In his terse poem “A Grafted Tongue,” Montague presents a series of powerful snapshots of the process by which a colonizing power uses language to cement its control over a subject people. It also shows how this process wrenches apart the entire established order of the dispossessed culture and causes great personal suffering. Like the epic poem The Rough Field of which it is a part, “A Grafted Tongue” is a personal poem as well as a political one. The story of the weeping child in nineteenth century rural Ireland, who is forced to unlearn his native Gaelic and replace it with English, is framed by two autobiographical references.
The first of these references occurs in the second stanza, which is part of the parenthetical introduction to the main part of the poem. The poet refers to “some stuttering garb-/ led ordeal of my own.” This is the only occurrence in the poem of the first person, and it may well be a reference to the poet’s own childhood. At the age of nine, Montague developed a stammer when called upon to recite a poem at his school. For several years, he visited a speech therapist in Belfast. The fact that this ordeal (or some incident similar to it) is referred to as “a long suppressed dream” suggests that it had a lasting, if largely unconscious, effect on the poet. It also serves his purpose by introducing the story that follows, which is set probably seventy or eighty years earlier than the boyhood experience the poet recalls.
The personal reference returns in the final stanza, although it is somewhat veiled. The grandchild of the child in the poem is quite probably the poet himself. Montague records in his essay, “On Translating Irish, Without Speaking It,” which appears in his collection The Figure in the Cave and Other Stories, that he first learned Irish Gaelic as a boy. This happened after school, when “an enthusiastic priest came to teach us poor northern children our lost heritage.” Montague admits that at first he loathed the subject, and it is this early experience that is surely reflected in the closing lines of “A Grafted Tongue,” in which the child’s speech “stumbles over lost / syllables of an old order.” The “lost syllables” are a reference to Irish Gaelic, and the “old order” is the whole culture of which Gaelic was the foundation. Montague reports that he continued to have no interest in Gaelic until he “greeted the last Gaelic speaker in the area after mass one Sunday, and saw the light flood across her face.”
The subtle interweaving of the political and the personal, the past and the present, the individual and the collective that underlies “A Grafted Tongue” is present throughout The Rough Field. It is Montague’s way of bringing into focus over four hundred years of Ulster history by showing its impact on his own relatives and on other people he knew. In fact, it is not possible to fully understand “A Grafted Tongue” without examining the context in which the poem was first published—as one untitled part of a subsection of one long poem.
“A Grafted Tongue” forms the fifth part of section IV of The Rough Field. Section IV is entitled “A Severed Head,” a phrase that provides an additional explanation for the severed head that is mentioned in stanza one of “A Grafted Tongue.” The phrase has three meanings. First, it refers to the violence with which the English conquered Ireland— a woodcut made in 1581 and reprinted in The Rough Field shows Elizabethan English soldiers holding up their swords on which are mounted the heads of their defeated Irish foes. Second, the phrase refers to the aftermath of the seventeenth century conquest of Ireland. In 1601 the Ulster Irish, led by Hugh O’Neill, whose ancient family seat in County Tyrone was close to the village where Montague grew up, were defeated at the Battle of Kinsale. O’Neill and other Irish nobles fled into exile in Europe. Hence, Ireland, having lost its leaders, was like a body without a head. It is this defining event in Ulster’s history that is referred to in part 4 of “A Severed Head,” the last stanza of which reads thus:
Disappearance & death
of a world, as down Lough Swilly
the great ship, encumbered with nobles,
swells its sails for Europe:
The Flight of the Earls.
The “death of a world,” the destruction of Irish culture, leads directly into part 5 of “A Severed Head.” This is “A Grafted Tongue,” which shows the same process going on in the confused and anguished mind of a small child. The image of the severed head now acquires a third meaning as the poet applies it to the level of the individual. The child is metaphorically torn in two; there is no coordination between the head that is being told to speak English and the remainder of the child’s being, which has presumably absorbed the Irish Gaelic language in its bloodstream since the cradle. The result is choking, stammering, and slurring and the progressive alienation of the child from everything that has helped to shape his early outlook on the world and his sense of self. One of the most powerful lines in the whole poem, which is the only line that consists of one complete sentence, is the grim and emphatic, “You may greet no one.” The line refers to the child’s profound isolation as he wends his way home, cut off from the language of his birth, which is still spoken in the fields and countryside of old Ireland. The distraught child is literally speechless, exactly as the first, one-word line of the poem dramatically foretells: “Dumb.”
It is clear that the poet regards language as absolutely essential to the preservation of a culture. The culture cannot survive if an alien tongue supplants the language upon which it rests. Particularly illuminating in this respect is part 2 of “A Severed Head,” in which the poet describes the impressions of his homeland in Ulster, when he returns after an absence of many years. Surveying the landscape and recalling the old Gaelic culture now lost to view, the metaphor that he employs is one of language and of reading:
The whole landscape a manuscript
We had lost the skill to read,
A part of our past disinherited;
But fumbled, like a blind man,
Along the fingertips of instinct.
Only fragments, “shards / Of a lost culture,” remain, but the poet puts the best possible gloss on them. In part 6, the final part of “A Severed Head,” he shows that traces of the lost language can still be found in present-day Ulster, in the form of place names. Many of these are translations of the names first given to them in Gaelic. The poet states that “even English in these airts / Took a lawless turn,” and he implies that otherwise there would never be places known by such names as Black Lough, Bloody Brae, or a stream called the Routing Burn.
Some place names go back even further or combine the Scots and Irish heritage:
And what of stone-age Sess Kill Green
Tullycorker and Tully glush?
Names twining braid Scots and Irish,
Like Fall Brae, springing native
As a whitethorn bush?
In his essay “On Translating Irish, Without Speaking It,” Montague writes, “Like a stream driven underground, Irish still ran under the speech and names of my childhood.” He learned that Garvaghey (in Irish Gaelic it is spelled garbhachaidh), the village in which he was brought up, meant the Rough Field. It is this that supplied the title of the long poem. The town of Glencull, where Montague went to school, is a Gaelic word meaning “The Glen of the Hazels,” and nearby Clogher means “The Golden Stone.” Both these are names with which “A Severed Head,” part IV of The Rough Field, concludes.
Although “A Grafted Tongue” is set mostly in nineteenth century rural Ireland, the story it tells of the gradual erosion of a language and a culture has a continuing relevance for today’s world. When Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid reviewed The Rough Field in 1973, he describes it as “a long poem of tremendous value at a time when all over the world millions of people are conscious of having been torn away from their roots and trying to re-root themselves in their indigenous languages and traditions.” This astute comment, made a generation ago, applies even more urgently to the twenty-first century, wherever two opposing trends jostle together uncomfortably.
Today, the process of language extinction is proceeding at a pace faster than ever before. It is estimated that of the world’s current 6,528 languages, half will vanish within the next one hundred years. In earlier times, language suppression was often the result of domination by an economically and militarily superior colonial power. Imperialism, however, went into rapid decline in the second half of the twentieth century, although this has not stopped the oppression of ethnic minorities and their languages within certain nation-states (one example is the struggle of the Kurds in Turkey). But today, the threat to the diversity of the world’s languages is caused mostly by the phenomenon of economic globalization, which is accompanied by the steady march of English as the world’s dominant language.
On the other hand, there are vigorous movements in many parts of the world, including Ireland, Spain, and the United States, aimed at keeping indigenous languages alive. The struggle is often an uphill one. In the Republic of Ireland, for example, according to the Unesco Red Book of Endangered Languages, there may be less than 20,000 speakers of Irish Gaelic. The number that use the language on a daily basis may be even less than that. And in the six counties that make up Northern Ireland, Irish Gaelic is considered by the Unesco report to be extinct—a fact that gives Montague’s “A Grafted Tongue” a poignant and even tragic flavor.
Jennifer Smith and Elizabeth Thomason, Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 12, John Montague, Published by Gale Group, 2001.
Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on “A Grafted Tongue,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.