Seamus Heaney: ‘Storm on the Island’ Mr Bruff Analysis


Hello everybody and welcome to this video
where I’m going to analyse the Seamus Heaney poem ‘Storm on the Island’. As always,
please give this video a thumbs up, and subscribe to the channel. So let’s begin with the poet Seamus Heaney.
And when you’re analysing a poem, you don’t just want to write down any old detail about
the poet. You just want to look at what are the details from the poet’s life that help
us to understand the poem itself, in this case ‘Storm on the Island’. So Heaney was born in 1939 and died in 2013.
Those dates will be significant, and I’ll explain them later. He was a Northern Irish
poet, playwright, and translator. And his early poetry ‘Storm on the Island’ is
an early poem, focused often on rural life and matters of identity and ancestry. So ‘Storm on the Island’ was published
in Heaney’s first poetry collection ‘Death of a Naturalist’, and the publishing history
of this is quite interesting, and it’ll help us to understand the form of the poem. So, basically, Heaney had three poems which
were published in 1964 in the New Statesman, and one of those was ‘Storm on the Island’
along with ‘Digging’ and ‘Scaffolding’. The following month, the Faber and Faber editor
Charles Monteith approached Heaney and asked him to send him some poems to look for publication.
And that eventually led to his first book, ‘Death of a Naturalist’. And this is really important because getting
signed up to Faber and Faber was a big deal for Heaney. It led to him getting some really
prestigious jobs and everything else that happened to him. So the publication of the
three poems, one of which was ‘Storm on the Island’ is really significant. Now I’m talking about that because the context
of the publishing and the context of how these poems were written is important in helping
us understand the poem. ‘Storm on the Island’ is one of three poems within ‘Death of a
Naturalist’ which was written about the Aran Islands, a group of three islands on
the west coast of Ireland. In ‘Death of a Naturalist’, ‘Storm on
the Island’ follows ‘Synge on Aran’, a poem similar in many ways which describes
the power of nature on the Aran Islands. And this contextual detail is important later,
again, when we explore the form of the poem. So I’m going to explore two different interpretations
of this poem ‘Storm on the Island’. There are actually lots of different interpretations.
You can look at it as a love poem about two people in love and the metaphor of their relationship.
But, as you’re probably studying this poem from the power and conflict cluster, I’m going
to look at two ways of interpreting the poem which are relevant to that. So it’s possible to look at the idea of this
being a poem about power because it’s a poem about the power of nature, with the literal
interpretation of the poem being about a storm which hits a house on the Aran Islands. And
this picture on the left here is actually one of the Aran islands, gives you an idea
of the setting. Secondly though, on the right, we can focus
more on the conflict aspect of the poem, which can be read as a metaphor for the conflict
in Northern Ireland. But before we get there, let’s look at a literal
interpretation of the poem. The content is quite complex, so I’ll offer a translation
into simple English to get us started. We are prepared: we build our houses squat,
Sink walls in rock and roof them with good slate.
So the speaker is telling us that – we never really know who the ‘we’ is – ‘We
are ready. We build our houses short and wide to withstand the powerful wind. We lay firm
foundations, and we build strong roofs.’ The wisened earth has never troubled us
With hay, so as you can see, there are no stacks
Or stooks that can be lost. Nor are there trees
Which might prove company when it blows full Blast: you know what I mean – leaves and branches
Can raise a chorus in a gale So that you can listen to the thing you fear
Forgetting that it pummels your house too. So the narrator is saying, ‘Where we live,
the earth is so dried up and shrivelled, we’ve never been able to farm to grow crops. So
there’s no threat of losing the hay that we’ve grown because we don’t have the conditions
for farming. And, as you can see, there’s no hay or corn here that could be lost in
the storm. There aren’t trees either, which, if we did have trees, they could keep us company
during the storm because of the sounds that are made as the wind blasts through their
branches and leaves, which can be a very loud noise. And that kind of noise allows you to
listen to what you’re afraid of and forget that it’s attacking your house at the same
time.’ But there are no trees, no natural shelter.
You might think that the sea is company, Exploding comfortably down on the cliffs
But no: when it begins, the flung spray hits The very windows, spits like a tame cat
Turned savage. So, ‘there are no trees; there’s no shelter.
And you might imagine that the sea down by the cliffs there will keep us company as it
splashes away on the cliffs. But no, it doesn’t keep us company because, when the storm begins,
the waves smash against our windows. The spray of the waves hits our windows, suddenly changing
from something comforting into something vicious.’ We just sit tight while wind dives
And strafes invisibly. Space is a salvo. We are bombarded by the empty air.
Strange, it is a huge nothing that we fear. This last bit is, as with a lot of the poems
in the anthology, a little bit ambiguous now but, ‘We just wait patiently indoors while
the storm whirls around us outside. The wind is invisible as if what we fear is non-existent.’ So, to summarise then, the narrator of the
poem describes how well-prepared he and others are for a coming storm. They’ve built their
houses to withstand the battering that they’re going to take. But as the poem progresses,
this confidence begins to dwindle. The narrator becomes more and more desperate. Now, as always, we aim to analyse language,
structure, and form when we’re looking at a poem. And structure and form are the more
sophisticated lines of analysis, so I’m not going to go through every bit of language
in this poem. the simile ‘spits like a tame cat’, some of the more obvious things that
you might have picked up on in your own reading. I’m going to try and look at the more complex
things. If we see this poem, then, as a presentation
of the uncontrollable power of nature, it compares nicely to ‘Extract from The Prelude’
by William Wordsworth. And much of the poem structure really reflects the uncomfortable
and uncontrollable aspect of nature. So, as I said, there are two interpretations
– the power of nature or the Northern Ireland conflict. I’m just talking about the first
one to begin with. So if you look at the poem on the screen now,
the poem consists of one long stanza, one long verse, which is actually made up of many
long and complex sentences. If you read the poem aloud, you realise there’s not much room
to stop for breath as the poem progresses. So, both the lack of stanza breaks and the
lack of breathing space reflects the overwhelming situation the speaker finds themselves in.
It is a non-stop barrage. There’s no start time to stop and pause and think and breathe,
and that is very much what it’s like being in the danger of this storm. Similarly, the poem contains on enjambment
where the sentences run over into separate lines. Here’s an example where a single sentence
spans six lines: Nor are there trees
Which might prove company when it blows full Blast: you know what I mean – leaves and branches
Can raise a chorus in a gale So that you can listen to the thing you fear
Forgetting that it pummels your house too. So Heaney’s use of enjambment, like the use
of one long stanza, like the use of very long sentences, creates a constant barrage of information
which reflects the constant barrage of the storm on the house. So it’s not enough to just spot the device.
You’ve got to actually link it to the meaning. And if we’re looking at the power of nature,
that overwhelming constant barrage is reflected through the structural choices. Some things seem a little bit confusing though.
In the midst of this power, Heaney uses everyday language such as ‘you know what I mean’.
And this contrast between the language of conflict and power and the language of everyday
life seems oxymoronic. It doesn’t seem to make sense. But, perhaps, it’s used to simply
suggest that this is everyday life to the narrator, as awful as it sounds to us. And
this is further demonstrated when Heaney uses the oxymoron ‘exploding comfortably’.
And these two words don’t seem to make sense together, but they reflect how the speaker
has made sense of the conflict-filled world in which he lives, even if it might not make
sense to us, or how he’s used to this very conflicted, contrasting way of life. This sense of the storm being nothing new
for the narrator is reflected in the poem’s rhyme scheme. The poem contains very little
in the way of rhyme. Its lack of control is reflected, once again, in the lack of rhyme.
It’s an uncontrollable storm, and, in many ways, the poem itself lacks control. However, there is some half rhyme in the opening
and closing couplets. So if we look at the first couplet here:
We are prepared: we build our houses squat, Sink walls in rock and roof them with good
slate. That’s an example of half rhyme. I taught
before about half rhyme, but it’s where the stressed syllables of the end consonants rhyme,
but the vowel sounds before them do not. Now, this is a bit confusing, so let me show you
what I mean with ‘squat’ and ‘slate’. The final consonant sound is that [t] sound
in ‘squat’ and ‘slate’. It’s the same sound, so there’s some rhyme taking place.
But the vowel sound before is different. In ‘squat’, it’s the [wha] sound. And in
‘slate’, it’s the [ei] sound. So that’s a half rhyme because the consonant sounds
rhyme but not the vowel sounds that go before them. And we see the same in the final two lines
of the poem. We’re bombarded by the empty air.
Strange, it is a huge nothing that we fear. Look at ‘air’ and ‘fear’. Both have
the same consonant sound at the end, the ‘r’ sound, the [ruh] sound. But the vowel sounds
are different. In ‘air’, we’ve got the [eh] vowel sound. And in ‘fear’, we’ve
got the ‘e’ vowel sound. So there are two things to explore here. We
get no marks for just saying that half rhyme is used. We’ve got to think about, ‘How
can we link the use of half rhyme to the overwhelming power of the storm and what the poem is explaining?’ Well, the use of half rhyme ties in with the
other usages in the poem. The wild storm refuses to be controlled or organised, so only a half
rhyme is possible amidst the chaos. Healy probably knew that to use full rhyme here
would have been too perfect, too obvious, too explicit and too very much different to
the rest of the poem. It would be too perfect for a representation of the chaos of the storm.
But the bigger question is, why have any rhyme at all? And I think the answer lies in where
the rhyme occurs at the start and the end. So, in terms of the rhyme pattern, the poem
ends as it begins, with a half-rhyming couplet. And this gives the poem that cyclical structure,
creating a sense that the storm is inescapable and will continue to occur time and time again;
that this is just a way of life for the narrator and the other people, whoever they are, in
the poem. Pretty clever that. I love Heaney’s use of rhyme. I analysed his poem ‘Follower’
on this channel too – very similar things taking place in that poem. Now, the form. I’m going to suggest, tentatively,
that this is a dramatic monologue. Many people assume that ‘Storm on the Island’ is just
describing a moment in Heaney’s life. And this is why I said it’s important to know
that this is a poem about the Aran Islands. And a number of Irish writers historically
have written about the Aran Islands, seeing them as a link to the historical past of Island.
The Aran Islands contains some of the oldest archaeological remains in Ireland. So, the poem can be seen as typical of early
Heaney, in that it explores both rural life and identity. Not through an experience Heaney
had, but through a historical view of ancestry and past. Healy has commented before how,
in his autobiographical poems, they’re written in the first-person pronoun ‘I’, but how
poems presented with the pronoun ‘we’ present a wider cultural experience. So ‘Storm on the Island’ can be read as
an example of a dramatic monologue then. A dramatic monologue is a poem where we have
a single person talking to someone else, but the speaker is not the poet and the listener
is silent throughout. So, essentially, it means that we’re listening to a one-way conversation.
And it’s a form which allows us to identify the speaker’s character from what they say. So, the poem does fit those conventions of
a dramatic monologue. Heaney is taking on the persona of an Islander describing the
horrors of the storm. You could say there are some things missing. It’s not as long
as your typical dramatic monologue, and we don’t have this gradual reveal of a sinister
underlying plot, as we do in a lot of dramatic monologues like ‘My Last Duchess’, ‘Porphyria’s
Lover’. But the other elements are certainly there. So, we could say that it at least adheres
to some of the conventions of the dramatic monologue. And the question, again, would
be, ‘Well, why?’ Well, the form presents a one-sided view of
everything. There’s no equality in a dramatic monologue. We literally hear nothing from
one side of the conversation. So, perhaps, we could say the dramatic monologue form reflects
the imbalance in the relationship between the speaker and nature. There is only one
dominant voice in that relationship. And the lack of voice suggests that nature is indifferent
to what’s going on. It really doesn’t care that it batters the narrator’s home and fills
him with fear. So those are some of the ways we can look
at this as a power poem about the power of nature. But we can also see the poem as being
a poem about the conflict in Ireland and Northern Ireland. So, I’m just going to spend two minutes
giving you the context of the troubles in Ireland. I asked my good friend Pete, who
is Irish, to send me an email explaining this. And the poor guy, I didn’t realise it was
going to end up being a 20,000-word essay. It’s a complex story, but I’ll give you a
two-minute overview. So in the late 12th century, Britain invaded
and took over Ireland, beginning small-scale immigration with Lords coming over and settling
the land. Now, obviously, the people in Ireland were not happy with that, and this began a
series of small uprising and conflicts all over the country where the Irish were essentially
kicking off against their oppressors. But in the sixteenth century, things went up a
notch. Huge tracts of land were confiscated and settled by planters who made plantations.
And this had the effect of uprooting the traditional culture and injecting British and Protestant
communities and identities. Now the planters were from all over Britain,
and the ones who settled in Northern Ireland were largely Protestants from Scotland. So
the Irish rose up and threw the Brits out in the 16th century. And the Irish were able
to clear three provinces, but the Ulster Scots held on. In 1922 Southern Ireland became a
separate country outside of the UK, and Northern Ireland stayed part of the UK. And Heaney
was born shortly after this in 1939, which is why it’s so important to know when he was
born, what he was living through, and when he was writing this poem. Now, speaking in very general terms, there
were the Protestants who considered themselves British and wanted Northern Ireland to remain
in the United Kingdom. And opposed to this were the Catholics who wanted to leave the
UK and have a united Ireland. And Catholics in Northern Ireland – Heaney was one of
those – might face persecution from the police and government in Northern Ireland. So in the 60s when Heaney was writing this
poem, Northern Ireland was filled with sectarian problems. There was a civil rights movement
for the Irish Catholics, and the goals were to end discrimination against the Catholics.
So, one example is that not everybody had one vote at the time. In Northern Ireland,
business owners got two votes. And most business owners were Protestant. So there was a real
sense of injustice and unfairness. Now the unionists, who were loyal to the Queen, kicked
off against that civil rights movement, and that led to the formation of the paramilitary
IRA. And this was a group set up to protect the besieged Catholics of the north, but they
also had an agenda to drive the British out of through a bombing and terror campaign. In 1998 we had the Good Friday Agreement,
which was supposedly the ending of the troubles. But of course, as everybody is aware, it’s
still going on today. There’s still sectarian tensions and, maybe not all-out conflict,
but definitely still problems. So to sum it up because I know it’s confusing,
you’ve got to look at the mentalities involved. The Irish mentality is that ‘the British
came in, stole our land. We fought for over 800 years to get them out and managed it with
the formation of the Free State in 1922, with the exception of Northern Ireland.’ But,
of course, all the British people who came over in the informal plantations came to see
themselves as Irish. Their families were born and raised in Ireland, and there’s this tension
that’s still there. So that’s the context you need to know. “So why does the poem have anything to do
with that?” I hear you ask. Well, look at the title ‘Storm on the Island’. The first
eight letters of the title spell ‘Stormont’ which is the name given to the Parliament
Buildings in Ireland. So there is a definite link between the poem and politics. Now, you might not be convinced by that, so
let’s look for some more political conflict content in the poem. In terms of a structure
analysis, all of the structure points that I’ve already made about this being about the
power of nature, the relentless inescapable nature of the attack of the storm, can also
be applied to the idea of conflict in this interpretation too. So I don’t need to repeat
those ideas, but the enjambment, the one long stanza, and the lack of punctuation, and the
cyclical rhyme scheme, all of those things can be applied to the nature of the troubles
in Northern Ireland, the conflict in Ireland. But there are some differences when it comes
to language as well. When talking about language, Heaney once said in 1972 in The Guardian that
the poet’s skill ‘lies in the summoning and meshing of the subconscious and semantic
energies of words’. That’s a great quotation which points to the fact that multiple meanings
can be taken out of words and phrases in poetry. So let’s have a look at some of the language
choices that seem to suggest this is a poem about the conflict in Northern Ireland. Why
does the poet use the pronoun ‘we’? Well, one interpretation is that it reflects a sense
of solidarity between, in this case, the Catholics. Any sense of ‘we’ or ‘us’ suggests
with it a sense of ‘them’. So the language choice here suggests opposition. But the most
obvious language points to make would be to look at the language of warfare, which is
used within this poem. We’ve got ‘blasts’, ‘pummels’, ‘exploding’, ‘bombarded’.
Those are four examples. There are two others which are a little bit more complex, but ‘strafes’
and ‘salvo’ also, that’s the language of warfare. ‘Strafe’ means ‘to repeatedly
attack with gunfire or bombs’, whereas ‘salvo’ is the ‘simultaneous attack of bombs or
gunfire’. So we’re left with this question – If this poem is just about a storm, why
use numerous references to war? And perhaps it’s because the storm itself
can be read as a metaphor for the violent political troubles that Ireland has experienced.
It’s something you can look at afresh now. Look at the poem afresh and reread the whole
thing in that light and see if you can pick out any of the details. Put them in the comment
section if you do. The final thing that I want to talk about
is the use of blank verse in this poem. So, blank verse is where you have lines of iambic
pentameter with no rhyme. Okay, there’s a tiny little bit of rhyme. But, mostly, there’s
no rhyme, and the lines are in iambic pentameter. Do you remember iambic pentameter? It’s
lines of ten syllables with alternating stressed and unstressed syllables. So,
We are prepared: we build our houses squat You can see here, on the screen, ten syllables.
Every other syllable is stressed. We put the stress
of our pronunciation on it. So this is really interesting to me because why use such a controlled
structure in a poem which is really about the very opposite of control, in a poem which
is either about the power and uncontrollable nature of a storm or the power and uncontrollable
nature of the conflict in Ireland? Well, Heaney once spoke about how he wanted
to find a way of ‘making the central tradition of English poetry, which we’d absorbed in
college and university, absorb our own particular eccentric experience’. Now, as a student of literature yourself,
you’ll no doubt agree that iambic pentameter is certainly a central tradition of English
poetry. So you could say that Heaney is using iambic pentameter very cleverly because he
wants to use, as he puts it here, the tradition of English poetry, but he wants to infuse
it with his own Irish ancestry and experience here. And what I like as well is that you could
talk about how there’s a real mixture here of the very English iambic pentameter and
also the everyday Irish talk, as I talked about so far, the sort of conversational ‘you
know what I mean’. So we’ve got two things juxtaposed, two opposites
put together – the very English iambic pentameter and the everyday Irish talk. And that could,
of course, reflect the conflict between the Irish and the English. Heaney said, in the
past, that he writes in iambic pentameter for less intense stuff. So the use in this
poem certainly does seem to be deliberate and complex. And if we’re thinking about this
in terms of conflict between Ireland and Northern Ireland, Catholic and Protestant, then what
better way than to use a very Irish setting and very Irish conversational phrases but,
also, the very English iambic pentameter to represent that conflict? Now, you might think that’s too far-fetched.
And you can go for a similar interpretation, that the contrast between the wild storm and
the control of the poet reflects the contrast between the opposing sides in the troubles,
or the contrast between the weather and the narrator in the power storm-based interpretation.
And, again, if you’ve got a better idea, put it in the comments below. But those are my thoughts on this poem. As
I said, I’ve not gone through every image, every word, every phrase, because I think
some of them are more obvious than others. But if you can analyse structure and form,
if you can look at alternative interpretations, different ways of viewing the poem, then you’re
setting yourself up for an excellent grade in any exam. Please do subscribe to the channel, guys,
and thanks for watching.

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