Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) was a Northern Irish poet. He often wrote about childhood and nature and received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. The poem Storm on the Island comes from the 1966 collection Death of a Naturalist, which won several awards and gained Heaney international recognition. The collection also included the famous works Digging and Death of a Naturalist, which are often studied in schools. Heaney was a world-renowned poet and had terms as a professor at the universities of both Harvard and Oxford. He has been called ‘the most important Irish poet since Yeats’.
The title is blunt and explicit. It shows that the poem will deal with the issue of a storm. The choice remains with the reader about how they interpret the ‘storm’. Some might see it as a literal storm on a small island off the coast of Ireland, while others will see it as a metaphorical reference to the Troubles in Northern Ireland at the time of the writing of the poem. The first eight letters of the title create the name ‘Stormont’ – the home of the Irish National Assembly. Heaney rarely wrote directly about the conflict raging in Ireland at the time. His oblique reference to it here is typical of his work.
The poem is a first-person narrative in which the narrator speaks directly to the reader. The text is inclusive, as if ‘we’ are part of the action. It makes the storm feel like a communal experience with the people working together to respond to the threat. While the opening of the poem shows absolute confidence in the villagers’ safety, the later part of the poem shows the fear caused by the ‘huge nothing’ of the storm. The blank verse gives the poem the feeling of a conversation.
With no breaks or separate stanzas, the poem seems like a solid block, like the houses the people build against the storms. It has also been published as a four-stanza poem, however, with three stanzas of five lines each and one of four lines. This creates line breaks in particularly interesting places such as at ‘like a tame cat/Turned savage.’
The poet speaks directly to the reader: ‘you know what I mean’. This makes us remember our own experiences of the noises trees make in a storm. On this island, there is none of that which Heaney says ‘might prove company’. The poem moves from the feeling of peace from being well prepared for the storm to fear when the storm comes.
Ideas and Language
This poem looks at a small island community in Northern Ireland. The island is quite inhospitable to begin with: few trees and other things grow there, the ‘wizened earth’ doesn’t trouble the islanders by producing hay and so there are ‘no stacks or stooks that can be lost’. There are also no trees that might ‘prove company when it blows full blast’. The island is quite a barren wilderness but the sea might seem like ‘company’ and could be seen as ‘exploding comfortably’ until the storm comes.
Nature is against them on the island: there is ‘no natural shelter’. At line 14 the storm hits. The spray from the sea ‘spits like a tame cat turned savage’. It is a tame thing, welcomed in, that turns against its owners. All the humans can do is ‘sit tight’ while the wind is like a fighter plane that ‘dives and strafes’. It is invisible and impossible to capture, highlighting its ultimate power. The last four lines show the power of the storm; the islanders are ‘bombarded’ by the air itself and Heaney reflects on the fact that the storm is invisible but deadly; a ‘huge nothing that we fear’.
The poem concentrates on the fear and violence of the storm. Nature is personified as a ‘tragic chorus’ narrating events and as a boxer. Metaphor and simile are also used to describe the storm as it attacks the island. Onomatopoeic words such as ‘blast’, ‘exploding’ and ‘spit’ are used to reflect the noises of the sea and wind.
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