Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2179
“The Singer’s House” starts out with the reaction of the speaker, Heaney, to the reference of an outside group—the unidentified, “they.” This group has spoken of Carrickfergus, a medieval city in County Antrim, on the eastern coast of Northern Ireland. Carrickfergus is known for its rich deposit of rock salt that was mined extensively from the 1850s until the early part of this century. When Heaney was writing the poem in the 1970s, many of the salt mines in Carrickfergus had already been abandoned. However, in one of his explanatory footnotes to the poem in the 1991 reprint of Field Work, Heaney makes no mention of this, saying only that: “There are salt-mines at the town of Carrickfergus in Co. Antrim.” Instead, the reader must infer from the poem that the salt mines are mainly an item from the past.
This idea is emphasized by “the frosty echo of saltminers’ picks,” a phrase that hearkens back to a time in Ireland’s history when the salt mines were active. Heaney may be considering this echo “frosty” for a couple of reasons. As part of Northern Ireland, Carrickfergus is subject to the same winter climate as the rest of northern Europe. Also, because the echo is from the past, it is only a memory of a heritage that has grown cold. In any case, Heaney continues his reconstruction of this past, giving the sound of the saltminers’ picks a physical form in his imagination, as it becomes “chambered and glinting,” a reference to the crystalline nature of rock salt. The poet continues sketching out the image in his mind, and the sound becomes “a township built of light.” The image of light in poetry is often used to denote goodness or happiness. Collectively, this stanza invokes a nostalgic image of a mystical, happy society.
In this stanza, Heaney’s pleasant memory of the saltminers is abruptly terminated, as he comes back into the present, the 1970s, when he is writing the poem during his self-imposed exile from Northern Ireland. Heaney uses the idea of salt mining as a transition between the past and the present, asking: “What do we say any more / to conjure the salt of our earth?” This sentence works on two levels. Literally, the sentence laments the loss of the salt mines in Carrickfergus. However, the subtext— or hidden meaning—of the sentence offers a lament for the increasing loss of Irish language and culture as a result of England’s colonization of Ireland. Up until this point, the use of Irish Gaelic had been preserved mainly by “the salt of our earth.” The salt of the earth is a common phrase used to indicate the working classes that help to provide an economic and cultural foundation in a society. As Heaney notes in the next two lines, “So much comes and is gone / that should be crystal and kept.” The rate of deterioration of Irish language and culture is rapid. Once again, there is a double meaning on the word, “crystal,” which invokes the image of the rock salt once again, but which also implies something valuable— Irish traditions—that should be saved.
In this stanza, Heaney builds on the theme of change. The first two lines—“and amicable weathers / that bring up the grain of things”—offer a contrast to the “frosty echo” from the first stanza. Amicable, or friendly, weather usually implies sunny days, which in this case helps to raise grains. However, the words “bring up,” an odd choice for talking about the growth of crops, serve a deeper meaning. They invoke an image of bringing up, or raising, a family—the “grain” of society. But this is not a positive connotation, as the next two lines indicate: “their tang of season and store, / are all the packing we’ll get.” The way these two lines are written, it produces an image of monotony. In British-controlled Northern Ireland, where Irish language and culture have been continuously suppressed, the years go by blandly, the only “tang,” or spice, being the passing seasons—as marked by the crops that are continually grown and stored. These things “are all” that Heaney and others who are living in Northern Ireland have for “packing,” a word that is in itself very telling. Grain and other crops are usually stored in tightly packed containers such as silos. The word’s inclusion in the last line of this stanza gives it a greater meaning. Packing also denotes travel, underscoring the fact that many Irish nationalists, especially Catholics, have left Northern Ireland, like Heaney has done.
At the beginning of this stanza, Heaney has moved, and more importantly, is resolving to move on. Since the northern city of Carrickfergus is no longer a possible home for many Irish nationalists, Heaney says to himself, “Gweebarra.” In the same footnote mentioned above in the 1991 reprint edition of Field Work, Heaney notes that “Gweebarra is the name of a river and a bay in Co. Donegal.” Once again, Heaney offers little explanation as to why he contrasts “Carrickfergus” with “Gweebarra” in the poem, but his intentions can be inferred by geographical divisions in the northern half of Ireland. County Donegal is one of three counties in the northern portion of Ireland that is not included in the official, British province of Northern Ireland. Just as Heaney is in a self-imposed physical exile in a cottage in the Republic of Ireland, many other Irish nationalists have experienced a similar physical, and cultural, exile. But if he is going to leave his home, Heaney will try to find a way to recreate the Irish culture in his new home.
Heaney notes that when he says “Gweebarra,” “its music hits off the place / like water hitting off granite.” Gweebarra has a beauty of its own, and in his mind, he once again reconstructs an image, like the “township built of light” from the first stanza. Instead of a saltminer’s pick hitting salt, however, the image is one more suited to Gweebarra Bay, which features a number of granite cliffs. Nevertheless, the “glittering sound” created from the sea spray hitting the cliffs in this new location, mimics the “chambered and glinting” sound from the first stanza. In the process, Heaney shows that the Irish people can begin to reclaim their lost heritage, by letting memories of Northern Ireland fade, while accepting the lands that they have in the Republic and re-creating their heritage there.
In this stanza, Heaney carries over the “glittering sound” from the last stanza, saying that he can see it “framed in your window.” The “your” who Heaney refers to is his friend, David Hammond, a singer. Heaney wrote this poem for Hammond, following an incident one night. The two were setting up to record some songs and poems for a radio show, when they were interrupted by the sound of a number of explosions, followed by sirens—signs of the ongoing sectarian, or politically extreme, violence in Northern Ireland. Hammond felt that his songs were powerless against this type of violence and that it was offensive to the victims, and canceled the recording session as a result. At this point in the poem, Heaney is drawing Hammond into his image of a healed society that hearkens back to the past. He imagines himself at Hammond’s house, looking out the window. The poet describes “knives and forks set on oilcloth,” a highly civilized picture that contrasts sharply with the other earthy images of salt, grain, and sea spray. This noticeable difference once again points to the loss of traditional Irish culture for the more “civilized” English culture. However, Heaney quickly draws Hammond, and his readers, outside once again, into nature, where “the seals’ heads, suddenly outlined,” are “scanning everything.”
Stanza Six Heaney now begins to speak in nostalgic terms once more, as he did in the beginning, saying that: “People here used to believe / that drowned souls lived in the seals.” Heaney’s use of seals references the Celtic legend of the Selchies, gray Atlantic seals who could turn into humans—and vice versa. This legend was particularly popular in Gweebarra and other coastal areas of County Donegal, where people’s lives were tied to the sea. However, this myth, like many Irish myths, began to die out in the twentieth century when the educational system in Ireland pressured children to speak in English. At the same time, many of the younger generations had no desire to adhere to old traditions, preferring more modern radio broadcasts. These combined circumstances helped to supplant the traditional storytelling that had been used to pass the Selchie stories from generation to generation.
The legend of the Selchies is further examined by Heaney’s next line: “At spring tides they might change shape.” Here, Heaney is using his ability as a poet and storyteller to try to invoke the legend once again. The use of the word “spring” is particularly noticeable, since poets often use spring and springtime as a symbol for a rebirth. In the natural cycle, spring is the season of growth that follows the cold death of winter. In the poem, “the frosty echo” of the saltminers’ picks, words that invoke an image of winter, is dead. However, in the rebirth of spring, things have the potential to change. Just as the Selchies have the ability to change shape, Hammond has the ability to take up his traditional songs once again for the cause of renewing Irish language and culture. The final line in the stanza emphasizes this, saying of the seals that “They loved music and swam in for a singer.” The drowned souls of the Irish, who have been flooded by the massive assimilation of English language and culture, can be recovered if an Irish singer—Hammond—will sing his songs to them once again.
This possibility for change is emphasized in the next line, when Heaney says the singer “might stand at the end of summer.” The “might” implies that Hammond has the option to take a “stand,” by singing his songs once again. Heaney also changes the season from spring in the last sentence to summer in this sentence. This is telling, since summer symbolizes the natural progression of growth that happens after the rebirth of spring. Heaney is saying that if Hammond takes a stand and raises his voice in song once again, Irish culture will one day grow strong again. The next image, Hammond standing “in the mouth of a whitewashed turfshed,” invokes the image of a clean, “whitewashed,” start that is based on Irish traditions. In America, turf generally refers to grass. However, Heaney’s use of the word, “turf,” refers to peat— a spongy energy source that is found in the many bogs in Ireland. The harvesting of peat into blocks that can be dried out and burned is an established tradition in Ireland. Heaney uses this earthy and recognizable image to contrast with the British modern convenience of “knives and forks set on oilcloth” in the fifth stanza. The poet continues the transformation of Hammond in his poem, as he places the singer with “his shoulder to the jamb, his song / a rowboat far out in evening.” The image of the singer is one of support, helping to shoulder the load of reviving Irish culture. Hammond does this by sending his song out on a journey, a cultural rowboat that will presumably help to spread the influence of traditional Irish culture.
In the last stanza, Heaney sums up his appeal to Hammond by referencing how Hammond used to sing—“When I came here first you were always singing,” implying that he does not sing any longer. Heaney says that Hammond’s Irish songs, sung in the harsh sounds of Gaelic, echo the “clip of the pick” from the first stanza. Heaney uses the style of Hammond’s singing, “your winnowing climb and attack,” as a means for telling him that he needs to fight for Irish language and culture. This will be a difficult “climb,” and the use of the word “attack” suggests that it could be dangerous. Irish nationalists who were vocal during the Troubles often got threatened or killed. Heaney asks Hammond to “Raise it again, man,” signifying that Hammond should use his “pick,” his singing voice, again, in the old style. Heaney’s last sentence, “We still believe what we hear,” implies that if Hammond will sing his Irish music again, he can help to resurrect Irish beliefs, which are not dead yet. “The singer’s house” referred to by the title is ultimately the one that Hammond can help provide for his Irish people, who have been physically and culturally displaced from their traditional homes by the influence of English language and culture. Through the healing and reviving powers of poetry and song, however, Heaney and Hammond can help to revive the lost Irish traditions, a loss that has been magnified by the strife in Northern Ireland.
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