Poem of the week
The Ash Plant by Seamus Heaney
Written in memory of his cattle-farming father, this tribute lends him a kind of mythical power as a guide to knowing both life and death
Monday 23 May 2016 11.54 BST
The Ash Plant
He’ll never rise again but he is ready.
Entered like a mirror by the morning,
He stares out the big window, wondering,
Not caring if the day is bright or cloudy.
An upstairs outlook on the whole country.
First milk-lorries, first smoke, cattle, trees
In damp opulence above damp hedges –
He has it to himself, he is like a sentry
Forgotten and unable to remember
The whys and wherefores of his lofty station,
Wakening relieved yet in position,
Disencumbered as a breaking comber.
As his head goes light with light, his wasting hand
Gropes desperately and finds the phantom limb
Of an ash plant in his grasp, which steadies him.
Now he has found his touch he can stand his ground
Or wield the stick like a silver bough and come
Walking again among us: the quoted judge.
I could have cut a better man out of the hedge!
God might have said the same, remembering Adam.
Seamus Heaney’s father, Patrick Heaney, represents a moral touchstone in the poet’s work. We meet him first in Digging (from Death of a Naturalist in 1966) as “his straining rump among the flower-beds / Bends low, comes up twenty years away…” This sets the tone of future recollection, a combination of gentle amusement and deep, even emulatory, respect. It continues even into the transcendent elegies and visionary speculations of his 1991 collection, Seeing Things.
Nonetheless, a new strand of filial feeling now complicates the weave: the father acquires more than one kind of mythic status as he moves through the collection, sometimes as a shade, sometimes as a bright soul: a mediator between earth and heaven, Christianity and classicism.
The collection begins with a poem called The Golden Bough, translating lines 98-148 of Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid. (Faber has since published the complete Book VI). Here, the Sibyl tells Aeneas, who wants to visit his father Anchises in Hades, that “To go down into earth’s hidden places,” the seeker must first find the sacred bough and pluck “this golden-fledged tree-branch out of its tree”. The branch will come away easily, provided Fate has given her consent.
The “golden bough” image is grafted on to the last stanza of The Ash Plant, and a reverse journey ensues. Now it’s the dead father who will “wield the stick like a silver bough” and so be able to move among the living. Traditionally, the ashplant, a stick with a natural “handle” provided by the angle of the sapling’s root, had a number of practical uses. For Patrick Heaney, cattle dealer and small farmer, it would have served to help him control his livestock. The poem seems to suggest the same ashplant also made a handy walking stick for Patrick in later life.
Heaney was writing in 1986, two years after his father’s death, and four years after his mother’s. Later in the collection, in the first poem of the Lightenings section of the four-part sequence, Squarings, he imagines “a shivering beggar” trying to shelter in a ruined, roofless house. This is the condition of the adult child who, parentless, has nothing to stand between himself and cold infinity. The Ash Plant might be an accommodation with that existential loneliness. It recounts a process different from the retrievals of memory, although memory is certainly part of it. A mystical act of imagination heightens the remembering and so forms a new present. The poet is now “Seeing Things” that are not past but a continuation of existence on a different plane.
Five solid quatrains, the wonderfully effortless ABBA half-rhyme, a firm pentameter beat, and the emphasised cadence of numerous feminine line-endings: these building blocks have and contain the density of the real world, but they signify more. The father in the poem is waking up after his death, “Entered like a mirror by the morning.” He is uncertain, a new shade, unmoored from life but not far beyond it, like a sentry “unable to remember / The whys and wherefores of his lofty station” (as a sentry’s ghost might be perplexed in a Northern Ireland of future ceasefire). Then “his wasting hand” finds “the phantom limb” of the ashplant and “… he has found his touch and can stand his ground”. It’s a lovely image that suggests a frail old man in his later years taking up his stick and, in that moment, finding his balance and becoming sure on his feet, as if recovering a younger body. The shade is transfigured, and, light-filled, he gains full authority. And once again the son gently smiles at the father and teases him as “the quoted judge” for his dry comment, “I could have cut a better man out of the hedge!”
The comment may have originally signalled the father’s dismissal of the ash-cutting skills of a fellow dealer: it could also have been an old man’s criticism of the medically prescribed walking-stick. A bold shift of context raises the stakes. “God might have said the same, remembering Adam.” The poet not only gives the father further status as moral arbiter: he presents an idea of resurrection and judgment that might or might not guarantee redemption of the soul.
In the Crossings section of Squarings, Patrick will more firmly acquire an identity as guiding and guardian spirit. “‘Look for a man with an ashplant on the boat,’ / My father told his sister, setting out / For London, and stay near him all night // And you’ll be safe’.” In these poems written in memoriam, Heaney conjures human decency at its fullest weight and pitch, and invokes a continuous present where “dealing men with sticks” become mysterious mentors. Patrick might be seen as a kind of Virgil to his son’s Dante, but an important difference is that this man isn’t a poet. Heaney once told an interviewer that his father “regarded speech as a kind of affectation”. His duties in life were not to language but to the things of the earth – bricks and mortar, tools, horses, hedges, cattle. And the poet, although at a remove, has always known these same things, and known he won’t fail as an artist if he remains faithful to his respect for them. Because of its title, Seeing Things is sometimes considered dualistic, polarised between real and delusory acts of seeing. But in postulating a world other than the one immediately sensed, the poet is not doing anything essentially different from the reconstruction of the past in those hidden images we call memories. The sightings poetry unveils are not necessarily obedient to simplistic battle lines of fact versus fantasy, ashplants versus golden boughs.