Storm on the Island By Seamus Heaney
Context / Summary
The poem ”Storm on the Island” written in 1966 by an Irish poet Seamus Heaney is a dramatic monologue about storms and their effects from the perspective of a villager on a remote island, most likely in the Irish Atlantic. Heaney grew up in a farming community and wrote many poems about ordinary and everyday subjects. In his work, he employs a large number of agricultural and natural images as metaphors for human nature. The poem is centred on the storey of a small isolated cottage near the sea during a storm and its exposure to the elements.
The poem writes about the experience of being in a cliff-top cottage on an island off the coast of Ireland during a storm. Heaney describes the bare ground, the sea and the wind. The people of the cottage are isolated and helpless in the face of the storm.
The poem explores the conflict between man and nature, as well as people’s fear of bad weather. However, the poet also points out that, in the grand scheme of things, the fears are insignificant. The use of the words “bombardment” and “salvo” to describe the weather has a hint of war and conflict.
Heaney admits his fear at the end of the poem: “it is a huge nothing that we fear.” Perhaps this implies that the storm’s ultimate power is an unknown quantity. Nobody can predict what the wind will do or what each storm will bring.
Line By Line Explanation
Lines 1-4 – The speaker describes how the community prepares for the storm. The collective personal pronoun ‘we’ to start the poem shows the strength of the community. The way the houses are built suggests storms are regular, and that they survive them through their collective strength –hard ‘k’ and ‘t’ sounds reflect this. The word wizened shows that the land is dried up/ shrivelled, but what is ironic about the lack of vegetation that the barren land offers is that there is little that would take flight and become a danger in a strong storm.
Lines 5-8 – The poem begins to shift in tone, towards one of fear and danger. The speaker suggests that the trees may prove ‘company’ in a strong storm, as if aspects of nature comforting – this emphasises the loneliness of the land. Blast isolated by the enjambment and caesura, enhancing its strength. The sound of word is onomatopoeic, and makes the reader consider a bomb. The personal pronoun ‘you’ encourages the reader to reflect on their own experiences of violent storms. The ‘tragic chorus’ narrate the events in a Greek tragedy, in which a catastrophic ending is inevitable – security is eclipsed by sounds of fear.
Lines 9-13 – The tone has now clearly shifted from one of safety to one of danger as the intensity and violence of the storm is described. The word ‘pummels’ means to strike repeatedly with the fist –the storm is therefore being personified into an aggressive and persistent fighter that bullies the islanders. ‘No trees’ is repeated, to emphasise the feeling of isolation. ‘No natural shelter’ suggests that nature is entirely against them. An oxymoron is used to show the nature of the sea – it is ‘comfortable’ with its violence (exploding) – once again, there are connotations here of bombs detonating.
Lines 14-16 – From this point onwards, the fear of the islanders is conveyed through the increasing imagery of war. Caesuras (e.g. after ‘But no’) prolong the storm. Even domesticated nature now seems to be against the islanders, as in the simile used to compare the sea and the tame cat ‘turned savage.’ The cat, much like the weather, turns from tame to savage. Furthermore, the water is personified through the imagery of the water ‘spitting.’ The villagers must simply let it pass.
Lines 17-19 – The final lines continue to employ images of war. ‘Strafes’ means to attack with gunfire, once again showing how the storm mirrors the violent conflict. The use of the adverb ‘invisibly’ suggests that the attack is by stealth – the wind cannot be seen and this in some ways makes it worse. The interesting verb ‘bombarded’ shows the people are trapped and feel attacked from all angles. ‘Empty air’ is a play on words, meaning a mere threat, but this is more than that. The last line shows that the people do not know what to expect.
Structure/Shape of the poem
The poem is in blank verse with 19 lines. There are 5 feet (10 syllables) in each line. The verses are unrhymed and it gives it a very conversational tone. This is added to by the use of asides ‘you know what I mean’.
The poem is in present tense to suggest the storm is occurring at the time. The poem uses a great deal of enjambment to help add to the conversational tone.
In the poem, the present tense is used. This adds drama to the scene while also reinforcing the notion that storms occur frequently. We have no idea who is staying in Heaney’s cottage. He isn’t alone, as he repeatedly refers to We, but he refuses to elaborate. The poem’s “characters” are the wind and waves.
The poem begins with a confident tone: “We are prepared.” Heaney appears to have a “grit your teeth” attitude! Storms are unavoidable because buildings are built to be “squat” in order to withstand them.
Heaney speaks in a friendly tone to draw us in. He uses common conversational tags – “as you see”, “you know what I mean”, “You might think” – to involve us, and reminds us of our own lives: “the thing you fear”, “your house” as he is talking to the reader specifically, or to people in general? Do you find that this emphasises how isolated he is on the island?
Many lines are not end-stopped but run on from one to another. This is called enjambment. “when it blows full / Blast” which conveys the impression of a gust of wind suddenly ‘blasting’ in at the start of the line. “a tame cat / Turned savage”, where the surprise of finding “Turned savage” at the beginning of the line enacts the shock of the cat’s sudden change in temperament.
Analysis of Storm On The Island
In the poem “Storm On The Island,” Heaney describes a way of life, the ravaging effects of a storm, and the experience of living in a remote place in the voice of an islander (but one who seems representative of the island’s population).
The poem’s opening line, “We are prepared,” implies that the islanders are certainly prepared to face a storm, but their practises have clearly evolved as a result of experience.
This weather has conditioned their lives to such an extent that it influences their architecture and farming methods. The climate in which people live invariably shapes how they interact with their surroundings. The island depicted in the poem has a desolate landscape that is exposed to the elements.
The word “We” at the very beginning suggests a collective, cultural voice of solidarity; a community facing a common enemy in the form of unpredictable weather.
The landscape is inhospitable and desolate, allowing for what we might call subsistence without luxury. We are told that “the wizened earth” is too barren to produce hay. There are no “stacks” or “stooks” of it. We also learn about nature’s ferocity, isolation, and the distinction between real and perceived danger.
On the one hand, the storm and its power is intangible and thus a “huge nothing” (line 19), but the impact on the island is palpable in both physical and psychological ways. The islanders must modify their farming practices to account for the potentially disastrous effects of storms. Houses, for example, are built “squat” (line 1), with walls well-founded in “rock” (line 2) and heavy slate roofs. The idea of exposure and danger is well realised throughout the poem.
An island is by its very nature, more acutely affected by rough weather than a much greater non-coastal landmass. There isn’t even the solace of trees that can “raise a tragic chorus in a gale” (line 8) to distract the listener from the frightening reality that the wind “pummels” houses as well as the surrounding landscape.
This chorus is reminiscent of the lamentation from a Greek tragedy, and as such, it adds to the mournful atmosphere that is being created. In Greek tragedy, a chorus was also responsible for making sense of events and interpreting them.
The lack of an anchor point here gives us the impression that the islanders lack anything that could divert their attention away from the reality of their situation. They appear to be the only ones who are victims of the gale.
The sea is inhospitable. It is described by Heaney as “Exploding comfortably down the cliffs” (line 13).
The verb “exploding” is an image associated with the ordinance of war, something that is developed in subsequent lines. Explosions seem natural to the personified sea, which serves to reinforce how disconcerting it is for the querulous people on the receiving end of the storm’s onslaught.
The manner in which weather can change very quickly as a storm begins is conveyed through the image of“a tame cat / Turned savage” (lines 15-16).
We are all aware of how something as apparently benign as a domestic cat is capable of changing instantly into a violent creature if provoked.
The islanders endure the storm and “sit tight” (line 16). The untrammelled power of the storm is suggested through the powerfully illiterate sounds of “spray”, “hits”, “spits” and “cat”.
The island is portrayed as being under attack by nature. The storm is portrayed as a fighter plane that “strafes invisibly” in an extended military metaphor. This is reinforced by the terms “strafed” and “bombarded,” which are typically used to describe a fighter pilot’s use of machine gun and bombs. This very violent imagery makes the storm appear to be a war wreaking havoc on the island. Heaney emphasises the wind’s mysterious power by writing that it is “empty air” and “a huge nothing” that is the source of all this feared havoc.
This poem does not simply concern itself with a storm on an island but engages with the idea that however practical and rooted we may be, there are forces beyond us that are ultimately more powerful than we are.
This poem considers nature’s power and its effects on the human imagination as well as the immediate environment. The tone of the poem is conversational, as one would expect from a dramatic monologue. When the islander says, “you know what I mean,” he is clearly speaking as if sharing a confidence with someone (line 7).
Heaney evokes an atmosphere very powerfully and challenges idealised thinking about living on an island. This island is not a romantic retreat, but rather a place to persevere. In life, we can’t always count on nice weather. There will be times when we must draw on all of our resources, inner strength, and courage to overcome our fears. It conjures up images of a blasted landscape on one of the islands off Ireland’s west coast. The houses must be low-lying and solidly built into the rocks. The implication is that if they did not, they would be destroyed by the storm.
Stooks –these are the pyramidal-shaped arrangement of hay in a field. Interestingly, Heaney uses the word to draw attention to the fact that there are no stooks as there is no harvest.
Questions and Answers
Q. What is the storm on the island about?
Ans. This poem, written in 1966, is about a storm on an island, but it could also be interpreted as a metaphor for Northern Ireland’s troubles at the time. The poem on a literal level, details an event perfectly summarised by the title.
However, on a deeper, more figurative level, the storm is representative of the political storm that raged across Northern Ireland at the time. The storm pummeling the island is a metaphor for the violence that was taking place in Northern Ireland.
This is evident even in the title (island is a homophone of Ireland). Furthermore, the first 8 letters of the poem’s title spell out the word ‘Stormont.’ Stormont is the name given to the government buildings in Northern Ireland in Belfast. This makes it clear that this poem also carries a political message.
Imagery associated with terrorist violence can be found throughout several other sections of the poem, for example, words such as ‘blast’, ‘exploding’, ‘fear’, and ‘bombarded’ not only represent the manner in which the storm attacks the island, but also the horror that was ensuing in Northern Ireland through the terrorists’ violence.
Q. What does the storm represent in Storm on the Island?
Ans. Storm on the Island is a metaphor for the political upheaval that swept Northern Ireland in the second half of the twentieth century. In the poem, the storm battering the island is a metaphor for the violence in Northern Ireland.
Q. What does wizened Earth mean?
And. “Wizened” means shrivelled up and withered (not to be mistaken for the “wise” in wisdom). The phrase wizened Earth shows that the land is dried up/ shrivelled, but what is ironic about the lack of vegetation that the barren land offers is that there is little that would
take flight and become a danger in a strong storm.
Q. What are the themes of Storm on the Island?
Ans. The poem gives voice to people who live in constant fear of the power of natural storms. The poem’s theme is therefore the ongoing conflict between humans and nature.
Nature – As the islanders have become acutely aware, humanity is easily overpowered by the forces of nature –
The natural world can make man feel extremely small and insignificant. Despite being relentlessly ‘pummelled’ and ‘bombarded’ by the storm, the islanders just have to ‘sit it out’, knowing that they are no match for the storm.
Fear/Isolation – The people on the island are out of touch with anyone beyond the island (and in fact beyond their own house) during the storm. Their isolation is demonstrated through the lack of trees, which the speaker suggests could offer some company, and the now ‘savage’ nature of the ocean. This is bare, barren, and lonely.
Q. What is the structure of the time Storm on the Island?
Ans. The poem is written in one solid block of 19 unrhymed lines, ending with a half-rhyming couplet. Each line of the blank verse contains ten or eleven syllables, following the natural pattern of English so that the reader feels as though Heaney is talking to them. The form itself mirrors the houses, squat and solid, bearing the brunt of the storm. It also presents the storm as one single event.