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Analysis of Poem "Ceasefire" by Michael Longley

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Michael Longley

Michael Longley

Michael Longley and a Summary of Ceasefire

Ceasefire is a poem Michael Longley wrote in response to the sectarian violence experienced by many in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, the fighting between various factions of nationalists and unionists from the 1960s up to1998. Longley was born in Belfast in 1939.

  • The poet uses the epic scene from The Iliad by Homer as inspiration, in which Achilles the Greek and Hector the Trojan fight one-to-one after ten years of war, the death of Hector becoming the catalyst for a profound emotional meeting between Achilles and Hector's father, old King Priam.
  • Grief is the theme, with empathy and a shared sense of universal suffering also featuring strongly.

Longley creates four scenes, three quatrains and a couplet within a sonnet form which contains both traditional and offbeat elements, controversially, each roughly based on the Iliad's narrative:

I

Achilles is emotionally disturbed and confused when Priam, unexpectedly, comes to collect the body of his son Hector. The old king begs Achilles who is reminded of his own aging father (Peleus), taking Priam's hand initially but then gently pushing him away. They end up weeping together, sorrow and exhaustion overwhelming.

II

Priam's request is granted. The man who killed Hector and humiliatingly dragged his body behind his chariot for all to see, washes and dresses the Trojan warrior 'for the old king's sake.'

III

With Hector's death comes a new phase in the long war. Eating a meal together is significant. A mutual appreciation is forged. Achilles is a physical wonder, the old king not yet faded, buoyed by the occasion despite his suffering.

IV

The couplet takes us back in time, prior to the action of the opening quatrain, when Priam first acknowledges what he must do in order to retrieve the body of his beloved son.

  • Note the full end rhymes in alternate lines (second and fourth) in quatrains I and II, while quatrain III has slant rhyme. In the end couplet, with its iambic and anapaestic feet, Shakespearean tradition returns.
  • Each quatrain is a single sentence stretched out over long tight lines, the tension growing and dispersing.

Longley, who studied the classics at university, ignores the influence of the gods in his poem. He lets the humanity prevail in the here and now, suggesting that free will and personal choice are to the fore and that bloodshed has at some point, to stop.

In the Iliad itself the gods play a major role in deciding the outcome of the battle between the Greeks and the Trojans, particularly in the detailed scenes of books 22-24, when Hector is killed and Priam is forced to ask Achilles for his son's body in order that mourning can take place and a decent burial performed.

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Priam in the original story pays a heavy ransom, as advised by Zeus following a lengthy debate between the gods. Essentially it is they who allow the Trojan ('horse-taming Hector') the honour of a state burial. They influence human behaviour.

Longley's sonnet is split into sections, creating a scenic formality which suggests a step-by-step process, each quatrain a balance of emotion and specific action, the couplet doubling back and underlining the whole.

This idea of a ceasefire or pause in violent proceedings relies solely on human interaction within the poem. Divine influences aren't present at all.

In real life in Northern Ireland outside influencers were needed in the shape of American, British, Irish and Canadian politicians and diplomats but in the end it was the ceasefire and conciliatory approach of nationalists and unionists that sealed what is known as the Good Friday Agreement.

Ceasefire first appeared in the Irish Times, 1994, and was also published in Longley's book The Ghost Orchid, 1995.

Ceasefire

I
Put in mind of his own father and moved to tears
Achilles took him by the hand and pushed the old king
Gently away, but Priam curled up at his feet and
Wept with him until their sadness filled the building.

II
Taking Hector’s corpse into his own hands Achilles
Made sure it was washed and, for the old king’s sake,
Laid out in uniform, ready for Priam to carry
Wrapped like a present home to Troy at daybreak.

III
When they had eaten together, it pleased them both
To stare at each other’s beauty as lovers might,
Achilles built like a god, Priam good-looking still
And full of conversation, who earlier had sighed:

IV
I get down on my knees and do what must be done
And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.

Analysis of Ceasefire Stanza by Stanza

I

Achilles shows empathy towards the old Trojan king Priam, father of the slain Hector, because he too has an aging father, Peleus (not mentioned in the poem). In the Iliad story Achilles is shocked yet impressed when the old Trojan king turns up in his camp tent, urged by the gods, which again do not feature in Ceasefire.

Both weep. They are together in grief. Emotion is to the fore, a shared sense of profound loss.

The reader does not yet know that Priam is here to collect his son's body. Hector has been killed by Achilles and dragged ignominiously behind his chariot back to the Greek HQ, where he is subject to further violence post mortem.

Note Longley's liking for the long sentence, each line measured against the classic form. Enjambment means the reader has no end stopped line, so has to breathe deeply and continue on down the next, being aware of natural caesurae as the poem progresses.

II

The hands of Achilles play a vital role in this quatrain. It was he who stabbed Hector; it is he who washes the dead Trojan's body and hides the wounds with a uniform, the warrior's battledress.

In the Iliad Achilles gets his handmaidens to do the cleaning and dress the body in tunics so that Priam doesn't angry at the awful state of his son's corpse, and Achilles having to slay him too.

Longley focuses on Achilles, the killer, cleansing the flesh (and himself symbolically), an act designed to bring the two closer in the bitter losses of war.

Hector's body is wrapped like a present, a gift, to be taken back home. Is this language derogatory? Can a corpse ever be a gift, like a bunch of flowers, a token of love and generosity?

III

Achilles and Priam also share a meal. Priam stays the night, risking all (in the Iliad it is the gods who rule over human behaviour and they guarantee Priam's safety) - trusting the Greek warrior.

The two admire each other. Achilles is physically imposing; Priam still has spirit and a need to communicate. Both have experienced a kind of catharsis, releasing negative energy built up over the years.

Achilles has found glory in the slaying of his arch rival Hector but has also been witness to much bloodshed. Priam has lost a beloved son and Troy has suffered greatly. The two know of war. They are scarred in different ways but spilt blood is the same colour.

IV

The couplet, essentially Priam talking to himself, affirming just why it is that he had to have his son's body returned, takes the reader back to the initial meeting of the two. It is a question of necessity, an individual's compulsion.

Priam's presence in the camp of Achilles is the catalyst for shared grief and acknowledgement. The killing has to stop; conciliation has to be reached.

The full rhymes ending underscore the previous twelve, traditionally securing the whole scene.

Analysis of Ceasefire: Metre And Syntax

Ceasefire although in sonnet form has longer lines than usual - hexameters appear among the pentameters - that is, six feet inhabit the line as opposed to five. This naturally stretches out each line for the reader and echoes the epic Iliad's metre of dactylic hexameter.

Looking at the first quatrain it soon becomes clear that the regular iambic beat is minimal, being broken up with spondee and trochee. The anapaests rise, the dactyls fall, resulting in a single sentence stretching out yet maintaining a syntactical tension. Enjambment encourages the reader to continue each line with hardly a pause. Longley's speciality.

I

Put in mind / of his own / father / and moved / to tears
Achilles / took him / by the hand / and pushed / the old king
Gently / away, / but Priam / curled up / at his feet / and
Wept with him / until / their sad / ness filled / the building.

Sources

Ceasefire | Troubles Archive

Michael Longley "Ceasefire" - Summary and Analysis (subplotter.com)

Broom, Sarah. “Learning about Dying: Mutability and the Classics in the Poetry of Michael Longley.” New Hibernia Review / Iris Éireannach Nua, vol. 6, no. 1, University of St. Thomas (Center for Irish Studies), 2002, pp. 94–112, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20646368.

The Poetic Quotidian: Michael Longley, "Ceasefire"

Homer. The Iliad with an English Translation by A.T. Murray, Ph.D. in two volumes. Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1924.

John, Brian. “The Achievement of Michael Longley’s ‘The Ghost Orchid.’” Irish University Review, vol. 27, no. 1, Edinburgh University Press, 1997, pp. 139–51, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25484713.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Andrew Spacey

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