Derek Mahon, “After the Titanic” – 2

You can find a text of “After the Titanic” here.

The subdued, muttering rhythms, the rich phonetic patterning and the extreme beauty of some of the images heighten the poem’s poignancy and horror in different ways. All three contribute to a play of constantly shifting tensions and contrasts that run through it, vivifying everything in it and keeping our responses to everything alert, divided and alive. They also have more particular effects, some of which I’ll try to describe.

The subduing of the rhythm seems to me a notable achievement of imaginative tact and technical skill. So much in the poem seems to work against it, particularly the violence of verb and image in the lines describing the shipwreck (powerfully reinforced by percussive and spitting clusters of plosives and sibilants), and the burst of despair in the antepenultimate and penultimate lines. These make us feel tremors of the traumatising horror itself, but the poem subordinates them to something subtler and more haunting. Inducing in us the state of heightened concentration that can only be achieved through quietness, it draws us into the desolation, hopelessness and sterile circular brooding of the lonely figure who speaks the poem, who’s going nowhere, who can’t stop reliving his great failure, and who’s become his own ghost or a bit of live flotsam on life’s shore.

To look at it technically, I think the muttering, introverted tone is mainly achieved by Mahon’s use of line endings to break the momentum of phrases. This effect is reinforced by the way the elaborate clause structure creates an atmosphere of constant, careful qualification and reflection, most obvious in the deliberative pause before “hero”, and by an elaborate patterning of sound and syntax. Two of the strongest examples are the phrases  “showers of / April, flowers of May”[1], and the sequence “ragtime”, “hide”, “behind”, “tide”, “silently”, with its dance of assonance and internal rhyme interwoven with distinct strands of consonantal echoes especially on the /d/ sound. Alliteration, assonance and internal half rhymes are in fact pervasive in the whole poem, and the more you get to know it the more I think you start to find these patterns richly expressive, or richly sustaining of the movement of image and idea. A small example is the paradoxical stillness given to the phrase “boilers bursting and shredded ragtime” by its chiastic ABBA sequencing of parts of speech (noun, participle, participle, noun).

That’s a detail. On a larger scale, much of the poem’s effect depends on the sequence of “I” +verb repetitions: “I got”, “ I tell”, “I sank”, “I sat”, “I turned”, “I hide”. It creates a pulse running between the lines, culminating in line 8 with the dramatic shift from past to present: “now I hide”. Altogether, the sequence suggests both the speaker’s egocentricity and how irremediably his past actions have brought him to his present point. Again, though, the total dynamic is subtle and complicated. In his egocentricity he sees himself as victim, so before this sequence the poem starts “They said” and “[they] humbled me”. After it, after line 8, agency shifts away from the speaker again, to the tide, the showers and the gardener. He himself seems to dissolve into passivity, as if wiped out by the abandonment of that one catastrophic night, becoming the live ghost I’ve talked about earlier. The contrast between the block of first person verbs and the third person verbs that precede and follow them emphasises the importance of those actions by isolating them, and leave a sense that nothing the speaker did before then matters any longer – at least to him – and nothing he did or does after then can matter either.

Again, the total effect is subtle and complicated. The contrast between the block of first person verbs and the beginning and ending doesn’t only emphasise the speaker’s responsibility and suggest how wholly he has become the result of what he did and failed to do on that one night. I think it also suggests how much he himself fails to see things clearly in these terms. In his egocentricity he sees himself as a victim, not a responsible agent – the object of other people’s saying and humbling, and later of the sea’s reproaches and of other people’s prurient interest.

Of course he is that too, and I suppose one of the things about this poem that people will disagree over most strongly is how they react to the speaker’s sense of his own victimhood.

 

 

 



[1] The “showers” / “flowers” rhyme is reinforced by the syntactical parallelism of the phrases “showers of” +month / “flowers of” +month – a pattern continued, as far as syntax is concerned, in “lights of June”, although in the New Collected Poems version Mahon makes it a little less striking by reducing “lights” to “light”.

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