“Derek Mahon explores people and places in his own distinctive
Write your response to this statement supporting your points with the aid of suitable
reference to the poems you have studied.
Day Trip to
Throughout my study of Mahon’s poetry, I was struck by how important explorations of people and places were to him. His poetic style can be considered quite detached as he rarely divulges personal details or experiences. Instead, his poetry focuses on detailed portraits of memorable characters and insightful analyses of a wide variety of landscapes.
In “Ecclesiastes”, Mahon describes the mentality of a stern Protestant preacher in vivid terms. Unlike many of his poems,“Ecclesiastes” is not written in a strict form. Instead, it mirrors spoken language and flows at a brisk pace, making great use of enjambment to create this effect. Mahon was brought up in the Protestant community in Northern Ireland and, as such, is well-positioned to offer a critique of some of its more extreme elements. Mahon characterises the severe moral preachers as“God-fearing, God-chosen, purist
little puritans.” He describes how, in order to become like them, he would have to “shelter [his] cold heart from the heat of the world, from woman-inquisition, from the bright eyes of children.” Such preachers “love the January rains when
they darken the dark doors and sink hard into the Antrim hills.” The clever use of alliteration here emphasises the harshness of the lifestyle he is examining. Throughout the poem, Mahon successfully captures the essence of an evangelist while subtly undermining and mocking it.
“After the Titanic” is another of Mahon’s poems that paints a portrait of an unexpected figure. Here, Mahon adopts the persona of Bruce Ismay, President of the White Star Line, who survived the Titanic tragedy which claimed so many lives. Ismay was vilified at a subsequent hearing into the disaster and isolated himself from society. Mahon achieves a remarkable feat in this poem. He gives an authentic voice to Ismay without allowing the poem to become an apology or justification for his behaviour. In his opening statement, Ismay claims, “I sank as far that night as any hero.” Mahon’s skilful manipulation of language means that this rings hollow. Ismay didn’t sink at all– this is the reason he has been shunned. Later in the poem, the sinking of the ship is memorably evoked
through onomatopoeic and alliterative phrases: “a pandemonium of prams, pianos, sideboards, winches, boilers bursting and shredded ragtime.” The literal sinking of the boat is compared to Ismay’s personal sinking in the penultimate line, “My poor soul screams out in the starlight, hear breaks loose and rolls down like a stone.” Again, Mahon undermines Ismay’s version of events. Any man still employing a gardener, as we learn in the middle section of the poem, does not deserve to be considered in the same light as those who perished in an icy sea. His suggestion that he is suffering as much does not carry any weight. By the time I read Ismay’s final word, “Include me in your lamentations,” I had lost all sympathy for him and could see him only as a delusional, self-obsessed
coward. Mahon has managed to give voice to a character while retaining control of our response to the poem. This is achieved in part by his repeated use of I and my throughout the poem and the almost complete disregard for genuine victims. Ismay’s selfishness is the abiding legacy of the poem.
A very different historical character is explored in“Antarctica”. Captain Oates has long been acknowledged as a paragon of courageous
selflessness. Mahon wisely uses Oates’ immortal line, “I am just going outside and may be some time,” as the opening line of the poem, thus setting the tone for this memorial poem. Mahon’s style is in particular evidence through the use of the villanelle form. As already mentioned, with the exception of “Ecclesiastes”, most of Mahon’s poems are arranged in quite traditional, formal ways. A villanelle is an extremely rigid form that limits both stanza length and rhyme options. Despite these limitations, Mahon has constructed a poem that reads naturally and does not seem forced. The strict formalities echo the limitations faced by the explorers on Scott’s expedition, where Oates felt he had no option left but to sacrifice himself for the good of the team. His overwhelming self-sacrifice is crystallised in the line, “At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.” This line is repeated three times throughout the poem, forming a refrain. It is through this refrain that we get our best understanding of Oates. To say, “I am just going outside,” when sheltering from an Antarctic blizzard in a tent is, on the surface, ridiculous. However, his true intention, and the self-effacing and prosaic way he announced it – protecting his team-mates from having to acknowledge it – is truly sublime and the kind of act very few of us would have the character for. I found it fascinating how Mahon was able to capture the personality of two very different characters, neither of
whom he had any personal knowledge of, while still focusing on complex poetic forms and thought-provoking images.
“Grandfather” represents a slight change in Mahon’s portrait poems. This time, it is a much-loved family member to whom we are introduced. However, very little of Mahon’s own self is revealed, in keeping with much of his other poetry. Again, a formal structure is used – the sonnet –although, as with “Antarctica”, the structure enhances rather than overpowers the content of the poem. The octet is quite literal. Mahon’s grandfather worked in the famous Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, but was “brought in on a stretcher”,
“wounded but humorous” after a workplace accident. The implication is that although “he soon recovered” physically, mentally he reverted “to the landscape of a childhood.” Mahon’s skill at capturing a personality in a few choice phrases is displayed in the second half of the octet where we learn the grandfather is “up at six” “banging round the house like a four-year-old.” In the sestet, a more nuanced analysis takes place. Mahon suggests, subtly as is always his way, that the grandfather is alert to more than he admits. He is “as cute as they come” and has “shrewd eyes”. The alliteration and assonance in these phrases helped to instil them in my mind and greatly added to my understanding of the elderly man. It is in the final line of the poem that Mahon brings together form and content to perfectly sum up his grandfather. “Nothing escapes him; he escapes us all.” This is the only line in the poem that forms a complete sentence. Between this, and its prominent position, it is clearly set out as the final word. It reinforces the notion of voluntary senility that Mahon has been playing with in the sestet. The grandfather has retreated into childlike behaviour as a way of avoiding his advancing years. With remarkably few words, Mahon has given us a rich and multi-faceted portrait of a thought-provoking character.
While in “Grandfather” and “Ecclesiastes”, Mahon’s home town of Belfast was hinted at, in “Rathlin” I got my first taste of Mahon’s considerable skill as a poet of place. This was an unexpectedly complex poem. Within just three stanzas, it managed to touch on the atmospheric modern experience of Rathlin as a nature reserve, the island’s violent past and the more recent violence of the North. As is typical of Mahon, the Troubles are deal with in an oblique way, but I felt this made me think about it more carefully. The description of modern-day Rathlin is superb. Mahon captures the otherworldly nature of the island with phrases like “dream-time” and “amazed oneiric species”. The sounds, as well as the sights, of the island are recorded with precision: “the sporadic conversation of crickets”, “the report of an outboard motor”, the “whistle and chatter” of the birds. The only reference to colour is “cerulean”, a specific shade of green-blue associated with the sea. The care with which Mahon chooses his words is a hallmark of his poetry, and greatly adds to the effect of Rathlin.
The peace and tranquillity of the modern island is contrasted skilfully with “the unspeakable violence” that visited the island in the past. We can easily imagine the torment of Somhairle Bui who “powerless on the mainland, heard the screams of the Rathlin women borne to him, seconds later upon the wind.” Past and present are cleverly woven together, as Mahon twice references “the cry of the shearwater” in contrast to the human cries of those massacred. The poem ends with a question, marking a rare occasion where Mahon
addresses contemporary violence in Northern Ireland. This theme has been hinted at earlier in the poem, when he says “bombs doze in housing estates.” After comparing the historical violence and the modern calm of Rathlin he then poses the question of “whether the future lies before us or behind.” Mahon has managed to use the island as a symbol for a possible time in the North when the
violence will be such a distant historical memory that people are no longer concerned by it. Such a future remains merely a possibility, typical of Mahon’s reluctance to offer definitive statements on political issues.
A different location is discussed in “Day Trip to Donegal”. The images of sunny days by the seaside conjured by the title are misleading. Mahon uses the coastal area to begin a meditation on the power of the sea. Donegal is described in painterly terms. We are told that “the nearby hills were a deeper green than anywhere in the world”. The contentment felt in these lines is almost immediately retracted, however, when Mahon notes that the hills made “the grave grey of the sea the grimmer.” This strong alliteration and assonance puts great emphasis on the darker aspects of the scenery, and prepares us for the image of the sea he will create through the poem. The second stanza forms a snapshot of local life. Again, a certain melancholy is evident. The freshly caught fish writhe “in attitudes of agony and heartbreak”.I wondered if Mahon was suggesting that the native people of the area are suffering similar heartbreak?
The remaining three stanzas focus on the return from Donegal and the impression it has made on Mahon. Although the sea receded “down each muddy lane” as they “changed down into suburbs”, Mahon finds he cannot disconnect himself from the draw of the ocean: “That night the slow sea washed against my head.” This is not a calming experience. There is a “threat to villages of landfall” and in the final stanza Mahon becomes almost overwhelmed by a feeling of isolation. He dreamt he “was alone far out to sea” and cursed his “constant failure to take due forethought for this.” In the final line, the wind and rain are described as “vindictive”. This is a remarkable way to conclude a poem that began as a day trip to the seaside. Mahon has again displayed his ability to use an everyday landscape as a means to discuss complex ideas.
Mahon’s poetry is characterised by a sense of detachment and an unwillingness to speak from a particularly personal point of view. Instead, he focuses on capturing, through his skilful use of images and word-combinations, a variety of fascinating people and places. Occasionally, we can glean glimpses of his personal attitudes, but the poems never become confessional. I personally found this somewhat refreshing after being immersed in the extremely confessional work of Sylvia Plath. I enjoyed experiencing a poet who was as comfortable writing about a long-dead explorer as a day trip he had taken himself.