Seamus Heaney’s “Storm on an Island” is included in Death of a Naturalist (1991).The word ‘island’ foregrounds the concept of isolation. The modern way of existence, is an egotistical one. It is set in an era of competition, and focuses on survival instinct. People like to live as isolated entities divorced from each other, and lead a complacent life free from the responsibilities of brotherhood. The idea of the joint family is no longer cherished, and people prefer to confine themselves to nuclear families. The lesser the number, the more the advantages, and less significant the disadvantages. They are free from all hassles of ties and are self-satisfied. However, little do they comprehend that a “storm” can occur on this island too.
The poem begins with the line: “We are prepared: we build our houses squat.”That is, people presume they are prepared for the inevitable. They build their houses ‘squat’.’ Squat’ implies to cower or crouch, and therefore assumes a protective posture. The house is designed to function this way. The walls are set with solid rock, the house is roofed in ‘slate’ and the stage is set for the ideal life. The ‘wizened’ earth has never troubled them. Since the earth exists before the speaker, it is seen as aged (echoing once again the concept of living with the elders of the joint family).Beneath the age of the earth, the speaker fails to discern the vast experience that it encompasses. Neither does the age of the earth disturb them nor the ‘hay’. Hay’ stands for the domesticity of the situation. Therefore, they are no stacks and no ‘stooks’. A stook, also referred to as a shock is a circular or rounded arrangement of swathes of cut grain stalks placed on the ground in a field.The speaker claims that they are far from being surrounded by domestic problems or frivolous issues. With an air of satisfaction, the poet asserts that there are no trees either. The trees here stand for the support of the elders. Ironically, it appears that it is this tree, that is to be the predictor of the storms as the movement of the wind is most prominent in the “leaves and branches.” These trees are the ones that “might prove company.” They are the “natural shelter”. These leaves and branches can produce a melancholy music with the gale. The speaker makes us apprehend our biggest fear that it can knock at our doors too in an act of pummeling. The word ‘pummels’ drives home the point with force.
However, one may take the absence of trees for granted; and assume that the sea is for company. Nevertheless the speaker asserts:
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
Even the sea may turn against us, when we feel we have nothing to fear. We are content with the fact that it explodes “comfortably(for our own good) only on the cliffs. Nevertheless, the sea has its own wild moments, and may strike like a ‘tame’ cat. Note that the speaker uses the adjective ‘tame’ instead of ‘wild’. What the poet intends through this usage is that with the ‘tame’ cat ,an attack is unpredictable, and we take for granted the conditions to be safe and sound. The word ‘spit’ is utilized to denote savage action. The wind is personified as an intruder who ‘strafes’, that is, attacks with a machine gun or cannon from a low-flying aircraft. The Space itself is a Salvo, or a space for bombardments where anybody and everybody can get hit.
Strange, it is a huge nothing that we fear
The poet utilizes the three basic elements earth, water and air to exemplify how all of these can be incorrigibly unforeseeable .Man cannot have control over Nature, like his artificial creations. It marks the victory of Nature over Man. It is rather His creations that man does not have control over .It is this “He” that is described ‘a huge nothing that we fear’. It is a ‘nothing’ for most of us fail to see, or pretend not to see. But ‘He’ indubitably exists, and ‘that we fear’.
© Rukhaya MK 2012
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