The Lady from the Sea

by Derek Mahon

copyright ©Derek Mahon 2008

(after Ibsen)

She  Born in a lighthouse, I still find it hard
as wife to a doctor ten miles from the coast.
My home is a pleasant one but I get bored;
the mountains bother me. Now, like a ghost,
you show up here, severe and adamant.
What are you anyhow? What do you want?

He  I am a simple man upon the land,
I am a seal upon the open sea.
Your eyes are of the depths. Give me your hand,
give me your heart and come away with me.
to the Spice Islands, the South Seas; anywhere.
Only the force of habit keeps you here.

She  Even up here, enclosed, I sniff the brine,
the open sea out there beyond the beach;
my thoughts are waves, my dreams are estuarine
and deeper than an anchor chain could reach.
I knew you’d come, like some demonic fate
glimpsed at a window or garden gate.

He  How can you live here with no real horizon,
someone like you, a mermaid and a Muse,
a figment of your own imagination,
the years elapsing like a tedious cruise?
Your settled life is like this summer glow;
dark clouds foreshadow the approaching snow.

She  Sometimes,emerging frommy daily swim
or gazing from the dock these quiet nights,
I know my siren soul; and in a dream
I stare astonished at the harbour lights,
hugging my knees and sitting up alone
as ships glide darkly past with a low moan.

He  If our mad race had never left the sea,
had we remained content with mud and rock,
we might have saved ourselves great misery;
though even this evening we might still go back.
Think of the crashing breakers, the dim haze
of a salt sun rising on watery days.

She  My wild spirit unbroken, should I return
to the tide, choosing at last my other life,
reverting to blue water and sea-brine,
or do I continue as a faithful wife?
If faithful is the world for one who clings
to the lost pre-existence of previous things.

He  do you remember the great vow you made
to the one man you chose from other men?
The years have come between, with nothing said,
and now the stranger has appeared again
to claim your former love and make it new.
You ask me what I am; but what are you?

She  I am a troubled woman on the land,
I am a seal upon the open sea,
but it’s too late to give my heart and hand
to someone who remains a mystery.
Siren or not, this is my proper place;
go to your ship and leave me here in peace.

Notes on the Poem

Derek Mahon has a formidable gift for taking as his starting point cues from other art forms, and then taking readers of his poetry on wonderful explorations, both of the inspiring work and of the new paths he forges from them. Let's see where he takes us in the poem "The Lady from the Sea" (after Ibsen, as Mahon notes) from his 2009 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Life on Earth. We've looked previously at how Mahon's poem "A LIGHTHOUSE IN MAINE" takes visual arts as the cue for its poetic explorations. "The Lady from the Sea" is not only inspired by but takes the very same title as one of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen's lesser-known plays. We can ask again, as we did when Mahon turned his gaze to and then reflected on a painting, and now does the same thing with a play: When a poem looks to another art form for its content and inspiration in this fashion, is the approach likely to generous expand or problematically constrain what the poet produces? The play's themes and dilemmas are summarized beautifully in this descriptive preview of an English production from 2012:
"Ibsen knew that the search for self-realisation causes a struggle between our duty to ourselves and our duty to those around us. With a powerful instinct for the tragic, he understood that this can lead to disaster for all: the cult of the untrammelled individual can be just as dangerous as repression."
(This preview of a different production of the play is also elucidating.) The format of Mahon's poem emulates a theatrical dialogue. The exchanges are in measured English sestet, which in their metre and consistency seem to tamp down the passion in the words and the crossroads at which Ellida Wangel, the "lady from the sea", stands: "My wild spirit unbroken, should I return to the tide, choosing at last my other life, reverting to blue water and sea-brine, or do I continue as a faithful wife?" At the same time, that almost soothing rhythm suggests that Ellida is making a sane and considered decision, in spite of the temptations of what she has been offered: "I am a troubled woman on the land, I am a seal upon the open sea, but it's too late to give my heart and hand to someone who remains a mystery." Poet Edmund Prestwich offers his interesting interpretation of Mahon's poem here.

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