Analysis of the Poem "Storm on the Island" by Seamus Heaney

Updated on December 9, 2018
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Seamus Heaney
Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney and A Summary of Storm On The Island

Storm On The Island is a poem that can be taken literally, as a dramatic monologue on the life and attitude of island people facing a storm, or it can be understood as an extended metaphor of political struggle on the island of Ireland.

Whether these forces are natural or political the phrase 'collective responsibility' comes to mind - the people have to get their act together or else they will not survive.

Seamus Heaney knew both worlds intimately although he chose through his poetry not to become a political voice outright, but to concentrate his energies on the rural scenes he grew up in - farming, family and history being his primary focus.

His early poems are earthy and grounded in the soil of County Derry so it's logical to assume that Storm On The Island is about just that: islanders coming together to withstand a natural battering - an ongoing conflict between humans and nature.

  • From the first line of the poem it is clear that the speaker represents a people, a specific family, an island folk. In this sense the voice is that of a spokesperson addressing someone who does not quite understand their predicament....We are prepared: we build our houses squat,
  • The tone is defiant and yet conversational, it's as if the speaker is having to explain to outsiders just why things are as they are, as they need to be.
  • Heaney uses a basic pentameter template, 10 and 11 syllable lines, with varying feet - trochaic and spondaic and so on, to break up iambic rhythm and create tension. A more detailed analysis of metre can be found below.
  • The form is solid, a single 19 line stanza, reflecting the island and the strong architecture.
  • The language is sometimes brutal and military - Blast...pummels...Exploding...flung...spits...dives and strafes...bombarded.

The poem was published in 1966 in his first book The Death of A Naturalist.

Storm On The Island

We are prepared: we build our houses squat,

Sink walls in rock and roof them with good slate.

This wizened earth has never troubled us

With hay, so, as you see, there are no stacks

Or stooks that can be lost. Nor are there trees

Which might prove company when it blows full

Blast: you know what I mean - leaves and branches

Can raise a tragic chorus in a gale

So that you listen to the thing you fear

Forgetting that it pummels your house too.

But there are no trees, no natural shelter.

You might think that the sea is company,

Exploding comfortably down on the cliffs

But no: when it begins, the flung spray hits

The very windows, spits like a tame cat

Turned savage. We just sit tight while wind dives

And strafes invisibly. Space is a salvo,

We are bombarded with the empty air.

Strange, it is a huge nothing that we fear.

Analysis of Storm On The Island

Storm On The Island is a poem that gives voice to a people who live in constant fear of the power of natural storms.

  • The poem's theme is therefore the ongoing conflict between humans and nature.

Life on an island may from a distance seem idyllic and peaceful but this poem views that life from a totally different perspective: one of survival. This is reflected in the emphatic first three words, which form a slogan...We are prepared...

The remainder of the first line is an iambic reinforcement of domestic certainty: the houses are built squat, to withstand any storm. This line sets a firm foundation for the rest of the poem - here is a determined people who know just what they have to do.

The following four lines are all about preparedness and the bareness of that island environment. A defiant tone is set right from the off, tempered somewhat by casual asides (as you see....you know what I mean) - it's as if the speaker is right next to the reader, explaining away the reasons for preparedness, focusing on the local needs.

This is Heaney's genius at work, taking the reader by the hand, guiding them into the poem's natural heart, which is usually earthy, sometimes dark, always enlightening.

By using repetition of certain key words and phrases, for example company and fear and never troubled us/a tragic chorus and we just sit tight/spits like a tame cat, a certain tension is set up between an almost relaxed attitude to the natural surroundings and the storm itself.

The islanders don't grow cereal crops, there are no trees. The former cannot therefore be lost, which a bonus when the storm winds are blowing, the latter might be missed because they could conceivably be said to be company, a distraction from having your house battered.

  • The enjambment here, from lines 3 - 9 works especially well because the reader is encouraged to move on and build up the sense, just as the storm gathers its energy before lashing out and expending.
  • Note the assonance too, vowels sounding similar in close words: raise/gale...listen/thing....sea/company.

Because of this lack of natural shelter the storm is felt all the more as a threat. The sea (again likened to company, like the trees) may appear friendly but is not. Like a bomb it hits the cliffs then turns inland and becomes savage.

In the meantime the wind takes on the character of an invading aeroplane - it dives and strafes - the only difference being that you cannot see the wind.

Towards the end of the poem the speaker's tone becomes philosophical, which is a puzzle - perhaps having spent so long on the island and become so used to storms, the speaker has developed an alternative take on their nature.

The wind is present invisibly, space is a salvo (a series of aggressive acts), they are bombarded with the empty air and fear a huge nothing.

All of this leaves the reader with an image of the speaker, or indeed the speaker together with the whole of the island population, inside their squat houses sitting out the storm. There they are surviving the violence of nature, safe between their walls whilst outside mayhem rules.

That last line seems to be the thought of someone who has seen it all and is now puzzling over the substance of the storm. Just what is a storm? Basically it is very strong and forceful winds which no one can see - only when it comes against material objects, things, do we know it is there.

What Literary Devices Are Used in Storm On The Island?

There are several literary devices used:

Alliteration

When two or more words beginning with the same consonant are close together in a line they are said to be alliterative. This brings added texture and phonetic interest:

rock and roof...so, as you see...think that the...while wind....Space is also a salvo.

Caesura

These are pauses usually caused by punctuation in the line. The reader has to stop briefly, which alters rhythm and breathing. The first line has a colon for example, and other lines, especially towards the end, have commas and full stops midway.

Some lines - 7, 14,15,16 - have abrupt stops, after one word or a short phrase, signifying the shock of the blasts and sudden endings.

Enjambment

When a line continues into the next without punctuation, creating a flow where the reader has hardly to pause and the meaning is maintained. Heaney makes use of this device throughout the poem (lines 3 - 9 for example and 13 - 16), to build momentum just as in a natural storm blowing full, then receding momentarily.

Personification

Where an object or thing is given human characteristics. The storm's actions are personified. As in:

can raise a tragic chorus ( when the leaves and branches are hit)

that it pummels (pummels is to thump rapidly)

the sea is company (the sea brings solace and combats loneliness)

Simile

Comparison using the words like or as:

the flung spray hits/The very windows, spits like a tame cat/Turned savage.


What Is The Metre of Storm On The Island?

Storm On The Island has a basic iambic pentameter template which gives certain lines that familiar daDUM daDUM rhythm which I have marked with an asterisk *.

There are only six pure iambic pentameter lines however and even some of these are altered in rhythm by the syntax (clauses, punctuation and so on). So when read this poem is varied and stop-start, especially towards the end.

Let's look at the first line, which holds an initial trochee (DUMda) that is, the stress is on the first syllable:

We are / prepared: / we build / our hous / es squat,

Making this an iambic pentameter line with an inverted trochaic first foot. So the important syllable We is stressed.

When the storm first appears, in line 6, the iambic stresses change somewhat:

Which might / prove com / pany /when it /blows full

Note the soft pyrrhic foot (no stresses) and the final spondee (two stresses) to reinforce the power of the storm.

And line 13 is different again, containing an anapaest final foot:

Explo / ding com / fortab / ly down / on the cliffs

Each line has 10 or 11 syllables, with endings mostly stressed, except lines 7, 11, and 17.

We are / prepared: / we build / our hou / ses squat,

Sink walls / in rock / and roof / them with / good slate.

This wizened earth has never troubled us *

With hay, so, as you see, there are no stacks *

Or stooks that can be lost. Nor are there trees *

Which might / prove com / pany / when it / blows full

Blast: you / know what / I mean - /leaves and / branches

Can raise a tragic chorus in a gale *

So that you listen to the thing you fear *

Forget / ting that / it pumm / els your / house too.

But there / are no / trees, no / natural / shelter.

You might / think that / the sea / is com / pany,

Explo / ding com / fortab / ly down / on the cliffs

But no: when it begins, the flung spray hits *

The very windows, spits like a tame cat

Turned savage. We just sit tight while wind dives

And strafes invisibly. Space is a salvo,

We are / bombar / ded with / the emp / ty air.

Strange, it / is a huge / nothing / that we fear.

Diction/Language in Storm On The Island

Words:

wizened - dry and shrivelled

stacks - haystacks, formed piles of hay

stooks - groups of sheaves stood up to dry in a field.

strafe - to attack with bullet fire from low flying aeroplanes.

salvo - the firing of several guns or weapons.

© 2018 Andrew Spacey

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