I’ve been so busy and my Irish Poem of the Week page has been the victim of my neglect. I could name a view other areas of my life which could do with a bit more attention as well but I don’t want to bore you before you get to this beautiful poem by Louis MacNeice. Essentially, it’s about the father/son relationship – a recurring theme in Irish literature which many critics have linked to Ireland’s status as a former British colony. I’m more inclined to say that since our parents are usually our major objects of early attachment and identification, it’s only natural that writers of all nationalities will refer to mothers and fathers in their work. Here’s the poem followed by a brief commentary.
White Tintoretto clouds beneath my naked feet,
This mirror of wet sand imputes a lasting mood
To island truancies; my steps repeat
Someone’s who now has left such strands for good
Carrying his boots and paddling like a child,
A square black figure whom the horizon understood –
My father. Who for all his responsibly compiled
Account books of a devout, precise routine
Kept something in him solitary and wild,
So loved the western sea and no tree’s green
Fulfilled him like these contours of Slievemore
Menaun and Croaghaun and the bogs between.
Sixty-odd years behind him and twelve before,
Eyeing the flange of steel in the turning belt of brine
It was sixteen years ago he walked this shore
And the mirror caught his shape which catches mine
But then as now the floor-mop of the foam
Blotted the bright reflections – and no sign
Remains of face or feet when visitors have gone home.
Louis MacNeice (1907 – 63)
MacNeice focuses on his father’s mortality and indeed the inevitable death of all human beings. The central image is the black, square figure of his father, looking to the horizon from the west coast of Ireland which he loved. MacNeice’s biography shows that he felt constrained by the rules and regulations which were inevitable as the son of a Bishop (his father was a clergyman in the Protestant Church of Ireland). Here, he acknowledges that MacNeice senior had a hidden wildness which was at odds with the highly disciplined public life he must have lived. He also identifies strongly with his father in the lines referring to the wet sand as a mirror which catches the father’s and now the son’s ‘shape’. Both presences are fleeting as death will claim the poet just as it claimed the father.
Seamus Heaney nods respectfully to MacNeice in his poem from The Spirit Level (1996), also entitled ‘The Strand’. But there is a major difference. In MacNeices’s poem all traces of his father are washed away, but Heaney describes the dotted line his father’s ashplant stick made as, ‘… something else the tide won’t wash away’. Heaney’s lyric therefore suggests paternal permanence in the psyche whereas McNeice’s poem is more indicative of an escape from the influence of his father.
It’s also interesting to note that the Heaney poem uses Sandymount Strand in Dublin as a setting and I am reminded of Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s Ulysses: ‘Am I walking into eternity along Sandymount strand?’ As always, when studying Irish poetry, there are inter-textual aspects which make the reading so much richer.
Note: ‘The Strand’ by Louis MacNeice first appeared in Holes in the Sky in 1948 but is dated 1945.