Derek Mahon Poetry

Published: 2021-08-17 16:10:08
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Places like Kinsale, Rathlin and Donegal are idealised, but there is a subtext of cruelty associated with all three places because of history, climate, nature or commerce. Other places are depicted as void of human activity, lonesome, glum and abandoned by hope. The selection of poems on the course, influenced by Mahon, include two place names that span Ireland from North to South, Rathlin and Kinsale. You should compare the contexts by examining what the last line of both poems has to say about the future. An idealised rural, coastal beauty spot: ‘the nearby hills were a deeper green
Than anywhere in the world’ [Donegal] A rural, coastal beauty spot which has become a refuge: ‘a lonely house behind the sea Where the tide leaves broken toys and hat boxes’ [Titanic] A landscape of extreme weather and steep climbs, requiring inhuman endurance, a place where the stoical Protestant can be a hero: ‘The tent recedes beneath its crust of rime And frostbite is replaced by vertigo’ [Antarctica] 3. Theme of people. Mahon evokes diverse human personalities and often empathises with various characters in his poetry: A quirky, on the go, mysterious, cautious and wily grandfather.
He is a craftsman who can’t forsake his craft. Some of the grandfather’s attributes mirror an obsessive, impish poet: ‘Wounded but humorous… discreetly up to no good… Never there when you call… as cute as they come… Nothing escapes him; he escapes us all’ [Grandfather] Posh, swanky, guilt-struck, aghast, brooding and solitary Bruce Ismay: ‘I turned to ice to hear my costly Life go thundering down in a pandemonium… my poor soul screams out in the starlight’ [Titanic] A brave, patrician, stoical and self-sacrificing British Explorer: ‘Goading his ghost into the howling snow;
He is just going outside and may be some time’ [Antarctica] But sometimes Mahon evokes personalities without empathy: 4. Theme of conflict: Mahon deals with the theme of conflict in various guises: Subtle tensions in family life: ‘Never there when you call…he escapes us all’ [Grandfather] Nature’s battle against human civilisation: ‘That night the slow sea washed against my head, Performing its immeasurable erosions… Muttering its threat to villages of landfall’ [Donegal] Self-conflict, self-criticism and regret: ‘Cursing my constant failure to take due forethought’ [Donegal]
Conflict between an individual and public opinion, media driven conflict: ‘They said I got away in a boat And humbled me at the inquiry’ [Titanic] Class difference, and conflict: ‘I drown again with all those dim Lost faces I never understood’ [Titanic] Inner conflict due to guilt and victimisation: ‘my poor soul screams out in the starlight’ [Titanic] Brave self-sacrifice of the hero contrasted to cowardice of the group: ‘Need we consider it some sort of crime, This numb self-sacrifice of the weakest’ [Antarctica] 5. Theme of history. Personal History: ‘to reveal the landscape of a childhood
Only he can recapture’ [Grandfather] Maritime History: ‘my costly life go thundering down in a pandemonium of Prams, pianos, sideboards, winches, Boilers bursting and shredded ragtime’ [Titanic] History of Scott’s Antarctic Expedition: ‘I am just going outside and may be some time’ [Antarctica] 6. The theme of the Future: Fear of the inevitability of death: ‘His shrewd eyes bolt the door and set the clock Against the future’ [Grandfather] Failure to plan for the future: ‘no promise of rescue— Cursing my constant failure to take due Forethought for this’ [Daytrip to Donegal]
Poetic Techniques There are many detailed examples of the poetic techniques used by Mahon illustrated in Grandfather and After The Titanic on the Ordinary Level English web pages. Note how the consonance interlinks the present with the process or remembering that is described in this sentence from ‘Grandfather’. There are eight uses of ‘r’. The consonance is deepened by the internal rhyme of the three ‘row’ sounds in the first line of the quote. ‘Boiler -rooms, row upon row of gantries rolled Away to reveal the landscape of a childhood Only he can recapture. ’
Note how the alliterating ‘g’ and the assonance pattern of the deep ‘a’, ‘ey’, ‘a’ sounds emphasise the sombre description of the sea in ‘Day trip to Donegal’: ‘the grave grey of the sea the grimmer in that enclave’. In the same poem consonance, sibilance, line rhyme and cross-rhyme create a verbal music that matches meaning. ‘That night the slow sea washed against my head, Performing its immeasurable erosions— Spilling into the skull, marbling the stones That spine the very harbour wall, Muttering its threat to villages of landfall’ The first three lines, with their sibilance, are a strong example of onomatopoeia.
The consonance, created by the recurring ‘m’, reinforces this effect, as sound matches meaning. Line rhyme is achieved when ‘erosions’ rhymes with ‘stones’, ‘wall’ with ‘landfall’. Note the cross-rhyme achieved with the three ‘ing’ sounds’. All these effects echo both the crashing of the waves and the hushed ‘s’ sound that is permanently associated with the sea. Because the imagery is used to evoke a nightmare, the musical effects here are so dramatic they remind us of opera. Rhyme Read the notes about rhyme in Grandfather and After the Titanic on the Ordinary Level English web pages.
In ‘Day Trip to Donegal’ Mahon writes in six line stanzas made up of three rhyming couplets: aa bb cc. ‘Antartica’ has a regular pattern in its three line stanzas: aba aba etc. Rhythm In some poems the rhythm is light while in others it is complex and orchestral. Grandfather – the rhythm is partly defined by the strict sonnet form, but Mahon gives it a natural feeling with his run on lines and simple everyday words. The poem feels like an anecdote, a spoken story, naturally addressed to the reader. Day trip to Donegal-the rhythm is musical with a varying beat pattern.
After the Titanic- the rhythm has a natural feeling with the run on lines and simple everyday words. The poem feels like a cry from the heart naturally addressed to the reader. There is a dignity to the rhythm provided by the regular line lengths. Each pair of lines is a unit. The uneven lines have four beats while the even lines have six beats—some of which are hard to define. Antarctica- note the regular four beat lines with chorus or refrain. Tones There is immense variety of tone in Mahon’s poetry. Here are some examples to add to your own favourites.
Factual: ‘They brought him in on a stretcher’ [Grandfather] Humorous, wry: ‘discretely up to no good’ [Grandfather] Dark, threatening: ‘then his light goes out’ [Grandfather] Matter-of-fact: ‘ things to be done, clothes to be picked up’ [Donegal] Gloomy and ominous: ‘Grave grey of the sea the grimmer’ [Donegal] Disgusted, fascinated: ‘A writhing glimmer of fish’ [Donegal] Bemused: ‘And still the fish come in year after year’ [Donegal] Resigned, mocking: ‘Give me a ring, goodnight, and so to bed’ [Donegal] Scared, pleading, ironic: ‘contriving vain overtures to the vindictive wind and rain’ [Donegal]
Ironic and self-pitying: ‘I tell you I sank as far that night as any hero’ [Titanic] There is also a note or edge of despair in the word ‘sank’ here Factual, yet comical: ‘Prams, pianos, sideboards, winches’ [Titanic] Horror: ‘I turned to ice ’, ‘pandemonium’, ‘soul screams out in the starlight’ [Titanic] Guilty, insightful: ‘all those dim lost faces I never understood’ [Titanic] Despair: ‘I drown again’ [Titanic] Brutal and ghostly: ‘A long time since the last scream cut short. Deceptive: ‘I am just going outside and may be some time’ [Antarctica] Disparaging: ‘The others nod, pretending not to know’ [Antarctica]
Amazed, wry: ‘Goading his ghost into the howling snow’ [Antarctica] Astute, ironic: ‘At the heart of the ridiculous the sublime’ [Antarctica] Forgiving: ‘Need we consider it some sort of crime, This numb self-sacrifice of the weakest? No’ [Antarctica] Imagery Many of the Themes illustrated above are also lists of images e. g. images of place, images of people etc. Nature imagery is used a lot in Mahon’s poetry. There are some recurring nature images in Mahon’s Poetry. A good example is the recurring sea imagery. References to the sea occur eleven times in the poems on the syllabus: We reached the sea in the early afternoon’ [Donegal] ‘The sea receding down each muddy lane’ [Donegal] ‘and the grave Grey of the sea the grimmer in that enclave’ [Donegal] ‘That night the slow sea washed against my head, Performing its immeasurable erosions’ [Donegal] ‘At dawn I was alone out at sea’ [Donegal] ‘Now I hide in a lonely house behind the sea Where the tide leaves broken toys and hat boxes’ [Titanic] ‘the old man stays in bed On seaward mornings after nights of wind’ [Titanic] Metaphor ‘Goading his ghost into the howling snow’ [Antarctica] ‘the earthly pantomime’ [Antarctica]
Personification: ‘the slow…sea muttering its threat to villages of landfall’ [Donegal] ‘Herring and mackerel, flopping about the deck In attitudes of agony and heartbreak’ [Donegal] Symbol: ‘the tide leaves broken toys and hat boxes silently at my door’ [Titanic] Analogy: [An analogy is a simile or metaphor that functions as a parallel image. An analogy may involve an extended comparison] ‘That night the slow sea washed against my head’ [Donegal] ‘At dawn I was alone out at sea’ [Donegal] Simile: ‘banging round the house like a four-year-old’ [Grandfather] heart breaks loose and rolls like a stone’ [Titanic] In addition to various techniques of sound, tone and imagery, there are many examples of different language techniques found in Mahon’s poetry. Paradox [apparent contradiction] ‘At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime’ [Antarctica] Logic (argument). Mahon communicates by direct statement as well as by imagery and symbol. Some poems depend a lot on our ability to interpret the figurative language. But some lines contain a statement or argument that points to the theme and help us understand the imagery.
Many of the quotes for Themes above contain examples of such statements. ‘And frostbite is replaced by vertigo’ [Antarctica] If you study the final line or statement in each of your selected Mahon poems, you will observe that the poems end on a clinching statement that clarifies the intended meaning of the poem. This didactic feature is further illustrated in ‘Antarctica’ with the chorus line, which colours how we receive the narrative implications of the imagery: ‘At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime’.

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