It is a healthy poem, Seamus Heaney’s The Hermit, its lines looking so clean on the white page, its paper a clever thickness, and the lines perfectly arranged. The line breaks have been sculpted very well, displaying the poet’s craftsmanship, his instinct that instructs him on how far he should go, and it is as if he is seeing those markings in the earth that he recalls making with friends to play football in the poem Markings. There is no superfluity at all in this poem, all the unnecessary words sculpted off and thrown away.
As he prowled the rim of his clearing
where the blade of choice had not spared
one stump of affection
he was like a ploughshare
interred to sustain the whole field
of force, from the bitted
and high-drawn sideways curve
of the horse’s neck to the aim
held fast in the wrists and elbows -
the more brutal the pull
and the drive, the deeper
and quieter the work of refreshment.
A simple poem, yes, and it is, but it is not one of those little ditties that is second-rate and was published in a book to make the page-count more. It is the act of poetry, the raw act of writing poetry that the poet has so illuminatingly captured. The poet himself is the hermit. The aim that his body works towards through his elbow and wrist (singular here in prose study) is the poem. The tougher the fight for the right words and the right structure means the more satisfied and fulfilled in himself is the poet in the aftermath of this fight, for that is what it is, the act of writing poetry - it is a fight to let the poem win, a fight in which the poet surrenders; but it is a loss of the ego in submission to the poem; to push it, i.e. the poem, until it takes its own course. There is the biblical comparison of Jacob and the Angel of the Lord in Genesis 32:24-32. The Angel must win and like that earlier poet in his wrestle, this contemporary poet is wrestling with the poem, all of this history buried behind the simple lines and imagery of agrarian life. This loss of the ego is also reminiscent of Christ’s teaching that in order to gain his life a man must lose his life.
The lines read in smooth diction. We have an early prompt in prowled that pushes us through the rest of the first stanza without a break, pausing slightly only to observe the line-breaks, and then we continue until the first real pause appears at the end of the first stanza. We come upon stump of affection and it is the stump itself that stops us, the hardness and softness of the phrase with the stump sticking out above the smooth, flat earth of the poem; but the bluntness is alleviated by the affection that follows. Poetry, that is what it is, especially in this poem, the both hard, blunt and soft, not effeminate, but manly, affection, like that in the friendship between David and Jonathan. And it is this affection that lifts us into the next stanza.
We drive further into the poem, ploughing our way along with the poet and the hermit, both the same person, and we are fully into it, as indicated by interred in the second line of the second stanza, not directly in the middle of the poem, but driving to the center, so we are acting out the word and driving to the center of the poem and deeper into it. A clever trick to put that word where it is and at the beginning of the line. But let us look at the whole line itself, interred to sustain the whole field. Listen to its diction, how it reads, and its vowels. Again, that first word and what it does to the reader is pure elation, for it allows us to bury ourselves in the language in the line, and the imitation of the line is one of going within what we are doing and within ourselves at that moment to sustain, scuplt and bring together, and holding fast everything that we are pulling at for some result.
This is followed by the elegant change in imagery and sound of the language: and high-drawn sideways curve/of the horse’s neck . . . The wild, beautiful sideways curve of the horse’s neck and the hermit’s/poet’s body in conjunction, yet not altogether in agreement, for the horse possesses his own force, though domesticated he may be (or become). The line itself reads wonderfully off the tongue, the voice lifting into a lilt and the action of the mouth and the lips are dictated by the line and everything in and about it. It is a precise and accurate line drawing, reflected by the end of the line with to the aim. Here we feel the poem tightening as the fist of the poet does, as he grows more deliberate and intense in his experience of the poem. And then, recognition and exhilaration.
The poem is one sentence. In the last stanza the poet pulls everything together. We read of his confirmation in his labour. And we read the final stanza in a deeper, more trying voice and breath. Yet, he does not indicate any success. This is the farmer working hard and not always assured of harvest, for anything can happen in nature. The poet might fail in this specific endeavour on this specific day, but he does not admit to a sense of defeat, or failure. The real satisfaction and sense of fulfillment derive from the honest physical labour that the poet/hermit has done. The deep and quiet sense of fulfillment, the elation that comes only from such labour is one that the poet/hermit and any worker who has given his all, when he is in, as they say, his zone, can know and relax in. It is the elation after hard work that Robert Lowell knew and wrote about. And that this reader can come to know through a close and solitary reading of the poem.