The Rough Field and The Grafted Tongue of Northern Ireland
The Rough Field de John Montague a été publié en 1972. Qualifié par Derk Mahon « d'œuvre riche et complexe par le meilleur poète irlandais de sa génération », The Rough Field est composé de dizaines de poèmes variés de par leur style, leur longueur et leur tonalité. Tantôt basés sur l'imprévisible et la pure juxtaposition, tantôt suivant un thème logique et cohérent, les poèmes retracent la jeunesse de l'auteur en Ulster sur le terrain d'un milieu rural condamné à vite disparaître et de l'histoire tragique d'Irlande.
Le garbh acaidh, métaphore omniprésente dans les poèmes, est le nom gaélique du hameau où a grandi Montague que l'on traduit généralement par« la terre » ou « le champ en friche ». Cette métaphore établit un lien significatif entre le récit apparemment personnel du livre et l'histoire de la province de l'Ulster, ce Nord politiquement brisé, qui se meurt, stérile et marqué à jamais par les fractures politiques ; Dans The Rough Field il accumule des procédés différents et utilise souvent le collage en citant les sources historiques ou politiques diverses et en introduisant différentes langues, différents registres, différents niveaux de diction et différentes formes poétiques pour parvenir à la représentation de l'image complexe et émouvante d'une province déchirée d'une nation divisée, ce « paysage rude qui me hante ».
Personnes citées :Montague (John)
- 1 For a pertinent discussion of the sequence form, see The Modem Poetic Sequence: The Genius of Moder (...)
1In 1972 John Montague published the work likely to remain his major achievement, his monumental The Rough Field. A ten « canto » grouping of some fifty poems of significantly varying lengths and styles, The Rough Field maps the terrain of a rural Ulster upbringing where it trails off into the blasted topography of Irish historical disappointment and betrayal. Exploring a personal inheritance of interlocking exile and return, getting at the hopelessly complex truth of a history which resists reasoned exposition and which drove Montague's great forebear to the oxymoronic intensities of « terrible beauty »: these goals demand poetic resourcefulness. Amongst other responses to this lyric challenge, the poet consistently exploits a notably wide array of heterogeneous verbal materials within the already « open » form of the modern poetic sequence1. Exchanging a uniform, magisterial voice for a trenchant linguistic mobility, Montague's lyric strategy of the patchwork enlistment of disparate registers, literary forms, tonal changes, and borrowed materials rings true to the intriguing tangle of public and confessional intent that is The Rough Field.
- 2 From The listener, quoted in cover notes, The Rough Field.
- 3 From The Malahat Review, quoted in covered notes, The Rough Field.
2The poetic sequence Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney called « an utterance from the underworld of love and bitterness2 » movingly exploits the genre's possibilities through the fruitful interaction of abrupt lyric juxtaposition and coherent thematic development, through « historical meditation » and personal aside, through the jagged pastiche of publicly available material and the warm flow of intimate after-hours storytelling. Chilled urgently to focus by the North's re-exploding Troubles, Montague called sure handedly upon the sequence form and its capacity for complex, unfolding contextualization to enrich the emotional and poetic experience of individual lyrics written over years of personal memory and pained historical or political reflection. Fellow poet and Northerner Derek Mahon called the result a « rich and complex work by the best Irish poet of his generation3 ».
3In preparation throughout much of the 1960's, during which Montague writes that he « had a kind of vision, in the medieval sense, of my home area, the unhappiness of it historical destiny » (cover note), The Rough Field is organized loosely around two visits to the small town land in which he was raised from age three. Memory, re-encounters, and the changing landscape spur reflection on history, religion, the decaying rural culture, language, the background racket of political tension, exile. The opening sections tend towards private remembrance and meditation, with a gradual widening across the sequence towards greater generalization and synthesis. Never, though, does Montague remove his finger from the pulse of a flesh-and-blood land of real individuals, where the texture of unique, remembered lives keys our understanding of a broken nation more than any history text. In section ten, with seeming inevitability, we wheel from at times airy pronouncements about « a faulty world » (p. 76) back to the peewit-haunted bogland of one of the poet's most memorable works. « The Wild Dog Rose », and the tale of an old neighbor lady's rape, with its numbing horror and shocking, somehow plausible hope. Yet typically, in her all wounded, highly individuated reality, the neighbor hag is also, we remember, the Cailleach, a traditional emblem for Ireland.
4This is Montague's method in The Rough Field, the interlocking of dimensions and scales, intense personal discovery radiating towards the apprehension of general or public truth, then its reflection back. Montague's long sequence has often been compared to that of William Carlos Williams, and it is perhaps to Paterson (the man a city, the city a man) that we might best look for a trenchant description of the method of both poets: « To make a start,/ out of particulars/ and make them general, rolling/ up the sum, by defective means.../ Sniffing the trees,/ just another dog/ among a lot of dogs » (p. 3). Or to draw an example from nearer Montague's home, one thinks of the flyleaf of Stephen Dedalus's geography text, his concentric circles spinning from self out to universe, and their restless, dynamic interrelation throughout Joyce.
5The ground zero of Montague's sequence is Garvaghey (Garbh acaidh), the County Tyrone hamlet of the poet's childhood, personally translated into English as the rough, untilled, and rocky field of the title. As the sequence unfolds, the title accretes meaning progressively linking personal to public and vice versa: the individual's account of a return home dovetails into that of « our finally lost dream of man at home/ In a rural setting » (p. 85), the harsh lessons of family exile or the special tensions of cohabitation with Ulster neighbors into the historical scar of British occupation and its fault line even today still sundering a people. For Montague, as for other Northerner of Catholic upbringing, one of many symbolic fault lines remains that of language, that dividing the Pale from the gaeltacht, dominant English from the colonized Celts' Irish, still falteringly alive in certain corners of the island but battered by a concerted centuries-long campaign of linguicide on the part of the conqueror. To the poet, who writes today in what he calls the« grafted tongue » (p. 40) of English, the ugly keloid of linguistic scarring is never far from memory.
6Given his background - born in faraway Brooklyn, raised in the oral culture of a violently torn province of a divided country, writing in the colonizer's language yet trilingual (with Irish, but also, from a decade's residence in Paris, the French of a traditional ally to the Irish nation) - it is not at all surprising that Montague might think of language as something generous and multiple, or that he might seek to exploit in his work the abundant dramatic and artistic possibilities of linguistic variation. And indeed, in the striking mélange that is The Rough Field, we find the frequent, telling juxtaposition of different languages, registers, levels of diction, poetic forms, and « found » verbal materials. While the form of the poetic sequence tends naturally towards generous variety and inclusiveness, the degree of verbal heterogeneity in the sequence is notable. In a work that would be true to personal and historical experience in a shattered land with its « shards/ Of a lost tradition » (p. 34), it is wholly significant.
7The opening section of the sequence, « Home Again » (pp. 9-15) may serve as an example of ways Montague turns successfully to heterogeneous verbal matter and methods in his attempt to render the complex truth of a divided land. The « story » of The Rough Field starts here, with the author, in Belfast to receive a literary prize, catching a bus back home to County Tyrone.
8Interspersed with the three individual lyrics composing the first of the numbered subsections stand three excerpts from the Protestant Ulster Herald, singing in a tone of 19th century pomposity« that glorious autumn day » when Lord Mountjoy first surveyed vast tract of land stolen for the crown from the great O'Neill family. Visually and tonally intrusive« notes », these excerpts immediately recall both by their content and mere presence the inescapable political context of any action in the Six Counties, while, by their announcement of the « vast changes [that] have taken place », sending out echoes anticipating the tale of personal and social change that is to reverberate throughout the performance to come.
9The three short poems are then our first experience of Montague's personal voice, after the excerpts above and the two epigraphs of foreign provenance that precede the sequence as a whole. The brief lyrics follow the poet out of the « iron bleakness »of Belfast and over the Royal Road, symbolically « bisecting slopes of plaintive moorland », and on back to Garvaghey and that « harsh landscape that haunts me ». As tangy as his observations are (« God is Love, chalked on a grimy wall/ Mocks a culture where constraint is all »), it is, however, the unusual poetic form chosen for expression which is perhaps most telling. Only rarely in his career - and, notably, only one other (equally significant) time in The Rough Field - does this largely free-verse poet turn, as he does here, to the sonnet. Choosing this form, Montague brings to his then embryonic sequence an enriching subtext of associations. As a mode, the sonnet broods over the scenes it describes, a Janus-faced symbol of artificial, roundhead English restraint and an ironic reminder of an earlier age of grandeur and graciously accepted standards. The form cannot help but recall the age of Shakespeare - and that of Mountjoy, the bard's exact contemporary and the Irish lord deputy of the contextualizing excerpts, who commanded the English victory over O'Neill at Kinsale in 1601. This, the Elizabethan colonization bloodying the ground in preparation for that of Cromwell, will resonate in other poems and similar quoted material throughout The Rough Field.
10The temporary sonneteer, Montague seems as well to insist upon the necessarily ironic position of the Irish poet writing in what is now his language too, English. Clearly invoking the greatest poet in the language he calls equally - if through negation - upon Wordsworth, the author of the single greatest number of sonnet in the English language. « No Wordsworthian dream enchants me here », he protests too strongly, for in fact one of Montague's patrons in this sequence of remembrance and ritual understanding is the English author of The Prelude. Wordsworth's spirit hovers over the numerous works of pastoral remembering in The Rough Field, perhaps most notably the later « The Fight » (p. 52), with its childhood discovery of a swallow's freckled eggs and the ensuing scuffle with a betraying friend: « I saw him take/ And break them one by one/ Against a sunlit stone. » From Cuchulainn and Fergus through Bloody Sunday, such conflict is a sad norm, the verse implies, as we hear recurrence in the first rhymes in the poem and the sudden stabilization of the otherwise irregular iambic trimeter. Yet, reflecting upon « the bitter paradox/ Of betraying love to harm/ Then lungeing [sic], too later,/ Witth fists, to its defence, » Montague reminds us that « the fault » is always twofold.
11The truth is never simple, the honest Ulsterman certainly knows better than most. Turning expressly to the sonnet for his initial poetic utterances within the context of borrowed material from the Ulster Herald, thus implicitly acknowledging the complicating Englishness of his literary and linguistic heritage, Montague not only admits but highlights the ironies and twisted, unsimplifiable complexities that are the real truth of the Nord. To find language appropriate to its confusing morass of tensions, he is drawn again and again to similar juxtapositions. At times they may focus on the sad particularity of the Irish situation, as in the mountjoy insertions. At others the attempt seems to be the complementary opposite, to view a people's through the wide-angled lens of recurring human patterns and values. The sequence's opening epigraph, for example, is drawn from the distant Afghan: « 1 had never known sorrow,/ Now it is a field I have inherited, and I till it. » Here, turning east, Montague's universalizes a title borrowed from a lost hamlet of Northern Ireland, bringing to it the poignancy of all human pain, no matter what the tribe.
12The sequence form he chooses is naturally receptive to the principle of juxtaposition, and Montague does not hesitate to turn overtly to the pastiche of varied verbal materials. At times pastiche becomes no less than the subject itself. In section three, « The Bread God », for example, he offers what he calls « A Collage of religious Misunderstandings » (pp. 23-29). To poetic memories of neighbors at Mass and the poet's diffident distance from them, the section joins potpourri of excerpt from the letters of a priest uncle in Australian exile, from Carleton's evocation of the intense Christmas devotion of Tyrone Catholics, and from the anti-European mailing and vituperative anti-Catholic propaganda of an extremist Protestant organization. The latter, sent maliciously to Montague and absorbed into « The Bread God » as a « the only antidote I could find to such hatred » (cover note), rings weirdly throughout the section, the foul-mouthed poetry of zombies:« ECUMENISM is THE NEW NAME if the WHORE OF BABYLON!/ SHE who SHITS on THE SEVEN HLLS. »
13Give this hyped-up Orange fringe the mike to make such statements, of course, and it is not surprising that the Catholics in these poems come off better. But, mind you, not a great deal better: before the intriguing menace of the « many-fanged monstrance, » their simple faith, surging up to receive the Eucharist, is to Montague but that of « cattle thronged in a fait. » More than a step removed stands the poet, at best a late-comer to Mass who studies his neighbors absent-mindedly or fishes boredly into his pocket for the extremist tract folded in there with the lint. What remains as his spiritual heritage is not religion in any conventional sense, green or orange, but something like a religious turn of spirit, humble in its observance of the rites of artistic transubstantiation. The poet's figure for such a rite is the subject of « Penal Rock/ Altamuskin », in which, resisting the temptation to keen or philosophize, he walks elegiacally from his car to the abandoned rock altar where generations of Montagues, « parched for that surviving sign of grace », drank in « the bog-latin murmur of their priest ».
For two hundred years
People of our name have sheltered in this glen
But now all have left. A few flowers
Whither on the altar, so I melt a ball of snow
From the hedge into their rusty tin before I go.
14Combining regret, affection, sadness, irony, this is a strange act of devotion by a man faithful after his fashion. Disciplined an ruminative of tone, the poem in its context is a calm « no » to certitudes that is the stronger for the disparate materials that precede it, their snapshots sharply memorializing the passionate intensity and the mechanical herd instinct of those who would, all certitude, continue the historic quarrel. It is the stronger, too, for the inhabitual lyric form Montague chooses. Here, in the only other instance in the sequence, he again turns surprisingly and appropriately to the sonnet.
15Purity - docile credulity or vitriol in these poems, as too often in Ulster life - is just the problem, Montague seems to argue, the ice that will not soften to irrigate new growth. Melting the emblematic Northern snow not to clear but to rusty water, his is instead a warm offering of impurity - as is the Irishman's now repeated offer of affection, across the barricades to this most English of poetic forms. In the second epigraph to The Rough Field, the cosmopolitan Montague again ranges wide, to the Greek diplomat and poet George Seferis, to remind us that simplicity and consistency are almost always the worst reflex in a world of inextricable complexity: « The Greeks say it was the Turks who burned down Smyrna The Turks say it was the Greeks./ Who will discover the truth?/ The wrong has been committed. The important thing is who will redeem it. »
- 4 For a perceptive reading of Montague as a poet of balanced vision, see James D. Brophy, John Montag (...)
16As elsewhere in his work, Montague advocates and practices in The Rough Field a kind of double or multiple vision4 redemptively true to the many facts of things as they are, not as the bomb layers or those who preach from the boots of their cars would have them: « one explores a inheritance to free oneself and others » (cover note), not to enslave oneself to a particular past or exclusive paradigm. The foul reality, of course, that for too long many Northeners of both stripes have been so enslaved, self-imprisoned in the huis clos of Dedalu's historical nightmare. This is the subject of « A New Siege » (pp. 73-77), the penultimate section of the sequence and again poetic terrain appropriately worked by Montague with an impressively varied range of verbal tools.
17Somewhat grandiloquently subtitled « An Historical Meditation for Bernadette Devlin », its guiding conceit is lines locked seemingly forever in opposition, the ties that bind to a past, the borderlines traced history, greed, political power, revenge, and religion, perhaps the puppet strings of those who make sure others don't try to cross over. The poem begins on the leaden, inevitable note of historical recurrence: « Once again it happens. » Borrowed material appear, again, as frequent punctuation to the poem's (and the sequence's) endlessly crisscrossing « lines of suffering/ lines of defeat »: Orangeman « historical » account, inert graffiti, the muttered remarks of the guardian of an empty church. We are left with an impression of a society trussed but flailing, with too little conviction, towards a solution it cannot articulate. Montague's parallel with Berlin and with the Paris and Chicago of'68 may be facile, but his characterization of « the rough field/ of the universe » rings true, its « net of energies/ ... wearing towards/ a new order/ a new anarchy/ always different/ always the same. »
18Significantly, Montague again chooses to play a surprising stylistic card. « A New Siege » is written in the cadences of the ancient line of Anglo-Saxon verse, what Montague found to be the right « rhythm in which to write a public poem » (« Impact », p. 157). In so doing he exploited a music properly gauged to the Troubles as a nearly timeless feature of Irish life. Opting for a thousand-year old English form born on the Continent, Montague signifies not only that the struggle has long historical roots but that they have split the earth like other forces elsewhere forever have and forever will, « seismic waves, zigzagging through/ a faulty world. »The poem is verb-poor and what verbs do appear usually do so as gerunds and participles: action stillborn into nouns and adjectives whose very function is to define and, thus, separate. Lines push, then pull, and, unaided by conventional syntax, the reader searches for direction: does one read top to bottom, left to right, how?
19On this rough, confusing verbal field emblematizing that of Irish political history, the daring choice to echo Anglo-Saxon heroic verse functions on at least two additional levels. The reliance upon caesurae (here imaged with alternating indentation) and the form's strident rhythmic simplicity, dual stress hammering dual stress, are visual and aural reminders of historical division and the hectoring resistance to change that have been Britain's tainted legacy. Yet the essentially foreign form evokes equally a simple world or heroic function and noble, epic achievement far from such realities. The universe of Beowulf, with its verity of comprehensible threats and unchallenged codes of response, stands as an ironic, nostalgic reproach to a shameful, petty circuit of drumming marchers, behind-backs talk, and fathers of four gunned down by hooded motorcyclists.
20Again, such consistent reliance upon heterogeneous verbal materials would seem to come naturally to the Ulster Celt, as it might, say, to those raised in Kabyle, Indian, or Basque culture. Brought up in a world in which the historical threat to the indigenous language still hangs heavy, where full access to public identity is available only through what can be read as a form of linguistic collaboration, language in it many form remains both a subject of preoccupation and a backdrop conditioning any attempt to make sense of cultural heritage. In section four, « A Severed, head » (pp. 31-41), Montague addresses the theme of related linguistic division and cultural loss as directly as he does anywhere in the sequence. Again his method is not smooth exposition but the choreographed interaction of a variety of different verbal effects and sources.
21Seven epigraphic insertions - one in Irish, one from a childhood rhyme, five from English historical and biographical accounts - are sprinkled throughout the six distinct poems that compose the series. The section takes its title from the first quotation: « And who ever heard/ Such a sight unsung/ As a severed head/ With a grafter tongue? » Following on the preceding poem's fantastic dream vision of « a United Ireland », this gay traditional ditty of feral violence and linguistic hurt itself precedes further epigraphs, the themes of which are imaged visually in a reproduced woodcut from an old history text. One quotation, from Hill's Historical Account of the Plantation of Ulster, luxuriates in its now ironic description of the rich abundance of the North; the other recounts a risk inherent in taking such rich land from its proprietors, namely the « entertainment » of losing one's head to the locals, the case for an unfortunate Crown surveyor passing through Tyrone centuries back.
22The context generated by such multiple insertions is one of historic injustice, verbal play, savage revenge. The first poem, « The Road 's End », finds what's left of a home here, as an ancestor of the dispossessed retrods ground walked in childhood, now a rough field of outhouses and aerials, and certainly no longer the « many cattle and such abundance of grain » of Elizabethan times. Around him lean deserted cabins and standing stones; notably, even sadder as « shards of a lost tradition » are the half-forgotten connotations of place names. The encrusted surface of the Golden Stone, he says, can only be read as by « a blind man,/ Along the fingertips of instinct. » Even in Montague's youth, the sad direction of things had been towards cultural illiteracy, « the whole landscape a manuscript/ We had lost the skill to read. » When as a boy he stammers school Irish to the last true Gaelic speaker in the parish, he is given « a rusty litany of praise » for the small act of repossession: « Ta an Ghaedilg againn aris », we have the Irish again, and to the boy that instant the gallow glasses again take route south until « Ulster' pride, Elizabeth's foemen,/ Founder in a Munster bog. »
23The succeeding poems represent The Rough Field at its worst and best. « Ulster's Pride » provides what Edna Longley calls a « potted history of the O'Neills » (p. 144) - a cavalcade of historical dioramas like Shane the proud strutting before Elizabeth, included, one suspects, because the planning mind of the sequence needed History at that moment. Longley's distinction between real and imposed structure accurately characterizes the problem, for ideas and images interact more naturally when Montague maintains close contact with what he better knows, entering history through the familiar. In the moving « A Grafted Tongue », for example, he stays/ within the warm reach of his family, returning to his great-grandfather's experience to communicate the actual and symbolic loss when a people finds that its old order has strayed or been stolen away.
24The two-stress lines of the poem's quatrains echo the folk rhyme serving as the section's epigraph, their homey tapping breaking tellingly with the preceding poem and the music of swelling epic sadness still in our ears:
Disappearence & death
of a world, as down Lough Swilly
the great ship, encumbered with nobles,
swells its sails for Europe:
The Flight of the Earls.
25Both visually and aurally, Montague contrasts here a mythologized public realm and the world of private loss to which all history and myth are but supports. In « A Grafted Tongue » the epic dimension is thee, but it is compressed tightly within the Irish child weeping over his mistake in English and within little stanzas that contract reflexively before speaking:« To slur and stumble// In Shame/ The altered syllables/ Of you own name...// To growl/ A second tongue, as/ harsh a humiliation/ as twice to be born. » The closing stanza has a poignant personal relevance for the poet whose public readings are occasionally marked by an inexplicable stammer: « Decades later/ that child's grandchild's/ speech stumbles over lost/ syllables of an old order. »
26Within the rich context provided by the other inserted quotations and Montague's varied, interlocking poetic treatments of public and private loss, the strange woodcut and the light gravity of the epigraphic children' rhyme opening the section take on increasing meaning. Through the grafted tongue on linguistic alienation is Montague's primary concern in the poems, his image of a severed head deserves attention as the kind of multivalent symbol that unifies the varied matter of the sequence. Intentionally knotty as the Problem itself, the image clearly represent the honored tradition of bilateral Irish violence while suggesting simultaneously the severed head of Irish leadership towards which « Lament for the O'Neills » rises in its final lines. The most contemporary sense is that of a culture still forcibly and violently divided against itself its individual members torn free from rationality.
- 5 Interestingly, in the same year, 1972, Montague and Seamus Heaney turn similarly toward the evocati (...)
27Strange, violent, magical, a grafted tongue in a severed head is perhaps as well an image offering insight into the lyric strategy of Montague in The Rough Field. In « A Severed Head », caressing « the uncultivated pearls » of local place names5, the exile-severed English-speaking Irishman bears witness to the « lawless turn » of language and its penchant for mixed-marriages. For a North whose entwisted convolutions of public and private memory find an appropriate echo in « names twining braid Scots and Irish », Montague wisely chooses not one verbal tack in The Rough Field but a rich accumulation of varied effects. Here he offers a figure for the sequence itself, calling it « the longest journey I have ever gone. » In this notable work whose title is itself a translation, the journey takes us across a verbal landscape fragmented like the country itself. To walk this field with Montague is to pick one's way through a motley verbal abundance true at once to the Bloody Brae, sanguinary and etymologically Scots, and to the Irish Black Lough and its depths of a man's, a people's, memory.
1 For a pertinent discussion of the sequence form, see The Modem Poetic Sequence: The Genius of Modern Poetry, M.-L. Rosenthal and Sally M. Gall devote several pages to The Rough Field, which they see in relation to the work of Jones, Bunting. Kinsella, Williams, etc. Given the broader ambitions of their critical work, their remarks regarding Montague are necessarily superficial. Rosenthal and Gall are strongest in the fine opening chapter, in which they succinctly characterize the poetic sequence, in term particularly appropriate to The Rough Field and its author's use of the form as a way to hold in equilibrium a wide range of personal, social, and historical forces. « More successfully than individual short lyrics. » say the authors, the sequence « fulfills the need for encompassment of disparate and often powerfully opposed tonalities and energies » (3). Also see Engle, « That Always Raised Voice. », p. 41 and" the Vital Bond of Distance. », pp. 101-105.
2 From The listener, quoted in cover notes, The Rough Field.
3 From The Malahat Review, quoted in covered notes, The Rough Field.
4 For a perceptive reading of Montague as a poet of balanced vision, see James D. Brophy, John Montague's Retive Sally-Switch. ».
5 Interestingly, in the same year, 1972, Montague and Seamus Heaney turn similarly toward the evocative examination of Irish place names as the repository of cultural truths. Sec Heaney's Wintering Out, Faber, 1972.Haut de page
Pour citer cet article
John Engle, « The Rough Field and The Grafted Tongue of Northern Ireland », Babel, 3 | 1999, 131-142.
John Engle, « The Rough Field and The Grafted Tongue of Northern Ireland », Babel [En ligne], 3 | 1999, mis en ligne le 14 janvier 2013, consulté le 29 mars 2017. URL : http://babel.revues.org/2403 ; DOI : 10.4000/babel.2403Haut de page
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