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.

A tale of two hollies, a ‘then’ and a ‘now’ that share a pagan symbol of Christmas-time. The outdoor landscape of an exiled Sweeney contrasts with the indoor comfort of Heaney’s living-room fireside.

On the first occasion neither the weather nor the hollybush were of required standard: It rained when it should have snowed / There should have been berries. Nature was inundated: the ditches / swimming, we were wet/ to the knees / water ran up our sleeves.The bush resisted being picked: our hands were all jags.

The berryless sprigs retained a threatening image: gleamed like smashed bottle-glass.

Now the boyhood figures ranging the countryside at the mercy of the elements are replaced by an older, sedentary voice. Holly has its contemporary Christmas card face on: a room … decked/ with the red-berried, waxy-leaved stuff. Exposure to the weather and the desire for a white Christmas are both things of the past: almost forgot what it’s like/ to be wet to the skin or longing for snow.

Ensconced by the fireside I reach for a book like a doubter in search of a new certainty, looking for it to set the world alight (flare round my hand), but not a biblical ‘burning bush‘ (of Catholic orthodoxy), something fresh, a black-letter text reflecting the Sweeney inheritance. What he needs is something coldly trenchant and steely sharp: cutting as holly and ice.

  • jags: a Heaney adaptation describing items with toothed edges and sharp points;
  • 8 couplets arranged in 5 sentences; line length between 7 and 9 syllables; unrhymed;
  • enjambed lines and full stops in tandem;
  • initial time clause and use of modal auxiliary should (later repeated)that expresses an unfulfilled longing/ condition;
  • vocabulary of touch associated with wetness and use of gravity-defying preposition: water ran up: simile holly/ glass is designed to introduce a light effect;
  • C5 describes stereotype, Christmas-card holly; use of compound adjectives to inject colour and texture; fleeting recall of the feelings of the child that was;;
  • C7the poet as reader seeking something miraculous from his reading matter; comparison: this reader is a doubter; further use of compound adjectives; final simile: he wants the book to to be as trenchant, sharp as his Christmas icons;
  • the music of the poem: twelve 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 S(entence)1 listen for breaths of bilabial [w] and alveolar nasal [n]; S2 adds bilabial plosive pairing [p] [b] alongside [s] and [ʃ] (sh); in S3 listen for velar plosive pair [k] [g] that will carry into the final four lines that feature a mixture of plosives with a late cluster of emphatic alveolar [t];

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