The first eight lines of “A Grafted Tongue” are enclosed in parentheses, separating them from the main body of the poem. Line 1, consisting of just one word, “Dumb,” succinctly announces one of the poem’s themes: the inability to communicate through a language that has been forcibly imposed on one’s native tongue. Line 2 and the first part of line 3 reveal metaphorically the condition of a culture cut off from its own source of strength: it is a bloody, severed head. The head “chokes” as it tries to speak in another language; the language is indigestible.
This verse expands metaphorically on the previous one, as the speaker addresses his reader directly. The severed head choking while it struggles to speak a foreign language is likened to a dream the poet had, the memory of which he suppressed for a long time. The dream refers to an upsetting experience of his own in which he was unable to speak properly because of a stutter. The implication is that this incident was more than a dream and refers to a real event in the speaker’s life.
These lines begin the story that forms the main substance of the poem. They can be read in a more literal way than the opening two stanzas. An Irish child at a rural school in Ireland, probably in the nineteenth century, weeps as he is forced against his will and in spite of his poor performance to learn English. Ireland at the time was ruled by England. The stanza ends ominously with the phrase “After each mistake,” which suggests that dire punishment is in store for the child because of his lack of facility with the language. Although the gender of the child is unspecified, it is likely to be a boy, since education for girls during this time period was minimal.
This stanza reveals that a stick, on which the schoolmaster makes (“gouges”) a mark each time the child fails to perform a task successfully, is hung around the neck of the child. The use of the harsh word “gouge” suggests the aggression and violence of the act. The stick is called a “tally stick” because tally means to count or keep a record of (as in “tally sheet”). The child therefore carries in humiliating fashion the constant reminder of his failures.
The tally stick is likened to a bell hung around the neck of a cow or a restraint (“hobble”) attached to a straying goat. The last line refers to the experience of the child, who is unable to do more than “slur and stumble” as he tries to learn the unfamiliar words.
The first line continues the incomplete sentence that ended the previous stanza. The child is enveloped in shame as he tries to pronounce his own name in the altered form of a different language. A Gaelic name sounds very different when it is transliterated into English, so the phrase “altered syllables” is meant literally. The last line begins another phase of the story that the poem tells. The child returns home, dispirited and saddened by his day at school. The use of the word “stray” to describe his walk home hints that what he is being forced to learn at school alienates him from his own home. He is becoming a stray, without a real home. The verb “to stray” also means to deviate from what is right (that is, in learning an alien language), although this is not the child’s fault. The description of the homecoming is not completed until the following stanza.
In this stanza, the child returns home but finds that he is no longer comfortable there. Slowly his “parent’s hearth” becomes alien to him. The phrase “parent’s hearth” refers not only to the fireplace in the home; it also has a wider, metaphorical meaning, as the center of family life. The “turf cured width” of the hearth refers to the practice amongst the Irish in former times of using peat to heat their homes. Peat consists of dried blocks of decaying plant material, which is used for fuel. The word “peat” comes from the Medieval Latin “peta,” meaning “piece of turf.” The word “cured” is used in the sense of “hardened,” that is, hardened by many years of burning peat.
The child’s family, as well as other local people, whether in “cabin” or “field,” still speak Gaelic, the language of Ireland. But the boy can no longer communicate with them (“You may greet no one”). Perhaps this is because he is not permitted to speak to any of his neighbors in Gaelic, which may be the only language some of them understand.
This stanza describes the momentous significance of being forced to speak in a language other than one’s own. The poet refers to this as growing a “second tongue” and regards it as a great humiliation. Because language is so fundamental to personal identity, being forced to speak a language other than that of one’s birth is like being born a second time. It fundamentally alters everything, in all areas of a person’s life.
This stanza provides an ironic twist to the poem. Decades after his experience in school, the child has grown into a man and has become a grandfather, too. The man’s grandchild now faces a problem that is at once similar and yet opposite to the one faced by his grandfather in school. The grandson’s speech “stumbles,” just as his grandfather’s did, over an unfamiliar language (“lost syllables”), but this time that language is Gaelic, not English. It must be assumed that English has become completely dominant and that anyone who now tries to learn Gaelic must approach it as a difficult foreign language. And just as the language has been virtually lost in the span of only two generations, so has the ancient culture of Ireland (“an old order”), which was inextricably bound up in that language.
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.