Storm On The Island
On Seamus Heaney
by Michael Woods
Heaney writes in the voice of an islander (but one who seems representative of the island’s population) describing a way of life, the ravaging effects of a storm and the experience of living in a remote place.
There is a robust confidence at the beginning of the poem “We are prepared” suggests that the islanders are certainly ready to face a storm but their practices have clearly come about as a result of experience. This weather has conditioned their lives to the extent that it influences their architecture and farming methods. The way people deal with their environment is inevitably conditioned by the climate in which they live. The landscape of the island presented in the poem is bleak and exposed to the elements. The opening word “we” suggests a collective, cultural voice of solidarity; a community facing a common enemy that is the unpredictably tempestuous weather.
The landscape is inhospitable and bleak, allowing what we might consider subsistence without luxury. We are told that “The wizened earth” is too barren to yield hay. There are no “stacks” or “stooks” of it. We are also introduced to the extreme power of nature, isolation and the difference between real and perceived danger. On the one hand, the storm and its power are invisible and therefore a “huge nothing” (line 19) but, on the other, the effect on the island is palpable both in physical and psychological ways. The islanders have to adapt their farming practices to take account of the potentially ruinous effects of storms. For example, houses are built “squat” (line 1) their walls are well founded in “rock” (line 2) and they are roofed with heavy slate.
The idea of exposure and danger is well realised in throughout poem. An island is by its very nature, more acutely affected by rough weather than a much greater non-coastal land mass. There is not even the consolation of the company of trees that can “raise a tragic chorus in a gale” (line 8) to distract the listener from the alarming reality that the wind “pummels” houses as well as the surrounding landscape. This chorus reminds us the sort of lamentation of a Greek tragedy and as such reinforced the mournful atmosphere being created. A chorus in Greek tragedy also had the function of making sense of events, interpreting. Here, the absence of any anchor point leaves us with the sense that the islanders lack anything that might divert their attention away form the reality of their situation. It seems that they alone are prey to the gale.
The sea is inhospitable. It is described by Heaney as “Exploding comfortably down the cliffs” (line 13). The verb “exploding” is an image associated with the ordinance of war, something that is developed in subsequent lines. Explosions seem natural to the personified sea, which serves to reinforce how disconcerting it is for the querulous people on the receiving end of the storm’s onslaught. The manner in which weather can change very quickly as a storm begins is conveyed through the image of “a tame cat / Turned savage” (lines 15-16). We are all aware of how something as apparently benign as a domestic cat is capable of changing instantly into a violent creature, if provoked. The islanders endure the storm and “sit tight” (line 16). The untrammelled power of the storm is suggested through the powerfully alliterated sounds of “spray”, “hits”, “spits” and “cat”.
Assaulted by nature, the island is presented as being under attack. An extended military metaphor presents the storm as a fighter plane that causes havoc but “invisibly”. This is reinforced with “strafed” and “bombarded”, terms normally used to describe a fighter pilot’s use of machine gun and bombs. This very violent imagery makes the storm seem like an air force seeking to wreak havoc upon the island. Heaney highlights the mysterious power of the wind by writing that it is “empty air” and “a huge nothing” that is the source of all this feared havoc. This poem does not simply concern itself with a storm on an island but engages with the idea that however practical and rooted we may be, there are forces beyond us that are ultimately more powerful and more unknowable than we are. This poem contemplates upon the power of nature and its effects on the human imagination as well those on the immediate environment.
The tone of the poem is conversational as befits a dramatic monologue. At one point the islander is clearly talking as if sharing a confidence with someone when he says, “you know what I mean” (line 7). Heaney evokes atmosphere very powerfully and challenges idealised thinking about living on an island. This island is not a romantic retreat but somewhere to endure. We cannot always expect good weather in life. There will be times when we are required to call upon all our resources, our inner strength and to conquer our fear. When on considers the turbulence in the history of Northern Ireland, part of the island that comprised both it and the Republic of Ireland, it is not difficult to perceive a connection between the idea of stormy times having a political and cultural significance.
Stooks – these are collections of sheaves of hay arranged in a field so as to support one another for drying. Visually, they resemble little wig-wams. Interestingly, Heaney uses the word employed by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) in his poem ‘Hurrahing in Harvest’. Here, of course, Heaney is drawing attention to the fact that there can be no hurrahing as there is no harvest.