John Hewitt: A Poet of the Antrim Glens

By Heaney, Liam | Contemporary Review, June 2005 | Go to article overview
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John Hewitt: A Poet of the Antrim Glens

Heaney, Liam, Contemporary Review

JOHN HEWITT was a poet who took considerable solace and satisfaction from the Glens of Antrim in Northern Ireland. The beauty and serenity of this impressive landscape stirred his imagination and inspired him to produce many collections of engaging and thought-provoking verse. In this article, I examine some of Hewitt's poetry in relation to his deep-felt affection for the natural world and for the landscape of 'the Glens'. But first a little about his background.

John Hewitt was born in Belfast in 1907. He was educated at Agnes Street Methodist Primary School, where his father was Principal, and later at Methodist College Belfast and then at the Queen's University of Belfast. From 1930 he worked at the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery until he took up the position as Director of the Herbert Art Gallery in Coventry in 1957. He held this position until his retirement in 1972. In the same year he returned to Belfast, a year which marked the beginning of a period of intense poetic activity. Between 1976 and 1979, he was writer in residence at the Queen's University Belfast.

During the years of his most focused writing, Hewitt demonstrated an intense interest in the dialect verse of the Protestant radicals, as is shown in his work Rhyming Weavers and Other Country Poets of Antrim and Down (1974). The weaver poets or rhyming weavers refer to a group of rural, working-class Ulster poets of the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. These poets in particular made use of the Ulster-Scots variety of Hiberno-English in their work. Much of Hewitt's later poetry is concerned with exploring the Scots, English and Irish elements that make up his concept of Ulster identity. Apart from literary criticism and books on painters, Hewitt's published work comprises of fourteen volumes of poetry, which include, The Day of the Corncrake: Poems of Nine Glens (1969), Out of My Time (1974), Time Enough (1976), The Rain Dance (1978), Mosaic (1981), Loose Ends (1983) and Freehold (1986).

Terence Brown (1995) in his book, Two Decades of Irish Writing, suggests that John Hewitt 'primarily feels himself a man who is most at home in a natural environment'. In many cases it is the landscape, the world of nature, that inspires Hewitt's poetic imagination. Just as the west coast of Ireland is 'home from home' for the Belfast poet Michael Longley (Poems: 1963-1983, p.94), the Glens of Antrim have a special significance and importance for Hewitt 'as this rim of arable that ends in foam has but to drop a leaf or snap a branch and my hand twitches with the leaping verse ...' (The Selected John Hewitt, 1981, p.54).

Moreover, Hewitt acknowledges that 'I live my best in the landscape, being at ease there' (1981, p. 56). Nature itself facilitates the poet's search for identity. His emotional and intellectual engagement with the flora and fauna of the Antrim Coast is worth further consideration. Hewitt's captivation with nature and with the landscape is aptly supported in the following poem privately published in 1956. He says,

        the nuts drop in the pool: the Salmon there
        is the wisest of all creatures, old and wise
        who equally can hope and fear outstare
        with the cold focus of unblinking eyes:
        this, from the ancient legendary I share
        simply by breathing in the drifting air
        near the swift waters of a mountain glen,
        and with it, knowledge also, of the kind
        that jingles in the pocket of the mind
        but has the smallest currency with men
        (Those Swans Remember: A Poem, 1956).

In this poem, Hewitt displays an evident vitality and a deep sense of belonging with the mythic salmon of Celtic legend. Moreover, he demonstrates an intense interest in and an affection for the natural world. It is a response that is highly charged, evocative and expressed with an obvious degree of emotional insight. He attests that the legendary salmon is an intimate part of his historical past and that the mountain glen, with its swift flowing waters, is an important source of his poetic creativity.

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