Derek Mahon – Personnal Response Essay

‘A long time since the unspeakable violence – Since Somhairle Bui, powerless on the mainland Heard the screams of the Rathlin women’ Rathlin. The second I finished reading ‘Rathlin’ I knew that it impacted me deeply, and that I learnt the joys of reading Mahon’s poetry as it is a thoroughly rewarding experience. Instantaneously I gained a sense of history from reading it. The depiction of a dilapidated fortress infested with shrubbery and which was deserted as a consequence and the atrocities that were committed there in the past was almost etched onto my brain.

Among the brilliance of the language the and poetic style the thing that impeded my thoughts was the question posed at the closing stanza of the poem, will we let the past influence us now and commit such acts of devastations again or will we learn that these acts were horrific and come to more peaceful solutions when tackling the divisions now. The poems of Derek Mahon have rewarded me with an experience to admire jointly his poetry as well as himself and the area which he grew up in, Northern Ireland.

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He is mastered in the art to describe elegant scenes, also to give impressions of places with a charm, which gives the scene both depth and beauty. He is able to remove himself from the present and speak without inhibition of it, removing bias, although there is an urge to when dealing with the more volatile topics. When asked do I feel that reading the poetry of Derek Mahon is a rewarding experience, I say it is a thoroughly rewarding experience for all of any age, the poems of Mahon also contain a great style of imagery and sense of place, these poems also pose the question of past can shape the present.

With ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’ Mahon elaborates eloquently how suppression and violence from the past have detrimental effects on the present. ‘As It Should Be’ explores the history of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland and this interlinks with ‘Ecclesiastes’ is showing bigotry in Northern Ireland also. ‘After The Titanic’ is the second last poem and ‘Antarctica’ is the final poem I will be exploring, both expertly explore human behaviour and subtly pose a question relating to whether we would have done the same as the individual who have committed promiscuous acts.

There are also unifying themes throughout Mahon’s poetry such as how the past influences the present, and there is Mahon’s use of imagery and sense or place which I will also explore relating to the poems, all of these, I feel, make it an extremely rewarding experience to read. Northern Ireland, in the time of Mahon was a very tense place to live, where Protestants suppressed Catholics by stripping them of equal rights.

Northern Ireland consists of 6 Counties owned by England which was created under the Government of Ireland Act in 1920, the main religion there is Protestantism as there was a plantation in it which consisted of taking Protestants from Scotland and planting them there. Catholics didn’t have equal schooling; they lived in clustered sectors together; they didn’t have open religious expression; the justice system wouldn’t favour them if they were the innocent party and many other anathemas were placed on them.

In response, some Catholics resorted to terrorist activities i. e. formation of the I. R. A. in Northern Ireland, the I. R. A. were originally freedom fighters in the Republic who tried to fight off the English and remove their presence from the island of Ireland. The I. R. A. of Northern Ireland however, is a vicious group who frequently bombed Protestant sectors of Northern Ireland and killed numerous innocent civilians. The English then created The Ulster Volunteer Force, The Defence Force and deployed English soldiers in Northern Ireland to combat the I.

R. A. ’s attacks. It resulted in a greater division in Northern Ireland and caused more sectarianism and hatred. Peace was only achieved when the two sides started to talk, and resultantly made the Anglo-Irish Treaty which gave equalities to everyone in Northern Ireland. Rathlin Island is a miniscule island off the coast Northern Ireland, saturated with history. Rathlin, like Northern Ireland in Mahon’s time, had great sectarian difficulties which cumulated into a massacre of the people on the island.

The massacre was committed by the Protestants onto the Catholics. It resulted in the island being deserted as people wanted to forget the massacre ever happened. When Mahon arrives on the island he describes it as an ‘outboard motor’ that simply breaks the ‘natural silence’. The narrative of the poem is dry, as he basically explores the island then leaves, but the thing that tickles Mahon’s interest is the history of the island.

Mahon saw Rathlin as a post version of what he fears Northern Ireland will become and he compares the similarities of the two places together. The way in which Mahon explains his view of Rathlin makes it rewarding experience to read, in my opinion. His sense of imagery and sense of place is evident when he writes ‘A long time since the last scream cut short’ showing how the island was culled down to the last person so no one was left to scream and it gives us a sense of how violent the history of the island is.

On the mainland however there is fighting between Protestants and Catholics, like what was on this island, and these groups have been continuously fighting in Ireland for centuries. On this island though they are ‘through with history’ and it gave them nothing but ‘screams… borne… upon the wind’. These moments are the pivotal points within the poem as Mahon is asking us a question about how the past influences the future questioning us on whether we are going to do the same in Northern Ireland or will we be more peaceful in our resolution.

It is this which makes Mahon a master poet and gives him a unique style with his narrative technique and it is also a reason why I feel that when reading Mahon’s poetry I get a rewarding experience from its imagery and sense of place and demonstration of how the past influences the present and Mahon’s technical abilities. Mahon also makes ‘Rathlin’ a rewarding experience to read in my opinion with his use of imagery and sense of place within the poems. ‘By the sporadic conversation of crickets, the bleak reminder of a metaphysical wind’ is an example of this.

It shows how tranquil the island is and its sense of place with how the island is still being haunted by the ‘metaphysical wind’ i. e. the sounds of the people who died there. Another time he does this is when he writes ‘Bombs doze in housing estates’ using a great simile showing how there undetonated bombs casually lying in housing estates with no one attempting to disarm them, also showing a sense of place of the landscape the people of Northern Ireland are enduring. This, with sense of place and imagery and showing how the past influences the present, made ‘Rathlin’ a more rewarding experience to read in my opinion.

The pinnacle use of how Mahon uses poetic technique to show how the past influences the present is found in ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’ which is extremely insightful and I feel a rewarding experience to read. The mushrooms are metaphors to describe the situation in Northern Ireland, saying that the people are packed in like mushrooms and they are all looking for the freedom they were promised and that some mushrooms suppress other mushrooms, like the way the Protestants suppress the Catholics. Mahon is especially expressive in his use of images and sense of lace in this poem. This is seen when he writes ‘a thousand mushrooms crowd[ing] to a keyhole’ which is an image that resonates through the speakers head. It shows how every mushroom is trying to free themself and escape from the shed, echoing a sense of place as this is a metaphor for the people of Northern Ireland. The way he emotes this is particularly repugnant. He describes them as being isolated within the shed but they still fight for no justifiable reason. This struggle idea becomes central in the poem when he writes ‘those nearest the door grow strong. ’Elbow room! Elbow room! ’’’. This is a sense of place imagery as he’s lushly describing how the Protestants as they are ‘nearest the door’ are stronger and they suppress the Catholics or the mushrooms and shout ‘’Elbow room! Elbow room! ’’. The mushrooms wait impatiently as the world ‘waltzes in its bowl of cloud’ and time passes until their door is opened and the light shines through like a ‘flash bulb firing squad’, again this is brilliant sense of place imagery as it denotes the firing squads in the republic who killed the freedom fighters during the 1916 rising.

However, the world they know no longer exists as it has changed greatly, but it still contains problems as their world had. Just like the ‘lost people of Treblinka and Pompeii’ these mushrooms [people] have had ‘their time to live’, history was weighed them down and now they ponder whether ‘their naive labours’ had been ‘in vain’. These are some of the best lines in Mahon’s work where he links sense of place imagery and how past influences the present correlate together to create a melting pot of emotion.

It’s an ardent description as it shows how futile the efforts of fighting of the people of Northern Ireland years ago in the deep past, the mushrooms, was and how the efforts of the people of Mahon’s Northern Ireland will be futile, as fighting doesn’t resolve issues, which we learn from the mushrooms and from Rathlin, it only causes more problems and that he’s saying they have to evolve to resolving issues by talking them out not fighting.

This is my favourite poem by Mahon, as I feel it is a rewarding experience to read and is insightful and is rich in imagery and is unique in its style, it also excellently shows how the past influences the present. The next two poems I will be analysing are set in the present for Mahon, which rewarded me with many positive experiences and outlooks. ‘As It Should Be’ and ‘Ecclesiastes’ centre on the downfalls associated with what sectarianism brings, like terrorist/vigilante acts and persecution. ‘Ecclesiastes’ is an outline into the views and beliefs of a preacher of Presbyterianism, which Mahon uses excellent imagery to describe this.

The Preacher believes that you need to be more than just God loving to be the ‘purest little puritan’, you need to be ‘God fearing’. Also, the preacher views himself as ‘God-chosen’ and this is why he believes he’s right with his views, and won’t seem to accept others views. This poem also greatly outlines sense of place as it delves into how Protestants suppressed Catholics, even down to where they close the playgrounds on Sunday leaving ‘tied up swings’, as Sundays are a day of rest for Protestants and they issued this upon Catholics also.

This rewarded me with an experience of how Catholics were downtrodden by the Protestants and I feel this is excellent in the way Mahon did it. This inertia eventually cumulates for people of Northern Ireland to be further divided and not to ‘forgive but to speak with a bleak afflatus’, this also show how the past influences the present with great imagery, as years ago people would continually bicker and fight about the atrocities but now they have gotten wiser and instead pretend like it’s not happening as they have to deal with these people.

As a result the terrors arising in ‘As It Should Be’ surface. Also this is another aspect of how the past influences the present as it demonstrates how years of preaching to people negatively of ‘others’ have led to the sectarianism they have seen. This is one of the pivotal realisms in Mahon’s poetry as I feel it gives a rewarding experience which gives great sense of place and imagery; also it uses great examples to show how the past influences the present.

These conflicts in Northern Ireland are known as ’The Troubles’ and they deeply segregated society, resulting in monstrous acts on either side of the fringe. In ‘As it Should Be’, Mahon takes on the voice of a violent fanatic, and resonates his mindset. Fanatical thoughts and actions have been at the heart of much conflict throughout the course of mankind. Mahon explores the repugnant nature and terrible results of such thinking. They hunted the ‘mad bastard’ and killed him; this is just one victim of such thinking.

The way he describes with his imagery makes this act is quite vile, as the persona we need of the men committing the act is that they sub human, almost animal like creature with no empathy. Mahon also exposes the baseless and outrageous justifications for such actions, saying ‘This is as it should be. They will thank us for it when they grow up to a world with method in it. ’ The persona which Mahon displays here is an unwavering, determined, headstrong and brutal voice.

The fanatic’s world is one in which there is a very set sense of right and wrong, and there is no room for any other viewpoint than the fanatic’s. This is a poem with obvious relevance and correlation to the role of paramilitaries in Northern Ireland. This is just another brilliant way which I feel Mahon gives a sense of place and imagery and delivers it in a raw manner which I feel gives a rewarding experience, and linkage of these with how the past influences the present. This poem has a great prophecy for how the past influences the present when he says ‘tide burial during school hours’.

Mahon used to this to prophesise how the family and community of the ‘mad bastard’ will raise a generation of angered people as they didn’t get a body to bury. So Mahon is saying hate will breed hate which gives a great sense of place to the reader and I feel this also adds to the rewarding experience of reading this poem, along with sense of place and imagery, I especially like how Mahon doesn’t label himself on either side, leaving the poem to express how both sides were part of atrocities during ‘The Troubles’.

Past Influencing the present can be particularly empathised in the poem ‘After The Titanic’, which Mahon narrates through the voice of Bruce Ismay, who was the manager of the White Star Line that built and ran the Titanic. He should have gone down with the ship as a result of this, but he saved himself from the terrible destiny of those aboard the Titanic who died. As a result he felt he ‘sank as far that night as any hero’ so to say that from the trauma he experienced from that night, and the proceeding years of his life from the guilt, is influencing how he feels now which is guilt ridden and numb emotionally.

When I read this poem I was reminded of a song entitled ‘Good morning, Captain’ by Slint. The song notates and journeys the spiralling into insanity of the Captain of a ship, who was caught in a storm and couldn’t save his crew but managed to survive himself. This man in the song is seeking redemption and forgiveness but can’t achieve it as he is out casted by society and anyone he has ever known, as they just see him a shell of his former valour and a recreant.

I felt this starkly contrasted with this poem as the image of Bruce Ismay in the poem is in the exact same position but instead Ismay goes one step further and needs some form of relief from these thoughts he has and ‘stays in bed… takes his cocaine and sees no one’, Mahon emphasises Ismay’s action with the use of fantastically bleak imagery. This self pity resonates throughout the rest of the poem and shows how Ismay fails to use the gift of life he received in a positive manner and learn to forgive himself for what he has done.

I feel this is a poignant poem as it outlines human behaviour on how people, even when given opportunities, abuse and misuse them and this is why I felt it was a rewarding experience to read this poem as it gave a great insight to the human psyche and gave a great sense of place and imagery. Captain Lawrence Oates in ‘Antarctica’ contrastingly shows, in relation to Bruce Ismay, how the endurance of the human psyche can persevere in the form of sacrifice, as Oates sacrifices himself to save the rest of his colleagues. His actions might be considered ‘ridiculous’ but at the ‘heart’ of his process it was a ‘sublime’ act.

Also it shows the more negative points of human behaviour as the other crew, knowing that Oates is sacrificing himself, hide behind their ‘crust of rime’, a rich imagery metaphor to demonstrate how remove themselves from the knowledge of what Oates is doing, which also gives us a sense of place of what sort of situation these men were in. Mahon might have written this poem as he was possibly searching for an individual who was willing to commit a sublime act of heroism in Northern Ireland, and possibly he is saying the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland are hiding behind a ‘crust of rime’.

In either case, this poem is a great example of how the past influences the present and I feel that it is a great example to show how reading Mahon’s poetry is a rewarding experience which gives a great sense of place and uses lush language and imagery. Derek Mahon’s poetry emotes the feelings of exile and the oppressiveness of history that can touch everyone. He has a pessimism that sees great beauty in jaded aspects of life but scours at their impermanence and eventual meaninglessness. Part of Mahon’s poetry however is applying exceptional technical ability to these weighty issues.

Mahon made his stature, as one of several authors born in Northern Ireland at his time, reviving interest in the literature of Northern Ireland, but Mahon hasn’t identified himself with Ireland as closely as some of his contemporaries have, instead, Mahon has most often writes in an outside voice that just observes, in doing so has set foundation an original poetic voice and built an institution out of it that abstain from provincialism and delves into the role of a poet in the larger world.

In conclusion, Mahon is a poet whose work and style I truly enjoyed and felt was thoroughly a rewarding experience to read. I share Mahon’s interest in history and in people. I admire his ability to be able to poetically empathise with people. Additionally I felt, his fresh imagery, sense of place and demonstration of how the past influences the present added to the rewarding experience of reading his poetry.

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