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GCSE Poem analysis: Storm on the Island by Seamus Heaney
May 09, 2017
What is it about?
Seamus Heaney's poem has a helpful title: it is a dramatic monologue from the perspective of an villager on a remote island, probably in the Irish Atlantic, about the storms his community face and their effects.
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.
This wizened earth has never troubled us
With hay, so, as you 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 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 with the empty air.
Strange, it is a huge nothing that we fear.
The title is simple, but by having no article (no 'a' or 'the' to begin the title), Heaney makes his description even simpler, even generalising so that Storm on the Island could describe any storm on any island. However, we realise that this is a particularly bleak and isolated place: 'no trees, no natural shelter'.
The poem is written in unrhymed iambic pentameter - blank verse. The lines are usually enjambed - the sentences do not stop with the lines - but the occasional line contains a full sentence, like the last, which gives a strong indication of reaching the end of the speaker's pondering. Enjambing a single, monosyllabic word like 'full | Blast' makes the most of this overlapping pattern, adding stress onto the words placed first in the line against the generally rising rhythm of the whole piece.
Heaney really uses the full range of consonance, assonance, alliteration and other sound patterns in the poem. This helps create a noisy recreation of the wind and rain thrashing the bare island. The 'comfortable' explosions of waves echo on the 'cliffs', with the hard 'c' sound providing the sound of the attacking wave and the final 's' on 'cliffs' echoing the hiss as the wave retreats over the stones. Later when the water is flying, the spray 'hits' the windows and an internal rhyme with 'spits' repeats this harsh contact.
The poem ends with open, empty sounds, including a half-rhyme between 'air' and 'fear'. But read the poem in an Irish accent and you might be rewarded with a final full-rhyme to close off the verse.
Storm on the Island begins with the resolute determination of someone sure about himself and his people. The very simplicity of the sentence 'We are prepared' speaks of confidence. There is also a self-deprecating humour in the phrase 'This wizened earth has never troubled us | With hay', giving the impression that the speaker is glad not to have the bother of being able to grow anything!
In a way, the pride of the speaker for the earth beneath his feet - his island - is the opposite of the 'huge nothing' that he says they fear. The speaker has a friendly tone, reminiscent of Browning's monologue 'Fra Lippo Lippi', particularly in the phrases 'you know what I mean' and 'You might think'.
The speaker compares the sea to a cat (fickle and liable to seem friendly, then scratch!), and the wind to an attacking aircraft ('while the wind dives | And strafes invisibly'). These comparisons have different effects. On the one hand we return to the idea of a community defending itself, as in the first lines, against an invader.
On the other hand, there is a familiar, comfortable undercurrent of knowing the sea like a pet - even an unpredictable one. It seems that life on an island produces people who can think of something in two ways at once without worrying about contradictions.
The speaker moves between defiance (at the start of the poem), awe, humour and finally admissions of fear. Yet throughout he maintains a calm tone, sure of the thickness of the stone walls around him. Perhaps that, rather than the storm itself, is what Heaney really wants to feature: the self-confidence of island people when faced with challenges.
consonance Repeated consonant sounds within words (stacks and stooks)
assonance Repeated vowel sounds within words (mean - leaves)
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