Covid comfort: Paul Muldoon on Derek Mahon’s Everything Is Going to Be All Right

To see this poem as a ‘succour-punch’ requires a profound inability to recognise irony

Everything Is Going to Be All Right

How should I not be glad to contemplate
the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window
and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?
There will be dying, there will be dying,
but there is no need to go into that.
The lines flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart;
the sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.
By Derek Mahon
from Autumn Skies (2021)

It’s hard not to experience a sense of joy and possibility in the face of Bob Marley’s great 1977 song, Three Little Birds, with its upbeat refrain:

Rise up this mornin'
Smiled with the risin' sun
Three little birds
Pitch by my doorstep
Singin' sweet songs
Of melodies pure and true
Sayin', 'This is my message to you-ou-ou'
Singin', 'Don't worry about a thing, worry about a thing, oh!
Cause every little thing gonna be all right.'


It’s no accident, therefore, that Bob’s grandson, Skip Marley, would revisit the song during the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic. Nor is it any accident that the oft-bruited notion that art is a panacea for pretty much anything that ails us should be raised by Donny Mahoney in the Irish pop culture podcast, The Rewind:

There’s little point in trying to whitewash things: the human race is in a difficult moment. We’re trying to cope with something that we don’t have a whole lot of experience in coping with. Every culture handles adversity in its own unique way. It’s been incredible to realize that in Ireland we have a reservoir of strength to draw from when things get hairy. It’s called culture. People pay it lip service, others moan about all the funding it gets. Maybe it’s only when things get bad that we as a society can fully appreciate how much we value it and actually need it to function as a people.

Isn’t it amazing, for instance, that there exists in this country a succinct, accessible, lyrical and poignant poetic expression of the philosophical mantra ‘this too shall pass’? It’s called Everything Is Going to Be All Right by the poet Derek Mahon. Maybe you’ve heard it on Morning Ireland in the last week, or at the end of Six One News on Friday evening. It’s rare for poems to have ‘moments’, but Mahon’s work has become wonderfully resonant at this trying time.

Much as we understand our yearning for a poem that will deliver what we might term a ‘succour-punch’, it betrays an essential misunderstanding of the function of art and, in this case, a profound inability to recognize irony.

The idea that art may offer the kind of solace more often associated with religious belief is one that has been associated most recently with Seamus Heaney. It must have come as a bit of a shock to those who ransacked Heaney’s oeuvre for a solid example of poetic consolation in a time of crisis that they could come up with only ‘If we winter this one out, we can summer anywhere.’ Heaney’s line, which comes from a 1972 interview rather than a poem, is itself an allusion to the great Tyrone poet, WF Marshall:

Did ye iver know wee Robert? Well, he's nothin' but a wart,
A nearbegone oul' divil with a wee black heart,
A crooked crabbit crathur that bees neither well or sick,
Girnin' in the chimley corner, or goan happin' on a stick;
Sure ye min' the girl for hirin' that went shoutin' thro' the fair,
'I wunthered in wee Robert's, I can summer anywhere.

Just as Heaney is indebted to WF Marshall and a phrase spoken by a servant girl, so Mahon is indebted to Bob Marley and a phrase sung by three little birds. That in itself might be a clue as to how seriously Marley himself might have taken it. In December 1976, for example, Marley had survived an assassination attempt in Jamaica and moved to London. Three Little Birds was recorded in London in early 1977 and appeared in June of that year on the album Exodus. There is surely some question as to just how ‘pure and true’ the sentiments of the birds might be. There’s an upbeat element, to be sure, but it’s chastened just as surely by the broader context of Marley’s life and times.

The circumstances in which Derek Mahon found himself in 1977 were no less complex. On one hand he’d taken up a position as writer-in-residence at the University of Ulster in Coleraine, his own exodus being from London back to his home turf. On the other his drinking was seriously getting in the way of his life and work. As someone who visited him while he lived in Portrush, and with whom he spent a night or two on the tiles, I can attest to his state being very far from ‘all right’, with no sign of improvement in sight.

This is not to speak of the state of the nation. In June 1977 a visit to Belfast by Queen Elizabeth II had sparked off not a metaphorical ‘riot of sunlight’ but a good old-fashioned riot. A year earlier, in August 1976, Portrush had been targeted by members of the Provisional IRA who planted six bombs in hotels and other businesses in the town. No one was killed on that occasion, and though the number of deaths directly related to the Troubles was well down from the 476 of 1972, there were still 295 fatalities in 1976 and 111 in 1977. Hardly a statistic to inspire the chirpiness associated with Everything Is Going to Be All Right.

The questionable nature of the assertion is further underlined by Mahon’s eventual revision of at least one phrase in the poem. This revision is considerably more profound than, say, the substitution in A Disused Shed in Co Wexford of ‘bone burials’ for ‘shit burials’ – a substitution based on the facts of dog behaviour. In this case the shift from ‘the poems flow from the hand unbidden’ to ‘the lines flow from the hand unbidden’ suggests that Mahon’s poems, including this one, are not quite poems in the sense they might be perfect representations of immutable truths. It’s as if the poem were further undercutting its own assurance, focusing on the fragmentary rather than the fulfilled.

Another signal from within the poem is the opening phrase ‘How should I not be glad to contemplate’, where the iambic hastening is simultaneously hobbled by the hesitancy of the idea, like that door in A Disused Shed that ‘bangs with diminished confidence’. In a similar vein the bravado of ‘There will be dying, there will be dying, / but there is no need to go into that’ is hardly meant to be taken unvarnishedly. The true import of that line is that there is a need to go into that but perhaps not just now while the speaker tries to shore up his self-delusion. The repetition of ‘clouds’ in lines 2 and 11 suggests a kind of absentminded desperation rather than conviction. And, again, the last line may be taken at face value only to the extent that we may take at face value the Wordsworth allusion in the last line of this paragraph from Mahon’s 1979 Magill piece on The Coleraine Triangle:

Think of an isosceles triangle, upside-down, with Coleraine as the apex and the twin seaside resorts of Portstewart and Portrush as the base angles. During term time most of the students reside in the base angles. Last year the writer-in-residence resided in Portstewart; this year he resides in Portrush, in a pleasant whitewashed house with flaking pilasters at the front door and a magnificent sea view. From the window where I write I look eastwards along the shore to the ruins of Dunluce Castle (once a MacDonnell stronghold) and the Giant’s Causeway. Slightly to my right is the Royal Portrush golf course, slightly to my left the Atlantic Ocean, with a scattering of rocky islands called the Skerries between me and Scotland. On a clear day I can see Jura and Islay. Earth has not anything to show more fair.

In conclusion, it will be a great day for poetry when we learn to read a poem on the terms it sets up, not those we presume to bring to it.

From Autumn Skies: Thirty writers on poems by Derek Mahon edited by Peter Fallon and published by The Gallery Press (€13.90pb, €20hb) on what would have been Derek Mahon's 80th birthday, November 23rd, 2021. Included are essays by John Banville, Seamus Deane, Vona Groarke, Thomas McCarthy, Medbh McGuckian, Frank McGuinness, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Annemarie Ní Churreáin, Peter Sirr, Colm Tóibín and 20y others. Grant-aided by the Arts Councils of Ireland.