An Irishman's Diary


After some 30 winters and summers I have prepared the last class I will ever teach from Soundings, the Leaving Cert poetry anthology edited by the late Augustine Martin. The current English syllabus expires tomorrow, the day of the Leaving Cert 2000 English exam. More than a million Irish adults under the age of 47 have studied poems from this anthology.

Gus annotated the poems and provided a set of "exploration" questions at the end of each poem. The title Soundings caught in one word Gus Martin's raison d'etre as a teacher. He abhorred paraphrase, prepared and potted responses to poetry; in every class he ever taught he endeavoured to take soundings, to plumb and probe the depths of individual response.

Elysian fields

I dream of Gus, now almost five years in the Elysian fields, singing with Yeats "of what is past, or passing, or to come". Taken so prematurely from us, he never got to feel the force of Yeats's words: "That is no country for old men". Gus did not live to become "a tattered coat upon a stick". A former senator, he passed away weeks short of the birthday when he would have earned the right to call himself "a sixty-year-old smiling public man".

A Saturday night in November 1975 floats into the mind, when, after a long day's in-service for teachers of English in the Four Seasons Hotel in Monaghan, Gus held midnight court for teachers who, like the children in Goldsmith's The Deserted Village, longed to hear more. "And still they gazed, and still the wonder grew, That one small head could carry all he knew."

In the early hours Gus issued a challenge to his fellow lecturer, John Devitt. Gus called out the first line of a Yeats poem; John had to complete the poem; and vice versa. The contest was declared a draw after about two hours. On the following afternoon I took Gus to visit Patrick Kavanagh's family home in the townland of Mucker, near Iniskeen. Two sisters of the poet who were living at home were delighted to meet a man who had done more than most to perpetuate the memory of their brother. No priest ever approached an altar with as much reverence as Gus entered Paddy Kavanagh's bedroom, preserved exactly as it was when the poet left it for the last time in November 1967. It wasn't until then that I understood the meaning of the word "transfigured".

I owned three copies of Soundings over 30 years. My first copy lasted 12 years. So ragged did it become that "a kind old nun in a white hood", determined to inculcate habits of elegance and decorum in our pupils, presented me with a new copy. I declined her offer and tried to explain to her that Soundings had become for me the equivalent of a baby's comfort blanket. Then one day I let it fall in the school yard; the howling, wild west wind scattered the pages "like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing". I recovered most of the pages, but like Humpty Dumpty I could not put that copy of Soundings back together again.

Political sleaze

It has been argued that time has rendered many of the poems in the anthology inaccessible, even irrelevant. In these days of political sleaze and high tolerance of low doings in high places, four lines by John Dryden remain as potent as ever:

"How safe is Treason and how sacred ill,

Where none can sin against the People's Will,

Where crowds can wink; and no offence be known,

Since in another's guilt they find their own."

By way of introduction to T.S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, I used to invite pupils to choose some lines which provided them with a personal entry point into the poem. To paraphrase the TV commercial, eight of out of 10 of those who expressed a preference chose these lines:

"There will be time, there will be time

To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet."

Teenagers could also relate to the line,

"I have measured out my life with coffee spoons".

And how well they could feel the line:

"The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase".

And my pupils learned George Herbert's Love, the sweetest, loveliest prayer ever written:

"Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back.

Guiltie of dust and sinne.

But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack

From my first entrance in,

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,

If I lack'd any thing." Not many years ago I visited a past pupil who was recovering in hospital from a life-threatening illness. I complimented her on her serenity. In reply she recited all 18 lines of that Herbert poem.

Whispering breeze

I remember the old man I met on Bray Head on a beautiful All Souls' Day in 1987, a man I had not met for many years, a man I thought had passed away. In mid-conversation he bade me listen to the gentle whispering of the breeze through small trees and scrub. The whispers, he explained, were the joyful chatting of the souls in heaven; he had come there to talk to his late wife. At that moment I understood what Kavanagh meant in Canal Bank Walk when he begged to be encaptured in a web "Of fabulous grass and eternal voices by a beech".

Soundings has been the ladder, the means to help my pupils to lend shape and meaning to their experience and to move with confidence in the world they know - and maybe even move beyond it.

"The old order changeth, yielding place to new. . ." And so I embrace a new anthology for a new century. I must have the courage Yeats displayed near the end of his life:

"Now that my ladder's gone, I must lie down where all the ladders start,

In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart."