Relevant Background | Themes | Style
John Montague - (1929)
- John Montague was born in Brooklyn, New York early in 1929.
- He was son of James Montague, an Ulster Catholic, from County Tyrone, who had immigrated to America in 1925 after involvement in republican activities.
- His mother was Molly Carney, but she played little part in his life after his birth. Yet she marred John’s life by her absence from it.
- James Montague had the typical exile’s optimistic hope of benefiting from the American Dream.
- But when his wife, Molly, arrived three years later with their two first sons, James could provide nothing better than the Brooklyn slums for their family home.
- Regarding his background, John Montague’s grandfather was a Justice of the Peace, schoolmaster, farmer, postmaster and director of several firms.
- John had a typical Brooklyn kid’s early childhood, playing with coins on tram- lines and seeing early Mickey Mouse movies.
- Because of the economic effects of the Depression era John Montague was shipped back in 1933 at the age of four to his family home at Garvaghey, in County Tyrone.
- John Montague’s mother rejected him after a painful birth. This rejection and marriage problems were contributory causes to the decision to send John to be fostered from the age of four by two aging unmarried aunts.
- Later, when his mother ended her marriage and returned to Ulster, she continued to ignore John, a fact which deeply hurt him and affected both his speech and his ability to socialise with women.
- However, the switch from city kid to country-village boy in Ulster benefited John and proved to be a ‘healing’ as he called it in a poem not on the course.
- With the help of his imagination, he adopted to life on a farm that doubled as the local rural post-office. Because of this he got to know the local characters and gossip very well. We see this in ‘Like Dolmens’ and ‘The Wild Dog Rose’.
- He was first taught in Garvaghey national school.
- For secondary education John went to an austere boarding school run by strict priests in Armagh. There, against his will, John learned about the long tradition of Irish poetry from an influential teacher.
- While studying for his degree in Dublin after World War Two, John found Dublin to be a very old fashioned place, with the atmosphere over-controlled, especially by priests.
- Afterwards he went to work and complete his education in American Universities. He honed his poetic skills while in America.
- John Montague then got married and lived for a time in France where he continued to write poetry and to write short stories. There for a while he became a friend of the renowned Irish playwright, Samuel Beckett.
- He worked as Paris correspondent for The Irish Times for three years. He spent a total of twelve years living in France.
- After journalism, he began a long career as a university lecturer and poet. He has lectured at universities in France, Ireland, Canada, and the United States.
- He is the author of numerous collections of his own poems and editor of anthologies of works of other poets.
- He has received many awards, including the Irish-American Cultural Institute's Award for Literature, the American Ireland Fund Literary Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship.
- In 1987, Montague was awarded an honorary doctorate by the State University of New York. The State Governor Mario M. Cuomo praised Montague for his outstanding literary achievements and his contributions to the people of New York.
- In 1998, he was named the first Irish Professor of Poetry. This is a position he held for three years, equally divided among The Queen's University in Belfast, Trinity College Dublin, and University College Dublin.
- He now divides his time between West Cork and France.
- John Montague has a major international reputation as an Irish poet, the first major Northern Irish Catholic poet.
- He is a poet who describes private feelings as well as public themes.
- Much of his poetry centres on his personal family history and the culture and history of Catholics in Northern Ireland, including the twenty-five year long period of the Troubles.
- For example, his greatest poem ‘The Rough Field’ is set on the farm where he was reared from the age of four and was influenced by the people he grew up among. Three course poems e.g. ‘Like Dolmens Round My Childhood’ come from ‘The Rough Field’.
- The Civil Rights Movement in 1960s Northern Ireland also influenced John Montague. His did a public reading of his poem ‘New Siege’ outside Armagh Jail in 1970 to support a jailed civil rights protestor, the nationalist Bernadette Devlin.
- As an adult he spent some time trying to recapture the American experience, a search reflected in some of his poems.
- Separation from his father all his life affected him emotionally as we read in his poem ‘The Cage’.
- The pain of rejection by his mother was even more traumatic for his personal development as we read in the poem ‘The Locket’.
- John Montague is renowned internationally as one of the major Irish poets of the twentieth century.
- Pagan Ireland
John Montague senses the continuation of prehistoric Ireland among the people and in the landscape where he grew up. He seems to recapture a more distant Irish past by recalling his own immediate past—the frightening and scattered rural neighbours of his childhood. ‘Like Dolmens round by childhood the old people’ [LDRMC] He presents pagan Ireland as a raw, haunting and mythical presence. It consists of rural poverty, frustration, feuding, secrecy, spells, curses and denial. ‘ The rune and the chant, evil eye and averted head, Fomorian fierceness of family and local feud’ [LDRMC] The characters of pagan Ireland are frightening and shadowy. ‘Maggie Owens… a well of gossip defiled, fangled chronicler of a whole countryside… The Nialls…dead eyes serpent-flickered as one entered’ [LDRMC] ‘the cailleach… hooped figure by the roadside, its retinue of dogs… the great hooked nose, the cheeks dewlapped with dirt…’ [TWDR] Montague also sees a poetic beauty in the unchanged ancient landscape. ‘The sounds of Ireland, that restless whispering you never get away from’ [W] Yet the unreformed and ancient landscape can be barren and like a wilderness. ‘The rank thistles and leathery bracken of untilled fields’ [TWDR]
- The hidden side of human personalities
John Montague contemplates the vulnerable underside of people who may appear harsh on the surface. ‘Maggie Owens… all I could find was her lonely need to deride’ [LDRMC] ‘Mary Moore… a by-word for fierceness… dreamed of gypsy love-rites’ [LDRMC] Montague also senses how a human hurt can deform a life. ‘the cailleach, that terrible figure who haunted my childhood but no longer harsh, a human being merely, hurt by event’ [TWDR] He reveals the real personality behind the public smiles of his father. ‘My father… extending his smile to all sides of the good (all white) neighbourhood… the least happy man I have known’ [TC] Montague is aware of the duality of our gestures in different contexts. An everyday movement of the hand in public, in traffic, that is mechanical in effect, can be deeply intimate in effect in the privacy of lovemaking. ‘changing gears with the same gesture as eased your snowbound heart and flesh’ [TSG] John Montague is able to forgive his mother for rejecting him because he sees her pain and senses the different personality she had before her life turned harsh. ‘my double blunder… poverty… yarning of your wild young days… the belle of your small town… landed up mournful and chill’ [TL] John Montague savours the secrecy of his hunting presence on a riverbank. ‘Savouring my own absence, senses expanding in the slow motion’ [TT]
- The impact of family on his life
His mother abandoned him. ‘Then you gave me away’ [TL] His father reneged on rearing him. ‘lost years…we did not share in the shard complicity of a dream, for when weary Odysseus returns Telemachus should leave’ [TC] Read the detailed summary and theme analysis of ‘ The Cage’ and ‘The Locket’ in Leaving Cert English Ordinary Section on Skoool.ie
- The harshness of life
John Montague portrays the suffering of lonesome, impoverished locals from the hills around Garvaghey. ‘When he died his cottage was robbed… driving cattle from a miry stable… forsaken by both creeds… fomorian fierceness of family and local feud’ [LDRMC] He depicted the suffering of his father, a prisoner of poverty in New York. ‘ my father, the least happy man I have known…the lost years… released from his grille… drank neat whiskey until… brute oblivion.’ [TC] Montague spells out the extent of his mother’s physical pain and anguish. ‘ source of guilt and pain… the harsh logic of a forlorn woman’ [TL] He portrays the life-long loneliness and the brutal rape of a seventy-year-old spinster. ‘the cailleach… hurt by event… loneliness, the monotonous voice in the skull that never stops… he rummages while she battles for life bony fingers reaching desperately to push against his bull neck…’ [TWDR] Montague also portrays the horror of concentration camps. ‘ From nests of bodies like hatching eggs flickered insectlike hands and legs’ [AWP] Behind the glamour of fishing lies the terror of the trapped trout. ‘I can taste his terror on my hands’ [TT] Montague is aware of cruelty in the farmyard. He dramatises the resistance of a pig to its slaughter. ‘He was pulled out, squealing, an iron cleek sunk in the roof of his mouth… That high pitched final effort… Piercing & absolute’ [KTP]
- A sense of place
Montague observes and draws the landscape of his childhood. ‘the cottage, circled by trees, weathered to admonitory shapes of desolation…where the dog rose shines in the hedge’ [TWDR] ‘a bend in the road which still shelters primroses’ [TC] ‘ a crumbling gatehouse. Famous as Pisa for its leaning gable’ [LDRMC] ‘From main road to lane to broken path’ [LDRMC] Montague pinpoints the essence of nature’s music as created by the wind in the Irish landscape. ‘seeping out of low bushes and grass, heatherbells and fern, wrinkling bog pools, scraping tree branches…’ [W] Montague evokes the horror of Auschwitz. ‘a welcoming party of almost shades… an ululation, terrible, shy’ [AWC] He also neatly depicts the irrelevance of Ireland geo-politically in the 1960’s. ‘to be always at the periphery of incident’. He also suggests that a farmyard can be a place of hidden crimes. It can secretly contain guilty memories of slaughter. ‘But the walls of the farmyard still hold that scream, are built around it’ [KTP] Montague conveys California from an Irish point of view. ‘All legendary obstacles lay between us, the long imaginary plain, the monstrous ruck of mountains…’ [ALO] He mentions what would strike an Irish visitor to New York. ‘listening to a subway shudder the earth.’ [TC] Montague sums up the essence of a Brooklyn neighbourhood. ‘(all-white) neighbourhood belled by St Theresa’s church.’ [TC] Montague evokes the intimacy of the marriage bedroom. ‘a secret room of golden light… healing light… gesture … eased your snowbound heart and flesh.’ [TSG]
- Isolation and separation
Montague’s parents suffered separation and social isolation. ‘My father… brute oblivion’ [TC] Like his father, his mother suffered from self-imposed oblivion. ‘the harsh logic of a forlorn woman resigned to being alone’ [TL] Montague with great sympathy captures the reason for an odd old lady’s personality. ‘the only true madness is loneliness, the monotonous voice in the skull that never stops because never heard’ [TWDR] Her isolation means that she seeks no redress from the authorities for rape. She suffers with a stoicism born of a folk version of religion. ‘she tells me a story so terrible I try to push it away… I remember the Holy Mother of God and all she suffered.’ [TWDR] Montague captures the isolation of his scattered elderly rural neighbours. ‘Jamie McCrystal sang to himself… Maggie Owens… even in her bedroom a she-goat cried… Billy Eagleson… forsaken by both creeds… ‘ [LDRMC]
- Human love
Montague graphically depicts intimate moments. ‘Move into the wet darkness kissing, still unable to speak’ [ALO] Montague evokes the mystical side of human intimacy and it’s ability to heal. ‘a secret room of golden light… healing light… the shifting of hands is a rite like court music… gesture … eased your snowbound heart and flesh’. [TSG] Montague also admits the failure of love in his parent’s marriage. ‘when poverty comes through the door love flies up the chimney’. In Northern Irish society love can lead to social exclusion and abuse. ‘Billy Eagleson married a catholic serving girl… forsaken by both creeds’. [LDRMC] The intimacy of love can be replaced by a terrifying violation. ‘his body on hers, the tasteless trunk of a seventy-year-old virgin, which he rummages while she battles for life’ [TWDR]
Montague observes nature’s beauty in eloquent language. ‘Tendril light in his fluid sensual dream’ [TT] ‘hawthorn on the summer hedges’ [TC] But he also observes the rugged aspect of the landscape and climate. ‘The monstrous ruck of mountains’ [ALO] ‘The hissing drift of winter rain’ [ALO] ‘Gulping the mountain air with painful breath’ [LDRMC] ‘weathered to admonitory shapes of desolation by the mountain winds’ [TWDR] Montague personifies the effects of climate on the Irish landscape ‘ a hand ceaselessly combing and stroking the landscape’ [W] Montague is aware that not all that is beautiful is strong. ‘dog rose… at the tip of a slender, tangled, arching branch… weak flower, offering its crumbling yellow cup and pale bleeding lips fading to white’ [TWDR]
- Form John Montague is a lyric poet. He uses various stanza forms in the poems selected for the Leaving Certificate. He favours a poem of between four and seven stanzas with either six or seven lines per stanza. However he deviates from this at times. He doesn’t tend to follow a definite rhyming pattern. Many of his poems have rhyme, though he is not strict about this. You are as likely to see half-rhyme as rhyme. .
- Speaker In most of Montague’s poems the speaker is the poet himself. Most of his material comes from his lived experience and direct observations. He is a poet of the self, a romantic poet in that sense. He uses poetry to arrive at perceptions about his parents, partners, memories and the impact on him of national and international events.
- Tone Montague’s various tones range from pain to empathy, admiration and wonder. The word which applies to much of his poetry is compassionate. His tone is often one of intelligent detachment. At times he is capable of sarcasm. His tone can sometimes sound haunted, guilty even for the actions of others. He is capable of rueful and frustrated irony as illustrated in the final line of ‘A Welcoming Party’.
- Language Montague’s language is personal and anecdotal. He addresses the reader in conversational English. The need for rhythm and a regular beat may lead to the omission of obvious words or the changing of word order or phrase order. His most striking feature is his use of adjectives, sometimes in a group of three. It is worth commenting on his adjectives and how they convey meaning, express tone and achieve mood. A good example of his talent with adjectives is ‘tendril light in his fluid sensual dream’ from ‘The Trout’. ‘Windharp’ is a very eloquent poem in which to investigate the effect of adjectives. The fourth stanza of ‘The Wild Dog Rose’ is a powerful example of Montague’s talent for selecting adjectives. Montague’s choice of verb is often apt and evocative. ‘Killing the Pig’ is a poem that illustrates his flair with verbs. The use of the verb ‘rummages’ in its context in ‘The Wild Dog Rose’ is both horrifying and touching in its graphic violence. A clear example of Montague’s ability to use a pithy phrase is found in ‘A Welcoming Party’ when he refers to Ireland’s remoteness from what matters in the world at large: ‘to be always at the periphery of incident’. He defines the ‘Irish dimension’ of his childhood as ‘drama of unevent’. Montague matches language to meaning. The multi-syllabic words and the comma in the following two lines from ‘The Trout’ imitate the meaning of the words: ‘Senses expanding in the slow Motion, the photographic calm’. The words slow the telling of the experience down to the pace of slow motion cinematography.
- Imagery As partly a narrative type of poet, many of Montague’s images are descriptions of actual memories, colourful pictures from his lived experience or the experience of others like Minnie Kearney narrated first to him and then to the reader as a third person account. A particular graphic example of the latter is found in ‘The Wild Dog Rose’. The poem contains an uncensored example of violence, a detail of which is the following: ‘the thin mongrels rushing out, but yelping as he whirls with his farm boots to crush their skulls’. The effect of the word ‘yelping’ on the reader is strong here. Take his description of California in ‘All Legendary Obstacles’ where he waited at a train station as an example of Montague’s ability to convey situation through images: ‘water dripping from great flanged wheels…pale above the negro porter’s lamp’. Consider the locket around his mother’s neck as a graphic image from his life. Montague also chooses striking comparison images to convey his intelligent perceptions. The image of a cage for his father’s work booth is an example of Montague’s clear but intelligent metaphors. Likewise his simile of the dolmen is profound and carries many resonances. The detailed image of the dog rose from the third section of ‘The Wild Dog Rose’ is an illustration of Montague’s descriptive powers and of his ability to use an actual image as a symbol of human fragility.A haunting metaphor is the comparison of a pig’s death scream in ‘Killing The Pig’ to ‘the brain chilling persistence of an electric saw’.
- Verbal music For Montague’s lyrical music you will find various sound repetitions, rhymes and half-rhymes, alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia, consonance and sibilance in all his poems. For examples of Alliteration and Sibilance listen to ‘single sound’ and ‘singing to the slaughter’ in ‘Killing The Pig’. Consider ‘taste his terror’ from ‘The Trout’. For assonance listen to the ‘u’ sounds in ‘A Welcome Party’ especially in lines seven to ten. This enhances the effect of a group wail or lamentation as suggested by the word ‘ululation’. A useful example of onomatopoeia is found in line two of ‘Windharp’, where the words imitate the breezes in the bushes and grass: ‘ the restless whispering’. This is a case of assonance ‘e’ and sibilance combining to create a musical effect that reinforces meaning. For a more detailed illustration of verbal music examine the precise examples provided in the notes on three individual poems by John Montague in the Leaving Cert English Ordinary Section on Skoool.ie .