A typical lesson on a new poem will most likely begin by asking the students to make predictions about the text’s subject matter based on the title, an activity which often leads to fruitful discussions. When reading “Eden Rock” by Charles Causley, for example, the discussion might cover the Biblical allusion to the Garden of Eden and the stability and solidity encapsulated in the image of the rock, as well as the juxtaposition of fertility and barrenness. All of this helps to open up the poem’s themes to students, and is a good way to give them confidence in their own interpretations. Although the phrase “there are no wrong answers in English” is questionable, looking at titles can be a good way of encouraging the exploration and evaluation of a spectrum of meanings. And empowering students to do so independently is surely one of the core aims of teaching English.
The title of Heaney’s early poem “Storm on the Island” is promising in this regard as storms and islands have a wide range of possible symbolic meanings. When juxtaposed with the “we” of the opening line, the image of the storm implies the impotence of mankind in the face of the overwhelming power of the natural world. Yet, even as they teeter on the brink of the sea and human existence, the islanders display a staunch resilience and a determination to survive, just as they have on many previous occasions. Therefore, perhaps the poem is rather a celebration of human endurance in the face of an inhospitable world. This reading seems to be supported by the final line, in which the speaker realises that “it is a huge nothing that we fear”. The word “nothing” holds in tension the potentially awful idea of the sheer emptiness of existence (an echo of Macbeth’s “signifying nothing”?) with the alternative meaning that their fear is groundless. Then the island isolated in the midst of this natural violence becomes a symbol of loneliness and exposure, whilst the definite article before “island” emphasises the sense of the islanders’ insularity and dependence on this geographical location.
Turning away from the obvious literal interpretation of the poem, storms can symbolise emotional turmoil, relationship breakdown, human fears in the face of death, the vulnerability of the individual…
When I think about the poem along these lines, I find it a really interesting prospect for creating dynamic discussion in the classroom. Yet over the past few days I have been browsing a range of online resources on this beautiful poem, all of which are at pains to tell me that Heaney has encoded the word Stormont (the base of the Northern Ireland Assembly) into the first 8 letters of “Storm on the Island”.
I am slightly uneasy with this interpretation for 2 reasons. Firstly, it doesn’t seem like a very “Heaney” thing to do. I have read quite a bit of his work throughout the years, and I greatly admire the resonance of his imagery and the understated power of his poetic forms, and the clumsiness of concatenating parts of words together in this way just doesn’t fit with my understanding of him as a writer. I am, of course, willing to stand corrected as he loves a good, clever title – Death of a Naturalist, Opened Ground, Finders Keepers are all examples of this.
Secondly, looking at the poem through the lens of the Troubles seems to me to pin the poem down to a particular moment in history, and thus to reduce Heaney’s concerns to the purely political and the parochial. It was the slightly earlier poet Patrick Kavanagh who deliberated over the importance of the “local row” in Northern Ireland, and how exactly to balance the demands of the parish with more universal concerns. And whilst the “local row” is an inescapable presence in Heaney’s work (particularly in the dark days of the 1970s), I read his work as being anchored in the omphalos* of the home farm, and then opening out to encompass as much of human existence and thought as can be squeezed between the cardboard covers of a slim volume of poetry. The Troubles is part of that, but his oeuvre does not simply revolve around them.
However, despite my uneasiness with this view of the poem’s title, I think that teaching this interpretation alongside the historical context of the Troubles has its place (particularly as many of my students in England seem to have little idea of where Northern Ireland is, or indeed that it is part of the UK). What I think needs to be carefully considered is when we teach this information – and, for me, that would be later rather than sooner. Similarly, when teaching “Eden Rock”, I would explore several possible interpretations of the river before I launched into an explanation of the mythological River Styx/Lethe. Whilst I love a knowledge organiser and start all my lessons with knowledge retrieval, I also want to give my students confidence that they can independently make inferences (which can be enriched, developed, extended, and – perhaps – corrected by a thorough understanding of context and allusion). As with everything in teaching, cementing both core knowledge and independent, critical thought is a balancing act that each individual teacher must work through with each class. Personally, I prefer to carefully curate which contextual information I am going to “frontload” when studying a text as I want to avoid giving students the impression that there is a body of knowledge they must know before they open a new volume of poetry: sometimes there’s no problem with just diving right in and relishing an unfamiliar text. If Heaney “rhym[ed]” to “set the darkness echoing”, we read to listen and explore those multifarious echoes, with all their possible meanings.
*The omphalos is a significant image in Heaney’s work, but unfortunately I don’t have space here to write more about it!