#18: ‘Strange, it is a huge nothing that we fear.’

In the poetry world over the last few days, a single topic has dominated the discussion. With the death of Seamus Heaney, even the mainstream media has been paying attention to the role of poetry. As is the case for many of us, Heaney’s appearance in the AQA anthology played a crucial part in my introduction to contemporary poetry, and while as an adult I’ve only rarely returned to his work, it would seem strange this week to talk about anyone else. The last line of ‘Storm on the Island’ has stayed with me since I last read it, maybe seven years ago; a stoic presentation of human fragility and the strength of spirit which holds us together.

Storm on the Island
by Seamus Heaney

We are prepared: we build our houses squat,
Sink walls in rock and roof them with good slate.
The wizened 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 tragic chorus in a gale
So that you can listen to the thing you fear
Forgetting that it pummels your house too.
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. 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.

*

Community and continuity are the materials from which Heaney constructs his sense of a human defence against the fury of the elements. In a poem which could justifiably evoke a terrifying, hopeless exposure, it’s this surprising solidity which allows us to believe that the speaker will ride out the storm. In fact, for the first six lines, there is no storm at all; instead, Heaney concentrates on building up an island capable of withstanding its assault.

‘We are prepared’ – this is no isolated scrabble, but a plural voice in the present tense, and the caesura which follows provides a space in which to absorb that certainty. The first two lines, packed tight with unassuming monosyllables (‘build’, ‘squat’, ‘sink’, ‘walls’), convey a calm and a rootedness which will carry us through to the weather’s first appearance. Alliteration and half-rhyme (‘roof’/’rock’, ‘squat’/’slate’) function like joists that hold these sturdy lines together, and the simple, physical, present-tense verbs establish a group of people who know exactly what they’re doing – the implication being, what they’ve always done.

Negation helps – ‘never’, ‘no stacks’ – by briskly dismissing what the island-dwellers do not have, the speaker stresses the endurance of what they do. While any other rural community might welcome hay, its absence here is framed as positive – a ‘trouble’ they are lucky to avoid. At this point, we might want to ask who the voice is addressing – ‘as you can see’ and ‘you know what I mean’ suggest a presence on the ground, to whom the facts are being diligently explained. From the fact he is explicitly denied it twice, we might assume the listener is seeking ‘company’.

If so, the people on the island and their rough-hewn houses are the only welcoming ‘shelter’ to be found; in these extreme circumstances, human companionship seems to be the only element which will not turn against you like the formerly ‘tame cat’ or the untrustworthy, oxymoronic comfort of the waves. Indeed, the impact of the storm can be mitigated by imagining its sounds as human too – a ‘tragic chorus’ which, in its shared lamenting, permits each resident to forget the personal danger posed by ‘the thing you fear’, in a skewed version of art’s transcendence. ‘Be not afeared’, Caliban tells the Milanese visitors in Shakespeare’s Tempest, and his island’s ‘twangling instruments‘ lie behind Heaney’s reassuring noises. 

Assonance intensifies as the poem reaches its conclusion (‘it’, ‘hits’, ‘spit’, ‘sit’, ‘wind’, ‘invisibly’), the barrage of sounds emphasising the natural ‘salvo’. Picking up from the earlier explosions of the sea, ‘strafes’, ‘salvo’ and ‘bombarded’ lend the weather a military brutality, but the weapons used are wind and space and emptiness. In resistance to this unholy alliance of force and absence, the plural voice returns after twelve lines of fragmented ‘you’ and ‘I’ – ‘we just sit tight’, ‘we are bombarded’. Even the object of fear is shared, and in that sharing, despite its scale, reduced to the ‘nothing’ the speaker knows it to be. ‘Nothing’ here balances between the howling void and the shrug of insignificance. As King Lear puts it (himself no stranger to suffering at the hands of the weather) ‘nothing will come of nothing’; but Heaney’s poem, in squaring up to it, mounts the only possible defence.

*

I saw Heaney read last summer, at the South Bank Centre’s Poetry Parnassus event, and perhaps only now can I appreciate what a privilege that was. He didn’t read this poem, though he did perform ‘Digging’, for which I imagine many in the room were grateful.

Custom dictates that the Scallop-Shell alternates the gender of its featured writers from one week to the next. Having made an exception given the circumstances, I’m expecting next to cover two female poets in a row before resuming the usual cycle.

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