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.
In the past, when I have had to read Heaney for my own GCSEs and then, in teaching terms, with a class from an anthology of works for their exams, one thing has always struck me above most other poets today, or in his time, or before and that is the richness and colour in his imagery and this is no different. Entitled with the word “Storm,” the use of title theory makes you think that this is going to be about the raw power of the elements as the island is battered and bruised in a storm and you would not be wrong, but it is also about the things that we fear the most, acting as one big metaphor for the minor things that batter and assail us in our own lives.
I remember having a short little moment with Heaney at the Whitbread Book Awards in 2000. It was a glorious moment but I was so nervous that I could not speak too much to him, but I wish I had now, instead of getting tongue tied and silly, thinking that ‘God has just walked into the room.’ Such was the effect of his arrival on my senses. I even wrote a poem about it, called ‘Meeting Seamus’ which may, if I remember right, be on here somewhere.
This poem then, is about a major storm on an island, as the title suggests, but it is also about so much more. If symbology was a thing, as Robert Langdon says in The Da Vinci Code, then what his words symbolize is the context of our fears about one thing or the other. For example, consider the opening salvo of “we are prepared.” Those words alone denote that they are prepared for something nasty that is coming, so as an act of preparation, they have done all they can to alleviate the issue, just as much as we would, had we got to go to hospital, or the Dentist’s, or somewhere else that we fear the most. “We are prepared” also denotes that they recognise danger when they see it, so preparation is key to success in these matters.
Then we see that the poet says “we build our houses squat,” which signifies a small house; a hut of sorts, that can withstand what the elements throw at it, day in and day out. Squat signifies small, so perhaps this is a smallholding, like a Croft, where subsistence farmers lived and eked out their meagre existence? I seem to remember teaching another Heaney poem in recent years, on a similar subject – Digging maybe? Look it up and see the similarities, if any.
So this is a small place with walls made of rock and where they “roof them with good slate.” This is a solid, hardy structure that could even be metaphorical for our own lives and minds, for when our fears do get the better of us, how do we respond? Is our house built on strong stone and firm foundations? Can we say that “this wizened earth has never troubled us?” If we can then we have led a truly charmed life indeed. But this is a threadbare existence that is being shared here as well and one which would bring with it its own fair share of conflict as the crofter battles the harshness and true brutal power of the natural elements.
There are “no trees which might prove company when it blows full blast” and raises “a tragic chorus in a gale.” There is hardly any protection from the “thing you fear,” which again, can be either analogous or metaphorical for other, more human things, as the house gets a pummelling from the elements. The lack of “natural shelter” shows an image to the reader of the barren nature of these surroundings and makes the reader think of how remote and even dangerous this place could be to live in. Heaney says that “you might think that the sea is company,” but it is not. It is a pure danger to anyone who ventures out on it or in it. This is the power of nature versus the absurdity of humanity in one short sentence being shared here and Heaney is a true artist in his own right at work, putting his ideas into effect as he shares his metaphor of fear with us all.
When it comes to power and conflict therefore, this is a poem showing opposing forces at work; nature and humanity. The storm rages as it “spits like a tame cat turned savage” and “we just sit tight while wind dives and strafes invisibly.” We know, don’t we, that in the end, the storm will subside and things will get back to what we consider to be ‘normal,’ but in the heat of the storm, that is when the power of Creation is at work and when we need to do the only thing worthy of doing and that is staying inside our safe, if not barren homes, even if that barren home is our heart and mind as we face the normal fears of the day.
In the end, there is a ‘strangeness’ to this poem, because the poet says that “it is a huge nothing that we fear” and he is right. We are right to fear the dangerous storm or the hurricane or the tornado. They can and will kill anything out inside them, but for me, this just shows the power of one over the other and at times, even with our basest of fears, we are prudent if we just sit tight till we let it pass.