Michael Longley Andrew Motion - Essay

Andrew Motion

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In the past, Longley's strong point has always been his lyricism—largely because he has never allowed elegance to inhibit plainspeaking. And the same is true of the best poems in The Echo Gate; 'Dead Men's Fingers', typically, reinforces amorous exultation by relating it to the phenomenal world with a kind of excited tenderness…. Elsewhere the objects chosen to play a part in negotiations between spirit and flesh are more conventionally romantic—which invariably means rural. Hillsides, lakes, snow and wild flowers recur with particular frequency, and gather considerable symbolic value as the book proceeds. While this obviously enriches them in one respect, it also threatens their naturalism, and subverts the very function that Longley wishes them to perform. Rather than manifesting his commitment to the world around him they risk suggesting a withdrawal from it into artifice. 'Lore', 'Entomology' and 'Botany' look suspiciously like souvenirs from Innisfree.

Fortunately The Echo Gate's patches of prettiness are too few and far between to detract from the gravity of the main concern: mutability. Poem after poem deals with this in some form—usually by recording transformations within nature. A lapwing's vocal chords become 'a grass blade stretched / Between your thumbs', 'barbed wire rusts / To hay-ropes strung with thorns', and the four-line poem 'Thaw' is a miniature but extremely beautiful summary of the process…. Given that Longley sees change more or less wherever he looks, it's not surprising to find him making repeated efforts to establish its opposite. The title poem, 'Home Ground' and 'Mayo Monologues' all seek to define—in various geographical terms—the same sense of permanence that his love poems show him looking for in human relationships. Clearly, there's a political dimension to this. His imagination may be excited by flux, but his heart is set on stability—the more so because of the Troubles which jeopardise it. In this sense, at least, Longley is a war poet, though he's probably fed up with being called one. And the kind of war poetry he writes is one sanctioned by someone whose good influence looms large in the book—Edward Thomas. It has more in it 'of the talk of friends or lovers' than 'the shouting of rhetorician, reciter or politician'.

Andrew Motion, "Burning Snow," in New Statesman (© 1980 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 99, No. 2547, January 11, 1980, p. 61.∗