Derek Mahon, “Afterlives 1”: to face or to evade

I’ve always disliked the way Mahon changed the first line of the fourth stanza of “Afterlives 1” from the original “What middle-class cunts we are” to “What middle-class twits we are” or “What middle-class shits we are”.

I used to think I was simply irritated by his replacing a strong, brutal word with a weaker one and so diluting his expression. But really the nature of the betrayal is more specific than simple dilution. It goes to the heart of the poem. This poem doesn’t just talk about attitudes and ideas, it acts out the emotional conflict in the speaker. It’s a conflict of moral allegiances, of ways of feeling and seeing the world, of positions in the world; a conflict between different layers of the speaker’s self. It can only be truly expressed by allowing its different sides to speak in their own words. The language of most of the poem has been highly refined, polished in its evocations and its irony as it teeters on the edge of preciosity. This is the language, beautiful in its own way, of the ultra-sophisticated, detached, dandified poet the speaker has become. The fourth stanza expresses his despair at and revulsion from what he suddenly sees as the vacuous complacency and conceit of this middle class self. In the original version it gets its power from being expressed with the brutal directness of the people whose part in himself he is accepting. Of course it’s offensive – even more so now than when the poem was first written – but that’s the point. The offensiveness is a measure of both the revulsion and the despair. Neither the yapping orators, addressing the backstreet gunmen and their sympathisers, nor the part of Mahon who is feeling with them or giving in to them, would have censored the word “cunts” in the flush of their anger and contempt for preachy middle-class outsiders, or in the depth of his capitulation to these feelings, reaching instead for less offensive words like “twits” (!) or “shits”. In these later versions, by failing to express one side of the emotional conflict in its own instinctive language, by swerving off into a decorousness of speech that stands outside it and aligns him with the middle-class values he is notionally doubting or attacking, Mahon kills the central impulse of the poem. This matters because the poem is as urgently relevant now as ever. The particular moral crisis it expresses may have originated in a very specific historical moment, but it’s a kind of crisis that speaks to us all and challenges us all in the unthinking complacency with which we hold our values and live our little lives. I would like to see Mahon restore the original wording.

There’s a parallel with Seamus Heaney’s “Punishment”, which presents a broadly similar conflict between what Heaney identifies, with shifting irony, as “civilized” and “tribal” feelings about the punishment of Catholic girls who “betrayed” their community, presumably by having affairs with British soldiers. The poem is a subtle, complex, nuanced exposition of these conflicting feelings. What Heaney doesn’t attempt to do is to dramatise them as a seismic upheaval, in the way that Mahon does in the original version of “Afterlives”. That, for me, is why “Punishment” is in the end only a very well written poem about the Troubles, whereas “Afterlives” in its original form is an enduring expression of an aspect of the human condition.

You can find the text of the whole poem in one of its revised versions at

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