"There is a palpable sadness and sense of loss in many of John Montague's poems which he expresses through powerful language and vivid imagery"
Discuss this statement, supporting your answer with suitable reference to the poems by John Montague that youhave studied on your course.
In the poem ‘The Locket’ we witness Montague’s own personal disenfranchisement with regards to his relationship with his mother. He employs both alliteration and assonance in the opening stanza to enhance the sing-song effect of the elegy:
‘Sing a last song
For the lady who has gone’
He employs the powerful phrase ‘fertile source of guilt’ to convey the fraught relationship between mother and son. The fact that Montague’s mother never breastfed him (which would have been unusual for the time) ‘So you never nursed me’ is made more poignant by the fact that Montague conveys his understanding of how difficult things were for his mother. He does this by integrating his mother’s colloquialisms into the poem:
‘When poverty comes through the door
Love flies up the chimney’
The augmenting sense of sadness and loss is made apparent in his brusque phrase ‘Then you gave me away’. He laments the fact that his mother might never have known him had it not been for his efforts to establish a relationship with her:
‘Then you gave me away
Might never had known me,
If I had not cycled down
To court you like a young man’
However, despite the intimacy that the vivid image of ‘drinking by the fire, yarning’ might seem to connote, it is spurious as his mother declares:
‘Don’t come again’, you say, roughly,
‘I start to get found of you, John’
Montague’s reflective style adds to the palpable sense of sadness and loss in the poem as he equates this as the ‘harsh logic of a forlorn woman/resigned to being alone’. The poem in not only an elegy to his dead mother but also an elegy to the lost opportunity to have a meaningful relationship with his mother. They were in essence strangers to each other despite the fact that the ‘old lady’ wore an oval locket ‘with an old picture in it, /of a child in Brooklyn’
Similarly, ‘The Cage’ chronicles his failure to reconnect with his father. Like ‘The Locket’, any intimacy between the child and parent is superficial. This poem abounds in imagery that appeals to the senses. Reminiscent of ‘The Locket’ wherein the suffering of the mother is adroitly evoked in the simile in which she is described as one who ‘landed up chill as the constant rain that lashes it’, the father too retains the insignia of hard times as he retained the ‘pallor of those who wok underground’. The palpable sense of sadness and loss is consummately conjured up in this poem through the imagery of the father’s drinking until ‘he had reached the only element/he felt at home in/any longer: brute oblivion’.
The father’s obdurate reluctance to face up to his problems is mirrored in ‘The Locket’ wherein the mother is trammelled by her ‘cocoon of pain’. The resounding sense of sadness and loss in ‘The Cage’ is palpable in Montague’s appellation of these as ‘the lost years in Brooklyn’. For Montague’s father, these years represent lost opportunities, hardship and suffering, of a youth is irrevocably lost. This failure to reconnect with his father parallels with his failure to establish a relationship with his mother in ‘The Locket’. Despite the beautiful bucolic imagery of Garvaghey ‘hawthorn on the summer hedges’, father and son do ‘not smile in the shared complicity of a dream’. Montague makes reference to the Greek mythological characters of Odysseus and Telemachus in an effort to convey the profound impact this has had on his life. He is deeply saddened by his loss opportunity. Like Telemachus, the young Montague is a grown man ready to embark on his university career. The last stanza of this poem is redolent of Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘In Memory of My Father’ wherein every old man that the poet sees, reminds him of his father. Like Kavanagh, Montague appears to be haunted by the memory of his father:
‘Often as I descend
into subway or underground
I see his bald head behind
the bars of a small booth’
Another poem in which Montague appears to be haunted is ‘The Wild Dog Rose’. The sense of sadness and loss is equally tangible in this poem. ‘The Wild Dog Rose’ offers readers a less than flattering depiction of Ireland. Through vivid imagery and powerful language Montague presents us with the stark reality of the past. Montague’s Hobbesianesque Ireland is a place of struggle; a place of desperation; of hardship and suffering. Montague’s utilises vivid imagery that is indicative of this desperation and struggle. The physical environs in the poem are desolate and menacing. The cottage is ‘circled by trees, weathered to admonitory/shapes of desolation by mountain winds’. The woman is memorably described as ‘a cailleach’ and a ‘terrible figure’. However, as an adult, Montague has come to the realisation that this ‘harsh’ human being is someone who has been ‘merely, hurt by event’.
Montague’s signature cinematic style is captured in its very essence as the poet relays a ‘story so terrible’. He adroitly evokes the sexual assault of this seventy year old woman by employing verbs that connotes struggle and desperation. We are told that ‘In the darkness they wrestle two creatures crazed with loneliness, the smell of the decaying cottage in his nostrils like a drug, his body heavy on hers, the tasteless trunk of a seventy-year old virgin which he rummages while she battles for life bony figures reaching desperately to push against his bull neck’. The use of the word ‘bull’ has bestial connotations suggestive of the crassitude of this heinous assault. Montague uses dialogue to convey how the old woman prayed to the Blessed Virgin ‘for help’. We are told after the intruder leaves, ‘the dog rose shines in the hedge’. Montague imbues the wild dog rose with symbolic significance. It becomes an emblem for resilience of a beauty damaged. ‘The Wild Dog Rose’ is a profoundly sad poem as it documents the loss of tranquillity and equanimity of this old marginalised woman.
The sense of intrusion, of being haunted is well documented in ‘Like Dolmens around My Childhood’. Montague evocatively chronicles the lives of the ‘old people’ in his community. These are people in his community who lived lives of despair and futility. They are marginalised figures, of derision. The benevolent James MacCrystal who tipped the young Montague as a boy had his cottage robbed when he died. The eccentric Maggie Owens was a reputed witch but Montague only saw her ‘lonely need to deride’. The image of the ‘Dead eyes serpent-flickered’ connotes the perpetual monotony in which the Nialls were subjected too. Fierceness is personified in the figure of Mary Moore seeks companionship and comfort reads: ‘Red Star and Red Circle’. Wild Billy Eagleson married a Catholic servant girl and has become a pariah, disenfranchised from his community. He nonchalantly pretends not to care. However this proves difficult when:
‘the organ drums banged
past in the summer
the bowler and sash aggressively
The inaccessibility of these people is depicted in the penultimate stanza as Montague employs staccato imagery:
‘Curate and doctor trudged to attend them
Through knee-deep snow, through
From main road to lane to broken
Gulping the mountain air with
These people epitomise lives of despair and futility consequently there is an acute sense of sadness as one reflects on the lost opportunities and potential, of what might have been. The final stanza is an acknowledgement that Irish society has changed. Montague has reconciled himself in terms of the past and feels that he is no longer haunted by it:
‘For years they trespassed on my dreams
Until once, in a standing circle of stones
I felt their shadows pass
Into that dark permanence of ancient forms’
Using staccato like imagery of ‘The runes and the chant, evil eye and averted head/Formorian fierceness of family and local feud’. Montague presents us with the sad truth of a demythologised Ireland. The harsh fricative ‘f’ sound of ‘Formorian fierceness’ is indicative of a harsh and brutal subsistence in Ireland. Sadness and despair permeate this poem.
To conclude, I would agree with the statement that in Montague’s poetry there is a palpable sense of sadness and loss that underscores all of his poems. It is a sadness that emanates from the missed opportunity, the failure to connect with his parents, the harsh reality of poverty, of lives of despair and futility, the corollary of living in Montague’s Ireland.