I have been thinking about exactly why this poem gives me such a frisson of pleasure every time I read it. Partly, I think, it is that it evokes for me that curious feeling of comfort I had as a child, lying snug in bed on a winter night listening to the wolf wind outside huffing and puffing round our house on the hill. Also because it conjures for me the words of that 9th century Irish monk whose ghost haunts the poem, who liked winter nights, and the wilder the better, because it meant that the seas would be too rough even for the hardy Vikings who were terrorising the coasts of Ireland at that time: ‘Bitter is the wind tonight/It tosses the ocean’s white hair./Tonight I do not fear the fierce warriors of Norway/Coursing on the Irish sea’. Then there is the nod to these same Norsemen in the skaldic kennings, the compound names that it uses for the sea: ‘eel-road, seal-road, keel-road’.
But perhaps most of all I like it because, like so many of Heaney’s poems, it is part of his program to recognise and celebrate the ‘marvellous and actual’, being what I call a primary poem, one that faces outwards to life as much as it faces inwards to literature, matching the resonances of the past with the music of a unique present.
Glanmore Sonnets, VII
Dogger, Rockall, Malin, Irish Sea:
Green, swift upsurges, North Atlantic flux
Conjured by that strong gale-warning voice
Collapse into a sibilant penumbra.
Midnight and closedown. Sirens of the tundra,
Of eel-road, seal-road, keel-road, whale-road, raise
Their wind-compounded keen behind the baize
And drive the trawlers to the lee of Wicklow.
L’Étoile, Le Guillemot, La Belle Hélène
Nursed their bright names this morning in the bay
That toiled like mortar. It was marvellous
And actual, I said out loud, ‘A haven’,
The word deepening, clearing, like the sky
Elsewhere on Minches, Cromarty, The Faroes.