The Hand on the Clock of My Life

With Yeats and Heaney in Tallaght, Islington and Reinickendorf

Mount Seskin, StudentsThese were meetings that were more than warm-hearted. Over three weeks in February and March, I spoke with young people at three different schools about two poems that I believe have something important to say about the relationship between the individual and the respective climate in which he or she lives and thus also about the consequences of climate change. The poems in question here are “The Meditation of the Old Fisherman” by William Butler Yeats, which was published in the Crossways collection in 1889, and “A Postcard from Iceland” by Seamus Heaney, which was written 100 years later. Yeats received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923, while Heaney received it in 1995. Around fifty students told me the different thoughts and feelings the two Irishmen’s poems had provoked in them and I listened, frequently both moved and amazed. The schools where I presented the poems were the Mount Seskin Community College in Tallaght near Dublin, the Islington Arts and Media School in London and the Romain Rolland Gymnasium in Berlin.

The Meditation of the Old Fisherman

You waves, though you dance by my feet like children at play
Though you glow and you glance, though you purr and you dart;

In the Junes that were warmer than these are, the waves were more gay,

When I was a boy with never a crack in my heart.



The herring are not in the tides as they were of old;

My sorrow! for many a creak gave the creel in the cart

That carried the take to Sligo town to be sold,

When I was a boy with never a crack in my heart.



And ah, you proud maiden, you are not so fair when his oar
Is heard on the water, as they were, the proud and apart,

Who paced in the eve by the nets on the pebbly shore,

When I was a boy with never a crack in my heart.



Mount SeskinIn Tallaght, Islngton and Reinickendorf, three students each read out one of verses of the Yeats poem to the class. All three classes were particularly keen on the repeated line at the end of each verse, which to many students felt like waves breaking on the shore. Others were enchanted by the “back and forth” produced by the poetic foot, reminiscent of dunes or pulsations, while others were astonished about how an old fisherman at the end of his life thinks about the world and so many different things: everything may change over time, but love and yearning always remain the same. We spoke at length about the connection between the human disposition and the climate and weather. What is climate anyway and what is weather, what are the differences between them and how can these differences be described? The boys in particular asked what “crack in my heart” might actually mean – whether Yeats, as it may seem, was really only concerned about love and its transient nature. I remember a silent student sitting with us in the art room at Mount Seskin College, shaking his head even as he read the poem again and again, quietly and just for himself. It was only at the end of the lesson that he finally gathered his courage and started talking about the floods in 2014, whereby numerous Dublin suburbs were destroyed following heavy storms and weeks of rain. “Suddenly a river that had never been there before came down the hill and carried the houses away with it, my grandparents’ house too.”

Seamus Heaney talks about another similarly unusual, yet very different river at the start of his 1987 poetry collection The Haw Lantern, whose motto is: RoRo

The riverbed, dried-up, half-full of leaves.

Us, listening to a river in the trees.

Heaney’s poem “A Postcard from Iceland” delighted the students in Tallaght, London and Berlin in equal measure. Comparisons were immediately made to Yeats’ stanzas, while many immediately noticed that this poem too contains voices from real life talking about a lost connection, albeit in a different, more ironic tone:

As I dipped to test the stream some yards away
From a hot spring, I could hear nothing

But the whole mud-slick muttering and boiling.

And then my guide behind me saying,

”Lukewarm. And I think you’d want to know
That luk was an old Icelandic word for hand.“

And you would want to know (but you know already)
How usual that waft and pressure felt

When the inner palm of water found my palm.

IAMSThe longest discussions followed my question about whether the sense of a direct connection to the Earth represented by Heaney in the poem still holds if the hand in question is being bathed in artificially heated water. Independently of one another, all the students responded here with a resounding no. We were all in agreement that Seamus Heaneys’s poem is an account of two conversations, not just one held by a tour guide with a tourist visiting an island but also the conversation that nature, the Earth or creation has with anyone who is open and sensitive enough to join in. “We all ultimately know the language of lukewarm water”, said one student in Islington and another in Berlin. “When it comes down to it, everyone remembers what it was like to be in the womb – it’s just that it’s impossible to communicate that.” The climate in which each of us lives perhaps gives us a similar feeling of unconscious security: “(but you know already)”.


IAMS, EntryWhat language is capable of making this clear and what language can speak of the dangers that climate change brings with it? In these schools on the edge of three European capitals, not even a trace of helplessness was to be found, but rather lots of youthful vigour and curiosity, a lively interest for unfamiliar standpoints, a great deal of empathy and above all the willingness to finally make some changes to things according to one’s one ideas rather than the established ones. A fifteen-year-old student at IAMS, the Arts and Media School in the London district of Islington-Finsbury, found a fantastic impromptu image for how to overcome the mutually disavowing debates on climate change in science and literature: “On the clock of my life, the language of poetry is the minute hand and the language of science the hour hand.”

Photos: Students at Mount Seskin Community College (1), Oisín McGann in front of the Mount Seskin “Substation” (2), the Romain Rolland-Gymnasium, Berlin-Reinickendorf (3), Students of the IAMS (4), the entrance to the IAMS in Islington. John Keats went to school in nearby Finsbury. The four tenets of the school at its entrance: “Confidence Aspiration Reflection Respect” (5)

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