Wednesday, March 16, 2011

'After the Titanic' by Derek Mahon (1985)

              After the Titanic

                             They said I got away in the boat
                        And humbled me at the inquiry. I tell you
                                    I sank as far that night as any
                        Hero. As I sat shivering on the dark water
                                    I turned to ice to hear my costly
                        Life go thundering down in a pandemonium of
                                    Prams, pianos, sideboards, winches,
                        Boilers bursting and shredded ragtime. Now I hide
                                    In a lonely house behind the sea
                        Where the tide leaves broken toys and hat boxes
                                    Silently at my door. The showers of
                        April, flowers of May mean nothing to me, nor the
                                    Late lights of June, when my gardener
                        Describes to strangers how the old man stays in bed
                                    On seaward mornings after nights of
                        Wind, takes his cocaine and will see no one. Then it is
                                    I drown again with all those dim
                        Lost faces I never understood. My poor soul
                                    Screams out in the starlight, heart
                        Breaks loose and rolls down like a stone.
                                    Include me in your lamentations.

Given that tomorrow is St Patrick’s Day I thought it would be apt to look at a piece by one of the great masters of Irish poetry, Derek Mahon. I am interested, in general, in the kind of modern-day epic tragedies such as the sinking of the Titanic (recounted here), Scott’s polar expedition (about which Mahon has also written), or the failed - and sadly fatal - Everest attempt by Mallory and Irvine in 1924 (about which I’ve tried to write something). I think the brilliance of this poem derives not only from the dramatic monologue strategy Mahon employs here, but from the choice of point-of-view and timeframe: the tragedy occurs many years and miles away from the actual sinking by a the man "humbled at the inquiry" (with all that that suggests) who has survived the catastrophe. It is, in the end, a poem about the guilt of the survivor and the unheroic old age of the those who escaped the explicit tragedy.

Another thing that interests me here is a much smaller technical point. Towards the end of the poem, Mahon writes:

                                                                        …My poor soul
                                                Screams out in the starlight, heart
                                    Breaks loose and rolls down like a stone…

It is the absence of the possessive adjective “my” before “heart” that draws my attention. It’s not immediately clear why this absence heightens the word “heart” but it does somehow. It moves us, I think, one step closer to the aura of that word, to the feeling it generates. It is not his heart, but heart. My heart, your heart, our heart. Heart. The sense of the word is utterly heightened by the omission and somehow makes the speaker's grief more universal as a result. It is the grief of everyone who survived the disaster. It is a beautiful effect but can only work if used sparingly, as it is here. Another interesting thing to note is that Mahon breaks the line on this word, further heightening the emphasis.

One further point. There is also the interesting use of the line lengths variations creating a kind of oscillating rhythm. Mahon is a true formalist and there is clearly nothing accidental or casual about the way his poems appear on the page. I think the variation subtly suggests the waves washing up and slipping back from the shore, as the speaker drowns again “with all those dim/ Lost faces I never understood”. The energy and rhythm this carries into the poem is difficult to quantify in a short space, but clearly works not just in terms of meaning, but in terms of music and rhythm also, the latter reinforcing and 'enacting' the former.

Mahon, the great formalist combines all these effects to a brilliant conclusion as the tragic figure asks of us at the poem’s end: “Include me in your lamentations.”

Revision 3.2.14

I have removed my reference to the speaker's (possible) cowardice as discussed in older comments as I feel Mahon's change of title from 'Bruce Ismay's Lament' to the present one broadens the theme and clearly deliberately so. Ismay was the Managing Director of the White Star Line, the company who owned the Titanic, hence my initial remark. Still, it's interesting to know of the original title and, thus, how it framed the earlier version of the poem. Rather like the point I made above, it raises the piece from that of a singular experience and moves it towards a more universal one.

Here's a short video piece from BBC News that shows how Ismay's descendants have tried to redress what the see as his victimisation in the media after the sinking of the Titanic and, indeed, for the rest of his life.


  1. I'm glad you introduced me to this poem. The idea of the guilt of the survivor is striking, whether or not he was a coward.

  2. This poem was originally published under the title 'Bruce Ismay Laments' (I think) and as far as I recall Ismay was one of the very wealthy who paid their way off the sinking ship. I think this is what the line 'they humbled me at the enquiry' refers to. Interesting that Mahon chose to change the title to be less specific about the persona writing.

    As you say, a fascinating piece about the guilt of the survivor, particularly given the circumstances of how that survval was acheived. The man is deeply haunted into old age as a result.

  3. How interesting. It's much better as a poem (I think) to have it general. It suggests how guilty we could feel even if we had done nothing wrong and survived.

    But then again the actual story of the real man is also interesting. The reader is still complicit because we have to ask ourselves if we would have done it if we had the cash....

  4. I thank you for sharing this poem; and insight - I was not aware of this poem and now I wonder, would we have done the same?

  5. Thank you for these moving words. He obviously had a case of survivor's guilt. I don't think him a coward, though. The survival instinct is strong. It's easy to criticize from afar, but put yourself in his shoes. Did he have a family he was trying to get back to? I grieve for his obvious tormented existence in the years following this tragedy.

  6. Thanks MBRE & Oldwoman_58.

    The original title of this poem was 'Bruce Ismay Laments', Ismay being the managing director of the White Star Line, the company that built the Titanic. In this sense, he used his position to escape...

    That said, I think Mahon was right to change the title, which positions the poem differently and focuses on the guilt of any survivor really without negating the complex nature of Ismay's guilt.

    I agree, though. What would we do in his shoes? Probably the same, though with the great burden surely as this poem demonstrates...

    Anyway, great to get your thoughts on this one!