As we close in on St. Patrick’s Day, here is a lovely sonnet from Seamus Heaney with a brief explication de texte. Read it out loud, please–I won’t listen–and then go on.
“Requiem for the Croppies”
The pockets of our greatcoats full of barley…
No kitchens on the run, no striking camp…
We moved quick and sudden in our own country.
The priest lay behind ditches with the tramp.
A people hardly marching… on the hike…
We found new tactics happening each day:
We’d cut through reins and rider with the pike
And stampede cattle into infantry,
Then retreat through hedges where cavalry must be thrown.
Until… on Vinegar Hill… the final conclave.
Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon.
The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave.
They buried us without shroud or coffin
And in August… the barley grew up out of our grave.
When I teach this poem I like to read through it out loud and then discuss its origins, its structure, and its meaning—and then read it out loud again. When I teach it well, I can create a kind of cavernous silence at the end of the second reading.
Heaney, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, wrote this poem in 1966 when many Irish poets and artists were seeking to commemorate the 1916 rising. Heaney reached back further than that—finding the origins of the 1916 rising in 1798. The rebellion of 1798 was born of the revolutionary republican ideas sweeping America (1776) and Europe (particularly the French Revolution of 1789) and the national feeling of the Irish. It was savagely put down.
The poem is a sonnet. It is 14 lines long—traditional for a sonnet—but contains a rough, imperfect rhyme scheme: “barley” and “country”—“day” and “infantry”—“thrown,” “cannon”, and “coffin” which only pick up that last consonant sound of /N/. But lots of lines contain internal sound connections—”until” and “hill;” “died” and “scythes;” “stampede” and “retreat” in adjacent lines. There is also lots of wonderful suggestive consonance (repeated consonant sounds) and assonance (repeated vowel sounds). Listen to the /s/ and near-/s/ sounds in “Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon. / The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave.” All of that wet blood, streaming down from the hill as the Croppie boys retreat up it–that sound gives you the sloshing moisture.
Not all of the lines have 10 syllables—some run over. But this roughness matches the voice of the unlettered narrator who speaks in first person plural, notice the use of “our” and “we”—he is one of the Croppies. The poem is filled with pauses and stops: there are 7 ellipses; 4 commas; 7 periods; and one colon—19 stops. It also contains beautiful if horrible images—a hillside so blood-drenched that it blushes; the birth of new life out of death as the bodies of the Croppies are the nourishment of the barley that grows from them.
The croppies were called such because they wore their hair cropped—to oppose the foppish, long-hair favored by the aristocracy of the time. They did carry barley in their pockets. And, on June 21, 1798 at Vinegar Hill, they were cornered and many were slaughtered by artillery bombardment. They made two futile attempts to break the British line. The British buried the bodies in mass, shallow graves—but the seeds of rebellion were sown—and bore fruit when the barley in their pockets came up–nourished by their own bodies–and bore fruit again in, 1913, 1916, 1969 and beyond—whenever the revolutionary spirit could not be killed. There was, in fact, a priest who led a division of the Croppies. These “soldiers,” fighting with farm implements and using whatever was at hand, (cows, the underbrush, the speed of men who carried their food with them) were overmatched by artillery yet in some way were undefeated.
Now read it out loud again-linger over the pauses. Participate in the pain and the hope.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day.