A Grafted Tongue

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A Grafted Tongue

John Montague 1972

Author Biography

Poem Text

Poem Summary



Historical Context

Critical Overview



For Further Study

When “A Grafted Tongue” was first published in Montague’s The Rough Field (1972), it did not bear the same title, which was supplied only when the poem was reprinted in Montague’s Selected Poems in 1982. The Rough Field was intended as one long epic poem, and what is now known as “A Grafted Tongue” appeared as part five of a section entitled “A Severed Head,” which was itself part four of The Rough Field. It was the old Gaelic rhyme that forms the epigraph to “A Severed Head” that provided the phrase that later became the title of the poem: “And who ever heard / such a sight unsung / As a severed head / With a grafted tongue?”

“A Grafted Tongue” is a terse, powerful poem that conveys a great deal in just ten short stanzas. It shows the disruption and suffering caused when one culture imposes its ways upon another. In this case, the English, who conquered Ireland in the seventeenth century, are in the process of enforcing the teaching of English in Irish schools. The result is that Gaelic, the native Irish language, is rapidly dying out, and with the loss of the language comes the loss of an entire culture. The poem implies that personal identity is bound up with the language of one’s birth, the suppression of which produces a crisis in personal identity.

As part of The Rough Field, “A Grafted Tongue” marked a development in Montague’s poetry in which he began to deal more directly with political topics related to Ireland. “A Grafted Tongue” draws inspiration from Ireland’s past; and The Rough Field as a whole also includes material

drawn from the turbulent situation that occurred in Northern Ireland during the 1960s and 1970s.

Author Biography

John Montague was born in Brooklyn, New York, on February 28, 1929, the third son of James Montague and Mary (Carney) Montague. The family was Irish, Montague’s father having immigrated to New York in 1925.

Times were hard in Brooklyn during the depression years, and, in 1933, Montague was sent with his brothers to rural Garvaghey in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, to live with his aunts on their farm. In 1940 he won a scholarship to St. Patrick’s College, Armagh, from which he graduated in 1946. With the help of another scholarship, Montague attended University College, Dublin, from which he was awarded a B.A. in English and history in 1949 and an M.A. in Anglo-Irish literature in 1952.

The following year, Montague attended Yale Graduate School on a Fulbright Scholarship. Over the next three years, he studied at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop and at the University of California, Berkeley, before returning to Ireland in 1956, where he settled in Dublin, working as an editor at Bord Failte (Irish Tourist Board). Montague’s first volume of poetry, Forms of Exile, was published in 1958.

In 1961 Montague moved to Paris and became Paris correspondent of The Irish Times. His second poetry collection, Poisoned Lands, was published in the same year. During the 1960s, as he returned to visit the places where he grew up, Montague began working on the poems that would later be published as The Rough Field, the book that contains “A Grafted Tongue.” He also published the first of three volumes of short stories, Death of a Chieftain, and Other Stories in 1964, and two more volumes of poetry, A Chosen Light in 1967 and Tides in 1970.

After teaching at University College, Dublin, from 1968 to 1971, Montague took a position at University College, Cork, where he remained until 1988. During this period, he continued to publish frequently, including the poems in A Slow Dance (1975), and literary honors came his way. He was awarded the first Marten Toonder Award in 1977 and the Alice Hunt Bartlett Award from the Poetry Society of Great Britain in 1978 for The Great Cloak. A Guggenheim award from 1979 to 1980 enabled Montague to complete his Selected Poems (1982) and the long poem, The Dead Kingdom (1984).

Since 1989, Montague has regularly taught fiction workshops at the State University of New York at Albany. His recent publications include the short stories in An Occasion of Sin (1992), The Love Poems (1992), Time in Armagh (1993), and Collected Poems (1995).

Montague has two daughters by his second wife, Evelyn Robson, whom he married in 1973.

Poem Text

bloodied, the severed
head now chokes to
speak another tongue:—

    As in                       5
a long suppressed dream,
some stuttering garb-
led ordeal of my own)

    An Irish                   10
child weeps at school
repeating its English.
After each mistake
   The master
gouges another mark            15
on the tally stick
hung about its neck

   Like a bell
on a cow, a hobble
on a straying goat.
To slur and stumble            20

    In shame
the altered syllables
of your own name:
to stray sadly home

    and find                   25
the turf cured width
of your parents’ hearth
growing slowly alien:

   In cabin
and field, they still          30
speak the old tongue.
You may greet no one.

    To grow
a second tongue, as
harsh a humiliation            35
as twice to be born.

    Decades later
that child’s grandchild’s
speech stumbles over lost
syllables of an old order.     40

Poem Summary

Stanza 1

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.

Stanza 2

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.

Stanza 3

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.

Stanza 4

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.

Stanza 5

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.

Stanza 6

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.

Stanza 7

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.

Stanza 8

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.

Stanza 9

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.

Stanza 10

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.


Culture Clash

The theme of a clash between two cultures is first made explicit in the third stanza, in which an Irish child is being forced to learn English. Much that can be implied here lies below the surface of the actual words of the poem. The two cultures involved—Irish and English—both have a long history, and in the nineteenth century, they were fundamentally incompatible. In terms of religion, Protestant England differed from Catholic Ireland; in terms of language, although both Gaelic and English are considered to be members of the Indo-European family of languages, they belong to widely separate subgroups and are only very remotely connected to each other. And in terms of geographic size and economic and military power, there was also a wide disparity between the two countries.

When two cultures clash, a lot more is involved for the vulnerable culture than the mere imposition of a foreign language. As the last line of the poem makes clear, the extinction of a native language leads to the loss of an entire culture, since language is the means through which culture is transmitted from one generation to the next. The phrase “an old order” conjures up that complex of elements, including language, religion, art, folklore, and a sense of a shared history, that together make up the culture of a nation—the way people view the world and their place in it. Since culture transmitted over generations makes up the body of the community, the loss of it leads metaphorically to the bloody “severed head” described in the poem. The violent image suggests the extreme difficulty and unnaturalness of having to learn the language of an alien culture. The individual who is forced to do so finds the language will not take root in the heart of his being, which remains attached to the native tradition. He becomes divided against himself. Over time, however, if the colonial power continues to suppress the native language, the original culture is entirely forgotten. This is forcefully implied in the ironic reversal in the final stanza, in which the Gaelic language, and with it the whole culture of which it is an expression, is perceived simply as a collection of syllables, not even as a coherent language. This is what Montague refers to in The Rough Field as “shards of a lost tradition.”


Although it is not central to its meaning, the poem does give an unflattering snapshot of the methods of education in nineteenth century Ireland. First, it suggests an inflexible system of rote learning. Second, although much is left to the imagination, it is fair to surmise that the stick tied around the child’s neck is used not only as a humiliating punishment in itself but as a record for the assessment of future punishment. Third, it is apparent that the child is treated with no respect for his dignity as a human being or for his intelligence. He is regarded as no better than a cow, the stick is likened to a bell placed on a cow or to a device to reign in a straying goat. This suggests that, as far as schooling was concerned, children were regarded in the same light as animals and were trained in much the same way. It also suggests the contempt with which the English regarded the Irish, viewing them as savages little better than dumb animals. The fact that the gender of the child is not stated, and is therefore referred to by the impersonal pronoun “it,” adds to this dehumanizing effect.

Language and Identity

The poem suggests that being compelled to learn the language of an occupying colonial power, as well as being denied the right to speak one’s own language, is so fundamentally destructive that it annihilates one’s sense of personal identity. It severs a person in two, as the image of the severed head in the first stanza implies. Stanza six, which shows the child stumbling over the pronunciation of its own name in the unfamiliar tongue, makes it clear how deep the wound goes. His name now appears to him as no more than a jumble of “altered syllables,” and this cuts to the heart of who he understands himself to be. The following two stanzas, which show him becoming alienated from his own family, demonstrate this. The theme is continued in stanza nine, where, in a grotesque image, acquiring the new language is compared to growing a second tongue. This “grafted tongue” of the title suggests that the new tongue is unnatural; it has to be added from foreign material; it does not grow organically from the body of the person who must now employ it in the act of speech.

Topics for Further Study

  • Research the subject of endangered languages and describe the measures being taken to save one such language.
  • What are the arguments for and against bilingual education in the United States?
  • Supporters of Esperanto (an artificial language invented in 1887 and developed for international use) say it would be better if everyone in the world spoke only one language. Do you agree?
  • As of the year 2000, 58 percent of the 257.5 million people who use the Internet use it in English. The next biggest groups are Japanese (18 percent), German (13 percent), Spanish (11 percent), and French, Chinese, and Italian (11 percent each). Is it a good or a bad trend that the Internet is dominated by English-language sites and that English may be becoming the world language?



The poem is constructed to reflect the pain and awkwardness of the child’s reluctant attempt to learn English. All the stanzas begin with a short line, usually of two words only and consisting of no more than four syllables. This gives the impression of hesitancy or lack of fluency, as if someone is reading aloud something unfamiliar and therefore has to read in small doses, regardless of the length of the grammatical unit. The short lines, generally of only two feet (a metrical foot consists of two or three syllables), continue this choppy effect throughout the poem. The use of run-on lines (also known as enjambment) in which the unit of meaning carries over into the following line also contributes to this effect. It is easy to imagine from the poem the reluctant schoolchild reading line by line with little sense of the grammatical structure or meaning of each sentence.

In stanza two, the hyphenation of the word “garbled” and the fact that it is spread over two lines (“garb-/led ordeal”) creates a strong sense of the jagged, broken manner in which the language is being spoken.


As might be expected in a poem that records extreme discomfort with language, the poet makes little use of the pleasing effect of end rhyme (rhyme which occurs at the end of each line). However, on the one occasion that such a rhyme is used, it is done with great effect. In lines one and three in stanza six, “shame” rhymes with “name,” which reinforces the idea that the forced learning of an alien language cuts to the roots of the child’s sense of self; he can no longer recognize or clearly speak his own name, and this causes him shame at the deepest level of his self-awareness.


The alliteration (repetition of initial consonants) apparent in stanzas five and six, in which “slur,” “stumble,” “shame,” “stray,” and “sadly” occur within the space of five lines, conveys the full import of the distress caused to the child by his painful lessons in an alien language. The alliteration of “harsh” and “humiliation” in stanza nine has a similar effect.


The use of a trochaic foot (a heavily stressed syllable followed by a lightly stressed one) at the beginning of stanza four, line two (“gouges”), reinforces the harshness of the scene in the schoolroom. Two lines later, a similar effect is achieved by the use of a dactylic foot (a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed ones) in the phrase “hung about.” Another example of a trochee placed at the beginning of a line for emphasis occurs in line three, stanza nine: “harsh a humiliation.”

Historical Context

Conflict Between Ireland and England

The involvement of England in the affairs of Ireland goes back over eight hundred years, beginning in 1171 when the English king Henry II invaded the country. But for centuries, the Irish language continued to flourish. Irish culture was so strong that many English settlers became, it was said, more Irish than the Irish. This can be seen from the Statutes of Kilhenny in 1366, passed by the English authorities, which instructed all Englishmen in Ireland to retain English surnames and to speak English. At the end of the fifteenth century, another English king, Henry VII, attempted to make English the only language spoken in Ireland, but this measure met with little success. As late as the end of the sixteenth century, Irish Gaelic flourished in spite of the English presence.

This started to change in the seventeenth century, when England began to take over Ireland completely. English power was finally consolidated in 1690, when an Irish Catholic army was defeated at the Battle of the Boyne by a Protestant English force led by William of Orange.

Decline of Gaelic

Harsh laws against Catholics passed by the English parliament in the eighteenth century made it difficult for Ireland to prosper under English rule. One law stated that Irish Catholics were not allowed to teach in schools. Many illegal schools did spring up, however. Instruction was often in Gaelic, but there was a growing recognition amongst the Irish that English would provide them with more opportunities, since it was the language of politics, law, and commerce. For example, English was the language used by the Irish parliament in the last two decades of the eighteenth century. English became even more dominant after the Act of Union in 1800, under which Ireland was granted one hundred seats in the British House of Commons and twenty-eight seats in the House of Lords.

Historic grievances continued, however, and the nineteenth century saw more conflict between England and Ireland. The introduction by the British government of the National School System in 1831 ensured that the Irish language would go into even more rapid decline. All subjects were to be taught in English.

The great Irish famine of 1845–51, in which over one million people died, further eroded the speaking of Gaelic, since the famine hit hardest in poor, rural, Gaelic-speaking areas. And fear of another famine resulted in Irish parents instructing their children to learn English and emigrate to England, Australia, or the United States.

During this period, the schools in Ireland became even more repressive as far as the speaking of Irish was concerned. In The Story of English, Robert McCrum, William Cran, and Robert Mac-Neil put it this way:

Gaelic-speaking children were punished with wooden gags, and subjected to mockery and humiliation. Brothers were encouraged to spy on sisters.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1860s: Gaelic is spoken by about thirteen percent of the Irish population; Irish schools teach English exclusively.

    1921: The newly independent Republic of Ireland makes Gaelic the official language of the nation, with English as the second official language, but, in practice, English dominates.

    1971: According to the census, the population of the parts of Ireland recognized as Irish-speaking is 66,840, or 1.4 percent of the total population of Ireland, north and south.

    Today: Although there are fewer Irish Gaelic speakers than in 1971, extensive efforts are made to keep the language alive. In 1996 a national Irish language television station is inaugurated by the Irish government. Gaelic is taught in Irish schools as a second language.
  • 1860s–1880s: The movement for Home Rule (independence) grows in Ireland, associated with the leadership of Charles Parnell (1846–1891).

    1921: Ireland wins independence from Britain, but six northern, Protestant-dominated counties remain under British rule.

    1960s and 1970s: The Catholic minority in Northern Ireland demands civil rights; violence erupts. There are many deaths as the Irish Republican Army targets British troops, and Catholics and Protestants indulge in killing sprees.

    Today: In 1998 a peace agreement is reached, which establishes a Northern Ireland Assembly and provides for more official cooperation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Ireland gives up its territorial claim on Northern Ireland. Over the next two years, the agreement undergoes many strains.

Under the regime of the tally-sticks, the child would wear a stick on a string round its neck. Every time the child used an Irish Gaelic word, the parents would cut a notch in the wood. At the end of the week, the village schoolmaster would tally up the notches and administer punishment accordingly. There was only one end in view: the eradication of Irish.

By the time in which “A Grafted Tongue” is set (probably around the 1860s or 1870s), only about thirteen percent of the Irish population spoke Gaelic, down from more than fifty percent at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Further decline was inevitable. According to the census figures of 1861, of all children in Ireland between the ages of two and ten, less than two percent spoke Gaelic exclusively.

The 1960s and 1970s: Violence in Ulster

In 1921 Ireland was partitioned. The twenty-six mostly Catholic southern counties of the island became the independent Republic of Ireland. The six predominantly Protestant counties in the north, known as Ulster, remained under British rule.

For nearly fifty years, Northern Ireland was relatively peaceful, but during the 1960s resentment began to build among the Catholic minority, who made up over one-third of the population. Catholics suffered extensive discrimination in jobs, education, and housing. Electoral districts were manipulated so that the Protestants held all the power in the Northern Irish parliament. In the late 1960s, the Catholics began campaigning for civil rights, and there were violent clashes between Catholics and Protestants on the streets of Belfast, the capital city. In 1969 the British government sent troops to Belfast to keep the peace between the two sides.

However, the violence only escalated. The terrorist group, the Irish Republican Army (IRA), took up the Catholic cause. The aim of the IRA was to eject the British by force from Northern Ireland and reunite the Republic of Ireland with the North. In response, Protestant militants, who wanted to retain their link with Britain, formed their own paramilitary groups. The result was an explosion of deadly violence. Atrocities were committed on both sides.

In 1972, the year in which “A Grafted Tongue” was published, 274 people were killed in violence related to the political situation. In the same year, Britain increased the number of its troops in the province to 22,000. In one notorious incident on January 30, 1972, British troops fired on demonstrators after a rally at Londonderry. Thirteen Irish civilians were killed. The tragedy became known as “Bloody Sunday.” Two months later, Britain suspended the Northern Irish parliament and imposed direct rule on the province from London.

Critical Overview

When The Rough Field was published in 1972, it met with considerable praise from reviewers in literary magazines. Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid comments that “The whole thing has the restraint of something profoundly felt, and the movement from section to section evinces a complete grasp and understanding of all the main constituents of Ulster’s life and history from the earliest times to the present.” In the same review, MacDiarmid quotes Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s observation that “The encroachment of the English plantations on the native way of life and the cultural schizophrenia that ensued when the natives are half-subservient to the new law and language provide the starting point for many of the lyrics.” Heaney then quotes stanza nine of “A Grafted Tongue” to emphasize his point. Derek Mahon, in The Malahat Review, calls The Rough Field “a prolonged meditation on a single theme: the death of a culture.” For D. E. S. Maxwell, in Critical Quarterly, the dominant themes of the long poem are “exile and home,” and these themes are made up of elements that include, as “A Grafted Tongue” shows, “a persecuted culture and its language.”

Much of The Rough Field was reprinted in Montague’s Selected Poems in 1982, where “A Grafted Tongue” first appears under that title as a complete poem in its own right.

“A Grafted Tongue” seems to be surviving the test of time. R. T. Smith, in a review of Montague’s Collected Poems (1995) in The Southern Review, singles it out for special praise, commenting that “nowhere is the Irish-speaker’s dilemma more painfully and memorably reported than in ‘A Grafted Tongue.’” Smith quotes the poem in its entirety and offered this analysis:

The poem’s hard consonants and sharp vowels, reinforced by the truncation of syntax across the lines and the crisp, angling-in rhymes, express anger but not rancor. The master, dominant as a priest or landlord, bells the shamed child like a cow—the animal that once measured Irish tribal wealth. ‘Altered’ and ‘ordeal’ underscore the religious and feudal elements of the predicament, but the ‘turf-cured’ hearth may offer a gleam of hope.

“A Grafted Tongue” is typical of Montague’s work because it shows his concern for the cultural and political history of Ulster and because it links that theme to his recurrent interest in the nature of personal identity. As Ben Howard puts it in a review of Montague’s Collected Poems, “For nearly four decades John Montague has probed the intricacies of history and the enigmas of selfhood. At once a gifted lyric poet and a passionate cultural historian, he has limned the convergences of history and self, taking his own difficult experience as prime example.”


Bryan Aubrey

Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many essays on twentieth-century literature. In this essay, he examines Montague’s poem in terms of its mingling of the personal and the political, its relationship to The Rough Field of which it is a part, and its relevance for today’s world.

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 garbled 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

“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....”

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

What Do I Read Next?

  • Irish writer Brian Friel’s play Translations (first performed in 1980) deals with the same problem as Montague’s “A Grafted Tongue,” the erosion of Irish language and culture by the colonizing English. The play is set in rural Ireland in 1833, at a Gaelic-speaking school, where pressure is mounting for instruction to be given in English.
  • Besides being a poet, Montague is also a short story writer. Most of the nine stories in Death of a Chieftain, and Other Stories (1967) are set in Ulster; five of them focus on childhood and youth.
  • The Penguin Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry (1990), edited by Peter Fallon and Derek Mahon, is a selection of the best poetry published by Irish poets since the 1950s.
  • Like Montague, Irish poet Seamus Heaney, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, was raised as a Catholic in Ulster. His Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966–1996 (1999) is a representative selection of the work that has made him Ireland’s most acclaimed contemporary poet.
  • Thomas Cahill’s provocatively titled, much-praised How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe (1995) tells the story of how Irish scribes and scholars, long before Ireland became dominated by England, were instrumental in saving the classical literature of Greece and Rome after the Dark Ages descended on the rest of Europe.

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 garb-hachaidh), 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.

Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on “A Grafted Tongue,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.

Douglas Dupler

Dupler is a published writer and critic. In the following essay he discusses the distinctions between modernism and postmodernism, and how Montague’s poem embodies characteristics of both movements.

The movement called postmodernism began not long after World War II. Artists, poets, and writers in this period had grown up on the ideas

“In the middle of these two world views is John Montague, a minor poet who, like the modernists, believes that poets should find beauty in the older, more traditional ways of life that are disappearing. Montague also strives to ‘make it new’ by experimenting with forms and styles.”

and works of modernism but were also profoundly shaken by the major changes caused by the Second World War, the Holocaust, the atomic bomb, the Cold War, and other events. Postmodern artists and writers were no longer as idealistic about their works. They were not as confident, as were the modernists, that they had the power in their words and works to change the world. Postmodern artists and writers tended not to be as preoccupied with beauty either, often displaying an ironic acceptance of the changes that modernists saw as ugly and threatening.

Other changes have also influenced postmodern artists and writers, including those changes brought about by technology. The information explosion has changed the way people view the world and the self. The world is changing too fast to keep up with, and the self is becoming “fragmented,” or confused and broken up, because people can’t make sense of all the different messages. Transportation technology has opened up all parts of the world, and many people are immigrating to new places and living as strangers in new cultures. The increased speed of life makes things superficial instead of deep. Postmodern artists and writers attempt to show all these new conditions in their works. Critics still consider the world to be in the midst of the postmodern period.

In the middle of these two world views is John Montague, a minor poet who, like the modernists, believes that poets should find beauty in the older, more traditional ways of life that are disappearing. Montague also strives to “make it new” by experimenting with forms and styles. Of this he once wrote in an essay that can be found in Garratt’s book, “I would hope for a more experimental approach, if [Northern Ireland writers] are to confront the changes in their society.” Montague occasionally also tries to make his poetry engage politics, a modernist practice. However, like the postmodernists, Montague deals with accelerating change and a more cosmopolitan view of the world, which shows the immigrant experience of cultures colliding. For Montague, quoted in Irish Poetry: Politics, History, Negotiation by Steven Matthews, the “poet should be familiar with the finest work of his contemporaries . . . in other languages.” And owing to both movements, Montague knows that the poet must strive to understand the self in the midst of all its influences. He writes that poetry’s “real purpose [is] the imaginative and honest expression of the writer’s own problems.”

Of course, it is hard to deduce all of this from one simple poem like “A Grafted Tongue,” but this poem shows evidence of some of the central themes of Montague’s work and does so in a very efficient way. It could be argued that the form of the poem is experimental, particularly when taken in context. “A Grafted Tongue” is from a collection of poems called The Rough Field, which is an experimental book consisting of a wide variety of forms and techniques, influenced by the modernist penchant for experimentation. “A Grafted Tongue” has a deceptively simple form: ten separate quatrains, or stanzas, consisting of four lines each. This structure was used by the modernist poet Ezra Pound. This simple form is a departure from the style of Irish poetry since Yeats, which often consists of long, eloquent sentences.

The rhythm of “A Grafted Tongue” is simple but irregular, serving a purpose toward the poem’s meaning. The first line of each stanza generally has one stressed, or strong, syllable, while the other lines tend to be dimeter lines, or lines consisting of two stressed syllables. The first stanza of the poem illustrates this:

Bloodied, the severed
head now chokes to
speak another tongue:—

However, this rhythm is not entirely consistent, making it an irregular rhythm. This is an example of how form may help reinforce the content or meaning of a poem. The irregular rhythm of the language has the effect of getting across the difficulty the child experiences when forced to change languages. In the same vein, to illustrate the “stuttering” of the third line in the second stanza, Montague divides the word “garbled” into two lines, a visual stutter to the reader.

The language that Montague uses illustrates how he relies on two differing techniques. Modern poets, like Yeats, loved to make beautiful poetic language full of music and rhyming, while postmodern poets often deliberately avoid using classical poetic language. Montague does both. He uses poetic language such as alliteration and rhyme. To illustrate the “slur and stumble” of the last line of the fifth stanza, Montague uses a nice example of alliteration in the sixth stanza:

In shame
the altered syllables
of your own name;
to stray sadly home

Montague also uses consonant rhymes, in which consonant sounds are the same at the end of words instead of at the beginning, as with alliteration. In the fourth stanza, at the end of the second line, “mark,” is a consonant rhyme with the end of the fourth line, “neck.” This type of rhyme is repeated in following stanzas, with “width” and “hearth,” for example. Montague also uses near rhymes, such as in the third stanza with “Irish” and “English,” and in the fifth stanza with “hobble” and “stumble.” These rhymes are called near rhymes because the unstressed syllables of the words are the syllables that rhyme. Full rhymes, where the stressed syllables rhyme, are also present in the poem, as in the sixth stanza, in which “shame” rhymes with “name.” Montague also uses assonance, or the repetition of vowel sounds, such as in the first stanza, with the words, “Dumb,” “bloodied,” “another,” and “tongue.” But none of these rhymes or rhythms is consistent throughout the poem, giving the “garbled” quality of the “grafted tongue.” This inconsistency also lends a fragmented quality to the poem’s manner of description.

The fragmentation and confusion of the child’s sense of self, a postmodern idea, is illustrated with diction and imagery. A grafted tongue is a sudden change in language where the roots still remain, buried deep. Some words Montague chooses lend a particular texture to the poem: “dumb,” “bloodied,” “chokes,” “suppressed,” “dream,” “weeps,” “mistake,” and so on. The “severed head” and the “garbled ordeal” are strong images of splitting up, and “the bell on a cow” and the “hobble on a straying goat” are images of confusion and the dismay of being lost. The person in the poem confronts a world that either punishes or causes “shame.” The poem never gives a vivid sense of place either, and the subject of the poem, a child, remains vague and anonymous. The child’s parents are “growing alien,” and the child “may greet no one” in the cold world. This vagueness and anonymity of the individual is what some intellectuals have termed the “postmodern condition.” The poem also moves around in time very quickly, starting with a young child in school and ending up far in the future, with the “child’s grandchild” still connecting to “an old order” in the poem’s final lines.

The politics that the poem engages are subtle but telling. The poem is placed by a passing reference to the “Irish” and “English,” but politics actually pervade the poem. The child’s problem in the poem is representative of an entire cultural problem; indeed, the cultural problem has overwhelmed and damaged the child, another postmodern theme. Keenly conscious of this cultural problem, Montague writes in The Figure in the Cave and Other Essays, “After living abroad for over a decade, I came to the conclusion that . . . it is almost impossible for a poet to change languages. And yet this is what happened to Irish poetry.”

Source: Douglas Dupler, Critical Essay on “A Grafted Tongue,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.


Garratt, Robert F., Modern Irish Poetry, University of California, 1986, pp. 200, 208.

Howard, Ben, review of Collected Poems by John Montague, in Poetry, Vol. 171, No. 4, February 1998, pp. 279–282.

MacDiarmid, Hugh, “John Montague’s Ulster,” in Agenda, Vol. 11, Nos. 2–3, Spring–Summer 1973, pp. 109–111.

Mahon, Derek, Review in The Malahat Review, No. 27, July 1973, pp. 132–137.

Matthews, Steven, Irish Poetry: Politics, History, Negotiation, St. Martin’s, 1997, p. 128.

McCrum, Robert, William Cran, and Robert MacNeil, The Story of English, Viking Penguin, 1986.

Montague, John, Collected Poems, Wake Forest University Press, 1995.

———, The Figure in the Cave, and Other Essays, Syracuse University Press, 1989, p. 37.

———, The Rough Field, Wake Forest University Press, 1972.

———, Selected Poems, Oxford University Press, 1982.

Salminen, Tapani, Unesco Red Book of Endangered Languages: Europe, online at http://www.helsinki.fi/~tasalmin/europe_index.html, (September 22, 1999).

Smith, R. T., Review in The Southern Review, Vol. 34, No. 1, Winter 1998.

For Further Study

Heaney, Seamus, Preoccupations: Selected Prose, 1968–1978, Faber and Faber, 1980.

Irish poet Heaney discusses Montague’s sense of place. There are also essays on Wordsworth, Keats, Hopkins, Yeats, Patrick Kavanagh, and Robert Lowell.

Kernowski, Frank L., John Montague, Bucknell University Press, 1975.

This is the only book-length critical work about Montague; it discusses his poetry and short stories up to and including The Rough Field.

MacManus, Seumas, The Story of the Irish Race, Devin-Adair, 1972.

This book presents the story of Irish history from ancient to modern times in a readable way, examining the Irish mind and culture, as well as Ireland’s long political struggle.

Mariani, Paul, “John Montague,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 40:Poets of Great Britain and Ireland Since 1960, edited by Vincent B. Sherry Jr., Gale, 1985, pp. 380–395.

This survey of Montague’s life and work describes him as “one of the few indispensable voices coming out of Ireland today.” Contains an extensive bibliography.

Wallace, Martin, A Short History of Ireland, Barnes and Noble, 1996.

This short (168 page) book examines Irish history with particular emphasis on its difficult relationship with Britain.