John Montague for Leaving Cert English #625Lab

Montague makes effective use of evocative language to express a profound empathy with others. 

Full notes on John Montague (€) 

Through my studies of John Montague’s poetry, his statement that his poetry is “riddled with pain” has become clear. I was overwhelmed with sympathy for Montague’s mother, father, childhood neighbours and even a pig, all of which are shown through vividly accounted for childhood memories. (Excellent!) Montague’s ability to step into the lives of his subjects and truly understand their emotions and reasoning behind their actions immediately gave me a sense of who Montague was as a poet. The poet is incredibly talented in is ability to make me feel as if I am there, re-living the moments from his childhood with him. Montague uses cinematic language (roll - camera - action? Usually when we use the word cinematic, we mean cinematic shift from one setting to another. Not language.) to create this sense. His ability to express his own empathic emotions and evoke these same emotions in me, a sixteen year old student, is, in my opinion, a unique and amazing ability.

John Montague for Leaving Cert English
I never knew, until you were gone, that, always around your neck you wore an oval locket with an old picture in it, of a child in Brooklyn. [I always cry when I read this.]

You may also like: Complete Guide to Leaving Cert English (€)

Montague’s compelling use of language to evoke a discerning empathy with others is displayed in the lyrical lament that is “The Locket”. This heartbreakingly intense and honest poem grapples with Montague’s complicated and awkward relationship with his mother, whom he refers to as “the lady”. The distant and formal manner in which the poet addresses his mother sets us up to hate this woman from the beginning. I see the poet’s compassion and sympathy towards his mother in the line “naturally she longed for a girl”, the poet is fully aware of the fact that this was his mother’s last chance for a daughter and not even his “infant curls of brown” allowed his mother to forgive him. 

Nevertheless, Montague is caught between empathy and resentfulness, jumping from one to the other throughout the poem. When the tone becomes increasingly frank and accusatory - “So you never nursed me” - the poet’s enduring pain is obvious to me. Once again Montague makes a dark accusation - “then you gave me away” - in these two accusations, Montague addresses his mother directly and along with his pain and sense of abandonment, I get the feeling that the poet is desperately looking for an answer from his unnaturally cold mother. On her return to Ireland, Montague’s mother did not attempt to make any contact with her son - “might never have known me, / if I had not cycled down”. Montague makes one last effort in winning her love and affection and creates a loving image of him and his mother “drinking by the fire”. Montague uses the word “yarning” and the technique enjambment to mimic their long conversations. This displays Montague’s forgiving nature and evoked a real sense of hope in me. 

Despite Montague’s best efforts “the harsh logic of a forlorn woman” comes into play and he is rejected for the second time - “Don’t come again”. Montague tries to see his mother’s decision from her perspective and now understands and accepts that she would rather be alone and in a “cocoon of pain” than get hurt again. I found the final stanza to be very poignant and emphatic. In this stanza, as Montague discovers the “mysterious blessing” that is the picture of him in his mother’s “oval locket”, his undeniable understanding of his mother is clear. Even though Montague’s mother is depicted as a cruel, cold “lady”, through the expressive language used by Montague, I empathised with “lovely Molly” in the end, bringing this generally unselfish poem to a forgiving and poignant close. (Would have been nice to mention the story-telling elements of the poem.)

Montague’s distant relationship with his parents is displayed to us once again in his poem ‘The Cage’, written about his father. Just like in ‘The Locket’ Montague evokes an empathy in me for his father. As the poet says himself this poem “sways between gloom and gaiety”. The title of this poem suggests an upsetting and woeful account of his father’s life, and the opening line - “My father the least happy/ man I have known” - is especially harrowing as Montague reveals to us the misery his father endured. Montague’s use of simple language and conversational tone lured me in, and I was immediately imagining myself as James Montague, contemplating my lonely “lost years in Brooklyn”. These years were also irretrievably “lost” to father and son, leaving them no opportunity to develop a relationship. Montague’s description of his father as being “a traditional Irishman” suggests his Catholic background and a fondness of alcohol. This assumption is then quickly clarified as we learn that Montague’s father “drank neat whiskey until / he reached” a state of “brute oblivion”. Montague’s choice of words, with the harsh “b” sound emphasises that the poet does not agree with his father’s savage, almost animal-like choices but, as a characteristic trait of Montague, he does not blame his father. The poet shows his deep understanding of his father’s actions and empathises with him.

It is at this point in the poem where the tone changes and Montague uses a cinematic quality to jump from the bleak, forlorn underground and pathetic drunkenness of James Montague’s nightly routine to a blissful image of a “good / (all white) neighbourhood” that sees James Montague “extending a smile” to everyone. Little did they know this smiling face was one of a functioning alcoholic, an addict well accustomed to concealing his morning hangovers - “yet he picked himself / up”. Although Montague’s sympathy for his father is evident throughout the poem, this stanza portrays the admiration he had for his father. However, in my opinion the fact that Montague’s father, while putting on this act for the rest of the world, had virtually nobody to talk to allowed for an incredibly melancholic tone to be revealed from behind this somewhat uplifting tone.

The poem then transports me across the Atlantic to Garvaghey, Co.Tyrone. The poet’s language is beautiful and free-flowing, conveying the everlasting beauty of the Irish countryside - “to see hawthorn on the summer / hedges, as though / he had never left”. As in ‘The Locket’ Montague’s use of enjambment to portray an ease of life as father and son “walked together” gives me an insight into the life the two could have shared. But this was not Montague’s “dream” as he felt, now that his father was home, he needed to “leave” - “for when / weary Odysseus returns / Telemachus should leave”. The poem’s cinematic style is shown again as I am transported back to Brooklyn where I see Montague in the “underground”. The poet is still haunted by his father’s “bald head” and the defining image of a wasted life “behind the bars of the small booth”. This stark imagery, clear, precise language and slow rhythm highlighted how Montague was deeply saddened by his father’s unfulfilled, trapped life. James Montague was a helpless, bystander in his own life, as his family moved away and managed without him. Montague is never angry towards his father, instead he feels a great sense of loss, never having had a father-figure in his life. It is for this reason that a compelling sense of empathy was evoked in me for Montague, as well as his father, having to live with the image of a “ghostly forehead” engraved in his memory forever. (All of this is on one poem and the word count is a frightening 2300 words. You have to pick and choose what you want to say even if you know lots. Think of it like Christmas dinner - you can't eat everything, just what you like the most. Otherwise, you will explode lose marks at the expense of another question having spent too much time on this one.)

It is a credit to Montague’s character that not only is he able to empathise with his parents, people who he loves and cares for, he is also able to empathise with people that once terrified him. Montague’s empathy stretches out to mankind in his poem ‘Like Dolmens Round My Childhood’. This poem, centred around the reality of the Ireland Montague grew up in, recounts the lives of five locals that dominated Montague’s “childhood” just as “dolmens” dominate our landscape. The first of these seemingly obscure individuals was Jamie MacCrystal, who “sang to himself” but was a generous man. He would “tipp(ed)” the children “a penny every pension day”. Montague’s clever use of the repetition of ‘p’ would suggest the man’s natural kindness, which was masked by the illusion of insanity. Then, rather shockingly it is revealed that after MacCrystals death, his house was ransacked - “mattress and money box torn and searched” . This line portrays the pitiless reality of Montague’s Ireland. The opening stanza to this incredibly honest poem evoked a great sense of sadness and anger in me as MacCrystal was so undeserving of this heinous violation - “only the corpse they didn’t disturb”.

The second larger than life personality, Maggie Owens, is a “lonely” woman “surrounded by animals”. Owens was victim to the superstitious Ireland of that time. Although described as a “well of gossip defiled” and a vicious “witch”, Montague, in hindsight, sees her true personality, a woman desperate for company. The poet continues his pitiful tone and theme of isolation into the third stanza, where we meet The Nialls. Montague's strong language creates a vivid and beautiful image of where The Nialls “lived”, “along a mountain lane”. The tragic irony of this is that they are unable to appreciate the beauty of the “heather bells” or the “clumps of foxglove” due to their blindness. The grotesque image displayed through Montague’s use of the metaphor “dead eyes serpent flicked” conveys how fearful the poet was of them as a child and the sympathy he now feels, looking back on the lonely , unhappy lives of this kind family who would “shelter from a downpour of mountain rain”.

The theme of poverty also recurs in each of these people’s lives, possibly the most potent of these, Mary Moore. She struggled to make a living and as her battle to survive got tougher, so did she. Her name became “ a byword for fierceness” when really she was a woman who dreamt of “love stories”, living in “a crumbling gatehouse”. Montague injects some wry humour here in an attempt to lighten the mood, but the bleak, pitiful atmosphere is inevitable - “famous as Pisa for its leaning gable”. The poet reveals the sectarianism that was ripe in his native Tyrone when he describes how he himself would taunt “Wild” Billy Eagleson, the Protestant boy who married “a Catholic servant girl”. As an adult Montague realises the isolated life Eagleson lived as he was “forsaken by both creeds” and shows his sympathy for him with the words “banged past” and “aggressively shone”. (Given that the author explored the theme of loneliness so much, it would have made sense to mention it while talking about his parents too.)

All of these people were cut off from society - “from main road to lane to broken path” - and seen as insignificant in their community - “silent keepers of a smokeless hearth”. But, it is clear that they were not insignificant to Montague, as “they trespassed on” his “dreams” and made a lasting impression on him. Montague’s detailed description of these people is a prime example of his profound empathy with others. 

Montague’s ability to understand and empathise with the animal kingdom is perfectly displayed to me in his shockingly gruesome poem, ‘Killing The Pig’. This poem explores man’s attitude towards other species and the moral dilemmas associated with it, it is a powerful dramatisation of a slaughtering. This event is daily routine to some, but haunts and disturbs others. The conversational language is clear from the beginning and the two terse, abrupt words - “the noise” - set the scene in motion. Montague, as a compassionate witness, displays his sympathy for the pig with the use of the personal pronoun - “he” - to personify and acknowledge the pig’s unique life-force. In Montague’s eyes this is not just a worthless piece of “scrap” that can be “crushed” for our benefit. The sharp “k” sounds of “iron cleek sunk” emphasise the violence with which the pig was “pulled out” for slaughter. Once again Montague’s precise language allowed me to visualise this horrific scene vividly in my mind.

With the use of parentheses I see Montague’s passion for this pig’s life emerging and his tone becoming increasingly didactic. (Needs a quote.) The poet is not just a passive observer in this stanza, he is deeply angered by the illusion people have that these animals are unaware of their inevitable situation - “Don’t say they are not intelligent / they know the hour has come”. Montague highlights the pig’s vulnerability, with the word “little”, in what I see as an effort to make me share in his empathy and understanding - “they dig in their little trotters” - with this line Montague humanises the pigs and forces me into imagining myself as this defenceless pig. (Excellent.) As the poem progresses Montague forces us to confront the brutality of the pig’s death as he describes “that high-pitched final effort” using four vivid metaphors to convey the animals’ frantic voice. For Montague the sound of “scrap being crushed” is beyond compare - “no single sound could match it”- it is “piercing and absolute” as the pig’s dying wail is embedded into my own conscience and obviously Montague’s.

Then the pig’s agony comes to an end - “Then a full stop”. This line marks a change in mood as Montague’s observant eye pans around “the farmyard”. The poet reminds me that this is a real world scenario and names the butcher that has tortured this pig “Mickey Boyle” - but, as I have seen in ‘The Locket’ and ‘The Cage’, Montague does not blame or address his anger towards him, Montague understands that this is his way of life. The personified “knife” as it “seeks the throat” adds to the sinister and bleak atmosphere. The poet chooses to end the poem by singling out the unforgettable horror of what has happened, etched in his memory by “that scream”. ‘Killing the Pig’ typifies John Montague as the compassionate bystander and his empathy, for the now “carcass”, is blatant throughout the poem. The pig’s frightened resistance to its imminent doom continues to echo through the deserted yard and haunt a sympathetic Montague. “The noise” remains along with a thought provoking end - have I become numb to the plight of animals?

Montague’s interesting childhood has allowed for some deep, meaningful poetry and the formation of the understanding, empathetic John Montague I see today. The poet’s effective use of evocative language displaying a profound empathy with his unnaturally cold mother, alcoholic father, eccentric neighbours and a pig’s fight for survival is why John Montague was such a joy to study and such a pleasure to learn from.

Another version of the same thing:

John Montague's poetry offers a balanced perspective on human life and for this reason, I really enjoyed reading John Montague's his poetry. John Montague's poetry focuses on the most vulnerable in our society in 'Like Dolmens Round My Childhood' and even vulnerable animals in 'Killing the Pig.' Montague explores themes of suffering, cruelty and disappointment, all of which Montague is familiar with in his personal life, through evocative language. Montague uses prominently evocative language when talking about his heart-wrenching youth which is revealed through 'The Locket' and 'The Cage’, both describing the turbulent relationship between his parents. The poetry of John Montague expresses a profound empathy with people and he seeks to understand the world around him by looking simply at its impact on ordinary people. (This intro could be improved: the sentence structure is a little clunky and there is some repetition, e.g. "evocative language".)

Montague’s poem ‘Like Dolmens Round My Childhood’ paints a vividly descriptive picture of ordinary people living difficult lives. He writes in a cinematic style as he cuts from one image to the next and describes each one vividly, bringing both the characters and surroundings to life. A new verse leads to a new portrait. (Excellent point, but I have no idea why it's here. Is this a paragraph on "Like Dolmens..."? Is this an examination of his imagery? Either way it's too short to gain any real marks even though the point is good.)

Montague focuses on two main themes in this poem, Irish Identity and isolation/loneliness. Montague, through his evocative language, gives us a nuanced, three-dimensional view of Ireland. (Classic case of key term-overload.) It is not a romantic ‘Ancient Ireland Indeed!’ as Yeats or De Valera would have led us to believe. Instead, it focuses on the less idealised traces of Irish Mythologies ‘evil eye[s] and averted head[s], /’Fomorian fierceness.’ These people Montague describes, however, are all lamentable in the end. These Irish people’s struggles are as much as a monument to our ‘standing circle of stones.’ Montague’s empathy for these elderly people shines through the poem when he is describing their isolation and loneliness, a very real problem in Irish society. Every portrait Montague presents us with has elements of isolation and loneliness attached to them. (Repetition.) Jamie MacCrystal ‘sang to himself/a broken song’, Maggie Owens is a ‘fangled chronicler’ because she is lonely and in her derision attracts listeners, the Nialls, in my opinion, the most tragic, are physically isolated ‘along a mountain lane, cut off from their beautiful surroundings of the ‘heather bells [which] bloomed’ (I have left this unchanged to show you how easy it is to misquote. Avoid this costly error.) and the ‘clumps of foxgloves’ because ‘all were blind.’ Montague's creative use of this theme shows his own profound empathy for people around him and how he is acutely aware of human suffering surrounding him. The complex personalities of these eccentric figures shows us a different side to the rural Ireland people perhaps wouldn’t expect. 

Montague’s poems are remarkably easy to read due to their clear intention and narrative structure. He uses simplistic (a Revision Day staple: simple vs simplistic. If you're not sure what it means, don't use it.) language to make his memories of a rural Ireland accessible to all readers. His simplistic simple images, however, don’t fail to skim over impoverished details such as a ‘crumbling gatehouse’ or Maggie Owens’ ‘shivering pups.’ His language is so evocative when describing these eccentric characters that it makes the impact of the poem even more profound. Montague uses onomatopoeic techniques in this poem on words such as ‘banged’ and ‘chirped’ and this serves to lift images out of the poem and make them more vivid. This gives us an even greater empathy to our five vividly described characters. The language and images used are largely devoid of cryptic traps (?) in ‘Like Dolmens Round My Childhood’ and for this, I really enjoyed this poem. (This meandering paragraph could have been 3 tight sentences at the end of the previous one - and would have got more marks that way.)

It is clear from Montague’s poetry that he had an extremely difficult childhood marked by poverty, disappointment and separation. (The author already told us that. Repetition only makes the author sound like she has nothing to say - which isn't the case at all. Her next sentence would have been a good intro to this paragraph.) Poetry for Montague is an attempt to understand and come to terms with the actions and disappointments of his parents that he felt and experienced throughout his childhood. In Montague’s poem ‘The Cage’ it evokes a man physically, psychologically and emotionally trapped in a life that he cannot escape. ‘The Cage’ is a metaphor for this confinement. The opening stanza points out in an empathic way, the private hell his father worked in where subway trains ‘shudder the earth’ throughout the ‘lost years’ his father spent working underground in New York. The poet’s father, described as ‘the least happy man I have known’ clearly cannot cope with the disappointments that life has handed him but instead finds solace in the ‘brute oblivion’ of whiskey. The poet is almost empathic here, and non-judgemental of his ‘traditional Irish’ father, as he understands that his father does not know any other way to deal with being ‘released from his grille’ into his life of frustration. Montague’s father is described evocatively to have created a cage from himself in the form of alcoholism from which he cannot escape, despite ‘extending a smile’ as he confidently marches down the neighbourhood. 

The tone of the poem changes when his father returns to Ireland and he seems somewhat freed of his ‘cage’ in the open fields of Garvaghey. The run-on-lines is a huge contrast here from his life of isolation and confinement of the ‘grille’ back in New York. The allusion of Odysseus and Telemachus creates a sense that the poet’s father is too late to salvage their relationship, as the son has become a man, without the presence of his father. We find an empathy for the father as he is destined to remain exiled and trapped ‘behind the bars of the small booth.’ There is a sense of hopelessness evoked by Montague’s evocative language by the image of the scar ‘beating on his [fathers] ghostly forehead’ like a death knell. His image of his father of a defeated man brought low by life. 

Montague’s theme of his extremely difficult childhood is extended in his truthful poem ‘The Locket’, which deals with the poet’s troubled relationship with his mother in a surprisingly empathetic way. Montague writes this poem with evocative language without seeking to place blame. Instead he writes to process their relationship through beautiful imagery and striking language. The opening is not immediately celebratory, instead, states that to the ‘lady who has gone’ she was a ‘fertile source of guilt and pain.’ The poet, rather than being a source of love, was a source of distress to his mother. However, this does not immediately evoke sympathy for the poet’s mother as much the picture of the father in ‘The Cage’ does. Montague’s language describing the mother never nursing him’ and ‘then [the mother] gave me away’ paints a picture of someone who is emotionally cold rather than someone Montague is full of hatred towards, but surprisingly quite the opposite. The poet attempts to seek a reason for the woman who acted out of survival and self-preservation. 

Montague begins to address his mother as ‘you’ instead of ‘she’ and because of this the picture of her becomes more sympathetic and the reader begins to understand that her life was filled with the sorrow of a broken marriage and the disappointment of being once ‘lovely Molly, the belle of your small town’, now firmly in a ‘cocoon of pain’. The poet does not shy away from stating the harsh reality of his mother’s abandonment of him and his sense of hurt is palpable especially when she attempts to do it again when he is an adult. Yet, in Montague's understanding and empathetic language, there is a sense that he understands her ‘harsh logic’ no matter how brutal is it for both of them. The final stanza, of a woman who always wore a locket with a ‘child in Brooklyn’ in it, bears out a sense of forgiveness and empathy for a complicated but ultimately loving woman. (This, and the what follows, are the best paragraph in the essay. Can you see how it's different to the some of the author's more meandering musings?)

In Montague’s poem, ‘Killing the Pig’, he invites us to hear a series of uncomfortable and unsettling noises. Montague uses a series of metaphors of ‘A big plane roaring off’ and ‘scrap being crushed’ and says that the sound of the killing of an animal is indescribable, stating that ‘no single sound could match it’. Montague explores the harshness and reality of life through evocative language which makes us feel a profound empathy for the innocent animal. He explores the relationship between the human necessity for animal products and the cruel suffering that goes with it. The pigs ‘dig their little trotters in’ as they don’t want to be a part of the systematic routine anymore, however they are voiceless and can only let out a ‘high pitched final effort’ scream in their last moments as an animal. Unfortunately, written in a similar style to Montague’s other poems, he does not shy away from the reality of life as ‘Mickey Boyle plants/a solid thump of the mallet/ flat between the ears’ which gives the reader an empathetic illustration of the now dead, grotesque pig. Nonetheless, Montague deals with the grotesque subject matter in a reflective way rather than condemning. He acknowledges how it is a routine part of life and that families are dependent on the pigs suffering for joy and survival as ‘A child is given/ the bladder to play with.’ Similar to ‘The Locket’ Montague reflects on the real inhumane actions of slaughtering a pig, however, doesn’t place the blame or condemn the people who partake in that way of living. Montague understands that the walls of the farmyard ‘are built around’ the pain and suffering of a pig. 

John Montague’s poetry invites the reader to become more empathetic to the world around them as a result. Through Montague’s evocative language used throughout his poetry, I understood his sensitive and compassionate attitude towards his parents, neighbours and even animals. While he uses vivid, dramatic and haunting descriptions to evoke his past and present, he deals with a broad range of themes in a manner that was rather remarkable and it expresses a profound empathy in others as a result. For this reason, and many others, I really enjoyed reading John Montague’s poetry.

Lastly, an exemplary introduction and conclusion to this question:

One prominent feature of Montague’s poetry is his natural ability to step into the shoes and understand the subjects of his poems. He himself stated that his poetry is “riddled with human pain” and this is evident in the poems Montague has written about his mother and father. His empathy conveys a recognition and understanding towards his parents. Montague is also very compassionate regarding animals and the natural world, which can be seen through the pity he shows for the animals he discusses in his poetry. His captivating use of reflective language allows me to understand and feel for, not only his subjects, but Montague himself, which is a testament to the success of Montague’s deeply engaging and emotional poetry.


To conclude, I believe Montague used his language effectively to capture a time and a place with cinematic quality, giving me an insight into his life and experiences. The sheer beauty of his poetry has had a profound impact on me. His compassion towards his mother’s pain, father’s loneliness, the pig’s terror and the trout’s innocence is shown through his vibrant imagery and carefully chosen words. Montague enabled me to feel empathy towards his subjects creating a connection between reader and poet as we can understand as he does, giving his poems a deeper poignant meaning.

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