The Healing Art of John Montague

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<ul><li><p>Canadian Journal of Irish StudiesCanadian Association of Irish Studies</p><p>The Healing Art of John MontagueAuthor(s): Brian JohnSource: The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Jun., 1986), pp. 35-52Published by: Canadian Journal of Irish StudiesStable URL: .Accessed: 12/06/2014 21:44</p><p>Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms &amp; Conditions of Use, available at .</p><p> .JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact</p><p> .</p><p>Canadian Journal of Irish Studies and Canadian Association of Irish Studies are collaborating with JSTOR todigitize, preserve and extend access to The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies.</p><p> </p><p>This content downloaded from on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 21:44:41 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>The Healing Art of John Montague 35 </p><p>The Healing Art of John Montague </p><p>by Brian John </p><p>In his most recent volume, The Dead Kingdom (1984), John Montague returns to a theme previously </p><p>explored in the The Rough Field twelve years before - the tragic continuity in the poet's province </p><p>of Ulster of the past with the present, binding national and family history and involving time, place, </p><p>language and poetry. News of his mother's death provokes journeys across the Irish landscape, into </p><p>the past, especially the poet's childhood and adolescence, and into intensely personal family suffering. </p><p>Exploration of such history, however, serves to heal wounds and end hatred, a process in which the </p><p>female figure serves a crucial function in enabling the poet to confront the "primal hurt." </p><p>The Dead Kingdom, livre le plus recent de John Montague, reprend un theme examine deja dans </p><p>The Rough Field douze annees auparavant: la continuity tragique en Ulster, la province du poete, du passe avec l'epoque actuelle. C'est un theme qui reunit l'histoire de la nation a celle de la famille, </p><p>et qui engage le temps, le milieu, la langue et la poesie. Apprenant la nouvelle du mort de sa mere, </p><p>le poete se met en route la traversee du paysage irlandais; il traverse le passe, surtout son enfance </p><p>et adolescence, et il voyage au fond des souffrances familiales et tres individuelles. L'exploration d'une telle histoire cependant reussit a guerir les plaies et a mettre un terme aux haines. La femme </p><p>est tout a fait indispensable dans ce procede parce qu'elle rend le poete capable d'affronter la blessure </p><p>primordiale ("the primal hurt'). </p><p>John Montague is writing at the height of his powers. With the publication in 1984 of his seventh book of poems, The Dead Kingdom, he has brought together his major themes and concerns, expressing himself with a fluency, honesty and sensitivity comparable to the best of writing in English anywhere. And that is a large claim in a year which saw another major volume by another </p><p>Irish poet, Station Island, by Seamus Heaney, which has attracted international </p><p>acclaim. Yet as with Heaney and Thomas Kinsella, Montague's stature as a </p><p>contemporary Irish poet is assured. Moreover, that stature depends in no small </p><p>measure upon his marrying of universal themes and the Irish poetic tradition. </p><p>Indeed, one of the distinguishing features of contemporary Irish poetry in English is its increased inheritance, almost rediscovery, of the ancient poetic tradition, </p><p>Gaelic not English, distinctive in its language, its forms, symbols and archetypes. What I shall attempt to show is how Montague draws upon that inheritance, not out of nostalgia for a distant and glorious Irish past, but from his need to </p><p>understand the present and prepare a future for himself, his family, and his culture. From the publication of Poisoned Lands [P.L.] (1961), his first volume, to </p><p>the present, Montague has relied upon particular recurrent themes and figures, and, for all their Irish setting, not exclusively Irish: love and the nature of </p><p>relationship between lovers; land, landscape and a sense of place; continuity and </p><p>succession; loss, suffering, pain, whether through division, failed relationships, </p><p>The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, 12, 1 (June, 1986) 35-52 </p><p>This content downloaded from on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 21:44:41 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>36 Canadian Journal of Irish Studies </p><p>political exile, or time itself and its inevitable partner, death. The people and the community might be recognisably Irish </p><p>- more particularly Co. Tyrone in </p><p>Northern Ireland - </p><p>but the concerns are shared by people anywhere, by poets in </p><p>any literary tradition. Mutability reflects the human, not exclusively Irish, con </p><p>dition. Even the historical character of the Irish tradition, irrevocably affected </p><p>(some would say doomed) by English colonialism, is equally not exclusive. </p><p>Other nations have suffered a similarly calculated destruction of political, cultural </p><p>and linguistic identity. What John Montague has shown, however, is how his own painful, often tragic family history comes to reflect the national conflict; how problems with language, communication, self-expression, often intensely </p><p>personal in origin, can epitomise the dilemma of the poet in Irish society; and </p><p>how, by renewing continuity with the broken, threatened, perhaps dying Irish </p><p>poetic tradition, the contemporary poet can articulate, with renewed force and </p><p>meaning, concerns which go beyond mere place and time to speak for us all. It </p><p>is this distinctive marriage of the personal, national, historic and linguistic, which lies at the heart of Montague's achievement and which contributes vitally to the </p><p>healing nature of his art. </p><p>Pain has been a constant feature of Montague's world from the beginning: a rural community is not renowned for its ease, particularly when mortally </p><p>divided by bigotry, sectarianism, nationalism, a sense of hurt which perpetuates enmities and differences spanning centuries. The poet has done more than record </p><p>such pain: he has approached it with compassion and understanding, sympathising with the old, wounded, fearful, isolated members of his community, granting them not just dignity but symbolic status. "Gaunt figures of fear and of friend </p><p>liness,/ For years they trespassed on my dreams" {PoisonedLands, 15). The old </p><p>people indeed reflect the dying character of that rural community - of farms </p><p>abandoned, lives beaten down by hardship, social structures broken by the drift of people to the towns and by increasing mechanisation. The situation in Ireland </p><p>is at least as old as the late eighteenth century and Goldsmith's Deserted Village, and constitutes, as Montague has said, one of the great modern themes. Mon </p><p>tague's Tyrone suffers not only from political and religious divisions; it is also a way of life decaying during the poet's own childhood and, as he records in </p><p>The Rough Field with a deliberate and ironic echo of the auctioneer's patter, </p><p>"going, going, GONE ..." (80). However, more than in any previous volume, </p><p>Montague reveals there the tragedy of his province, from the Flight of the Earls - the O'Neills - and the Ulster Plantations of the sixteenth and seventeenth </p><p>centuries, to the present and renewed Troubles. But it is also a personal tragedy, </p><p>in which the poet's family are players: </p><p>again </p><p>and again, the dregs of disillusion churned in our Northern parents' guts </p><p>to set their children's teeth on edge </p><p>{Rough Field, 39) </p><p>This content downloaded from on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 21:44:41 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>The Healing Art of John Montague 37 </p><p>The poet's Republican father, first on the run, then forced into a lifetime's exile </p><p>in Brooklyn; uncles imprisoned by the British, to serve later in the Free State </p><p>Army and so defend the partition of North and South which followed the 1921 </p><p>Treaty; grandfather previously in the nineteenth century punished savagely for </p><p>speaking Irish at school, eventually suffering alienation not just from culture </p><p>and community but from home, finding his "parents' hearth/growing slowly alien" (35) </p><p>- all contribute to the family tragedy and suffering. The imagery of a wound, particularly affecting speech and articulation, is dominant. The poet's own speech impediment is one more painful and debilitating evidence of that wound. In The Rough Field time collapses: Elizabethan and modern merge, to </p><p>show the relentless continuity of a tragic inheritance; and the players merge also, so that national events and family history become superimposed upon one another. The Rough Field is an agonising volume to read: the continuity of the past with </p><p>the present serves to heighten the awful sense of an historical destiny, binding the people of Ulster to a perpetual wheel of pain, exploitation, division and </p><p>murderous enmity. </p><p>Twelve years later, in his latest volume, The Dead Kingdom, Montague once again turns his attention to Northern Ireland, drawn this time by his mother's death. Indeed, the two factors </p><p>- death and the North - seem irrevocably bound </p><p>together: "The farther North you travel, the colder it gets" {Dead Kingdom, 44); or again, "That trembling needle/pointing always North./Approaching our Border/ </p><p>why does my gorge rise?" (45); or in imagery Canadian readers can readily respond to: </p><p>Northwards stream the wild </p><p>geese, through the long Polar </p><p>night (the bewildered cries </p><p>of the newly dead, shocked </p><p>spirits hurled out of life) with the slow flap of wide </p><p>thunderous wings lured by an ultimate coldness, that </p><p>magnetic needle wavering, </p><p>trembling always North. </p><p>(86) </p><p>Indeed, the volume's very title includes in one of its several senses the province of Ulster. Moreover, while the poet's awareness of his land's divisions may </p><p>heighten as he approaches the border, he is made equally aware, through the land itself and through the Irish poetic tradition, of the perpetual nature of his </p><p>deathliness and destruction. He remembers Mountjoy's name for this country - </p><p>"Ire land" (33) - </p><p>Mountjoy himself a hated name in Ireland, not just as represen tative of English colonialism but as held personally responsible for the final </p><p>This content downloaded from on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 21:44:41 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>38 Canadian Journal of Irish Studies </p><p>breakup of the old Gaelic order in the early seventeenth century. If Ireland is </p><p>appropriately so called, Mountjoy bears some responsibility for that appropriate ness. However, Montague remembers a similar judgement by a Gaelic poet of </p><p>the same period, Tadhg Dall O Huiginn: "(Recall blind Tadhg's name/for our </p><p>land: Sword Land)." And as Montague comments upon the present, echoing his </p><p>predecessor's judgement, "Still, a violence lurks" (33). We ought to remember, moreover, how Montague shares not only judgement but name with his seven </p><p>teenth-century brother poet: on at least one occasion (Fair House iv) he has derived his family name from "Tadhg," Irish in one sense at least for "poet," but a derogatory and sectarian label in the North today. However, it is a judgement he traces to even earlier sources </p><p>- to Old Norse and even older sources still </p><p>evident in myth and in the landscape itself. He offers a version, therefore, of a curse from Njal's Saga </p><p>- "The land of Ireland/will suffer a grief/that will never </p><p>heal" (Dead Kingdom 49) - or he points to the ancient earthworks in Co. </p><p>Longford, tracing an earlier border, of Uladh, the ancient Province of Ulster. </p><p>Appropriately enough, the earthworks are known as "the Black Pig's Dyke," that animal symbolising in Irish myth not just death and destruction but apocalypse (as, for example, in W.B. Yeats' "Valley of the Black Pig"). </p><p>Ballinagh, its flat, main street; that sudden, sharp turn North. </p><p>Nearby, a ridge of the Dunchaladh, The Black Pig's dyke, or Race, - </p><p>the ancient frontier of Uladh. </p><p>And now he races forever, </p><p>a lonely fearsome creature, </p><p>furrowing a trough we may </p><p>never fill, the ancient guardian </p><p>of these earthworks of anger. </p><p>(43) </p><p>Equally relevant, however, is the function of landscape. The Black Pig's Dyke is in sharp contrast to the near-idyllic and nostalgic recollections in the volume of the poet's childhood holidays during the war with his cousins in Co. </p><p>Longford, in Goldsmith country. And several landscapes are fondly recalled and described - Granard, Abbeylara, the strings of loughs and tributaries of the Shannon. Even the vast and monotonous expanse of the bog of Allen can be seen as "our land's wet matrix" and therefore as possessing its own beauty, like </p><p>"a great cloak torn into/tatters of light, the warm/colours of heather deepened,/ dyed to near violet, all/the air trembling, lambent" (25). The cloak image Mon </p><p>tague has used elsewhere - above all in his 1978 volume, The Great Cloak </p><p>- </p><p>to encompass love and a woman's body, landscape and more particularly Ireland, </p><p>This content downloaded from on Thu, 12 Jun 2014 21:44:41 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions</p><p></p></li><li><p>The Healing Art of John Montague 39 </p><p>but also the shaping spirit of the imagination. The Bog of Allen is thus a matrix, </p><p>womb, source of life and creativity. But because the Bog of Allen was also the </p><p>ancient hunting ground of the Fianna, legendary Irish heroes of the third century A.D., it is a landscape resonant with history. The bog reveals primeval forests </p><p>in bog oak, antlers from the now extinct Great Irish Elk, and serves generally as memory bank of a pagan culture and society which gave way before the </p><p>advent of Christianity. (A similar preoccupation with the bog may be found, of </p><p>course, in Seamus Heaney.) Montague writes of the decline of the "Bog Royal" into an economic resource to be exploited ruthlessly </p><p>- a rape of the land. Percy </p><p>French's "Paddy Reilly" returning to Ballyjamesduff in order to find an Irish Paradise will be sorely stretched, finding instead a landscape torn up and packaged in polythene bags of turf. And yet the landscape still moves the poet's imagination, to see </p><p>A nomadic world of </p><p>hunters and hunted; beaten moons of gold, </p><p>a flash of lost silver, </p><p>figures coiling around a bronze trumpet mouth; </p><p>a marginal civilization </p><p>shading to the sound </p><p>of bells in monastic </p><p>sites, above the still </p><p>broadening Shannon, </p><p>or sheltered on some lake </p><p>shore or wooded isla...</p></li></ul>