University of Southampton, England | Published: 15 March, 2012
ISSUE 7 | Pages: 99-108 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2012-1916
Michael Longley’s father has been a recurring presence in the poet’s work from his earliest to his most recent collection. This paper examines the exceptional strength of that bond reflected in the varied and changing ways in which the poet has responded to it – memorizing and mourning his loss; discovering through his father’s First World War stories a means of memorialising loss of life in contemporary conflicts and a way of facing the history of the twentieth century; confronting his own ageing and sense of mortality; and marking the specific, but also representative, generational history of his family. Close readings of key poems are offered to highlight Longley’s skills in meeting his own exacting standards of aesthetic propriety and moral and social responsibility for writers of elegy in order to avoid either exploitation of tragedy and loss, or facile gestures of consolation.
El padre de Michael Longley ha sido una presencia recurrente en la obra del poeta desde el primer volumen al más reciente. El artículo examina la extraordinaria fuerza de este lazo en las diversas y variables maneras en que el poeta lo ha abordado: memorizando y llorando su pérdida; descubriendo a través de las historias de su padre sobre la Primera Guerra Mundial una forma de memoralizar la pérdida de vidas en conflictos contemporáneos y de enfrentarse a la historia del siglo veinte; confrontando su propio envejecimiento y sentido de mortalidad; y celebrando la historia específica, y a la vez representativa, de su familia durante varias generaciones. Se ofrecen lecturas detalladas de poemas clave con el fin de subrayar la habilidad de Longley para alcanzar rigurosos principios de decoro estético y de responsabilidad moral y social que eviten al escritor de elegías caer ya sea en la explotación de la tragedia y la pérdida o los fáciles gestos de consuelo.
Memoria; Luto; Historia; Padre; Hijo; Elegía; Familia; Consolación
Michael Longley’s declaration in 1995 that his “concerns continue to be Eros and Thanatos, the traditional subject-matter of the lyric” (Boran 1995: 147) confirmed that preoccupations long recognised in his work by readers and critics alike were not diminishing in their importance for him. The focus here is principally on a selection of poems presided over by Thanatos. Across his career Longley has established himself as one of the most distinguished writers of elegy in his generation, making repeated returns to it in widely varying contexts and circumstances. Whatever the particular situation, moral scrupulousness, restraint, and meticulous emotional and formal control have characterised the writing of this poet who has insisted on the delicate network of responsibilities within which the elegist necessarily works when addressing the griefs and losses of others. In “Blackthorn and Bonsai,” Longley quotes words from nearly twenty years earlier in which he voiced his impatience with critics who expected artists to provide immediate responses to the “civil discord” of the day, and then elaborates his thinking on this point:
Though the poet’s first duty must be to his imagination, he has other obligations – and not just as a citizen. He would be inhuman if he did not respond to tragic events in his own community, and a poor artist if he did not seek to endorse that response imaginatively. But if his imagination fails him, the result will be a dangerous impertinence (1994: 73).1
This is why, in his view, patience and time – to absorb, weigh and discover – necessarily precede whatever an artist may produce. But in addition to the elegiac poet’s moral and imaginative responsibilities, Longley accepts his social role as a guardian of the integrity of language, committed to exploring and testing its potential and limitations as the vehicle to articulate extremities of experience without the indulgence of aestheticizing it, and to offer consolation in the face of irreplaceable loss.
The challenge is complicated by the poet’s awareness of how personal experience is embedded within the wider contexts of family relationships and of local, national or international events, which impinge upon the individual, sometimes in the most decisive way. In literary terms, too, the modern elegiac poet belongs in a line of western European predecessors from classical times onwards, and for a practitioner as deeply attuned to that tradition as Longley, this produces another kind of responsibility, although one which may be enabling and enriching rather than merely burdensome.
“Elegies,” writes John Lyon, “are at once personal, intimate and immediate, occasioned by a specific loss, and highly literary, enmeshed in a dense intertextuality of poetic forebears” (1996: 242). Poems occasioned by one loss in particular, that of his father, or taking their bearings from it, run like a vertical column down Longley’s work from his first collection (1969) to his most recent (2011). By following the course of his enduring poetic relationship with his father long after their separation by death, this discussion explores its importance in shaping poems in some of the most persistent concerns in Longley’s work: history, family and mortality. Unsurprisingly, the relationship has changed over time: the early focus on the poet’s sense of loss and on the complex intimacy of his bonds with his father evolved into imaginatively conceived connections between his father’s death and other deaths in which Longley himself had no personal involvement; and, more recently, this has altered again as the writer contemplates his own advancing age and new relationships to children and grandchildren. In short, Richard Longley’s death was not simply the source of poems where the son commemorates his father and ponders his relationship to him; it is the reference point from which he has mediated and developed his understanding of and his way of writing about death in various contexts over a lifetime. One might also speculate on the extent to which Longley’s keenly felt and enduring responsiveness to this “personal, intimate and immediate” bereavement has been a guarantor of the tact and the sense of moral responsibility and obligation which he upholds as priorities in the poetry of human loss; and in a different way that responsiveness equally appears to inform his approach to his own shifting position in the generational hierarchy, and his developing consciousness of ageing and personal mortality.
Richard Longley’s life was decisively shaped by his youthful experiences in the 1914-1918 conflict, and his account of those years finally shared not long before his death has exercised a compelling power on his son Michael’s imagination.2 In Longley’s words, “Somehow my father’s existence, and his experience, the stories he passed on to me, gave me a kind of taproot into the war” (O’Toole 1985: 17). This is first seen in “In Memoriam” (Longley 1969: 41-2), which establishes personal associations and poetic strategies of lasting importance in Longley’s work.
While the title not only recalls Tennyson’s famous poem, but also indicates one of the essential purposes of elegy, the opening vocative address to “My father” may echo Dylan Thomas’s use of the same phrase in “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Goodnight” where another son confronts his father’s passing. In Longley’s poem, however, perhaps the principal feature is the closeness and complexity of his imaginative engagement with his father’s stories, most arrestingly encountered in the projection of his unborn self into the incident when his father-to-be was almost emasculated. “In Memoriam” is a memory poem as well as a memorial poem, and the poet’s memory of his father’s memories involves a kind of collusion or collaboration with him hinted at in phrases such as “through your eyes/ I read you like a book,” “Now I see in close-up, in my mind’s eye,” and “your voice is locked inside my head.” Furthermore, the second sentence in the first stanza, moving from its references to “you” and “your” to the strategically withheld subject, “I,” and the main verb, explicitly suggests how father and son have both contributed to the construction of events relayed in the poem as a whole:
Before you died
Re-enlisting with all the broken soldiers
You bent beneath your rucksack, near collapse,
In anecdote rehearsed and summarised
These words I write in memory.
The notion of death as “re-enlisting” both suggests rejoining other soldiers who fell in battle and anticipates the revelation in the fourth stanza that Longley himself died after “old wounds woke/ As cancer,” and that therefore he too was a war casualty. This burden of the past which eventually killed him is reinforced through the reference to Longley “bent beneath” his “rucksack,” and in turn calls up familiar photographic images, as well as a phrase from Wilfred Owen’s poem, “Dulce et Decorum Est;” and taken in conjunction with the sequence of words – “bent,” “near collapse,” “rehearsed,” “summarised” – it points to the effort that has gone into getting the story right and distilling it to its essentials. Through combining intertextual allusions and individual details, Richard Longley’s personal wartime “anecdotes” are set within the existing cultural history of the First World War, and simultaneously add to it.
The initial movement from the second to the first person is reversed as the writer imagines his father’s horror, ignorance and confusion as a young soldier, and the moment of his shrapnel injury which is both literally and metaphorically at the poem’s centre. The significance of this incident turns on its connection with the outcomes which might have resulted from Longley’s wounds. The words “your proper funeral urn/ Had mercifully smashed to smithereens” suggest how easily he might have died; and he escaped emasculation even more narrowly, swooning not in ecstasy but with the pain of an injury that seemed to indicate the end of sex before it ever started, and the destruction of the “future” in the sense of children. Contemplating this last possibility, Longley reverts to the first person and imagines his father’s wounding as his own “near-death experience” at the same instant. This way of viewing his father’s injury and of making it a kind of pre-life history of his own proposes an exceptional bond between the two men, the full significance of which has subsequently become apparent. The punning wittiness of the idea that Michael Longley “In No-Man’s Land was surely left for dead” aptly connects the First World War battlefield on which his father was injured with the non-place in which his unconceived “son” was somehow awaiting his conception twenty odd years later, and forty years before “In Memoriam” was written. And just as the poet was “locked” in his father’s sperm when he was wounded, so now the voice of the dead man is “locked” in his son’s head.
That voice is released in the fourth stanza where in a reversal of the father-son hierarchy, the older man confesses to the younger his post-war sexual adventuring undertaken to prove the survival of his manhood. We read that this confession was “the last confidence” the father reposed in his son, and in what Fran Brearton calls “an extraordinary gesture of imaginative compensation” (2006: 39), the final stanza contains the poet’s unequivocally humane and compassionate response to it. This is not only a kind of last rite for the dying man as his son “summon
- These sentences are based closely on words in a letter from Longley to the Irish Times, 18 June 1974, quoted in Brearton (2006: 59). [↩]
- See Tuppenny Stung (1994: 15 and 18). [↩]
- There is a similarity of perspective here with Seamus Heaney’s “Follower” (1966: 24-5) which also focuses on the reversed roles of father and son as a result of ageing. [↩]
- Thomas had already featured in “Edward Thomas’s War Diary” and “Mole” (Longley 1976: 38 and 39). He has since appeared in “Poetry” and “The War Graves” (Longley 2000: 21 and 22-3); “Edward Thomas’s Poem” (Longley 2004: 35); “A Gust,” “Footnote” and “Vimy Ridge” (Longley 2011: 33, 34, and 39. Alan J Peacock calls Thomas “a talismanic presence” (Peacock and Devine 2000: 144-45) in The Weather in Japanand suggests that the conflation of Thomas’s image with that of Longley is as significant as the twinning of Laertes with Longley in the earlier poem. [↩]
- A further link between the two men may also be hinted at in the reference to “the short-back-and-sides hair-do” since this was still a common style for boys during Longley’s own youth. [↩]
- «The Choughs» (Longley 2000: 25) is another example of how memory of his father’s wartime stories has prompted the poet to write. Like “The Moustache” it relies on a series of imaginative associations. In this case, observing the “red claws” of the choughs in flight Longley recalls his father’s account of “how the raw recruits would clutch/ Their ‘courting tackle’ under fire,” which leads to the notion that “Choughs at play are the souls of young soldiers/ Lifting their testicles into the sky.” This elegy is not for his father but for the many young men who died in World War 1; however, its focus on the instinctive but futile attempts of the recruits to protect their genitals from injury inevitably reminds an informed reader of the trauma of Major Longley’s own narrow avoidance of emasculation, and of the early poem, “In Memoriam.” Here the poet’s personal engagement is less complex and immediate, but as in “In Memoriam” and “Wounds” it is the recollection of his father’s words that provides the necessary third term between the descriptive opening and the metaphorical conclusion to the poem. [↩]
- Although perhaps only a coincidence, it is interesting that the first collection of poems by Robert Graves, a writer much admired by Longley, was published in 1916 when he was on active war service, and had the title Over the Brazier. [↩]
- In a review of A Hundred Doors, Kate Kellaway (2011) refers to Longley’s comments on this and to his speculation that the writer may have had a classical education. [↩]
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_______. 2006. Reading Michael Longley. Tarset, Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books.
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