A Waking Dream

The Sweeney Redevivus poems are fascinating in terms of voicing. In his notes Heaney indicates that they are ‘voiced for Sweeney’ but this does not and cannot exclude the poet’s participation. Each poem resembles a piece of music with a background accompaniment and two voices that pick up the melody in turn or together; the mood of each piece varies as does its ensemble effect on the listener’s ear and the reader’s sensibility.

Sharing Sweeney status has changed everything. Old patterns will no longer work. The oxymoron of the title sets out the ease with which one forgets this new reality. An ‘old wives’ tale told that a bird could be caught by sprinkling salt on its tail; the new reality dictates otherwise: he takes off. How will ideas with a poetic charge be captured now?

The rush to sprinkle salt on the bird’s tail creates the momentum for lift-off: the long treadles of the air/ took me in my stride.

Being airborne raises him above everyday life, becomes effortless (beyond exerted breath) and places the flier beyond the reach and unexpected interference of others: the cheep and blur of trespass and occurrence.

The speaker discovers the parallel (As if) of someone who awakened (came to) from imaginings that occurred after he fell asleep (dropped off), dreams that cast a shadow of uncertainty over his wakened state (suspecting the very stillness of the sunlight).

  • treadles: foot operated levers as, for example, in a pilot’s cockpit;
  • trespass: the context makes the poet’s intention hard to catch; in addition to the standard idea of ‘transgression’, ‘offence’ and ‘sinning’, Old French trépasser offers the literal idea of ‘passing across’ even ‘dying’;
  • occurrence: Middle French adds the idea of ‘unexpected happening’;
  • how much is the poem to do with poetic composition (likening it to an attempt to catch a bird by throwing salt on its tail)?
  • Subconscious thoughts that leap from one scene to the next without apparent logic lay bare the erratic nature of poetic charges that flash across the poet’s consciousness.
  • 7 lines in a single stanza composed of 2 sentences; line length between 7 and 12 syllables; unrhymed;
  • considerable use of enjambed lines;
  • the title is an oxymoron: the speaker is both asleep/ distracted and awake/ alert;
  • initial time clause moves the dreamer from a surreal intention to its unexpected Sweeney-like outcome;
  • treadles: technical yet poetic comparison describing the succeeding air pressures that lead from forward motion to take-off;
  • the birdman does not break sweat: beyond exerted breath;
  • Heaney delivers the panic caused by the unexpected invasion of another’s space and the passing insecurity immediately following wakefulness using sound and sight images;
  • As if transmits the unreality of the situation with its succeeding subjunctive (not actually visible in ‘came to’);
  • the music of the poem: eleven assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhyme , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text:

  • Analysis of Heaney’s poems reveals how deliberately he seeks alliterative effects that allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify his assonant melodies. Heaney deliberately deploys pairs or clusters of like consonants; these come and go as the poem develops, entering the sound narrative, dropping out or reappearing at interval; he rings the changes.
  • the piece is rich in (s) (z) (sh) variants; the consonant sounds within the title (breaths of [w], velar [k] and alveolar [d]) are echoed later alongside beats of alveolar [t] and late pair of alveolar [l];

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