Every week Ruth Padel discusses a contemporary poet through an example of their work. No 31 Michael Longley

Ruth Padel
Wednesday 21 September 2011 17:44

Belfast-born contemporary of Seamus Heaney with fantastic classic lyric grace; a wonderful nature poet, love poet and war poet, with a gift for making moments from the ancient world, literature or history, come tremblingly alive in the modern. He edited MacNeice's Selected Poems and like him read Classics at university. Whether about the Troubles, mating swans, or Jews in a Polish ghetto, his fine-crafted, feathery, precise poems are driven by pity, beauty and tenderness: formality melting into intimacy. Seven collections (including Gorse Fires which won the Whitbread Prize) and a Selected.

This poem first appeared in the Irish Times when the IRA announced their original ceasefire in August l995. Today, at yet another crisis point for the peace process which evolved so painfully out of that move, here it is again: a wonderful example of Longley's use of the classical, without an ounce of didactic posturing, to make a passionate contribution to contemporary reality.

Towards the end of Homer's Iliad, set during the Greek siege of Troy, the Greek hero Achilles kills Hector, son of the Trojan king Priam. Early in the poem we saw Hector glamorous and armed, laughing with his wife when their baby is scared by his helmet. Then, he took the helmet off to hug his little boy. Now, stripped of all armour, he is lying dead in the dust. Because Hector killed Achilles's friend, Achilles dragged the corpse behind his chariot, doing all he could to disfigure it. Braving the Greek lines, the elderly king comes alone, at night, to try to buy his son's corpse back. Achilles is nearly sparked into murderous rage again; then remembers his own father and relents. It is the Iliad's climax of reciprocal compassion. The audience knows what will happen after; Achilles will die, Troy will be sacked, and Priam killed by Achilles' son. But for this moment, in a poem of male fury and killing, there is a breath of shared pity - for each other, for all human beings in their loss and grief. From this passage, Longley creates a quiet lyric translation which also offers itself, simply in its title (and in subtle changes - Hector is redressed not in armour but in uniform), as a poem about hope now: about a chance for what must be done, accepting and burying the past, sharing the mourning, for Protestant and Catholic in Northern Ireland.

Soundwise, this poem in classic lyric form is lapped in vowel harmonies as resonant and balanced as a Romanesque chapel. Achilles, key name, is in every stanza. Its central syllable is repeated in the first stanza (until, filled, building, with a sideways echo in curled, a startlingly vulnerable act, like a child or pet, for the king of Troy), reappears in the second, resonates in the third with built and still (plus an echo in full), and reaches a climax in killer. Achilles has kill in his very name. The own of the first line, the first strongly accented word, re- appears in the first line of the second verse and is mirrored in home at the end of that: this poem is about sharing grief for what is yours - your own, your home. In the third stanza that sound is replaced by the flicker of together, other's, lovers, stressing the poem's movement and message: own-ness, valuing only what is yours, must give way to the reciprocal, to valuing each other. Hector's body is wrapped like a present for Priam.

But reciprocal feeling happens at a cost. In the last stanza, the own sound mutates to the sound we end on: first down, then done and - the emotional climax, the point of the action - son. Hands have been important all through. Reconciliation begins in the mind and is shown in the hand; the sound of mind mutates to hand in the first stanza. Priam is the vulnerable one, the one we identify with. His name resounds with "I am", containing both the I of mind and A of hand - which is backed up by and at the end of the third line. Ending a line, poetry's key unit, with and is always risky: it has to have a point. The point here is partly musical. And rings back to mind, Priam (the name carried through three stanzas, balancing Achilles), and hand - which will be crucial in the last stanza. But this positioning, stressing the and, also spotlights the slow-motion, sculpted quality of the actions suggested in the Roman numerals above each stanza: as if this were a memorial inscription or frieze. Parataxis, "arranging things beside things," basically means joining by lots of ands rather than subordinating one act or idea to another. The structure of these first stanzas is paratactic: Achilles is put in mind and moved: he took and pushed, Priam curled and wept. In the second stanza there is more taking on Achilles' part (took harmonises with pushed in the first verse, taking is followed up by sake and daybreak in the second). These momentous actions are revealed gently and gradually, side by side, as if we were seeing them in carved relief. The body is washed and laid out; and this and too is accentuated, by the comma and explanation (for the old king's sake). The parataxis, the side-by-sideness of the acts, reflects the human situation. Subordination is not the issue: the two men are becoming almost equal in their grief. Almost - but not quite. Achilles appears in all stanzas; Priam disappears in the last. To be reconciled, you have to give up, maybe even kill, some central thing in your own identity: to pay the last cost and kiss the killer. Priam was taken by the hand in the first verse; now, in the last, he kisses the hand which killed his son.

c Ruth Padel, 1999

`Ceasefire' appears in Selected Poems (Cape)



Put in mind of his own father and moved to tears

Achilles took him by the hand and pushed the old king

Gently away, but Priam curled up at his feet and

Wept with him until their sadness filled the building.


Taking Hector's corpse into his own hands Achilles

made sure it was washed and, for the old king's sake,

Laid out in uniform, ready for Priam to carry

Wrapped like a present home to Troy at daybreak.


When they had eaten together, it pleased them both

To stare at each other's beauty as lovers might,

Achilles built like a god, Priam good-looking still

And full of conversation, who earlier had sighed:


I get down on my knees and do what must be done

And kiss Achilles' hand, the killer of my son.

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