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Seamus Heaney's "Storm on the Island" and John Betjeman's "Westgate-On-Sea"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney

Introduction and Text of "Storm on the Island"

In Seamus Heaney's "Storm on the Island," the speaker is an island dweller whose locale occasionally experiences hurricanes. The practical applications made by the residents are intriguing, and the resonance that each provides for inner security makes the poem vibrate with intensity.

Readers can imagine encountering both inner and outer storms as they pummel and redirect both the body and mind. Heaney's speaker in "Storm on the Island" is philosophizing about the quality of his island's homes and the quality of the residents' inner lives.

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.

Reading of Seamus Heaney's "Storm on the Island"

Commentary on Seamus Heaney's "Storm on the Island"

The speaker in "Storm on the Island" is philosophizing about the quality of his island's homes and the quality of the residents' inner lives.

First Movement: Readiness for the Storm

We are prepared: we build our houses squat,
Sink walls in rock and roof them with good slate.

The first movement of the poem features a slant-rimed couplet that reports favorable on the readiness of the island dwellers. He describes the look of their houses, where they sit as well as the material of the roofs.

His description hints that the island dwellers are ready for the inevitable storms that will assail them.

They know how to build their homes so that they can withstand the gale-force winds that will smash into them. They build their homes low and fortify the walls by "sink[ing] them in rock." And they use "good slate" for the roofs.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Second Movement: Nothing to Go Flying in the Wind

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.

The speaker then reports on what does not trouble the islanders; no grasses grow there from which cultivators would fashion bales of "hay"; thus, there are "no stacks / or stooks" that would go flying around in a strong storm.

The place is also remarkably devoid of trees. The speaker affirms the advantage of this lack, in that "when it blows full / Blast," the "leaves and branches / Can raise a tragic chorus in a gale."

The speaker implies that there might have been trees earlier or that he has experienced similar storms on islands where trees are still standing. Either way, he is glad he does not have to hear that "tragic chorus" as he waits out the storm.

But even as they suffer the fear of the storm as it is raging, the speaker realizes that they tend to forget "that it pummels your house." He then seems to lament the lack of trees, citing the fact that there is "no natural shelter."

Third Movements: Friend Turned Foe

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,

Addressing his listener now, the speaker speculates about what they might be thinking, that they likely believe that the sea is pleasant natural phenomenon and storms rarely occur elsewhere.

However, the speaker wishes to correct that opinion by reporting that when the storm begins, the spray of ocean water "hits / The very windows."

The speaker compares the water flung against the windows to the spitting of "a tame cat / Turned savage." So in sunny, tranquil weather, the sea does seem to be a friend, but during a storm, it turns wild and rages dangerously.

The inmates of the house "just sit tight" as the storm attacks everything in its path.

The speaker employs a military metaphor of a plane that "dives / And strafes." Of course, this particular air force does so "invisibly." He then remarks unequivocally, "Space is a salvo."

As long the interior of the building contains its "space," the walls continue to be holding strong.

Fourth Movement: Fear of Huge Space of Empty Air

We are bombarded with the empty air.
Strange, it is a huge nothing that we fear.

The final movement couplet complements the opening, reporting that each storm is essentially a huge, empty space of air that attacks them. He thus concludes his descriptive exposé by adding a philosophical evaluation about fear.

The storm itself is nothing but "empty air," but it "bombards" them nevertheless. That military metaphor again suffuses the speaker's image, as he laments the oddity of fearing "a huge nothing."

Introduction and Text of John Betjeman's "Westgate-On-Sea"

John Betjeman's interest in architecture often informs his poetry as he fumbles to add substance to his observations of line and curve.

John Betjeman's "Westgate-On-Sea" consists of seven rimed stanzas, each with a rime scheme of ABCB. Betjeman has confessed his identification as a "poet and hack" in Who's Who.

This poem, "Westgate-On-Sea," proves the "hack" identification as it provides an example of one of his most vacuous efforts to concoct a poetic piece employing the encumbered measures of fractious modernism.

That Betjeman's interest in architecture often informs his poetry offers him no refuge in the piece that remains a stale piece of hackery.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Westgate-On-Sea

Hark, I hear the bells of Westgate,
I will tell you what they sigh,
Where those minarets and steeples
Prick the open Thanet sky.

Happy bells of eighteen-ninety,
Bursting from your freestone tower!
Recalling laurel, shrubs and privet,
Red geraniums in flower.

Feet that scamper on the asphalt
Through the Borough Council grass,
Till they hide inside the shelter
Bright with ironwork and glass,

Striving chains of ordered children
Purple by the sea-breeze made,
Striving on to prunes and suet
Past the shops on the Parade.

Some with wire around their glasses,
Some with wire across their teeth,
Writhing frames for running noses
And the drooping lip beneath.

Church of England bells of Westgate!
On this balcony I stand,
White the woodwork wriggles round me,
Clocktowers rise on either hand.

For me in my timber arbour
You have one more message yet,
"Plimsolls, plimsolls in the summer,
Oh galoshes in the wet!"

Reading of John Betjeman's "Westgate-On-Sea"

Commentary on John Betjeman’s "Westgate-On-Sea"

John Betjeman's interest in architecture often informs his poetry as he fumbles to add substance to his observations of line and curve.

First Stanza: Doubt Coupled With Hope

Hark, I hear the bells of Westgate,
I will tell you what they sigh,
Where those minarets and steeples
Prick the open Thanet sky.

The speaker addresses the reader/listener, stating that he is going to tell his audience what the "bells of Westgate" are saying—only he employs the odd, pathetic-fallacious term "sigh."

That the speaker is oddly claiming that the bells "sigh" suggests a melancholy in the speaker, since the bells themselves cannot express the emotion of a sigh. Or perhaps his need for a rime with "sky" is to blame.

The speaker identifies the district of Thanet and remarks that "those minarets and steeples" are pricking the sky. Again, the bizarre notion that "steeples" "prick" the sky likely is rendering the speaker an atheist who would curse all religious imagery.

(Actually, the poet was a doubting Christian. Like Thomas Hardy, he doubted the Christian story, while hoping it was true.)

Second Stanza: Addressing the Bells

Happy bells of eighteen-ninety,
Bursting from your freestone tower!
Recalling laurel, shrubs and privet,
Red geraniums in flower.

The speaker continues the odd personification by calling them "[h]appy bells" in the second stanza: "Happy bells of eighteen-ninety." The "happy bells" remind him of flowers in bloom. Again, the speaker creates an odd juxtaposition that ones suspect he is straining to communicate or that he does not really know his own feelings.

They recall these plants because they are "[b]ursting from [their] freestone tower." He dramatizes the bells' performance, but now claiming they "burst," he contradicts his characterization of them as "sighing." A sigh never bursts; a sigh is the result slow exhalation.

The speaker has changed his mind about telling what the bells report and is now addressing the bells themselves, as he racks up more questions in the readers' minds than answers.

Third Stanza: Scampering Feet That Hide

Feet that scamper on the asphalt
Through the Borough Council grass,
Till they hide inside the shelter
Bright with ironwork and glass,

In the third stanza, the speaker changes his topic from the bells to scampering feet that ultimately hide. To whom these feet belong is not clear, but whoever the owners are, will likely remain a mystery, and it now seems that the speaker will turn to a discussion of the building material, leaving readers to guess again his motives and drives.

Fourth Stanza: A School Outing

Striving chains of ordered children
Purple by the sea-breeze made,
Striving on to prunes and suet
Past the shops on the Parade.

Perhaps the scampering feet in stanza three belong to the "ordered children" that now appear in stanza four. These children are likely part of a school outing as they are in ordered chains.

And they are becoming very cold as they march along the sea; the cold, sea breeze has turned their cheeks all purple as they march. Yet they continue moving on to what seem to be a rather unappetizing snack of "prunes and suet" waiting for them.

Fifth Stanza: Vacuity and Stereotype

Some with wire around their glasses,
Some with wire across their teeth,
Writhing frames for running noses
And the drooping lip beneath.

Continuing to describe the children, the speaker notes that some of the children are wearing wire-rimmed glasses and some are sporting braces on their teeth. Those two lines are stunning with their vacuity, as they remain as empty as any ever concocted by any poetaster.

The stanza finishes off as pointlessly as it began, place a bizarre image before the readers' minds: a "droopping lip" underneath an undulating "frame for running noses."

One wonders if the speaker has actually observes these images or if he is relying stereotypes of children with runny noses.

Sixth Stanza: Wiggling Woodwork

Church of England bells of Westgate!
On this balcony I stand,
White the woodwork wriggles round me,
Clocktowers rise on either hand.

In the sixth stanza, the speaker again addresses the bells, declaiming, "Church of England bells of Westgate!" He then reports that he is standing on a balcony and the white "woodwork wriggles" around him, and he see clocktowers on either side of him.

This pointless observation offers the postmodern slant of words for words' sake, for they shed no light on the speaker's message—nay proving that he in fact has no message.

Seventh Stanza: All for Naught

For me in my timber arbour
You have one more message yet,
"Plimsolls, plimsolls in the summer,
Oh galoshes in the wet!"

The speaker addresses the bells again, asserting that they have one more message for him, and the message is "Plimsolls, plimsolls in the summer, / Oh galoshes in the wet!"

The bells are telling him to wear sneakers when the weather is nice in summer, but rubber boots when it rains. Do the comedy and drama lead out of the forest or do the bells reveal a drunken stupor rivaling the calm before the storm of delusion, despair, and doubt? The speaker here has no clue.

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.

Questions & Answers

Question: Who is the speaker in the poem "Storm on the Island"?

Answer: In Seamus Heaney's poem, "Storm on the Island," the speaker is an island dweller whose locale experiences hurricanes from time to time.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes