An Artist

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.

Heaney selects Paul Cézanne as his subject transporting us to the landscape in which the artist dwelt and worked. Just such a site exists in France’s Provence area: the Sainte-Victoire mountain, a bare, glistening monolith, dominates the countryside in which Cézanne executed many of his canvases. The artist is not named but Heaney provides a series of clues relating to artistic technique and local colour.

The speaker admires the artist: his grumpy nature (I love the thought of his angers).The images are of a man as obdurate as the stone he was painting (His obstinacy against the rock) and (a clue to Cézanne’s 1870s period) of a man determined to achieve liquid definition in his fruit studies: his coercion/ of the substance from green apples.

Heaney portrays Cézanne as an artist with sense of territory bordering on the pathological (he was a dog barking/ at the image of himself barking) and noted his loathing for his own work ethic (hatred of his own embrace/ of working as the only thing that worked). To this he added Cézanne’s contempt for thanks or compliment (the vulgarity of expecting ever/ gratitude or admirationbecause somehow he felt it diminished both him (a stealing from him) and his approach to his art: the way his fortitude held and hardened/ because he did what he knew.

The hurled boule analogy of the strength and imagination that drove Cézanne’s creativity (canvases of apple and mountain) took him beyond the earth’s gravitational pull, made of him a star travelling unpainted space as yet untouched by his artist’s brush.

  • obstinacy: stubborn determination, persistence;
  • coercion: originally ‘control’ or ‘restraint’, later idea of ‘persuading an unwilling person by use/threat of force’;
  • fortitude: Latin ”fortis, ‘strong’, ‘brave’; so ‘strength’, ‘firmness;’
  • boule: allusion to the weighty metal ball thrown towards the jack in the French game of boules;
  • Seamus Heaney offers his view of Cézanne: his grumpy contrary old back turned on us ( ) the one I’ve lived with, the one rewarded with those incontrovertible paintings, so steady in themselves they steady you and the world – and you in the world.’(DOD p262)
  • referring to Cézanne (who proved capable of change moving from Impressionist beginnings into Post-Impressionism) and leaving the group with whom he painted to go solo) : Like Heaney an admirer of “wonderful balance and perfection” achieved by the old classic masters (MP p207);
  • Heaney’s respect for the artist’s technique and impact gives him super-status; see also William Wordsworth in Wordsworth’s Skates (District and Circle);
  • Heaney records that When I wrote ‘The Artist’ I was reading Rilke’s letters about his infatuation with Cézanne and some of his words are included (DOD (p263);
  • As the collection moves to its close Heaney strives to lay down a base and a basis ( ) Cézanne seems to encapsulate many of the qualities he aspires to – fortitude, energy an unrelenting, uncompromising dedication to Art’ (MP p207);
  • sonnet form; piece divided into 3 stanzas and composed as 6 sentences; line length between 6 and 10 syllables; unrhymed save 2 loose rhymes;
  • enjambed lines and full stops work in tandem;
  • paradox: Heaney’s love for Cézanne stands in stark contrast to the artist who seemed to have had little love for himself;
  • S1: vocabulary of unrelenting hardness chosen to illustrate inner personality and confirm it via artistic treatment of subject-matter;
  • S2: simple yet complex comparison artist/ dog/ reflection of artist/ dog; initial love/ hate paradox carried through using vocabulary that rejects the admiration of others and amounts to psychological hang-up;
  • clues to identity the French connection (boule/ mountain); image of an artistic craftsman whose skill takes him into orbit, giving him a beyond-this-worldliness later repeated in the case of Wordsworth in District and Circle; final juxtaposition of the ordinary and the extraordinary: unpainted space/ apple/ mountain;
  • the music of the poem: tyhirteen 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.
  • S(entence)1 combines bilabial plosive [p] [b] with velar equivalents [k] [g] alongside alveolar [t]; in S2/3 listen for breaths of [w], echoes of [k] [g] and the regular beat of nasal [m];
  • S4/5: repeated continuant [h] accompanies labiao-dental fricative [f]and emerging bilabial [p] [b] and final line nasals;

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