A Reading of Michael Hartnett's 'Epitaph for John Kelly, Blacksmith'
Epitaph for John Kelly, Blacksmith
By Michael Hartnett
Black clothes do not make mourners:
the cries come out of the heart.
And local men at street corners,
who have stood
and watched grained wood
in horse-hearse and motor-hearse,
white plumes of feathers, blue plumes
of smoke, to the dead man’s part
of town, to the rain-dumbed tombs
go, talk his life, chapter and verse,
and of the dead say nothing but good.
In Maiden Street
what man will
forget his anvil,
an early Monday morning, sweet
as money falling on the footpath flags?
The first line has remained in my memory since first reading it. Maybe the fact that the poet is from my home town made me pay attention to him first. Maybe it was recognition of a fellow psychic sound, spawned by the atmosphere of a slightly askew town leaning towards the Kerry hills. One way or the other, I think I would have been seduced by the declaration in the first line, and its qualification in the second, which for me is visual as well as sonic. I see the clothes crying and the heart rending through them with a sword. The expression in l.2 is simple, maybe too simple for some contemporary tastes, but Michael was speaking to his people, giving them songs to sing—which they accepted with relish, and have sung ever since.
That’s where the simplicity ends, or at the very most becomes a veil over pure art. The first line has a spondee and a molossus for the funeral march, which then proceeds elegantly throughout the poem’s brief, broad movement. Broad vowels dominate the view, undeterred by the few slender sounds of "cries", "white", "will", "anvil", all of which join the requiem as tonal harmonies, winding wails plaited into the dominant tones.
The unstressed first-line-ending gives way to the stressed second; “heart” displaces any possibility of pretence, bolstered by the alliteration of "cries" and "come", the verb unembellished; it’s enough that the cries come, they don’t have to rise to howls.
Rhyme works semantically, as with "mourners" and "corners"; these men, loiterers, are transformed by mourning into men who have "stood" and watched "grained wood" going to the "dead man’s part / of town, to the rain-dumbed tombs", "and of the dead say nothing but good." Hooded brood, thud of clods, plod of the rough-shod; firmness in the standing, sureness in the slow walk.
The walk begins in l.10, with the isolated verb “go”(1), which also contains an imperative, a bidding to go and bury him. Up to then, the men have just watched the procession of the dead. Horse-hearses are rare now, but were, as late as the nineties, thought of as an especially significant feature in funerals. In a small town almost everybody would walk behind the hearse, and the process was ritualistically cathartic.
So the death of John Kelly detaches the men from their passivity and gets them walking. It also gets them talking in a significant way. To counteract the “rain-dumbed” tombs, they become the priests; they “talk his life, chapter and verse...”; they become historians and poets “...and of the dead say nothing but good.”
The result is remembrance. The second stanza represents the essence of what the men have said, are saying: the sound of John Kelly’s work, the iron anvil that defined him and his place in the town, his location in the psychic and physical environment—“early Monday morning”—but also his place in the economy—“money falling on the footpath flags”. His loss is emotional, aesthetic and commercial. Is it personal? Hard to tell. Maybe the cries that come from the heart say that it is, but there’s no other indication. It might be significant that blacksmiths were crucial in the development of the world’s economy. The ability to work metal was essential to the making of effective tools, the shoeing of horses greatly changed warfare. His skill gave the blacksmith mythic status; the use of fire and the ability to transform hard material associated him with the god of the underworld. Matters that I’m sure were grist to this mill.
In the impersonal tone, and in the use of rich compound words, the style reminds me of Dylan Thomas. What happens here is elemental and communal. The speaker is disembodied, the men are generic, the sole named man is dead, remembered only in relation to his function. The poem is a death-happening, a seasonal feature like wind or rain. Rain is inseparable from it as an image, a stock one, really, recurring in cinema and horror story—the rain lashing against headstones, the pathetic fallacy of grief and time. The grave is mute, and the muteness is finally, repeatedly, sealed by the sound of rain on the freshly laid sod and on the headstone. It’s inevitable that “Horseman pass by” was somewhere in the poet’s mind.
Indentation sectionalises the poem, separating subjects from their qualifications. The effect is pleasing, possibly because it suggests movement and antiphony. As it is such a short poem, I find myself perceiving it as both headstone and epitaph. The homiletic, halting rhythm is reinforced by the repetition of spondees, parallel phrasing, and words rhyming or resonating with “dead”—“stood”, “grained wood”, “rain-dumbed” (“tombs instead of “grave” adds to the tolling or slow drum here, l.9), and “good”. It seems organic to the effect that the man remembered was a worker of hard metal. The words “Epitaph” and “Blacksmith” are almost mirror images in terms of stressed vowel sounds; the slow, pounding rhythm suggests the blacksmith’s hammer.
Is it only men who will remember him? Is this essential to the meaning, or is “man” simply better-sounding than “person” or “who”? I suspect the focus on men relates to the blacksmith’s function and social position. His work defined him and, by association, the men around him, the work of a smith traditionally being a male one. He made men of them. He unmade and remade them. And these men are certainly not the perceived pillars of society, however much they stand. They’re most likely casual labourers, or men without any work. The blacksmith was a model and an anchor. He was the sweet sound of their Monday mornings, the money falling on the “footpath flags,” where they loiter, stumble or stroll, hoping for a better thing.
(1) The 1985 edition of Michael Hartnett: Collected Poems, Volume 1, (Dublin: Raven Arts Press, Manchester: Carcanet) printed “to” instead of “go” here, which I’ve taken as a typographical error. The original printing, in A Farewell to English (Dublin: Gallery Press, 1978), had “go”.
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