Derek Mahon Poetry

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Leaving Certificate English

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Derek Mahon

After the Titanic

Daytrip to Donegal

Grand Father

Antarctica

Themes

1. Theme of identity.

Mahon is uneasy with his identity and feels estranged from his background. He recollects, mocks, criticises and rejects the essence of his Northern Irish identity and cultural roots: the austerity, the coldness, the selfishness, the isolation and the abandonment.

2. Theme of place.

There is a vibrant, evocative and varied sense of place in Mahon’s poetry. Places like Kinsale, Rathlin and Donegal are idealised, but there is a subtext of cruelty associated with all three places because of history, climate, nature or commerce. Other places are depicted as void of human activity, lonesome, glum and abandoned by hope. The selection of poems on the course, influenced by Mahon, include two place names that span Ireland from North to South, Rathlin and Kinsale. You should compare the contexts by examining what the last line of both poems has to say about the future.

An idealised rural, coastal beauty spot:

‘the nearby hills were a deeper green

Than anywhere in the world’ [Donegal]

A rural, coastal beauty spot which has become a refuge:

‘a lonely house behind the sea

Where the tide leaves broken toys and hat boxes’ [Titanic]

A landscape of extreme weather and steep climbs, requiring inhuman endurance, a place where the stoical Protestant can be a hero:

‘The tent recedes beneath its crust of rime

And frostbite is replaced by vertigo’ [Antarctica]

3. Theme of people.

Mahon evokes diverse human personalities and often empathises with various characters in his poetry:

A quirky, on the go, mysterious, cautious and wily grandfather. He is a craftsman who can’t forsake his craft. Some of the grandfather’s attributes mirror an obsessive, impish poet:

‘Wounded but humorous…

discreetly up to no good…

Never there when you call…

as cute as they come…

Nothing escapes him; he escapes us all’ [Grandfather]

Posh, swanky, guilt-struck, aghast, brooding and solitary Bruce Ismay:

‘I turned to ice to hear my costly

Life go thundering down in a pandemonium…

my poor soul screams out in the starlight’ [Titanic]

A brave, patrician, stoical and self-sacrificing British Explorer:

‘Goading his ghost into the howling snow;

He is just going outside and may be some time’ [Antarctica]

But sometimes Mahon evokes personalities without empathy:

4. Theme of conflict:

Mahon deals with the theme of conflict in various guises:

Subtle tensions in family life:

‘Never there when you call…he escapes us all’ [Grandfather]

Nature’s battle against human civilisation:

‘That night the slow sea washed against my head,

Performing its immeasurable erosions…

Muttering its threat to villages of landfall’ [Donegal]

Self-conflict, self-criticism and regret:

‘Cursing my constant failure to take due forethought’ [Donegal]

Conflict between an individual and public opinion, media driven conflict:

‘They said I got away in a boat

And humbled me at the inquiry’ [Titanic]

Class difference, and conflict:

‘I drown again with all those dim

Lost faces I never understood’ [Titanic]

Inner conflict due to guilt and victimisation:

‘my poor soul screams out in the starlight’ [Titanic]

Brave self-sacrifice of the hero contrasted to cowardice of the group:

‘Need we consider it some sort of crime,

This numb self-sacrifice of the weakest’ [Antarctica]

5. Theme of history.

Personal History:

‘to reveal the landscape of a childhood

Only he can recapture’ [Grandfather]

Maritime History:

‘my costly life go thundering down in a pandemonium of

Prams, pianos, sideboards, winches,

Boilers bursting and shredded ragtime’ [Titanic]

History of Scott’s Antarctic Expedition:

‘I am just going outside and may be some...
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