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Derek Mahon, born in Belfast in 1941 but now living in Cork in the Irish Republic,

was a young adult when the Northern Irish Troubles erupted in 1969. His poetry,
like that of near contemporaries such as Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley,
has been greatly influenced by the events and emotions of that period.
Courtyards in Delft (written in 1981) is a poem that falls into this category.

The poem is subtitled Pieter de Hoogh, 1659 which helps to identify the
inspiration for his poem as a painting in Londons National Gallery that bears the
title The Courtyard of a House in Delft, although some of the details mentioned
in the poem belong to other paintings by de Hoogh. Delft is a town in The
Netherlands, between Rotterdam and The Hague, that is well known for its
production of blue-and-white pottery and for being the home of or inspiration for
several famous painters, most notably Johannes Vermeer, Nicolaes Maes and
Pieter de Hoogh.

Courtyards in Delft comprises five stanzas, each of eight lines. The rhyme
scheme varies between the stanzas, with only the fourth and fifth stanzas having
the same pattern. Most of the rhymes are half rhymes (such as tile/pail,
verse/gorse, there/war) and some are not even that (e.g. coal/table, bird/made).
Rhyming is therefore used in the poem to provide only a loose connection
between the lines, which fits the theme of the poem which is the relationship
between order and chaos.

The first stanza describes the poets initial impressions when looking at the de
Hoogh painting. The scene is dominated by domestic order and cleanliness. The
bricks and tiles of the house and courtyard are immaculate and the poet notes
the house-proud wives of artisans and the ubiquitous broom and wooden
pail that are used to keep everything clean. Where nature intrudes, it is kept
under control: Foliage is sparse, and clings. Everything is as it should be.

The second stanza continues the theme by drawing attention to what is missing
from the scene, which is anything that smacks of emotion or joy. The poet clearly
has other paintings in mind, possibly by other Dutch/Flemish artists such as
Rubens or Rembrandt, when he complains that here there is no virgin [who]
listens to her seducer and nothing emblematic of / The harmonies and
disharmonies of love. In the de Hoogh painting, Nothing is random, nothing
goes to waste and We miss the dirty dog, the fiery gin.

The third stanza refers directly to three features of the painting named above,
namely That girl with her back to us, the cracked / Out-house door and the
sunlit / Railings that front the houses opposite. They introduce a note that is less
redolent of cosiness and permanence than that conveyed in the first stanza.
Although the girl is content to wait for her man to come home for his tea, this
is expressed in terms of till the paint disintegrates or the dykes that protect

Delft give way to the esurient sea. Esurient is an unusual and unexpected
word here; it means greedy and gives rise to the thought that this peaceful
scene is under threat from something that will one day swallow it whole.

That the poet intends the reader to fast forward is emphasised by his use of
vividly mnemonic to describe the other features in the scene, and the
statement Yet this is life too. This is not just a painting on an art gallery wall
but a reminder that these people, whatever country they may once have lived in,
are ones forbears and they have a message, or a warning, for the generations to
come, including that of the poet.

The fourth stanza begins with the perhaps surprising line: I lived there as a boy
and know the coal / Glittering in its shed. It should not be thought that the poet
is making a literal statement about having grown up in Delft in the 17th century,
but a figurative one that says that his own beginnings were so similar to those
shown in the painting that he can relate to them as being part of his own
experience. His thoughts belong to both worlds, as is expressed very neatly in
the last three lines of the stanza. He describes himself as having been A strange
child with a taste for verse whereas his:

hard-nosed companions dream of war

On parched veldt and fields of rain-swept gorse.

The references here are to the descendants of the Dutch people in the painting,
who colonised what is now South Africa and fought the Boer Wars against the
British in the last years of the 19th century on the parched veldt and the
guerrilla war of the IRA against the British Army on the fields of rain-swept
gorse in Northern Ireland. The link is therefore finally made between the past
and the present through this device of placing veldt and gorse side by side.

The theme is continued in the fifth and final stanza, again using a neat link
between the 17th century art of Pieter de Hoogh and the reality of later events.
The pale light of the painting will spread itself, like ink or oil over the not yet
accurate linen / Map of the world which occupies one wall. This reference must
be to another de Hoogh painting that the poet could have seen in the National
Gallery, because the courtyard scene is obviously an outdoor rather than an
indoor scene. World exploration was not yet complete in the 17th century, but
one consequence of making the map more accurate was that colonial wars would
be the pale light that, because of their religious connotations, would punish
nature in the name of God.

This leads to the wish, expressed in the final three lines, that this future death
and destruction could have been avoided at this quiet time, frozen in de Hooghs
paintings, by an invasion of Maenads, who, in Greek mythology, were female
followers of Dionysus who were made mad and committed violent acts, in stark
contrast to de Hooghs orderly women. If they could appear with fire and sword
and start smashing crockery (a punning reference to Delft as an important
producer of pottery), then the future could change and, as the final line states:
We could sleep easier in our beds at night.

One message of the poem is that the sort of life portrayed in de Hooghs painting
is too clean and ordered not to attract the sort of violence that has bedevilled the
world in more recent times. Unless one accepts the less pleasant aspects of life,
typified by the dirty dog, the fiery gin, the violence inherent in mankind will
explode with force rather than be allowed to seep out in less destructive ways.

Courtyards in Delft contains a great deal of symbolism that is relevant to Irish


history as well as Dutch. The problems in Ireland as experienced by Derek Mahon
stemmed from events that were brewing at the time portrayed by de Hoogh, so it
is not surprising that he should have found the paintings in question to be
relevant to his own experiences. The Protestant Dutch had seized their
independence from Catholic Spain in the 16th century, and it was the religious
wars in Europe that led to the division between Ulster and the rest of Ireland.
Thirty years after de Hoogh painted his Courtyard, Englands deposed king, the
Catholic James II, was fighting his Protestant successor, William of Orange from
the Netherlands.

The suppressed unpleasant things, mentioned above, can be seen as symbols for
the injustices that gave rise to human rights marches and then the Troubles in
Northern Ireland. For years the Northern Ireland Protestants, through the Unionist
politicians who commanded huge majorities in the Stormont parliament and in
their Westminster constituencies, were content to maintain a faade of normality
and respectability, just like that of the Delft courtyard. However, by suppressing
the Catholic minority and keeping their concerns at arms length, hidden behind
the shed door as it were, they were only postponing the day when violence
would erupt.

Derek Mahon therefore makes a powerful case for acknowledging the falsity of
such a scenario, in a poem that brings the past and present together in engaging
and telling ways.