Within ‘Like Dolmens Round My Childhood, the Old People’ Montague delves into themes of identity, Irish heritage and tradition, and memory. The tone is at times lighthearted and at others quite serious and solemn. Montague crafts a vivid and insightful world within the eight stanzas of this poem. The mood varies along with the imagery as the reader is taken through upbeat and optimistic verses and introduced to downtrodden and hateful personalities.
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The poem takes the reader through a series of profiles. Each depicts the nature, habits, and quirks of someone the speaker knows. These folks are all old. Some lived good and kind lives, like Jamie in the second stanza. While others, like Maggie, were cruel and disparaging throughout their days. There are others who, through parts of their personalities, represent certain segments of Ireland. The poem concludes with a stanza that expresses the fact that all these people are now dead. They, like the dolmens they’re compared to in the first line of the poem, are solid, strong, and powerful in their histories. In the last lines, the speaker expresses relief in the fact that their memories have passed from his life, freeing him.
You can read the full poem here.
‘Like Dolmens Round My Childhood, the Old People’ by John Montague is an eight stanza poem that separated into uneven sets of lines. The first stanza and the last consist of single lines, while the rest, stanzas two through eight, contain seven lines each. These are known as octaves. The lines rhyme slightly differently in each line, for example, the second stanza rhymes ABCBDEB.
There are also examples of half-rhymes. Also known as slant or partial rhyme, half-rhyme is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. The second stanza also provides an example of this technique with the endings of lines five and six.
Montague makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Like Dolmens Round My Childhood, the Old People’. These include alliteration, metaphor, simile, juxtaposition, and enjambment. The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “Mattress and money” in the sixth line of the second stanza and “Bag-apron and boots” in line three of stanza five.
Juxtaposition is when two contrasting things are placed near one another in order to emphasize that contrast. A poet usually does this in order to emphasize a larger theme of their text or make an important point about the differences between these two things. The kindness exhibited by the first character Montague introduces, Jamie, is described very gently and purely. This depiction is interrupted by violence and disrespect in the next lines after his death.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transitions between lines five and six of the sixth stanza.
Metaphor, or a comparison between two unlike things that does not use “like” or “as” is also present in the text. When using this technique a poet is saying that one thing is another thing, they aren’t just similar. There is an example in stanza three in which the poet compares the woman to a gossiping, dangerous snake.
A simile, on the other hand, is a comparison between two unlike things that uses the words “like” or “as”. A poet uses this kind of figurative language to say that one thing is similar to another, not like metaphor, that it “is” another. The first line is a great example in which “old people” in the speaker’s life are compared to “dolmens,” or prehistoric tombs made of upright stones.
Stanzas One and Two
In the first stanzas of ‘Like Dolmens Round my Childhood, the Old People’ the speaker begins by using a simile to compare the “old people” in his life to “dolmens,” or prehistoric tombs made of upright stones. These people come across as solid, strong, and permanent. They are so far, permanent parts of the land and the speaker’s life. Next, Montague brings in a character named Jamie MacCrystal.
With the intricate details the poet uses to describe this person, they become real and easy to imagine. He “sang to himself / A broke song without a tune, without words”. This is a solemn, yet beautiful line that tells the reader something important about the man but also relates him to all readers. We should see ourselves in this person and all the other characters Montague brings in.
He’s a kind person, as is seen through the way he feeds “crusts to winter birds” and tips the speaker a “penny every pension day”. The rhythm in these lines is increased through the use of alliteration. The same can be said in the next lines with the repetition of “m” in “Mattress” and “money”.
This image of the man is juxtaposed in the next with what occurred after he died. His “cottage was robbed” and his possessions were torn about and searched. When he was robbed, shockingly, his body was still in the room.
Another character that Montague brings into the narrative is named Maggie Owens. She is depicted less kindly than Jamie was. The speaker describes her as “surrounded by animals,” which feels kind and caring, but she’s represented as very much the opposite. The woman does not appear to take care of the creatures around her, creating a negative and hateful mood to these lines. There are shivering puppies in the house and a “she-goat” that cries in the bedroom.
The poet uses metaphor to compare the woman to a gossiping, dangerous snake. She gossips hatefully about everyone throughout the “whole countryside”. Some spoke to the speaker about her, telling him that she’s a witch but all he knows for sure is that she has an uncontrollable need to “deride” or speak poorly of everyone.
In the next lines of ‘Like Dolmens Round My Childhood, the Old People’ the speaker introduces “Mary Moore”. She is a multifaceted character that exhibits hardiness and gentleness. She works her skinny cattle and tramps in the fields. In this aspect of her life, she is exposed to real-world work but there is another part that’s less physically demanding. When she gets home she falls asleep “Over love stories” about “gypsy love rites”. This charming, warming image is welcome after the hardship at the beginning of the stanza.
Carrying on into the next character, the poet introduces someone whose name tells the reader a great deal about him. A man named “Wild Billy Eagleson”. He was only able to marry a Catholic girl after his “Loyal,” or Loyalist, family passed away. Through these lines, the poet is able to speak broadly about life in Ireland and the division between religions and families.
Line three shows the teasing and mocking that Billy had to endure from his friends after his family had passed away. They sang “To Hell with King Billy” at him and danced around. He lashed out, trying to strike them with his walking stick. Billy was not accepted by the Protestants or the Catholics. He was “Forsaken by both creeds” but didn’t seem to care too much. That was, until the orange marching season in July.
In the sixth stanza of the poem, the speaker reveals that all these people have died. The doctor tried to look after them but there was some difficulty in reaching the elderly. Any visitor had to trudge to get there. The mountains are tough to walk on and the roads are broken. When these old folks died they were more often than not found by neighbours who stumbled upon them in their solitary houses. These lines have a quietness to them that is embodied in the stillness of the environments in which the characters Montague has introduced lived.
In the last line, the poet is asking the reader to think back to the beginning in which he depicted old people as “dolmens” or standing rocks. These deceased neighbours were “cast in the mould of death,” as if statues.
Stanzas Seven and Eight
The seventh stanza of ‘Like Dolmens Round My Childhood, the Old People’ begins with the narrator speaking broadly about Ireland. He exclaims “Ancient Ireland, indeed!” These people, the lives they lived and the stories that are told about them after their deaths are not part of an idealized view of Irish life. Montague personifies Ireland in the next lines. He speaks of how he grew up beside her bed with “The rune and the chant, evil eye and averted head”. These phrases reference traditional superstition and help paint a romantic image of the land.
The third line refers to the “Formorians”. This was a group of mythical people that are said to have lived in Ireland in the ancient past. They were a fierce and powerful group that had powers beyond that which a normal human possesses. The Formorians are compared to the elderly people that have been described throughout this poem. They invaded and controlled his dreams and for a while, he couldn’t get rid of them. Finally, one day he stood within a circle of dolmens and “felt their shadows pass”. They left him and he got one step closer to leaving his past behind.
The last stanza is only one line long, just like the first. Here, the poet concludes the poem by referencing a progression from life to death the old people undertook. Now, they’re ancient forms just like the dolmens. They’re in a place of “dark permanence” that is at once comforting in its finality and scary and solemn in its impenetrability.