In the Beech

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.

The Sweeney Heaney voice speaks from a treetop; below is Heaney’s pre-D-Day world of the 1943-4. The unseen bird-person imagines he is playing a strategic military rôle: a lookout posted and forgotten.

Man-made new and rural old are side by side: the concrete road … the bullocks’ covert, the latter a source off refreshment (the breath and plaster of a drinking place) but also a scene of adolescent sexual discovery (touch himself) amidst the odours of country life: in the reek of churned-up mud.

The beech tree evokes twin feelings (a strangeness and a comfort), seen as a double emblem (both solid structure and tree: as much a column as a bole). The ivy that criss-crossed it with new growth (puzzled its milk-tooth frills and tapers/ over the grain) seemed either man-made or natural: bark or masonry?

Over time the tree-top witness observed human encroachment (I watched the brick-red chimney rear/ its stamen course by course) and ant-sized builders: steeplejacks up there at their antics/ like flies against the landscape.

He watched preparations for the invasion of France in June 1944 measuring progress against the tree itself (the cynosure of the growth rings); he shrank in fear at the power of rebuilt American tanks (their imperium refreshed), the evidence of their huge weight: the powdered bolt mark left on the road surface. An incoming plane flew so low that he could discern the pilot with his goggles back and pick out the tiniest detail: the cockpit rivets.

The tree is both landmark and emblem: bark-covered and single-purpose (hidebound), a bridge between the twin worlds of Sweeney Heaney . It links fiction and fact, a boundary tree/ tree of knowledge); firmly rooted(thick-tapped) with delicate feathery foliage(soft-fledged); it offers a lofty vantage point from which to learn what is going on (airy listening post); finally, unreservedly it is his/ their own (My … My … My).

  • lookout: a person who stands watch;
  • covert: originally Old French; a hidden place;
  • bole: a tree-trunk; etymological sources suggest some association with the male erection implicit in other textual double-entendres;
  • milk-tooth: a child earliest or first teeth;18th century reference suggests figurative use for the ‘period of infancy’;
  • tapers: shoots that grow ever more slender;original reference to slender candles;
  • stamen: the organ of a flower that bears the pollen;
  • course: in the building-trade each level of bricks is referred to as a ‘course’;
  • steeplejacks: skilled workers who scale tall steeples, towers and chimneys to carry out precarious repairs;
  • cynosure: literally ‘dog’s tail’, originally to do with the stars and navigation at sea; so ‘guiding star’ or something that serves as a focal point for the eye or the imagination;
  • imperium: (Latin noun) ‘power’ or ‘supreme authority’;
  • hidebound: originally to do with emaciated animal skin through which the bones protruded, extended (c.1700) to people who were ‘restricted by their narrow attitude’;
  • tapped: allusion to principal root, taproot;
  • fledged: ‘fledge’, the feathers that enable the young bird to fly;
  • Heaney confirms his presence in the local pre-D-Day world of 1943. DODcommented: hiding in trees! Were you a loner? Seamus Heaney replied: I remember much of my childhood as a trance of loneliness and in those places something in me was utterly at peace … No wonder the end of the Sweeney Redevivus cycle ends in a cave in the Dordogne. Heaney also tells how planes flew over their garden(p263);
  • young poet perches in the frontier tree between old rural ways and the modern military industrialism of wartime air-force bases;
  • a poem about being on the frontier; the twin voice responds to the ‘what was’ and the ‘what is’. The ‘what-is’ is about post 1945 development and the onset of progress, a take-over with military precision and irresistible power by tanks and trains; the ‘what was’ is a rural environment in which an adolescent went through puberty including touching himself in the bullock’s covert; phallic symbolism might be read into other words in the text (‘column’, things that ‘rear’);
  • paradoxically the tree he is in is actually under threat from the milk tooth frills and tapers of the ivy plant even though to the youngster they appear to bolster the beech’s solidity;
  • Heaney pays tribute the beech tree as a source of privileged information;
  • 22 lines of poetry in 6 stanzas of contrasting length; 11 sentence construct
  • line length between 6-11 syllables; unrhymed;
  • in S(tanza)1/2 the watcher is depicted as a ‘classical’ sentinel; masculinity and virile energy are shared by adolescent and animal alike; age referred to obliquely; smell data included;
  • S(tanza)3 is suggestive of erections of different types; antithesis: ‘a strangeness and a comfort’; natural life is personified: climbing plants with ‘milk-tooth frills’;

in S4 modernity grows as profusely as plants; simile: builders and insects;

  • in S5 war-time activity intermingled with vocabulary of more classical derivation; transferred epithet: it is the concrete that is reduced to powder;
  • tribute to the Beech tree both literal and metaphorical; use of compound adjectives that contain more than one idea;
  • 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.
  • S(entence)1 is rich in alveolar plosive [t]; in S2 listen for voiceless alveolar fricative [s], voiceless velar plosive [k], alveolar [l] alongside [t] and [tʃ] (ch); in S3-4 listen for [dʒ] (strange), labio-dental plosives [f] [v] and the plural voiced alveolar fricative [z] alongside bilabial nasal [m]; in S5 initial alveolar trills [r] are replaced by velar [k] and alveolar [t]; in S7 note repeated [s] and post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] with breaths of [w] and paired plosives, bilabial [p] [b] then velar [k] [g]; the final sentences features bilabial plosive [b] and alveolar pair [t][d];

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