Seamus Heaney’s Tricky Music

The aims of the stichic and lyric forms are not mutually exclusive. But when the successful elements of the stichic–such as a sense of plain speech, teleological design, and a surprising or revelatory conclusion–can be reconciled with the successful elements of lyric–such as the dense aural pleasures of rhythm and rhyme, and the compounded significance of the broken line–a rare kind of fusion takes place. Consider Seamus Heaney’s poem, “Mint:”

It looked like a clump of small dusty nettles
Growing wild at the gable of the house
Beyond where we dumped our refuse and old bottles:
Unverdant ever, almost beneath notice.

But, to be fair, it also spelled promise
And newness in the back yard of our life
As if something callow yet tenacious
Sauntered in green alleys and grew rife.

The snip of scissor blades, the light of Sunday
Mornings when the mint was cut and loved:
My last things will be first things slipping from me.
Yet let all things go free that have survived.

Let the smells of mint go heady and defenceless
Like inmates liberated in that yard.
Like the disregarded ones we turned against
Because we’d failed them by our disregard.

Although not a single stanza, many of the structural elements of this poem resemble the stichic form. The language begins in a very plain register, and builds gradually but somehow unpretentiously toward internal rhymes and rhythms that manage to mask the structure. That is, this poem tricks the ear into forgetting that this is a four-stanza poem of four lines each with an a-b-a-b ending rhyme scheme.

Gerard Manley Hopkins often tricked the ear out of hearing his sonnets as sounding characteristically like sonnets–but he did this by compounding and compressing the internal music in such a way as to drown out the sonnet’s cadence. Heaney also manages to mask the structure of this poem, but instead he puts in just enough music to do so without disassembling, as Hopkins does, into non-narrative exultations.

The rhyme scheme itself also begins with fairly oblique rhymes (such as “house” and “notice”), and ends on more straightforward rhymes (“yard” and “disregard”), continuing this trajectory from a starting point closer to free verse to an end point more akin to rhymed iambic pentameter. Thus the cadence, tone, texture and rhymes all build toward a progressively more lyrical experience while, at the same time, still following the traditional narrative trajectory of the stichic poem–building toward a remarkable conclusion.

The poem also makes a sonnet-like volta, turning on the line “My last things will be first things slipping from me”–a play on the biblical phrase “the last shall be first.” (Matthew 20:16, KJV) Biblical phrases represent a kind of culturally accepted form of elevated diction–that is, a form so common and so ubiquitous within Christian-influenced cultures as to in some ways act like plain speech. Heaney softens the diction further by using “will be” instead of “shall”–but at the same time achieves the effect of a more grand, lyrical, philosophical statement without coming off as pretentious. He carries off the impact of biblical phrasing under the guise of plain speech.

From this point, he has launched into the proclamatory language of biblical text, and can say “let all things go free that have survived” without sounding out of tune. But instead of carrying on with this proclamatory voice, he makes a wild associative leap, comparing mint to “inmates liberated in that yard.” Even as strange associations and memories are triggered by certain smells, here Heaney associates mint with “the disregarded ones we turned against / Because we’d failed them by our disregard.” The poem ends on a kind of poignant and unexpected moment of admitting complicity in the complex circumstances of prisoners–presumably those prisoners connected with the struggles of Northern Ireland in the late twentieth century.

Having navigated the complex interrelationship between plain speech and lyrical thought, between crafting narrative and exploring association, we arrive finally at a conclusion that is both unexpected and, thanks partly to the heightened rhyme, somehow fittingly related. In this way Heaney manages to bring elements of Romantic and lyrical poetry to the modern ear, giving us both what we want as modern readers expecting innovations on common language, and what we have always wanted throughout time–the music of poetry.