The heron rising: a moment of affirmation in Sean Rafferty's poetry

Catherine Hales

'Thrush' is something of an anomaly among Seán Rafferty's poems, offering a sense of affirmation and hope which contrasts with the resignation in much of his other work. This resignation can be seen especially in the poems '1945' and '1959', which deal with the aftermath of bombing in London and with the post-war ruins of civilisation. 'Thrush' is one of the few poems that abandon regular rhyme, and engages directly and intimately with its subject, largely (apparently) dropping the medium of artifice in the form of myth and allusion.

The situation of the poem is simply this: the eighty-year-old poet is babysitting Louis, the child of Nicholas Johnson (whose Etruscan Books brought out the more or less definitive edition of Rafferty's poems in 1999), and meditates on the ends and beginnings of life's journeys.

The old man and the infant boy are "[a]n odd couple", "alone in the house together". The child is asleep, while the man, in a personal interpolation which departs from the largely observational, scene-setting mode, is "afeard": that the child might be wakened by the dogs in the yard or the rooks in the (distant) spinney. This is a fear that is "nigh on fifty years old / from a winter after a war," recalling a child who "would not be comforted." Even when a "jet flies low overhead" the child "does not waken", but "slowly, serenely / he turns his head to his minder"; whereupon the poet, moving into interpretation mode, notes that this movement is made not for the child "to be reassured / but rather to reassure him." It is a meeting of two people,

each with a journey before him
whereto neither can know.

At this point the poem switches from the more descriptive and distant third person to the more intimate first and second person: it's just you and me, the old man speaking to the sleeping child, but really of course to himself as the child is asleep and in any case too young to be able to conduct a conversation.

The bird imagery, too, comes in closer. From the rooks in their spinney at some distance, it moves in to the more domestic sparrows and (likewise transmigrant) swallows, as well as quails and corncrakes (this is a bird poem after all). And the jet aircraft flying low overhead could symbolise modern materialism and technology and the concomitant loss of the innocence (in Blakean terms) of the natural state, in contrast to the innocence of the sleeping child.

The abandonment of artifice is itself briefly abandoned with a reference to Orcus, in Roman mythology the name given to the evil, punishing side of the god of the underworld, the origins of which "may have lain in Etruscan religion" (Wikipedia). There is also a reference to Renaissance art, comparing the sleeping child, "the bambino", with the child in images of "a quattrocento Madonna", with the implications of rebirth and salvation prefiguring the affirmation that ends the poem.

Then the poem comes back "down to earth again", to the child, the "blond and barefooted beginner". The poet, explicitly addressing himself, asks

                                          What can I
what can I give to a child
in farewell? Softly, speak softly.
In farewell to a child who is sleeping

It might have been feasible to end the poem with that single-word line "give?", a rhetorical question with no answer hinted at in the poem, thus a note of some desperation; so Rafferty goes on to answer it (albeit with another question):

What can I give but a dream?

Not the baroque life-as-dream but a dream that "is no dream when you waken / into the morning you dreamed of;" – dream-as-life, perhaps, or dream that is part of the artifice that is all we've got.

The poet now switches from identification with the sparrow to the thrush, specifically the song-thrush, which could also be an echo of the golden bird singing on its golden bough in Yeats' 'Byzantium'. The thrush's song is the landscape and will lead the child to where "a heron will rise from the shallows / spreading great wings heavy with acclamation" (bringing to mind the wingbeats of the swan in Yeats' 'Leda and the Swan'). Then the thrush, the old poet no longer needed, "will end his song." The heron does not make an accidental appearance: in Greek mythology it was a favourable augury, and in the medieval bestiary it "signifies those who fear the disorder of the world, and to avoid its storms fly high above it in spirit." ( This is indeed a moment of affirmation, of acknowledgement that there can be a future that is not one of catastrophe, and is a significant break from Rafferty's other poetry. It is this sense of affirmation, of hope for some kind of future, that makes this poem an anomaly.

Otherwise and elsewhere, Rafferty's world seems to be a creation abandoned by its creator-god, in the ruins of which only artifice, specifically poetry as dream and the ritual of dance (c.f. Eliot's 'Four Quartets'), is capable of holding things together, where

nothing is that is not made
made to stand, transparent, fine,
like the glass that holds the wine. ('Poets you may read it in')

Allusions to the Greeks reinforce this. In 'An old man a poor man', Homer is referred to as "the father of us all" – all of us poets that is. Rafferty's world is not devoid of wit and humour: his take on the story of Leda and the swan seems to be sending up the sententiousness of Yeats' poem, with the girl standing in the doorway with an outsize egg, muddy jeans and a "keepsake feather", saying "'look what I've got'", to which the poet replies

O lady, lady
there are only two ways about it:
either you cook a fabulous omelet
or you've laid yourself in for
an epic load of trouble. ('Leda Poem')

Yeats, as Harold Bloom has pointed out, was influenced by Blake before he switched allegiance to Shelley. Blake, and through him Milton's 'Paradise Lost' and the whole Christian creation myth, are alluded to in 'I would be Adam', where the poet reflects that God should have finished creating before creating Adam "[t]o be creation's clown". He should have finished with the fine flourish of peacocks: "Peacocks was really great." Although, indeed, "not to be born is best." ('Not to be, not to be born is best').

Such resignation is most clearly seen in the apocalyptic vision presented in the pair of longer poems '1945' and '1959'. Here the poet wanders through the streets (like Blake with his "As I wander through each charter'd street") of the bombed city of London, a version of Dante's Purgatory and Hell. Rafferty’s guide is not Virgil, but "Ironfoot Jack", a figure vaguely recalling perhaps Yeats' Crazy Jane. He meets an "ancient mourner" (echoing Coleridge's Ancient Mariner). Music is trivialised and no-one will listen. The Sally Army band is playing to no-one on the corner, for God has abandoned his creation: the church of St. Anne's in Soho has been destroyed by bombing (a motif that recurs in Rafferty's poems); and

The streets are full of noises
hallalis halleluias sackbuts psalteries tim
brels trumpets artillery: He has chastened the righteous
and utterly flattened the wicked. Praise Him.

Ironfoot Jack, "a man past middle age with an iron brace on his left leg", perhaps the immobilised poet himself, stands on a street corner "under a stopped clock", an image which recalls the great theme of Time in Eliot's 'Four Quartets' (also, of course, Rupert Brooke's clock at Grantchester).

In '1959' Rafferty revisits this cityscape, knowing that he should "[n]ever go back", remembering the young who "lived here and now; these young are dead or old." It is a dissolute world, a ruined world, an embodiment of Eliot's Waste Land (Eliot is name-checked) after "a war the surrealists won." This is Sean Rafferty at his darkest, Rafferty who was remembered by his friends for his Mauberleyesque antics at Edinburgh University in the 1920s, Rafferty the Modernist in the wind shadow of Pound, Eliot and Yeats, with echoes of Homer, Dante, Coleridge and Blake and maybe others. But in the end, he was after all able to see hope and affirmation in the figure of the young Louis Johnson.

Works cited include:

Rafferty, Sean: Poems. Edited by Nicholas Johnson. etruscan books, 1999

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