Muldoon’s Northern Ireland

Was clearing up some files just now, and came across this old undergraduate essay. Plenty of stutters in it, but it’s either here or the recycle bin…

Despite having lived in Belfast throughout the height of the troubles, Paul Muldoon has always refrained from outlining his position in relation to the complex political situation in Northern Ireland. In 1985, while still living in Belfast, Muldoon remarked:

It doesn’t matter where I stand politically, with a small “p” in terms of Irish politics. My opinion about what should happen in Northern Ireland is no more valuable than yours. (Donaghy and Muldoon 85)

This view is reflected in “The Boundary Commission”, in which the concluding lines read: “He stood there, for ages, / To wonder which side, if any, he should be on” (Why Brownlee Left 15). The speaker acknowledges the division as sectarian rather than geographical, and wonders if either side is worth taking. The view that is expressed in these lines is the culmination of the preceding two stanzas, in which the speaker outlines the “village where the border ran / Down the middle of the street”.

In delineating the poem’s central theme, the first piece of evidence can be found in the title. It would be reasonable to infer that the commission to which the poem refers is the Irish Boundary Commission of 1924. However, the identification of which particular commission is being cited is not as pertinent as the fact that the poem’s title includes the word “commission”. The speaker is referring to borders drawn up by a faceless commission, rather than the populace that such boundaries will ultimately affect. This notion is strengthened in the second stanza, where the poem reads:

Today he remarked how a shower of rain

Had stopped so cleanly across Golightly’s lane
It might have been a wall of glass
That had toppled over.

In the rain’s unnatural behaviour, “the poem emphasises that borders are unnatural, decreed by boundary commissions and bearing little relation to social and geographical realities” (Kendall 79). This unnatural division is reiterated through the form of the poem. “The Boundary Commission” is divided equally into two four-line stanzas, even though the natural division would be for the last five lines to be kept separate from the preceding three.

            In “The Boundary Commission”, Muldoon represents the divisions in Northern Ireland as arbitrary:

You remember that village where the border ran
Down the middle of the street,
With the butcher and baker in different states?

The relative closeness of the butcher and baker is contrast with the fact that they are “in different states”, highlighting the arbitrary division that runs “[d]own the middle of the street”. The image of the butcher suggests slaughter, while the image of the baker suggests bread, often associated with life in biblical references. If such a reading is accepted, then the poem represents one side of the divide as being associated with slaughter, the other with life.

In “Ireland”, Muldoon leaves us wondering yet again. Here, the poet represents Northern Ireland as a place of indeterminacy:

The Volkswagon parked in the gap,
But gently ticking over.
You wonder if it’s lovers
And not men hurrying back
Across two fields and a river. (19)

The form of this poem, which makes use of slant rhyme, draws attention to the notion of indeterminacy by placing the appropriate line in the poem’s most prominent position. “You wonder if it’s lovers”, the central line of a five-line poem, represents the indeterminacy that surrounded the troubles in Northern Ireland. Actual violence receives only a brief allusion: the word “ticking” conjures the image of an explosion, the “men hurrying back / Across two fields and a river” from some criminal act. In addition, this final line parodies the Irish ballads that often refer to our free fields and rivers, a notion that lies in contrast with the Northern Ireland that Muldoon represents across his poetry.

            Muldoon continues to represent Northern Ireland as a place of perpetual indeterminacy in “Lull”:

I know that eternal interim;
I think I know what they’re waiting for
In Tyrone, Fermanagh, Down and Antrim. (17)

Use of the phrase, “eternal interim”, suggests that the speaker sees Northern Ireland as a place where there will always be suffering, then a lull in the troubles, then further suffering. It is a vicious cycle which stems from the fact that “up and down the country / There are still houses where the fire / Hasn’t gone out in a century”. Wills supports this notion in her assertion that these lines are “an image for keeping the passions lit, implying that these country homes are still burning with unfulfilled political ambitions” (65). Muldoon once stated that “there’s a sense of the unfinished about the state of Northern Ireland” (Keller and Muldoon 28), something that is represented in the reference to “that eternal interim” and the cyclical nature of the suffering to which the poem alludes. As in “The Boundary Commission” and “Ireland”, Muldoon chooses a form that underpins his theme. By electing to structure “Lull” as a sonnet, the cyclical suffering cited in “Lull” is reflected in the cyclical rhyme scheme that accompanies this form.

The religious citations in the poem have been read by many critics as Muldoon’s representation of the faith that the people of Northern Ireland hold in providence. I would not dismiss this reading, but would offer an alternative explanation:

Tomorrow is another day,
As your man said on the Mount of Olives.
The same is held of County Derry.

The passage from the New Testament that describes the betrayal of Jesus begins: “Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane” (Matthew 26:36). Gethsemane is a garden at the foot of the Mount of Olives, where the betrayal of Jesus occurs:

Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; seize him.” And he came up to Jesus at once and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” And he kissed him. (Matthew 26:48-49)

There are many references to this location throughout the Bible, but it is this particular sequence of events for which it has become most famous. The direct reference to the Mount of Olives, and the speaker’s insistence that “[t]he same is held of Country Derry”, is to my mind an attempt by Muldoon to represent Northern Ireland’s complex history of betrayal and conflict, a reference that ties in with the image of the butcher and baker found in “The Boundary Commission”–Judas, like the butcher, is an image of slaughter, while Jesus, like the baker, is a symbol of life. Despite the closeness of Jesus and Judas, like the butcher and baker, the two are now in conflict with one another as a result of this betrayal. Essentially, Muldoon is portraying the North as a place where violence occurs between “brothers”.

In “Anseo”, Muldoon constructs Northern Ireland as a nation where destiny is almost preordained, owing largely to the rampant political and religious fanaticism that one encounters. This is supported by a comment from Muldoon himself: “…the society from which the child [in the poem] emerges is an oppressive, cruel one, and it’s a Catholic society” (Haffenden 138). In “Anseo”, we see how the protagonist’s life is decided by Catholicism. This is reflected in both the narrative of the poem, as well as the character’s name. By choosing a name that alludes to one of the leaders of the 1916 Rising, it is suggested that Joseph Mary Plunkett Ward was almost predestined to support the nationalist agenda. This stands in contrast to “Lull”, where the sense of certainty that we encounter in “Anseo” is replaced by ambiguity. By presenting such contrasting representations of Northern Ireland in the same collection, Muldoon is guarding against trivialisation. By taking this approach, he is presenting as wide a portrayal of the North as is possible. Throughout “Anseo”, we see ironic language facilitate a rejection of the traditional rhetoric that defined the protagonist’s progression through life: “He was fighting for Ireland, / Making things happen” (21).

Moving away from Why Brownlee Left, it is perhaps in “Aisling” that we see Muldoon’s most sardonic representation of Northern Ireland. Here, the poet takes the traditional literary figure of Ireland and applies it to the struggle in the North, mocking the standard personification in doing so:

Was she Aurora, or the goddess Flora
Artemidora, or Venus bright,
or Anorexia, who left
a lemon stain on my flannel sheet? (Quoof 39)

These lines summon a profaning of the ideals of nationalism, while in the opening stanza, the speaker casts Northern Ireland as a place of disorder, “stagger[ing] / into a snow drift” while walking home during the summer.

Throughout his poetry, Muldoon alludes to and parodies many of his fellow Irish authors, for reasons that differ from piece to piece. In “Aisling”, Muldoon parodies Heaney’s pastoral language in the lines: “Her eyes spoke of a sloe-year, / her mouth a year of haws”. I would see this as a rejection by Muldoon of the typical Heaneyesque representation of Ireland that poems like “Aisling” oppose. We see a similar opposition in the aforementioned “Anseo”, where Muldoon parodies Yeats’ idealisation of an Irish woodland in “The Song of Wandering Aengus”. In “Wire”, Muldoon again returns to his representation of the North as a place of civil violence, accomplishing such through a parody of not an Irish writer, but of American modernist Wallace Stevens’ “The Rivers of Rivers in Connecticut”.

“Wire” returns to the violence of Northern Ireland in sestina form. The use of the sestina is significant, as it underlines the repetitive nature of the North’s violent past. By executing this particular form, Muldoon is equating the poem’s rhyme scheme to the history of Northern Ireland, a history which continually intrudes upon representations of its nation. Muldoon cannot represent the North like Wallace represents Connecticut, as he cannot break from the restrictions of this history of violence. The speaker in “Wire” portrays this restriction that the poet feels as a nightmare from which they cannot escape:

on this hillside of hillsides in Connecticut
brought back some truck on a bomb run,
brought back so much with which I’d hope to break –
the hard-line. (Hay 94)

In this respect, I would suggest that Muldoon’s violent representations of Northern Ireland, as seen throughout these poems, are borne out of frustration. Frustration at the impinging history of the region, and the inability of Muldoon and his contemporaries to break from its influence in an effort to see Northern Ireland as something more than “the endless re-run / of Smithfield, La Mon, [and] Enniskillen” (95).

Works Cited

Donaghy, Michael, and Paul Muldoon. “A Conversation With Paul Muldoon.” Chicago Review 35.1 (1985) : 76-85. Web. 6 Apr 2011.

Goodby, John. Irish Poetry Since 1950: From Stillness Into History. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2000. Print.

Haffenden, John. Viewpoints: Poets In Conversation With John Haffenden. First Edition. Faber and Faber, 1981. Print.

Holy Bible: English Standard Version (ESV). Chestnut Ornamental edition. Collins, 2010. Print.

Keller, Lynn, and Paul Muldoon. “An Interview With Paul Muldoon.” Contemporary Literature 35.1 (1994) : 1-29. Web. 6 Apr 2011.

Kendall, Tim. Paul Muldoon. Bridgend, Wales: Seren, 1996. Print.

Muldoon, Paul. Hay. London: Faber and Faber, 1998. Print.
—. Quoof. London: Faber and Faber, 1983. Print.
—. Why Brownlee Left. London: Faber and Faber, 1980. Print.

Wills, Clair. Reading Paul Muldoon. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe, 1998. Print.

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