Poetry in Irish prose - poetic devices in Sean O'Faolain's short stories

Essay, 2004

18 Pages, Grade: 1



1) Introduction

2) Cumulation of poetic devices
2.1 Cumulation of poetic devices in “Something. Everything. Anything. Nothing.”
2.2 Cumulation of poetic devices in other short stories

3) Eyes and eyelids
3.1 Eyelids
3.2 Animal metaphors and similes for eyes and lids
3.3 Women’s eyes (clichés and non-clichés)
3.4 Men’s eyes
3.5 Ideas’ and things’ eyes

4) Animal similes and metaphors
4.1 Dogs, cats and mice
4.2 Birds
4.3 Grotesque and funny images


It was simple to define poetry hundred years ago: a poem had to contain a measure, rhythm and rhymes. Nowadays, none of them is indispensable any more. So, what is poetry? In my opinion, poetry is primarily qualified by a concentrated language. I feel certain that there is a relationship between the German words “Dichte” (concentration, denseness) and “Dichter” (poet, writer). In a poem, every single word should be essential, no word random, nothing to delete or to add. There is only one literary genre where this tightness of language is almost as important – the short story. Sean O’Faolain wrote poems in his youth, and then he switched to short stories. It seems to me that he did not consider himself talented enough as a poet to publish his verses (maybe partly because of the experience he describes in his autobiography “Vive moi!” – as a student, he was laughed at for his naïve poem about Mother Ireland’s teeming navel[1]), but still felt a desire to write poetry. Interestingly, the twenty-four years old hero of “How to write a short story” with whom the author seems to identify, had rested from writing poetry and was trying to write short stories[2]. The short story is a genre that has a long tradition in Ireland and many Irish masters, but that is surely not the only reason why O’Faolain wrote mainly short stories. He must have felt the close relationship between them and verses. He wrote prose, but smuggled poetry into it. O’Faolain either placed his own poems into his stories (a few times, for example, in “Hymenial”), or quoted other poets there (far more frequently), or he made whole passages of his prose sound remarkably poetic – and this he did in almost every story. To analyze this phenomenon, I have chosen O’Faolain’s later stories (from 1970 on, the collections “The Talking Trees and Other Stories”, “Foreign Affairs and Other Stories” and the last stories published only after the author’s death). By the time he wrote them, he was not so susceptible for outer influences as in his youth. These works are more mature and original; they contain less romantic (and other) clichés than his early experiments. Therefore, these compositions are more interesting to study and to decompose into single metaphors, similes, alliterations etc – especially if there are many of them at once, as it often occurs in his stories. I did not use any secondary literature, because I wanted to study O’Faolain’s way of writing by myself.

Cumulation of poetic devices

In Sean O’Faolain’s works, poetic devices tend to stick together. Apparently, sometimes the content was so important to the author that he developed a very complex form for it. There are episodes that make one want to read them aloud; if their composer wanted to accentuate some points by expressing them so artfully, he clearly succeeded. Or did he maybe simply enjoy the poetic arranging of words so much that he just could not stop, once having started? That may be a second reason for those clusters of poetic devices – but not the main one. The analysis of the short story parallelistically entitled “Something. Everything. Anything. Nothing.” makes obvious that the locations of the cumulations have not been chosen at random. They appear where an important thought is to be expressed.

A part of the story deals with Emilio Ratti, a man who seems to live in the past. The narrator is a journalist whose job has to do with today, occasionally with tomorrow, never with yesterday[3]. His relationship to the past as such is described in one striking sentence: I had been seeing far too many memorials to that incorporeal, extramundane, immaterial, miasmic element that is food and drink to men like Emilio Ratti and that Carl Sandburg called a bucket of ashes[4]. There is a parallelism – the list of four adjectives, all of them loan-words and therefore academically sounding. The first three of them have a negative prefix (in-/im- and extra-) and are approximately synonymous. The last one, miasmic, has quite a different meaning and therefore is surprising for the reader. It corresponds with the word before it acoustically: both adjectives begin with “a”, “i” and “m” in different orders: imma terial, mia smic. The words incorporeal and immaterial begin and end identically. There is a metaphor, though a dead one the expression “to be food and drink to somebody” is not O’Faolain’s own invention. The other metaphor, the bucket of ashes, is, as O’Faolain himself reports, a quotation from a poem by Carl Sandburg. In his “Prairie”, this American poet writes: "The past is a bucket of ashes." Only being familiar with his poem, a reader can understand this sentence in “Something. Everything. Anything. Nothing.”. The most important word, the actual topic, is not mentioned directly; it is only referred to by two hints. The first one can be extracted out of the short story itself, but to realize the sense of the second one, a profound knowledge of poetry is indispensable. This device is called periphrases: a word is replaced by a descriptive phrase, so that the reader has to ask himself what the whole sentence is about. Naturally, if the reader spends more time than usually upon a sentence and is forced to think about it, he is unlikely to forget it at once. Two lines later, another poetic episode about the memorials to past and the beauty of the bygone follows: Decline, decay, even death is Beauty’s due. Never defeat.[5] Not only the sound, but also the structure is assembled artfully here. This list is not simply a parallelism - this is a climax. The words decline, decay and death are arranged in an order of ascending power. The last emphatic word – death – is the most expressive, the most ultimate one. A poetic feature is also the personalisation of beauty; this word even starts with a capital letter, as if it was a name. Beauty has dues, and that is only possible for animate and sensible beings. Still, the most obvious device in these sentences is the alliteration. All the nouns except for Beauty start with a “d”, the first syllables of decline, decay and defeat sound identically – [di]. Interestingly, in the next passage O’Faolain seems to mock this device so often (mis?)used for advertising, like in posters announcing a Monster Meeting in the Piazza del Popolo[6].

Emilio tells that he had fallen in love with a woman and a place, a woman who was a place.[7] It is not the first time that O’Faolain combines a repetition and a metaphor in this form. In an earlier short story, “A Dead Cert”, there is a similar episode: …every hedge, field and tree, and the whole widespread, moonblanched country pouring past her headlights until she herself gradually becomes hedge, tree, field, and fleeting moon.[8] Here a woman becomes part of the landscape, in “Something. Everything. Anything. Nothing.” she is a place. Many female figures by Sean O’Faolain can be seen as symbols of Ireland or of certain places in Ireland (for example, Cork), and some women in his stories have a romantic, close relationship to nature (for example, the protagonist in “The Time of Their Lives” speaks silently through the wide-open windows of her bedroom to the gigantic stars[9]). Moreover, Sean O’Faolain accentuates that every character is, at least partly, a product of its origin and its ancestry. The apogee of this combination - symbolism, nature-closeness and awareness of the connection between the origin and the personality - is the complete fusion of a woman and a place. The next sentence specifies the qualities personified by Emilio’s beloved one: I saw my Claudia as a symbol of the ancientness, the ancestry, the dignity, the unforgettable beauty of Calabia, of its pedigree, its pride, its arrogance, its closeness to the beginnings of man and the end of the ends of life[10]. This list of features symbolized by Claudia contains alliteration (the ancientness, the ancestry and its pedigree, its pride) and a parallelism (the beginnings of man and the end of the ends of life).

Another important topic in “Something. Everything. Anything. Nothing.” is the belief in miracles. The protagonist is a rationalist; nevertheless, he feels the intensity of human feeling circling the altar like a whirlpool of air, or bees in a swarm, or butterflies over a wave, or fallen leaves whispering in a dry wind (…)[11] in a church where a miracle is said to have happened. The parallelism is evident; the four elements of the list are extended similes held together by three “ors” (in other stories by O’Faolain I have found up to eleven thereof in one sentence, the writer seemingly loved conjunctions). The intensity of human feeling is active; it is circling. In this movement it is compared to a whirlpool of air (which is an unusual combination, normally there is water in a whirlpool), to two kinds of insects and to fallen leaves which are personalised - that is to say, they are whispering. All these similes are pictures; the reader can virtually see them – for example, the butterflies over a wave resemble a Japanese landscape…


[1] Cursive means a quotation; this one is from “Vive moi!”, printed by “Rupert Hart-Davis” 1965 , page 22

[2] This quotation as well as all the next, if not mentioned differently, originates from the third volume of the collection “The Collected Sort Stories of Sean O’Faolain”, printed by “Constable and Company” 1982. (page 313)

[3] page 206

[4] page 206

[5] page 206

[6] page 207

[7] page 205

[8] page 23

[9] page 88

[10] page 205

[11] page 213

Excerpt out of 18 pages


Poetry in Irish prose - poetic devices in Sean O'Faolain's short stories
University of Dusseldorf "Heinrich Heine"  (Anglistics)
Seminar "Irish Literature and Sean O' Faolain"
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
504 KB
I used no secondary literature, no such analysis of Faolain's works was ever published.
Poetry, Irish, Sean, Faolain, Seminar, Irish, Literature, Sean, Faolain
Quote paper
Alexandra Berlina (Author), 2004, Poetry in Irish prose - poetic devices in Sean O'Faolain's short stories, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/25676


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