Ibid.

  14. “Ovid in Tomis,” Hunt, p. 41.

  15. “The Golden Bough,” Poems, pp. 66-67.

  16. “The Banished Gods,” Poems, p. 78.

  17. See particularly Andrew Waterman's interesting article “Somewhere, out there, beyond: The Poetry of Seamus Heaney and Derek Mahon,” PN Review 21 (Vol. 8, No. 1), 1981, p. 41. Waterman makes this specific criticism: “Out on a limb is where poetic imagination should reach to, but Mahon's has dwelt there too exclusively, remote and almost severed from sustaining rootedness in the intricate contingent details and textures of human dailiness.”

  18. Edwin Muir, “The Horses,” Collected Poems (Faber and Faber, 1963), p. 247.

  19. “The Last of the Fire Kings,” Poems, p. 65.

  20. “As It Should Be,” Poems, p. 46.

  21. “The Return,” Poems, p. 99.

  22. “North Wind: Portrush,” Hunt, p. 13.

  23. “Afterlives,” Poems, p. 58.

  24. “The Spring Vacation,” Poems, p. 4.

  25. Seamus Deane, “Irish Poetry and Irish Nationalism” in Two Decades of Irish Writing: A Critical Survey, Douglas Dunn, ed. (Cheadle Hulme: Carcanet Press, 1975), p. 11.

  26. “The Sea in Winter,” Poems, p. 110.

  27. Ibid., p. 111.

Further Reading

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Benjamin, Bret. “Dirty Politics and Dirty Protest: Resistance and the Trope of Sanitation in Northern Ireland.” Literature Interpretation Theory 10, no. 1 (1999): 63-86.

Interprets Mahon's “Courtyards in Delft” in terms of the contrast between filth and cleanliness; links those categories to various communities in Ireland.

Byrne, John. “Derek Mahon: A Commitment to Change.” The Crane Bag 6, no. 1 (1982): 62-72.

Focuses on instances of ambivalence in Mahon's poetry, highlighting tensions between the individual, solitude, and the unique on one hand, and society, community, and the mundane on the other.

Haughton, Hugh. “On Sitting Down to Read ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’ Once Again.” The Cambridge Quarterly 31, no. 2 (June 2002): 183-98.

Revisits Mahon's best-known poem through the lens of Mahon's 30-year career. Haughton contends that the poem has increased in resonance and notes that Mahon's later work demonstrates the poet's development of similar themes.

———. “‘The bright garbage on the incoming wave’: Rubbish in the Poetry of Derek Mahon.” Textual Practice 16, no. 2 (summer 2002): 323-43.

Reads the trope of garbage or waste in Mahon's poetry as a reflection on literary recycling, as a symptom of his concern for the marginalized, and as an indication of his interest in the distinction between the transient and the transcendent.

Kendall, Judy. “Looking at Derek Mahon from Japan.” P. N. Review 29, no. 1 (September-October 2002): 12-13.

Compares Mahon's poem “The Snow Party” to the actual practices of Japanese tea ceremonies, finding several factual inaccuracies but a correctness in sensibility.

Marten, Harry. “‘Singing the darkness into the light’: Reflections on Recent Irish Poetry.” New England Review 3, no. 1 (autumn 1980): 141-51.

Considers the poetry of Seamus Heaney, Thomas Kinsella, Michael Longley, and Mahon as examples of Irish modern poetry; notes Mahon's attention to craft and his frequent use of juxtaposition.

McElroy, James. “Derek Mahon's ‘Rage for Order.’” Northwest Review 24, no. 1 (1986): 93-101.

Discusses the connection between place and time in Mahon's poetry, and the cycle of violence that continues throughout history.

McGuinness, Arthur E. Review of Poems: 1962-1978.Eire-Ireland 16, no. 1 (1981): 135-40.

Sees in Mahon's revisions and new works from Poems: 1962-1978 a movement toward greater optimism and smoother verse.

———. “Cast a Wary Eye: Derek Mahon's Classical Perspective.” Yearbook of English Studies 17 (1987): 128-42.

Highlights Mahon's debt to Augustan aesthetics of the early eighteenth century, both formally, with respect to Mahon's attention to poetic technique, and philosophically, as reflected in Mahon's suspicion of modern culture and distrust of the modern emphasis on self.

Scammell, William. “Derek Mahon Interviewed.” Poetry Review 81, no. 2 (summer 1991): 4-6.

Asks Mahon about his early influences, education, relationship to Northern Ireland, and work in journalism and the theater.

Additional coverage of Mahon's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: British Writers Supplement, Vol. 6; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 113, 128; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 88; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 27; Contemporary Poets, Ed. 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 40; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; and Literature Resource Center.

Robert Taylor (essay date autumn 1987)

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SOURCE: Taylor, Robert. “Derek Mahon: The Lute and the Stars.” The Massachusetts Review (autumn 1987): 387-92.

[In the following essay, Taylor addresses Mahon's relation to Ireland, suggesting that Mahon's position as detached artist allows him to revisit the realities of past and current strife with greater empathy and creativity.]

I am the widower—dim, disconsolate—
The Aquitainian prince in the ruined tower.
My star is dead, my constellated lute
Emblazoned with the black sun of despair.

Thus Derek Mahon translates the opening of Gerard de Nerval's haunting 1854 sonnet, “El Desdichado,” from Les Chimères. The poem, an exalted expression of Romanticism (T. S. Eliot borrowed the shattered masonry of the tower at the end of “The Waste Land”), also sets forth an autobiographical statement of Nerval's vicissitudes. In the limpid light of Mahon's customary verbal rigor, however, the passion of the French poet appears anomalous. Only when one realizes to what extent Nerval's poem parallels attitudes in Mahon's work does one see how it fits: Nerval's vision of harmony in a divided universe, his epic traversal of the river of madness and death sustained by the magic lute of Orpheus, mitigates the determinism of his past. Isolated from reality by mental illness, he shapes a non-clinical alternate reality governed by the redemptive powers of the imagination. Mahon's poetry undergoes a similar transformation, although its subject is not emotional chaos but escape from the incubus of history. Images and artifacts of art measure the imagination's direction. The tactile and visual presence of the star-spattered lute with its blazoned black sun characteristically provides access to a cultural context that refines and heightens Derek Mahon's visual acuity and individual awareness.

Mahon has published five volumes, Night-Crossing (1968), Lives (1972), Snow Party (1975), Poems 1962-1978, and The Hunt by Night (1982), combining a contemporary intelligence with a rhetoric that becomes progressively less luxurious as it acquires mounting eloquence. Among contemporary Irish poets he has cultivated a singularly urbane diction, a deliberate strategy, as Seamus Deane has observed, against the abrasiveness of public rhetoric.

His urbanity helps him to fend off the forces of atavism, ignorance and oppression which are part of his Northern Protestant heritage. There is an ease and an elegance in his writing which can be identified as that of the world-citizen, but the urbs from which his urbanity rises is the city of Belfast, a bleak and ruined site—so that the wit and sophistication of the poetry is haunted by intimation of collapse, pogrom, apocalypse.1

The tense poetic atmosphere also reflects Mahon's position between the sorrows of history and his desire to transcend them.

The hills are still the same
Grey-blue above Belfast,

eternally distanced from the strife beneath.

Perhaps if I'd stayed behind
And lived it bomb by bomb
I might have grown up at last
And learnt what is meant by home.

There is irony as well as tragic inference in assimilating the meaning of “home” through high explosives; nostalgia for an ideal of “home” rather than its actuality; and a landscape recognizably historical yet containing features impervious to time. Mahon has stated, not without reason, that exile requires a sense of belonging. Like Louis MacNeice, the Ulster poet who bulks so large in Mahon's poetry as a literary precedent, Mahon must find alternatives to exile. Contemplating his Northern Protestant past and the pressures of contemporary society, MacNeice too was a man in the middle. Protestantism (his father was an Anglican bishop) shaped his views, but he was unwilling to stomach bigotry, and neither Nationalism nor diehard Unionism supplied an acceptable resolution. “‘Exile,’ in the histrionic and approximate sense in which the word is used in Ireland, was an option open to Joyce and O'Casey, who ‘belonged’ to the people from whom they wished to escape,” Mahon has written. “It was not available, in the same sense to MacNeice, whose background was a mixture of Anglo-Irish and Ulster Protestant. Whatever his sympathies he didn't, by class or religious background, ‘belong to the people.’ How then, not sharing the general constraints, could he free himself from them?”2

Belonging yet not belonging affects the attitudes in Mahon's poetry, and among his favorite images is the window. The rectangular shape is akin to the easel of art, a framing edge, but gazing into nature, the perceiving sensibility regards it from behind a pane.

Somewhere beyond the scorched gable end and the burnt-out buses
          there is a poet indulging
                    his wretched rage for order
          or not as the case may be; for his
                    is a dying art,
          an eddy of semantic scruples
                    in an unstructurable sea.
                    He is far from his people,
          and the fitful glare of his high window is as
                    nothing to our scattered glass.

“The Snow Party,” which echoes Yeats's “Lapis Lazuli,” brings the poet Bashō and a group of friends together in Nagoya. First, there are introductions,

Then everyone
Crowds to the window
To watch the falling snow.

The stanzas exhibit the laconic fluency of Japanese haiku, but the snow falling on the tiles of houses and beyond, “like leaves on the cold sea,” evokes the snow of Joyce's short story “The Dead”: “falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves.”

The most obvious treatment of this device takes place in a concrete poem titled “The Window.” For it, Mahon designs a linguistic square of the words “wood” and “window,” with a single “wind” replacing the pane in a pentecostal rush. The window imagery recurs, notably in “The Attic,” and “The Sea in Winter,” in which the poet asks himself why he is always staring out of the windows, preferably from a height, and concludes,

Yet distance is the vital bond
Between the window and the wind,
While equilibrium demands
A cold eye and deliberate hands.

Opposed to the calmness, detachment and selectivity of the cold eye (another Yeatsian overtone) is the inchoate midden-heap of a fallen civilization. If the artifacts of art suggest the redeeming forces of an alternate reality, Mahon's catalogues of trash and archeological odds and ends manifest the defunct culture of a modern city not unlike Belfast, gutted by the disasters of war. The holocaust has run its course, and the survivors are shoring the fragments of the shattered past against absolute ruin. Starting anew at absolute zero, however, is not without possibility; there is the vigor of fresh beginnings even in the detritus. “The Apotheosis of Tins” enumerates shoelaces and hatboxes and labels peeling away the brand names of objects. In “Lives” the objects are personified: the voice of the poem is first a torch of gold, then a decaying oar, a bump of clay in a Navajo rug, a stone in Tibet, a tongue of bark in Africa, and at length an anthropologist burdened by “Army surplus boots” and other impedimenta. Awaiting a new apotheosis, “The Banished Gods” are lost in contemplation of their own natures “in a world without cars, computers or chemical skies,” and wisdom is “a five-minute silence at moonrise.”

The animate is scarcely distinguishable from the inanimate in these poems, and the best of them, the widely and justly-praised, “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford,” enters with the authority of precise language into the sentient vegetable realm. The poem is dedicated to the late J. G. Farrell (as is The Hunt by Night), the Liverpool-Irish novelist whose book Troubles has an Irish setting from 1919-21. A thousand mushrooms in the gloom of a moldering shed on the grounds of a burnt-out hotel serve as the metaphorical equivalent of a contorted struggle waged in darkness since the days of the Irish Civil War. The mycologist has not returned and light filters through a rusted keyhole; the mushrooms crowd toward the keyhole in the hope of discovery, recognition of their mute, forlorn, marginal existence. Then, suddenly, a visitor opens the door, the hinges creak, and light, streaming upon the flabby and twisted shapes,

Shows there is life yet in their feverish forms.
Grown beyond nature now, soft food for worms,
They lift frail heads in gravity and good faith.

The final stanza releases the dirge of the mushrooms, who plead for the anonymous victims of historical disaster, the “Lost people of Treblinka and Pompeii.” Light in “A Disused Shed” blazes as the light of awareness; someone has borne witness, reaffirmed the meaning of lives otherwise consigned to shadowy oblivion, and it is interesting in this respect to compare the metaphors of the poem with Mahon's conception of the role of the poet:

The war I mean is not, of course, between Protestant and Catholic but between the fluidity of a possible life … and the rigor mortis of archaic postures, political and cultural. The poets themselves have taken no part in political events, but they have contributed to that possible life, or the possibility of that possible life; for the act of writing is itself political in the fullest sense. A good poem is a paradigm of good politics—of people talking to each other with honest subtlety, at a profound level. It is a light to lighten the darkness; and we have darkness enough, God knows, for a long time.3

Art for art's sake, a value proposed by Mahon's earlier poems such as “The Poets of the Nineties,” customarily constitutes escape from the contingencies of the real historical world. But in Mahon it is part of a dialectic; the poet returns to actuality through art. Once out of nature he will not assume the form of a hammered-gold bird who sings to keep a drowsy emperor awake; rather, he will return to a world made accessible and whole by the creative imagination. Again the visual element distinguishes the latest volume, The Hunt by Night, which opens with “Courtyards in Delft,” inspired by a 1659 painting by Pieter de Hooch, and concludes with “The Globe in North Carolina,” where the speaker, watching the sun go down over a Southern landscape, recalls the canvas of the Night Hunt by Uccello, and a love half a globe away. The role of paintings in these poems is to render imaginatively accessible once more the Belfast and the Protestant Ulster that Mahon has rejected. “Courtyards in Delft,” for instance, coincides with the political noontide of Dutch expansionism; nevertheless, tranquility prevails.

That girl with her back to us who waits
For her man to come for his tea
Will wait until the paint disintegrates
And ruined dykes admit the esurient sea

De Hooch's tranced scene evokes the details of a Belfast childhood: the coal shed, the deal table, the ceiling glittering in a radiant spoon, the sense of separation of a boy who dreams of poetry while his friends are already apprenticed to violence. The artistic past of de Hooch's painting is incorporated into the personal past which does not resolve a present of perpetual brutality but which provides the conditions of “a possible life.” This point is often missed by Mahon's critics. Martin Booth asserts that many of the younger Irish poets have an identity problem, and suggests a lack of emotion affects Muldoon, Paulin and Mahon, who write outside as well as within an “Irish” tradition:

“Irish” implies for Yeats, tradition, a certain historical and cultural type, a specific beauty in language and form … and so on. And the young poets of this category, when writing about matters Irish, are good as often as not, capturing the emotive tenor of their background. However, as soon as they move away from this, most of them seem to flounder. Is this because they are without the emotive response, that it is easier to understand the problems of Ulster and its history, its beauty and its life than it is to write into themselves a Japanese poet, a Scottish miner or an Italian count, all personae one or another has touched upon? There is a lot to be said for the fact that the Irish poets are too insular, if they are in the new mould, too Irish, and cannot escape that situation.4

Definitions of what is “Irish” can include many other things than Yeats and tradition. But surely it is a purpose of Mahon's generation to avoid categorization as insular local-colorists, who, rather incredibly, “understand the problems of Ulster and its history” often opaque to specialists. To write outside the Irish tradition, as Mahon does, paradoxically leads back into an Irish tradition—not as folklore, a category which has its own validity, but as the contemporary literature of an Ireland participating in the reality of the present.

Veined marble, if we only knew,
In practice as in theory, true
Salvation lies not in the thrust
Of action only, but the trust
We place in our peripheral
Night garden in the glory-hole
Of space …

When Derek Mahon moves away from Ireland, he moves empathetically toward Ireland. His poems disclose the meaning of survival amid apocalypse, examining the lute and the stars of Nerval as not unrelated to the disorders of an historical condition or the place of humanity in an infinite universe.


  1. Seamus Deane, “Derek Mahon: Freedom From History,” in Celtic Revivals: Essays in Modern Irish Literature, 1880-1980, (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), p. 156.

  2. Derek Mahon, “MacNeice in England, Ireland,” in Time Was Away: The World of Louis MacNeice, ed. Terence Brown and Alec Reid (Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1974), p. 117.

  3. Derek Mahon, “Poetry in Northern Ireland,” 20th Century Studies, No. 4 (November 1970), p. 92. Also cited by Gerald Dawe, “Icon and Lares: Derek Mahon and Michael Longley,” in Across A Roaring Hill, ed. Gerald Dawe and Edna Longley (Belfast and Dover, N.H.: Blackstaff Press, 1985).

  4. Martin Booth, British Poetry, 1964-84 (London and Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985), p. 237.

Joris Duytschaever (essay date 1988)

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SOURCE: Duytschaever, Joris. “History in the Poetry of Derek Mahon.” In History and Violence in Anglo-Irish Literature, edited by Joris Duytschaever and Geert Lernout, pp. 97-110. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1988.

[In the following essay, Duytschaever applies Walter Benjamin's literary theory to Mahon's poetry and his attitude toward history. Duytschaever sees in both Benjamin and Mahon an ambivalence toward history and the transcendence of art.]

Although Derek Mahon has been rising toward major status during the last decade both as a poet and as a translator, his relatively small poetic output still deserves a wider international audience. Critical attention has not exactly been scant, but the problem is that some of the best criticism has appeared in small Irish periodicals or in Irish newspapers which are not readily accessible abroad1, while some of the worst criticism is easily available on the stacks of our libraries. Robert Hogan's splenetic and schoolmasterly entry on Mahon in his Macmillan Dictionary of Irish Literature (1980) is a prime example of the latter, presenting Mahon as a poet of uncertain formal control in comparison with Auden. Mahon's “faulty examples of meter and rhyme” are cavilled about, and to cap it all Hogan does not hesitate to upbraid him for “still conducting his prosodic education in public” and for seeming “as untutored” as many of his generation (if more talented than most).

What is one to make of such a critical stance? The “obvious alternatives” are that Hogan himself does not adequately understand, or indeed does not “care for” what he is doing (to turn one of his other negative observations on Mahon against himself).

More perceptive critics such as Edna Longley noticed the “subtle brilliance” of Mahon's rhetoric as early as 19682, and in the last few years this has been corroborated by substantial essays exploring the cunning intricacies of Mahon's prosody. These remarkable contributions have included analyses of his disguising of rhyme patterns in apocopated and slant rhymes, as well as of the link between such prosodic technicalities as a recurrent anticlimactic rhyme scheme and a comparable movement in culture and history.3 As an implicit rebuttal of Hogan's ill-informed criticism these recent essays are so perfect that further polemic is superfluous.

However, there is also another type of criticism, as misdirected and preposterous as Hogan's but even more complacently silly, that has been doing a great disservice to a wider recognition of Mahon's achievement: namely, the crass Marxist approach as represented by Stan Smith. Although at least two critics have already in passing taken exception to his “unwise” and “inaccurate” criticism4, this issue still seems less preempted than the formal one. Hence the focus of this contribution will be on Mahon's concept of history in some paradigmatic poems and its misrepresentation in both a review essay and a book by Stan Smith; special reference will be made to Walter Benjamin's philosophy of history throughout my argument.

The most superciliously negative criticism of Mahon from an ideological point of view was perpetrated by Smith in 1980 in a review essay significantly entitled “At One Remove”; this dealt with Mahon's Poems 1962-1978 as well as Michael Longley's The Echo Gate and Maurice Harmon's anthology Irish Poetry After Yeats. Subsuming Mahon's multifarious output under the Procrustean category of “The Ulster Poem”, Smith facetiously proceeds to define this sub-genre as “Tragical-comical-elegiacal-pastoral …”:

“It makes a show of being terse, but is often wordy, even sententious. It performs its civic duties equitably, by reflecting, in an abstracted kind of way, on violence (…); but its hands are indubitably clean. For this it is always winning prizes, for it is competent poetry (…). It speaks, at times, with the tone of a shell-shocked Georgianism that could easily be mistaken for indifference, before the ugly realities of life, and death, in Ulster; at times, with the true voice of pastoral: it bleats. (…) Sheepishly, it looks back to Louis MacNeice as its literary progenitor, like Derek Mahon in “Carrowdore Churchyard” (…); and it seeks to reproduce “Each fragile, solving ambiguity” of that older and more troubled poet.”5

Further questionable labels inflicted on Mahon include “bone-bred parochiality” (without the positive meaning “parochial” had in Kavanagh's poetics), and moreover his “drained-off, privatized, self-indulgent” poetry is unfavorably compared with Montague's and Heaney's because “there is anger and ferocity in their response to the historic dilemma of the North, but no washing of hands in sanctimonious disdain”.

There is something utterly wrong with this kind of arid criticism, and the same holds true of Smith's discussion of Mahon in his book Inviolable Voice. History and Twentieth-Century Poetry (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan 1982, p. 188-193). Again Mahon's “uncomprehending stance” towards the Ulster dilemma is chidden, particularly his polarising of reality into the quotidian and the apocalyptic, resulting in the latter's reduction to mere fantasy—and thereby ratifying a larger refusal of “the concept of history”. It is very ironical that Smith tries to use ammunition from Walter Benjamin for a finishing shot at Mahon; such superficial appropriation of a thinker noted for his complexity and profundity is of course bound to backfire. Let us try to straighten out Smith's messy argument and see what we can gain from what is, one hopes, a less inadequate use of Benjamin's ideas.

Smith wants to play off Benjamin against Mahon by stressing the former's superior insight into what he perceives to be a similar historical process at work in Germany in the 1930s, as expressed in one of the “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (nr. VIII). Smith's quotation of this key text is, however, regretfully truncated and will in due time have to be restored to yield its full significance:

“The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “state of emergency” in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. (…) The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are “still” possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge—unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable.”6

Benjamin here implicitly refers to the Aristotelean concept of “thaumazein” as the potential beginning of all knowledge and differentiates it from the perplexity or panic of the late thirties which was not productive with a view to gaining insight into what was actually happening.

The latter attitude is also Mahon's today, Smith feels: remaining locked in a consumer's view of history, Mahon “steadfastly refuses Benjamin's perception”.7 This way of putting it implies a curious innuendo of obstinate ignorance or even bad faith, whereas there is no palpable evidence that Mahon actually read Benjamin either in the original or in the English translation of Illuminationen first published in 1968.8 To be sure, there is little doubt that the latter volume circulated as a “Geheimtip” among leading members of the Irish avantgarde connected with the periodical Atlantis such as Seamus Deane, William J. McCormack, and Mahon himself. Also Mahon's translations of Brecht poems may have familiarized him with the concept of history shared to a certain extent by Benjamin and Brecht.

However, what some Marxist critics tend to overlook and even to suppress is that Benjamin's last works, including the “Theses”, were written under the shadow of the infamous pact between Hitler and Stalin that betrayed him and so many other exiles. The “Theses” are a desperate attempt to reconcile materialism and Jewish mysticism by discovering in the latter enough messianic drive to sustain the flawed spirit of the former in a period of danger and impending doom.9 Overstressing one pole of Benjamin's thought, i.e. his radical materialism and his advocacy of class struggle, Smith obliterates certain fundamental affinities between Benjamin and Mahon in terms of utopian and messianic impulses and potentialities. Whether these affinities are cases of creative coincidence or whether Mahon is indebted to Benjamin directly or indirectly doesn't really matter; the point is that they may lead to mutual illumination. To put the problem into perspective, the part of the VIIIth thesis elided by Smith needs first to be restored:

“Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism. One reason why Fascism has a chance is that in the name of progress its opponents treat it as a historical norm.”10

In other words: Benjamin reacts against the ideology of linear progress which is not equipped to deal with throwbacks: he implies that it would be preferable to take catastrophe as a historical norm instead. This gloomy perspective is very close to Mahon's in many of his poems. On the other hand, however, Benjamin and Mahon share a basic desire to rescue and redeem whatever is worth saving in the world and in history, albeit often unrecognized by the “compact majority” as vitally important for the survival of mankind or even entirely abandoned as a lost cause.

The most successful expression of this belief is to be found in an elegy from The Snow Party (1975)—“arguably the finest poem to come out of Ireland in the past twenty years”, as Declan Kiberd put it in 1982.11 To realize the validity of this statement, it is indispensible to read the poem aloud in its entirety; only the most relevant parts can be quoted here.12


Let them not forget us, the weak souls among the

—Seferis, Mythistorema

for J. G. Farrell
Even now there are places where a thought might grow—
Peruvian mines, worked out and abandoned
To a slow clock of condensation,
An echo trapped for ever, and a flutter
Of wildflowers in the lift-shaft,
Indian compounds where the wind dances
And a door bangs with diminished confidence,
Lime crevices behind rippling rainbarrels,
Dog corners for bone burials;
And in a disused shed in Co. Wexford,
Deep in the grounds of a burnt-out hotel,
Among the bathtubs and the washbasins
A thousand mushrooms crowd to a keyhole.

“Even now” may ring a bell for readers who remember the repeated topicalization of these words in the curious poem at the end of Steinbeck's Cannery Row, a novel celebrating the thriving Monterey of the Thirties of which only shadowy vestiges remain today—thus implicitly reinforcing the pervasive atmosphere of global decay. But more importantly, at least for this reader, “Even now” can be linked to the Benjaminian concept of “Jetztzeit” (presence of the now), a cornerstone of his philosophy of history not unrelated to the mystical “nunc stans” but containing wider societal ramifications. Actually this concept was already implicitly present in the above quoted VIIIth thesis; the real state of emergency is in its revolutionary potential practically a synonym of the “Jetztzeit” as defined in the XIVth thesis:

“History is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogeneous, empty time, but time filled by the presence of the Now (Jetztzeit). Thus, to Robespierre ancient Rome was a past charged with the time of the now which he blasted out of the continuum of history.”13

Now Mahon, not being a Jacobin or a radical Marxist, does not blast open the continuum of history, but nevertheless in his own subdued way the does prize it open to look for something preserved, as it were, under a shell from the days of the Civil War—something that might help to solve the problem of the Irish deadlock and the resurgent troubles of the late sixties.

Several critics have already emphasized the importance of the dedication to J. G. Farrell (1935-1979), whose novel Troubles (1970) is set in a fictitious village of County Wexford in the period 1919-21 when many Big Houses and hotels were burnt down. Although not generally recognized as a masterpiece, this novel is a remarkable example of the authentic historical novel as defined by Lukacs: “one which would rouse the present, which contemporaries would experience as their own pre-history”.14 It was only during the writing process that Farrell realized how relevant his topic had suddenly become again, and this relevance struck not only reviewers such as Elizabeth Bowen but had a catalytic impact on Mahon as well.

Beyond the emphatic homage to a favorite writer, however, the poem's location in Wexford may also be associated with a number of historical facts—which makes it all the more imperative not to dislocate the setting to Co. Wicklow as Seamus Deane repeatedly does in his otherwise brilliant essay on Mahon.15 First of all, many readers know that Wexford was the first Irish county to be colonized from England. Fewer readers will realize that the county is also rich in memories of the 1798 rising, but nevertheless this connotation is not irrelevant. In 1798 insurgent pikemen fought against overwhelming odds, and only in Ulster and Wexford was the rising widespread. We should also keep in mind that 1798 generally came to represent “a myth of the last chance”, symbolizing the last real attempt by Irish Presbyterian and Catholic to make common cause.16

Such a cluster of topographical and historical associations constitutes what Mahon has defined as “a community of imagined readership” in an interview with Willie Kelly, where his sense of place is differentiated from Heaney's by its being less sure:

Seamus is very sure of his place; I've never been sure of mine. My home landscape, and here I mean North Antrim where I spent most of my childhood holidays, and not Belfast where I was born, figures largely in my poems. Aside from these poems the place that the poetry occupies is not a geographical location; it's a community of imagined readership.

Some of my poems don't take place anywhere in particular, others take place quite specifically, in Co. Wexford, or North Antrim.17

Even though perhaps not all of the above associations may belong to the “meaning” consciously intended by the author, still they can enrich the reading process and contribute to the poem's “significance” for us (to borrow a useful distinction from E. D. Hirsch's Validity in Interpretation).

Mahon's affirmation of a potentially redeeming growth of insight even in the most unlikely Irish places also implies a rebuttal of Smith's deprecatory characterization of him as merely a watered-down MacNeice. Not only does Mahon go beyond MacNeice in terms of formal achievement as well as exceeding him in his capacity to transmit “a sense of dread”18, there is also a greater sense of positive, realisable values in him (or at least in this particular poem). This can be made clear by a juxtaposition with MacNeice's famous “Valediction” (1934), where he denies the Irish all capability of genuine growth and consequently decides to resolve all emotional ties with his doomed fatherland:

But no abiding content can grow out of these minds
Fuddled with blood, always caught by blinds. (…)
I will exorcise my blood
And not to have my baby-clothes my shroud
I will acquire an attitude not yours
And become as one of your holiday visitors,
And however often I may come
Farewell, my country, and in perpetuum …

The visitor motif also emerges in Mahon's penultimate stanza, but loaded with a much richer emotional resonance:

A half century, without visitors, in the dark—
Poor preparation for the cracking lock
And creak of hinges. Magi, moonmen,
Powdery prisoners of the old regime,
Web-throated, stalked like triffids, racked by drought
And insomnia, only the ghost of a scream
At the flash-bulb firing squad we wake them with
Shows there is life yet in their feverish forms.
Grown beyond nature now, soft food for worms,
They lift frail heads in gravity and good faith.

Mahon at least tries to rise up to his obligations when confronted with the collective yearning of the imprisoned mushrooms struggling for light, i.e. he gives them a voice to lament the solitude of history:

They are begging us, you see, in their wordless way,
To do something, to speak on their behalf
Or at least not to close the door again.
Lost people of Treblinka and Pompeii!
“Save us, save us,” they seem to say,
“Let the god not abandon us
Who have come so far in darkness and in pain.
We too had our lives to live.
You with your light meter and relaxed itinerary,
Let not our naive labours have been in vain!”

In one of the most wonderful essays ever written by a poet about a fellow-poet, Seamus Heaney has managed to grasp this poem's complexity and plangency as follows:

… what gives the poem its sorrow and insight is the long perspective, an intimacy with the clay-floored foetor of the shed kept in mind and in focus from a point of detached compassion, in another world of freedom, light and efficiency. To reduce the mushrooms' lives and appetites to counters for the frustrations and desolations of lives in Northern Ireland is, of course, one of those political readings which is perfectly applicable, but we recognize that this allegorical approach ties the poem too neatly into its place. The amplitude of its effects, its vault-filling resonance depend upon its displaced perspective. Those rooted helplessly in place plead with the capable uprooted visitor, be he poet or photographer, and it is in this pleading that we find the psychological as opposed to the political nub of the poem.19

On the basis of such an extraordinary felicitous poem we can show that Mahon is not only MacNeice's heir but also his disinheritor (albeit not deliberately, as he modestly remarked when asked about his perception of this filiation). Actually it seems to me that Mahon is closer to Auden here, a poet he did not as often mention among his formative influences as some others (Graves, Beckett, W. S. Merwin, even MacNeice …) but who is perhaps as inevitably present in Mahon's work and in twentieth century poetry generally as Milton was omnipresent in eighteenth century poetry. More specifically the above quoted passage reminds one of Auden's elegy on Freud (1940):

but he would have us remember most of all
to be enthusiastic over the night,
          not only for the sense of wonder
it alone has to offer, but also
because it needs our love. With large sad eyes
its delectable creatures look up and beg
                    us dumbly to ask them to follow:
they are exiles who long for the future
that lies in our power, they too would rejoice
if allowed to serve enlightenment like him …

More than the slippery rhetoric of a politicized poem such as “Spain”, the subdued diction of this elegy manages to convey the collective yearning of oppressed humanity, and Mahon equals Auden at his best in this respect—except for the superfluous and melodramatic exclamation “Lost people of Treblinka and Pompeii!” which is more reminiscent of Audenesque diction of the mid-thirties.20 Even without this emphatic explanation, most readers would have realized that the subject of the poem is the tragic plight of defenseless people struggling for the luminosity of redemption and that the mushrooms are merely a paradoxical symbol (after all fungi don't need light, as they lack chlorophyll). But this is just a minor flaw in an otherwise brilliant poem, whose merits are recognized even by Stan Smith.

However, in the final count Mahon's stance is sneeringly dismissed by Smith. In contrast to Heaney and Montague, who, according to Smith, may need to renounce the troubled ground of bomb-torn Belfast in order to complete their art, “… poets such as Longley and Mahon need to have their noses rubbed in it, if they are to survive as poets, and, possibly, as men (my italics, J. D.). The middle ground and the middle distance are not the place where thought may grow, or wisdom flourish.”21 Hindered by such dogmatic blinkers, Smith is unable to see the possibility of (re)reading the poem from a Benjaminian perspective, although Mahon's strategy of using an almost Benjaminian epigraph could already have served as an eye-opener. The quotation from Seferis—“Let them not forget us the weak souls among the asphodels” implies that the danger of oppression persists even among the flowers covering the Elysian fields. This is consonant with Benjamin's view of history as expressed, for instance, in Thesis VI: “Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.”22

Instead, Smith keeps harping on Mahon's “refusal of history,” e.g. in “Autobiographies”, a sequence of two poems in which childhood impressions are recaptured. Mahon's wonder at his own sheltered existence in a period when Jews were exterminated leads to the final verdict: “The distance of the fortunate beneficiary of victory is here faithfully inscribed”23, a verdict which is at once harsh and smug. It is also self-defeating, as it exposes once more the critic's inability to relate to a writer's private dimension—something Benjamin was eminently capable of, witness e.g. his shrewd observations on Marcel Proust (whom he also translated). This attentiveness, a core value of Benjamin's approach to literature as well as to history and to life generally, is perhaps what is most conspicuously and most sadly lacking in the criticism of his epigones fifteen years ago in Germany and now also in Britain.

How then can the Proust-Benjamin connection be made productive for our purposes? Some felicitous formulations from Irving Wohlfarth's essay on Benjamin can clarify the issues involved. Taking his cue from Benjamin's observation that the idea of happiness is bound up with that of redemption, and that the same holds for the image of the past to which history gives its allegiance, Wohlfarth points out that such happiness would appear to be neither “hymnic” nor “elegiac”, neither wholly unprecedented nor merely repetitive:

Therein Benjaminian redemption differs from its Proustian model, which it quotes—and thereby completes—against its context. Unlike mémoire involontaire, which finds its fulfillment in the pure repetition of the past (…), the recuperation of the past that Benjamin intends is its restructuring completion, the fulfillment of its wishes. (…) In each case, individual and collective, the messianic light of redemption has the effect of retroactively articulating the past. Only with its fulfillment does the past fall into place; its completion coincides with its final reinterpretation. (…) And the rhythm of fulfillment is that of messianic actuality, the split second of the “fulfilled now” …24

Even though Mahonian redemption may differ from the Benjaminian model in some respects, basically they are consonant: in both cases the private and the public self merge to an extent which is not found in Proust.

In this context, the hitherto unnoticed autobiographical component of “A Disused Shed …” should be taken into account. The poem is indeed disguised autobiography in the most interesting sense, as we can gather from an interview with Paul Durcan:

“In the back-garden there was a coal-shed in which Mahon kept his bicycle. (…) The little boy felt pity for the coal in the coal-shed and each time he closed the coal-shed door he felt regret, if not guilt. Why should all that glittering coal be shut away and live an imprisoned anti-social life of its own?”25

Although the link with “A Disused Shed …” is not explicitly made, the identity theme is of course fundamentally the same; it recurs in significant variations throughout Mahon's oeuvre, testifying to the pervasiveness of its autobiographical impulse.26

In a less disguised way, the same childhood epiphany occurs in the title poem of the volume Courtyards in Delft (1981), contributing again to a highly interesting merger of the private and the public dimension. In fairness to Smith, it should be mentioned that this poem was not yet accessible to him at the time of his attacks; one hopes it will make him refrain from further ill-informed attempts at maligning Mahon as a petty bourgeois poet lacking in historical insight, for it is a perfect illustration of Benjamin's VIIth thesis:

Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate. According to traditional practice, the spoils are carried along in the procession. They are called cultural treasures, and a historical materialist views them with cautious detachment. For without exception the cultural treasures he surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”27

By “brushing history against the grain”, as Benjamin defines the task of a historical materialist, Mahon tries in this poem to open the reader's eyes to the connections between a 17th century Dutch painting by Pieter de Hooch steeped in chaste precision, and the horrific expansion of the Dutch colonial empire.

The poem goes beyond a mere restatement of such uncomfortable knowledge as can already be found in didactic poems by Brecht in that Mahon adds a private dimension, exploring the analogy with his childhood environment and its comparable enmeshment of protestant cleanliness and delusions of imperialist vocation:


—Pieter de Hooch, 1659

(for Gordon Woods)
Oblique light on the trite, on brick and tile—
Immaculate masonry, and everywhere that
Water tap, that broom and wooden pail
To keep it so. House-proud, the wives
Of artisans pursue their thrifty lives
Among scrubbed yards, modest but adequate.
Foliage is sparse, and clings. No breeze
Ruffles the trim composure of those trees.
No spinet-playing emblematic of
The harmonies and disharmonies of love;
No lewd fish, no fruit, no wide-eyed bird
About to fly its cage while a virgin
Listens to her seducer, mars the chaste
Precision of the thing and the thing made.
Nothing is random, nothing goes to waste:
We miss the dirty dog, the fiery gin.
That girl with her back to us who waits
For her man to come home for his tea
Will wait till the paint disintegrates
And ruined dykes admit the esurient sea;
Yet this is life too, and the cracked
Out-house door a verifiable fact
As vividly mnemonic as the sunlit
Railings that front the houses opposite.
I lived there as a boy and know the coal
Glittering in its shed, late-afternoon
Lambency informing the deal table,
The ceiling cradled in a radiant spoon.
I must be lying low in a room there,
A strange child with a taste for verse,
While my hard-nosed companions dream of war
On parched veldt and fields of rain swept gorse;
For the pale light of that provincial town
Will spread itself, like ink or oil,
Over the not yet accurate linen
Map of the world which occupies one wall
And punish nature in the name of God.
If only, now, the Maenads, as of right,
Came smashing crockery, with fire and sword,
We could sleep easier in our beds at night.(28)

For all his revolutionary fervour at the end of this poem, in which Mahon for a change blasts open the continuum of history in a genuinely Benjaminian spirit, the fact that the poet is deeply implicated is not denied with the superior detachment of the Brechtian stance. Rather like Benjamin, who also had an incurably ambivalent admiration for certain privileged works of art (such as Klee's “Angelus Novus”) while concurrently trying to demystify their aura, Mahon realizes that he is addicted to art no matter how immoral its origins. It is doubtful whether his recent resolution to kick “the very bad habit” of writing poems about paintings will prove to be a lasting one.29

An almost insurmountable obstacle to negotiate for the average reader is of course that such a “connoisseur poem” is accessible only to the happy few who can visualize the Courtyard painting and the several paintings by Vermeer which are so lovingly described without being precisely identified.30 There is indeed a contradiction between this elitist attitude and Mahon's reiterated affirmation that “the plain people of Ireland” will remain, in his view, the audience deciding what good poetry is all about.31

It is precisely this kind of unresolved tension and contradiction that makes following Mahon's career all the more fascinating.32


  1. E.g. Brendan Kennelly, “Lyric Wit”, Irish Times Dec. 22, 1979 (dubbing Mahon “a Belfast Keats with a Popean sting”); Aidan C. Mathews, “Winter Quarters for a Poet-exile”, Irish Times Feb. 19, 1983.

  2. In her review of Night-Crossing (The Honest Ulsterman No. 8, Dec. 1968, p. 27-29).

  3. Dillon Johnston, Irish Poetry after Joyce (Notre Dame/USA: University of Notre Dame Press & Mountrath: Dolmen Press, 1985), p. 224-246; Edna Longley, “The Singing Line: Form in Derek Mahon's Poetry” in her Poetry in the Wars (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1986), p. 170-184.

  4. Gerald Dawe: “Icon and Lares: Derek Mahon and Michael Longley”, in: Across a Roaring Hill. The Protestant Imagination in Modern Ireland, eds. G. Dawe and E. Longley (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1985), p. 232; E. Longley (as in note 3), p. 173.

  5. Literary Review, No. 22, Aug. 8, 1980, p. 11.

  6. Inviolable Voice, p. 192.

  7. Inviolable Voice, p. 193.

  8. Edited and with an introduction by Hannah Arendt; translated by Harry Zohn (New York: Harcourt Brace). Smith quotes from the 1973 Fontana/Collins edition, my references are to the 1970 Jon. Cape edition. With all due respect for Zohn's pioneering achievement, it remains nonetheless imperative to read Benjamin in German if one wants to appreciate the glimmering quality of his discourse.

  9. The best commentary is Irving Wohlfarth's “On the Messianic Structure of Walter Benjamin's Last Reflections”, Glyph 3 (1978), p. 148-212.

  10. Illuminations, p. 263.

  11. Review of Poems 1962-1978, Irish University Review, 12 (1982), No. 1, p. 109.

  12. From the definitive version in Poems 1962-1978 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979; Second edition: 1986), p. 79-80. This poem has also been widely anthologized, e.g. in The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry, eds. Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion, p. 79-80.

  13. Illuminations, p. 263.

  14. As pointed out by Ronald Binns in his excellent monograph J. G. Farrell (London: Methuen, 1986), p. 27. Binns quotes from Mahon's obituary for Farrell in The New Statesman (Aug. 31, 1979, p. 313) but is apparently not aware of the influence exerted on Mahon's poetry: only novels by William Boyd and Mary Jones are mentioned in this respect (p. 9).

  15. “Derek Mahon: Freedom from History”, in his Celtic Revivals. Essays in Modern Irish Literature 1880-1980 (London: Faber, 1985), p. 162, 163.

  16. See Terence Brown, The Whole Protestant Community: The Making of a Historical Myth, Field Day Pamphlet No. 7, 1985.

  17. “Each Poem for me is a New Beginning”, The Cork Review, 2, 1981, No. 3, p. 11.

  18. S. Deane, A Short History of Irish Literature (London: Hutchinson, 1986), p. 242.

  19. Place and Displacement. Recent Poetry of Northern Ireland (s.l.: Trustees of Dove Cottage, 1985), p. 9.

  20. It would be precarious to go beyond this general suggestion of an intertextual relationship and to define its exact nature more precisely. Even such a sensible critic as Dillon Johnston, in his remarkable analysis of the later poem “The Hunt by Night”, jumps to conclusions in this respect: “A revision in the first of these stanzas indicates how far Mahon has detoured to pay tribute to W. H. Auden” (o.c. as in n. 3, p. 244). Mahon's denying of this assumption in a conversation with me does of course not preclude the possibility of an unconscious interaction, but at any rate this is not an example of intended homage. Another interesting case in point is Smith's detecting “a deliberate nod of acknowledgement” to Edward Thomas's poem “Digging” in Seamus Heaney's poem with the same title (Inviolable Voice, p. 4). However, on Aug. 23, 1986, Heaney told me that no such echo had been intended.

  21. Literary Review, p. 12.

  22. Illuminations, p. 257.

  23. Inviolable Voice, p. 193.

  24. Wohlfarth (as in n. 9), p. 185.

  25. Paul Durcan, “The World of Derek Mahon”, Magill, Christmas, 1984, p. 43.

  26. Thus lending support to Paul de Man's controversial thesis that autobiography is not a genre or a mode, but a figure of reading or of understanding that occurs, to some degree, in all texts (“Autobiography As De-Facement”, in his The Rhetoric of Romanticism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984), p. 70).

  27. Illuminations, p. 258.

  28. This definitive version is now the opening poem of The Hunt by Night (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982) (Second edition 1986-), p. 9-10.

  29. Terence Brown, “An Interview with Derek Mahon”, Poetry Ireland Review, No. 14, Autumn 1985, p. 16-17.

  30. The extraordinary inspiring power of these Vermeer paintings not only for poetry but also for critical theory is demonstrated in Claude Richard's article “Oedipa Regina”, Dires. Revue du centre freudien de Montpellier, No. 2, Janvier 1984, p. 67-84 (with reproductions).

  31. Interview as in n. 29, p. 11.

  32. Grateful acknowledgment is made to Jennifer A. Otlet for her comments upon an earlier version of this article.

Kathleen Mullaney (essay date September 1989)

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SOURCE: Mullaney, Kathleen. “A Poetics of Silence: Derek Mahon ‘At One Remove.’” The Journal of Irish Literature 18, no. 3 (September 1989): 45-54.

[In the following essay, Mullaney links Mahon's observations on silence to his relationship to the violence in Ireland. Mullaney reads silence as a representation of oppressed voices, as a commentary on the empty talk of political figures, and as an optimistic indication of the potential to return to peace.]

This is at one remove, a substitute for final answers. …

Derek Mahon, “Preface to a Love Poem”

In “Man and Bird,”1 the second of four in his series entitled “Breton Walks,” Derek Mahon dolefully remarks the seemingly insurmountable reality of man's inability to participate fully in his natural environment. Implying that birds have good reason to avoid man's advances, he writes:

All fly away at my approach
As they have done time out of mind
And hide in the thick leaves to watch
The shadowy ingress of mankind.

The unfortunate distance he senses between nature and humankind Mahon terms an “ancient fear,” suggesting that birds have always mistrusted the presence of human beings among them, yet he self-consciously admits that he had attempted to overcome the gap created by this fear by means of his “whistle-talk,” and had promptly failed. Somewhat miffed by their rebuttal of his self-serving attempts at communication, Mahon bemoans the blow dealt his pride for he had wished to consider himself an “enlightened alien,” an outsider with the intelligence and the wherewithall to bridge “the gap / From their world to the world of men.” The wisdom that the poet clearly gained from reflection on his failure is, in my view, central to his entire poetic project. This short poem is testimony to his belief that human language ought not posit itself as the optimal avenue by which meaning might find expression. Indeed, the birds had good reason to disdain the anthropocentric parody of their song, the poet's “whistle-talk,” for clearly past experience had taught them that man's inclination to dominate of nature is rarely innocent.

So perhaps they have something after all—
          Either we shoot them out of hand
          Or parody them with a bird-call
          Neither of us can understand.

Nevertheless, Derek Mahon surely regrets his inability to be an “enlightened alien,” for he would no doubt love to enter into a fuller communion with nature, to return to that mythic time before man attempted to master the universe through language. Yet Mahon's poetry might best be read not as a Remembrance of Things Past in verse but far more fruitfully as a respectful, patient and self-effacing effort to “let speak” rather than to “make speak,” to listen to the poetry that surrounds us rather than to attempt to master all the significant voices by means of human language. Realizing as he does that history, be it nightmarish or otherwise, cannot be escaped, Mahon chooses to discover the profound in voices other than the human. In a spirit of deep respect for the world around him, Mahon seems to step back and listen, whether it be to sounds or to the absence of all sounds—he operates, in his term, “at one remove.”

Throughout his work, Mahon exhibits the belief that language is somehow at the root of man's alienation from the rest of the world: he certainly believes that it has done more harm than good in human history. In “Beyond Howth Head,” Mahon suggests that man's efforts to subjugate natural and even metaphysical phenomena by means of language are not only foolish but also very much linked to what is fundamentally wrong with the modern world, specifically, with Ulster politics. He associates human willingness to accept oppression with man's allowing language's dominance. He believes that language has been permitted to structure the way we reason and perceive and that consequently our value systems have deteriorated to where men readily accept the dominance of words over any other factors determining their relationship to the world they inhabit.

Religion, particularly the western traditions that are based in the primacy of the Word, and specifically Irish Christianity in its factionalized and secularized forms, comes under Mahon's attack as he shows how he perceives the veneration of language, of the Word, to have links with a whole variety of western civilization's more unfortunate accomplishments. In a passage describing the church bells of Monkstown, he associates their sound with the loss of a mythic worldview in which a greater expanse of the imaginary was permitted:

I woke this morning (March) to hear
Church bells of Monkstown through the roar
Of waves round the Martello tower
And thought of the swan-sons of Lir
When Kemoc rang the Christian bell
To crack a fourth-dimensional
World picture, never known again,
And changed them back from swans to men.(2)

Christianity is here linked with the destruction of a “fourth-dimensional world picture,” a marvelous image that allows for the existence of realms beyond our common imagination, realms quite familiar to the Celtic sensibility in which man might once have shared characteristics with swans. This image recalls the poem discussed earlier, “Man and Bird,” as well as a host of other poems in which birds are evoked, and also underscores Mahon's sadness at the loss of kinship between humans and other living beings. This same relationship is drawn in the lines describing a locale whose

          ground is thick
With the dead sparrows rhetoric
Demands as fictive sacrifice
To prove its substance in our eyes.(3)

As has been suggested by both the gospel of Matthew and the Prince of Denmark, “there is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.” God himself is aware and concerned about each and every insignificant sparrow that perishes in a fall: Mahon is no less concerned about the casualties brought on by empty and irresponsible rhetoric.

Manifest in the following lines are the repercussions of man's having abandoned mythic, imaginary time in favor of the linguistically dominated, three-dimensional, quantifiable time Mahon here associates with the Christian religions. These lines begin by referring to the sound of the Christian bells but end by linking Christian dogma to the violence in the North of Ireland:

And tinkles with as blithe a sense
Of man's cosmic significance
Who wrote his world from broken stone
Installed his Word God on the throne
And placed, in Co. Clare, a sign:
‘Stop here and see the sun go down.’
Meanwhile, for a word's sake, the plastic
Bombs go off around Belfast. …

(BHH [Beyond Howth Head])

The line, “Who wrote his world from broken stone” refers, of course, to the Mosaic tablets upon which God handed down his commandments, but it must also refer to Yeats' hillmen, symbols elsewhere in this same poem of Ireland's incapacity to change, so bound is she by historical divisions. Irish factionalism is again linked with a linguistic dogma that alienates man from fully participating in his own universe as Mahon juxtaposes the venerated “Word God” with the “commandment” inscribed on a sign along a country road, directing passersby to take the time to watch a sunset. This, he seems to be saying, is what has happened to man's sense of his “cosmic significance.” Consequently, it would seem, the obvious ramification: bombs go off around Belfast for the sake of a word—that word being, while not necessarily “religion” itself, surely one which connotes the tribalism that manifests itself in Northern Ireland as denominational division.

Mahon's preference for operating “at one remove” quite evidently suggests itself again in his contempt for facile humanism. Simplistic liberal ideals are not readily embraced by the poet; in fact, he fights against them, refusing to grant a position of centrality to what he terms “humanistic self-regard.” Unwilling to accept civilization as it is, he opts for a marginalized relationship to it which is manifold in its forms of expression. His mistrust of the modern world's capacity to subvert communism with the natural universe and to promote superficiality is expressed in these lines, also from “Beyond Howth Head”:

Centripetal, the hot world draws
Its children in with loving claws
From rock and heather, rain and sleet
With only Kosangas for heat
And spins them at the centre where
They have no time to know despair.

In “Glengormley,” Mahon again is quite explicit about his disagreement with the belief that modern man, now so “civilized,” is in a position of mastery over his universe. While some claim that men have escaped the binds of old superstitious legends about monsters and giants, and now dwell in a reasoned and controlled universe, Mahon certainly does not. The poem, as well as the entire volume, Poems, 1962-1978, opens with the line, “Wonders are many, and none is more wonderful than man,” words that Mahon encloses within inverted commas so as to render unmistakeable their ironic intent. For these words immediately meet with his most ironic of commentaries as the poem sets out to show how enslaved modern man has become to the belief that his own centrality to the universe is unquestionable. Mastery of, rather than participation in the universe has come to be considered normative:

‘Wonders are many and none is more wonderful than man’
Who has tamed the terrier, trimmed the hedge
And grasped the principles of the watering can.

No dangers lurk in dark corners in this our modern, rational age: no dangers, Mahon retorts, but language. “Only words hurt us now.” These words themselves suggest an inversion of the children's chant about sticks and stones: though perhaps once it was they that broke bones, now those objects of nature cannot harm us, for they, like the terriers and the hedges, have been mastered. But if, as the poem tells us, the threat we face today is that posed by words—those “names” that previously could never hurt us—it is all the more problematic for the poet whose job it is to use them. Yet Mahon's decision quite clearly is to meet the challenge head on, to defy the danger of falling prey to language's powers of conformity that so often lead to simplistic, rationalized explanations. Instead, he will “praise / A wordly time under this worldly sky”; he will write poetry that attempts to give expression to the world as a whole rather than to man's, or his own, prominent position at its center. As he states, “By / Necessity, if not choice, I live here too.”

Mahon's acknowledgement that he too is caught up in language's web, that he too is historically shaped and therefore, perhaps, given to flights of fancy that are potentially self-serving, provokes his characteristic attempt to resist the world's centripetal pull. His operating “at one remove” enables him to de-center himself, to de-emphasizes his own voice and all human voices, to de-prioritize his own words and let objects speak for themselves.

Mahon's poetry is profoundly self-effacing. It seems that through verse Mahon has hoped to unseat the human voice as the voice that makes poetry live. He has tried, instead, to tap into realism of existence that are not dependent on language, realms that signify in a sort of pre-linguistic way. In this sense, the notion of operating “at one remove” can be understood as a decentering of language's position of prominence in the way we regard the world. Frequently, Mahon makes use of poetic language in order to evoke silence, a wise, primordial silence that resonates with a meaning not sullied by efforts to describe it.

This privileging of silence is magnificently suggested in the poem, “Preface to a Love Poem.” It is most significant that the love poem referred to in the title does not itself exist, at least not in language. It exists in its own absence, in the space created for it by the preface, a space so sacred its silence must not be disturbed. The concept is quite beautiful—for Mahon the only legitimate experience of love is a love beyond words. Perhaps this explains the absence of love poetry in his work as a whole.

“Preface to a Love Poem” can be read as a declaration of love to a cherished individual, certainly, but it can also be read as a tribute to the absent poem itself. Surely Mahon's intimacy with poetic language brings him a joy comparable to that shared by lovers. The repetition of the phrase “this is” at the beginning of every stanza suggests the effort to describe what is indescribable, and as the first stanza makes explicit, the best that can be hoped for is a carving out of a space in which silence might reside.

This is a circling of itself and you—
A form of words, compact and compromise
Prepared in the false dawn of the half-true
Beyond which the shapes of truth materialize.

Poetry, then, can serve best to give rise to silence, to give from to words that are themselves pale in comparison with “the shapes of truth.” The evocation of silence is always phrased in Mahon's poetry is terms of a “beyond,” a place where language cannot quite reach, where human beings can no longer claim to have dominion. As such, the poem is only the potential; it only can prepare for what is immanently realizable in its completion. The poem is “compact and compromise”; it is a tensed coexistence of half-truths that prepare the way for the glimpsing of a realm that not even poetry can inhabit. Its compactness and readiness suggest the evocative potential, the immanent splendor of the silent realm which alone is capable of expressing love.

“Preface to a Love Poem” continues with a reference to Rimbaud's “Le Bateau Ivre,” a poem which Mahon translated and by which he was clearly influenced: “This is a blind with sunlight filtering through,” he writes, recalling Rimbaud's “frissons de volets.” The image recalls that of the “false-dawn” referred to in an earlier line, and suggests an only partial expression of the fullness of light—a giving shape to that light yet an incapacity to control the light itself. The correlation with Rimbaud is manifest: the poete maudit has always sought through poetry to attain to levels of existence that transcend the bounds of language.

This is a stirring in the silent hours,
As lovers do with thoughts they cannot frame
Or leave, but bring to darkness like night-flowers,
Words never choosing but the words choose them—
Birds crowing, wind whistling off pale stars.

As previously, with “This is a circling of itself and you,” the present “This is a stirring in the silent hours” calls attention to the fact that this poem is not in itself a linguistically articulated declaration of love—it is in fact that suggestion of a love that defies declaration. The late hours of lovers' intimacy are “silent” but for the “stirring”; the love they share is expressed far better in the absence of words. Birds and wind appear throughout Mahon's work to suggest this very piercing sort of expression that nonetheless in no way partakes of human language. It partakes far more of the deep and sonorous tones of nature's language, sounds that, while audible, seem impossible to locate. The same is true of the next image, “This is a night-cry, neither here nor there.” These sounds are primordial, “outlasting stone and bronze,” yet they too are transient, they too can only suggest and disappear. In disappearing, however, they leave for the silence in which love dwells.

This is at one remove, a substitute
For final answers; but the wise man knows
To cleave to the one living absolute
Beyond paraphrase, and shun a shrewd repose.

In this stanza, Mahon expresses rather explicitly the principle upon which his whole poetics is based. “This is at one remove” refers not only to this particular poem in its role as prefact to something else; it refers also to the way Mahon has consistently chosen to situate himself with regard to the universe he inhabits, “by necessity, if not choice.” In order to gain perspective, Mahon locates himself outside of the center, preferring to consider that there is more falseness than truth in the humanist position that wishes to place man at the center of the universe. In so doing, he avoids seeking for final answers; he negates the need to explain, to describe, to quantify, to master. Instead, he posits the quest for silence as “a substitute for final answers,” and makes no apologies, for in this attitude he finds a wisdom whose greatness is in its refusal of finitude. In silence, in the realm “beyond paraphrase,” the “wise man” is granted access to the “one living absolute” that is so limitless it cannot be bound by words.

          This is a way of airing my distraught
Love of your silence. You are the soul of silence.

“A way,” not the only way; “airing,” not describing; “distraught,” not confidently circumscribable. The poet loves the silence that poetry provides, for it is in silence that love finds its most perfect expression. “You,” at once poetry and the human lover Mahon addresses, “are the soul of silence,” the most profound of ineffable phenomena—the immeasurable wellspring of joy, of love itself.

In “Bird Sanctuary,” following immediately upon “Preface to a Love Poem,” Mahon again speaks of a silent place, a place “at one remove,” from his so-called real life. Mahon finds himself in this place only in dreaming—his dreamlife is his sanctuary, his means of distancing himself from urban turbulence.

Towards sleep I came
Upon the place again,
Its muted seas and tame
Eddying wind. The mist and rain
Come only after dark, and then
Steam out to sea at dawn.

The images characterizing Mahon's dream world are “muted” and “tame,” lacking the sharp, determined edges that might describe his waking world. It is a realm, like that of silence, where exactitude and finitude are not required; it too serves as “a substitute for final answers.” In this “place,” Mahon has “erected / A birds sanctuary … where all my birds collect.” This image of birds finding sanctuary in a place removed from the intrusion of the city recalls the observations the poet made in composing “Man and Bird”: it is only from a respectful distance that man can hope to approach birds at all. Birds, then, are a metaphor in Mahon's universe for the sort of distance which one must establish in order to avoid disturbing those voices, be they silent or audible, which speak in the absence of the human.

This distance is again suggested by the lines,

I live elsewhere—
In a city down the coast
Composed of earth and fire.

“Elsewhere,” like “at one remove,” renders explicit the poet's dual consciousness: he knows the value of the perspective he gains by de-centering himself from a self-centered worldview. He seeks a balance between the two realms, as he knows he does inhabit the “real” world but refuses to dismiss the more infinite world his dreams and imagination offer. In combination he integrates all four elements—earth and fire, water and air—so as to maintain as much contact as possible with the fullness of his entire worldly existence.

As in “Preface to a Love Poem,” the images of birds and wind are joined in “Bird Sanctuary” to evoke the presence of that realm of imagination which is genuinely unknowable, the way birds are, yet still as powerful and evocative as the whistling wind.

I except great things
Of these angels of wind,

Mahon writes, thereby pointing to the force which he knows resides in the imaginative realm of his mind. That force, he believes, though commonly ignored in modern consumer cultures, will one day show forth its boundless potential:

There will come a time
When they sit on the housetops
Shouting, thousands of them,
This is their own, their favourite dream,
Beyond reason, beyond rhyme,
So that the heart stops.

Again the realm that Mahon most respects is shown to be “beyond”—“beyond reason, beyond rhyme”; it transcends rational linguistic categories. His vision provides for the triumph of that non-linguistic domain “when they sit on the housetops,” for the penetration of the mundane by the ineffable.

Birds, of course, are not the only things in Mahon's vision that give voice to the pre-linguistic, silent realm the poet so values. A great variety of images is employed in this poetry to evoke the sort of simple innocence that Mahon believes speaks volumes more than any mere human language could hope to express. For the most part, these images are from nature, like his beloved birds, yet they need not even be voiced creatures. “Leaves,” for example:

Somewhere there is an afterlife
Of dead leaves,
A stadium filled with an infinite
Rustling and sighing.

Mahon's leaves, of course, recall a scene in Beckett's Waiting for Godot4 in which the discussion turns explicitly to the elusiveness of silence. It is Estragon who remarks, “we are incapable of keeping silent,” while encouraging Vladmir to maintain the level of conversation in order to avoid the risk of actually thinking. The “dead voices” to which Estragon refers are said to “make a noise like wings,” and then, “like leaves, like sand.” Mahon clearly is suggesting his affinity with Beckett in contending that those voices must be allowed to speak, that the ignored must be permitted expression. Mahon would rather that human voices find the courage to terminate conversation and cede the initiative to the voiceless, the “mute phenomena.”

Other such “Mute Phenomena” whose very beings resonate with silent messages are enumerated in a poem by that title. Among them can be counted sunflowers, volcanoes, turnips, cutlery and a lost hub-cap:

Your great mistake is to disregard the satire
Bandied among the mute phenomena.
Be strong if you must, your brusque hegemony
Means fuck-all to the somnolent sunflower
Or the extinct volcano. What do you know
Of the revolutionary theories advanced
By turnips, or the sex-life of cutlery?
Everything is susceptible, Pythagoras said so.
An ordinary common-or-garden brick wall, the kind
For talking to or banging your head on,
Resents your politics and bad draughtsmanship.
God is alive and lives under a stone.
Already in a lost hub-cap is conceived
The ideal society which will replace our own.

There quite clearly is no question as to the validity of Mahon's logic: operating “at one remove” affords the poet ample room to “let speak” the non-human, pre-linguistic voices that inhabit our universe. Although “Mute Phenomena” has something of a tongue-in-cheek tone, Mahon's message is equally clear when he writes in a more contemplative and earnest mode, as is the case in “Mayo Tao”:

I have stood for hours watching
          a salmon doze
                    in the tea-gold dark,
for weeks watching a spider weave
          in a pale light, for months
listening to the sob-story
          of a stone on the road—
                    the best, most monotonous
sob-story I have ever heard.
I am an expert on frost crystals
          and the silence of crickets,
a confident of the stinking shore,
          the stares in the mud.

What is one to make, then, of Derek Mahon's tribute to silence? Although it might at first seem facile to contend that the poet's penchant for silence is in some way part of his political position, the possibility of a relation merits examination. We have seen how in “Beyond Howth Head” the dominance of language in western metaphysics is linked with the Belfast bombings, and we have explored how Mahon's operating “at one remove” provides him with an increased acuity of vision vis a vis the world he inhabits. It seems plausible, then, to assert that Mahon truly believes he can better come to terms with the political situation of his native Belfast by distancing himself from it. His personal experience certainly bears this out: Mahon has been something of an exile since leaving Ulster to work in England and elsewhere as a free-lance writer. It is thus hardly surprising to discover a certain ambivalence in Mahon's relationship to his own cultural identity as an Irishman.

Mahon's poetry clearly does not share in the sense of rootedness to Irish soil that so characterizes the work of his Catholic compatriot Seamus Heaney, for example. This is made only too clear in the final stanzas of “Afterlives” in which the poet reflects upon his return to war-torn Belfast after a long absence:

As I step ashore in a fine rain
To a city so changed
By five years of war
I scarcely recognize
The place I grew up in,
The faces that try to explain.
But the hills are still the same
Grey blue above Belfast.
Perhaps if I'd stayed behind
And lived it bomb by bomb
I might have grown up at last
And learnt what is meant by home.

One might assert that Mahon indeed believes he would have become a wiser man had he never exiled himself from Northern Ireland. Yet to do so would be to disregard the obvious value Mahon places on the self-distancing, de-centering power provided by poetry. “At one remove,” that is to say, from his “dark flat” from which he can “look out over London / Rain-fresh in the morning light” (“Afterlives”), Mahon can observe Ireland with a reserved, unsentimental eye, an eye which simultaneously provides him with the perspective to look at himself and his kind with a self-awareness not to be found in a Seamus Heaney or a John Montague:

What middle-class cunts we are
To imagine for one second
That our privileged ideals
Are divine wisdom, and the dim
Forms that kneel at noon
In the city not ourselves.


Mahon's refusal to grant himself a home is a conscious choice on his part to stave off the sort of stubborn sectarian complacency that maintains Irish politics in such an absurd state of affairs. The alienation that results is not only nationalistic but pervades his whole worldview, it forces him to bring into question the project of poetry itself in so confused a nation as Ireland:

Somewhere beyond the scorched gable end
and the burnt-out buses
there is a poet indulging
his wretched rage for order—

So begins the poem “Rage for Order” in which Mahon expresses his mixed and unsettled emotions about the poet's role in society.

He is far from his people,
          and the fitful glare of his high window is as
                    nothing to our scattered glass.

Yet ultimately Mahon admits that perhaps the self-exiled poet can offer man something of which he has a greater need than he is often ready to acknowledge as he pretends to make sense of a universe so horribly alienated and alienating:

Now watch me as I make history. Watch as I tear down
          to build up with a desperate love,
                    knowing it cannot be
          long till I have need of his
                    desperate ironies.

Irony is what Mahon's poetry affords the modern reader attempting to reconcile a will to understand with a recognition of life's absurdities. Irony points to the incongruities and the ambiguities of the universe we inhabit—it often points to the fact that rational analysis bears precious little result when dealing with complex phenomena that, simply stated, one ought not be so pretentious as to try to understand entirely. Irony inspires one to pause, to listen to the noises men make and assume to be intelligent, noises which often serve only to fill the silent spaces whose profundity is perhaps too unsettling to face voluntarily. Derek Mahon's poetry, as we have seen, privileges these silent places and values them far more than some places that might too easily be called home. Resistance to complacency in Mahon's poetry carries with it a necessary resistance to rootedness—home and hearth are relinquished in the effort to disclose truths that they sometimes serve to mask.

If one considers Heaney's sort of rootedness a preferable relationship to one's homeland, then Mahon's distancing perspective is bought at a high price. Yet the Anglo-Irish poet seems to believe that the exiled position is the most authentic position he could possibly occupy. In this sense, he is perhaps closer to being the “enlightened alien” than he gives himself credit for being in the self-effacing “Man and Bird.” It is clearly Mahon's belief that to call for silence, to beckon people to listen rather than to wax political in the usual rhetorically empty ways, is to make a very heart-felt and sincere plea for Ireland and for all societies. As Mahon writes in “The Forger”:

For even at one remove
The thing I meant was love.

Mahon's latent optimism must not be ignored. His poetry is more hopeful than one might at first suspect. His longing is for a time perhaps only imaginary, utopian and unrealizable in any practical sense, yet his acknowledgement of life's complexity and simultaneous simple beauty need not be considered inapplicable to the contemporary world. As “The Golden Bough” suggests, the time of silence, a time beyond paraphrase, is worth aspiring for even as we dwell in the confusion of modernity.

What will be left after
The twilight of cities
The flowers of fire,
Will be the soft
Vegetables where our
Politics are conceived.
When we give back
The cleared cities
To the first forest,
The hills to the hills,
The reclaimed mudflats
To the vigilant seas,
There will be silence, then
A sign of waking
As from a long dream.

The same hopefulness that is evoked in this poem can be found in Mahon's masterpiece, “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford.” Like the long-hidden mushrooms that have “learnt patience and silence / Listening to the rooks querulous in the high wood,” all men might hope to attain a hitherto unknown sort of wisdom by allowing silence, rather than voices, to pervade their world. These mushrooms, these “soft vegetables” can surely help the Irish to conceive of a new notion of politics, for

They are begging us, you see, in their wordless way,
To do something, to speak on their behalf
Or at least not to close the door again.

Mahon seems to be calling for a cessation of the empty talk that tends to dominate the Irish political scene. He is calling not only for a somewhat idealized return to pre-linguistic primordial time, but also for an end to the pointless divisions that scar Ireland's otherwise retrievable landscapes. The valor of the mushrooms he offers as an emblem of the kind of determination and humble faith that alone can reverse the ravages of war in the north of Ireland. One senses he believes, yet dares not attempt to submit, that men too can attain to this level of valor and can get on with the business of living in harmony with the universe.

Let the god not abandon us
Who have come this far in darkness and in pain
We too had our lives to live.
You with your light meter and relaxed itinerary,
Let not our naive labours have been in vain!


  1. Derek Mahon, Poems, 1962-1978 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979). All citations from this volume unless otherwise indicated.

  2. Beyond Howth Head. Hereafter, BHH.

  3. See Matthew 10:29-30. Also Hamlet, V, ii.

  4. Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot (New York: Grove Press, 1954), p. 40.

William A. Wilson (essay date winter 1990)

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SOURCE: Wilson, William A. “A Theoptic Eye: Derek Mahon's The Hunt by Night.Eire-Ireland 25, no. 4 (winter 1990): 120-31.

[In the following essay, Wilson discusses the importance of place in Mahon's poetry. He also observes a subtle shift in Mahon's treatment of popular culture in his works, moving away from a categorical rejection of contemporary life.]

Much critical work on modern and postmodern Irish writers has rightly been founded upon the strong belief that a consideration of their Irish background is crucial to any study of their achievements. Yet this corrective to modern formalist criticism has itself been the subject of much discussion, if only because the concept “Irish background” is problematic at best. Indeed, when used in the context of Irish literature since the 1960s, the ground of Irish history is further problematized, if such a thing were possible, by the alphabetical armies—IRA, INRA, RUC, SAS, UDA, UDR, UVF—that clash by night and by day.

Some of the inherent difficulties in using “background” as an evaluative or interpretive criterion are revealed in responses to Derek Mahon's poetry, a central theme of which is the status of “background” in contemporary Irish verse. In Place and Displacement: Recent Poetry of Northern Ireland (1984), Seamus Heaney distinguishes Derek Mahon by placing him against the obscure background of Ulster's recent history. Heaney marks Mahon's apparent retreat from the world, and, reading “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford” as Mahon's key signature, he transcribes the poet's themes thus:

Mahon, the poet of metropolitan allusion, of ironical and cultivated manners, is being shadowed by his unlived life among the familiar shades of Belfast. Do not turn your back on us, do not disdain our graceless stifled destiny, keep faith with your origins, do not desert, speak for us: the mushrooms are the voices of belonging but they could not have been so compelling if Mahon had not created the whispering gallery of absence not just by moving out of Ireland but by evolving out of solidarity into irony and compassion. And, needless to say, into solitude.1

Heaney represents Mahon's uneasiness about turning his back on Belfast and its history as an achieved political disengagement from the Troubles—an accusation leveled at Heaney himself when he moved from Belfast to the Republic in 1972.2 In Heaney's view, Mahon's autonomy, his freedom from history, is maintained at great expense. Mahon's life is overshadowed by the unlived regions beyond it, and his poetic virtues are best defined as negations, while irony, compassion and solitude are evolutionary advances over solidarity with one's countrymen.

Dillon Johnston reads Mahon's work positively in his recent Irish Poetry Since Joyce (1984); but he also reads it in the context of a rejected history that “includes the Troubles in Ulster but is larger and less defined than that ineluctable homicidal process.” Having thus reduced Mahon's subject matter, Johnston finds the consolation and metaphysical significance of his verse “in survival and in the respites when one knows love or light from the hills.”3 Although these moments are wonderfully realized in his poetry, Mahon's achievement, here as in Heaney's critique, is at least as remarkable for what it excludes as for what it includes. Mahon's achievement seems to be an intensification of feeling and place afforded by a diminished scope.

Seamus Deane devotes a chapter of Celtic Revivals: Essays in Modern Irish Literature 1880-1980 (1987) to Mahon and his “longing to be free from history.”4 In several pages of elegant analysis of Mahon's relationship to Irish politics, Deane reaches much the same conclusion as Heaney and Johnston: namely, Mahon's retreat from the disordered politics of Ulster into his highly ordered verse is achieved by restricting his scope. Specifically, Mahon maintains an apparent distance from the sites of Irish violence through an unwillingness to closely examine the precarious existence of his “liberal individualism, his ‘protestant’ ethic of the independent imagination” (CR 162). One may say that Deane senses an article of bad faith in Mahon's poetics.

These three reactions to Mahon's work can be traced directly to the various functions of place they discover there. To be sure, the establishment of place constitutes part of Mahon's dominant self-representation. Poems centered on specific places and that have placenames in their titles form a comfortable majority in Mahon's work. Yet, I wonder to what degree we should credit the priority of place over history in Mahon's poetry. The poems about the politicized landscape of Ulster are generally bitter, when they are not pluperfectly ironical. And, in many of his poems set outside Northern Ireland, the regnant spatial specificity is frequently contradicted by a discernible poetic gesture situating these places outside the margins of reality. That is, whether Mahon's preferred place is an autonomous imaginative space or an actual setting removed from ruined Ulster, its significance and consolation invariably deconstruct.

In “A Lighthouse in Maine,” for example, the poet describes a navigation aid in terms that seemingly deny its actual obsolescence, thus placing it in a transcendent category. Storing light rather than shedding any, the lighthouse resembles an ivory tower, a polished Buddha, the soul of Adonais. And the poet gives the reader directions to find this remarkable place. One makes, “… a right / Somewhere beyond Rockland, / A left, a right, / You turn a corner and / There it is … / Out you get and / Walk the rest of the way.”5 Apparently a Baedeker for those looking for intimations of immortality, this poem nevertheless insistently denies its own spiritual utility: for this wondrous lighthouse, the poet says, “might be anywhere”—Europe, Asia, North America. Thus, in the end the lighthouse seems pointlessly literalized, and its significance dilates into insubstantiality.

In other works in Poems 1962-1978 (1979) some places gain importance because the poet is absent from them. The significance achieved through absence is seen in the short lyric, “Thinking of Inishere in Cambridge, Massachusetts”:

A dream of limestone in sea light
Where gulls have placed their perfect prints.
Reflection in that final sky
Shames vision into simple sight:
Into pure sense, experience.
Atlantic leagues away tonight,
Conceived beyond such innocence,
I clutch the memory still, and I
Have measured everything with it since.(6)

In the apparent dialectic between Inishere and Cambridge, in the oceanic distance between them, the poet achieves a metaphysical criterion with which he judges all else. The surety of this lyric, however, is deconstructed by its own rhetoric. For example, the literal experience of Inishere, by which he sets so much store, is translated into metaphysical innocence by poetic legerdemain, through rhyme. Paradoxically, the knowledge gained on Inishere becomes important through a distance of time and space because it represents a state of “not knowing.” Thus, the poem becomes interesting not because it recreates a Wordsworthian spot of time, but because it subtly draws the reader's attention to what threatens the idyllic space. Cambridge finally overwhelms Inishere because the poet's alienation from it is never accounted for. In the language of poststructuralism, the vision and its significance are undone by their own difference.

The usual account of Mahon's fascination with places like Inishere cites his self-conscious retreat from Ulster's history. This was, of course, Heaney's point about “The Disused Shed in Co. Wexford.” Mahon's position on local history is given a straightforward account in “The Spring Vacation.” Here the poet resumes his “old conspiracy with the wet / Stone and unwieldy images of the squinting heart” that are the stuff of his memory of Belfast. But he finds it difficult to give adequate poetic attention to the “humorous formulae, / The hidden menace in the knowing nod,” to the common expressions of feeling among his fellows. The last stanza provides Mahon's conclusion about this situation:

One part of my mind must learn to know its place.
The things that happen in the kitchen houses
And echoing back-streets of this desperate city
Should engage more than my casual interest,
Exact more interest than my casual pity.

(Poems 4)

Despite the moral imperatives to know and express the life of Ulster, he resists them. And what approaches an acceptance of a vocation here finds contradiction in the degradation of the word “interest” in the last lines, as the obligations of fellowship shade into emotional usury. Moreover, when this poem appeared in Night-Crossing (1968), its title was “In Belfast.”7 The shift to a temporal focus in the new title indicates a significant change in Mahon's central concern. That is, when he writes of Irish places, he does so in the context of the historical availability of that place for poetic treatment. Likewise, in the last lyric of Poems 1962-1978, “The Sea in Winter,” Mahon returns to the same theme. Describing a visit to Belfast, he writes;

When I returned one year ago
I felt like Tonio Kröger—slow
To come to terms with my own past
Yet knowing I could never cast
Aside the things that made me what,
For better or worse, I am. The upshot?
Chaos and instability,
The cool gaze of the RUC.

(Poems 111)

While not ignoring the moral and political significance of the RUC, I believe it is rather missing the point to restrict the chaos and instability that beset the poet to the Troubles in Ulster. Mahon's apparently causal reference to Thomas Mann, his German sound-alike, effectively broadens the scope of the poem, making the RUC a synecdoche, albeit a formidable one. It is surely correct to call Mahon the poet of metropolitan allusion, but it is wrong to limit the significance of this allusiveness to Mahon's symptomatic desire to withdraw from the long, melancholy roar of Irish politics. Mahon is, of course, chilled by the Weltanschauung that travels under the RUC, but it poses a problem for poetry that is less parochial than it appears, as Dillon Johnston has rightly suggested.

To be sure, Mahon dreams of limestone in sea light because he abhors the apocalyptic destruction of Belfast. The cityscape is marked by “scorched gable[s] and burnt-out buses” (Poems 44). More generally, however, Mahon is equally repelled by a postmodern culture whose obsessions are bourgeois improvements and whose enduring monuments are consumer and industrial waste: “fitted carpets, central heating / And automatic gear-change” and other “Imperishable by-products of the perishable will” (Poems 45, 74). In these reductive representations of life Deane reads Mahon's desire to be free from history, a longing that marks him as a “recognizably” Irish poet (CR 156). But, as we have seen, it is quite another matter to satisfy this desire.

Mahon confronts a problem central to the postmodern literary imagination—the inadequacy of language to represent the plots of history or to convincingly imagine a counter to them. In “The Joycentenary Ode” appears another explicit statement about a visionary locale whose importance is not Romantic but linguistic. Toward the end of the “Ode,” we find this vision of place:

Gazing wist, folden
Gaviels, childers of leidt,
We cmome to a place
Beyond cumminity
Where only the wind synges.
Words faoil there
Bifar infunity,
One evenereal stare
Twintwinkling on the si.
This is the dark adge
Where the souil swails
its hurtfealt soang,
Hearing the sonerous
Volapuke of the waives,
That ainchant tongue,
Dialect of what thribe,
Throb of what broken heart—
A language beyond art
That not even you,
If you had lived
To a hundred and wan,
Could begin to danscribe.

(HN 47-48)

The dark age of the world is its dark edge, a place beyond community, where language is extraliterary. As a congruence of time and space whose language is beyond art, it is also beyond consciousness, even that of a latter-day Gabriel. Like the lighthouse in Maine, this dark edge might be anywhere. And a place that might be anywhere is no place. The attraction of this extrahistorical realm is contradicted by its own impossibility, its peculiar charm notwithstanding.

In the context of a political instability that borders on chaos, traditional poetry is a dying art. In the “Rage for Order,” an “etiolated,” “grandiloquent and deprecating” poet sits aloof from “his people,” who fill their time bombing buses and torching houses. The poet's imagination, figured in the glare of a high window, is nothing compared to the shattered glass of urban violence. Explicitly rejecting Wallace Stevens's neo-Romantic poetic, Mahon reduces the poet's “rage for order” to an “eddy of semantic scruples / in an unstructurable sea” (Poems 44). As Mahon writes in “Heraclitus on Rivers,” “The very language in which [a] poem / Was written, and the idea of language, / All these things will pass away in time” (Poems 107). A poet writes or he does not, but in the end his “desperate ironies” make nothing happen. Making history is left to the speaker of the poem, a man of action, whose “desperate love” (Poems 44) tears down only to build again.

Yet, to be historical one need not make history. Although Mahon places his poet figures outside the refuse of postindustrial society and beyond the violence of the Troubles, he nonetheless places poetry in an historical context—indeed, in a Hegelian one. The Irish presence in history has been subjected to various artistic treatments: Yeats systematized it, Leon Uris simonized it, and recently Paul Muldoon has anarcotized it and, at least on one poetic occasion, he has sodomized it. Mahon's treatment proves less particular and peculiar; his verges on the theoretical. Mahon's contribution is, I believe, the insight that modernist poetics—an aesthetic of the achieved poem, as Heaney defines it—can no longer contain the historical emplotments of a pluralist culture. Thus, while Mahon's poet figures remain apparently detached from Irish politics, they actually engage in a larger conflict with the wider alphabetical detritus of our culture: That is, the threat to the traditional poetic voice is not only the RUC and the IRA, but also MTV.

On occasion, Mahon seems to score a Pyrrhic victory over the forces of cultural darkness. In “Rock Music,” the poet suffers the mindless assault of heavy metal music, and the fart attack of Honda motorbikes driven by the young in search of “fortuitous sex.” This tumult of mass culture obviates the consolations of traditional literature: the poet tries to read a printed page but mutters despairingly, “As if such bumf could save us now” (HN 25). The following morning, the poet walks along the strand, and another genre of rock music, a kind from a geological age before the Rolling Stones, clears his head of the “residual roar” of the discotheques. The silence of the seascape may momentarily quiet the discos, but the pun in the title seems incapable of restoring vitality to the “bumf” literature has become.8

Indeed, when Mahon explores the limits of contemporary culture, he is most concerned with the apparent defeat of the letter. “The Terminal Bar” is Mahon's representation of one of the shabby taverns that surround the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York, the travestied pubs that are the Valhalla of New Jersey commuters. Not coincidentally, the lyric also brilliantly parodies Tennyson's “Crossing the Bar.” Instead of seeing the Logos in the Pilot's face, here we see the impersonal eye of the television—the “fetish and icon / providing all we want / of magic and redemption, / routine and sentiment.” When the modern Pilgrim enters this parodic sanctum, he admits that the tube has conquered:

Slam the door and knock
the snow from your shoe,
admit that the vast dark
at last defeated you—
nobody found the grail
or conquered outer space.
Join the clientele
watching itself increase.

(HN 52)

The heroism and the religious potentiality of journeys to far-removed places celebrated in the literary traditions have been rendered “bumf” by the fetish of mass culture.

In two important poems from The Hunt by Night (1982)—the title lyric and “The Globe in North Carolina”—Mahon develops a poetic that is not limited by a retreat from history or by a “logical working down to bleakness” (CR 156). Rather, in these poems he approaches the pluralism of culture with equanimity. This tonal change in poetics is effected by a subtle shift in the significance of place, one that admits of contemporary pluralistic valuation. To achieve this shift in perspective, Mahon looks to Paolo Uccello, the obsessed developer of perspective. What Mahon finds attractive, I believe, in Uccello's Hunt by Night is a triumph of style over content, intently achieved by him by keeping the viewer's attention upon the perfection of his technique. Specifically, in Uccello's Hunt by Night Mahon sees nightmarish images, “the ancient fears” of nocturnal pursuit, translated into shadows on nursery walls. Mahon transforms the apparent chaos of the scene into a “mutated … tamed and framed” picture of pure game. An analysis of Uccello's The Battle of San Romano indicates the features of Uccello's artistry that, I believe, attract Mahon: Uccello “has stripped every structure of its accidental aspects to transform it into a metaphysical component of an affray, one that is shorn of its historical significance and assimilated to an exclusively mathematical and figurative reality.”9 Confronting the unknown telos of the struggle in the painting—the end of Uccello's narrative is “Masked by obscurities of paint”—Mahon concludes that it is:

                              As if our hunt by night,
                                                  So very tense,
                                        So long pursued,
                              In what dark cave begun
          And not yet done, were not the great
Adventure we suppose but some elaborate
                              Spectacle put on for fun
                                        And not for food.

(HN 30-31)

The conflicts between culture and anarchy that concerned Matthew Arnold are, thus, accommodated to Mahon's imagination by being emptied of their content and emphatically stylized into a game. In this poetic, the Inisheres of past memory are no longer literalized places, but stylized ones. This is not an ironic reduction, in Deane's sense of the term, because Mahon has realized a profound insight of postmodern pragmatic philosophy. It is not, as Derrida would have it, that traditional metaphysics seeks to undo the world, rather the contrary. And Mahon has seen that a society ridden and driven by instruments of mass culture is emptied of metaphysics.10 What in other poems some sensed as ironic detachment has now become a necessary philosophical perspective on a pluralist culture.

‘The Globe in North Carolina,” the last and most accomplished poem in The Hunt by Night, is occasioned by the poet's separation from his wife in Ireland. To celebrate love for his transatlantic wife, Mahon performs an intricate and literal confusion of the ideal and the real in his depiction of the world. Instead of the antithesis between Inishere and Cambridge, here there occurs a diminution of idealized diction and, simultaneously, an elevation of the demotic. The result is a mirrored correspondence between the actual details of the Carolina night and the idealized constellations, a correspondence effected by the written word:

From Hatteras to the Blue Ridge
Night spreads like ink on the unhedged
Tobacco fields and clucking lakes,
Bringing the lights on in the rocks
And swamps, the farms and the motor courts,
Substantial cities, kitsch resorts—
Until, to the mild theoptic eye,
America is its own night sky,
Its own celestial fruit, on which
Sidereal forms appear, their rich
Clusters and vague attenuations
Mimic galactic dispositions.
Hesperus is a lighthouse, Mars
An air-force base; molecular cars
Arrowing the turnpikes become
Lost meteorites in search of home.

(HN 61)

Once this identification between the celestial and the earthly has been accomplished, the poet can now imaginatively reunite with his wife, the distance of their separation being trivial by comparison:

… what misgivings I might have
About the importance of
The merely human pale before
The mere fact of your being there.

(HN 63)

After this consummation devoutly to be wished, the poet returns to his surroundings:

Five miles away a south-bound freight
Shrieks its euphoria to the state
And passes on; unfinished work
Awaits me in the scented dark.
The halved globe, slowly turning, hugs
Its silence, and the lightning bugs
Are quiet beneath the open window
Listening to that lonesome whistle blow …

(HN 63)

Thus Mahon ends his deeply metaphysical poem in the idiom of country western music. That the final phrase is not discordant, either thematically or musically, indicates Mahon's achieved fusion of the vernacular and the lyrical in his historical acceptance of the pluralist culture he had deplored earlier. No longer beset by “Era-provincial self-regard,” he writes:

Here, as elsewhere, I recognize
A wood invisible for its trees
Where everything must change except
The fact of change; our scepticism
And irony, grown trite, be dumb
Before the new thing that must come
Out of the scrunched Budweiser can
To make us sadder, wiser men.

(HN 62)

The achievement of a poetics of pluralism issues not from the Romantic urn or the Modernist jar in Tennessee. Rather, it comes from the stylized icon of mass culture that has been emptied of its content, giving forth no epigrams about truth and beauty, only an onomatopoetic “scrunch.” Mahon has wittily united his sensibility and the heretofore resistant culture in the elliptical pun, the sadder Budweiser man. Never has so much been made of such small beer.

Moreover, the title “The Globe in North Carolina” is perhaps misleading, for the burden of the poem is not so much space but time, not so much physical location as the acceptance of historical change. Unlike Yeats, who was troubled by the mythical rough beast in “The Second Coming,” Mahon waits, in a historically materialist manner, for the “new thing” that will issue from consumer capitalism. Even the irony and scepticism of his—nearly—high-modernist poetic have been rendered historically trite, have been literally rubbed away through overuse. He has returned to the ethos of “The Hunt by Night”: “experience is an elaborate / Spectacle put on for fun” (HN 31). This perspective in The Hunt by Night is new to Mahon, and we might suggest that the poetic strategy in the volume has been to hunt by night, stepping over beer cans and listening to train whistles in the way prescribed by country music. We might also suggest that this poetic strategy has a Joycean precedent. We can recognize Mahon's achievement in “Globe” in Seamus Deane's remark about Joyce, who “anticipated the capacity of modern society to integrate almost all antagonistic elements by transforming them into fashions, fads—style, in short.”11 What will issue from the Mahon's empty beer can is, of course, a style as ephemeral as any, whose short trajectory belies the “unity of culture” sought by Yeats and other mythologizers of history.

Upon the publication of his selected poems in 1979, Derek Mahon remarked that he felt himself “released, or partly, from the impertinent rhetoricism of what I suppose I must now regard as my ‘early work,’ and am at last in a position to begin.12 Mahon has begun in The Hunt by Night to see that his metropolitan allusiveness and his ironical and cultivated manners can be more than formalist attitudes, that they can be subsumed under a postmodernist perspective, modeled on the playful effects of Uccello. For Mahon this perspective is historically appropriate. In a recent poem, “Squince,” Mahon's perspectivist poetic includes the “forest of symbols”—swan, heron, Druidic stone circles, hill forts—as well as the “clear-cut / Resonant artifacts” of small shops and phone boxes. “We live now,” he writes, “in a future / Prehistory.”13 Ironic detachment has been supplanted by a strong historicist and pluralist imagination, more commonly encountered in work of Paul Muldoon and Ciarán Carson. Mahon has revised his Ruskinian revulsion over contemporary life at the base of poems like “The Apotheosis of Tins” and “Rock Music.” And he has begun to see postmodernist culture—such as it is—with a “mild theoptic eye” most sensitive to that culture's most characteristic historical feature—its manifold and mutable styles.

Mahon's perspective on place and history is the sine qua non of his recent achievements, and it is a necessary complement to the poetic of Seamus Heaney, Ireland's best-known poet, whose verse, as Deane has remarked, proposes consolation in “tradition, rural landscapes, folk custom, and [the] deep historical time”14 of Ireland's layered cultural memory. Mahon's theoptic eye surveys in broad historical perspective Heaney at his own work with his foot on the lug of a spade. What Heaney experiences as Mahon's absence from Ireland is really the warrant for his far-sightedness.


  1. Seamus Heaney, Place and Displacement: Recent Poetry of Northern Ireland (Grasmere: Trustees of Dove Cottage, 1984), p. 9.

  2. Blake Morrison, Seamus Heaney (London: Methuen, 1982), p. 72.

  3. Dillon Johnston, Irish Poetry After Joyce (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), p. 225.

  4. Seamus Deane Celtic Revivals: Essays in Modern Irish Literature (Winston-Salem: Wake Forest University Press, 1987), p. 156; hereafter cited parenthetically, thus: (CR 156).

  5. Derek Mahon, The Hunt by Night (1982; Winston-Salem: Wake Forest University Press, 1983), p. 44; hereafter cited parenthetically, thus: (HN 44)

  6. Derek Mahon, Poems: 1962-1978 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 27; hereafter cited parenthetically, thus: (Poems 27).

  7. Derek Mahon, Night-Crossing (London: Oxford University Press, 1968), p. 6.

  8. See “Blewits,” in Paul Muldoon, Quoof (Winston-Salem: Wake Forest University Press, 1983), p. 36.

  9. Gigetta Dalli Regoli, Uffizi (Milan: Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, 1968), p. 32.

  10. Richard Rorty, “Deconstruction and Circumvention.” Critical Inquiry, 11 (1984): 1-23.

  11. Seamus Deane, “Heroic Styles: The Tradition of an Idea,” in Ireland's Field Day (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986), p. 56.

  12. Jonathan Barker, ed., Thirty Years of the Poetry Book Society: 1956-1986 (London: Hutchinson, 1988), pp. 151-152.

  13. ‘Squince,” in Dánta Idir Ghaeilge agus Bhéarla (Winston-Salem: Wake Forest University Press, 1984), p. 9.

  14. Seamus Deane, Review of New Selected Poems 1966-1987 by Seamus Heaney. Times Literary Supplement, March 16-22, 1990: 275-276.

Bill Tinley (essay date spring-summer 1991)

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SOURCE: Tinley, Bill. “International Perspectives in the Poetry of Derek Mahon.” Irish University Review 21, no. 1 (spring-summer 1991): 106-17.

[In the following essay, Tinley emphasizes Mahon's connections to poets including Gérard de Nerval, Philippe Jaccottet, François Villon, Bertolt Brecht, and others to highlight the international quality of Mahon's work. Nonetheless, Tinley contends that Mahon's adaptations of European sources also reflect ambivalence about the poet's position as outsider.]

Derek Mahon has always operated outside the comfortable and comforting confines of Irish poetry. In an interview with Harriet Cooke, he has said that Irish writers “should be judged by London, New York standards”,1 in effect distancing himself from the Irish literary scene. On the one hand, Mahon dislikes the cosiness of a literature which does not look beyond its immediate environment, which does not search for the major theme among the minor ones; on the other, he is attracted to an art which transcends its localism without compromising the integrity of its sources, work by writers such as Tate, Faulkner and Camus. If we find an unusual degree of cosmopolitanism in Mahon's poetry, therefore, it is not because he wants to desert the unfashionably provincial for the appeal of the international but because his yearning for the major theme masks a commitment to brightening and making sense of the chaos of home. He sees himself as a poet rather than an Irish poet, yet the experience which informs his poetry validates claims that there is a reciprocity at work. Mahon is obviously aware of the mutually enriching nature of this relationship.

There are two clear ways in which Mahon's poetry assimilates the international values and universal artistic themes to which he is drawn. They provide the dynamic for a work that is grounded in emotional unease and political stasis but which is fundamentally nurtured on this discord. Firstly, Mahon's oeuvre is well-stocked with versions of work by poets from Villon and Ovid to Brecht and Pasternak; he has published a version of Nerval's Les Chimères, selected and translated Jaccottet's Selected Poems and produced versions of two Molière plays. Secondly, his output to date contains many poems which owe their inspiration to paintings and writings by artists ranging from Uccello and de Hooch to Hamsun and Camus. This essay aims to examine how these two modes of assimilation function. It will also suggest that Mahon's internationalism is intrinsically a method for self-examination and self-understanding and that the universal aspect of his work affords an opportunity to look at the question of artistic commitment and the validity of poetry in a new light.

Mahon's passion for re-working his poetry, as evident in the numerous revisions of and amendments to texts in Poems 1962-1978 and Selected Poems, encourages a retrospective approach to his work. With this in mind, it is most appropriate to begin this examination of these two assimilative methods by looking at those ‘art’ poems which find their primary stimulus in the work of European writers and painters. The basic characteristics of these ‘art’ poems are a descriptive and interpretative urge complemented by an effort to personalise or internalise the works in question. It is clear that personalisation of a work of art by the spectator or reader is the correlative of universalisation by the artist, just as analysis returns a poem to its “stereoscopic origins—the way it existed in the poet's mind”.2 The ‘art’ poems themselves invite a universal view of life but also suggest methods for their deconstruction.

The poem “Courtyards in Delft” (p. 120)3 is a case in point. Inasmuch as it gives enough detail about the painting under scrutiny it is descriptive—a study of de Hooch's piece confirms the accuracy and attentiveness of Mahon's eye. However, the poem is actively interpretative in three ways. To begin with, the vocabulary employed goes beyond the function of mere description. “Oblique”, “thrifty”, “modest but adequate”, “clings”, “trim composure”—all of which occur in the first stanza—contribute to Mahon's effort to convey an image of “chaste / Perfection”. His diction is partisan. It eases the task of stanza two, effacing itself to an extent because of the tenor it suggests. If stanza one is largely concerned with telling us what the painting is, stanza two informs us as to what it is not. The conventions and details prominent in seventeenth century Dutch painting are absent from this example from de Hooch. We may “miss the dirty dog, the fiery gin”, yet this austerity is, one feels, a true reflection of life. Mahon applauds de Hooch's refusal to force a point. In any case, we are left with a strong impression of a place where “nothing goes to waste”.

The third interpretative effort coincides with Mahon's personalisation of the painting and poem. Here, he imagines himself as having lived as a boy in the house whose courtyard is depicted by de Hooch. Mahon has explained his attraction to de Hooch and Vermeer as stemming from a recognition of their protestant bourgeois townscapes, so reminiscent of his native Belfast.4 Now, the link is established by this imaginative leap and the authenticity of the descriptions, as if from memory:

I lived there as a boy and know the coal
Glittering in its shed, late-afternoon
Lambency informing the deal table,
The ceiling cradled in a radiant spoon.

Mahon contrasts himself with his “hard-nosed companions” who dream of warfare while he contents himself with “a taste for verse”. The final line of the poem, however, shifts the focus entirely. Obviously referring to Dutch colonial expansion in the Africa of the time, Mahon describes one theatre of war as “parched veldt” but it is not until the last word that his personalisation of the painting is given a concrete political basis. The “fields of rain-swept gorse” conjure images of the Williamite campaign in Ireland, a central historical event in the culture not only of Mahon's Belfast but of the whole island. The incongruity of the word “gorse” in a text whose ostensible exercise is criticism of a European work of art allows for an alternative reading of the poem, one in which Mahon is attempting to understand his own cultural heritage. The device in the poem paradoxically enables the objectivity needed to evaluate one's own past.

The European character of “Courtyards in Delft” is an example of the type of tensions in Mahon's poetry. He urges us to make the connections available to us in a text where the discordant images facilitate a deeper interpretation. The internationalism of this method of investigation draws attention to the universality of local themes, suggesting that a Dutch masterpiece depicts ordinary people and objects and that the present political chaos in the North is related to the abstract historical entity of Dutch colonialism. The complexity of Mahon's poems reflects a complex political understanding.

Another poem which derives its impetus from this two-way relationship is “Death and the Sun” (p. 192). Here Mahon constructs the polar relation between the global and the provincial in a more obvious way by alternating between Ulster and the international terrain of Camus's writings. The initial tactic here is to establish a temporal bond between himself and the subject of this elegy. Camus's death is related side by side with details of Mahon's teenage activities at the time, thus, grounding the international in the familiar. We relate to Camus through Mahon.

A web of influence and shared outlooks is elaborated, establishing Ulster as a counterpoint to Camus's universality and aligning Mahon's philosophy with humanist existentialism. The mention of his mother in stanza one is a deliberate link with The Outsider,5 suggesting a connection between Mahon and Mersault. This connection is extended in stanza three when the racial tensions of French Algeria, which provide a metaphor for Mersault's inner conflicts, are transferred to the pre-1968 sectarian Ulster of Mahon's youth. Initial naivety gives way to a dour worldliness.

This level of personalisation is a mode of interpretation which dexterously balances a summary of the Northern situation with an overview of Camus's development as a writer and philosopher. The internal tensions erupt into a plague of violence and rats where the “cordon sanitaire” and “‘St. James Infirmary’” occupy the same topography.

Thus, familiarity with Camus's work leads Mahon to examine more judiciously the real environment of Ulster on which a study of Camus is intended to throw light. In stanza four, Mahon depicts a province rigidly entrenched in its own social anachronisms, signified most adequately by “Wee shadows fighting in a smoky cave / Who would one day be brought to light”. Mahon both embraces Camus's “kind” and indicates how he feels his home province might escape its plague. A radical shift in how Ireland perceives and deals with its problems is urged. The disabling and stagnant rituals of myth need to be supplanted by an existentialist mode of political and social expression, making the social individual and not the anonymous tribe the focus of its activity.

The scenario suggested by “smoky cave”, “Sisyphus' descendants” and “neolithic troglodyte” is one where evolution, if not time, has stopped. Mahon's poetry, with its philosophical undercurrents, is invariably forward-moving and here the humanist existentialism of Camus, rejecting suicide and political stagnation, prompts Mahon in the final stanza to envisage the day when the caveman quits his “dark cinema” to stand

                                                                      … at last,
Absurd and anxious, out in the open air
And gazes, shading his eyes, at the world there.

“Death and the Sun” is not in itself proof that Mahon sponsors the existentialist approach. However, it does illustrate how he has assimilated that “style of philosophizing”,6 what his sources are and to what purpose he applies its concepts of thought and action. The attempt to discuss the North, so bogged down in the stasis of opposing mythologies, within the parameters of a Continental mode of thought that has hardly taken root in Ireland and Britain, is itself a radical contribution to a political dispute. If Mahon's internationalism highlights Ireland's insularity it also offers the opportunity for participation in universal dialogues.

Mahon's ‘nuclear’ “Tithonus” (p. 168) is in many ways a synthesis of his techniques and aims in the ‘art’ poem. Prompted by Tennyson's poem rather than a version of it, it transforms nineteenth century Romantic despair into modern existential anxiety. Its points of reference are numerous, from the epigraphs quoting Beckett and the Bible, to Greek legend and Heraclitus. Its history is truly international—Genghis Khan, Krakatoa, Thermopylae, Hiroshima—and yet minutely local—“the leaf-plink // Of rain-drops”, “the lizard-flick // In the scrub”, “the changing clouds”. “Tithonus” functions as a condensation of the strains between the individual and the social, between the minute and the international. Its formal structure enhances the impression that Tithonus's misery comprises mental youth but physical decay, the stanzas so compressed that a rhythm is barely maintained to link the catalogue of observations.

Mahon utilises the Tithonus legend as a metaphor for his own artistic condition. The majority of his poems involve a conflict with history in which artistic independence is set off against the historical forces at work within the “tribe”. In “Tithonus” the voice of the poem is wearied by the hopeless march of history and terrified by the prospect of “Another eternity, / Perish the thought”. The metaphor dramatises Mahon's situation by making connections from the unfamiliar to the familiar, projecting his case onto a screen where the various symbols are universally recognisable and accepted.

However, the more fundamental significance of this myth is that, in relation to Northern Ireland, it implicitly includes the tribal and sectarian unrest there in its weary catalogue of a destructive history. Vast campaigns of terror and annihilation, holocausts, nuclear devastation, barbarity, all merit just a mention in Tithonus's inventory of past events. Now, “nature is dead” and an “unquiet silence” reigns. The victim can speak for the first time:

The irony here
Is that I survive
While the gods
Who so decreed,
And so many more,
Are long since dead.

The metaphor implies that only outside or beyond history can the artist speak, but with no community to hear his words, the freedom is useless. Thus, Mahon imaginatively dramatises his own dilemma. The corollary of this is that the futility of violence—the standard historical mode of human expression—is brought to its logical end. The prophetic tone here is merely a rarefied form of fear since Mahon's distaste for conventional historical being is nevertheless tempered by a genuine belief in humankind. Basically, Mahon's objectivity and philosophical detachment are methods of understanding. His attraction to international art is both a means of giving himself creative space and a way of investigating his own frailties in a wider cultural and social context.

Mahon's versions and translations underline his “commitment to change”.7 Basic thematic fidelity is nevertheless not a restriction on Mahon's ability to incorporate these poems into his oeuvre in a revelatory way. Of course, he is free to choose which writers he translates but the degree to which they are accommodated only makes their choice more interesting. Versions of Villon and Corbière, for instance, highlight a motif common in Mahon's poetry, that of the lonely artist, severed from his community, suffering with “A lifelong intimate … called Ennui” in order to write yet questioning the merit and relevance of what he produces. This is a fundamental concern in Jaccottet also. To be sure, Mahon's attraction to these writers provides a new perspective on his work in the way that Imitations does on Lowell's. Common ground is a good basis for critical enquiry.

However, the most notable point in these poems is that the vocabulary and use of language are entirely Mahon's. This is a prerequisite for sensitive translation, of course, but in Mahon the familiarity extends to content. Jaccottet's mistrust of words and poetry, Nerval's phenomenological enquiry into spirituality, Pasternak's fundamental faith in human beings, are all themes intrinsic to Mahon's poetics.

Looking to ‘international’ London and New York for his critical yardstick, Mahon has adjusted Yeats's advice by learning a good deal of his trade from international writers. Summoning a community of artists who share the same concerns as himself, he authenticates his own poetic stance both by showing evidence of an orbit of themes beyond the narrowly local and by identifying with that artistic circle. Translation is almost an ideal medium for this since the basic concepts of the original remain intact and yet they have been domesticated or familiarised by virtue of the translator's poetic diction.

“Brecht in Svendborg”8 is a fascinating example of how Mahon ‘translates’. The poem is, in fact, a collage of excerpts from English versions of Brecht's Svenderborger Gedichte9 blended into a typical Mahon form, a sort of hybrid of version and ‘art’ poem. “Brecht in Svendborg” is divided into two parts, “A Danish Refuge” and “To the Unborn”. Already we can recognise hints of common Mahon themes—exile and apocalypse. In the first section, we are presented with a picture of Brecht at work, exiled in Denmark while the Nazis perform naval manoeuvres in the nearby sea. The scene is one specific to Brecht, detailed by the mention of Galileo, a poster from the Schiffbauerdamm and a short catalogue of other mementoes from home, to “make everything familiar”. It is this detail which establishes the pain of Brecht's exile and this pain registers as familiar with readers of Mahon. In other words, up to this point, Mahon's attraction to these Brecht poems is primarily on a thematic level since there is little scope for personalisation. The final stanza, however, strikes a note which recalls his own effort to understand exile:

This could be home from home
If things were otherwise.
Twice daily the mails come
Up the sound in a ship.
I notice that the house
Has four doors for escape …

This is an unmistakable echo of the second part of “Afterlives” (p. 50) in which Mahon returns to Belfast, painfully conscious of himself as a stranger in his home town. The point is, however, both for Brecht and Mahon, that things are not otherwise. The necessity of escape is physically evident, both as a theatrical metaphor for Brecht and a shattered reality for Mahon. The linking image in each is the ship, bringing mail from home for Brecht, bringing Mahon home to the unrecognisable “places I grew up in”.

The second section of the poem, “To the Unborn” is much more obviously re-worked by Mahon. An apocalyptic air pervades the poem, one not so easily dispelled as it is in “One of these Nights” (p. 150). Here, the unborn symbolise the judgemental future generations, confronting Brecht just as the “ideal society which will replace our own”10 seems to exercise Mahon. Imagining an extreme future—of kindness or of vegetable and mineral dominion—polarises the argument which in turn highlights deficiencies, as Mahon's international themes reflect on what is narrow-mindedly local in Irish literature. Thematically, this section focuses on the notion of artistic responsibility. Conscious of living in “a dark time” Brecht suffers anxiety over the morality of his occupation as a writer and the ethics of surviving in exile, pained by the thought of what is happening at home—in the real world—yet somehow inoculated against it. Like Tithonus, he suffers in spite of his concern, a victim of his own artistic conscience.

“To the unborn who will emerge / From the deluge / In which we drown” Brecht begs for lenity. Again, this is reminiscent of Mahon's numerous “ventriloquised”11 pleas to the gods not to abandon us. There is a fundamentally Christian mind at work here in which the fear of abandonment, of being banished to a godless eternity like Tithonus, compels a rigorous self-examination. Mahon is willing to adopt the voice of the poet as speaker and observer. The issues tackled here encompass more than Brecht's Nazi Germany or Mahon's sectarian Belfast. Specific ills are merely symptoms. Although they must be faced, only a broader knowledge will make the prospect of a “kind future” feasible.

Mahon's version of Brecht typifies a technique of his whereby the translator's magnet is run over the disparate elements of content, form and diction in both parties to the operation, realigning the pieces into a new, conglomerate whole. In “Brecht in Svendborg” we witness Mahon's urge to prophesy, a compulsion that is born of his lack of belonging to and distance from the world. In “Pythagorean Lines”,12 a more faithful rendering of Nerval's original than “The Mute Phenomena”, Mahon reveals to us one of the sources of his phenomenological approach to man's loss of spirituality. Again, this is a mode for approaching the universal ills of man. Mahon adopts the same indignant tone as Nerval,

Man, do you think yourself the one reflective
Thing in this lively world?
[Homme, libre penseur, te crois-tu seul pensant
Dans ce monde où la vie éclate en toute chose?(13)]

incredulous of man's false superiority and sounding a note of warning to those who do not exist within nature. He captures the brightness of tone and delivery which saves Nerval's original from self-righteousness. In “The Mute Phenomena” Mahon is far less patient with those who. “disregard the satire / Bandied among the mute phenomena”. He mocks their empty sense of self-importance:

Be strong if you must, your brusque hegemony
Means fuck-all to the somnolent sun-flower
Or the extinct volcano.

Both of Mahon's versions enumerate the ordinary inanimate objects amongst which not only a ‘civilisation’ exists but God hides. Translating Nerval enables him to provide a thematic focus for work such as “The Studio”, “Lives”, “Ovid in Tomis” and “Table Talk”, where this notion of susceptibility is also an affirmation of the rich possibilities of life. Of course, the distance insinuated between a fatigued humankind and the deprived “soft / Vegetables where our / Politics were conceived”14 and the “Shy minerals”15 establishes a polarity in order to scrutinise the human species. Mahon uses contrast to achieve clarity, subjecting all to a rigorous scientific investigation in a country where “the fog / Of time receives the idealogue”.16 His awareness of the imaginative possibilities of life beyond the inadequacy of political interaction serves as a base from which to work towards understanding.

Mahon's ascription of life to inanimate things is a written variation on a painter's technique, one to which he draws attention. In “The Studio” (p. 30), originally entitled “Edward Munch”, Mahon brings the earthy quality of Munch's studio a logical step further, imputing to the “deal table”, the “ranged crockery”, the “frail / Oilcloth” and the “simple bulb in the ceiling” an organic desire to return to their roots or at least escape the “quivering silence” of the manmade environment. Similarly, in “A Portrait of the Artist” (p. 20), originally entitled “Van Gogh among the Miners”, Mahon has the artist explain his painting as

A meteor of golden light
On chairs, faces and old boots,
Setting fierce fire to the eyes
Of sun-flowers and fishing boats,
Each one a miner in disguise.

Likewise, Mahon seeks to celebrate life. If “God gutters down to metaphor”, then Mahon responds to life in its alternative, imaginative manifestations.

“Pythagorean Lines” is more explicit in its handling of this theme. Although close to Nerval's original, it echoes Mahon's earlier version and thereby implies a sense of apocalypse, as if human life was about to be replaced by a God-sponsored hegemony of inanimate objects. In other words, Mahon uses this theme to invigorate his search for clarity and not necessarily to promote a non-human civilisation. His development of the theme is almost scientific, lacking the sensuality of Baudelaire who also touched on this idea in “Correspondances”.17 The “occasional cries of despair” from Munch's furniture symbolise an awareness of our divorce from our original selves and perhaps Mahon is conscious of how faint his voice is in a dehumanised and dehumanising society of advanced technology and jaded ideologies.

Nevertheless, the poet must continue to speak with integrity and honesty, no matter how faint his or her voice. This fundamental belief links Mahon to Philippe Jaccottet with whom he shares a profound doubt about the validity of poetry and the poetic act, but in the face of which he nonetheless continues to write. “The Sea in Winter” (p. 113), “Rock Music” (p. 100) and “Table Talk” (p. 139) depict the poet in isolation, cut off from the rest of the world by the nature of his occupation. It is this distance from the ‘real’ world which initiates doubt since operating on the periphery of life invariably begs questions about relevance and responsibility. Jaccottet's poetry is similarly abundant with images of the poet in solitude, ill at ease with the world outside yet dissatisfied with his own contribution to it.

The uniformity and evenness of Mahon's translations of Jaccottet attest to the common ground they share. They appear to occupy a space close to Beckett, their doubts seeming to invite silence rather than active change. However, Jaccottet finds Beckett “too systematic”18 and is more prepared to articulate his doubts even if he does not attempt to formulate a theory of man from them. In this respect he differs from Mahon who not only presents us with difficulties but tries to make sense of them within the poem; Jaccottet is often content to bring disparate ideas and images into a new relationship, suggesting connections without making statements.

Mahon's consciousness of Jaccottet's doubts reflect on his own relation to society. “It's easy to talk and writing words on the page / doesn't involve much risk as a general rule” (p. 121) is a typical Jaccottet utterance and one which points to anxieties in Mahon's work. Regarding himself as a writer of “obsolete bumph” and “an ephemeral stream of literature”, Mahon is certainly aware of poetry's marginality yet there is also a sense that his defiant stance has pushed him to the periphery of a hostile society. Doubts about poetry are invariably a means for strengthening his commitment to what is, by definition, a lonely trade.

The poem which begins “Afraid, ignorant, scarcely alive,” (p. 95) is a concise dramatisation of these doubts. Committed to the search for truth, the poet is always consigned to the edges of a materialist society. The sought-for truth, however, is relevant to that society and the poet's peripheral position inevitably raises questions about his or her credentials for the task. No one is more conscious of this than the poet:

Me, a sheltered poet,
reprieved, hardly suffering
to go staking out tracks down there!

A possibility here is to give up one's position, to stop taking the “easy” option of talking and writing, yet the poet perseveres:

Now, my lamp extinguished,
my hand more shaky, wandering,
I slowly start again in the open air.

A poet's human frailties will always entail digressions and sorties into counter-productive areas yet the optimism of a continued search is surely preferable to the stasis of silence.

In “End of Winter” (p. 61) this fundamental faith in the act of poetry receives a slightly more whole-hearted vote of confidence:

Not much, nothing to dispel
the fear of wasting space
is left the itinerant soul
Except perhaps a voice
unconfident and light,
uncertainly put forth,
with which to celebrate
the reaches of the earth.

The Beckettian landscape suggested here, in which the hostile world prompts despair but reveals the genesis of hope and affirmation, seems to be an elemental counterpart to Mahon's eve of the Apocalypse. This is the classical notion that the human being in extremis discovers his or her own nobility.

Despite Jaccottet's move away from traditional forms, these translations offer an illuminating perspective on Mahon's own work. Jaccottet is equally ready to “discern the halo round a frying-pan”19 while his concern with the act of poetry serves to re-focus attention on Mahon's notions of art and responsibility. The translations afford an opportunity to understand how Mahon perceives his own functioning as a poet.

The international aspect of Mahon's writing is thus both an intrinsic characteristic of his poetry and a means to an end. A closer look at the modus operandi of the ‘international’ poems reveals a two-way process at work in which the cosmopolitan, enlightened voice is interchangeable with an uncertain, doubtful one. The confidence of pieces which internalise the major concepts and trends of European art is often moderated by an awareness of the divisions out of which that art was created. A poem such as “Knut Hamsun in Old Age” (p. 132), for instance, merges details from Hamsun's novels and life, presenting as a source of conflict artistic excellence and personal doggedness and indifference. Hamsun's social and political faux pas are regarded in the light of his art so that Mahon draws attention to all the forces which contribute to the man and the work. The artifice of Mahon's poems, in effect, disguises their personal and political origins.

As with Hamsun, the major question for Mahon is how artistic integrity can be maintained in relation to society. Andreas Tangen in Hunger20 flouts all social conventions, behaving like a madman in public as a physical and spiritual hunger saps his energy, unable to write without bodily sustenance yet afraid to stop up the taps to his creative sources. Mahon exists in this dilemma. His work raises and suggests answers to questions about art and society, just as his Europeanism confronts notions about a national literature and redefines its constituencies. Watching us a citizen of the world he is waiting to come home.


  1. “Harriet Cooke talks to the Poet Derek Mahon”, The Irish Times, 17 January 1973, p. 10.

  2. Joseph Brodsky, “In the Shadow of Dante”, Less Than One (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987), p. 105.

  3. All page references are to Selected Poems(London and Oldcastle: Viking and Gallery, 1990) unless otherwise stated.

  4. In a lecture and slide-show, “A Poet Looks at Paintings”, in the National Gallery of Ireland, 6 March 1990.

  5. Albert Camus, The Outsider, trans. by Joseph Laredo (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983).

  6. John Macquarrie, Existentialism (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), Chapter 1.

  7. John Byrne, “Derek Mahon: A Commitment to Change”, The Crane Bag, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Greystones, 1982), pp. 62-72.

  8. In The Hunt by Night (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 17. I have chosen this version of the poem since Part 2 is not included in Selected Poems.

  9. Bertolt Brecht, Poems 1913-1956 (London: Eyre Methuen, 1979).

  10. “The Mute Phenomena”, p. 64.

  11. Seamus Deane, “Derek Mahon: Freedom from History”, in Celtic Revivals (London: Faber, 1985), p. 157.

  12. Derek Mahon, The Chimeras (Dublin: Gallery, 1982), p. 20.

  13. Gérard de Nerval, “Vers Dorés”, Oeuvres, Vol. I (Paris: Gallimard, 1974), p. 8.

  14. “The Golden Bough”, Poems 1962-1978, p. 66.

  15. “The Antigone Riddle”, Poems 1962-1978, p. 67.

  16. “Derry Morning”, p. 123.

  17. Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal (Paris: Librairie, José Corti, 1968), p. 34.

  18. Philippe Jaccottet, Selected Poems, selected and trans. with an introduction by Derek Mahon (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1988), Introduction, p. 9. Page references are to this edition unless otherwise stated.

  19. Jaccottet, Selected Poems, Introduction, p. 13. John Byrne quotes the same phrase to describe Mahon's poetry in his Crane Bag article, p. 62.

  20. Knut Hamsun, Hunger, trans. by Robert Bly (London: Picador, 1976).

Tim Kendall (essay date winter 1994)

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SOURCE: Kendall, Tim. “‘Leavetakings and Homecomings’: Derek Mahon's Belfast.” Eire-Ireland 29, no. 4 (winter 1994): 101-16.

[In the following essay, Kendall looks at Mahon's relation to his birthplace of Belfast, Ireland. Kendall sees in Mahon a strong rejection of Belfast and a discomfort with his connection to the city, but he argues that Mahon depends upon Belfast as the inspiration for his best work.]

Derek Mahon's reputation for being “culturally rootless,”1 inculcated with all the force of critical consensus, owes its authority to no one more than to the poet himself. Noting how his contemporary Seamus Heaney digs “deeper and deeper into his home ground,” Mahon by comparison pleads ignorance of his proper “place,” declaring himself a poet who, coincidentally enough, “just happened to be born in Belfast.”2 However, such strenuous and often unprovoked denials betray a fundamental anxiety that the poet's home ground may have been more formative, and less easy to escape, than he would willingly admit. Heaney's telling description of Mahon as “the Stephen Dedalus of Belfast”3 captures his friend's determination to fly by the nets of origins and obligations; but the tag—for which Heaney later apologizes—fixes Mahon in the very “home ground” of Belfast he so desperately strives to renounce.

Mahon's guilt-ridden stance, embracing both the desire for freedom and a stubborn love of the origins he would betray by refusing to serve, continually wrenches his early work. In “Glengormley,” a poem dating from before the “Troubles” and titled after the Belfast district where he grew up, the poet is caught between rival forces until finally forced to acknowledge both his origins and the concomitant impossibility of ever abandoning them. The place is described in stereotypically suburban terms, with the poem's opening line, taken from the Chorus of Antigone, at first seeming merely to instill disappointed bathos:

Wonders are many and none is more wonderful than man
Who has tamed the terrier, trimmed the hedge
And grasped the principle of the watering-can.(4)

These “tame” pleasures are contrasted with violent, heroic struggles from myth and history, but Mahon's persona ultimately opts for a present tranquillity as rational as it is, in a romantic sense, unpoetical. This decision comes at a cost. The reference to Nerval—one of the “unreconciled” who “dangle from lamp-posts,” having hanged himself from a streetlight with a length of chain—reveals that poet's discontent with mundane existence, to which Mahon adds his own voice in the conclusion: “By / Necessity, if not choice, I live here too.” An admirer of Nerval, Mahon has translated Les Chimères. Yet, even accepting that with the death of heroes “much dies with them,” Mahon nevertheless chooses the banality of peace over the poetic frisson of conflict; “Glengormley” would take issue with Yeats's comment that, for a poet, the Chinese curse “May you live in interesting times” is a blessing. Still, Mahon is tied to his place despite himself, living there “by necessity” because, even in his absence, it will always be home. The line from Sophocles, it ultimately transpires, should be taken literally; “Glengormley” is a reluctant paean to a Belfast suburb from which the poet cannot extricate himself.

The city recurs both as a metaphor and reality throughout Mahon's first volume Night-Crossing. “The Death of Marilyn Monroe” precludes escape as urban imagery extends to fill the whole cosmos: stars scatter ash “Down the cold back streets of the Zodiac” (P [Poems 1962-1978] 7). But escape is granted to “De Quincey at Grasmere,” who acquires in the Lake District all the creature comforts necessary of a “Perihelion of Paradise” yet, haunted by nightmares, yearns once more for the days of wandering “Soho after dark / With Anne” (P 10), looking for the “panacea” which, now, attained “home” at Grasmere, has proven illusory. A similar destiny awaits the speaker of “An Unborn Child,” who interprets the mother's body as a “metropolis,” and eagerly anticipates the forthcoming exile, while failing to foresee the unpalatable fate which its own monologue accidentally reveals.

The opening sentence of “An Unborn Child”—”I have already come to the verge of / Departure”—rehearses imminent expulsion through its enjambment and captures the bay's impatience at its continuing confinement as it batters at “the concavity of [its] caul” and begins to “put on the manners of the world” (P 18). However, for all his self-assurance, the baby understands dangerously little about the world at large: the data “vested” in its bones encompass trivialities such as the goldfish on the shelf, the kitten, even the telephone's “dead filament,” but this “pandemonium of encumbrances” supposedly cannot “even dwarf the dimensions of my hand.” Ignorant of the potential insidiousness of “encumbrances,” the baby looks forward to experiencing them sensually:

                                                                                          ‘I want to live!’
This is my first protest, and shall be my last.
As I am innocent, everything I do
Or say is couched in the affirmative.
I want to see, hear, touch, and taste
These things with which I am encumbered.
Perhaps I needn't worry. Give
Or take a day or two, my days are numbered.

The concept of invisible restriction evades his limited intelligence. Yet, several time the monologue points to darker truths: the baby's mother sits sewing “the white shrouds / Of my apotheosis,” but birth expels the child into a world where “shrouds” take on a more sinister significance than a child can solipsistically imagine. Intimations of mortality become still more intrusive as plans for the future are made: the baby's defiant boast that “‘I want to live’” will be its last protest unwittingly serves as a reminder that life's end is usually unwelcome; and the poem concludes with a killing irony: “Give / Or take a day or two, my days are numbered.” The longed-for escape from the “metropolis,” when it finally arrives, proves a prelude to death.

While mocking the ignorance of solipsism, “An Unborn Child” tacitly insists that freedom can only exist within bounds, so that the metropolitan womb, which “fits me like a glove / While leaving latitude for a free hand,” represents the optimum situation after which even such restricted liberty is denied. Because the desire for release has its origins in a fetal instinct, the poet damns all mankind as either trapped inside a claustrophobic city, or worse, nomadically exiled from an original home which is the only source of comfort and inspiration. In these circumstances, escape often becomes reduced to a daydream which placates entrapment. So, the schoolmaster of “Teaching in Belfast” imagines setting out “with a generous lady to the glittering west” where the music of the spheres can play uninterrupted by an urban din which includes “the cries of children / Screaming of bells, the rattle of milk-bottles / Footfall echoes of jails and hospitals” (P 31). The claustrophobia of the city, with its menacing presence of jails and hospitals, is mitigated not by escape itself, but by what the poem calls the “fantasy” of escape. By comparison, “Day Trip to Donegal,” a mediocre poem which does actually seek temporary respite in the Irish West, finds, like De Quincey, that the dream of elsewhere is all, because, once attained, the promised panacea offers no cure. Deliberately sounding like a hackneyed travel brochure, Mahon notes that “As ever, the nearby hills were a deeper green / Than anywhere in the world” (P 17), with the pat superlative suggesting barely masked flippancy. In fact, the poem never really engages with Donegal; nothing about the area's description distinguishes it from any other piece of coastline containing a fishing village, and the journey back home to the suburbs of Belfast begins after only twelve of thirty lines. That night the protagonist feels “the slow sea” eroding his skull, and by dawn finds himself “far out at sea” and curses his “failure to take due / Forethought for this,” and “this” presumably refers to the shattering of the idyllic fantasy of freedom and tranquillity in the West of Ireland, and disruption of the city's fetal comforts.

“Day Trip to Donegal” supports Mahon's disingenuous comment, describing Louis MacNeice:

‘A tourist in his own country’, it has been said, with the implication that this is somehow discreditable. But of what sensitive person is the same not true? The phrase might stand, indeed, as an epitaph for Modern Man, beside Camus's ‘He made love and read the newspapers’.5

However, Belfast actually discomforts Mahon for the opposite reason: rather than being merely a tourist, he actually belongs there. Escape, even when possible, produces only guilty regret and the urge to return. The uncollected poem “An Irishman in London” gives early voice to Mahon's leavetaking-homecoming compulsion as his speaker boasts with undisguised élan, “Now I am truly rootless, having outstripped / The streets of home;” but having failed to locate “peace of mind,” he more diffidently recognizes that “I must go forward to go back, and back / In order to go forward.”6 Similarly, “The Spring Vacation,” despite its self-chastisement over a perceived infidelity to origins, unwittingly records a congenital attachment to home. An earlier version of “The Spring Vacation” was published in Icarus, the literary magazine of Trinity College, Dublin,7 and the poem is dedicate to Michael Longley whom Mahon first met there. The poem's occasion is, therefore, presumably Mahon's return to Belfast between university terms and his growing disaffection from his home city; the poem's evolution seems to confirm this theme, for its current evasive title replaced the more specific “In Belfast.” Yet, the poem opens “Walking among my own this windy morning” (P 4), an acknowledgment of belonging which contrasts, for example, with the divisive class-consciousness in MacNeice's “Belfast” of “Us who walk in the street so buoyantly and glib.”8

One of the Mahon's earliest poems, “The Spring Vacation” broaches a theme which has since been consciously evoked by his contemporaries. Rebuking himself for indifference in the final stanza, Mahon warns himself that

One part of my mind must learn to know its place.
The things that happen in the kitchen houses
And echoing back streets of this desperate city
Should engage more than my casual interest,
Exact more interest than my casual pity.

In “Station Island,” at a moment of intense self-revulsion, Seamus Heaney despises “how quick I was to know my place,” along with everything else that made him “biddable and unforthcoming.”9 In both examples, knowing one's place involves far more than just feeling at home. A community which annexes power to group values must suppress any individual liberty posing a threat to the social fabric. Heaney's apparent contradiction—”biddable and unforthcoming”—blames him for kowtowing to expectation and stifling for so long any dreams of escape and freedom. By contrast, Mahon chastises himself for detachment from home. Both poets, even while attacking them, are reinforcing the terms of their reputations—Heaney as champion of the parochial and Mahon as urbane world-citizen. However, in “The Spring Vacation” Mahon's treatment of home has more in common with Heaney's than MacNeice's, as the poem's opening line suggests. Heaney's self-loathing at being able to “sleepwalk with connivance and mistrust” also corresponds to a similar complicity in his supposedly rootless friend: resuming the “old conspiracy,” Mahon's antennae are well attuned to pick up the secret dialect of his tribe, and quickly yield to the “humorous formulae, / The hidden menace in the knowing nod.” Although Mahon, more often than Heaney, finds his home community contemptible—hence the Paisleyite rhetoric of “Ecclesiastes,” or the bloody fanaticism of “As It Should Be”—he nevertheless feels a “perverse pride” in “being on the side / Of the fallen angels and refusing to get up.” This inverted civic pride pledges allegiance to the very home which elsewhere in the poem Mahon accuses himself of abandoning. So, the final stanza, boasting of freedom of spirit while apparently censuring it, is founded on a presumption which much of “The Spring Vacation” undermines: its tone of semi-ironic self-reproach masks the realization that the liberty vaunted by the poet may yet prove an illusion.

Locating a latent belief in animism throughout Brian Moore's novels, Mahon notes that in them “an object … is more than the sum of its atoms. It preserves within it the racial memory of its raw material, as a wardrobe might have heard of the Crucifixion.”10 This concept of animism, similar to the Jungian “racial memory” often found in Heaney's early work, provides the key to several of Mahon's own poems in which the detritus of modern civilization, exiled from its source, longs for home. In the wonderfully economical “Nostalgias,”

The chair squeaks in a high wind,
Rain falls from its branches,
The kettle yearns for the
Mountain, the soap for the sea.
In a tiny stone church
On the desolate headland
A lost tribe is singing ‘Abide With Me’.

(P 68)

The chair, kettle, and soap yearn for their prenatal state just as the “lost tribe” of the Northern Protestant community singing “Abide With Me” remains self-righteously assured of its state of election even as it finds itself furthest from God. “Nostalgias” reiterates the crucial difference between rootlessness and uprootedness: the poem's objects long for the fetal comforts of a home from which they have been irrevocably exiled.

Mahon's most famous poem, “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford,” calls for wholesale commitment to the poet's “people.” However, now the enslaved community begging its poet descendant to “speak on their behalf” is even more insultingly portrayed as indistinguishable mushrooms “in a foetor / Of vegetable sweat” (P 79) in a long-abandoned shed. The opening line—“Even now there are places where a thought might grow”—presents an enervated world in which even such limited potential gives cause for surprise. Organically rooted rather than inspirational, these thoughts grow only in long-derelict sites such as “worked out” Peruvian mines and Indian compounds where a door “bangs with diminished confidence”; the gradual winding-down into sterility is reflected by the “disused shed” located in the grounds of a “burnt-out hotel” and abandoned for half a century. The mushrooms trapped inside have remained isolated from the world at large, crowding a keyhole which is “the one star in their firmament,” and hearing only rooks nearby, an irregular “shout from the blue” or “a lorry changing gear at the end of the lane.” Yet, even limited contact makes them yearn for freedom: the speaker asks, “What should they do there but desire?”—some of them having been “so long / Expectant that there is left only the posture.” By the time the door is opened, they have become hideously deformed, so corrupted by their confinement that there is scarcely any sign of life. Nevertheless, the free man who surveys them still recognizes his burden of responsibility:

‘Save us, save us,’ they seem to say,
‘Let the god not abandon us
Who have come so far in darkness and in pain.
We too had our lives to live.
You with your light meter and relaxed itinerary,
Let not our naive labours have been in vain!’

The pun on “light meter” implicates the poet in the mushrooms' predicament, but the poem ends with his reaction unresolved, trapped between complicity and an outright non serviam—like the poem itself. He imagines the grotesque mushrooms asking him “To do something” as he stands immobile in the doorway, unable either to “close the door on them again” and walk away or to “speak on their behalf.” This frozen tableau lies at the heart of Mahon's work.

The conclusion of ‘A Disused Shed’ typifies an exhausted torpor running throughout Lives and The Snow Party, for the contradictory responsibilities of home and flight prohibit either conciliation or a choice between alternatives. The inability to act is displayed most emphatically in “The Last of the Fire Kings.” where even the imagination, a vital refuge for “Teaching in Belfast” and earlier poems, now provides no sanctuary. The Fire King has become locked in the “barbarous cycle” of waiting for a usurper to depose and kill him, take his place, and in turn wait to be deposed (P 64). For a moment, his assertion of free will threatens to break the chain: he pictures an escapee who “vanishes / Where the road turns,” or another who jumps at night from a moving train in a land where, because he does not know “a word of the language,” he can remain linguistically free. When these dreams evaporate, he toys with his last chance of escape, declaring himself “Through with history” and determining to “Die by my own hand” so as to destroy the cycle. However, the expectations of his tribe trammel in an irrevocable destiny. The refuge the Fire King perfects for himself, a “palace of porcelain” whose coldness represents the ultimate escape from the “fire-loving / People,” exists only “out of time.” Finally, the Fire king gives up any hope of individual volition, submitting himself to the community's demands:

But the fire-loving
People, rightly perhaps,
Will not countenance this,
Demanding that I inhabit,
Like them, a world of
Sirens, bin-lids
And bricked-up windows—
Not to release them
From their ancient curse
But to die their creature and be thankful.

(P 65)

This startling reversion to the ruined site of Belfast—“Sirens, bin-lids / And bricked-up windows”—embroils Mahon's own art in the Fire King's entrapment. The contemplative life is prohibited: the tribe chains his destiny to theirs and demand that he assume the responsibilities of leader and spokesman which will eventually destroy him. Darker than Mahon's early poems, “The Last of the Fire Kings” finds no escape even in the artistic imagination.

As its title suggests, “The Snow Party” constitutes a companion piece to “The Last of the Fire Kings,” embodying the “palace of porcelain” about which the Fire King fantasizes. The poem's form reiterates a sense of mutually exclusive worlds, as the poet Bashō, invited to a snow party, admires the almost epiphanic tranquillity of falling snow, while “elsewhere,” hygienically cordoned off in their own stanzas, the brutalities of the Fire King's realm are enacted:

Elsewhere they are burning
Witches and heretics
In the boiling squares,
Thousands have died since dawn
In the service of barbarous kings;
But there is silence
In the houses of Nagoya
And the hills of Ise.

(P 63)

Although the purity of the contemplative life is sullied by the demands of “elsewhere.” Bashō seems oblivious to any disruptive duty. That final stanza, returning to the snow party, creates if anything an even more serene, sanitized atmosphere than before. The poem's panoramic perspective questions the responsibility of Bashō's limited vision, the Fire King, after all, recognized a duty to stay. “The Snow Party” conveys a haiku-like economy, but also a bland world where, despite the introductions, people remain curiously faceless, where human interaction is non-existent, and where the lines describing “a tinkling of china / And tea into china” suggest, in the Mahon's masterful repetition of “china,” an unappealing facade of formality. The poem does not dismiss the achieved fantasy of escape as forthrightly as “De Quincey at Grasmere” or “Day Trip to Donegal”; nevertheless, it regrets the autonomous frigidity of the aesthetic moment, which misses what the speaker of Heaney's “Exposure,” freshly “Escaped from the massacre,” calls “The once-in-a-lifetime portent / The comet's pulsing rose.”11

Several poems in The Snow Party, along with the new work at the end of Poems 1962-1978, mark a rejection of the “palace of porcelain” and of the snow party's realm by returning to the city from which Mahon's earlier work struggles to escape. Writing in the introduction to their Penguin Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry, Mahon and Peter Fallon note that throughout the anthology “home” is “the word most frequently dwelt on … as if uncertainty exists as to where that actually is.”12 As “The Spring Vacation” indicates, Mahon's “desperate city” exacts its fair share of “interest” because one part of his mind has learned to know its place all too well. Nor do Mahon's homecoming poems suffer any doubt about their destination, dwelling on the word “home” because it actually is the fixed point of origin around which all else revolves. So obsessed is Mahon with homecoming that even his titles become confusingly repetitious: “Going Home,” for example, has been dropped from the Selected Poems and had its title taken by the poem originally entitled “The Return.”13 However, although he is, despite protestations to the contrary, as sure of his place as Heaney, Mahon's magnetic attraction to home—and repulsion as soon as he arrives—differs from Heaney's in one crucial respect: whereas in “Station Island” Heaney charts and relives and original escape, and so repeats the same sensations of rejuvenation and buoyancy, Mahon's urban universe is gradually winding down. Each flight becomes progressively more difficult, and each return saps more strength. So, in the original “Going Home” the “disguised” dead are shift workers who cross the Humber every day in an automatized afterlife—which is founded on their own “eschewal of metaphysics.” They notice a “sunken barge” rotting on the beach “As if finally to discredit”

A residual poetry of
Leavetaking and homecoming,
Of work and sentiment;
For this is the last
Homecoming, the end
Of the rainbow—
And the pubs are shut.
There are no
Buses till morning.

(P 61)

Through this bleak vision, Mahon argues that sentiment and insatiable desire enervate and eventually defeat their victims, condemning them to a terrible and secular afterlife.

In “Cavafy,” a series of translations from the Greek poet, Mahon gives voice to the torpid despondency he feels at this homecoming compulsion. The first section, entitled ‘The City,’ begins with the missed possibility of having gone “to a new country, a new sea / Another, finer city,” before trailing off into a resigned acknowledgment that it is now too late to escape from the vicinity of lost chances and dead ends, “Dark ruins of the life / You have wasted here.”14 The poem oozes the monotony of entrapment, with its unavoidable prospect of being shadowed by the “same old city” and growing old in the “same dim suburb,” before plunging into a recognition of universal defeat:

In this city of homecomings
Where all voyages end
There is now way out.
Your failure here
Was a failure everywhere
In the world at large, as if talked about.

The city is a point of origin and return—a home from which, as in “Glengormley,” permanent escape seems impossible. The homecoming-leavetaking compulsion becomes a Cain-like curse: failing to negotiate his freedom, the speaker is condemned to a more general, worldwide failure, unable to settle comfortably anywhere.

Neither of Mahon's two major poems of homecoming—“Afterlives” and “The Return”—provide excuses for a journey which will inevitably lead to misery and depression. “Afterlives,” an effective response to its dedicatee James Simmons who was “forever accusing [Mahon] of abandoning the North,”15 emphasizes not abandonment but an emotional self-abuse which drags Mahon compulsively back to his origins. In “Away from it All” Heaney's lobster is lifted out of its “element” to exile and imminent death, and Hercules lifts Antaeus “out of his elements.”16 Mahon claims, however, that exile is “our element,” and describes in near-idyllic terms London's “soft roar,” its “rain-fresh” appearance and pigeons “necking” (P 57). Locating in London not only his natural habitat but also the ideal city—“the bright / Reason on which we rely / For the long-term solutions”—Mahon at first seems to reject Belfast and, in doing so, to justify Simmons's accusation that he had abandoned his roots. However, the superficialities of exile cannot sustain this conclusion: Mahon interrupts his rational humanist vision of a better future with the brusque self-rebuke, “What middle-class cunts we are.” This sudden revulsion incriminates him along with his accuser and their class in the violence and piety of Belfast: recognizing aspects of his own identity in the “dim / Forms” which pray at noon, Mahon bravely acknowledges the dark origins of his own life and imagination. The poems argues that supposedly enlightened beliefs serve merely to evade responsibility, to plead ignorance of one's true place.

The bipartite structure of “Afterlives” allows the poet in the first section to pre-empt any knowledge he may gain in section two. However, in the exiled afterlife of London, part one emphasizes kinship with Belfast. In part two, having arrived home, the poet feels alienated: “I scarcely recognize / The places I grew up in.” There is still no “doubt as to where [home] actually is,” however, for the second section begins “I am going home by sea” and does not bother to elaborate on the obvious destination, but merely notes in general terms the “lightship and buoy / Slipway and dry dock” as the ship passes them on the way up the lough. The arrival home is marked by exhaustion and bewilderment:

And I step ashore in a fine rain
To a city so changed
By five years of war
I scarcely recognize
The places I grew up in,
The faces that try to explain.
But the hills are still the same
Grey-blue above Belfast.
Perhaps if I'd stayed behind
And lived it bomb by bomb
I might have grown up at last
And learnt what is meant by home.

Interviewed in 1973, Mahon repeated a sentiment first expressed in “An Irishman in London,” that “Ireland is backward looking and Britain is forward looking,”17 and this underlies the phrase “stayed behind,” aimed at Simmons, with its negative connotations of lost opportunity through stubborn refusal to move. Unlike the rural Heaney, the returning city-dweller must come to terms with the realities of his home's gradual destruction. Mahon combats his resulting alienation by evoking the permanent landmark of the hills above Belfast which will outlast contemporary squabbling, and even, in “The Spring Vacation,” offer the possibility of salvation. The poem's final four lines move from the surrounding landscape to the city itself, from permanence to explosion. The adult knowledge which Mahon, ironically agreeing with Simmons, suggests he may have lost through leaving is actually enacted in the chilling finality of that notorious rhyme “bomb/home.”

Like “Afterlives,” “The Return” presents the poet on the verge of departure from England back to Northern Ireland. Again, Mahon wishes that his home were on the other side of the Irish Sea: he flicks ash into the rose bushes “As if I owned the place,” and imagines himself metamorphosed into a tree and able to “gaze out over the downs / As if I belonged here too” (P 98). In each case “as if” reveals the wishful thinking. This time England is not immune to Mahon's decaying universe: its woods are “Misted with car exhaust” and nymphs die from the pollution. However, it still compares favorably with “where I am going,” because the landscape of Ireland is devoid of nymphs and woods—having, incidentally, been deforested three centuries ago to provide materials for English ships. Nor are there rose bushes. One critic who suggests that Mahon intends to deflate the grandeur of Yeats's “right rose tree”18 identifies the correct poet but the wrong poem. Mahon's true target is actually a passage from “Meditations in Time of Civil War,” where Yeats locates at “My House” “An acre of stony ground / Where the symbolic rose can break in flower.” By contrast, Mahon finds “rooted in stony ground” not a rose bush but an apparently unidentifiable “stubborn growth” constantly battered by the elements.

With nothing to recommend it
But its harsh tenacity
Between the blinding windows
And the forests of the sea,
As if its very existence
Were a reason to continue.
Crone, crow, scarecrow,
Its worn fingers scrabbling
At a torn sky, it stands
On the verge of everything
Like a burnt-out angel
Raising petitionary hands.

(P 99)

The metaphorical fallen angel replaces the idyllic, pagan nymphs of England. Isolated, marginalized, the “stubborn growth” presents a desperate gesture of appeasement which instills in the poet the grim Beckettian determination to “continue,” although it no longer seems possible, even while he longs to merge into the lush, if apparently deteriorating, landscape of England's pastoral tradition. As in “Afterlives,” Mahon's initial attempt to locate home elsewhere merely results in reluctantly affirming the compulsive attraction of his origins, no matter how miserable or squalid they may seem.

Mahon's failures to sunder himself from his roots signal the same quandary later endured by Heaney in “Station Island”: namely, how does the poet reconcile his disgust at the insidious corruption of his home community, with the knowledge that he is inextricably a part of it, sharing a racial consciousness and unable to grind himself down to a different core? Mahon charts this dilemma in the original version of “The Sea in Winter,” his verse epistle from Northern Ireland to a friend in Greece, which begins typically with a denial of home—the poet pretends “not to be here at all” (P 109). When reality impinges on these escapist dreams, Mahon admits that, returning to the North, he was “… slow / To come to terms with my own past / Yet knowing I could never cast / Aside the things that made me what, / For better or worse, I am” (P 111). Repelled by his origins, Heaney in “Station Island” pragmatically salvages the enabling aspects of his community. Like the Beckettian speaker of “Matthew V. 29-30,” however, who puritanically proceeds on a course of self-mutilation and global destruction while searching for a continuing “offence” (P 69), Mahon indicts himself along with “the things that made me what … I am.” He slumps into “chaos and instability” and attempts to annul the internal division of rival pulls through a process of self-negation leaving him dosed up, in true Lowellian fashion, on “antabuse and mogadon,” his “talents on the shelf.”

Despite the suffering caused by his stubborn ties to home, Mahon searches desperately for a device of attachment capable of satisfying conflicting desires for home and exile, freedom and responsibility. Accordingly, even while “The Sea in Winter” relates his breakdown, the poem suggests a means of placating the poet's pain without renouncing his origins. Mahon sits at a window, writing, while observing the world outside: distanced from his community yet belonging to it, hovering between leavetaking and homecoming, he reproduces what the “Unborn Child” calls the “verge of departure”—that instant preceding the exile's disillusionment when the prospect of imminent release can still be enjoyed. The poet asks rhetorically why he is “always staring out / Of windows, preferably from a height,” and suggests that the view of the sea, with the promise of escape, provides necessary solace. More importantly, Mahon seeks to create a higher consciousness which allows him to survey the cause of pain while avoiding guilty feelings of abandonment and betrayal:

Yet distance is the vital bond
Between the window and the wind,
While equilibrium demands
A cold eye and deliberate hands.

(P 112)

Distance is a paradoxical bond, tying the poet to the turbulence of the external world while allowing him to remain an unruffled chronicler of his own pain. The “cold eye” is taken, of course, from Yeats's epitaph in “Under Ben Bulben”; it observes the lives and deaths in the city above which Mahon is balanced in perfect equipoise between flight and duty.

Mahon's interest in window imagery continues in two of his poems about paintings from The Hunt by Night (1982): he implicitly compares his responsible posture with that of artists whose frames duplicate the window from which he observes the world. Their art being spatial rather than temporal, they are granted an escapist freedom denied the poet, who envies Uccello's Hunt by Night—actually entitled The Hunt in the Forest—for its “obscurities of paint” masking the gruesome realities of the hunt and preserving the illusion of “pageantry.” Similarly, Mahon attacks the idyllic wish-fulfillment of Munch's Girls on the Bridge which represses the sinister truth that “A mile from where you chatter / Somebody screams”19The Scream being the most famous of Munch's nightmare paintings. By contrast, Mahon's window imagery brooks no evasion: “The Attic” provides Mahon's bathetic version of the romantic ivory tower, as he sits with his Muse-light on the city” (P 102) and searches for inspiration—one eye on the blank page and the other gazing out of the window. And Mahon's concrete poem “The Window” sketches the frame with the words “wood” and “window” (P 108), as single, inescapable “wind” in the center hits the observer full on.

The poem which best tackles Mahon's conciliatory posture is his “Rage for Order” which, in being translated from Wallace Stevens's Key West to the battlescape of Belfast, becomes “wretched” rather than “blessed” (P 44). A rioter accuses the poet of becoming distanced “far from his people,” fiddling like Nero while his city burns, his protective widow isolating him from the realities of “scattered glass” while he tinkers with his “dying art.” Any hope of poetry becoming a midwife to society is mocked: it is “an eddy of semantic scruples / in an unscrutable sea,” and as Heaney asserts in ‘Station Island’, the eddy cannot reform the pool. Nevertheless, the rioter must ultimately acknowledge its relevance:

Now watch me as I make history. Watch as I tear down
          to build up with a desperate love,
          knowing it cannot be
                    long now till I have need of his
                    desperate ironies.

(P 44)

Originally, the poet's ironies were “germinal,”20 and although Mahon's revision detracts from their rebuilding power, the need for poetry to survive is still powerfully affirmed. The window imagery enables Mahon's most successful response to the contradictory demands of Belfast which torture him because, like irony, it evades and acknowledges simultaneously.

“The Sea in Winter” underlies the dependency of Mahon's poetic output on his new-found solution: the poet asks whether “the year two thousand” will find “Me still at window, pen in hand,” and hopes that it will for the sake of his “subsidized serendipities.” However, this passage was later dropped from the Selected Poems (1991): unable to bear even such regulated proximity to the cause of his suffering, Mahon's omission marks an abandonment of his window imagery, which in fact disappears from his poetry altogether after “The Sea in Winter.” The breakdown to which that poem refers left him “resolved never to live in the North again.”21 The failure and despair which finally sap his homecoming compulsion create a serious impasse in poetry as well as life: the conflicting tensions of Belfast provide the lifeblood for much of Mahon's best work, and to abandon his home involves rejecting his crucial source of inspiration. The exile's tone of despondency running through his subsequent work reinforces the urgency of Mahon's search for an alternative stance capable of connecting the poet once again to his enabling home ground of Belfast.


  1. Hugh Haughton, “‘Even Now There Are Places Where a Thought Might Grow’: Place and Displacement in the Poetry of Derek Mahon,” in The Chosen Ground: Essays on the Contemporary Poetry of Northern Ireland, ed. Neil Corcoran, (Bridgend: Seren Books, 1992), p. 98. Similar recent expressions of Mahon's rootless cosmopolitanism occur in Mullaney, K. “A Politics of Silence: Derek Mahon ‘At One Remove’,” Journal of Irish Literature, XVIII, 3 (September, 1989), 45-54, and in B. Tinley “International Perspectives in the Poetry of Derek Mahon,” Irish University Review, 21: 1 (Spring-Summer, 1991), 106-117.

  2. Interviewed by Willie Kelly, The Cork Review, 2, 3 (June, 1981), 10; and by Eileen Battersby, The [Dublin] Sunday Tribune, 26 August 1990, p. 26.

  3. Seamus Heaney “The Pre-Natal Mountain: Vision and Irony in Recent Irish Poetry,” in The Place of Writing (Atlanta: The Scholar's Press, 1989), p. 48.

  4. Derek Mahon, Poems 1962-1978 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 1; cited parenthetically, thus: (P 1).

  5. In Time Was Away: The World of Louis MacNeice, ed. Terence Brown and Alec Reid (Dublin: The Dolmen Press, 1974), p. 117.

  6. Derek Mahon, “An Irishman in London,” Icarus, 42 (March, 1964) 8.

  7. Ibid., 31.

  8. Louis MacNeice, Collected Poems, ed. Edward Dodds (London: Faber, 1966), p. 17. Edna Longley compares Mahon and MacNeice in “The Writer and Belfast.” The Irish Writer and the City, ed. Maurice Harmon (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1984), p. 83.

  9. Seamus Heaney, Station Island (London: Faber, 1984), p. 85.

  10. Derek Mahon, “Magic Casements.” New Statesman, 90, 17 October 1975, p. 479. Quoted by Dillon Johnston, Irish Poetry after Joyce (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985), p. 233.

  11. Seamus Heaney, North (London: Faber, 1975), p. 72.

  12. The Penguin Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry, ed. Peter Fallon and Derek Mahon (London: Penguin, 1990), p. xxii.

  13. Derek Mahon, Selected Poems (London: Viking-Gallery, 1991), p. 96.

  14. Derek Mahon, The Snow Party (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 18.

  15. The Cork Review, 11.

  16. Station Island, p. 16; North, p. 52.

  17. Interviewed by Harriet Cooke, The Irish Times, 17 January 1973, p. 10.

  18. Robert Garratt, Modern Irish Poetry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), p. 275.

  19. Derek Mahon, The Hunt by Night (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 32. See Arthur McGuinness, “Cast a Wary Eye: Derek Mahon's Classical Perspective,” The Yearbook of English Studies, 17 (1987), 137-8.

  20. Derek Mahon, Lives (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), p. 22.

  21. Quoted in Irish Poetry after Joyce, p. 225.

Catriona Clutterbuck (essay date spring-summer 1994)

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SOURCE: Clutterbuck, Catriona. “Elpenor's Crumbling Oar: Disconnection and Art in the Poetry of Derek Mahon.” Irish University Review 24, no. 1 (spring-summer 1994): 6-26.

[In the following essay, Clutterbuck interprets Mahon's position on the link between art and reality as negative and sometimes cynical, doubting the existence of meaning in either art or life.]

All I have is a little space, snow-dark
or glittering—never inhabited.

Derek Mahon, “Three Poems after Jaccottet”

In his poetry Derek Mahon is preoccupied with the disconnections between surface and subterranean realities and the exploration of these rifts for the act of writing itself. These disconnections include the division of Mahon from his background and of the poet from his people; of man from nature and from the objects he has manufactured; of ideal place from real place and of abandoned place from occupied place; of past from present and of afterlife from this life; and finally, the disconnection of interpretation from what is being interpreted. The unique feature about Mahon is his willingness to pose each pole in these pairs of opposites as equally valid realities: they face each other, reveal each other, but like the ends of the light bulb filament in “The Studio”,1 they cannot meet.

“Matthew V, 29-30” (P [Poems 1962-1988], p. 69) is a good illustration of what I mean by equal validity. It incorporates the desire to reach below surfaces (in this case, the surface is the human body and, in the end, everything humanity can touch), to discover hidden motivations. However, the poem equally incorporates the poet's curious sensory awareness that the meaning he seeks may be in the layers he casts off. Mahon never delves for meaning without being tongue-in-cheek about what he is doing. In other words, his penetration of surface reality is never done without due respect—without giving equal validity—to the significance that is in surface as surface, without recognising his mute phenomena. The poem is a study in a futile effort to reach the inner by stripping the outer:

                                                  … a prolonged course
of lobotomy and vivisection,
          reducing the self
to a rubble of organs, a wreckage of bones
          in the midst of which, somewhere,
                                        the offence continued.

Mahon's poetry deals with the stripping away of the supports on which identity rests, and confronts the implications of their loss in exploring the action of his own art.


I have already suggested that Mahon's work involves the exploration of the space between opposites, a space that is emptied of any intermediary selves. Absent self invokes the idea of the self being present elsewhere, in a hidden place. He quotes Rimbaud as his epitaph to “The Sea in Winter” (P, p. 109):

Nous ne sommes pas au monde;
la vraie vie est absente.—

The real or the true life that is hidden is a strand that can be used to tie all of Mahon's poetry together, but is focused in particular on the unseen life of manufactured objects. In such poems the significance of the numinous and its relationship to the poetic imagination becomes apparent.

The world of abandoned manufactured objects challenges Mahon because it declares an independent extradimensional presence with an unashamed, unanswerable stare, as in “Ovid in Tomis”:

What coarse god
Was the gear-box in the rain
Beside the road?
What nereid the unsinkable
Hair conditioner
Knocking the icy rocks?
They stare me out
With the chaste gravity
And feral pride
Of noble savages
Set down
On an alien shore.(2)

Things are the abandoned children of modern man. They are sourced in his needs, but unlike organic life, they cannot return into the earth once they have come into being; they are trapped. Things have an irrevocable independence forced upon them; they are, in their way, another of Mahon's lost tribes, “A Kind of People”, as Mahon declared in the poem of that title (P, p. 28). These things, umbrellas and sewing machines and tin cans, are the “Imperishable by-products of the perishable will” who “lie like skulls / in the hands of soliloquists” (“The Apotheosis of Tins”, P, p. 74). The soliloquists are as often the critics as the poets, critics who frequently note “a potential for transcendence into actual objects” in Mahon's poetry.3

Mahon's work certainly includes what he has called “the secular numen”4 of objects:

Left to itself, the functional will cast
A death-bed glow of picturesque abandon.
The intact antiquities of the recent past,
Dropped from the retail catalogues, return
To the materials that gave rise to them
And shine with a late sacramental gleam.

“A Garage in Co. Cork” (HBN [The Hunt by Night], p. 56)

Phenomenological critics5 of Mahon claim as his great achievement the “simple luminosity” of the things he names.6 The critic John Byrne, for example, rightly celebrates Mahon's responsiveness to “the imaginative potential in the ordinary and the concrete7 but then proceeds from this (p. 63) to claim that in Mahon, “often there is a sense of setting unknown forces into motion”. This is investing Mahon with a mystique which he has been celebrated for avoiding and which he himself has implicitly disclaimed: “I think the world as it is … is quite sufficiently amazing without having to have recourse to alternative realities.”8 I believe that Byrne's unknown forces are in fact knowable. They are the forces of the poetic imagination, activating the “imaginative potential” of the concrete: a potential, that is to say, which is discerned in the concrete by the imagination.

I concentrate on this issue because the role of the imagination is intimately bound up with the status of interpretation and attempts at translation. Mahon is one of the few modern poets who has made it a part of his programme from the beginning to separate subject matter from how subject matter has been interpreted and to investigate the process of translation into the poetic medium. Here his tins speak:

If we have learnt one thing from our desertion
          by the sour smudge on the horizon,
                    from the erosion of labels,
                              it is the value of self-definition.
No one, not even the poet
          whose shadow halts above us after
                    dawn and before dark,
                              will have our trust.
We resist your patronage, your reflective leisure.

“The Apotheosis of Tins” (P, p. 74)

I have described the extradimensional as one of the polarities which Mahon consistently verifies in his work. However, it is very easy to confuse this extradimension with an idea of an “alternative reality” which, as we have seen, Mahon has emphatically rejected. Put another way, how can we incorporate Mahon's support for the idea of “numen” with his rejection of religion? We do so by remembering that for Mahon, “numen” or “karma”,9 the extradimension of the concrete, is not accessible independently of the imagination and yet it does have an independent reality. It exists as potential, not as an “alternative” reality, because it is dependent on the human imagination. Mahon's “Tractatus” (HBN, p. 23), describes this independent potential as a union of the physical and the imagined:

‘The world is everything that is the case’
From the fly giving up in the coal-shed
To the Winged Victory of Samothrace …
The world, though, is also so much more—
Everything that is the case imaginatively.
Tacitus believed Mariners could hear
The sun sinking into the western sea;
And who would question that titanic roar,
The steam rising wherever the edge may be?

(emphasis added)

Mahon demands that we realise that any time we touch the numen of objects, we do so through our powers of imaginative interpretation and that this interpretation, this poem, like the store-front evoked in “A Garage in Co. Cork”, “might have nothing behind it but thin air”. He insists that if we are to read his work, we, like him, must poise ourselves literally between belief and disbelief, on the knife edge of what he called “metaphysical unease”.

Phenomenological readings refuse this edge—they make the mistake of diving into belief which does not interrogate itself in their celebration of Mahon's commitment to the real world of objects. They fall into the trap of assuming the presence of numen that is unmediated by the poetic imagination, itself mediated by language. Eamon Grennan's article “To the Point of Speech” is a good example. Describing “The Banished Gods” he says: “[Mahon] will not interfere with the object's simple presence; his speech embodies his desire for a fresh untroubled beginning in a relationship with such a presence.” But of course speech interferes with the object's presence—it is not the object which is present but words on a page. Grennan discards the poet's voice when he says of “The Apotheosis of Tins” (P, p. 73) that “voice here is simply the occasion of the objects' presence: it is how this presence registers in the world”, thus obscuring the fact that voice is the only occasion of the objects' presence since it is his words that bring them into being. Grennan continued: “His affection for the phenomenological world makes itself felt in an almost neutral lyricism of naming. Making no harsh demands of us, his speech claims our attention by the simple luminosity of that which it names … The subdued voice that utters them allows them an unmediated presence in our sight”.10

This reading celebrates the concrete world of objects as surface but ignores language and art as equally valid surfaces. Mahon has said that for him, “the world as it is … includes, of course, artistic representations of itself: the pictures of Rembrandt and the music of Mozart and the sonnets of Shakespeare and so on.” (Interview, Poetry Ireland Review, 14, p. 17.) One has only to glance at “Courtyards in Delft” (HBN, p. 9) to realise that for him, art and life are coterminous and, consequently, words as much as objects insist on their physical presence. But the “unmediated presence” view of Mahon assumes that his language (or the poem itself) is somehow transparent, allowing direct access to meaning. Phenomenological readings of Mahon tend to ignore the continual tension in his work between interpretation and the original which has been interpreted, his concern to reveal, as he says, “the metaphysical disjunction between “subject” and “object”, between the perceiving sensibility and everything external to it”.11 Language is always a mould for meaning which promotes itself to the status of that meaning. Mahon warns us not to confuse one for the other in the early “Preface to a Love Poem” (P, p. 8). Here is a poem in which, as Gerald Dawe observes, “the actual means of discourse … is stripped and its working order laid bare”.12 The title warns us that this will not be the love poem itself but only its preface and that the poem on the page can only be secondary:

                    This is a circling of itself and you—
A form of words, compact and compromise,
                    Prepared in the false dawn of the half-true
Beyond which the shapes of truth materialize.

The final line of this stanza is a most apt description of the limitations of language with regard to what it tries to represent: “This is a blind with the sunlight filtering through”, and again, “This is at one remove, a substitute / For final answers”. The answer, the response to the plea for communication, is the most hidden thing within Mahon's poetry. Meaning is infolded within the limits of language itself, it is contained in the very plea for itself. Mahon's words bounce off the concrete and are deflected into poetry, like radio waves, or the stars reflected in the waves around “Mt. Gabriel”,13 and in the night landscape of “The Globe in North Carolina” (HBN, p. 61). His short poem “At the Pool” (HBN, p. 23) is an attempt to describe what art is:

My four-year-old daughter
points up at the low
ceiling with a cry:
‘Look at the shadow
of the water on the sky!’

It is the terrestrial fusing with the heavenly on a man-made surface.


In the elegy “In Carrowdore Churchyard” the speaker, at the grave of Louis MacNeice, asserts that “This, you implied, is how we ought to live— / The ironical, loving crush of roses against snow, / Each fragile, solving ambiguity.” Such an existence, living in the space between meaning, is a “solving” place to be, and this space is granted its objective correlative in “this churchyard / With its play of shadow, its humane perspective.” The poem, apart from celebrating MacNeice, celebrates ambiguity because it incessantly demands the translation of meaning. Indeed, the poem that follows this one articulates a state of ambiguity. In “The Spring Vacation” (P, p. 4) Mahon apparently wishes to bridge the gap between the man he has become and his place of birth:

One part of my mind must learn to know its place.
The things that happen in the kitchen houses
And echoing back-streets of this desperate city
Should engage more than my casual interest,
Exact more interest than my casual pity.

But this aspiration is itself subverted by the opposite desire to maintain the division between self and background. The tone of the final stanza (quoted above) is crucial in sustaining this ambiguity. Only one part of his mind needs to know its place, as though the division of himself is already complete. “The things that happen” in Belfast “should” engage him and, by implication, will not. Mahon chooses to live in the tension between opposed desires, conflicting loyalties. He misses connection, deliberately opting for the absence of certainty because he needs doubt to work by. “The Studio” (P, p. 33) illustrates how a poem works via tension. It begins:

You would think with so much going on outside
The deal table would make for the window,
The ranged crockery freak and wail
Remembering its dark origins, the frail
Oilcloth, in a fury of recognitions,
Disperse in a thousand directions,
And the simple bulb in the ceiling, honed
By death to a worm of pain, to a hair
Of heat, to a light snowflake laid
In a dark river at night—and wearied
Above all by the life-price of time
And the failure by only a few tenths
Of an inch but completely and for ever
Of the ends of a carefully drawn equator
To meet, sing and be one—abruptly
Roar into the floor.
                                                                                But it
Never happens like that …

Mahon packs energy into his first long sentence, a container of latent possibility shaped by the initial “You would think …”. A domestic interior is invested with a tremendous urge to break free of its inanimate role and to reflect the exterior world. Mahon has said:

This poem started off for me as a comment on a photograph of Munch's studio in Oslo … The studio photo connected for me with a phrase in a review by Beckett of a Jack Yeats exhibition; the being in the room when it happens in the street, the being in the street when it happens in the room … The phrase in turn suggested the oblique, and possibly escapist relationship of the Artist to his historical circumstances, particularly where those circumstances include a violent upheaval …14

The interior and the exterior cannot meet, and so tension is held in place, is not allowed its release in animation. Mahon holds it firmly back using the powerful image of a light bulb's wires formed in a circle which almost, but not quite, unites, an image that illustrates the working of the incongruity upon which so many of his poems are balanced.

“Courtyards in Delft” (HBN, p. 9) is a similar poem to “The Studio” in that it too works by details whose accumulation becomes the withheld tension of static perfection, suspended animation:

Oblique light on the trite, on brick and tile—
Immaculate masonry, and everywhere that
Water tap, that broom and wooden pail
To keep it so …

Here too, a release into chaos is sought:

If only, now, the Maenads, as of right,
Came smashing crockery, with fire and sword,
We could sleep easier in our beds at night.

But such a choice is not, in Mahon's view, available to the poet, who must not evade what he calls “the metaphysical unease in which all poetry of lasting value has its source”.15 This may involve undercutting his own ironic stance when irony becomes too easy an option,16 as in “Glengormley” (P, p. 1). The first stanza sets up the ordinary and the banal for ironic deflation:

‘Wonders are many and none is more wonderful than man’
Who has tamed the terrier, trimmed the hedge
And grasped the principle of the watering-can.

So far, we feel on familiar ground. The first line inflates, the next two puncture the illusion of greatness, and the rest of the stanza seems to draw on this process of ironic reduction:

Clothes-pegs litter the window ledge
And the long ships lie in clover. Washing lines
Shake out white linen over the chalk thanes.

But note the longer, more lyrical clauses, and the removal of man—the object of the initial irony—as subject of the sentence; now the clothes pegs “litter”, and the washing lines “shake out” the linen. The tone has shifted from deflation to a quiet and reduced celebration, indicating a deeper acceptance of the ordinary than might at first seem to be the “message” of the poem. The proverb of the sticks and stones is inverted, so that “only words hurt us now”. Irony works using words as language has taken the place of the monsters; the heroes are replaced by the poets who grapple with language. Both heroes and poets picture, not some grand purpose, but “the terrier-taming, garden-watering days”, praising “A worldly time under this worldly sky”. “By / Necessity”, Mahon tells us, “if not choice, I live here too”. Living in such urban, domestic circumstances is not a choice, it is a necessity. He thus warns us, in a poem positioned at the beginning of both his collection Poems 1962-1988 (1979) and his Selected Poems (1991), that his reader should not take his position within any poem for granted.

My reading of “Glengormley” suggests that Mahon has never wholly desired exile from the world, and later I will suggest that he may never have wished to be “through with history”, a position ascribed to him by many critics. Mahon, however, finds himself against his will separated from the world; his poetry is marked by the failed urge to reunite. In “Breton Walks, 1: Early Morning” (P, p. 12), he watches in vain for the second of sunrise, for the moment when the world of night joins the world of day. Similarly in “Breton Walks, 2: Man and Bird” the attempt at “whistle talk”, communication with birds, “renders yet more wide the gap / From their world to the world of men”. For Mahon, man consistently attempts to interpret and to draw disparate experiences together but experience itself—the world—resists man's effort to interpret it, the “signified” shrugs off its imposed role of “significance”:

And the windfall waits
In silence for his departure
Before it drops in
Silence to the long grass.

“The Antigone Riddle” (P, p. 67)


I have already discussed Mahon's sense of separation from the world. Yet it would be very wrong to assume that, in consequence of not belonging, place plays a small role in his thinking. Mahon's typical places fall into three categories. Firstly, there is the suburban back garden, an untypical location for Irish poetry which Mahon has deliberately championed, challenging the status of the Protestant suburbs of Belfast as “the final anathema for the traditional Irish imagination”.17 (See “Glengormly”, P, p. 1; “An Image from Beckett”, P, p. 37.) Mahon's achievement is as breaker of this new ground, a ground concreted, inhabited in layers above ground just as the countryside has been celebrated for being inhabited below ground in which “every layer they strip seems camped on before”.18 The concrete that covers the soil of Belfast is itself a good image for an aesthetic location that refuses to take poems into itself; here poetry must remain on a hard surface level and will not allow fusion with subterranean realities that might obscure the phenomenon of the poem as a poem, as a written artefact.

The cojoining of Mahon with his suburban landscape is given further credence in “Courtyards in Delft” (HBN, p. 9) where the values of the suburban home, in the painting as in real life, are recognisable as Mahon's own values, so that the qualities we associate with his writing are given objective correlative as the named qualities of this place: “modest”, “adequate”, “chaste precision”, “trim composure”, “nothing random”. Indeed, “the pale light of that provincial town / Will spread itself, like ink or oil” over the map of his verse.

The second of Mahon's typical places is the Northern Ireland sea coast, what Adrian Frazier calls “the landscape of his spirit”.19 Mahon has been attracted to suburbia as location because it satisfies his need to be on the edge, in this case between city and countryside. But the edge between land and sea is more deeply satisfying to him. Imaging his identify as a writer when addressing Desmond O'Grady in “The Sea in Winter” (P, p. 111), he describes that edge as the one where writing happens:

You too have known the curious sense
Of working on the circumference—
The midnight oil, familiar sea,
Elusive dawn epiphany …

The edge is between night and day, between birth and death (“the gravedigger putting aside his forceps” of “An Image from Beckett”, P, p. 37, and the mother-to-be sewing shrouds of “An Unborn Child”, P, p. 18); but the edge that is the sea coast defines the extremity that is Mahon's true location—

Out there you would look in vain
For a rose bush; but find,
Rooted in stony ground,
A last stubborn growth …
… it stands
On the edge of everything
Like a burnt-out angel
Raising petitionary hands.

“The Return”, (P, p. 99)

Mahon's third typical location is the place that has been abandoned by people, the long-disused building or workplace. He records his early fascination with such places thus: “My father worked in Harland and Wolf and when I was just about leaving school he took me to see the slipway where the Titanic was launched. I remember very clearly the image of dandelions growing from under the sliprails. …20 He sites his poetry in a disused shed, on an empty shore, around an abandoned garage, in empty countryside (“Surrey Poems”, P, p. 84), on a deserted island (“Rathlin Island”, HBN, p. 16), and eventually in an empty, abandoned globe, “Tithonus” (A [Antarctica], p. 23). Abandoned places are Mahon's refuges of the past; they contain the records of lost time or they embody history.

Perhaps his interest in abandoned places arises because he has left his own city, Belfast, to live and work elsewhere. Mahon's relationship to the concept of “home” makes a fascinating study. His work indicates that he is not pulled back emotionally towards any home. In “Afterlives” (P, p. 58), his ship must back “Shuddering up the grey lough” in his return to Belfast, as though he has to force his way back instead of being drawn back. As he nears the city, the gentle, diffused and global light of the moon decreases to a “lightship” and this in turn is reduced to a “dry dock / Where a naked bulb burns”. The fine rain in which he steps ashore is an image of the blur which obscures his recognition of home where “I scarcely recognize / The places I grew up in, / The faces that try to explain.” The poem concludes with

Perhaps if I'd stayed behind
And lived it bomb by bomb
I might have grown up at last
And learnt what is meant by home.

What he is also telling his readers, of course, is that he has never known what is meant by home. In the interview just cited he said “I refuse to have an identity crisis”. This refusal is informed by his recognition that ‘home’ is a moveable feast: it means different things to different people. “The Chinese Restaurant in Portrush” (P, p. 100) allows Mahon his homely feeling towards Portrush in Spring. It then introduces the owner of the restaurant who shares this suddenly sacramentalised place with the poet but who dreams of home as a place on the other side of the globe. Mahon has quietly deconstructed the concept of home. Every place must be not-at-home, strange and foreign to somebody.

Mahon's urge towards displacement is attributable to one factor in particular: his work links rootedness in place to the end of communication by writing. This is apparent as early as “In Carrowdone Churchyard” (P, p. 3). When he speaks of Louis MacNeice's grave:

Your ashes will not fly, however the rough winds burst
Through the wild brambles and the reticent trees.
All we may ask of you we have. The rest
Is not for publication, will not be heard.

A gravestone is, of course, a permanent signifier, refusing to writing its anarchic potential for promiscuous meaning. In “A Refusal to Mourn” (P, p. 75), the bird print in rock similarly refuses the mutation of what is signified, indicating the presence of an unchanging, permanent essence. Mahon illustrates the opposite in “Lives” (P, p. 40). Here a signifier's anarchic potential is given full reign, and as it gains more functions, it ranges further and further in place:

So many lives,
So many things to remember!
I was a stone in Tibet,
A tongue of bark
At the heart of Africa
Growing darker and darker …

Mahon associates belonging to a place with privacy but privacy cannot be for long the milieu of the poet. “The Poet in Residence” (P, p. 103) shows the solitary artist begging for company to counteract the effects of isolation:

Oh yes, I'm still here, but as if erased.
I am dying slowly into legend;
Spiders spin in the brain where a star burned.

In “Craigvara House” (A, p. 15), when Mahon recovers his ability to write he immediately uses the metaphor of a journey:

Sometimes before
spring I found in there
the frequency I had been looking for
and crossed by night
a dark channel, my eyesight
focused upon a flickering pier-light.

In “Preface to a Love Poem” (P, p. 8), the poem is described as “a night-cry, neither here nor there”. Placelessness seems necessary for his role as poet as much as it is a condition of writing. He must be able to move, he must not put down roots. Mahon's rejection of rootedness is most apparent in “The Return” (P, p. 98), where he admits he has

… often thought if I lived
Long enough in this house
I would turn into a tree
Like somebody in Ovid
—A small tree certainly
But a tree nonetheless—
Perhaps befriend the oak,
The chestnut and the yew,
Become a home for birds,
A shelter for the nymphs,
And gaze out over the downs,
As if I belonged here too.
But where I am going the trees
Are few and far between …


Mahon has received much critical commentary on his treatment of history. However, many of these pieces are unbalanced because they are not placed within the larger context of his treatment of time. In that treatment, the concept of division is fundamental, with past, present and future radically split. In his poetry, the act of examining the past—making it present—is constantly interrupted by forgetting, as in “The Spring Vacation” (P, p. 4), by exaggeration of the possibilities of reincarnation as in “Lives” (P, p. 40), by refusal, as in “The Last of the Fire Kings” (P, p. 64), and by death, in “The Poet in Residence” (P, p. 104). Mahon's position as I have outlined it is confirmed by a poem like “The Early Anthropologists” (P, p. 39) in which he comments on those who assume the past can be made available to the present. It is not the past that the anthropologists have left us but their attempts to record and preserve it. Ironically, it is their own lives they leave traces of and not the lives of those they study:

The early anthropologists
Left traces of their
Lives everywhere—
Gibbering tapes
Nobody can decipher,
Photographs of their ancestors …
Senile data systems,
Computers in their dotage,
Libraries that crumble to the touch.

Mahon is indicating that primary reality will always become elusive once an attempt is made to record it, the signified always becoming lost to the signifier, the past forever lost to the present.

This brings us to the status of history in Mahon's work. Mahon specifically recognises that the long perspective on time leads to the construction of history. For him, history is a narrative, the story of the past. It is not equivalent to the past itself. History is always secondary to the original it is a version of, and differs from that original because as a recording, it is static. Time itself, in contrast, is a flux, “A wood invisible for its trees / Where everything must change except / The fact of change …” (“The Globe in North Carolina”, HBN, p. 62). Time is the wood; history, the trees—the recorded moments which obscure time itself. History is a signifier which has taken on the status of that which it signifies. It is the textualised afterlife of the past, the ordering of the past into patterns which accommodate a particular purpose. Using the convention of the immortal onlooker in “Tithonus”21 (A, p. 23). Mahon illustrates how much of the story has been left out in the usual constructions of history:

I forget nothing
But if I told
Everything in detail—
Not merely Golgotha
And Krakatoa
But the leaf-plink
Of raindrops after
The lizard-flick
In the scrub as Genghis
Khan entered Peking
And the changing clouds,
I would need,
Another eternity,
Perish the thought.

An Irish poet will be particularly aware of the process of selecting details from the past to invent history. Mahon warns that the poet, like the historian, does just that—he constructs the narrative: “Now watch me as I make history. Watch as I tear down / to build up with a desperate love …” (“Rage for Order”, P, p. 44).

On two occasions, in “The Last of the Fire Kings” (P, p. 64) and “Rathlin Island” (HBN, p. 16), Mahon refers to being “Through with history”. Critics such as Grennan, Johnston, Paulin, Dawe and Deane22 have based much of their analyses of Mahon's work on the premise that he has rejected or wishes to reject history. I would like to turn this premise sideways and say that Mahon does not so much reject history as recognise it as a narrative. His desire to be “Through with history” is his wish to escape the construction of this narrative by forces outside his control, a narrative which, as poet, he finds himself ghost writing (cf. “Rage for Order”). In “The Last of the Fire Kings” (P, p. 64), the fire king is also the poet, in fear of the “usurper”, in fear of being taken over; he is one who prowls each day in the “sacred grove”, in the place of the muse “Perfecting my cold dream / Of a place out of time …”. “Tithonus” (A, p. 23) is a later variation of “The Last of the Fire Kings” and shares its three-line structure. The “place out of time” is no longer a dream landscape. Death is now the preferred option, the way to be through with history, to close the book. The tone here is lighter, more flippant. Unlike “The Last of the Fire Kings” there is not even the pretence that man has an option to inhabit his world, a world which has now become cold and dark. There is no evocation of the tragedy of sacrifice, the Hamlet-like dilemma of the fire king. The earth is accepted as a desert and man is “alone / On this rolling stone”, and scorn is heaped on romantic interpretations:

‘Gleaming halls
of morn’, my eye:
The sun will rise
On cinders, ashes,
Their textures bright
By nuclear light …

Tithonus has unwillingly survived apocalypse and has seen “the light in the desert”, Mahon's only sign of tentative hope, a kind of aura, or a marker for some genuine location at last. Tithonus has the ability to see not one, but all versions of the past as a result of his unwanted immortality. He is granted a breath of perspective which aligns him with the figure of the poet. But even Tithonus refuses to tell everything in detail despite being in the unique position of being able to make all of the past available, for Tithonus' apparent direct access to time is only through dream:

I dream of the past,
Of the future,
Even of the present.
Perhaps I am really
Dead and dreaming
My vigilance?

Not even Tithonus has a direct hold on reality. But history lays claim to such a hold and it makes the past appear to be present and available on the page. While recognising this, Mahon does not “discard” history (cf. Dillon Johnston) for he knows that the tests, the narratives, are our only way to attempt to know reality. What he does is to make us aware of the recording process. Neither is art his alternative to history. Art, as much as history, is a recording, a rendering static of a particular time in the artist's, or in his subject's, life.

In fact, Mahon doesn't have an alternative to history. One has history, the story of the past, and one has the past itself. The past is inaccessible but real; history is not the real thing but it is accessible. It is “a frantic anthropologism”, yet it is the responsibility of the poet to make clear that this double bond operates, that is, to show that man is trapped in his need to invent his past. Mahon's work insists that what we see is only a reflection of the original formed through individual perspective because we cannot face the source of light:

One cannot stare for long at death or the sun.
Imagine Plato's neolithic troglodyte
Released from his dark cinema, released even
From the fire proper, so that he stands at last,
Absurd and anxious, out in the open air
And gazes, shading his eyes, at the world there—
Tangible fact ablaze in a clear light
That casts no shadow, where the vast
Sun gongs its lenity from a brazen heaven
Listening in silence to his rich despair.

“Death and the Sun” (A, p. 37)


In a review of Poems, 1962-1978, Tom Paulin observed that “At some point in his brilliant youth Mahon must have faced the choice between perfection of the life or of the work—he chose the latter and made a religion of art …”23 It has become more and more apparent that one of Mahon's major concerns—if not the major concern—is the status of art and of language, his medium. In part 18 of “Light Music” (Selected Poems, p. 65) Mahon selects one picture from the Odysseus saga, Elpenor's “crumbling monument, / its lengthening shadow / pointing towards home”. The oar over his grave is a crumbling signifier, its shadow an image of the attempt of language to get back to Ithaca, back to meaning. The sign which has lost its content recurs in Mahon's poetry, as in “April on Toronto Island” (P, p. 26) where “There is not even a bird / Although there are bird voices.” The signifier is disembodied, cut off from its source; language is in danger of becoming redundant of meaning. In “An Unborn Child” (P, p. 18) the words physically formed in the mouth “I want to live!” are irrelevant. Poetry itself will become the victim of the redundancy of the word. In “An Image from Beckett” (P, p. 37), the protagonist bequeaths his heirs a poem which may never be read: “I hope they had time, / And light enough, to read it”. “Heraclitus on Rivers” (P, p. 107) is Mahon's strongest statement of this fear of the marginalisation and ultimate death of the word:

You will tell me that you have executed
A monument more lasting than bronze;
But even bronze is perishable.
Your best poem, you know the one I mean,
The very language in which the poem
Was written, and the idea of language,
All these things will pass away in time.

“Lives” (P, p. 40) introduces a signifier that is so overdetermined that it has lost all contact with meaning: surrounded by its own equipment, text has pathetically shorn itself of the possibility of experience:

It all seems
A little unreal now,
Now that I am
An anthropologist
With my own
Credit card, dictaphone,
Army surplus boots,
And a whole boatload
Of photographic equipment.
I know too much
to be anything more …

In this poem, the signifier's overdetermination is a result of multiple reincarnations, as though the spiral of its ever-changing form had become top-heavy, unable to support itself, ready for collapse. There is a link between Mahon's sense of the redundancy of the word and his certainty of impending apocalypse. In his post-apocalypse world, after the collapse of significance, there is once more the possibility of a direct relationship between reference and referent, for the shaped world will be returned to its original state:

What will be left after
The twilight of cities,
The flowers of fire,
Will be the soft
Vegetables where our
Politics were conceived …
There will be silence, then
A sigh of waking
As from a long dream.
Once more I shall rise early
And plough my country
By first light …
And after midnight
Fish for stars
In the dark waters …

“The Golden Bough” (P, p. 66)

Fishing for stars in water is an apt metaphor for the recovered ability to locate the original in the reflection, the signified in the signifier. In the final stanza, Mahon anticipates the capacity to worship the inner life in the surface things of the earth, his “secular numen” restored. Here too he celebrates the return of the human power to reincarnate the gods:

Once more I shall worship
The moon, make gods
Of clay, gods of stone,
And celebrate
In a world of waste
Their deaths and their return.

But, of course, Mahon is not talking about the world in which he must live today. The hope in the poem is deconstructed by its remove from the compromised attenuated circumstances of the late twentieth century, where roles are more important than reality, where “there is left only the posture”. “I am Raftery” (P, p. 50) expresses Mahon's fear that he is indeed the Raftery of the poem, that his role-playing as Derek Mahon has taken over from what he had to say:

I have traded-in the ‘simplistic maunderings’
that made me famous, for a wry dissimulation,
an imagery of adventitious ambiguity dredged
from God knows what polluted underground spring …

Mahon's earlier work in particular records his cynicism about his own posturing as a poet, and his scepticism about language. In “Poem Beginning with a Line by Cavafy” (P, p. 45), he associates civilised behaviour with older times, “When the great court flared / With gallowglasses and language difficulty”. Today's fluency is linked to barbarity and the barbarians, if they have come, are recognisable by “the frantic anthropologisms / and lazarous ironies behind their talk.”

“Beyond Howth Head” (P, p. 51) and “The Sea in Winter” (P, p. 109) are extended considerations of the fall of language and the irrelevancy of the artist. These verse letters are epitaphs marking the attitude of their author to his art in the period covered by Poems 1962-1978.

The writing on the wall, we know,
Elsewhere was written long ago …
Leaving us, Jeremy, to flick
Blank pages of an empty book
Where the expotential futures lie
Wide to the runways and the sky …

“Beyond Howth Head” (P, pp. 52-3)

And all the time I have my doubts
About this verse-making. The shouts
Of souls in torment round the town
At closing time make as much sense
And carry as much significance
As these lines carefully set down.
All farts in a biscuit tin, in truth—
Faint cries, sententious or uncouth.

“The Sea in Winter” (P, p. 112)

From The Hunt by Night onwards however, art and reality noticeably engage in dialectic. The sun that goes down in North Carolina is replaced by the artist's version of night light:

… the Anglepoise
Rears like a moon to shed its savage
Radiance on the desolate page …

“The Globe in North Carolina” (HBN, p. 61)

In reverse imagery in stanza three, the natural world is simulated using artist's equipment, “From Hatteras to the Blue Ridge / Night spreads like ink on the unhedged / Tobacco fields and clucking lakes …”. Soon land lights and celestial lights are inverted and become indistinguishable: “America is its own night sky, / … Miming galactic dispositions …”. The real becomes interdependent with its reflection; art mimes reality, reality mimes art.

But instead of seeing this as a neat resolution to the problem of artistic relevance, Mahon refuses to regard such interdependency as positive. Reality can be too closely linked to the forms of art. In “A Kensington Notebook” (A, p. 12), “Aesthetic bombardiering / Prefigured the real thing”. In an earlier poem, the destruction of Derry follows on that of the aisling vision of the symbolic hag. The city has become the “early crone” as “The mist clears and the cavities / Glow back in the rubbled city's / Broken mouth.” (“Derry Morning”, HBN, p. 11).

If reality's link to art emerges as threat, then art's dependence on quotidian reality emerges as more ridiculous than sublime, and for Mahon does not naturally result in a creative response. With Ovid's voice (“Ovid in Tomis”, HBN, p. 41), Mahon reveals the sadness rather than the celebration that is behind his own poetry's deliberate focus on the ordinary. It is the absence rather than the presence of meaning which leads him to the quotidian. Into emptiness is inserted the microcosmic, not in faith but in gesture towards faith, as though belief were possible:

Are we truly alone
With our physics and myths,
The stars no more
Than glittering dust,
With no one there
To hear our choral odes?
If so, we can start
To ignore the silence
Of infinite space
And concentrate instead
On the infinity
Under our very noses—
The cry at the heart
Of the artichoke,
The gaiety of atoms …

But the silence cannot be ignored. Mahon indicates that his long standing occupation of the gaps between meanings may finally stop his own murmurings:

Better to contemplate
The blank page
And leave it blank
Than modify
Its substance by
So much as a pen-stroke.
Woven of wood-nymphs,
It speaks volumes
No one will ever write.
I incline my head
To its candour
and weep for our exile.

“Ovid in Tomis” (HBN, pp. 41-2)

Mahon's exile is not, finally, from his origins but from the possibility of origins and from the possibility of original meaning. His position is

Out in the void and staring hard
At the dim stone where we were reared …

“The Globe in North Carolina” (HBN, p. 62)

And although “It is my chosen / Task, surely, to nurse / The distances from cold, / The earth from loneliness”,24 in his present situation this may not be allowed:

I will not be known by what I did or said.
The facts of life conspired
To block action, tie tongue. Nothing
Came out as I intended.
No, look for my secret
In the lost grin,
The poker-faced elision.
Reborn in the ideal society
I shall act and speak
With a freedom denied me
By the life we know.

“The Facts of Life” (P, p. 68)


  1. Derek Mahon, Poems 1962-1978 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 33. Hereafter cited as P.

  2. Derek Mahon, The Hunt by Night (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 37. Hereafter cited as HBN.

  3. John Byrne, “Derek Mahon: A Commitment to Change”, The Crane Bag, 6.1 (1982), p. 62.

  4. Interview, Poetry Ireland Review, 14 (1985), p. 16.

  5. See Hugh Holman and William Harmon, A Handbook to Literature fifth edition (New York: Macmillan, 1986), p. 371. “Phenomenological critics … tend to see imagination as essentially free of perception and thus an expression of freedom. They tend to have little interest in the ontology of the aesthetic object … and instead to value highly the affective aspect of works of art. They tend to see the experience of reading as an aesthetic mediation or intuitive communication between the aesthetic object and the reader.”

  6. Eamon Grennan, “To the Point of Speech: The Poetry of Derek Mahon” in James D. Brophy and Raymond J. Porter, eds., Contemporary Irish Writing (Boston: Twayne and Iona College Press, 1983), p. 23.

  7. Byrne, 1982, p. 62.

  8. Interview, Poetry Ireland Review, 14 (1985), p. 17.

  9. Ibid, p. 14.

  10. Grennan, 1983, p. 22.

  11. Derek Mahon, “The Existential Lyric”, a review of Collected Poems in English and French, by Samuel Beckett, in The New Statesman, 25 March 1977, p. 403.

  12. Gerald Dawe, “Icon and Lares”: Derek Mahon and Michael Longley” in Edna Longley and Gerald Dawe, eds., Across a Roaring Hill, The Protestant Imagination and Modern Ireland. Essays in Honour of John Hewitt (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1985), p. 231.

  13. Derek Mahon, Antarctica (Dublin: Gallery, 1985), p. 18. Hereafter cited as A.

  14. Derek Mahon, “Edvard Munch”, in Desmond Egan and Michael Hartnett, eds., Choice (Curragh: Goldsmith Press, 1979), p. 80.

  15. Derek Mahon, The Sphere Book of Modern Irish Poetry (London: Sphere, 1972), p. 3.

  16. C. S. Lewis (another Belfast Protestant) said that irony only works as long as there remains one thing about which the author is never ironical. (Acknowledgement: Dr Declan Kiberd, May 1990, in conversation with the author.)

  17. Harriet Cooke, “Derek Mahon in an Interview with Harriet Cooke”, The Irish Times, 17 January 1973, p. 10.

  18. Seamus Heaney, from “Bogland”, Selected Poems 1965-1975 (London: Faber and Faber, 1980), p. 54.

  19. Adrian Frazier, “Proper Portion: Derek Mahon's The Hunt by Night”, Éire Ireland, 18.4 (1983), p. 138.

  20. Elgy Gillespie, interview with Derek Mahon, The Irish Times, 2 December 1978, p. 14.

  21. In Greek mythology, Tithonus, a mortal, was loved by Eos, the dawn goddess, who begged Zeus to make Tithonus immortal. However, she omitted to obtain eternal youth for him, so that he became an old shrivelled creature, little more than a voice, or was turned into a grasshopper. In Mahon's poem, he “natters on” in the form of a cricket. (Source: Sir Paul Harvey, The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, 1937.)

  22. Grennan, 1983, pp. 15-31; Dillon Johnston, Irish Poetry After Joyce (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985), pp. 204-46; Tom Paulin, “A Rare and Extraordinary Imagination”, Review of Poems 1962-1978, in The Honest Ulsterman, 65 (Feb.-June 1980), pp. 64-8; Gerald Dawe, “Icons and Lares: Derek Mahon and Michael Longley”, in Edna Longley and Gerald Dawe, eds., Across a Roaring Hill—The Protestant Imagination in Modern Ireland (Belfast: The Blackstaff Press, 1985), pp. 218-33; and Seamus Deane, “Derek Mahon: Freedom From History”, in his Celtic Revivals—Essays in Modern Irish Literature 1880-1980 (London: Faber and Faber, 1985), pp. 156-65.

  23. Tom Paulin, “A Rare and Extraordinary Imagination”, review of Poems 1962-1978, by Derek Mahon, in The Honest Ulsterman, 65 (Feb.-June 1980), pp. 64-5.

  24. “The Earth”, The Hunt by Night, p. 59.

Terence Brown (essay date spring-summer 1994)

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SOURCE: Brown, Terence. “Derek Mahon: The Poet and Painting.” Irish University Review 24, no. 1 (spring-summer 1994): 38-50.

[In the following essay, Brown discusses the strength of Mahon's visual observations, especially his careful attention to light. Reading several of Mahon's poems that describe works by a number of artists, Brown finds Mahon frequently meditating on the tension between the beauty of art and the brutality of life.]

Light plays a crucial part in the imaginative world of Derek Mahon's poetry. He is in fact a markedly visual poet, one who attends patiently, even contemplatively, to the look of things and especially to the way light falls on them. The opening stanza of “A Postcard from Berlin” is entirely typical of a poet whose impressions of the world are refracted through an eye caught by the glimmer of light on water, the flash of sunlight through cloud, the bright glitter of the sea, the glistening of moonlight on rainwater:

We know the cities by their stones
Where Ararat flood-water shines
And violets have struggled through
The bloody dust. Skies are the blue
Of postcard skies, and the leaves green
In that quaint corner of Berlin.
Wool-gatheringly, the clouds migrate:
No checkpoint checks their tenuous flight.(1)

(SP, [Selected Poems], p. 149)

Mahon seems fascinated by the idea of a landscape lit as if by some creative light that purifies everyday experience. So Aran is for him

A dream of limestone in sea-light
Where gulls have placed their perfect prints.
Reflection in that final sky
Shames vision into simple sight;
Into pure sense, experience.

(“Thinking of Inis Oírr in Cambridge, Mass.,” SP, p. 25)

And in “Aran” the island is “unearthly still in its white weather” (SP, p. 31). He is moved too by the moment when light breaks in darkness, when shadow suddenly releases its hold on the mind. Dawn is his prime time, particularly in the washed light after the storm at sea as a northern coast awakens to a transfigured world:

But morning scatters down the strand
relics of last night's gale-force wind;
far out, the Atlantic faintly breaks,
sea-weed exhales among the rocks …

(“The Sea in Winter”, SP, p. 114)

“Bright” is a key word in a poetry that responds to the play of light on surfaces, to the way a scene is transformed by the breaking of darkness, by spectacular moments of vision:

In that instant
There was a sea, far off,
As bright as lettuce,
A northern landscape
And a huddle
Of houses along the shore.

(“An Image from Beckett”, SP, p. 34)

Mahon is attentive also to the act of seeing. There is a visual self-consciousness in much of his poetry as if he is intent on watching himself and others watching the world through eyes that know light is a kind of artist which composes landscapes and cityscapes, still life interiors, as it falls on sea and shore, on street and table. His is a poetry of visual epiphanies, of “light music” as he calls it in a sequence of haiku-like poems he first published in 1977 and to which he has subsequently added and subtracted entries. Poem after poem in his work directs us to the effects of light in a poetic that insists that (as he has it in “A Lighthouse in Maine”) “The north light / That strikes its frame / Houses is not / The light of heaven / But that of this world” (SP, p. 142). The poet, and the light he so celebrates, together remind us in Mahon's work that consciousness, whatever else it is, is a visual construct, an ordering of the random stuff of the world's reality where light and the eye conspire to suggest a formal synthesis in an otherwise chaotic experience. Accordingly the poet asks in “Everything is Going to Be All Right”:

How should I not be glad to contemplate
the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window
and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?

(SP, p. 111)

He recognises in this markedly self-reflexive meditation that the poems “flow from the hand unbidden / and the hidden source is the watchful heart?” (SP, p. 111). But they do so only as the heart is “watchful”, receptive to moments such as this when light composes a world of visually arresting relationships (“a high tide reflected on the ceiling”, SP, p. 111) which the poet is privileged to contemplate, as he might a skyscape glimpsed through a painted window in an artist's canvas.

“Midsummer”, the first of the “Surrey Poems” collected in Poems 1962-1978 reveals how self-consciously painterly an eye Mahon brings to the act of verbal description in his work:

Today the longest day and the people have gone.
The sun concentrates on the kitchen garden
with the bright intensity of June.
The birds we heard singing at dawn
are dozing among the leaves
while a faint soap waits its turn
in a blue sky, strange to the afternoon—
one eye on the pasture where the cows roam
and one on the thin line between land
and sea, where the quietest waves
will break there when the people have gone home.

(SP, p. 73)

The poem it is true does contain aural references but the primary impression is visual. The concentration of the sun on a kitchen garden focuses our attention too. We are aware of “bright intensity”, a “faint soap … in a blue sky”, and of the moon's eyes2 in the poem and the poet's eyes cast on a pastoral scene. We see also the waves poised timelessly as they await the moment when they will break and time begin again. The “thin line between land and sea” serves as a visual and conceptual metaphor for midsummer's timeless moment of painterly stasis.

That so visually aware a poet as Mahon should have been attracted as an artist to the work of painters does not therefore surprise. Moved as he is by light and its effects, conscious of seeing as a mode of ordering ordinary reality, art and painting plays a more important role in Mahon's oeuvre than simply offering occasional subject matter (and fairly frequent passing allusion).

In the introduction to his translation of selected poems by the French poet Philippe Jaccottet, Mahon reflected on the relationship between painting and the poet whose work he had translated. His remarks confirm that for Mahon the relationship between poetry and painting is complex but central:

Consider Bonnard's Snow Garden (1900), where the dusk is inflamed by a red blaze from the setting sun. Garden, snow and light combine in a fierce synthesis such as Jaccottet himself often achieves. Jean Grenier, in La Galerie des Arts (no. 41, February 1967), says of Bonnard that ‘he had a child-like vision which transforms the quotidian into the marvellous, the scene needn't be unusual or impressive: on the contrary, it's the most familiar things which exercise the strongest hold upon his attention’. Nabokov, in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, says of Clare Bishop that ‘she possessed that real sense of beauty which has less to do with art than with the constant readiness to discern the halo round a frying pan or the likeness between a weeping willow and a Skye terrier’. They might have been speaking of Jaccottet.3

Indeed, they might have been speaking of Mahon's own poetry, which so frequently attends to luminous moments as in a Bonnard canvas. For Mahon too is absorbed by the way light falls on the visible world to invest it with numinous presence and an impression of inherent relationships.

Mahon has written several poems specifically about painters: “A Portrait of the Artist”, first collected as “Van Gogh Among Miners” in Night-Crossing (1968) (subsequently also published under the title “Van Gogh in the Borinage”), “The Forger” also first collected in Night-Crossing and a reflection on the career as painter of the Modernist master Wyndam Lewis in “A Kensington Notebook”, first collected in Antarctica (1985). The first two of these are very much about the artist's love affair with light and belief in its transfiguring powers.

In “A Portrait of the Artist” (dedicated to the Northern Irish painter Colin Middleton) Mahon has Van Gogh an obsessive devotee of light in a dark country, one who glimpses not truth but vision in the ordinary world of objects:

Refracted in a glass of beer
As if through a church window,
Or a basin ringed with coal-dust
After the ritual evening bath.

(SP, p. 20)

He has him declare a desire to go south and paint what he has seen:

A meteor of golden light
On chairs, faces and old boots,
Setting fierce fire to the eyes
Of sun-flowers and fishing boats,
Each one a miner in disguise.

(SP, p. 20)

Light is now the only spark from heaven (“meteor”) which does nevertheless make radiantly beautiful even the grim world of the Borinage. For such things as chairs, faces and old boots in a Van Gogh canvas are as mysteriously significant as the sun-flower and fishing boats of his more exuberant period. Appropriately the forger of the poem of that title is brother to Van Gogh in his love for light (“The thing I meant was love”, SP, p. 18) since his speciality is fake Vermeers, the artist who above all paints light as if it were itself composing the scene before its viewers' eyes. The forger, like Van Gogh before him, dreams of a world transformed by light as he suffers in a dark country:

And I, too have wondered
In the dark streets of Holland,
With hunger at my belly
When the mists rolled in from the sea;
And I too have suffered
Obscurity and derision,
And sheltered in my heart of hearts
A light to transform the world.

(SP, 18-19)4

Mahon is fascinated in his poems on specific pictures (or groups of pictures) by the way light seems to bear witness to moments of perfection, where the visible world becomes a static wonder. In his famous meditation on Pieter de Hooch's “Courtyards in Delft” (see cover) we see “Oblique light on the trite, on brick and tile— / Immaculate masonry” (SP, p. 120). We are in a world of “trim composure”, “chaste Perfection”, a reality “As vividly mnemonic as the sunlit / Railings that front the house opposite.” (SP, p. 120) So although the emotional temper of the poem is predicated on a comparison between the still perfection of art and the untidy squalor and political ambiguity of the real world, the poem cannot help rising to a celebration of the ordinary represented in terms of a Dutch still-life of the seventeenth century:

I lived there as a boy and know the coal
Glittering in its shed, late-afternoon
Lambency informing the deal table,
The ceiling cradled in a radiant spoon.

(SP, p. 120)

This is certainly to put a halo round a frying pan.

In the equally remarkable poem based on Edvard Munch's “The Girls on the Pier” there is the same concentration on the moment of stillness caught for ever by the painter. The road in the picture (and one presumes that Mahon has a specific version of this repeated image in Munch's portfolio, for he dates his poem 1900):

                                                                      stops to find
                    The girls content to gaze
At the unplumbed, reflective lake,
Their plangent conversational quack
                    Expressive of calm days
                                        And peace of mind.

(SP, p. 173)

And the poem ends with the girls remembered in a long-lost past as they “gazed at a still pond” (SP, p. 175). Caught as they are in a picture which arrests our gaze, their world is as timeless as the reflective lake is unplumbed, although they are named “Grave daughters / Of time” (SP, p. 173) by the poet who knows what horrors may await them outside the dimensions of art. To invoke these he depends on “The Scream”, another of Munch's well-known images (indeed the “ghastly sun” which “watches in pale dismay”, lighting and composing the scene in the poem is as much the summer light in the other picture as it is the source of fading light in “Girls on the Bridge”):

A mile from where you chatter,
          Somebody screams.

(SP, 174)

Mahon responds with such reverence to moments like that recorded in Munch's painting, when the world achieves a momentary, significant stasis, because his own imagination, as we have observed, is profoundly attracted to such epiphanic, luminous occasions in life itself. So many of the most memorable moments in his verse record instances of light's transfigurations. Yet the poet knows they may simply be tricks of light whether they occur randomly in the life of the world or as the product of artistic craft in a painting. Accordingly it is in his poems on paintings that he confronts in a direct way an issue that troubles him throughout his work—that is whether the composed achievement of art may be an illusory misrepresentation of the real for all its beauty.

Mahon expresses this aesthetic doubt most explicitly in his “Rage for Order”, first collected in Lives. There he deprecates with self-conscious irony the futility of art in a world of “burnt-out buses” and “scattered glass” (P, p. 44). Against this the poet can only proffer, in a metaphor which combines light with observation, “the fitful glare of his high window”. Poetry is

an eddy of semantic scruples
          in an unstructurable sea.

(P, p. 44)5

Mahon's poetry as a whole is pervasively alert to the conditions of the unstructurable sea of contemporary history. His predominant tone is that of an elegist for a vanishing civility, a pessimist of the present moment. So instants of visual luminosity in his poetry are almost invariably accompanied by signs of social degradation and political desuetude, which humiliate the pretensions of all art-forms. A poem like the marvellous “The Sea in Winter” can advise:

A fine view may console the heart
with analogues for one kind of art—
chaste winter-gardens of the sea
glimmering to infinity …

(SP, p. 116)

But it does so in “un beau pays mal habité” (SP, p. 114), where

                                                  The shouts
of souls in torment round the town
at closing time make as much sense
and carry as much significance
as these lines carefully set down.
All farts in a biscuit tin, in truth—
faint cries, sententious or uncouth.

(SP, p. 116)

Mahon's poems on paintings are striking occasions in his work when the claims of art itself are tested. The still moment of youth poised on the brink of time in “Girls on the Bridge”, for example, is set against a vision of modernity as nightmare that calls into question the innocence of that moment of arrested time which the painting and the poet capture. In fact the evocations of a domestic interior which Mahon discerns in it are more suggestive of the images of a Dutch Golden Age canvas than of the expressionist angst of Munch's universe: “beds, / Lamplight and crisp linen” (SP, 173). Indeed Mahon treats the picture as a rare moment of idyll in Munch's customarily anguished work, the more to emphasise the horrors of the present. In the context of “the arctic dark” we now inhabit “Under the arc-lights of / A mineral heaven” (SP, p. 174), the painting serves therefore as a version of pastoral.

In “Courtyards in Delft” the calm immanence of a moment from puritan domestic life, of a kind passingly evoked in the Munch poem, is set against an awareness of all that is missing in the painting. Such composure can be achieved in life and art only by excluding music, eroticism, lust, politics and the imperial adventurism which was the source of that wealth which made Dutch society so stable and secure but which in the late twentieth century became the cause of “fire / And sword upon parched veldt and fields of rain-swept gorse” (SP, p. 121). What makes “Courtyards in Delft” so moving a poem is the fine balance of its emotional weighting. The poet both censures a reality of limited possibilities—implicit provincial rectitude, underlying colonialism—and is moved by the values immanent in the scene portrayed in the canvas. In “the thing made”, as the poet notes with a well-judged apposition:

Nothing is random, nothing goes to waste:
We miss the dirty dog, the fiery gin.

(SP, p. 120)

“Courtyards in Delft” has appeared in two versions (see Denman above, pp. 27-37). It was first collected in the volume of the same name (1981). It then appeared as the opening poem in The Hunt by Night in 1982. This added a fifth stanza which expanded on the colonial implications of the final lines of the fourth stanza and concluded with an invocation of the forces of disorder which might overturn a world which for all its frugal decencies is a source of evil:

If only, now, the Maenads, as of right,
Came smashing crockery, with fire and sword,
We could sleep easier in our beds at night.(6)

In the most recent collection of Mahon's work Selected Poems (1991) this stanza is once again excluded by the poet. The fifth stanza had upset, one senses, the sustained ambiguity of the poem's affective response to the painting, compact of irritation and nostalgia, censure and reluctant admiration. It was that which in its original version had made it so gravely thoughtful an entry in Mahon's perennial, meditative investigation of the relationship between art and life. Neither art nor life had been granted priority.

For in Mahon's sense of things a fine painting through its effects of light, shade and colour is a paradigm of the way in which all art can affect perception of the world, even if the world customarily is refractory and chaotic. As aesthetician Mahon is instinctively sceptical of high-flown claims for the aesthetic itself, yet he is at the same time markedly loath to abandon the possibility that the truths of art are truths indeed. “The Studio” (first collected in Lives as “Edvard Munch”) is accordingly a kind of manifesto. Focusing on a Munch canvas, the poet acknowledges the pressure of the world on the aesthetic moment to which the painting bears witness in its tormented fashion, but does not permit it the final say:

You would think with so much going on outside
The deal table would make for the window,
The ranged crockery freak and wail
Remembering its dark origins. …
                                                                                          … But it
Never happens like that. Instead
There is this quivering silence
In which, day by day, the play
Of light and shadow (shadow mostly)
Repeats itself, though never exactly.

(SP, p. 30)

The picture remains intact, its centripetal energies resisting the centrifugal tug of a world outside the canvas which could destroy it. Such is art's and poetry's claim on us, the poem implies. It provides, in Robert Frost's phrase from “The Figure a Poem Makes”, “a momentary stay against confusion”.7

In Mahon's world it is human suffering and violence that offer the most disturbing challenges to the aesthetic. The girls in “Girls on the Bridge” could occupy a pastoral zone of feeling since they “knew no pain” (SP, p. 175). By contrast ours is manifestly a world of anguish. It is colonial “fire / And sword”8 which rebukes the “modest but adequate” (SP, p. 120) mode of life represented in “Courtyards in Delft”. In “The Studio” the simple bulb in the ceiling is “honed / By death to a worm of pain” (SP, p. 30), reminding of the suffering that must threaten the quivering silence of the painting. If that became definitive everything in the painting would “abruptly / Roar into the floor” (SP, p. 30). Mahon's poetry as a whole is permeated by its sense of apocalypse and disaster, which has been the fate of countless millions in this century. At moments he seems to write after some absolute catastrophe, from a kind of post-history in which the light that fitfully redeemed the past has finally been extinguished. It is no accident in the imaginative universe of this writer that his most famous and perhaps his finest poem, “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford” should end with an apostrophe—“You with your light meter and relaxed itinerary” (SP, p. 63)—as if to address a technologist of light in a world where technologies of death have put out all illumination.

Two of Mahon's poems about pictures are occasions when aesthetics and violence are directly juxtaposed, since the pictures (themselves so wonderfully composed) provoke reflections on man's inhumanity to man and beast. About suffering they were never wrong, the old masters, one is minded to comment, reading Mahon's “The Hunt by Night” and “St Eustace” as stops on his personal tour of the Musée des Beaux Arts. Both these poems employ the elegant stanza form which is also to be observed at work in “Girls on the Bridge”, where each stanza seems to encapsulate its vision within a consciously limited canvas. The effect is of a series of miniatures, skilfully wrought, aesthetically satisfying. Yet the matter with which they have to do is the brutality of the hunt and the horrors of death by execution.

In Mahon's poetic study of Uccello's “The Hunt by Night” the picture itself is reckoned a demonstration of how art aestheticises reality. What in the dark past of the “neolithic bush” was a thing of “feotid / Bestial howls” has become in the imagination of the painter a “pageantry” made irresistibly desirable in a stylised deployment of light and shade, oddly exquisite colour and sensory effect:

          The mild herbaceous air
                              Is lemon-blue,
                              The glade aglow
                    With pleasant mysteries,
Diuretic depots, pungent prey;
And midnight hints at break of day
                    Where, among sombre trees,
                              The slim dogs go. …

(SP, p. 176)9

Yet Mahon knows this is a version of a reality which has its actual origins in the predatory instincts of the species that no aesthetics can wholly disguise. So the poem, for all its own artifice, remains sceptical of the painterly sprezzatura of a Uccello, in which the hunt (“our hunt by night / So very tense / So long pursued” (SP, p. 177) can seem “some elaborate / Spectacle put on for fun” (SP, p. 177). Art and reality vie in the poem for primacy. That neither is victor gives to the poem that tone of charged, meditative tension which is one of Mahon's most compelling poetic registers.

“St Eustace” also involves the hunt, in Pisanello's version of the conversion of the saint who will himself as a martyr be “Braised in his own fat for his contumacy / And vision” (SP, p. 144). The vision of St Eustace, in a poem about a light which can change a man's destiny, is no mere aesthetic moment of immanence or luminous possibility. It is “His nemesis”. Art and reality finally conjoin in painting and poem, no longer separable, to leave only a terminal pathos (perhaps Mahon's quintessential poetic note) in the face of illumination and suffering. St Eustace, the hunter, converted to the faith, who refuses to offer sacrifice to the gods of Rome, in his dying is briefly:

One with the hind, the hare
                    And the ring-dove.

(SP, p. 144)


  1. References to the poems cited are given in the text, citing either Derek Mahon, Poems 1962-1978 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979) (henceforth P) or Derek Mahon, Selected Poems (London: Viking/Gallery in association with Oxford University Press, 1991) (henceforth SP). Where these print Mahon's most recent version of a poem, significant alterations from its first or other collected form are indicated in footnotes. See also Peter Denman's article in this issue.

  2. That Mahon intends the moon by the image of “faint soap” is indicated not only by the context but by the poem entitled “Dawn Moon” in the sequence entitled “Light Music” which begins “A slip of soap in the sky” (SP, p. 68).

  3. Derek Mahon, “Introduction”, Selected Poems: Philip Jaccottet (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1988), p. 13.

  4. In Night-Crossing for “wondered” Mahon originally gave “wandered”.

  5. In the version of this poem collected in Lives which was arranged differently on the page, “scruples” read “scruple”.

  6. Derek Mahon, “Courtyards in Delft”, in The Hunt by Night (London: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 10.

  7. Robert Frost, “The Figure a Poem Makes”, in The Complete Poems of Robert Frost (London: Jonathan Cape, 1967), p. 18. It is perhaps worth noting that Frost associates this experience, which a good poem provides, with “clarification”.

  8. In its first collected form this simply read “war”.

  9. In its first collected form in Courtyards in Delft (1981) the phrase “diuretic depots” read “sylvan excitements”. The change which was made in The Hunt by Night (1982) was in the direction of a more complex sense-perception, in which the smell of urine plays a part.

John Redmond (essay date spring-summer 1994)

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SOURCE: Redmond, John. “Wilful Inconsistency: Derek Mahon's Verse-Letters.” Irish University Review 24, no. 1 (spring-summer 1994): 96-116.

[In the following essay, Redmond compares Mahon's verse-letters to the work of W. H. Auden to highlight his use of a casual tone. Also drawing from Auden's essay on “Light Verse,” Redmond contends that Mahon's efforts to seem casual or self-effacing are undermined by their apparent artfulness.]

Perhaps it is surprising to say so but wilful inconsistency is the most persistent feature of Derek Mahon's verse-letters. With their fairly regular rhymes and rhythms and with their very regular eight-line stanzas one might be more inclined to say that they are wilfully conservative and at a narrow, structural level this is so. But at every other level—of diction, of tone, of imagery, of subject-matter—these poems fluctuate to the point of conflict. Inconsistency, like emphasis and hesitation, is one of the aspects of conversation which we readily accept but which in poetry is not quite so acceptable. These verse-letters do not imitate conversation but they do try to emulate many of its qualities. Mahon was trying to elaborate, within the verse-letters, a casual voice of the kind which we associate with Auden and using the qualities of that voice to avoid the qualities of another, a more consistently grand and insistently authoritative voice of the kind which we associate with Yeats. In both aims Mahon was, I believe, too successful. The level of inconsistency in his verse-letters raises to an extreme one characteristic of much of his poetry and dramatises a struggle which characterises the whole of his poetry, the struggle between low-key observation and visionary grandeur.

In “Beyond Howth Head”, “The Sea in Winter”, and The Yaddo Letter, Mahon meditates in a relaxed manner on the big themes of society and history, space and time. Despite the subject-matter, however, the poems, which are amongst his longest, are neither earnest nor ponderous. As often as they are serious they are witty, as often as they are oracular, they are facetious and (Mahon makes sure) as often as the reader feels the tremendous, man-shrivelling intensity of the sun and the enormous galaxies, he feels the frail heat of the gas container. They don't promote a point of view, they provide conflicting points of view. As Mahon likes to praise MacNeice for being “profoundly superficial”, they could be praised for being “profoundly confused”.

“Beyond Howth Head”, which concludes the volume Lives (1972), is a loose meditation on life, Irish lives and living in general which when it focuses chooses such fundamental matters as sex, piety and eremeticism:

What can the elders say to this?
The young must kiss and then must kiss
and so by this declension fall
to write the writing on the wall.(1)

In this poem Mahon affects, rather ineffectively, the air of an enfant terrible. Intended jibes at the Irish bourgeoisie are dulled by his own cosy, bourgeois tastes (he prefers the BBC to RTE). The tone of the poem, however, remains the same even when the reflections become more serious. Seamus Deane has written:

The only freedom [in “Beyond Howth Head”] is that of writing even though the audience is that of the inner group, the chosen few. Because the audience is fit, the poem can be humorous, sophisticated and knowing. Because the audience is few and freedom so intangible, the poem is elegiac, saddened in its recognition of the loss and strife which had been so freely endowed by the past.2

“The Sea in Winter”, which is one of the new poems in Poems 1962-1978 (1979), is written around the emotional shock which Mahon felt when he returned to Northern Ireland in 1977.3 To the extent that it records biographical turmoil, it contrasts with the brighter, but more impersonal, “Beyond Howth Head”. Nevertheless, its tone is not consistently dark and it celebrates the poet's friendship with his addressee. The Yaddo Letter is among the most personal things which Mahon has ever published; it is indeed more personality than poetry. The letter, addressed to his children, is very affectionate, yet, at the same time, it suggests that they are at a distance from him. Just as in the other verse-letters, the jaunty rhythms and the colloquial diction tend to offset, even if they do not entirely overcome, the depressing nature of the subject-matter. As Brian Donnelly has observed about “Beyond Howth Head”:

… wit is given wide scope. The form of the verse-letter allows him to relax and to be discursive in his comments on life in general and Irish life in particular much in the manner of Auden in his ‘Letter To Lord Byron’.4

Auden is crucial to these verse-letters—in fact, they are unimaginable without his example. His “Letter To Lord Byron” (1936) and “New Year Letter” (1940) are the main modern models for these epistles, as they are the models for many other writers of what Auden saw as a kind of Light Verse. Seeking a style which could combine the seriousness of modernism with the accessibility of ordinary conversation, Auden in the 1930s looked back beyond the Romantic period to writers of verse-letters such as Horace and Pope. He believed that the Restoration period was the high watermark of Light Verse, a time when poets knew their audience and audiences, without difficulty, knew their poetry. Of course, to categorise verse-letters as “Light Verse” was unusual but then so was Auden's definition of the category. In his “Introduction to The Oxford Book Of Light Verse, he asserted:

Light Verse can be serious. It has only come to mean vers de societé, triolets, smoke-room limericks, because, under the social conditions which produced the Romantic Revival, and which have persisted, more or less, ever since, it has only been in trivial matters that poets have felt in sufficient intimacy with their audience to forget themselves and their singing robes.5

Auden maintained against popular perception that Light Verse could be more than lightweight. It could, he thought, be a counterweight to the kind of poetry which modernism had encouraged, poetry like “The Waste Land” which was obscure, informal, impersonal and deadly serious. Light Verse, Auden thought, could be clear, formal, personal and wittily serious. If it could be these things, then it would be (and this is what was really important) readable, accessible and popular. The writer of Light Verse would be sensitive not only to his own feelings but to the feelings of his readers. Auden in his first experiment with the form, “Letter To Lord Byron”, set out what he was looking for:

I want a form that's large enough to swim in,
          And talk on any subject that I choose,
From natural scenery to men and women,
          Myself, the arts, the European news:(6)

When referring to poets in “their singing robes”, Auden's tone was half-contemptuous, half-amused. Writing with other people in mind (as one must do in a verse-letter) would, Auden hoped, discourage the writer's natural vanity and aloofness. This is one of the reasons why the verse-letter appeals to Mahon. For him, suspicion of the writer's vanity is as strong and significant as it was for Auden.

Theory was one thing, however, and practice another. Auden probably overestimated the extent to which Light Verse could be popular, witty and profound. In theory, verse-letters were supposed to be clear and inclusive; in practice, they were often coy and allusive. In theory, verse-letters were supposed to be full of public satire; in practice, they were often full of private jokes. Auden's “New Year Letter” and “Beyond Howth Head”, for instance, were both furnished with footnotes. Referring to “Beyond Howth Head” (and poems by Mahon which resemble it) Seamus Deane has written of a “… spirit of bohemian camaraderie, of slightly raffish stylishness, even of knowingness …”.7 It is a common tone in modern verse-letters. James Fenton's “Letter To John Fuller”, an Audenesque defence of poetry's Lightness, is an amusing and self-conscious example:

Which brings me to my purpose. Look you,
John Fuller, I admire your book. You
          Write well, though sanely.
You're also an exquisite cook. (You
          Do Chinese mainly.)(8)

As is so often the case, the tone of this verse-letter is amiable, informal and irreverent. In particular, it owes much to Auden: colloquialism, outrageous rhyme, the faint air of music-hall cheekiness and chumminess. The informality is as calculated as the outrageous reference to cooking (What! He can't be talking about what he eats for dinner!) It is yet another echo of Auden, but it is also calculatedly Horatian, rather like the third epode in which Horace complains to a friend about his cooking (the use of garlic without Horace's knowledge):

Parentis olim si quis impiâ manu
          Senile guttur fregerit,
Edit cicutis allium nocentius.(9)

Though the prevailing tone which we find in all of these verse-letters is one of amity and allusiveness, the discrepancy between the desire to be popular and the reality of being obscure is a spectre which frequently haunts them. Mahon has not heeded the form's imperative to be popular but he has inherited the form's fear of aloofness, of poetic vanity. This is evident from other poems in his canon like “Heraclitus On Rivers” where Auden's suspicion that “poetry makes nothing happen”, famously stated in “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”, is a ghostly presence:

Your best poem, you know the one I mean,
The very language in which the poem
Was written, and the idea of language,
All these things will pass away in time.

(SP [Selected Poems], p. 112)

Poetry is a passing phenomenon, the poem tells us, and we have to agree. But why tell us? Because, I suppose, we are being told more about the poet than poetry. It would be a most insensitive reader who missed the fuss which Mahon makes in poem after poem about being self-deprecatory. “The Mute Phenomena” (after Nerval) is an ostentatious example:

Your great mistake is to disregard the satire
Bandied among the mute phenomena.
Be strong if you must, your brusque hegemony
Means fuck-all to the somnolent sun-flower
Or the extinct volcano …

(SP, p. 64)

The poem criticises the vanity of the powerful (“brusque hegemony”), and this criticism includes the most luxuriant ambition as well as the simple writing of poetry. Because all things pass away, the poem suggests, one might as well be a pebble, a potentate, anything at all, as be a poet. One's first response is “So what?” and to turn the page. One's second response is to turn back the page and see the cunning means by which the poem tries to have things both ways. The diction more than supports the poem's contention. It acts it out. The sonorous, “Poetic” phrase, “the somnolent sun-flower” is held in tension with the throwaway, Anti-Poetic “fuck-all”. One moment the poem inflates itself, the next moment it bounces on a pin and bursts.

The poem “Rock Music” modulates phrases like “Space-age Hondas farted half the night” and “As if such obsolete bumf could save us now” with “A thousand limpets left by the ebb-tide / Unanimous in their silent inquisition.” (SP, p. 100) Slang sings with gusto beside grandiloquence. “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford” used to contain the phrase “Dog corners for shit-burials”, which modulated with such phrases as “Let the god not abandon us / Who have come so far in darkness and in pain”.10 Reading through the original version of the poem in The Snow Party, one would have been caught up by that compound “shit-burials”. It was, for Mahon, a typical juxtaposition of high style and low-style, rather like Auden's use of “dildo” in the early version of “In Praise Of Limestone”. But, as typically and correctly as Auden altered “dildo”, Mahon, in Poems 1962-1978, revised “A Disused Shed” so that “shit-burials” became “bone-burials”. The compound was no longer conspicuous, no longer as low and colloquial as before and, what the poem lost in tonal variety, it gained in greater smoothness.

The fear of being vain itself can lead to vanity. Mahon, long ago, realised that any metaphysical stance, however self-regarding or self-negating, can be made to look ridiculous when seen in the light of another metaphysical system. Unfortunately, the last thing that Mahon wants is to look ridiculous from any point of view. For instance, he ends “The Sea in Winter” with the assertion that he knows “nothing” (SP, 118), which is odd, in a poem which includes literary references to Dante and Ibsen, Biblical references to Jehovah and Damascus, and Classical references to Diana and The Dying Gaul. The many points of reference in the poem seem calculated to let us know just how much he does know. Like the man who shoots the centre from a target, murmuring all the while about beginner's luck, it is a humility so calculated that it is probably not humility at all. Mahon wants to have things both ways. He wants to seem like a beginner and an expert at the same time.

Such modulations have become so frequent in his poetry that they are in danger of becoming his poetry, certainly if his latest poem, The Yaddo Letter,11 is anything to go by. The fusion of styles can be very confusing for readers. The following lines, for instance, are self-consciously casual:

… it was here, in an open field north of the town,
that Philip Schuyler clobbered John Burgoyne

(emphasis added)

I hope I haven't bored you stiff already.

(emphasis added)

This is the classic style of verse-letters: clear, colloquial and offhand. But, at more philosophical moments, the poem abruptly abandons this style and aims to be “poetic”. In the following passage (with its “Children of light”), we turn from hairy-chested heartiness to the “improving” moralism of the maiden aunt as she passes around the home-made cakes:

Children of light, may your researches be
reflections on this old anomaly;
may you remember, as the years go by
and you grow slowly towards maturity,
that life consists in the receipt of life …

If rendered in the alternative, colloquial register this would probably become Hey, kids, remember the old man said to live and let live! One wonders what would be lost if it were. For, rather than profundity, what distinguishes these lines from the earlier ones is a highly conscious and highly ineffective style. They not only show that Mahon tends to modulate his tone whether it is appropriate or not, but that such modulations have become mechanical components of his overall style. The desire for heterogeneity at any cost is alarmingly realised in this poem.

Heterogeneity even extends into the formal structure of verse-letters. The twenty, eight-line stanzas of “The Sea in Winter”, like the twenty-two eight-line stanzas of “Beyond Howth Head”, consist for the most part of couplets while The Yaddo Letter consists almost entirely of couplets. They are a common feature of modern verse-letters. Couplets help to frame concepts in a snappy and memorable way. Beyond Auden's “New Year Letter” their use strongly recalls Auden's pre-eminent precursor, Pope. Couplets, because they foreground an aspect of technique, the use of rhyme, which the public often confuses with poetry, enable the poet to compromise with popular taste in order to create a popular style. Michael Longley's well-regarded sequence, “Letters”, which includes one to Heaney and one to Mahon himself, is also written in couplets:

And did we come into our own
When, minus muse and lexicon,
We traced in August sixty-nine
Our imaginary Peace Line
Around the burnt-out houses of
The Catholics we'd scarcely loved …(12)

To use couplets allows the poet certain epigrammatic possibilities, which in turn can be used to make locally amusing remarks. This aspect of the form counters another aspect, namely the widespread use of eight-line stanzas, a feature which by contrast relies less on local effects than on overall orchestration. This formal tension supports the thematic and linguistic heterogeneity.

Although rhyme is formal, in these poems it is treated informally. Often it is either abandoned or derided. The popularising tendency, the knowledge that the poet is taking short-cuts, the sense that he is experimenting with a relaxed kind of poetry, leads in these verse-letters to a peculiarly self-conscious kind of informality. Auden, for instance, makes jokes about the difficulty of rhyming in “Letter To Lord Byron” (“There is no other rhyme except anoint”), Mahon occasionally abandons rhyme both in “The Sea in Winter” and in “Beyond Howth Head” and Patrick Kavanagh in his “Letter In Verse” gives up his rhyme-scheme in mock-desperation:

… By the Lord Harry
George Barker is superior at this carry-
On in rhymed letter.

Apart from a wilful heterogeneity of diction and structure, Mahon is just as heterogeneous in the way that he constructs conceptual images. One of the most important conceptual images in his verse-letters is that of words flying, a trope which has a precedent in Auden. Here is an example from “New Year Letter”:

This private minute for a friend,
Be the dispatch that I intend;
Although addressed to a Whitehall,
Be under Flying Seal to all.(13)

We see this figure too in “Beyond Howth Head”, where the poet's letter is imagined flying through a storm:

The wind that blows these words to you
bangs nightly off the black-and-blue
Atlantic, hammering in its haste
dark doors of the declining west …

(SP, p. 44)

In “The Sea in Winter” the words fly like an arrow through the night. As in the other two examples the flight appears to take place against a threatening background:

… One day,
perhaps, the words will find their mark
and leave a brief glow on the dark, …

(SP, p. 117)

I have said that poetry takes pain to deprecate its own worth. But that self-deprecation takes place in a wider context, where his poetry appears to celebrate its own importance. The figure of words flying is, after all, a grandiose conceit; the poet adjusts his goggles in the cockpit as the poem rises over the Aeonian Mount. The figure is connected to many other long-range, aerial views and perspectives in poetry. Such long perspectives tend to universalise what they include. Just as they claim power for the poem's speaker, they also reflect the ambivalent sense of menace in these verse-letters. Their form is so loose that they can range from one moment in history to another at high speed.

… morning scatters down the strand
relics of last night's gale-force wind;
far out, the Atlantic faintly breaks, …

(SP, p. 114)

These lines are of the sort which Dillon Johnston had in mind when he wrote: “… Mahon establishes a ‘theoptic’ view in which human endeavour dwindles before the vastness of history and of the heavens.”14 By creating a wide-screen, elemental picture, Mahon prepares us for the philosophical generalisations which are to come. Like minor characters in Shakespeare plays, who prepare us for the entry of the hero, so regularly do vistas and panoramas appear to fulfil their secondary function that often we become more aware of that function than of their individuality. A windswept coast, a drizzled-on promenade, an image of the night-sky: countless Mahon poems begin with an image of universalisation and generalisation. interest in panoramas probably comes from Auden via Larkin. Communism provided many left-wing poets in the nineteen thirties with a sense of historical omniscience which transferred itself into their rhetoric and their imagery. Auden's “The Summer holds …” is a memorable example:

The summer holds: upon its glittering lake
Lie Europe and the islands; many rivers
Wrinkling its surface like a ploughman's palm.
Under the bellies of the grazing horses
On the far sides of posts and bridges
The vigorous shadows dwindle; nothing wavers.
Calm at this moment the Dutch sea so shallow
That sunk St. Paul's would ever show its golden cross
and still the deep water that divides us still from Norway.(15)

This sense of omniscience was also connected with his scientific optimism generated by new technology. The old world, the world of the Great War, was associated with backward, Georgian and anti-industrial sentiments. The new world was hard, scientific and technological and was often represented by views from cars or trains. Larkin's “The Whitsun Weddings” is a controlled example of this bias (other examples of panorama in his poetry are the openings of “Here” and “To The Sea”) and of the sociological use of panorama:

All afternoon, through the tall heat that slept
          For miles inland,
A slow and stopping curve southwards we kept.
Wide farms went by, short-shadowed cattle, and
Canals with floatings of industrial froth;
A hothouse flashed uniquely: hedges dipped
And rose …(16)

When a poem like “North Wind: Portrush” opens with a scene-setting wind we know that the philosophical generalisations are only a few line-breaks away:

I shall never forget the wind
On this benighted coast.
It works itself into the mind
Like the high keen of a lost
Lear-spirit in agony
Condemned for eternity …

(SP, p. 124)

Towards the “reality”, which Eliot said humanity could not bear much of, towards “the long perspectives”, which Larkin said we are not suited for, Mahon turns with bewildering eagerness. Apart from the wind, one of his favourite natural images is of the night-sky. If Isherwood claimed to be a camera then Mahon could stake a fair claim to being a telescope. Many of his poems open with us staring through the lens with him. In “The Sea in Winter”, he imagines “… a moon of Asia Minor / bright on your nightly industry.” (SP, p. 113) In “The Banished Gods” we are asked to imagine a place where “… thought is a fondling of stones / And wisdom a five-minute silence at moonrise.”17 In “One of these Nights”, the poem commences:

A pregnant moon of August
Composes the roof-tops'
Unventilated slopes;
Dispenses to the dust
Its milky balm …

(SP, 150)

Moons sweep over the sides of poems as often as tennis-balls pop over Wimbledon. The long view is a wide view. Like Ezekiel in his cloud, we feel insignificant and chosen. Feelings fluctuate. We are at once proud and humble. Like Oliver in the orphanage, we are continuously chastened to remember just how unimportant we are. Unlike Oliver we feel privileged to have the overview. Unfortunately, Mahon is much too fond of this poetic strategy. “It all happened before—” he says later in “One of these Nights”, and looking at what he said earlier in the poem, we have no choice but to agree.

This is as true of the verse-letters as it is of any of his other poems. The first two sentences of “Beyond Howth Head”, stretched tight over the first three stanzas, are animated by an image of the wind. It is not quite up to the force of Yeats's “roof-levelling wind” (although it still shakes houses in the west) but it prevails, generally, over Ireland. Its primary function is to allow Mahon to introduce a great, mechanical panorama. The first four lines give the flavour:

The wind that blows these words to you
bangs nightly off the black-and-blue
Atlantic, hammering in its haste
dark doors of the declining west …

(SP, p. 44)

It is unsatisfactory to begin a poem as predictably as this, but it is even more unsatisfactory to do so three times. For, in the tenth stanza, he begins the process all over again. The speaker is placed within a geographical framework and the same progression occurs: a panoramic sweep, followed by allusive, moralistic musings:

I woke this morning (March) to hear
church bells of Monkstown through the roar
of waves round the Martello tower …

(SP, p. 46)

This is a second beginning in the middle of the poem. But it turns out to be equivalent of first gear, for, in the fifteenth stanza, he begins the poem all over again.

Spring lights the country; from a thousand
dusty corners, house by house,
from under beds and vacuum cleaners,
empty Kosangas containers,
bread bins, car seats, crates of stout,
the first flies cry to be let out …

(SP, p. 47)

Once you have a function as inclusive as that of the panorama, it can become very hard to select what to put into it and what to leave out of it. That is why the first five lines here seem so perfunctory; they are like items in a hurriedly filled catalogue, which, once full, allows the poet a “clinching” cadence, represented here by the sixth line.

But inconsistency remains the hallmark of these verse-letters. That is why it is very interesting when such generalised visions, associated as they inevitably are with large, consistent groups, should introduce a discussion of eremeticism. How and why does poetry alternate from visions of humanity on Earth, which are worthy of a satellite computer, to visions of the poet himself, alone and palely worthless? “Each epoch has its own sentimentality”, Hofmannsthal wrote, “its specific way of overemphasising strata of emotion. The sentimentality of the present is egotistic and unloving; it exaggerates not the feeling of love but that of the self.” Between feeling that the universe is an alien place, in which humanity just happens to exist, and feeling sorry for his own isolation, there is surprisingly little feeling for other people in his poetry. Where there is apparent sympathy for others, it often seems to be a device to underline the unfortunate circumstances in his own life.

Because the letter is a personal form, and because letter-writing is a solitary activity, eremeticism is a popular preoccupation in verse-letters. In his letter “To Seamus Heaney”, Michael Longley also considers the solitary life:

That small subconscious cottage where
The Irish poet slams his door
On slow-worm, toad and adder:
Beneath these racing skies it is
A tempting stance indeed …(18)

In “The Sea in Winter” and “Beyond Howth Head”, Mahon seems to find eremeticism as fatally attractive an idea as Keats found death. Both verse-letters compare the value of a communal lifestyle with the value of a hermit's lifestyle. In “Beyond Howth Head”, the option of eremeticism is presented and, after a brief and rather unsatisfactory consideration, withdrawn:

I too, uncycled, might exchange,
since ‘we are changed by what we change’,
my forkful of the general mess
for hazel-nuts and water-cress
like one of those old hermits who,
less virtuous than some, withdrew
from the world-circles women make
to a small island in a lake.

(SP, p. 48)

The second line, here, is a quote (acknowledged) from Auden's “New Year Letter”. Contrary to medieval idealism, eremeticism is regarded in this poem as a temptation, something which is not “virtuous”. The poem asks “Should a man live on his own or in a community?” and answers “the latter”. Eremeticism is seen as another kind of vanity, which the poem, with ostentatious humility, rejects. But Mahon only considers one kind of eremeticism, the world-negating kind, which, perceiving that the world distracts us from God, removes itself from the world. Mahon does not consider (as he does in a later poem “The Hermit” from The Snow Party) eremeticism of the kind which one associates with part of Buile Suibhne or with Emily Dickinson's poetry, the kind which may lead one to a more sensual involvement with the world. He is determined to make us believe that eremeticism is a turning away from the world, forgetting that many hermits merely turn away from worldliness. His antithesis is a false one, because, in a most puritanical way, he wants to abjure his own puritanism. Having subdued this wicked impulse in himself, he decides to be serene and accepting. There is nothing terribly wrong with that. The problem with it is that the long sentences, the numerous allusions, the sonorous, Latinate diction which sustain the poem, lead us to expect something grander. We expect something as resounding as DA, DATTA, DAYADHVAM not something as silly as “like Margaret Fuller, I must accept the universe”.

These abstract discussions of eremeticism are driven by the practical problem of loneliness. “Aloneness is man's real condition” Auden writes in “New Year Letter”.19 The only palliative for loneliness is friendship, and friendship is what the letter usually represents. Therefore it is no surprise to see, in a modern verse-letter, loneliness and friendship discussed together. Of course, this is not an entirely new phenomenon. The following lines of Pope's epistle “To Mr. Bethel” are easily imagined in a modern poem:

My lands are sold; my Father's house is gone;
I'll hire another's, is not that my own
And yours, my friends? through whose free opening gate
None comes too early, none departs too late.(20)

But in the modern verse-letter, friendship is, if anything, even more important than in Pope's epistles, and its meaning, along with its context, has altered considerably. In relation to the wider world, an act of friendship becomes defensive, even defiant. Like the concept of panorama, it takes place against a vaguely menacing backdrop, as for example, in “Beyond Howth Head”:

leaving us, Jeremy, to flick
blank pages of an empty book
where the exponential futures lie
wide to the runways and the sky;
to spin celestial globes of words
over a foaming pint in Ward's …

(SP, p. 46)

Just as they encourage amity, verse-letters discourage enmity. Seamus Heaney's “Open Letter” is a good example. There, in a verse-letter (all verse-letters, in a sense, are open letters), he protests his Irishness to a pair of poetry editors who have mistakenly labelled him “British”. Far from being any blood-curdling J'Accuse, however, his letter is written in a jaunty and forgiving style. That Heaney, in this poem, knows those to whom he is writing, as distinct from those for whom he is writing, is very obvious and deeply influences its tone. Poetry editors, of course, can be expected to recognise Heaney's allusions and to understand his jokes, just as friends, family and fellow-poets can be expected to understand his allusions and his jokes. Hence, friendship in these verse-letters partially solves the poet's perennial problem of knowing his audience.

This kind of intimacy is seen as a defence against the wider world. The atmosphere of menace in these verse-letters is usually projected onto large and faceless things. Neurotic feelings about one's relationships to other people can, very often, be projected on to things other than people—in poetry such feelings are sometimes projected on to the state, sometimes on to the universe in general. One of the things which separates Mahon's first two epistles is the difference in the attitudes which they each take to the state. While “Beyond Howth Head” has a certain overbright optimism, criticising, in bourgeois fashion, the bourgeois attitudes of the Irish Republic, “The Sea in Winter” regards “home”, the Northern Ireland statelet, with outright dismay. It might as well be a part of Cold War Eastern Europe, as this stanza (from the original version of the poem21) shows:

When I returned one year ago
I felt like Tonio Kröger—slow
To come to terms with my own past
Yet knowing I could never cast
Aside the things that made me what,
For better or worse, I am. The upshot?
Chaos and instability,
The cool gaze of the RUC.

The trouble is that Mahon does not analyse what makes Northern Ireland chaotic and unstable. No doubt the presence of the RUC (never mind its actions) has a good deal to do with both chaos and instability, but there is more to the problems of Northern Ireland than the RUC. Here private feelings are rather crudely projected on to public bodies. The police become, because of their size and power, a kind of generalised Adversary. Size and power are also associated in poetry with the creation of panoramas and vistas, the ability, like that of Auden's Airman, or of Hughes's hawk in “Hawk Roosting”, or of the British soldier in Heaney's “From The Frontier of Writing”, to survey with enormous intensity, a “cool gaze” indeed. For what happens when the Abyss looks back? What happens when the poet is no longer the surveyor, but the surveyed? This accounts for yet another kind of oscillation in these verse-letters, when they try to maintain a balance between omniscience and intimacy.

Apart from the menacing phrase “the cool gaze of the RUC”, one passage in “The Sea in Winter” uses the idea of “policing” to indicate a paranoid atmosphere, as well as to contrast intimacy with menace:

Portstewart, Portrush, Portballintrae—
un beau pays mal habité,
policed by rednecks in dark cloth
and roving gangs of tartan youth.
No place for a gentleman like you.

(SP, p. 114)

Like most people, Mahon distrusts instruments of power, particularly the instruments of the state. One thinks of “the dark police” in his poem “Gypsies”. “Police”, as in Auden's poetry, becomes a term of general menace. It is a classic thirties feeling, the feeling of paranoia and surveillance. Tom Paulin has pointed out, and it is significant that a Northern Irish critic should do so, how in Auden's poetry and LeCarré's thrillers there is an uneasy connection between a utopian vision of Europe's future and a dystopian analysis of Europe's present:

Anyone who admires Auden's work must recognise the marvellous and daring subtlety with which LeCarré draws on his vision of decaying public schools, the English landscape, a haunting idea of Europe, and a chill and pervasive atmosphere of secrecy and surveillance.22

A passage from LeCarré's most famous book, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, illustrates what Paulin is talking about:

Who was running that set-up?

‘I didn't know till later. Then I met Steed-Asprey, and an Oxford don called Fielding. They were running it. In forty-one they dropped me into Holland and I stayed there nearly two years … Holland's a wicked country for that kind of work—it's got no real rough country, nowhere out of the way where you can keep a headquarters or a radio set … It made a very dirty game. I got out in forth-three and had a couple of months in England, then I had a go at Norway—that was a picnic by comparison.23

The Audenesque world is clearly evoked here: the Oxford don, the schoolboy exclamations, the eerie appeal of outdoors, the slangy understatements and the sense of European countries going through crisis. This kind of menacing atmosphere is nevertheless shot through with a sense of utopian possibility and it is important for both Mahon and Auden. We can see it in “New Year Letter”:

… two aliens in New York
We meet, Elizabeth, and talk
Of friends who suffer in the torn
Old Europe where we both were born,(24)

Here, the small island of friends in the large foreign city looks back at the suffering of a continent. It is important that Auden emphasises a continent rather than a country, “Europe” rather than “England” or “Germany”. In some of poems Terence Brown has noted a similar pattern of feeling:

… that fabricated cosmopolitanism we have detected in earlier poets, suggesting insecurity, caught between a narrow society he dislikes and the larger world outside his province, where he must make his life.25

Thus Mahon likes to speak of Europe rather than of Ireland: In “Beyond Howth Head”, Mahon refers to “lost townlands on the crumbling shores / Of Europe; …” (SP, p. 44). In “October in Hyde Park”, he describes how “Europe, after the first rain of winter, / shines with a corpse-light.” (SP, p. 187) In “Death and the Sun”, he refers to “… the night of Europe, the winter of faces, …” (SP, p. 193). In “Brighton Beach”, he imagines Europe in terms of a hazy, multitude of automobiles:

From the far end of the pier
I imagine the sun-gleam
On a thousand deux-cheveaux.
Over there they explore
Balbec and sip Pernod
In a Monet-monoxide dream.

(SP, p. 179)

But emphasis on an idea of Europe, like his fascination with panoramas and multitudes, has its origins in thirties poetry. For Auden, and for fellow left-wing poets in the thirties, utopian visions of Europe were based on then current versions of communism. The public images associated with communism—strikes, factory gates, multitudes, athletic workers in Russian propaganda films—became the material for their poetry. To combine such imagery with their own class sensibilities, however, turned out to be very difficult. They too had to fabricate their cosmopolitanism. While the accents of the English parish could accommodate themselves to an expansion of Englishness in foreign fields, it was a more difficult to spread foreign ideologies like communism through the English parish. It was partly a matter of irony. The inflated, irony-free jargon of communism tended to clash with the domestic Edenic idea of England. This is particularly obvious in letters, where, because communist language was used to address abstractions like The Worker rather than a particular reader, it seemed sublimely inappropriate. The following passage from The Spy Who Came In From The Cold wryly demonstrates this:

It didn't appeal to Liz much, the secrecy, it seemed dishonest. But she supposed it was necessary, … She read the letter again. It was on Centre's writing paper with the thick red print at the top and it began ‘Dear Comrade’, it sounded so military to Liz and she hated that; she'd never quite got used to ‘Comrade’.26

English life and political discourse depended on ironies, but they were ironies which an effective writer, like Uncle Screwtape, needed to be aware of. In the above passage the irony is obvious, but the letter's sender, equally obviously, is not aware of it. This example from the work of LeCarré is, of course, fictional, but I do not think that it is fantastic. For a fantastic example of class unconsciousness we have to turn to real life, if that is how we can refer to Cecil Day Lewis's “Letter To A Young Revolutionary”, a piece of thirties propaganda, which A. T. Tolley has recorded and dryly dismissed: “His [Day Lewis's] letter begins: ‘Dear Jonathan, So you are thinking of joining the Communist Party’ … Comment seems unnecessary.”27

What these two examples suggest is that letters have an inbuilt resistance to the phoney, that when you blow away the forensic dust, immature and inane sentiments are surprisingly well illuminated. Because they foreground one's personal relationships with other people, verse-letters are resolutely social. Because their ideal form is intimate, they are resistant to grandiosity. Verse-letters, despite their frequent fluctuations, have a basic intimacy, an intimacy which is meant to undermine the occasional bursts of grandiose diction and imagery. Mahon's verse-letters are responsible and responsive: responsible in the way the author exercises poetic power; responsive to the feelings of those he is writing to. That is why they are not great poems.

His poetry is at its best when it does not interrogate his own dream-visions. What the real Mahon wants is a kind of conceptual, sensual virility; he wants to be omniscient and grandiose and he does not want these qualities to be undermined. What Mahon would like to be in “The Last of the Fire Kings” is a kind of Scarlet Pimpernel, a figure who operates covertly and effectively:

I want to be
Like the man who descends
At two milk churns
With a bulging
String bag and vanishes
Where the lane turns,
Or the man
Who drops at night
From a moving train
And strikes out over the fields
Where fireflies glow,
Not knowing a word of the language.

(SP, p. 58)

These four stanzas are the most memorable in the poem, because they are imagined with such evident relish. Clearly, this unstoppable Man of Action, this Bond, this Biggles is immensely appealing to Mahon. The trouble is that Mahon feels guilty about his appeal. When he stops to consider what the world (as represented by the fire-loving people) demands of him, or, at least, what he imagines it demands of him, the quality of the poem noticeably declines. He engages with those notional demands to the point of compromise and he starts to talk about visions rather than actually having them:

Perfecting my cold dream
Of a place out of time,
A palace of porcelain

(SP, p. 59)

This “palace of porcelain” is a synthetic vision, an artificial realisation of an authentic desire. Like in the poem “Kinsale” where Mahon declares “… We contemplate at last / shining windows, a future forbidden to no-one”, (SP, p. 191) it is an approximate description of his vision, rather than the vision itself.

But it is a good approximation. In general, Mahon's best poetry, which, to a surprising extent, consists of great lines—a vivid image, a resounding phrase—rather than great poems, has a utopian or prophetic quality. This quality is usually evoked by images with either (or both) of the following characteristics: (i) an image of something which reflects or (more often) radiates a kind of mystical light (ii) an image of a homogenous multitude. In “Courtyards in Delft”, an example of each type occurs within only four lines:

I lived there as a boy and know the coal
Glittering in its shed, late-afternoon
Lambency informing the deal table,
The ceiling cradled in a radiant spoon.

(SP, p. 120)

Everything is shot through with a hopeful, mysterious light, even the dark multitude of coal, and, as in other poems, the light is compressed into a small space. Stray images of this sort proliferate in his poetry: “A cloud swam on a cloud-reflecting tile” (“A Garage in Co. Cork”, SP, p. 152); “the grapes dreaming of the days of wine” (“Dead of Night”);28 “A thousand limpets left by the ebb-tide / Unanimous in their silent inquisition” (Rock Music”, SP, p. 100). That is why it is no coincidence that the Action Man in “The Last of the Fire Kings” escapes through fields where “fireflies glow”. Mahon's best poems constitute extended images of this sort or, more accurately, extended meditations on such images: “Leaves”, “The Snow Party” and, of course, “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford”.

In “Leaves”, the poem opens, rather prosaically, in the “real world”. Then with unexpected visionary force a swarm of leaves sweep through the poem, ushering us in to a deathless realm:

Somewhere there is an afterlife
Of dead leaves,
A stadium filled with an infinite
Rustling and sighing.

(SP, p. 52)

The poem supports its prophetic power with sensual intensity and aspirational abstractions. The intensity is conveyed by the delicacy of the sound-effects and the combination of unvoiced fricatives with thin vowel sounds, faithfully evoking the light friction of leaves. The sense of abstraction is conveyed by the diction, which has a marked utopian expansiveness: “infinite” (used twice), “afterlife”, “heaven”, “futures”, “fulfilment”. “Leaves” is written out of a narrow but very intense range of feeling and is faithful to a small but very exciting part of human experience. The verse-letters, by contrast, are written out of a wide range of moods and are faithful to large areas of human experience. “Leaves” is faithful to our visions, the verse-letters are faithful to our lives. But it is not its visionary nature which makes “Leaves” a better poem than any of verse-letters—this is not a question of whether poetry should be about visions or ‘real life’. It is a question of how Mahon handles these different subjects and, really, it is quite obvious that, when he is writing about his visions, Mahon is much more assured than when he is writing about real life. When he is writing his verse-letters Mahon is writing against the best part of his poetic nature.

“Leaves”, “The Snow Party”, “The Last of the Fire Kings” and “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford” are all contained in what is, unquestionably, his best book, The Snow Party. According to Seamus Deane, this is because Mahon starts to balance his poetic nature with the demands which the outside world would make upon it:

It would be extravagant to say that Mahon now begins to elaborate some kind of confrontation with history [in ‘The Snow Party’], but he certainly dismisses it with less assurance. In fact, the title poem ‘The Snow Party’, ‘The Last of the Fire Kings’, and ‘Thammuz’ … are more deeply meditative poems than anything he had written before.29

In the title poem, the visionary tendency, as in “The Last of the Fire Kings” is balanced (though in this case less evenly) by the claims of the world. In this poem collective radiance is captured by the falling snow, which, by simple juxtaposition, is ambiguously paralleled with the “Thousands” who have died “in the service / Of barbarous kings.” (SP, p. 57) Recalling “Leaves”, the poem says that the snowflakes are “… falling / Like leaves on the cold sea.” The brilliant, homogenous multitude of snowflakes is far more intensely imagined, however, than the dying multitudes in the outside world. Mahon aligns himself with the strangely sensitive, aesthetic party-goers, the avid voyeurs of visionary images. It is clearly their power to see which interests him and not his own underdeveloped and rather dutiful reference to worldly suffering.

The mushrooms in “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford” are a most vividly realised homogenous multitude. The poem cascades them and their environment with brilliant, sensuous imagery. As in “The Snow Party”, it is the power to see which is implicitly celebrated. That godlike poetic power is recognised by the mushrooms when they speak out at the end of the poem: “Let the god not abandon us / Who have come so far in darkness and in pain.” (SP, p. 63) The mushrooms recognise, in particular, the prophetic power of the poet, with his “light meter”, who has imagined them and, in general, the prophetic power of certain kinds of political language. Like “Leaves”, this poem concentrates what the verse-letters tend to dissipate. Here, the vague, utopian longings which waft through Mahon's verse-letters, are tightened and wedged into the width of a shed. Here, the historical discursiveness of the verse-letters is transformed into a historical dream. One of the reasons why Mahon enjoys writing about multitudes is the ease with which they can be manipulated and the ease with which one can invest vague utopian feelings in their appearance. These utopian desires are themselves drawn from history. Seamus Deane says of the mushrooms:

They seek to escape from the brutality of a dark, instinctive and lethal struggle into the light of recognition. Mahon has here inverted his usual procedure. The lost lives are not lived beyond history, but before it. Their fulfilment is in history.30

But if the mushrooms' lives are lived before history, why is it that, when the poet is describing those lives, he uses phrases which have overwhelming historical associations? Phrases like “civil war days”, “grim / Dominion”, “‘Elbow room! Elbow room!’” (recalling Lebensraum) and “Powdery prisoners of the old regime” show that the mushroom's pattern of “activity” falls into the same patterns of most historical multitudes. True, they are not really individual, but then even crowds are historical. That is why they can be compared with peoples (“Lost people of Treblinka and Pompeii”). What Mahon abstracts from history is the utopian, prophetic tone, the language of collectives and multitudes. What he celebrates is his own power to manipulate that language and those images.

It is precisely that kind of language and that kind of imagery, which Mahon, on an intellectual level, distrusts and which his verse-letters are designed (all too well designed) to dilute. The vanity of poetic virility and the grandiosity of poetic prophecy are made to co-exist in his wilfully inconsistent verse-letters with smart chat, miscellaneous witticisms and self-pitying digressions. The idea of governing one's tongue, the idea of watching one's language and remaining responsible to the ordinary things of this world was and is a good idea. It was Auden's idea. It was why Auden began to formulate his theory of Light Verse and why he began to write verse-letters. But Mahon is not Auden. He is, at his best, his very best, a sensual visionary, almost the equal of Yeats. But with the wilful inconsistency of much of his verse, especially that of his verse-letters, Mahon willed himself to be something which he could not be and willed himself not to be a great poet.


  1. Derek Mahon, Selected Poems (London: Viking; Oldcastle: Gallery, 1991), p. 44. Hereafter referred to as SP.

  2. Seamus Deane, “Derek Mahon: Freedom From History”, in Celtic Revivals (London: Faber, 1985), pp. 156-55: 158.

  3. Dillon Johnston, Irish Poetry After Joyce (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985), p. 225.

  4. Brian Donnelly, “The Poetry of Derek Mahon”, in English Studies, 60 (1) (1979), p. 27.

  5. W. H. Auden, The English Auden, Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings 1927-1939, ed. Edward Mendelson (London: Faber, 1977), p. 364.

  6. Auden, The English Auden, p. 172.

  7. Deane, “Derek Mahon: Freedom From History”, pp. 157-58.

  8. James Fenton, The Memory of War and Children in Exile Poems 1968-1983 (London: Salamander Press, 1982d; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983), p. 68.

  9. If any person at any time with an impious hand has broken his aged father's neck, let him, by way of punishment, eat garlick, more baneful than hemlock. Christopher Smart, The Works Of Horace, Literally Translated Into English Prose, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: Stirling, Kenney and Co., 1836), p. 239.

  10. Derek Mahon, The Snow Party (London: Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 36.

  11. Derek Mahon, The Yaddo Letter (Oldcastle: Gallery Press, 1992).

  12. Michael Longley, Poems 1963-1983 (Edinburgh: Salamander Press, 1985), p. 82.

  13. W. H. Auden, Collected Poems (London: Faber, 1976), p. 167.

  14. Dillon Johnston, Irish Poetry After Joyce (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985), p. 241.

  15. Auden, English Auden, p. 281.

  16. Philip Larkin, The Whitsun Weddings (London: Faber, 1964), p. 21.

  17. Derek Mahon, The Snow Party (London: Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 31.

  18. Michael Longley, Poems 1963-1983 (Edinburgh: Salamander Press, 1985), p. 84.

  19. Auden, Collected Poems, p. 190.

  20. The Poems of Alexander Pope: Vol. IV: Imitations of Horace, ed. John Butt (London: Methuen, 1939), p. 67.

  21. Derek Mahon, Poems 1962-1978 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 111.

  22. Tom Paulin, “Disaffection and Defection: W. H. Auden”, in Ireland & The English Crisis (Newcastle: Bloodaxe, 1984), p. 86.

  23. John LeCarré, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (London: Pan Books, 1964), p. 77.

  24. Auden, Collected Poems, p. 181.

  25. Terence Brown, Northern Voices: Poets From Ulster (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1975), p. 196.

  26. John LeCarré, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (London: Pan Books, 1964), p. 153.

  27. A. T. Tolley, The Poetry Of The Thirties (New York: St Martin's Press, 1975), p. 114.

  28. Derek Mahon, The Snow Party (London: Oxford University Press, 1975), p. 21.

  29. Deane, “Derek Mahon: Freedom From History”, p. 161.

  30. Ibid., p. 163.

Peter Steele (essay date December 1997)

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SOURCE: Steele, Peter. “Attention to Feeling: Derek Mahon's Past.” Quadrant 41, no. 12 (December 1997): 63-70.

[In the following essay, Steele emphasizes Mahon's relationship to other poets and the role of art in his poetry.]

The jacket of Derek Mahon's selected journalism (Journalism: Selected Prose 1970-1995) carries a reproduction of William Hogarth's 1736/7 print The Distrest Poet. In this, a disarrayed poet is shown in his mouldering garret, attempting with the aid of a rhyming dictionary to write a poem on the subject of wealth. He is in a dressing-gown, since his wife is mending his only other clothes. A peremptory-looking milkmaid has just burst into the room with a demand for payment of an overdue bill. A baby howls in the bed, a dog worries a bone, the poet's dropped sword is on the floor. On a small shelf are volumes by the immensely successful Alexander Pope, whose most celebrated work attacked the likes of this “distrest poet”. Next to them is an advertisement for gold mines in Peru.

Any number of people might like this print, but it is easy to sense its appeal for Mahon. For one thing, some of his best-known poems have dealings with paintings, towards which, like everyone else, he has a partly-spectatorial attitude, but which he is prone to enter and inhabit imaginatively and dramatically: “Courtyards in Delft” is one case in point, and “The Hunt by Night” another. Then there is the matter of Mahon's often-astringent view of the writerly life, whether it is poetry or prose that is in question. His poems can decry their own. Reviewing some essays by Philippe Jaccottet, he concludes that they “put to shame the time-serving buffoonery of most English-language literary journalism. We have learnt much from the French before and, now that the deconstructionist racket (their own buffoonery) is on the wane, may do so again.” Mahon is no easy adulator of the sacred pen.

Most suggestively, perhaps, there is Hogarth's double fascination with the outright and the ironical. He could vary the degree of each of these qualities from picture to picture, but both were essential to his nature. The dog at his bone and the prospectus for the gold mines both belong in the room with the hair-ruffling poet. One striking feature of Mahon's poetry is his own allegiance to the outright and to the ironical, in terms which I hope to make clear.

I suppose the simplest thing of all about the book's jacket is that it rears up in front of us something from the past—some things are over and done with, while predicaments endure. This matter of the past, and of past-ness, is of extraordinary importance in Mahon's poetry. Of course it is a commonplace that the Irish literary imagination is haunted by the past, but the manners and modes in which this can be so are exceedingly various and can be highly original, as I believe Mahon's often to be. I want to look, here, at some features of Derek Mahon's past. (As a matter of convenience I shall concentrate on shorter poems, but I do not think that this will misrepresent his work as a whole.)

There is, first, “Canadian Pacific”:

From famine, pestilence and persecution
Those gaunt forefathers shipped abroad to find
Rough stone of heaven beyond the western ocean,
And staked their claim, and pinned their faith.
Tonight their children whistle through the dark.
Frost chokes the windows; they will not have heard
The wild geese flying south over the lakes
While the takes harden beyond grief and anger—
The eyes fanatical, rigid the soft necks,
The great wings sighing with a nameless hunger.

There is a permanent irony in the name of the Pacific Ocean, as if, with the Greeks dubbing the turbulent Black Sea “Hospitable”, the hope was that the naming would come true. This is the kind of thing Mahon seizes on instinctively, the good or ill fit between name and outcome. He has the natural poet's sense that wording and name-awarding are in some sense the same process, together with the reflective adult's awareness that things answer only partly, at best, to their names. This unkempt quality of the world can make for exhilaration in some poets, as when Hopkins says that wheat-stooks are “barbarous in beauty”, but it can also induce what might be called a concertina-effect, the naming mind expanding to address “all that is the case” but then contracting upon itself if not in disconcertment then at least with grounds for second thought. Both kinds of poet exist in Mahon.

The title here refers in the first instance to the railway and the train which have often been advertised and celebrated for their romantic attraction. It is as if ocean, mountains and enormous plains have been brought under the rule of the traversing human will, which makes of them all a spectacle and a playground or theme-park. It is of the nature of such conquests that they expand to fill the consciousness, as if not only space but time were under command: publicity for the Canadian Pacific, while remarking on how up-to-date it is, used to work partly by suggesting that it was unthinkable that the train should not be there—what might be called the Ozymandias effect. But Mahon is a revisionary, a revisionist, poet, a counter-thinker: he thinks back, in more than one sense of the word.

So the “children” who “whistle through the dark” are given forefathers who come from another place as well as time, and from conditions very different from those of the sealed, rapid and serene vehicle which moves across Canada. The poem is fractious in its introducing “Rough stone of heaven beyond the western ocean”, fractious in that it flies in the face of the tales, ancient and modern, which encourage westering for the sake of wealth, and heaven-seeking for the sake of serenity. If, in the first words of L. P. Hartley's The Go-Between, “the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”, in this past of Mahon's they do things vexatiously. A good deal of Irish poetry revisits the past ritualistically, to renominate the known things as consolation in times of change: Mahon often goes back as to the unknown, or as to the enigmatic.

And since we know nothing whatever of the future, and every instant of our lives falls away into the past, such a disposition colours his sense of the present. The descendants of strange beings in a strange time remain in a sense “children”, hoverers between being more grown because further from the infancy of time, and being less grown because they are newer arrivals in a world which is partly natural and so felt as eternal, and partly human and so felt as immediate. “Tonight their children whistle through the dark … / they will not have heard / The wild geese flying …” is a statement about the efficiencies of the sealed train, but is also a deliberate puckering of time, and a giving and taking of the sound of those geese, which cruise at high speed.

This, without fuss, indeed with a good deal of lyric suavity, is “making it strange”, is defamiliarisation. If that is as common a property of poetry as it is often taken to be, it is still true that Mahon is one of its most convincing practitioners. In a poem like “Canadian Pacific”, he owes something to the stock-pot of Irish legend and history and to their modern redactors. The “Wild Geese”, the earls who fled Ireland in the seventeenth century and their successors, are ghostly presences, as is the Yeats who turned them to good account; and at one remove, the mortal and immortal swans of Irish tales and Irish verse come winging by. Jung had inscribed over his lintel the claim that whether or not he was invoked, some god would be at hand: ancient creatures, ancient experiences, attend Mahon's poems with a minimum of invocation, but certainly with his consent.

There is in fact a powerful element of the primordial in Mahon's poetry, a sense that fissures might open in daily experience and take us back aeons ago, and leave us with astounding questions about what and who on earth we are. Titles like “A Stone Age Figure Far Below”, “The Last of the Fire Kings”, “Heraclitus on Rivers” and “Death and the Sun” key alterness to primal affairs or conditions, and these are not incidental allusions. In each of those poems, what is being tested is the relationship between our having a past and a past's having us. The testing is usually allusive or elliptical, but that does not make it the less genuine or formidable. Not for nothing is Samuel Beckett one of Mahon's most striking preoccupations.

It has been pointed out that Mahon's poetry is often set in remote places, and that the speaker is frequently some kind of traveller. These things are true and important: I would add to them the fact that his travel is as often as not time-travel, and that it commonly bears the marks of travel as “travail”, as onerous. Repose is a rarity in his work; horizons beckon, present lodgements are felt as unsatisfactory, and exertions are experienced as both necessary and exacting. The migratory geese, eyes fanatical and wings sighing hungrily, are part of a cycle which preceded and will succeed them, are caught on a wheel of desire; and it is they who provide the final emblem of travel in the poem.

In China, it is normal to deal with others in terms of “where” they are, meaning by this where they stand or are held in relation to specific social groupings. This is probably true of all societies to a large extent: we “place” others, and pitch ourselves accordingly. Mahon's poetry is locative in a somewhat different sense. The titles of many of his poems declare sites—“A Lighthouse in Maine”, “Beyond Howth Head”, “A Kensington Notebook” and so on—and the poems themselves work about those locations to elicit reflections: but many others signal to us how curious, and commonly troubling, an affair it is to be living “in” time, where “time” is our conventional tag or mnemonic for all that is most enigmatic in our lives. “In Carrowdore Churchyard”, “De Quincey in Later Life”, “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford”, “The Sea in Winter”, “The Globe in North Carolina”, “October in Hyde Park”—each of these poems resumes the question of “where” we are in our individual and our shared temporal lives. This is poetry as recapitulation, but the recapitulation is by definition from a different point each time, and as far as may be is cast from a different font.

I should, at this point of my own, draw attention to something else. Even if what I have said so far is accurate, it takes little account of what it is in Mahon's poetry that makes it powerfully moving. The exactions of temporality—well, yes, anyone not in a trance knows of those, and allusions to them do not necessarily take us into the lachrymae rerum. But I think of something which Robert Hass praised in Lowell's “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket”: “Not theme, not irony or intimacy or the consciously wrought, but absolute attention to feeling at that moment in the poem's process.” Whether Hass is right about Lowell's poem does not matter here, but an “absolute attention to feeling at that moment in the poem's process” is a quality which can very often be sensed in Mahon's work, and it is this which gives authority to all his other skills. A small but significant example of this is the way in which, in the two last lines of “Canadian Pacific”, force and vulnerability are both accommodated, and the touch of ceremony in “The eyes fanatical, rigid the soft necks” cedes to the natural dignity of “the great wings sighing with a nameless hunger”. Whether or not this is “consciously wrought”, it is passionate in a way rightly praised in Yeats.

In Mahon's “Homage to Malcolm Lowry”, we have a different traffic with the past:

For gear your typewriter and an old rugby boot,
The voyage started, clearly, when you were born
That danced those empty bottles. When you set out
On a round-the-cosmos trip with the furious Muse
Or lay sweating on a hotel bed in Vera Cruz,
Did you not think you had left that pool astern
Where a soul might bathe and be clean or slake its drought?
In any case, your deportment in those seas
Was faultless. Lightning-blind, you, tempest-torn
At the poles of our condition, did not confuse
The Gates of Ivory with the Gates of Horn.

Lowry has partisans for his work as a whole, but for most readers he stands or falls by Under the Volcano. Mahon, as it happens, reviewed the John Huston film, concluding that Huston “for all his skill … failed to make the film, even a film, of the book. He made a different thing entirely, as different as Coca-Cola from mescal. I intend no sneer, I quite like Coca-Cola; but it doesn't make you drunk”, which sounds right to me. Immediately before this, he wrote:

The protagonist of Under the Volcano is only fortuitously a drunken Englishman trying to keep his end up in a dangerous Mexican town (the year is 1939). The real hero, as in Ulysses, is language itself—not only the wild poetry of Geoff's interior monologue, but the authorial use of words (all literature behind them) to evoke and invoke. The book is both a story and a rite; Huston filmed the story.

Two things strike me about this passage—the description of the book as a “rite”, and the acknowledgment of words “being used” to evoke and invoke. Mahon is at least as wary as needs be of religions, but his interest in “rite” is revealing. Rites are typically serviceable in various ways, are often consolatory, and usually aim at disclosure of some kind: and they almost always aim to abate chaos. In such terms, Under the Volcano can be thought of as a rite, and so can Mahon's own poem.

Lowry started drinking as a schoolboy, and kept at it virtually to the end, but neither this nor ambition was his “Fury”: he thought that the Muse was that. No reader could doubt that this was a driven writer, driven to encompass as far as possible all human experience, the imaginative modalities in which experience has been dealt with so far, and the English language at full reach. The obvious danger of all this is hubris, and there has been no shortage of critics to claim that overdoing things was itself Lowry's nemesis. But that is not Mahon's business. His “homage” is also a kind of epitaph on the earlier writer, who roved exotically, whose work was indeed a kind of “rite” in propitiation of the peremptory Muse, who was in one sense all at sea all his life, and who contrived nonetheless to make one good shape after another in the midst of adversity.

Such talk may seem archaic, and I am content that it should, provided that the expression has some of the overtones of Rilke's famous “Archaic Torso of Apollo”, in which the ancient thing not only achieves a contemporary currency, but provokes the reader towards a new comprehension of language, and to that degree a new inhabitation of life. Mahon's poem is less a lament for a maker than a celebration of one, a turning back to a figure judged still to be formidable. It is an invocation of the kind found in Four Quartets, when Eliot identifies a “familiar compound ghost” who may have been part-Dante and was certainly part-Swift, and consults him as oracle.

It is one of the marks of a truly commanding poet that from time to time at least he writes as if he could not do otherwise. The last six lines of the “Homage” seem to me to be of this kind. Lowry's own gripped condition calls forth from Mahon three sentences which modulate from rhetorical question through salute to implied challenge, challenge to later writers and readers. The notion of Lowry as having “faultless deportment” is paradoxical indeed until it is made clear that this refers to his not confounding true dreams with false ones—a knack of discernment for which anyone might envy him at any time. This does have some of the force of Rilke's “You must change your life”, a force increased rather than decreased by Mahon's adducing not the splendours of an archaic torso but the humiliations of an all-too-human being.

In The Agony of Flies, Elias Canetti writes, “The gaps in our knowledge keep roaming”, and “Success is only the tiniest fraction of experience”. These are sober sayings, which might be epigraphs for much of Mahon's poetry. “Homage to Malcolm Lowry”, short as it is, accommodates both sentiments. That old rugby boot, those empty bottles, might be the insignia of inconclusion and hiatus, and whatever sweating on a hotel bed in a city named after the True Cross adumbrates, it is not success. If I ask myself what earlier writer might have sponsored this way of writing, one answer is, “Browning”, the Browning whose rhetoric graphs the range of mental attitudes through which most of us move incessantly but inattentively, and who, like Mahon, could start with odds and ends of equipment and end with the veridical Gate.

The deeper you want to get into things, the likelier it is that you will need a psychopomp, as Dante with Virgil, Beatrice, and the Virgin Mary. Lowry's own deep investment in Dante was, I think, partly for that reason: the underworld is no place for solitary players. In a somewhat different sense, one might see Mahon's tribute to Lowry as indeed an “evocation and invocation” of a writer who could take him into his own singular deeps: after that, of course, one has to do one's own divining as to which are the Ivory Gates and which the Horn.

Lowry is good news for Mahon, but it is not to be expected that such things will last long: “Ecclesiastes” strikes a different note:

God, you could grow to love it, God-fearing, God-
                    chosen purist little puritan that,
for all your wiles and smiles, you are (the
                    dank churches, the empty streets,
the shipyard silence, the tied-up swings) and
                    shelter your cold heart from the heat
of the world, from woman-inquisition, from the
                    bright eyes of children. Yes, you could
wear black, drink water, nourish a fierce zeal
                    with locusts and wild honey, and not
feel called upon to understand and forgive
                    but only to speak with a bleak
afflatus, and love the January rains when they
                    darken the dark doors and sink hard
into the Antrim hills, the bog meadows, the heaped
                    graves of your fathers. Bury that red
bandana, stick and guitar; this is your
                    country, close one eye and be king.
Your people await you, their heavy washing
                    flaps for you in the housing estates—
a credulous people. God, you could do it, God
                    help you, stand in a corner stiff
with rhetoric, promising nothing under the sun.

The Book of Ecclesiastes has been called the strangest in the Bible; certainly, its speaker stands at an angle to every other scriptural protagonist. The stress on futility which begins, ends, and pervades the book makes that speaker an “estranged one” almost in a Camusian sense: the “Preacher” acknowledges a God, but one whose dealings with the world are totally opaque, a world in which (in the Anchor Bible translation) all is “A vapor of vapors. Thinnest of vapors.” Given the short book's repeated expression “under the sun”, there is not much future for vapours.

By one of literature's ironies, passages from Ecclesiastes have achieved something like immortality, especially that which has to do with mortality and one's ageing in it. The famous “Remember your creator in the days of your youth” should probably read, “In the days of your youth, remember your grave”, but either way it sticks in the mind, as do the broken golden bowl and the shattered pitcher. “There is nothing new under the sun” is a saying of that kind, the supposition being that nothing can get better, whereas if it gets worse, then that is just the way of things, and as such is continuous. The Preacher's sole recommendation is that one make the best of that bad job, life: but the thrust of his book is as much towards characterisation as towards recommendation: he is a sayer of the stark.

Enter Mahon belatedly, shadowed by such a figure. One need not be incorrigibly sombre to be tempted by Ecclesiastes' attitude. The Bible itself has plenty of individuals who are at least up to a point of his party—John the Baptist, he of the “locusts and wild honey”, being one of them. Coleridge said that he had “a smack of Hamlet” in himself, and the speaker here has a smack of Ecclesiastes. He is helped in that direction by the milieu of Belfast, touched in at the beginning, the middle and the end of the poem. Part of the poem's force comes from the fact that Ecclesiastes is intuited as unkillable—he can still hold sway, at least over that imagination which determines policies in life, thousands of years later. He is, in effect, a dooming piece of the past.

Or at least a tempting one. We all come out of nowhere except the past, but much of what we become is dictated by those elements of the past we choose to endorse and turn into policy—the retrospective gaze made prospect. Mahon's “God-talk” in this poem is intensive, making vehement a tug towards pre-established states of affairs, and turning the frequent Irish rattling of God's name into a sort of code for fatality. Peter Porter, beginning “A Tribute to Yy Enemies”, says “Apart from God I suppose I have none”, adducing as the figure of all life's constraints a God in whom he does not believe and never has: and Mahon's repeated “God” has some of the same Beckettian vehemence. “Enthusiasm” is, etymologically, a condition of being under the prompting sway of God or a god: “Ecclesiastes” is “enthusiastic” in that it is charged with the presence of a death-god.

Such a condition must in the end be toxic, but can for a while be intoxicating in its simplicity and intensity. One traditional sign of the intoxicating, of enthusiasm, in poetry is repetition in its many forms. Rhyme is an obvious instance, rhythm sometimes less obvious: and then there is iteration, sometimes exhilarated, sometimes damning. Mahon often uses repetition to mark rhetoric's mounting passion—“but only to speak with a bleak / afflatus, and love the January rains when they / darken the dark doors and sink hard / into the Antrim hills, the bog meadows, the heaped / graves of your fathers” is a case in point. This is the poetical equivalent of swearing by the past to fortify conviction as to what is being said in the present.

I think that the words “and not / feel called upon to understand and forgive / but only to speak with a bleak / afflatus” are significant not only for the course of “Ecclesiastes” but for much of Mahon's work. Hannah Arendt pointed out in The Human Condition that the consequences of political action are so unpredictable and potentially so boundless that, without the twin human capacities to make promises and to forgive, life would be quite intolerable. Another way of putting this might be to say that it is in promising and forgiving that we both recover and enact freedom. The converse of this would be that to find nothing promising and much unforgivable is to sand fate's arena. Many of Mahon's poems are investigations, and dramatisations, of how far this seems called for.

Sometimes, though, the agenda is starker yet, as in “Heraclitus on Rivers”:

Nobody steps into the same river twice.
The same river is never the same
Because that is the nature of water.
Similarly your changing metabolism
Means that you are no longer you.
The cells die, and the precise
Configuration of the heavenly bodies
When she told you she loved you
Will not come again in this lifetime.
          You will tell me that you have executed
A monument more lasting than bronze;
But even bronze is perishable.
Your best poem, you know the one I mean,
The very language in which the poem
Was written, and the idea of language,
All these things will pass away in time.

This poem might itself have been found in Greek or in Latin, an inscription concerning the rerum natura—or, in Beckettian, “How It Is”. It is a pretty irony that the text of the Book of Job is the most corrupt in all of the Hebrew Bible, and a comparable irony that Heraclitus, with his perpetual fascination, should exist only in fragments. His “All things are in flux”, though, remains provocative for remarkably disparate imaginations—witness Hopkins, Eliot, and now Mahon. But no more than the other poets does Mahon simply hand on a dictum, or even an attitude. Heraclitus' position comes to us now, as it may have come to the Eleatics, as polemic, and polemics work only when there is something against which they can beat. The beating may make for reverberation, and thus intensification, but the “something” has to be there.

If we think of our own bodies (or, more cryptically, our own minds), everything is at once fluid and stable: those famously vanishing molecules have their place taken by others, and a twenty-year-old fingerprint may still find us out. Howard Nemerov called style a “fire that eats what it illuminates”, and our very being's style has that highly paradoxical character. But even Pyrrhonian philosophers and writers find themselves making concessions, line by line and shape by shape, to the spirit of identity, to thus-ness, the stable. “The same river is never the same / Because that is the nature of water” gives the game away with pellucid succinctness.

“Constant only in inconstancy” is a cynical saying in its context, but is not necessarily so when used of art itself, or of other forms of human vitality: so it does go, nostra res agitur, we are the mercurial ones not only by design and when on exhibition but from instant to instant. It is a normal feature of Mahon's poetry that he should head for the limiting elements in experience: not only those which occasion, for instance, “Antarctica” or “Tractatus”, but those which determine our existence from moment to moment, above all stasis and change. He writes as though the elemental and the immediate are equally gripping, as though the imagination is both a yardstick and a plumb-line. That way of putting it may concede too much to the stilled, however: something like radar might be a better image: and the process is there to see in “Heraclitus on Rivers”.

If at one level this poem's sentiment is truistic, it is so because of its being recited by so many people now swept away, a few of them remembered, most forgotten, which for me at least adds poignancy to its analysis. The voice of Horace, the voice of Shakespeare are here to be heard clearly but distantly, as if from the mouths of shades. And yes, their boasts about poetry's durability are vindicated in being re-heard here, and no, that does not make them other than shades: one thinks of the dead Achilles' immensely bitter retort to the would-be-consoling Odysseus who assures him of lasting celebrity, which is nothing or worse than nothing to him.

Achilles' preference to be live serf rather than dead king has the force of a particular, and so does Mahon's lucid, extraordinarily moving “The cells die, and the precise / Configuration of the heavenly bodies / When she told you she loved you / Will not come again in this lifetime.” Leave out “When she told you she loved you”, and there is still a handsome spanning of cosmos and microcosm, imaginatively tense in its netting a truth from time's flux: leave it in, and the experience rendered has that blending of the absolute and the intimate of which Shakespeare is the great master.

The poem is a blend in another way: one of its elements is lapidary inscription, one night-thought. This sort of thing has progenitors, amongst them Pascal: in fact, the poem might have been called “Heraclitus as Thinking Reed”. Remembered for nothing else, Pascal might still come home to us as the one who monumentalises not the dead but mortality itself. And that is one of the things happening in “Heraclitus on Rivers”: it is a cry for life in the midst of a nightmare.

A cry … Difficult though it is to speak usefully of voice in poetry, there is no way out of this where Mahon is concerned. Canetti wrote, “Every language has its own silence”, and every poet's language has its own silence, meaning by this not so much the things not talked about as the distinctive stilling brought about by that poet's way of speaking. Amongst Mahon's enthusiasms are the poetries of Samuel Menashe and Philippe Jaccottet, each of whom, in his own way, works on the principle that small is not only beautiful but powerful—if poetry has any power, that is, except in its beauty. Apropos of Menashe, Mahon quotes that poet's mother as saying, “When one sees the tree in leaf one thinks the beauty of the tree is in its leaves, and then one sees the bare tree”: apropos of Jaccottet (whose work he has translated), Mahon notes that “Like other minimalists he knows exiguity and exasperation”, and one of the main things Mahon fronts in his own poetry is a need to replace normal adult exasperation with exiguity of utterance. This, too, is a question of “absolute attention to feeling at that moment in the poem's process”: exiguity can be indispensable if feeling is not to be smothered. Mahon writes as if he knows that the more inimitable certain other writers are, the better teachers they may be, and the fragmentary, vatic Heraclitus has served him well.

Which is a suitable point at which to introduce “Tractatus”:

“The world is everything that is the case”
From the fly giving up in the coal-shed
To the Winged Victory of Samothrace.
Give blame, praise, to the fumbling God
Who hides, shame-facèdly, His agèd face;
Whose light retires behind its veil of cloud.
          The world, though, is also so much more—
Everything that is the case imaginatively.
Tacitus believed mariners could hear
The sun sinking into the western sea;
And who would question that titanic roar,
The steam rising wherever the edge may be?

Any number of gifted poets go a lifetime without being able to write like that, and I feel about this poem as Chesterton did when saying of Dickens that the only thing to do was to walk around him, cap in hand. Still, a poem as commanding as this provokes reflection even while escaping its nets, so we shall see what happens.

Everybody should know that nobody owns the world, but few seem to realise this. We hanker, implicitly at least, for authoritative sayings and tellings, whether these be official—religious or not, as with the Koran or The Great Soviet Encyclopaedia—or the throwaway lines of modiste or claqueur. Part of us, sensibly enough, fears and sometimes hates the boundless, which we attempt to propitiate, variously, at the altars of rigidity or of randomness: and it would be hard to disprove the claim that the intellectual history of the West could be summed up in just such terms. So far so bad, perhaps; on a smaller scale, it is difficult for most of us to see anything much afresh, whether it be a natural entity at large like the moon, or our own thoughts and feelings, or that strange mediatorial-and-self-delineating thing, a poem.

Mahon does not think he owns the world, but he writes as if with as much claim on it as anyone else, and with more concentrated attention than most bring. Among the hallmarks of this is a patient lucidity combined with a sixth sense for the counter-case and the remarkable. Sometimes the mode is jauntiness, as when, in “Letter from New York”, he says, “The dialogical polyphony of sex and politics is such that there is great need of bars; or is it the other way round?”: sometimes, reflectiveness, as when Mahon writes of Oscar Wilde's four-act version of The Importance of Being Earnest, “The author seems to have known how the thing would turn out in reality. You confirm your own worst fears in order to control them”: sometimes, a clipped readiness for the overheard phrase, as when, reviewing Jeffrey Bernard's Low Life, he quotes Bernard's “Skating on thin ice keeps a man on his toes”, which while telling a lot about its originator has plenty to say about even magisterial poets.

The titles of some poems are more than labels, and share in the drama or dynamism of those poems: “Tractatus” is of that kind. The book of Wittgenstein's which yields the poem's first line ambitions both complete lucidity and strict delimitation in what it has to say, and in its combination of the expository and the fragmentary is like and unlike the multitude of tractatuses which preceded it: it is far from being a joke, but has some of the skew or tilt on reality which we associate with jokes. (It may also have some of jokes' aggressiveness, but that is another matter.) Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is, deliberately, both a continuation of an earlier philosophical agenda and a fracturing of it. In turn, Mahon has his say as to “what is the case”, doing so partly by pitching attention at different levels—expository, exclamatory, interrogatory—and partly by leaving us with the Wittgensteinian question, “What sort of way is that to look at the matter?”

Wittgenstein's final sentence, “Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent”, claims that there is a realm whose existence defeats remark: Mahon's poem is one in which the reader is, in a sense, put to silence by the arrival of its final question. Consider, for instance, the following lines (once more from Canetti's notebooks: the emphasis is his, the source not given):

Thrusts of energy rise from the core of the sun in the form of hot plasma streams and, in the process, produce (as can be calculated) a surf-like thunder of inconceivable volume.

This is wondrous to think about and to imagine, but it cannot have the kind of force to be found in Mahon's last four lines, where “question” means both “throw doubts on” and “interrogate”, the vain interrogation having precedent in (for instance) the Book of Job and the poetry of Blake.

A poem of disconcertments, this is also a poem of felicities. The historian's name means “the Silent One”; the accents in the fifth line are graves; retires covers retreat from contest, sleep rather than death, and age's obsolescence; titanic roar spans primal mythology and the most celebrated of twentieth-century sea-disasters; and so on. But the force of “Tractatus” is more than the sum of these. If to proceed “imaginatively” is more than an adornment or an entertainment and really is to have a singular form of knowledge, the poem, for all its eloquence about disaster, is a celebration of that accomplishment. It is so with a remarkable blending of the “outright and the ironical” which I noted of Hogarth at the beginning, and it carries the mind further than Tacitus' mariners went, though by different means than theirs. In modern Greek, metaphora means “form of transportation”, and in that sense Mahon's poem, though without literal metaphor, is nothing if not metaphoric.

In her poem “The Steeple-Jack”, Marianne Moore writes of a storm in action that “it is a privilege to see so / much confusion”. Her saying this abates other confusions, though; and by the same token, Mahon's poems abate the confusions to which manifold experience is prone, and replace them with complexities. “Courtyards in Delft” is a conspicuous example of this.

Oblique light on the trite, on brick and tile—
Immaculate masonry, and everywhere that
Water tap, that broom and wooden pail
To keep it so. House-proud, the wives
Of artisans pursue their thrifty lives
Among scrubbed yards, modest but adequate.
Foliage is sparse, and clings. No breeze
Ruffles the trim composure of those trees.
          No spinet-playing emblematic of
The harmonies and disharmonies of love;
No lewd fish, no fruit, no wide-eyed bird
About to fly its cage while a virgin
Listens to her seducer, mars the chaste
Perfection of the thing and the thing made.
Nothing is random, nothing goes to waste.
We miss the dirty dog, the fiery gin.
          That girl with her back to us who waits
For her man to come home for his tea
Will wait till the paint disintegrates
And ruined dikes admit the esurient sea;
Yet this is life too, and the cracked
Out-house door a verifiable fact
As vividly mnemonic as the sunlit
Railings that front the houses opposite.
          I lived there as a boy and know the coal
Glittering in its shed, late-afternoon
Lambency informing the deal table,
The ceiling cradled in a radiant spoon.
I must be lying low in a room there,
A strange child with a taste for verse,
While my hard-nosed companions dream of fire
And sword upon parched veldt and fields of rain-swept gorse.

“Pieter de Hooch—1659” says an extension of the title. In effect, the naturalistic courtyard theme was de Hooch's invention, the visual equivalent of “a form of language”. It offers not only something to look at, but a way of looking. De Hooch's favourite compositional device involved poising areas in which the space is closed off against others in which it opens: this was, in both sense of the word, his “measure” for dealing with things in space and persons in time.

In two of the paintings from which the poem takes its origin, there is set a tablet which originally hung over the entrance to a cloister, saying in essence “This is St Jerome's vale, if you wish to repair to patience and meekness. For we must first descend if we wish to be raised.” It sounds like the paradigm for everything suggested by the name Delft. But all serenities are violable; in the previous century, much of Delft had been destroyed by fire, in 1654 an explosion of gunpowder stores had taken a large toll, and for Delft as for the whole of Holland then and now, the sea was always waiting.

Donne said that he would make pretty rooms of his stanzas, and Mahon has made a slightly different courtyard of each of his: no two of them, for instance, have the same rhyme-scheme. These modulations are of a piece with de Hooch's own, a carrying across into another art of one art's mercurial ways. In Wonderful Words, Charles Simic has remarked that “one is never at a single vantage point except intellectually. In life and in art, one is simultaneously in several places at once”, which catches well this state of affairs, especially if one continues to think of the “places” as pitches or construals of time. To keep the placing supple, to keep the timing supple, is essential to Mahon's art, not so much for exhibition's sake as because that is how we live when we are living with heightened vitality. Howard Nemerov speculates that in all probability “the collective time we read from clocks, the one that is theoretically the same for everyone and moving at a constant speed from the beginning of the universe to the end of the universe, is an entity as fictitious as money, and as mysteriously powerful”, and whatever the metaphysics of the matter it is clear to me that to take the imaginative force of Mahon's poetry requires a readiness to be re-keyed to his apprehension of the temporal, an apprehension which changes from poem to poem, and sometimes from point to point within a poem.

So, for instance, one might think of the first stanza's being set neither where tempux edax rerum lives nor in eternity but in that philosophical compromise between the two, the aevum, a stilled moment in and out of time; and of the second's being “on” Keatsian time, that of his “Ode to a Grecian Urn”; and of the third's existing where one mode of the temporal cedes to another—all of them schooling the attention for the double pitching of “I lived there as a boy” and “I must be lying low” in the last stanza. Concessions to Heraclitus abound—the water tap, the denied but unforgotten spinet-playing and fleeing bird, the sea, the radiant spoon—but they are in check with brick and tile, cage, railings, shed. Temporality's drama is given its denouement in the final, uniquely long line of the poem, where emblems of fixity and of change lodge evocatively in the mind.

Of Emily Dickinson, Simic has said that in her short poems she “builds and dismantles cosmologies. She understood that a poem and our consciousness are both a theatre. Or rather, many theaters.” It seems the right way to look at “Courtyards in Delft”, the more famous “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford”, “In Carrowdore Churchyard”, “The Sea in Winter” and “Rathlin”. One thing often to be found in good theatre is variety of voice, variety of idiom, something caught for example in “dirty dog” and “lying low” on the one hand and “esurient sea” and “lambency informing the deal table” on the other. Such expressions make exact the objects and experiences which they address, but they also echo the several dialects of the human tribe, dialects in which the teeming actions and passions of that tribe have been singled out from chaos.

In a sense, the most important word of the poem is its first. Certainly Mahon can be “outright”—you could paint from the poem if de Hooch's originals had not existed—but this poet might have been born to hear Dickinson's “Tell all the truth but tell it slant”. The “strange child with a taste for verse” goes on fathering the poet who “estranges” not out of perversity but because that is what the strangeness of things calls for. The child dreams differently from his hard-nosed companions, and is to say close to the lability of dreaming, its metamorphic energy and flair. It is no real surprise that the Selected Poems have on their jacket, as complement to the earth-roving poet of the Journalism, a reproduction of Max Ernst's The Perfumed Forest.

Which is not to suggest that Mahon is adrift. If the ceiling, by spell, can be “cradled in a radiant spoon”, Mahon knows as well as George Eliot that a “Milton, looking for his portrait in a spoon, must submit to have the facial angle of a bumpkin”. Writing of Jaccottet, he quotes from Nabokov's The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, where it is said of Claire Bishop that “she possessed that real sense of beauty which has less to do with art than with the constant readiness to discern the halo round a frying-pan or the likeness between a weeping-willow and a Skye terrier”. Mahon says that this “might have been speaking of Jaccottet”. It might also have been speaking of him.

Peter McDonald (essay date spring 1998)

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SOURCE: McDonald, Peter. “Louis MacNeice's Posterity.” Princeton University Library Chronicle 59, no. 3 (spring 1998): 376-97.

[In the following excerpt, McDonald notes the influence of Irish poet Louis MacNeice on Mahon's work, particularly in the themes of loneliness and alienation. He highlights the younger poet's affinity for his predecessor's resignation to the relentlessness of time and temporality.]

In his volume Visitations (1957), Louis MacNeice published the short poem “To Posterity,” in which a speaker in mid-career (MacNeice was then fifty years old) tries to look beyond the horizon of his own contemporary reception. In fact, that career was closer to being over than either the poet or his readers could reasonably have supposed, for MacNeice was to publish only another two collections, Solstices (1961) and the (just) posthumous The Burning Perch (1963), dying a week or so short of his fifty-sixth birthday. “To Posterity” addresses a far future with an open question:

When books have all seized up like the books in graveyards
And reading and even speaking have been replaced
By other, less difficult, media, we wonder if you
Will find in flowers and fruit the same colour and taste
They held for us for whom they were framed in words,
And will your grass be green, your sky be blue,
Or will your birds be always wingless birds?(1)

It is a subtle and a haunting poem, one that sets the terms and (crucially) the tone for MacNeice's late lyric achievement. “To Posterity” considers the future as an open book, but remains alert to the image of the “books in graveyards,” solidified in the opened volumes that adorn the work of monumental masons, frozen open and unreadable forever. As in so much late MacNeice, the terms of hope and the terms of nightmare inhabit the same register, and the poem's carefully pitched question is not presuming on an answer. “To Posterity” may be speaking up for words, but it is also a poem that has taken the measure of time's way with words, and knows the odds against which, as a poem, it is operating.

That Louis MacNeice's poetry has not yet “seized up,” and persists in British and, especially, Northern Irish literature as a living influence, does not answer completely the kinds of question that “To Posterity” raises. Partly, this is because MacNeice's sights are fixed on more distant futures than anything that our own present time might constitute; but partly too the substance of MacNeice's influence on contemporary poetry is to be found in the kinds of anxiety—and also kinds of confidence—with which poems admit the matter of their own posterity. When Peter Porter writes of Derek Mahon and other Northern Irish poets that they “seem outside time, to be playing up to some committee preparing a Pantheon,” he perceives a characteristic angle of approach that derives from MacNeice (and that MacNeice derived in part from Yeats); in a similar vein, Declan Kiberd notes of Mahon's poetry in The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing that “he writes not just of, but for posterities.”2 Both comments have an edge of complaint, as though the poets concerned were in some way opting out by fixing their gazes habitually upon such far horizons (and, perhaps, in so doing missing out on things closer at hand and in view). In these respects, too, the late MacNeice might seem to be a presiding spirit, and the conclusion of his “Memoranda to Horace” to provide an apt epigraph for a whole tradition:

To opt out now seems better than capitulate
To the too-well-lighted and over-advertised
Idols of the age. Sooner these crepuscular
Blasphemous and bawdy exchanges; and even
A second childhood remembering only
Childhood seems better than a blank posterity,
One's life restricted to standing room only.(3)

This is, of course, no simple or naive opting-out, and MacNeice's horror of “blank posterity” is well aware of those “Idols of the age” from whom “remembering only / Childhood” might be the last refuge. Like The Burning Perch as a whole, “Memoranda to Horace” is in the business of transmitting messages over and beyond the noise and fuzz of the quotidian conditions of its own time. In Northern Irish poetry, the sending of messages like these has had important aesthetic consequences.

MacNeice's late manner combines vivid (at times, surreal) close-up with unnervingly open vistas, and a book like The Burning Perch is marked by this juxtaposition of insistent contemporaneity with an equally insistent sense of posterity. As a result, MacNeice's characteristic perspectives are doubly shadowed, allowing a vividly lit present to be dwarfed by the future, just as it is also, on occasion, loomed over by the past. The poem titled “Perspectives” begins with the knowledge that “[t]he further-off people are the smaller,” and instances “the tax-collector / Or the dentist breathing fire on one's uvula” as figures who can dwarf “Grandparents, / Homeric heroes or suffering Bantu” in immediate perception. But the poem's second half returns on this given situation, and reverses it:

Yet sometimes for all these rules of perspective
The weak eye zooms, the distant midget
Expands to meet it, far up stage
The kings go towering into the flies;
And down at the end of a queue some infant
Of the year Two Thousand straddles the world
To match the child that was once yourself.
The further-off people are sometimes the larger.(4)

This provides a subtle variation on the notion of “a second childhood remembering only / Childhood,” since the child in the future comes in “To match the child who was once yourself.” Both these infant figures—the one known intimately, the other unknowable—undermine the stability of the self that must speak of, and in, its present time. The dizzying effect is one achieved in many of the poems of The Burning Perch, and notably in its opening poem “Soap Suds,” which begins with a croquet ball rolling “back through a hoop / To rest at the head of a mallet held in the hands of a child,” but which comes to an end with something else: “And the grass is grown head-high and an angry voice cries Play! / But the ball is lost and the mallet slipped long since from the hands / Under the running tap that are not the hands of a child.”5The Burning Perch profits from MacNeice's sense of the strange economy of his life's work, and the “running tap” here restates, in a more mundane register, the rushing water of streams and rivers that had carried a preoccupation with flux through some of his earliest poetry. Writing about the volume in the last month of his life, the poet noted the relevance of “poems I was writing thirty years ago,” and added how “I myself can see both the continuity and the difference.”6 In a sense, the volume is haunted by the poet MacNeice once was, as well as the child that was once himself; it is charged, too, with a sense of the poet he is becoming, and the future this poet faces.

The doubled perspectives of late MacNeice seem to be vital to the kinds of influence which, at least in this early part of his posterity, the poet has exercised. In order to take the measure of this, what is needed is a kind of critical two-way thinking, as opposed, perhaps, to the kinds of “one-way” thought diagnosed by MacNeice when, still in his twenties, he considered the pitfalls of posterity:

Posterity affects to put dead poets and movements in their place; to tell us their real significance and cancel out their irrelevances. This habitual procedure of posterity is, like other affectations, useful in that it is tidy and saves thinking (I do not mean one-way thinking). Most people can only afford the time to see contradictions in their contemporaries. The self-contradictory is what is alive, therefore for most people the most living art is contemporary art. Yet people are ungrateful; they prefer the dead to the living and try to kill even their contemporaries by looking a hundred years forward. I continually hear people saying “Yes, but I wonder what people will say of him a hundred years hence,” or “I dare say, all the same, posterity will think more of Mr X.” They herein miss the point. If we do our duty by the present moment, posterity can look after itself. To try to anticipate the future is to make the present past; whereas it should already be on our conscience that we have made the past past. … If poetic criticism is to develop, it must give up one-way thinking.7

In 1935, when this was written, MacNeice was much concerned with the need for writers to do their duty by the present moment, and his own fullest attempt to perform this duty was to come in the contemporary panoramas of Autumn Journal in 1939. However, by the end of his life MacNeice felt less confident that posterity could be put effectively beyond the bounds of a writer's present attention to “look after itself,” and a 1960 review of a volume of poetry by George Seferis is alert to the ways in which the present, in poems, is always on the verge of becoming something other than the present:

The voyagers keep asking (unanswerable?) questions:
But what are they looking for, our souls that travel
On decks of ships outworn …

The poem which begins like this ends:

We knew it that the islands were beautiful
Somewhere round about here where we are groping,
Maybe a little lower or a little higher,
No distance away at all.

Which perhaps is an answer; on a plane just a shade above or below our own or just round the corner which after all is our own corner, so near and yet so far in fact, lies something which might make sense of both our past and future and so redeem our present.8

The aspiration here is not (to use MacNeice's 1935 terms) to make the present past; however, both past and future are here being admitted to the present in what is perhaps an application of creative two-way thinking. By 1960, MacNeice is less inclined to dismiss the “habitual procedure of posterity” as an “affectation”; at the same time, he continues to distrust the notion of posterity as a simply envisaged future: the register of his speculations is that of a (cautious) confession of faith, albeit a faith which holds on tight to its every reservation.

The MacNeice of 1935 and the late MacNeice share the common sense that posterity entails the death of the present, but what the younger man rejects, the older man knows he has to accommodate. The tone of the specific acknowledgment of this in the Seferis review is unstable: it moves uneasily into cliché (“so near and yet so far in fact,” where “in fact” flatly fails to save the day), and formulates its hopes in finally too neat a manner, so that in the end the meaning of MacNeice's clinching verb “redeem” is somewhat disingenuously unclear. However, “just round the corner which after all is our own corner” is taken from near-platitude to something different in one of the poems of The Burning Perch:


Round the corner was always the sea. Our childhood
Tipping the sand from its shoes on return from holiday
Knew there was more where it came from, as there was more
Seaweed to pop and horizon to blink at. Later
Our calf loves yearned for union in solitude somewhere
Round that corner where Xenophon crusted with parasangs
Knew he was home, where Columbus feared he was not,
And the Bible said there would be no more of it. Round
That corner regardless there will be always a realm
Undercutting its banks with repeated pittance of spray,
The only anarchic democracy, where we are all vicarious
Citizens; which we remember as we remember a person
Whose wrists are springs to spring a trap or rock
A cradle; whom we remember when the sand falls out on the carpet
Or the exiled shell complains or a wind from round the corner
Carries the smell of wrack or the taste of salt, or a wave
Touched to steel by the moon twists a gimlet in memory.
Round the corner is—sooner or later—the sea.(9)

In this poem, “the child that was once yourself” provides the meaning of the “something” that MacNeice's 1960s review cannot name. The simplicity of this meaning—what is, and was, around the corner is the sea—frames a poetic progression, or spiralling movement, in which past and present are vividly intercut, and where perspectives keep opening backwards and forwards. The future in the poem comes to transform simple recollection into a contemplation of something which will survive that recollection by persisting beyond it: “there will be always a realm / Undercutting its banks …,” and the symbolic meaning of the sea that continues in the future goes deliberately unmentioned. In part, this is because there is simply no need for any such meaning; the significance of the sea is its presence in the past, and its continued presence in the future, so that past and future are both immanent for the writing voice in the present. The poem's simple opening and closing sentences shift from “was” to “is,” but this final present “is” feels more like a future tense, with its promise of what will come “sooner or later.” Even the child in the poem is shadowed by the image of “springs to spring a trap or rock / A cradle”; like other children in The Burning Perch, the child in “Round the Corner” puts the past in touch with a cold future. In this sense at least, the past's other name is posterity, and the cost of admittance is known all the more surely for its being unspoken.

MacNeice's characteristic perspectives on posterity, though they may seem somber enough, are by no means the bleakest of those possible, and the proof of this comes (ironically, perhaps, though logically too) in certain aspects of MacNeice's artistic legacy. Derek Mahon, who identified his elegy for MacNeice, “In Carrowdore Churchyard,” as the moment at which his own writing found its independence, has pursued MacNeice's sense of posterity further in poetry than any of his contemporaries. In biographical terms, links between Mahon and MacNeice are (at first sight anyway) minimal ones, as a 1991 interview makes clear:

I've always had a thing about MacNeice. We met twice, once in a Dublin pub after a rugby international at Lansdowne Road, and once at his house in London, where he was watching rugby on TV and didn't have much to say. He took no notice of me (why should he?) but I felt some connection had been made.10

Even these casual-sounding remarks, however, seem curiously secure in their sense of “some connection,” and the reality of that connection as well as its extent are plainly set out in a great deal of Mahon's poetry. Like his contemporary Michael Longley (who did not get as far as even the modest meetings recorded here), Mahon knows about an artistic connection and intimacy with MacNeice for which biographical coincidings are strictly irrelevant. Both Mahon and Longley are more interesting for the ways in which they remain in touch with MacNeice than for any contact they might once have had with him; in this respect, their poetry registers in subtle and revealing ways MacNeice's life in posterity.

The notion of such a “life,” of course, while it is always edged with dark shadows in MacNeice, is for Mahon an idea flooded with the bitterest of ironies. If MacNeice's verse shudders at the prospect of posterity, Mahon's poetry is hardened to the cold of that particular region, having adopted it almost as its native element. The similarities and differences come into focus with regard to one of MacNeice's perennial themes, that of flux and change, which has an obvious applicability to the whole issue of verse and posterity. MacNeice's poetry is preoccupied with expressions of flux from its earliest stages; where in his earlier work the poet is inclined to celebrate the dazzle and change of quotidian perception, by the time of the later poetry this perception of reality in flux has become more of a challenge to a more closely observed force of finality. Crucially, the later MacNeice finds ways of absorbing the quick-change, many-angled sense of experiential flux in the texture of the verse itself, and in its varying speeds and tricks of perspective. In “Variation on Heraclitus” (from Solstices), the Greek philosopher's remarks that “all things are flowing” and that “one cannot step into the same river twice” are refigured within a framework where the speaking voice is itself riding the rapids of constant change:

Even the walls are flowing, even the ceiling,
Nor only in terms of physics; the pictures
Bob on each picture rail like floats on a line
While the books on the shelves keep reeling
Their titles out into space. …(11)

The stability, or rather persistence, of the “I” who observes all this is at issue in the poem, and is put in a problematic relation to the writing in which the first-person voice engages: “… nor can this be where I stood— / Where I shot the rapids I mean—when I signed / On a line that rippled away with a pen that melted. …” The permanence of writing is in no way a settled matter here, and the poem's long lines, with all the twists and turns in their continued acceleration, build towards a conclusion in which the idea of the “static” is rejected most emphatically at the moment when (ironically) the verse's movement comes to a dead halt:

                                                                                … No, whatever you say,
Reappearance presumes disappearance, it may not be nice
Or proper or easily analysed not to be static
But none of your slide snide rules can catch what is sliding so fast
And, all you advisers on this by the time it is that,
I just do not want your advice
Nor need you be troubled to pin me down in my room
Since the room and I will escape for I tell you flat:
One cannot live in the same room twice.

The vitality of “I will escape” is, like other prospects of the future in the later MacNeice, hedged with the ironies it is determined to push beyond. The voice's escape-route in flux is exhilarating; it is also one in which the implications of “One cannot live” are understood. The poem's energy and exhilaration outweigh the somber burden that the suddenness of its ending nevertheless steadfastly acknowledges.

When Derek Mahon approaches the Heraclitean theme, it is with MacNeice's poem whispering in his ear. “Heraclitus on Rivers,” however, replaces MacNeice's helter-skelter movement with a measured, largely end-stopped pace. Shaped like a sonnet that has become slightly too large for itself (as nine lines followed by seven), Mahon's poem begins with a level acknowledgment of inherent change:

Nobody steps into the same river twice.
The same river is never the same
Because that is the nature of water.
Similarly your changing metabolism
Means that you are no longer you.
The cells die, and the precise
Configuration of the heavenly bodies
When she told you she loved you
Will not come again in this lifetime.(12)

From one angle, this might seem like a restatement of MacNeice's position; but it does not, crucially, sound like one, for the voice of this poem has exchanged speed for stability, and it is no longer experiencing but now observing the effects of flux. The “I” of MacNeice's poem, which is at once its voice and its (disappearing) subject, has been replaced by an address to “you,” as though the poem spoke directly to its reader or even (by extension) addressed its own poet. In its second, sestet-like section, Mahon's poem turns upon the kind of poet who might write a poem like this, and dismisses notions of survival in a measured, and rigorously calm, appeal to an unreachable posterity:

You will tell me that you have executed
A monument more lasting than bronze;
But even bronze is perishable.
Your best poem, you know the one I mean,
The very language in which the poem
Was written, and the idea of language,
All these things will pass away in time.

Supplying as it does an elaboration on the second half of the Heraclitus tag (“All things are flowing, and nothing remains”), Mahon's poem here opens up a vista onto a posterity that is more in the nature of eternity. In the process, it makes of Horace's boast (“exegi monumentum aere perennius”) matter for a dourly ironic sermon. Insofar as “Heraclitus on Rivers” revives a strongly MacNeicean theme, it enters into the kind of intertextual conversation in which MacNeice's artistic posterity consists; to the extent that it argues against MacNeice's revered Horace, and insists on ultimate decay and disappearance, it makes explicit elements that the MacNeice poem works by keeping (just) out of sight.

Mahon's choice of Horace is unlikely to be one uninfluenced by his reading of MacNeice. The Burning Perch has “Memoranda to Horace” as its longest poem, in which issues of posterity and survival are to the fore. Furthermore, Mahon has engaged with MacNeice on Horatian territory in what looks like open competition, with his translation of Odes I.11 (“How to Live,” in Mahon's version, “Carpe Diem” in MacNeice's posthumously published translation). Neither the Latin nor the two translators' versions have much time for the future; it is interesting, all the same, that Mahon should choose this canonical instance of the distrust of posterity as the site for an engagement with MacNeice. Again, Mahon's verse here chooses stability over the MacNeicean speed, as may be seen from the two poets' versions of the poem's concluding sentiment. For Mahon: “the days are more fun than the years / which pass us by while we discuss them. Act with zest / one day at a time, and never mind the rest.”13 And for MacNeice: “While we chat, envious time threatens to give us the / Slip; so gather the day, never an inch trusting futurity.”14 Mahon's contained and neat chattiness may well miss the purchase MacNeice's more intricate pacing and diction gain on the “chat” that time overshadows. Oddly, Mahon's verse here lacks the “zest” it chooses to mention, while MacNeice's rhythm and glaring enjambment achieve something fittingly zestful.

The paradox that Horace's disdain for posterity is an important element in his actual posterity—a part, that is, of any monument more lasting than bronze which his poetry might constitute—is of course one well known to MacNeice. It is also important to the poetry of The Burning Perch. Writing on his “conscious attempt to suggest Horatian rhythms” in “Memoranda to Horace,” MacNeice added a revealing observation:

This technical Horatianizing appears in some other poems too where, I suppose, it goes with something of a Horatian resignation. But my resignation, as I was not brought up a pagan, is more of a fraud than Horace's: “Memoranda to Horace” itself, I hope, shows this.15

“Resignation” is very much at issue in late MacNeice, and in The Burning Perch in particular; MacNeice's reservations about his own resignation are relevant to this late poetry in ways that have a bearing on the poetry's particular kinds of success. In using Horace against MacNeice in “Heraclitus on Rivers,” Mahon perhaps registers some of the ironies implicit in MacNeice's own attitude towards Horace. Certainly, “Memoranda to Horace” is one of the poems that Mahon's critical writing singles out for praise: deploring the poem's absence from Michael Longley's 1988 selection from MacNeice, Mahon calls the poem “the last really good work he did,” and characterizes it as “mordant and valedictory,” while the much earlier (and critically consequential) essay “MacNeice in Ireland and England” (which Mahon published in 1974) quotes the stanza on “blank posterity” and observes that “It must have been clear to [MacNeice], in his last years, that the things he valued were being daily outnumbered by the things he feared.” The attitude to posterity is evidently crucial to Mahon's evaluation here, as it is more generally to his representation of “the poems MacNeice left us, their intimate whispers still echoing somewhere in the ether.”16 Mahon seems to welcome the “resignation” in late MacNeice insofar as this conditions MacNeice's perspectives on the contemporary world; but with regard to the older poet's reservations about that “resignation,” Mahon perhaps is less well placed to pick up the specific frequencies that are involved.

It is noteworthy that Mahon has allowed himself to be more often critical of the late MacNeice than of the poet's 1930s and wartime writings. “Budgie,” one of the poems from The Burning Perch for which Mahon has expressed enthusiasm, perhaps represents one kind of “resignation” that is particularly congenial to the younger poet. The poem's depiction of a budgerigar in a cage, “Its voice a small I Am,” makes the pet bird into an entertainer of sorts, whose performances take on unexpectedly expansive symbolic range as it sings to

Galaxy on galaxy, star on star,
Planet on planet, asteroid on asteroid,
Or even those four far walls of the sitting room

oblivious to all but its own image in a mirror. In the poem's conclusion, MacNeice opens up a series of ultimate horizons, only to return to the tame bird, which in its attitudinizing and self-regard becomes a kind of dark parody (or, perhaps, an exceptionally perceptive reading) of Yeats's “golden bird” at the end of “Sailing to Byzantium”:

The mirror jerks in the weightless cage:
Budgie, can you see me? The radio telescope
Picks up a quite different signal, the human
Race recedes and dwindles, the giant
Reptiles cackle in their graves, the mountain
Gorillas exchange their final messages,
But the budgerigar was not born for nothing,
He stands at his post on the burning perch—
I twitter Am—and peeps like a television
Actor admiring himself in the monitor.(17)

The last things scattered through this conclusion seem prophetic of many of Mahon's apocalyptic perspectives, while the bird's persistence in the face of destruction sounds a central theme in The Burning Perch's recurring concerns. The budgerigar's self-regard is refigured as its duty, and its repetitive attitudinizing becomes a kind of heroic perseverance in the face of the future's impossible odds. It is important that both of these possibilities remain in play throughout the poem and at its conclusion; like other pieces in the volume, “Budgie” combines satire with a finally tragic vision, resignation with reservation.

Mahon complained at the absence of the “tremendous” poem “Budgie” from Michael Longley's edition of MacNeice, and both the complaint and the omission are revealing. Interestingly, Mahon's advocacy of “Budgie” concentrates on its satirical aspect: calling it “one of [MacNeice's] last and bitterest poems,” he has seen it as an attack on “the hegemony of television,” adding that “perhaps, more disturbingly, it is a satire on the poetic vocation.”18 While Mahon is right to see this poem's “tone” as central to its value, his laconic observation that “it is the tone that is symptomatic” links his reading of “Budgie” to his larger interpretation of MacNeice's later years as exhibiting a series of “distressing symptoms.”19 Alert to MacNeice's distress in this poetry, Mahon seems to be (in part) deaf to its resilience and determination. To some extent, this may be due to the complementary influence exerted on Mahon by Samuel Beckett, whose “tone” takes over where MacNeice's leaves off. In terms of ways of facing posterity, Beckett allows Mahon to pursue artistic “attitudinizing” (to adopt a term from “Budgie’) to colder and grimmer extremes than late MacNeice will countenance. In Mahon's “Burbles,” which is subtitled “After Beckett,” this posture is struck through stylistic ventriloquism:

silence such as was before
forever now will never more
be broken by a murmured word
without a past of having heard
too much unable now to do
other than vow so to continue. …(20)

Yet poetry like this is perhaps no more than attitudinizing in the end, and is lacking finally in the power of reservation that checks internally (so to speak) the impulse to routine resignation. The poem has given up on posterity, rather than taken its measure. MacNeice's admiration for Beckett in 1963 was tinged with certain reservations: these are of limited value now as criticisms of Beckett himself, but may be illuminating as observations on the Beckettian element in Mahon. MacNeice compares Beckett's Malone Dies with William Golding's Pincher Martin, praising the resistance embodied in the latter, in which the hero “fights his way to defeat by every kind of delaying action.” With regard to Beckett, MacNeice approaches him by quoting lines from Browning (“I hardly tried now to rebuke the spring / My heart made, finding failure in its scope”) and adding a commentary that tells us as much about the poet of The Burning Perch as it does about the author of Malone Dies:

Just as the absence of God implies the need of God and therefore the presence of at least something spiritual in man, so to have failed in living implies certain values in living, however much Beckett's characters may curse and blaspheme against it and behave like clowns in a clownish universe. As with any other blasphemy, the other side of the coin is an act of homage.21

If this side of the late MacNeice is effectively written out, or written over, by Mahon's reception of his work, it is understood nevertheless by other, no less influential, figures in the poet's immediate posterity.


  1. The Collected Poems of Louis MacNeice, ed. E. R. Dodds (London: Faber and Faber, 1966; repr. 1979), p. 443.

  2. Peter Porter, review of The Hunt by Night by Derek Mahon, The Observer, 19 December 1982, quoted in Edna Longley, Poetry in the Wars (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1986), p. 171; Declan Kiberd, “Contemporary Irish Poetry,” The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, ed. Seamus Deane, 3 vols. (Derry: Field Day, 1991), 3:1380.

  3. MacNeice, Collected Poems, p. 543.

  4. MacNeice, Collected Poems, p. 519.

  5. MacNeice, Collected Poems, p. 517.

  6. “Louis MacNeice Writes …,” Poetry Book Society Bulletin 38 (September 1963), repr. in Selected Literary Criticism of Louis MacNeice, ed. Alan Heuser (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), p. 248.

  7. Louis MacNeice, “Poetry To-day,” The Arts To-day, ed. Geoffrey Grigson (London: Bodley Head, 1935), repr. in Selected Literary Criticism, p. 13.

  8. Louis MacNeice, review of Poems by George Seferis, New Statesman, 17 December 1960, repr. in Selected Literary Criticism, p. 222.

  9. MacNeice, Collected Poems, p. 518.

  10. Interview in Poetry Review 81, no. 2 (Summer 1991): 5.

  11. MacNeice, Collected Poems, p. 502.

  12. Derek Mahon, Selected Poems (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1993), p. 112.

  13. Mahon, Selected Poems, p. 76.

  14. MacNeice, Collected Poems, p. 550.

  15. “Louis MacNeice Writes …,” p. 248.

  16. Derek Mahon, Journalism: Selected Prose 1970-1995, ed. Terence Brown (Oldcastle: Gallery Books, 1996), pp. 47, 28, 42.

  17. MacNeice, Collected Poems, p. 539.

  18. Derek Mahon, “MacNeice, the War, and the BBC,” Studies on Louis MacNeice, ed. Jacqueline Genet and Wynne Hellegouarc'h (Caen: Société Française d'Etudes Irlandaises, 1988), p. 76. The phrases quoted here were edited out of the version of this piece that appears in Mahon's Journalism.

  19. Mahon, Journalism, p. 41.

  20. Derek Mahon, The Hudson Letter (Oldcastle: Gallery Books, 1995), p. 22.

  21. Louis MacNeice, Varieties of Parable (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965), p. 142.

Michael O'Neill (essay date April 1999)

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SOURCE: O'Neill, Michael. “John Montague and Derek Mahon: The American Dimension.” Symbiosis 3, no. 1 (April 1999): 54-62.

[In the following essay, O'Neill examines the influence of American poetry on Mahon, citing Frank O'Hara and Hart Crane as important predecessors. O'Neill notes the importance of Mahon's outsider status in his approach to representing both place and time.]

A westward gaze can be found in the poems of many twentieth-century Irish poets as they look to American poetry and culture for imaginative confirmation and enlargement. The present essay explores the effect of this gaze on the work of two of the finest post-war Irish poets: John Montague, famously an internationalist trail-blazer, and Derek Mahon, equally famously a poet of restless exile and uprooted search for ‘home.’

In his autobiographical piece ‘The Figure in the Cave’, John Montague writes with a sense of gratitude about the course of his career that might seem unguarded or fulsome, were it not for a saving wit and awareness of pain. As he thinks of his manuscripts going to some great archive in the sky—or at any rate to Buffalo—he recasts his life as ‘a fairy-tale, the little child who was sent away being received back with open arms’ and finds ‘astonishing and heartening’ ‘the way the American dimension is being restored to my life in my later years.’ Yet this dimension is associated, for him, with the great trauma of his life, the separation from his mother, which he describes as being ‘at the centre of my emotional life, affecting my relationships with women, shadowing my powers of speech.’1 In his poem ‘A Flowering Absence’ Montague confronts directly the passage from experiential ‘hurt’ to poetic ‘grace’ and these states, the poles between which his more confessional verse moves, are described in ways that owe much to his study of American poets.2 At the same time his work could never be mistaken for imitation or pastiche.

‘The Silver Flask’ (169) is a poem impossible to imagine being written without the influence of Life Studies. Yet at its most Lowellian, it is unmistakably the work of Montague. For instance, Montague breathes his own subterranean bitterness (sometimes his bitterness is very much on the surface, but at other times it is tautly repressed) into the lullingly normal opening—‘Sweet, though short, our / hours as a family together’: ‘hours’, taking a downbeat stress at the start of the second line, makes the reader involuntarily suspect an error before realising the pathos coiled inside the word. The poem's close, referring to the ‘same tinsel of decorations / so carefully hoarded by our mother / in the cabin trunk of a Cunard liner’ recalls ‘Mother's coffin’ at the end of ‘Sailing Home from Rapallo.’ That poem finishes, ‘The corpse / was wrapped like panetone in Italian tinfoil.’ But Lowell's bitten-back irony differs from Montague's more vulnerable wavering between love and disillusion. Lowell's close punctures the absurdly snobbish dignity of ‘Mother travelled first-class in the hold’ in the poem's second paragraph. Montague's final stanza—like the whole poem—has no main verb, in keeping with his characteristic emphasis on circling, return, recycling. ‘The Silver Flask’ at once offers and withdraws the possibility that trauma can be healed in a poetic ritual, that the family circle can be rounded out in words.

Montague's debt to American poetry shares in the ambiguities that govern his internationalist poetic. Even when he expresses a debt to poets such as Robert Duncan, Montague does so through allusions that grant the American poet the status of honorary Irish (not to mention Shakespearean) writer: ‘Robert Duncan came sailing by in his Yeatsian cloak, his cast eye in a fine frenzy rolling.’3 Gerald Dawe is surely right to detect in Montague a trust that the ‘autobiographical’ and the ‘cultural’ will illuminate each other: a trust that, for Dawe, makes Montague ‘very much more a traditionalist than he would have us believe from his comments on experimentalism, international writing and so forth.’4 Montague speaks of ‘the long wound of poetry,’5 and there is a suspicion in the minds of some critics that his work rehearses cycles of pain and consolation in a way that memorialises these cycles as archetypal, bound up with what the poet himself has called ‘our racial drama of conscience.’6 Yet Montague the archetypalist exists in productive tension with Montague the self-conscious poet, able to suggest through the very ‘stylisation of experience’ of which Dawe half-complains a space where ‘infinite variation’ and ‘quarter tones,’ to borrow phrases from the poet's prose note, ‘I Also Had Music,’ are possible.7

One area in which ‘stylisation’ in Montague shows itself is, paradoxically, the poetry's awareness of the possible danger of artifice. In ‘The Water Carrier’ (189), which can be allegorised as dramatising the need for balance between the experimental and the traditional, Montague stylishly gives ‘stylisation’ the slip at the poem's close: ‘Recovering the scene,’ he writes, ‘I had hoped to stylize it … : / But pause, entranced by slight but memoried life.’ The impulse to ‘stylize’ gives way to entrancement by ‘slight but memoried life.’ It is a moment that suggests, less in its wording (which is quite Stevensian—especially in the subsequent reference to ‘the fictive water that I feel’) than in its movement, the influence of William Carlos Williams's pattern-breaking, and the surprises of perspective often found in Williams's lyrics, reflecting a delight in unexpectedness. Here and elsewhere Montague is kept from over-stylising by the example of Williams. As it laments ‘shards / Of a lost culture,’ ‘The Road's End’ (31) is saved from possible over-solemnity by the way it finishes, its ‘yellow cartwheel’ a moment of puckish homage to Williams's red wheelbarrow: ‘Only the shed remains / In use for calves, although fuschia / Bleeds by the wall, and someone has / Propped a yellow cartwheel / Against the door.’ That cartwheel is both icon of a lost culture and evidence that a rural community is still in existence. If Montague's cartwheel does not possess the free-floating thisness of Williams's wheelbarrow on which so much depends, Williams's influence can be found throughout Montague's work: in the juxtapositions of prose and poetry found in The Rough Field, in the worrying away at the meaning of the ‘local,’ and in the concern with experience as a journey, often involving what in Border Sick Call Montague calls ‘a memory, a mystery’. Montague invokes Dante explicitly in this work: ‘no purgatorial journey / reads stranger than this, / our Ulster border pilgrimage / where demarcations disappear’ (348). But the Williams of Paterson, especially Book 2, with its meditation on ‘memory’ and its emphasis on walking as a figure for the mind in action, is, arguably, a more palpable presence; the ‘wide, white world’ climbed into by Montague and his brother, for example, is illuminated by Williams's sense that ‘no whiteness (lost) is so white as the memory / of whiteness.’8

It is for enabling such variations on Montague's obsessive themes that the influence of American poetry is rewarding. His ‘Herbert Street Revisited’ (111), among his finest achievements, is seamlessly original, and yet contributions to its success are manifold, often if not exclusively from American poets. While the triple sectionalising of the poem may recall Auden's elegy for Yeats, with its shifts of register, the opening exclamatory wryness—‘someone is leading our old lives’—is indebted to effects in Lowell (one thinks, for instance, of the painfully humorous start of ‘The Old Flame,’ ‘My old flame, my wife!’). And the beautiful wobble in the poem between stanzaic shape and rhythms based on ‘living speech,’ allowing for frequent run-ons and enjambments, suggests a close reading of authors such as Williams, whose stanzas are there to be heard as well as seen in poems such as ‘The Catholic Bells’ and ‘These.’9 In the poem Montague, as so often in his work, explores what he calls ‘succession’. In the first section the present tense suggests that the ‘someone’ who ‘is leading our old lives’ is, at some level, the poet himself. In the last two stanzas, though, a distancing occurs as, in a troubling off-rhyme, the ‘leading’ of a life becomes the ‘treading’ of ‘the pattern / of one time and place into history, / like our early marriage’; there, the ‘pattern’ is both imprinted on, and dispersed into, ‘history’.

The second section sees the poet as celebrant of ‘old happiness,’ ‘when alone.’ But it is in the third section that Montague manages to redefine the poem's oppositions. Using a series of ‘lets,’ as in some litany, he turns back the clock, ‘put the leaves back on the tree, / put the tree back in the ground,’ but ‘lets’ the clock wind forward, ‘let Brendan trundle his corpse down / the street singing, like Molly Malone.’ Here, in a reversal of a moment of Yeatsian violence (‘Last night they trundled down the road / That dead young soldier in his blood’),10 Behan becomes, uncannily, the celebrant of his own death. It is as if, in accepting mortality and time, the poem glimpses a way of triumphing over those things; and yet the triumph takes place in the shadowy, virtual nowhere of the poem, as is suggested by the last image of the ‘pony and donkey’ ‘parading side by side, down / the length of Herbert Street, / rising and falling, lifting / their hooves through the moonlight.’ That last image replays in ghostlier form the preoccupied mood of ‘Strange fits of passion have I known,’ where Wordsworth writes of his horse: ‘hoof after hoof / He raised, and never stopped,’ and the poet slides towards the ‘fond and wayward’ thought that the dropping of the moon signals Lucy's death.11 In Montague's poem, moonlight may have the last word, but, for all the assertion in The Rough Field that ‘No Wordsworthian dream enchants me here,’ the epiphanic lyric moment at the end of ‘Herbert Street Revisited’ makes something new and its own out of a Wordsworthian trance.

Robert Duncan is another poet from whom Montague has shrewdly learned in ‘Herbert Street Revisited’: shrewdly, because it is evident that Duncan's mixture of rapturous celebration, open-field poetics, and unabashedly deliquescent courtliness of diction could prove a fatal influence. The way that Montague contrives a music that registers shape and flow, ‘pattern’ and ‘succession’ in the terms of the poem, finds a parallel in Duncan's fluid handling of tercets and quatrains, part and parcel of an imagination also much concerned with themes of ‘return.’ ‘Herbert Street Revisited’ might be glossed by the opening of Duncan's ‘Often I am Permitted to Return to a Meadow,’ where the title runs straight into the rest of the poem: ‘as if it were a scene made-up by the mind, / that is not mine, but is a made place, // that is mine.’12

Again, there is difference as well as kinship. Montague roots such an awareness of the fictive, the ‘made-up,’ in the detail of a life; Duncan floats free of the empirical, moving on swiftly to celebration of the ‘Queen Under The Hill.’ But the frail trust in imagination of Montague's poem can be linked to Duncan's Stevens-like ‘as if’ at the close of his fine lyric: ‘Often I am permitted to return to a meadow / as if it were a given property of the mind / that certain bounds hold against chaos.’ ‘Herbert Street Revisited’ is typical of Montague in the way it enacts the process of revisiting. As Edna Longley points out, Montague ‘favours the word “again,’” which she sees as bound up with a determinist mode of ‘perceiving events as cyclical.’13 Yet ‘Herbert Street Revisited’ uses its ‘agains’ to suggest change as well as repetition, the third section opening out and into the perspectives made possible by deep imaginative acceptance of the past. Such acceptance can be read as liberation; contrasting with the half-fear that ‘someone is leading our old lives,’ the parenthetical line—‘look, someone has left the gate open’—suggests the unlocking made possible by the third section.

In ‘A Bright Day’ (225) Montague discards ‘the accumulated richness / Of an old historical language’ in favour of ‘a slow exactness // Which recreates experience / By ritualizing its details.’ If Montague seems diverted from his historical themes, here, by the lure of a Williams-esque present-tense exactness (the clock ‘Moves its hands in a fierce delight / Of so, and so, and so’), the word ‘ritualizing’, with its hints of secularised worship, brings him decidedly back home, to the artist as priest, the figure affirmed and ironised by Joyce. Derek Mahon's ‘The Attic,’ dedicated to John and Evelyn Montague, is a lightly yet desperately self-mocking retort to Montague's ars poetica. Mahon also writes in four quatrains, though his rhymes are crisper than Montague, as if to assert his freedom from modernist and traditionalist alike.14 Mahon quietly denies the consolations of objects; he stares at ‘the blank spaces’ bringing down to earth Pascalian terror, and he finishes by wittily offending any ban on the interfering lyrical ego: ‘I who know nothing / Scribbling on the off-chance, / Darkening the white page, / Cultivating my ignorance.’15

Mahon's poetic identity is a curiously weightless and nonchalant thing. The more intertextual he grows, the more he seems his own man. This is partly because his poetry has always been unashamedly literary in its themes and styles. The Hudson Letter might appear to support the Barthesian view that the text is a tissue of quotations. Moreover, New York City presents itself to Mahon's imagination in linguistic terms. He concludes an article for The Irish Times, in 1993, with the following passage, ‘The city as text … The notion, though equally applicable to Dublin, London, Paris or LA (see Joyce, Dickens, Proust and Raymond Chandler), seems especially appropriate to the literary character of New York—as if, every block a quotation, the city were somehow destined to end up as a book.’16 This Calvino-like imagining governs the way that Mahon sees New York in The Hudson Letter—except for the fact that his eye detects the presence of authors as well as their textual legacies. Moreover, far from collapsing into a babel of references, his poem is on the look-out for exemplary figures, existential heroes. In section X he hails the American Auden, ‘far from Mother, in the unmarried city,’ in these terms: ‘you remind us of what the examined life involves— / for what you teach is the courage to be ourselves, / however ridiculous.’ Another exemplary figure turns out to be Yeats's father in section XVII, an unlikely surrogate for the poet, but Mahon is quick to point out affinities, describing himself as ‘A recovering Ulster Protestant like you from Co. Down.’ It is an improbable line from the author of poems such as ‘Ecclesiastes’, where identity is an elliptically conceded complicity. But it suggests the readiness to employ a language of labels of someone who knows that the labels will never quite match.

Yeats's father is seen by the poem as ‘like all of us, then as now, “an exile and a stranger.’” Though this address is more formally literary than anything to be found in Frank O'Hara, Mahon's practice here bears out O'Hara's trust in ‘Personism,’ sketched in this designedly flip way: ‘to give you a vague idea, one of its minimal aspects is to address itself to one person (other than the poet himself), thus evoking overtones of love without destroying love's life-giving vulgarity, and sustaining the poet's feelings towards the poem while preventing love from distracting him into feeling about the person.’17 It should be said, however, that Mahon's ‘Personism’ is aware of the likelihood, indeed inescapability of using any ‘you’ as a mirror for the feelings and anxieties experienced by the poetry's ‘I.’ O'Hara is among the presences Mahon senses in the New York streets: ‘I go nightshopping like Frank O'Hara,’ section XIV begins, and, as often in The Hudson Letter, there is, in the writing, a vibrant sense of the city.

More pervasive and deeply felt is the poem's response to the work of Hart Crane. Mahon's elegantly lucid idiom may not have much in common with Crane's commitment to language's connotative ripples and associative richness of suggestion. But like Crane he is keen to explore—often with an ironic or even a jaundiced eye—the metaphorical and spiritual dimensions of life in the city. Indeed, as always with Mahon's exemplary figures, there is a keen if melancholy pleasure taken by the poet as he thinks of his belatedness in relation to a precursor, to borrow Harold Bloom's terms. In ‘Global Village’, section III of The Hudson Letter, he opens with a mournfully cadenced tribute to the Crane of poems such as ‘The Harbour Dawn’:

This morning, from beyond abandoned piers
where the great liners docked in former years,
a fog-horn echoes in deserted sheds
known to Hart Crane, and in our vigilant beds.

The tug of the real is obvious here—Crane, too, heard these sounds—yet, as in some Bloomian manoeuvre, the rest of the poem is vigilant about the seductive hold of the city. Mahon denies intending ‘to pen yet one more craven European / paean to the States,’ where the repeated sounds echo the sardonic sense. But in keeping with a train of thought set going by his epigraph from Berkeley's The Principles of Human Knowledge, he explores the intermeshing of representation and reality, ‘virtual realities’ and ‘the real thing’. Out of this welter of self-doubt and muddle, attraction towards and detachment from the clutter of New York's simulacra, Mahon discovers that he has found a subject to stimulate him into poetry. ‘After so many deaths I live and write,’ he comments towards the section's close, quoting from ‘The Flower,’ George Herbert's great poem of resurrected creativity; but Crane, as much as Herbert, is obsessed by the possibility of poetry as a theme for poetry, by ‘the resilience of our lyric appetite,’ as section I puts it. When Mahon finishes section II, ‘does lightning ever strike in the same place twice?’, he might be asking, among many other things, ‘can I in some way emulate Crane's achievement?’

The Hudson Letter engages in cunningly oblique dialogue with Crane's poetry. Section V, voiced for an Irish immigrant of the 1890s, has something of the calculatedly naive pathos that Crane taps in ‘Indiana’ from The Bridge. Section VI begins by recalling the opening of ‘The River.’ In Crane, materialist optimism is mocked in phrases such as ‘COMMERCE and the HOLYGHOST’.18 In Mahon, block capitals convey the frenzied whirl of newspaper headlines, concluding with one detail that captures the poet's interest: ‘ESCAPED BRONX SEABIRDS SPOTTED IN CENTRAL PARK.’ Just at the back of Mahon's speculations about the fate of these birds, imagined as ‘crazy-eyed as they peer / through mutant cloudcover,’ is Crane's ‘apparitional’ gull, ‘chill from his rippling rest.’ Crane's bird in ‘To Brooklyn Bridge’ is a fleeting harbinger of meaning and purpose as ‘with inviolate curve’ it is said recurrently to ‘forsake our eyes.’ It is the purpose of Crane's epic to recover, in the face of all that opposes it, the vision of beauty and meaning suggested by that inviolate curve, which transfers itself in the poem's central image to the Bridge itself. Mahon's birds are ‘intrigued, baffled and finally bored stiff / by the wised-up Mondrian millions lunching far below’: ‘vulnerable’, post-Baudelairean alter egos for the disenchanted poet, even if, unlike the birds, he must ‘touch garbage’—at least imaginatively.

‘They belong in another life,’ Mahon writes of the birds, as though distancing himself, with Williams and others, from a potentially destructive romanticism. But that ‘other life’ continually impinges on this, however mockingly or faintly in The Hudson Letter. Frequently the ‘other life’ celebrated in the poem is life as it turns into language, as in section XVI, which tumultuously evokes how ‘cloud-splitting Angie broke over the Keys last year.’ In so doing, Mahon recalls one of Crane's most energised later poems, ‘Eternity,’ also about a hurricane and its aftermath. Crane concludes with a memory of ‘Drinking Bacardi and talking U.S.A.’ Mahon—to borrow Crane's word—recalls a ‘memoried’ time and place through an allusion that pays homage to Crane's narrative of exhaustion after tempest. The Irish poet remembers

how we strolled out there on the still-quaking docks
shaken but exhilarated, turned to retrace
our steps up Caroline St., and sat in Pepe's
drinking (rum and) Coke with retired hippies
who long ago gave up on the land and settled among the rocks.

This passage takes pleasure both in the experience and its representation. Crane acts as a benignly presiding presence, a guarantor of the continued if always surprising fact that poetry and life can leave us ‘shaken but exhilarated.’

Both Montague and Mahon are poets attracted by the burdens and glamour of exile. Both seek to learn what is meant by home through travelling abroad, literally and imaginatively. Derek Mahon has recently depicted himself in The Yellow Book as a latter-day decadent and aesthete, and yet as a common-sensical sceptic. Evidently regretting that ‘patience, courage, artistry, / solitude’ are ‘things of the past’—‘like the fear of God’—‘we nod to you,’ he writes in the fourth section, ‘from the pastiche paradise of the post-modern.’ That crafty rhyme between ‘God and ‘modern’ (a form of rhyme sustained throughout the section in question) suggests his ambivalent position with regard to textual ‘pastiche’ and ‘post-modern’ knowingness. At the close of Border Sick Call (and concluding Montague's recent Collected Poems) is the question, ‘But in what country have we been?’ It is a question that includes among its suggestions a hint as to the hold that Montague's and Mahon's dealings with American poetry have over us. We are taken, as a result of these dealings, into the exilic, precarious mindscape of the poem.


  1. ‘The Figure in the Cave,’ in John Montague, The Figure in the Cave and Other Essays, ed. Antoinette Quinn (Dublin: Lilliput, 1989), 17-18, 16, 17.

  2. The poem is quoted, as are all Montague's poems, from John Montague, Collected Poems (Loughcrew: Gallery, 1995), 180.

  3. Lowell, Selected Poems (London: Faber, 1965), 45; ‘The Figure in the Cave,’ 16.

  4. ‘Invocations of Powers: John Montague,’ in Neil Corcoran (ed.), The Chosen Ground: Essays on the Contemporary Poetry of Northern Ireland (Bridgend: Seren, 1992), 29.

  5. ‘The Figure in the Cave,’ 18.

  6. ‘The Impact of International Modern Poetry on Irish Writing,’ in The Figure in the Cave, 213.

  7. The Chosen Ground, 29; The Figure in the Cave, 47.

  8. Quoted from William Carlos Williams, Paterson Books I-V (London: MacGibbon and Kee, 1964), 96.

  9. Lowell, Selected Poems, 56; ‘A Note on Rhythm’, The Figure in the Cave, 48.

  10. ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’, section vi, quoted from W. B. Yeats, ed. Edward Larrissy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 105.

  11. Quoted from Lyrical Ballads, ed. Michael Mason (London and New York: Longman, 1992), 243-44.

  12. Quoted from Robert Duncan, The Opening of the Field (New York: New Directions, 1960), 7.

  13. Edna Longley, ‘“When Did You Last See Your Father?”: Perceptions of the Past in Northern Irish Writing 1965-1985,’ in her The Living Stream: Literature and Revisionism in Ireland (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe, 1994), 162.

  14. Williams, Paterson, book I, section I, 14.

  15. Quoted from Derek Mahon, Selected Poems (Harmondsworth: Penguin/Gallery in association with Oxford University Press, 1990), 102. Mahon's poetry is also quoted from The Hudson Letter (Loughcrew: Gallery, 1995) and The Yellow Book (Loughcrew: Gallery, 1997).

  16. Derek Mahon, ‘Letter from New York: Village Voices,’ in his Journalism: Selected Prose 1970-1995, ed. Terence Brown (Loughcrew: Gallery, 1996), 238.

  17. Frank O'Hara, ‘Personism: A Manifesto,’ in his Selected Poems, ed. Donald Allen (1991; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1994), xiv.

  18. Quoted, as are all Crane's poems, from Hart Crane, Complete Poems, ed. Brom Weber (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe, 1984).

Christopher Bakken (essay date winter 2002)

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SOURCE: Bakken, Christopher. “Derek Mahon and the Vocational Muse.” The Gettysburg Review 15, no. 4 (winter 2002): 637-56.

[In the following essay, Bakken reflects on Mahon's attitude toward work in his Collected Poems. Bakken sees in Mahon's verse a strong sense of irony and a critical nature, both of which Mahon often turns on himself and his art.]

A journey to the poetic realm of Derek Mahon might begin at a street in Greenwich Village, one still haunted by Dylan Thomas. We could draw a line from there to the top of Hart Crane's bridge, make the requisite pivot and dip, then sail the deep Atlantic. Arriving at last on the blessed Irish soil, we might visit Wilde and Yeats, but we would stay away from lauded Heaney—yes, that is a laurel wreath crowning his head, but we shall not look. Mahon must be granted his own contemporary terrain, for unlike the more celebrated locales on any map of Irish poetry, Mahon is situated somewhere all his own. We might tread briefly the lanes of Auden and MacNeice, then follow a less traveled road through some oak-shadowed graveyards and the disused agrarian haunts of human and horse, show no remorse at heading into town, swallow our urbane irony hard, and drink, remembering:

Your great mistake is to disregard the satire
Bandied among the mute phenomena.
Be strong if you must, your brisk hegemony
Means fuck-all to the somnolent sunflower
Or the extinct volcano. What do you know
Of the revolutionary theories advanced
By turnips, or the sex-life of cutlery?
Everything is susceptible, Pythagoras said so.
An ordinary common-or-garden brick wall, the kind
For talking to or banging your head on,
Resents your politics and bad draughtsmanship.
God is alive and lives under a stone;
Already in a lost hub-cap is conceived
The ideal society which will replace your own.

These are the kinds of things that spring up in the sinfully small Collected Poems of Derek Mahon: deflowered sonnets, able-bodied villanelles, lyrics (often in rhymed couplets) of comic ruin, aggressive iambic exclamations, melancholy spaces, “terminal ironies,” and the accidental miracle or two.

While such volumes sum up, at least in part, the scope and career of an accomplished poet, a Collected Poems should also reintroduce the poet's work to those of us who have been reading it all along. It also must introduce that poet to those who have not had the chance. Those in the latter category cannot offer much credit to Mahon's publisher since the book lacks a legend that would place Mahon's work in any literary locale. Because the table of contents is nothing but a list of individual poems, making no mention of earlier, individual volumes, we can only assume that the book is arranged in the usual way—chronologically. We are told, in a sparse paragraph of back matter, that “This volume brings together, in updated form, the poems the author ‘wishes to preserve’ from the work of forty years.” Are we to infer that the author has lost interest in the little volumes that allowed him to chart those years, like Crusoe knicking off the sunsets? That Mahon's career has been split between two continents, between bouts of self-exile, is of considerable importance, but we are given little reckoning of that. We are missing all the dates, the acknowledgments, and the miscellany that make up a publishing career. We enter from page one the territory of an extremely self-reflexive artist without much hint of the topography of his artistic landscape. The point is worth belaboring only because Mahon himself is so consistently preoccupied with his chosen art and his struggles with making it. For Derek Mahon, as we will see in his poems, employs a vocational muse. Indeed, one might be tempted to call Mahon a working-class poet, if by working we refer to the grueling chain gang of literature.

Bibliographic sniping aside, the poems collected here are often magnificent. So much so that one wonders why Mahon is frequently neglected by readers in this country, where a lot of the poems were written. Mahon's life has been a divided one, though not as dramatically as Ovid's (a poet he imitates and admires). Even if exile in our age is almost always self-induced—involving little more than flights from airport to airport for reasons more personal than political—Mahon is so frequent a flyer that it becomes nearly impossible to reconcile his American and Irish homes and the personas that inhabit them. Neither landscape is quite suitable, yet Mahon seems to prefer it that way, for he gets bonus mileage out of the willed discontentment that fuels a poem like “Going Home”—a farewell to the North American continent that has the typical Mahon timbre: sweetly wry and compellingly smug. It is sung, like so many of Mahon's poems, by a kind of late-century Odysseus amused and a little bewildered by the exotic foliage: “I am saying goodbye to the trees, / The beech, the cedar, the elm, / The mild woods of these parts / Misted with car exhaust / And sawdust, and the last / Gasps of the poisoned nymphs.” He allows himself the dream of remaining in place, thriving abroad, suspecting that if he lived “Long enough in this house / I would turn into a tree / Like somebody in Ovid / … Become a home for birds, / A shelter for the nymphs, / And gaze out over the downs / As if I belonged here too.” Unfortunately he never will belong. He must endure the limbo of homelessness, especially since he finds the landscape of Ireland so colorfully inhospitable; he is returning to a place where “There are no nymphs to be seen,” where one might only hope to find, according to “Going Home,”

Rooted in stony ground,
A last stubborn growth
Battered by constant rain
And twisted by the sea-wind
With nothing to recommend it
But its harsh tenacity
Between the blinding windows
And the forests of the sea,
As if its very existence
Were a reason to continue.

The approach to Irish shores figures so prominently in Mahon's verse that if we did not know better we would think he spent most of his life teetering on the island's edge. Many of his strongest early poems are shore lyrics, and as they did for Matthew Arnold, the “naked shingles of the world” harbor enough roaring wind and erosion to leave even the most intoxicated poet sober.

Yet homecomings for Mahon are about as comforting as hangovers. Portrush, touted in brochures as “Northern Ireland's Playground,” might be just the place for others to sport in the afternoon surf and guzzle some evening pints, but in “North Wind: Portrush,” our poet claims the north wind there “works itself into the mind / Like the high keen of a lost / Lear-spirit in agony / Condemned for eternity // To wander cliff and cove / Without comfort, without love.” Other ghosts have been fortunate enough to miss this place altogether: “Prospero and his people never / Came to these stormy parts; / Few do who have the choice.” Try selling that to the tourists! Not much redeems these seaside places, and the poet's best advice is stoical and glum:

So best prepare for the worst
That chaos and old night
Can do to us; were we not
Raised on such expectations,
Our hearts starred with frost
Through countless generations?

Only a few lucky, rugged survivors might catch “in midwinter … a rare stillness” when sunlight renders “Each object eldritch-bright, / The sea scarred but at peace.” In the Ireland that leers out of Mahon's work, any reprieve from misery is temporary at best, and this fact is borne upon the landscape itself. We would recognize peace there only by counting our scars.

In the same vein “Rathlin,” an island haunted by humans since the Mesolithic era, can only be described in units of pain and degrees of howling:

A long time since the last scream cut short—
Then an unnatural silence; and then
A natural silence, slowly broken
By the shearwater, by the sporadic
Conversation of the crickets, the bleak
Reminder of a metaphysical wind.
Ages of this, till the report
Of an outboard motor at the pier
Shatters the dream-time and we land
As if we were the first visitors here.

Ravages in nature produce ravages in man; this variation on a theme by Wordsworth recurs, but Mahon jostles it gently, like a golden egg he's careful not to scramble. The enigma of the opening line is “cut short” by a Dickinson dash, and the occasional rhymes of this stanza—just a few reverberations are enough to set the blank verse ringing—show that this poet, given the chance, will tell it slant without surrendering sonic power. Even if the “whole island” is “a sanctuary where amazed / Oneiric species whistle and chatter,” Death himself is napping here. An “odd somnolent freighter” chugs on the horizon, and meanwhile

Bombs doze in the housing estates
But here they are through with history—
Custodians of a lone light which repeats
One simple statement to the turbulent sea.
A long time since the unspeakable violence—
Since Somhairle Bui, powerless on the mainland,
Heard the screams of the Rathlin women
Borne to him, seconds later, upon the wind.
Only the cry of the shearwater
And the roar of the outboard motor
Disturb the singular peace. Spray-blind,
We leave here the infancy of the race,
Unsure among the pitching surfaces
Whether the future lies before us or behind.

Mahon's particular gift, evident here, is his ability to contain concrete image and idea neatly in the slippery grasp of his own negative capability. Bundled in the echo of that first suspended scream, the last line's near platitude invokes a “dream-time” of historical myth—this remembered massacre, centuries old—that remains eerily present. In another shore lyric, “Derry Morning,” similar facts are portrayed even more drably: “For this is how the centuries work— / Two steps forward, one step back.” In “Rathlin,” at least, the bombs are allowed to have their sleep, though even the “report” of an outboard motor resurrects the sense of dread. A “long time” in Ireland is evidently not long enough.

Such subtle balancing of historical myth and the modern moment is subtle and stunning: there is little promenading of current events, and there is never the didactic harping common to “political” poems. Instead they are marked by surprising levity and a dirgelike music of conviction, as evidenced in “The Sea in Winter”:

But let me never forget the weird
facticity of this strange seaboard,
the heroism and cowardice
of living on the edge of space,
or ever again contemptuously
refuse its plight; for history
ignores those who ignore it, not
the ignorant whom it begot.

We might think again of Arnold, whose “ignorant armies clash by night,” but few poets would tackle such stately notions with couplets. Without question Mahon has earned the odd distinction of writing the best rhyming couplets in modern English. Anyone who risks reviving Pope's vogue, of course, will produce a groaner now and then, as in the vague, forced, and masterfully annoying “Beyond Howth Head”: “The wind that blows these words to you / bangs nightly off the black-and-blue / Atlantic, hammering in its haste / dark doors of the declining west.” But in the passage quoted above, the repetition of “ignores,” “ignore,” and “ignorant” within two short lines quiets the otherwise easy “not … begot,” while those mouthfuls of “facticity” and “contemptuously” further deflect attention from the rhymes. How blissfully uncheerful this Mahon can be.

We might expect that a poet so willing to pay his tithes to traditional verse would maintain an unflappable faith in form, in art's sturdy scaffolding. Not so. Highest among Mahon's eulogized deaths would count that rage for order Wallace Stevens's muse hymned beyond the genius of the sea. Mahon's portrait of the modern poet amounts to a degraded caricature; this poet cannot find a home in the mind's bejeweled Key West, and even Whitman's chilly Paumanok would be remote from the blessed wastes of Mahon's imagination. Instead of comfort Mahon's late century paean, “Rage for Order,” rests in irony:

Somewhere beyond
The scorched gable end
And the burnt-out
Buses there is a poet indulging his
Wretched rage for order—
Or not as the case
May be, for his
Is a dying art,
An eddy of semantic scruple
In an unstructurable sea.

The poet's rage, his supreme duty to construct order out of the “unstructurable” (be it the violence of Northern Ireland or the more petty vicissitudes of urban meandering), has been relegated to a graveyard for useless pursuits. Nothing as puny as “semantic scruple” will alter anything, for he is “far / From his people, / And the fitful glare / Of his high window is as / Nothing to our scattered glass.” The allusion to Larkin's transcendent lens—portal to a doubted invisible—might suggest that the poet aspires in vain, beyond his reach; but it is not ambition that renders him powerless; it is distance, the ethereal puff of a quill that flies too high:

His posture is
Grandiloquent and
Deprecating, like this,
His diet of ashes,
His talk of justice and his mother
The rhetorical
Device of a Claudian emperor—
Nero if you prefer,
No mother there;
And this in the face of love, death, and the wages of the poor.

If too far removed from these last fundamental realities, poetry will posture without poignancy. This imagined poet craves attention, but his cries are little more than solipsistic whimpers in a void: “If he is silent / It is the silence / Of enforced humility / If anxious to be heard / It is the anxiety of a last word // When the drums start— / For his is a dying art.”

This is a decidedly bleak diagnosis, especially when directed so generally at the state of modern poetry. A negative ars poetica, the poem concocts an anti-muse, then ends by directing its interrogations inward to its author. Stevens's turn from the transcendent muse to boneheaded Ramon Fernandez at the end of “The Idea of Order at Key West” is the model here. That turn, in Stevens's poem as in Mahon's, signals the moment where the poem's broader meditations are to be tested on the poem's speaker. The question is whether or not he can exempt himself from the lousy model he has proposed. What will he make of poetry—that diminished thing?

By the end of Mahon's poem, the third-person pronoun gives up the ghost, and the “I” sings its way toward a defiant collapse:

Now watch me
As I make history,
Watch as I tear down
To build up
With a desperate love,
Knowing it cannot be
Long now till I have need of his
Terminal ironies.

Mahon is both the “he” and the “I.” This tension wire is stretched across many of his poems, since Mahon implores himself to toe the line between the private, effervescent realm of the solitary intellectual and the more sordid countryside of public domain. The speaker's “desperate love” is part nostalgia and part antidote; it would constitute a heroic act to wrestle poetry back to praise, to write a pure poetry of benediction for Northern Ireland, to sing, like Stevens, a “blessed rage for order.” But there is little possibility of locating “ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds” now, as Stevens could. At the end of the road, all that remains is to write down one's “terminal ironies.” Fortunately, such ironies are more often than not fructifying for Mahon; he pours his wit into indelicate satires without ever assuming the righteous high-mindedness satirized in this poem. The center of his criticism almost always winds up being the poet himself; if he sees it as his task not to “disregard the satire / Bandied among the mute phenomena,” he allows himself no vacation from his vocation.

Any mind so colored by the impulse to satirize must contain a hall of mirrors. The deepest irony in Mahon's poems probably arises from his sense of self-criticism born of a prolonged self-exile from Ireland. Many of his poems enact the attitude of exile while dismantling any sagacious visions a life away from home might afford. Frequently this urban solitary poises himself among the usual props—a weathered desk, a single bulb illuminating enough of the poet's night, a pen cruising the page—or in the midst of quiet rooftop observations that might attune a foreign discord to music:

I wake in a dark flat
To the soft roar of the world.
Pigeons neck on the white
Roofs as I draw the curtains
And look out over London
Rain-fresh in the morning light.

“Afterlives” opens by enacting its own privacy, refreshing the mental landscape, its gaze directed outward. Almost never confessional, Mahon's mode is dramatic and epistolary. Though he seems to work best far from home, even his quietest lyrics are soliloquies designed to fall on Irish ears, poems of guilty distance bristling with responsibilities he may have shirked. “Afterlives,” broken into two sections, the first set in London and the second “going home by sea / For the first time in years,” begins with that quiet invocation quoted above but quickly gives way to the overheard clamor of public conversation:

The orators yap, and guns
Go off in a back street;
But the faith does not die
That in our time these things
Will amaze the literate children
In their non-sectarian schools
And the dark places be
Ablaze with love and poetry
When the power of good prevails.
What middle-class shits we are
To imagine for one second
That our privileged ideals
Are divine wisdom, and the dim
Forms that kneel at noon
In the city not ourselves.

The crackle of the communal ideal and any firings of solitary apotheosis are always quickly snuffed; Mahon refuses to kindle any willed idealism from abroad. Even if no recipient is named, Mahon's lyrics seek the approval of a decidedly Irish muse, and they also recognize the folly of that desire. For returning home only reintroduces him to the quotidian violence of “a city so changed / By five years of war / I scarcely recognize / The places I grew up in,” and it leaves the poet hounded by the damning hum (“same … bomb … home”) of a conditional tense impossible to flee:

But the hills are still the same
Grey-blue above Belfast.
Perhaps if I'd stayed behind
And lived it bomb by bomb
I might have grown up at last
And learned what is meant by home.

Mahon struggles, but not too hard, to maintain some faith in human possibility. In an early poem, “Glengormley,” he opens a little hymn to human enlightenment this way, distilling his shrill sentiments hilariously:

Wonders are many and none is more wonderful than man
Who has tamed the terrier, trimmed the hedge
And grasped the principle of the watering can.

Once upon a long time ago our lives may have been grand, full of mistakes and violence and passionate intensity, but active at least. Now we have put ourselves out to pasture, dreaming greener thoughts in greener shades: “The sticks / And stones that once broke bones will not now harm / A generation of such sense and charm. // Only words hurt us now.” If poetry is to comprise something more meaningful than “semantic scruple,” the speaker of this poem comes to realize he will need to resist the impulse to dwell in the bog-worlds of Ireland's mystic past. Less appealing than their “saint and hero” ancestors, the stiff-lipped simpletons of the present moment are more real for all their ordinariness and therefore more worthy of his attention:

                                                                                I should rather praise
A worldly time under this worldly sky—
The terrier-taming, garden-watering days
Those heroes pictured as they struggled through
The quick noose of their finite being. By
Necessity, if not choice, I live here too.

Their banality and their extremity are both worth investigation, even celebration, and a neighborly verse is what Mahon has been aiming for his entire career.

Like Heaney, whose poem “Digging” is among the best known Irish poems of the last century, Mahon has written a verse manifesto of Irish poetics. No Irish poet can afford to be entirely extracted from the violence of modern Ireland, certainly not if that poet hopes to maintain an audience there. The pen must fit the hand like a gun. That much is clear. An apathetic, confessional mode would not be likely to receive praise in a country where public drama is brought to a terrifying conclusion too many days of the week. But the predicament of writing beyond oneself, beyond history, and beyond the “merely” political is more difficult to resolve. To write sectarian verse is not a viable option either, though it might at least assure one a passionate reading audience.

Mahon illustrates this predicament in dramatic guise, adopting the persona of “The Last of the Fire Kings,” a kind of bewildered poet-dreamer reigning over a dilapidated kingdom. For this overseer the temptations of a simpler life, one without responsibilities to his people, are difficult to banish. He longs to be “like the man who descends / At two milk churns // With a bulging / String bag and vanishes / Where the lane turns.” Or he would like to maintain the incognito of a foreign wanderer, slinking about like one “Who drops at night / From a moving train // And strikes out over the fields / Where fireflies glow, // Not knowing a word of the language.” For “five years,” he confesses, he has been sipping his delectable teas like some Hoon,

Perfecting my cold dream
Of a palace out of time,
A palace of porcelain
Where the frugivorous
Inheritors recline
In their rich fabrics
Far from the sea.

Now, however, the poet as king cannot drift into frowsty realms of grand imagining, for “the fire-loving / People, rightly perhaps, / Will not countenance this.” Barring a radical change in profession, his resolution is to release himself from such romances and to enact a policy shift that will meet the demands of the masses. He will inhabit, he decides, their “world of / Sirens, bin-lids / And bricked up windows,” but rather than adopt their “fire-loving” ways, he will turn that fire on himself and move forward to embrace a different oblivion:

Either way, I am
Through with history—
Who lives by the sword
Dies by the sword.
Last of the fire kings, I shall
Break with tradition and
Die by my own hand
Rather than perpetuate
The barbarous cycle.

Neither escape nor self-incrimination, his break is nothing less than a revision of poetic calling. Rather than live a self-induced exile in some elsewhere of the mind or an actual elsewhere (London or New York), his resolution is to abandon himself to the present, to thrust himself into the mass of men, a denizen but not a sacrificial lamb: “Not to release them / From the ancient curse / But to die their creature and be thankful.” Mahon's poet is no Emersonian “stander above men”; he is not even a representative man, unless by virtue of his occasionally petty and comic concerns. The vocation of the poet, for Derek Mahon, must be accompanied by a committed humility and the freedom to feel, as he puts it in “Spring in Belfast,” “the perverse pride in being on the side / Of the fallen angels and refusing to get up.”

Nearly a third of Mahon's Collected Poems is dominated by The Hudson Letter and The Yellow Book, two book-length poems published in the 1990s. These sequences abound with similar calisthenics of self-scrutiny, though both poems are constructed as public conversations, the first an epistle and the other a discursive document named after the fin de siècle magazine associated with Wilde and “the decadents.” Here at another century's end, the poet broods like a winsome solitary, a holdout from the past, a relic without any fancy reliquary to call home. That posture of dejection is managed with understatement, humor, and whispered wit in the earlier lyrics. And to be fair, in their strongest sections these poems represent the culmination of the manner commonly thought of as Mahon's: “terminal ironies” bespeak what in the opening section of the first of these poems is called “the resilience of our lyric appetite.” But the entrées offered are much too rich: forced exclamations abound, affectation intervenes, and the very grandiloquence rejected in “Rage for Order” is now a butter slathered on the sourdough of mockery.

The thinner of these two poems, The Hudson Letter, is addressed in eighteen sections to an imagined Irish muse from the poet's “rented ‘studio’ apartment in New York / five blocks from the river.” This urban Halcyon grants him “time to think and work, / long-suffering friends and visitors, the bars / where Dylan Thomas spent his final hours, / God rest him,” but “there's something missing / in this autistic slammer.” Hart Crane looms large above the bridges of The Hudson Letter, but the gulls that gander at our speeding American trains are imported like the author. Mahon recognizes an “Inca tern and Andean gull, who / fled their storm-wrecked cage in the Bronx Zoo” only to stare “at the alien corn of Radio City, Broadway and Times Square.” “Obviously I don't mean / to pen yet one more craven European / paean to the States,” Mahon blurts, but the unreality of America is vibrant subject matter for a foreigner. Sparing with rhyme and playful with meter, Mahon masters a swinging elegance in this sequence, distilling to song several particular archetypes: “Around five a hand, with Gershwin nonchalance, / shook up the empties in the recycling bin / at the corner, shivering for a drop of gin.” Or in one fine persona poem, spoken circa 1895 by an immigrant daughter to her mother back home, slant rhymes mute the exclamatory bewilderment of an Irish Ruth:

I get each Sunday off and use the privilege
To explore Broadway, the new Brooklyn Bridge
Or the Statue of Liberty, copper torch on top
Which, wd. You believe it, actually lights up,
And look at the Jersey shoreline, blue and gold:
It's all fire and sunlight here in the New World.
Eagles and bugles! Curious their simple faith
That stars and stripes are all of life and death—
As if Earth's centre lay in Central Park
When we both know it runs thro' Co. Cork.

Other personalities crowd these pages: most successfully, the homage to “Auden, floppy-slippered bear of St. Mark's Place,” whose “cheesy limestone face” is seen through a “dirty window, gin in paw, / on a hot evening during the great Cold War.” That elder would appreciate the impossible rhymes that frame the inquiries put to him: “what would you make now of the cosmic pax / Americana, our world of internet and fax. … ?”

Besprinkled as these sections are with the rubbish of today's cities—bumper stickers, overheard speech, television flash, and Hollywood icons—The Hudson Letter will please those with a penchant for the “post-modern;” that said, one cannot imagine Mahon desiring that species of admiration. The style is one of conglomeration, addition, and pop; the mire of the moment is inescapable, despite the fairly traditional hexameters. And Mahon's transition to a new New York poetics is openly recognized: “I go night shopping like Frank O'Hara I go bopping / up Bleeker for juice, croissants, Perrier, ice-cream / and Gitane filters, pick up the laundry, get back / to five (5!) messages on the answering machine / from Mary K. and Eliza, Louis, Barry and Jack, / and on TV sixty channels of mind-polluting dreck.” This is a Mahon giddy with consumer angst, one willing to record the minutiae of quotidian bother. It is true, the artist is not completely abandoned:

Sometimes, as I sit in the pub or stand up there
In Columbia University like Philby in Red Square,
I blush like a traitor; but what kind of traitor?
A traitor to the past? To a country not our own?
To the land of fiscal rectitude and spiritual desolation?
The ‘family values’ brigade? The conservative task force?
The gene militia? The armies of the unborn?

Such glimpses into the poet's psyche come at too high a price: slackened verse, the noise of trite interrogation, and the reader's yawn. Elsewhere the reader may even smirk, as when Mahon turns Larkin-wry (“Now that we all get laid and everyone swings, / who needs the formal continence of l'amour / courtois and the hang-ups of a provincial clique”) or stoops to redramatize scenes from King Kong. Yet for all its playful accessibility and good humor, facts which make for quick digestion and a giggle or two, the sequence does little to beg rereading.

The Yellow Book too is unevenly satisfying. The poet seems caught between imitating the contributors to the old magazine from which he has taken his title and maintaining his own late-century swagger. The brief italicized prologue opens in the guise of translation but never gets off the ground:

Chastely to write these eclogues I need to lie
like the astrologers, in an attic next the sky
where, high among church spires, I can dream and hear
their grave-hymns wind-blown to my ivory tower.
I can see workshops full of noise and talk,
cranes and masts of the ocean-going city,
vast cloud-pack photographs of eternity.

This is stilted, overpasteurized verse. The extraneous first adverb, the archaic “next the sky,” and the vague modifications (what would “cloud-pack” be exactly?), are made all the more affected by the most cacophonous couplets in Mahon's oeuvre.

As easy as it is to display such unsightly gaffes and to argue that The Yellow Book fails to gel because of them, this project is hefty and much ore is nestled within the dross. Particularly charming is the Virgil who revisits the poem intermittently: a poetry addict who has banished booze to assemble himself anew each day, “whoring after the sublime” against his better judgment. “Once,” Mahon similarly reminds himself, “you would wake up shaking at this hour / but now, this morning, you are a child once more / wide-eyed in an attic room,” its window under “the shining slates / where children slept in the days of Wilde and Yeats.” That curmudgeonly self-deprecator participates in his own Q & A in “Hangover Square,” musing, “Today is the first day for the rest of your life? / —tell that to your liver; tell that to your ex-wife” and sings one of the greatest love poems to tobacco ever written in “Smoke”:

On sobriety, I turn to the idea of nicotine,
My opium, hashish, morphine and cocaine,
“Turkish on the left, Virginia on the right,”
my cigarette a lighthouse in the night.
Autumn in Dublin; safe home from New York
I climb as directed to our proper dark,
Five flights without a lift up to the old
Gloom we used to love, and the old cold.
Head in the clouds but tired of verse, I fold
Away my wind-harp and my dejection odes
And mute the volume on the familiar phone
(“… leave your number; speak after the tone”)
to concentrate on pipe-dreams and smoke-clouds.

Like a crazed curator for a museum of urban detritus, Mahon proves a speed demon of a list-maker in his cataloging of things “At the Chelsea Arts Club,” where he comes to the conclusion that “Everywhere aspires to the condition of pop music, / The white noise of late-century consumerism— / Besieged by Shit, Sperm, Garbage, Gristle, Scum / And other raucous trivia.” After an avalanche of commas and sordid accoutrements, the maniac finally manages to confess:

Maybe I'm finally turning into an old fart,
but I do prefer the traditional kinds of art,
respect for materials, draughtsmanship and so on—
though I'm in two minds about Tank Girl over there,
the Muse in chains, a screw-bolt in one ear,
the knickers worn over the biking gear.

Like those who pursued art for its own sake before him, Mahon is willing to keep alight “the cold candle of decadence” and to expose “the delights of modern life,” a.k.a. “The Idiocy of Human Aspiration,” as he titles his rendering of Juvenal's tenth satire.

In light of these late sequences, it would be easy to paint Mahon as an urban poet, as a fairly miserable late-century apartment-dweller laboring at verse among bedraggled pigeons and bag ladies; he is certainly less prone than comrade Heaney to evoke the milk-churning, blackberry-plucking Eden of an Irish boyhood. Yet Mahon's strongest poems are the locale-driven lyrics of his middle period, where his craftsmanship is brought to bear on the crumbling and eroded landscapes that bespeak Ireland's essential island solitude, places where the poet can hear his ancestry murmuring. Mahon is a poet of used-up melancholy spaces. His midcareer lyrics inhabit border regions—the edges of fields, the bisecting fringes of coast and surf, the barbed wire boundary of the junkyard—and are devoid of the social banter and affected neon so prevalent in Mahon's later books. Again we might be tempted to call this mode Wordsworthian, but the poet's “seed time” is rarely an issue, and the poems are not recollected in tranquillity as often as they are involved in the active pursuit of capturing time and refusing it further motion. These are stilled lives. In Mahon's expert hands, the lyric can function like a funeral urn; epitaphic and nostalgic, the poet's own nostos, his returning pain, is sifted into the inclusive dust of his perishable country and its collective memory.

“A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford,” Mahon's most widely anthologized poem, opens with such motion that the reader is moved, in the space of one stanza, from the “now” of the modern moment, through “Peruvian mines” and “Indian compounds,” to “a disused shed in Co. Wexford, / Deep in the grounds of a burnt-out hotel” where a “thousand mushrooms crowd to a keyhole.” Hidden from thought and view, trapped outside history in the dank shadows, what should the mushrooms “do there but desire? / So many days beyond the rhododendrons / With the world waltzing in its bowl of clowd, / They have learnt patience and silence,” awaiting an “expropriated mycologist” who “never came back.” Voices of suffering and dread, these beings hymn a chorus of forgetfulness. With a casual turn of his ragged blank verse, Mahon blurs the poem's perspective to reveal a moment seen from inside the gilled caps, the mushy little craniums, of these sentient toadstools:

There have been deaths, the pale flesh flaking
Into the earth that nourished it;
And nightmares, born of these and the grim
Dominion of stale air and rank moisture.
Those nearest the door grow strong—
“Elbow room! Elbow room!”
The rest, dim in a twilight of crumbling
Utensils and broken pitchers, groaning
For their deliverance, have been so long
Expectant that there is left only the posture.
A half century, without visitors, in the dark—
Poor preparation for the cracking lock
And creak of hinges; magi, moonmen,
Powdery prisoners of the old regime,
Web-throated, stalked like triffids, racked by drought
And insomnia, only the ghost of a scream
At the flash-bulb firing-squad we wake them with
Shows there is life yet in their feverished forms.
Grown beyond nature now, soft food for worms,
They lift frail heads in gravity and good faith.

The violent intrusion of the we registers more dramatically after such deep identification with the torpor of shroom and gloom; we are tourists, armed with cameras, among the primeval citizens of decay, and we think of ourselves, like them, crying for elbow room in a world of nightmares. If the reader catches a whiff of allegory in these stanzas, it is because Mahon figures his subjects so grandly that, in the final stanza, they become the mythical corpses of a past that demands recognition:

They are begging us, you see, in their wordless way,
To do something, to speak on their behalf
Or at least not to close the door again.
Lost people of Treblinka and Pompeii!
“Save us, save us,” they seem to say,
“Let the god not abandon us
Who have come so far in darkness and in pain.
You with your light meter and relaxed itinerary,
Let not our naïve labours have been in vain!”

Those who have worked so hard at staying alive deserve more than a last word from the graveyard, and those who live have a responsibility not to turn their backs. In a lesser poet, these might register as platitudes, but the sweep of continental breadth with which the poem opens is so carefully focused by that camera obscura, that we do not resist the evocation of European disaster. Such a gathering of poetic force constitutes much more than naïve labor. The poem's conclusion arrives, as Frost says it must, riding on its own melting “like a piece of ice on a hot stove.”

Mahon corrals a similar sense of inevitability in the austere twelve lines of “Everything Is Going to Be Alright,” a lyric held together with the fragile glue of a few “ands” and “buts”:

How should I not be glad to contemplate
the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window
and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?
There will be dying, there will be dying,
but there is no need to go into that.
The lines flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart.
The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be alright.

The poem opens with seven convoluted monosyllables, awkward and ungainly, the poet tripping over his own desire to will the poem's title—a statement of belief—into being. Then the cumbersome word contemplate blares its consonants like a stop sign. Given such a rhetorical ramp, it is hard to know if a real question is revving its engines. The opening lines frame an ambiguous proposal—is it not “alright” for a poet to long for glad contemplation, for the mind to clear and fill again like the reflected landscape? Is it wrong to hope for collected tranquility under the circumstances? In either case, the facts pronounced next must be recorded. The somber refrain “There will be dying” arrives “unbidden” from the “watchful heart.” But from that “hidden source” pumps music that the speaker, trying to maintain a more superficial observation, wants to sing over. Two competing choirs, contrapuntal mediums of desire, are present, suspending the poem between funeral and reverie. The entire poem is quietly tugged by such paradoxical extremes. Though the “sun rises in spite of everything,” even that, by the poem's end, becomes caught in this balancing act, so the sunlight is a “riot” and the day threatens to “break.” But what is breaking here is nothing less than the poet's barely maintained optimism. It is almost impossible to believe that last line, though a reader wants to believe it, and the force of rhyme (“bright … sunlight … right”) is on his side. The poem is not overtly impressive; its tact is so softly mannered, we might mistake it for something drab in the midst of Mahon's usually baroque textures.

Mahon is frequently lauded as an Apollonian versifier, but a poem like “Everything Is Going to Be Alright” proves that he is equally comfortable without golden wings. This same versatility is evident in the beautifully modulated free verse of “The Mayo Tao,” a poem thick enough with agrarian assertions to read like a lost Irish chapter of Walden. “I have abandoned the dream kitchens for a low fire / and a prescriptive literature of the spirit,” the poem begins: “The nearest shop is four miles away.” We are not told what the speaker has escaped from, but we find him in the midst of retreat to a landscape teeming with facts and odd society:

My days are spent in conversation
with deer and blackbirds;
At night fox and badger gather at my door.
I have stood for hours
watching a salmon doze in the tea-gold dark,
for months listening to the sob story
of a stone in the road, the best,
most monotonous sob story I have ever heard.

Measured in increments of attention, recuperation of the muse follows nothing less than a blossoming of the senses. Overawed with doubt at every turn, this poet of terminal ironies comes closer than ever to a confession of faith:

I am an expert on frost crystals
and the silence of crickets, a confidant
of the stinking shore, the stars in the mud—
there is an immanence in these things
which drives me, despite my scepticism,
almost to the point of speech,
like sunlight cleaving the lake mist in morning
or when tepid water
runs cold from the tap.

Such quiet evocations are made quieter still by the inclusion of that perfectly placed almost. What other word would be so perfect to follow “scepticism” in this context? Even the somewhat overdetermined image of light and water begs a gesture of self-correction; yet the alternative final image—a common faucet—expands like a rebuttal to Coleridge's famous lines from “Dejection: An Ode”: “I may not hope from outward forms to win / The passion and the life, whose fountains are within.” For this poet, at least for one moment, the outward forms are plenty to set the fountains running again.

A lesser poet might end with that slight crescendo, but Mahon is not content until the speaker has been restored to his proper pianissimo:

I have been working for years
On a four-line poem
About the life of a leaf;
I think it might come out right this winter.

The working life demands such homage and self-deprecation, the willingness to condition certain certainties with a barely hopeful “I think” and the desire to push the pen ahead nevertheless. The rest of us would be lucky to know such labor.


Mahon, Derek (Contemporary Literary Criticism)