soldier and burnt out car signifying Michael Longley's Ceasefire Analysis

Ceasefire

Introduction

Michael Longley’s “Ceasefire” summarises the episode from Homer’s The Iliad when Priam, the King of Troy, begs for the return of the body of his slaughtered son. Achilles, who is “moved to tears”, prepares the corpse to be returned home. Although the story takes place towards the end of the Trojan War, Longley links this moment of reconciliation between the two armies to a potential ceasefire in Northern Ireland.

Reconciliation

Instead of seeking a violent revenge against the “killer” of his “son”, Priam kneels before his enemy to “do what must be done”. Kissing Achilles’ hand is a courageous and powerful display of submission.

Achilles tries to reject Priam and “pushed the old king / gently away”. The poet uses enjambment to force the reader into the next line and signify the physical distance between the two characters. Although the verb “pushed” is an aggressive action, the adverb “gently” suggests Achilles is struggling to assert his hatred and is beginning to sympathise with Priam’s awful loss.

Achilles might have perceived the Trojans as just another army to defeat, but the Greek hero recognises the beautiful bond between the “old king” and his son, Hector, and thinks about his relationship with “his own father”. The epithet “old” connotes vulnerability. Priam is not a threat. Just an “old” man who loved his son.

When Priam “curled up at his feet and / wept”, both men feel an overwhelming “sadness” which “filled the building”. The image of Priam “curled up” and helpless on the ground conveys his terrible despair and his willingness to surrender to Achilles’ mercy. Longley begins the fourth line by placing stress on the word “wept” to emphasise Priam’s overpowering grief. They are both “moved to tears”.

The phrase “their sadness filled the building” signals a tremendous moment of catharsis in both men. Achilles empathises with Priam’s dreadful loss and Priam has purged his hatred toward the “killer” of his “son”. The hyperbolic “filled the building” suggests everyone else experienced their own release when they saw this expression of unity. Perhaps Longley is suggesting we need to see the humanity in each other in our search for peace and reconciliation.

The Second Stanza

In The Iliad, Homer described Achilles disfiguring Hector’s corpse by dragging it around the sand from the back of his chariot. This was a brutal and ruthless act of humiliation because burial rites were an important aspect of ancient cultures. However, in the second stanza, Achilles displays great respect for the Hector and his faith when he “washed” the “corpse”. After preparing the body for the afterlife, Achilles also recognised Hector’s military prowess by dressing him in his “uniform”.

The simile comparing the “wrapped” body to a “present” emphasises to the reader the gift was offered freely and in the warm spirit of friendship. We often think of the word “present” denotes the simple gifts we exchange with family and friends, but it also refers to a ceremonial and formal process. This definition conveys Achille’s new appreciation of the Trojans.

Priam carries the body “home to Troy at daybreak”. Writers often use this first appearance of light to symbolise a new beginning; Longley uses the image to connote his hope for peace between two warring nations.

It Pleased Them Both

The third stanza depicts Priam and Achilles enjoying a moment of deep friendship. Sharing a meal is a sign of trust and gives the enemies a chance to come “together”. They “stare at each other’s beauty as lovers might”. The simile suggests they are mesmerised by each other’s qualities because they are seeing them for the first time.

There is a lovely balance to the third line. Longley tells the reader that Achilles is “built like a god” and Priam is “good-looking still”. The simile is a reminder of the Greek hero’s legendary invincibility, and we can “still” admire the handsome “old king”.

At the start of the poem, Achilles “pushed” Priam “away”. Now the two men are “full of conversation”. This common metaphor suggests they feel satisfied in each other’s company.

Structure

Book 24 of Homer’s epic is a linear narrative, but Longley deliberately reverses the sequence and concludes his poem with the appeal for mercy that evoked Achilles’ compassion referred to “earlier” in the opening stanza. Longley is trying to emphasise the importance of the first conciliatory step towards a ceasefire between two warring nations by making sure Priam’s dramatic speech sticks in the reader’s thoughts:

‘I get down on my knees and do what must be done
And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.’

There is the very effective contrast in the last line between the affectionate verb “kiss” and the destructive noun “killer”. Obviously, the poet emphasises that difference through the alliteration connecting the two words, but the harsh /k/ is also echoed in “Achilles”. Perhaps this repetition draws our attention to the word “kill” in the middle of the warrior’s name to suggest brutal violence is an intrinsic part of his identity.

The painting of Priam at the Feet of Achilles from 1809
Priam at the Feet of Achilles (1809) by Jérôme-Martin Langlois

The ubiquitous sonnet form is traditionally associated with themes of romantic love. Longley’s poem focuses on the love needed if a divided society is to move beyond the vicious circle of violence and bigotry. “Kill” will always be a part of “Achilles” but his decision to give the body back shows that reconciliation is possible.

In Longley’s reworking of the narrative, the poem seems to begin with the physically powerful Achilles as the subject. The rhyming couplet at the end shifts the focus to Priam who has the emotional strength needed to “do what must be done” to achieve peace. Longley is arguing that conflict cannot be solved by violence and murder, but through mutual respect and understanding.

The first two quatrains follow a ABCB rhyme scheme. The important /k/ is heard in “sake” and “daybreak” with a softer, nasal /ŋ/ in “king” and “building”. This sets up the expectation another end-rhyme in the third stanza, but Longley disrupts the rhythm with the assonance in “might” and “sighed”. This very subtle change could suggest how the poet recognises the difficulty of creating harmony between two opposing factions and the traditions that divides them.

Longley follows this slight dissonance in the rhyme scheme with a heroic couplet full of conviction, rhyming “done” with “son” to create a satisfying conclusion despite the horrific content of the final two lines.

Michael Longley reads Ceasefire

To better understand the sounds and pace of the poem, it is great to have the opportunity to listen to the poet introduce and read the story.

Context

Although the poem describes the legendary meeting between Priam and Achilles, Michael Longley was inspired to write “Ceasefire” when he heard rumours of the IRA’s intention to end their campaign of violence and declare a ceasefire in 1994.

The conflict in Northern Ireland, euphemistically called “The Troubles”, was brutal and relentless. The mainly catholic nationalists and republicans wanted a united Ireland while the mainly protestant unionists and loyalists believed Northern Ireland should remain a part of the United Kingdom. This political division quickly led to an armed struggle between paramilitary organisations, the police and British troops. Our analysis of Ciaran Carson’s “Belfast Confetti” is a good poem to explore the emotional impact of the conflict on young people growing up during this period.

More than 3,500 people were murdered, including civilians, between 1960 and 1998 when The Good Friday Agreement was signed, setting up a unique power-sharing assembly where Northern Ireland’s destiny would be decided by the democratic ballot box rather than the destructive bullet.

I sent it to The Irish Times in the hope that they would print it, in the hope that if they did print it somebody might read it and it might change the mind of one ditherer on the IRA council. And by coincidence the IRA did declare a ceasefire.

The connection between the Trojan War and the modern conflict can be seen in the poet’s deliberate use of the anachronistic “uniform” instead of “armour” to describe Hector’s clothes.

Longley understood the importance of meaningful dialogue’s role in ending the violence. He was also aware that Troy was ultimately destroyed by the Greeks, but he hoped a ceasefire in Northern Ireland would be more enduring

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