The unconventional structure of ‘Hymn to the New Omagh Road’ stands out. In the poem, Montague uses four main sections and incorporates an item list into the piece. Throughout the poem, readers will encounter enjambment, juxtaposition, literal and figurative imagery, and irony. Montague uses these to show the influence of modernization upon County Tyrone in Ireland.
John Montague was born in Brooklyn in 1929 but returned to County Tyrone in Ireland at the age of four. He retained ties with America, however, and counted American experimentalists such as Pound and Williams as influences. ‘Hymn to the New Omagh Road’ was first published in 1968. The author signed 175 copies of the poem, which have become somewhat of a collector’s item.
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In ‘Hymn to the New Omagh Road’, Montague juxtaposes nature with modernization, drawing up a balance sheet of LOSS and GAIN within the construction of a new road.
‘Hymn to the New Omagh Road’ has an unconventional structure. There are four main sections. The sections take various forms, like an item list outlining losses and gains in constructing a new road. Montague utilizes enjambment and juxtaposition throughout the poem. The latter highlights the influence of modernization upon County Tyrone. He also uses imagery for this purpose, to great effect. Additionally, Montague injects irony into the poem, casting a satirical light on the conflict between humans and nature.
The poem can be read in full here (pp. 273-77).
The structure of ‘Hymn to the New Omagh Road’ is quite unusual. The poem is divided into four sections: Process, Balance Sheet, Glencull Waterside, and Envoi: The Search for Beauty. The first section, Process, consists of eight lines. It can be considered a free-verse poem in its own right. Balance Sheet is split into two parts: LOSS and GAIN. Each of these parts lists items to compare the losses and gains of constructing the new road. The third section, Glencull Waterside, contains a juxtaposition of styles, where a conventional ballad lilt accompanies a contemporary free-verse form. The fourth and final section, Envoi: The Search for Beauty, is conversational in tone and uses humor and irony to sign off.
Enjambment and juxtaposition are two apparent literary devices in ‘Hymn to the New Omagh Road.’
Enjambment – Throughout the poem, Montague uses enjambment for emphasis. Line breaks are often important in different poetic forms. Enjambment speaks to the importance of the ending word when it is used in a poem. When Montague uses this device, it is not by accident; he wants to draw attention to the line break. Using the first section, Process, let us look at the last word of each line: fort, flower, twigs, traffic, bridge, stream, trout, die. This section describes the process of clearing the land for a road. Reading only the last words, we already get a sense of how this process damages nature. The rest of the section hinges on these words.
Juxtaposition – Juxtaposition is another literary device Montague utilises throughout the poem. Overall, the poet juxtaposes nature with modernisation. This is clear in section two, Balance Sheet, where the losses and gains are drawn up. However, there are also more subtle instances of juxtaposition throughout the poem. One of these is a juxtaposition of styles in the third section, where a ballad form accompanies a contemporary free-verse form. This will be covered more thoroughly in the detailed analysis below.
Throughout the poem, Montague uses imagery and irony to great effect.
Imagery – There are two kinds of images: literal and figurative. Literal images work to replicate an object or experience, while figurative images, through simile or metaphor, draw like comparisons to an object or experience. In ‘Hymn to the New Omagh Road’, there is a subtle blend of both. For instance, in the first section, the phrasing of ‘…the bull-dozer bites…’ and ‘[i]ts grapnel jaws lift…’ is a literal representation of what the machine is and the job it does. However, by using ‘bites’ and ‘jaws’ Montague injects a figurative element, giving the lines dramatic flair. The machinery is compared to the predatory, and this projects a monstrous quality onto the bulldozer as it is put to work constructing the new road. So, the imagery is working on two levels, literally and figuratively, giving the reader a more encompassing experience.
Irony – Montague utilizes irony in ‘Hymn to the New Omagh Road’ to aid humor and draw attention to the absurdity of human behavior. This is evident in the second section when the gains are listed. After informing the reader that motorists will now travel faster, Montague says the dead in a graveyard will have an unobstructed view of the new road, so that they can watch ‘the living passing at great speed, sometimes quick enough to come straight in:’ So, the new road is constructed so that people can drive faster, but this increases the risk of death, a self-defeating ‘gain’ that highlights the absurdity of human behavior. Irony like this adds a layer of humor to the poem.
The detailed analysis will cover the four main sections of the poem: Process, Balance Sheet, Glencull Waterside, and Envoi: The Search for Beauty.
In this section, Montague opens with a free-verse form of eight lines. It describes the process of clearing the way for a road and the effect that has on the natural environment. The opening lines read:
As the bull-dozer bites into the tree-ringed hill fort
Its grapnel jaws lift the mouse, the flower,
With equal attention…
Here, the reader gets a picture of the indiscriminatory way in which nature is affected in the quest for progress. Nothing is safe. Furthermore, the previously mentioned predatory connotations fit perfectly with the view of humans preying on nature in the hunt for modernisation. Just as the predator is indiscriminate, so too is the human. They are one in the same, bringers of death and destruction.
The scene continues with a bird’s nest falling…
Into the slow-flowing mud-choked stream
Below the quarry, where the mountain trout
Turns up its pale belly to die.
The use of ‘mud-choked’ further signifies this death of nature, and the picture of the trout floating belly-up seals the deal.
The second section outlines a balance sheet of LOSS and GAIN. It is structured as a list of items but still contains beautiful poetic imagery. Under LOSS, ‘the criss-cross of beams where pigeons moan’ and the ‘white-washed dry-stone walls’ are listed. These descriptions paint a picture of old rural Ireland, especially the latter one. The old is lost to the new, to modernisation. The last item listed cements this loss:
The removal of all hillocks
and humps, superstition styled fairy forts
and long barrows, now legally to be regarded
as obstacles masking a driver’s view.
Under GAIN, Montague shows the somewhat absurd lengths humans will go to for perceived progress. He’s grabbing the reader’s attention with scenes of death and destruction. He’s asking, for what? For this:
A local travelling from the prefabricated suburbs of
bypassed villages can manage an average speed of 50
rather than 40 miles p.h. on his way to see relatives in
Omagh hospital or lunatic asylum.
Here, the choice of ‘lunatic asylum’ is interesting. Montague draws the reader’s attention to the lunacy involved in sacrificing nature for modernization, only to gain a little extra speed.
In this section, a contemporary free-verse form accompanies a conventional ballad lilt. Let’s look at the contemporary free-verse form first:
From the quarry behind the school
the crustacean claws of the excavator
rummage to withdraw a payload,
a giant’s bite…
This resembles the form and language used in the Process section. Here, we have ‘crustacean claws’ and ‘giant’s bite’ producing the same effect.
Now, for the conventional ballad lilt:
‘Tis pleasant for to take a scroll by Glencull Waterside
On a lovely evening in spring (in nature’s early pride);
You pass by many a flowery bank and many a shady dell,
Like walking through enchanted land where fairies used to dwell.
As previously mentioned, this section contains a juxtaposition of styles, of the new and old. That complements the overall theme of modernization encroaching upon the old ways, upon nature. By juxtaposing the contemporary form with the ballad form, Montague draws attention to the section. He wants the reader to take a closer look at the forms side-by-side. The contemporary form is associated with modernization, with the destruction of a ‘giant’s bite’, an assault on nature. The language used in the ballad, however, is very different. It paints a picture of an innocent time ‘in nature’s early pride’, of walking in nature, being one with nature. The juxtaposition of styles, therefore, works on a deeper level. It adds another layer to the more visible juxtaposition seen in LOSS and GAIN, for instance.
Envoi: The Search for Beauty
Lastly, Montague signs off with a short stanza laced with irony. He tells of a farmer who:
bought himself a concrete swan
for thirty bob, and lugged
it all the way home
to deposit it
(where the monkey / puzzle was meant to grow)
on his tiny landscaped lawn.
Held against the destruction of nature, the irony of this stanza is apparent. All that natural beauty was on the farmer’s doorstep, but he bought a concrete swan to make his garden more beautiful. Moreover, he places it where a tree was supposed to grow, signifying the quest for modernisation, the concrete over the natural. This shows the absurdity in human thought. Surrounded by natural beauty, the farmer prefers the order of his landscaped lawn, decorated with a concrete representation of nature. Absurd.
Omagh is a town in northwest Ireland. It is the county town of County Tyrone. Omagh is considered to be a large town in the context of Northern Ireland, with a population of around 20,000. An area known for its natural beauty, Omagh has Gortin Glen Forest Park on its doorstep.
A fairy fort is a raised circle, usually forming a mound, or sometimes a circle of stone structures. Superstition surrounds these structures in Ireland, as they are said to contain the realm of fairies. It is seen as bad luck to destroy them. There are many a story of people bulldozing fairy forts and encountering years of bad luck, or worse.
The meaning in ‘Hymn to the New Omagh Road’ relates to the destruction of nature in the search for human progress. The poem shows the influence of modernization upon County Tyrone. It uses irony and humor to communicate the absurdity in human thought.
A monkey puzzle is an evergreen tree. It is native to central and southern Chile and western Argentina. It gets its common name ‘monkey puzzle’ from the way the branches form intricate patterns. So intricate, that it would puzzle a monkey to climb.