Seamus Heaney's "Storm on the Island"

Updated on August 26, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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

Seamus Heaney

Source

Introduction and Text of "Storm on the Island"

In Seamus Heaney's "Storm on the Island," the speaker is an island dweller whose locale experiences hurricanes from time to time. The practical applications made by the residents are intriguing and the resonance that each provides for inner security makes the poems 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 starts at 45 and runs to 1:45

Commentary

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.

(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.")

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.

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."

Questions & Answers

    © 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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