Derek Mahon: Sympathetic Poetry

Derek Mahon: Sympathetic Poetry

Sympathetic poetry

Grandfather. As mentioned previously, this poem focuses in part on the detail that Mahon’s grandfather was frequently absent, and was not present when needed, ‘Never there when you call’. It would thus be understandable if Mahon was someway resentful towards his grandfather, yet in this poem Mahon explores why his grandfather maintained such a distance. He begins with the revelation that his grandfather suffered an injury, and thus is shown as people ‘brought him in on a stretcher from the world’, with the phrase ‘from the world’ suggesting the injury forced him to retire, as it prevented him from partaking in the role he had held outside of the family home up until the injury (the line implies a divide between the outside ‘world’ and the family home). As a result, Mahon suggests that when his grandfather ‘soon recovered’ (but could not return to work) he resumed a rigid routine that resembled his working life, so as to offer him some return to normality, working from home, where ‘row upon row of gantries rolled/ Away to reveal the landscape of a childhood/ Only he can recapture.’ This attempt at a return to the past meant that Mahon’s grandfather was as distant in retirement as he was while working, working from early in the morning when ‘Even on cold Mornings he is up at six with a block of wood/ Or a box of nails’ till late at night, when only ‘after dark/ You hear his great boots thumping in the hall/ And in he comes’.

After The TitanicMahon shows his sympathetic nature in the poem with his treatment of Ismay. As said, it would be easy for Mahon to criticize Ismay for his fleeing of the ship (Ismay criticizes himself, declaring ‘I sank as far that night as any/ Hero’, but Mahon instead pities Ismay because he is burdened with shame and depression for escaping the Titanic as it sunk. His life is defined by this shame and depression despite his act being a natural humane reaction for survival and therefore Mahon poignantly chronicles the remainder of his life following the sinking of the Titanic in twenty lines. Such is Ismay’s depression that he cuts himself off from all others, such is his shame for his previous action; he admits ‘Now I hide/ In a lonely house behind the sea’. Tragically, Ismay wastes his life cut off from all others; Mahon chronicles the passing of his life with the passing of the months (‘The showers of April/, flowers of May mean nothing to me, nor the/ Late lights of June’), and eventually presents Ismay as an old man who has wasted his life due to such shame, as his gardener speaks of him, as he ‘Describes to strangers how the old man stays in bed/ On seaward mornings after nights of/ Wind, takes his cocaine, and will see no one.’

KinsaleMahon’s sympathy extends beyond the human realm as he looks with sadness at the transformation of the landscape of this place. In the past, many years ago, the countryside was uninfluenced by humankind, unexplored, and, like the rain Mahon speaks of, ‘deep-delving, dark’. The poet’s mention of bogland suggests similar, as bogs are known for being fine preservers as the items that inhabit bogs are not found for long periods after their original existence, which presents bogs as perfect examples of nature in Mahon’s eyes as they are unexplored and possess an enigmatic state. However ‘today’, in the present, the natural world is no longer unexplored or uninfluenced as it is exploited by humankind for various uses, represented by ‘yachts tinkling and dancing in the bay/ like race-horses’. Such is the exploitation of the natural realm that Mahon suggests there is no mystery left in the world; as humankind has exploited the natural world future generations will have no hesitation in doing so again, in ‘a future forbidden to no-one.’

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About the Author

John Ryan

John has a Masters in Modern English Literature and is the founder of RyJoLC, an educational consultancy based in Dublin that provides English language and curriculum resources to educational institutions worldwide.
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