Drifting Off

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. Sections 40 and 49 of ‘Sweeney Astray’ celebrate flora and fauna.

Heaney’s title offers multiple possibilities: floating on the wind; thinking about other things; falling asleep; losing track; losing concentration. The speaker responds to the characteristics of the various ornithological families that cross his flight path.

Firstly individuals: guttersnipe and albatross, birds with an epic quality (gliding for days without a single wingbeat) that puts them out of reach: beyond me.Such birds are not part of a community.

He turns to qualities that by implication he does not possess: the decisive gannet’s strike; the heron’s single-minded pursuit of prey with its impassive unbegrudging concentration.

Then birds in groups, friendly and unfriendly, with whom he feels equally at home:the camaraderie of rookeries … the spiteful vigilance of colonies.

Some birds are untrustworthy: the allure of the cuckoo … the gossip of starlings. Others possess courageous natures worthy of respect (doughty bullfinches). He has sparred with some: levelled my wit too often/ to the small-minded wren. Some birds took advantage of his caring nature: the pathos of waterhens/ and panicky corncrakes.

He expresses over-belief in some (stragglers that had lost their way) and overrated others: the composure of blackbirds … the folklore of magpies.

Finally on his list (and differing interpretations may apply to poet and/or birdman) the flashy, bright-coloured birds, that by some unwonted act (when goldfinch or kingfisher rent/ the veil of the usual) remind him of his poor public performance.

The body language that might suggest he is gathering to strike (pinions whispered and braced) might actually be indicative of the unlikely bird-of-prey he is: stooped, unwieldy/ and brimming (with false confidence). Alternatively the new persona will promise greater impact, despite appearances stooped,unwieldy ready for action (brimming)and prepared to swoop down on adversaries: my spurs at the ready.

  • guttersnipe: first of nearly a score of birds or their communal dwellings;
  • unbegrudging: without envy or jealousy;
  • allure: a characteristic that attracts, captivates;
  • doughty: range of nuances from ‘competent, ‘valiant’ to ‘fit’, ‘strong’;
  • small-minded: variously ‘petty’, ‘narrow-minded’;
  • pathos: something that arouses a response of pity or sorrow;
  • credence: from Medieval Latin word denoting ‘belief’ or ‘trust’;
  • composure: a state of tranquillity, calmness;
  • rent: past tense of16th century verb ‘rend’ meaning ‘rip’ ‘tear’;
  • pinion: Old French reference to a bird’s wing-joint and by extension the wing itself;
  • braced: tensed in preparation;
  • unwieldy: of 14th century derivation ‘moving without gracefulness’, ‘awkward’
  • brimming: generally of a container ‘filled to the very top’;
  • Heaney confirms the hybrid characterisation toDOD: he felt that Australian poet friend Vincent Buckley didn’t altogether like the Sweeney Redevivus poems especially the clean pair of heels Heaney/ Sweeney was showing in ‘First Flight’ and ‘Drifting Off’ (p261);
  • allegory is typical of the sequence (in this piece it concerns) ornithological correspondences ( ) Heaney’s move from Belfast to Glanmore (can be read) as a bird’s migration (NCp129):
  • commentators including NC have suggested that in setting out the different human or poetic qualities of the birds in this fable Heaney will have people in mind whom he identifies with each breed;
  • 9 triplets in 6 sentences; variable line length between 3 and 10 syllables; unrhymed;
  • copious use of enjambment that helps, as in music, to vary the tempi and mood associated with the various families of avian;
  • in T1 vocabulary of effortlessness that is beyond me in a dual sense: beyond my flying capacity/ my understanding; T2 the heron’s patient immobility: unbegrudging concentration; T3 T4 illustrate contrasting tensions between different groupings;
  • overall the vocabulary selected results from close observation; the birds are described in human terms;
  • the observer’s emotions are woven into the assessments;
  • the music of the poem: fourteen 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.
  • in T(riplet 1 ) listen for pairs of bilabial plosives [p] [b] and alveolar counterparts [t] [d] joined in T2 by velar [g] [k] , the latter carried into T3 with the addition of velar [l], itself echoing in T4 alongside velar [k] [g]; T5 adds velar [l] and introduces nasals [m] [n]; T6 settles on bilabial [p] and velar [k] in tandem; in T7 listen for the [r] trills; T8 uses labio-dental [f] [v] in tandem with bilabial plosives [b] [p]; the final T with sibilants [s] is rounded off with [r] trills;

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