In the Chestnut Tree

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.

An unseen observer looks down from the chestnut tree in which he has landed. The female figure who appears might have stepped straight out of a Renaissance painting, maybe one actually seen by Heaney and reworked as a canvas in words.

The sylvan setting gives human presence away: Body heat under the leaves.The subject is a woman; she is not young: matronly … a queen in her fifties.Her actions are sensual, to do with adjusting her clothing: slippage and hoistings. She settles her plump body (spreads) in the hazy light (pool of the day) Her background is one of opulence and privilege: purses and earrings.

Sweeney/ Heaney’s question is rhetorical: his lean-shanked and thorny appearance will be a matter of indifference to this biblical figure of a woman (old firm-fleshed Susannah) standing in the water over her belly showing off her skin colourings (soapy and white) and her chubby frame (parts of her blunting).

A symbol of human mortality is also present: the little bird of death/ piping and piping,emitting from its beautifully feathered throat (her gorgeous tackling) a song to warn the bather of her fleeting earthly existence.

The languid figure will not allow such considerations to interfere with her pleasure: She breathes deep and stirs up the algae.

  • slippage: the downward, sliding movement of one surface over another;
  • hoistings: the same movement in reverse;
  • lean-shanked: with skinny legs;
  • Susannah: of the several Renaissance canvases of Susannah and the Elders, the version by Il Tintoretto (1560-2) offers a key to this piece. The biblical subject, Susanna, a young Jewish wife, was secretly desired by two elders of the community, who plotted together to seduce her. After her refusal to take part and a false accusation she was charged and condemned to die, but at the last minute the youthful Daniel (the future prophet and author of the Old Testament Book in which the tale appears) cross-examined the elders and established Susanna’s innocence. She bears some resemblance to Sweeney’s wife Eorann of Sweeney Astray who for all her expressed devotion to him had taken another partner; see Sweeney Astray sections 32 and 55;
  • In Heaney’s word-canvas the religious elders are replaced by two peeping-Toms;
  • blunting: literallytaking the edge off;
  • bird of death: Tintoretto’s version provides a bird witnessing the scene;
  • gorgeous: ‘splendid’, but retaining the French gorge referring to the bosom or throat
  • tackling: whilst the originally sense of the ‘rigging of a ship’ would not fit the context literally, the sense of elegance, say of feathered wing structure may well do;
  • algae: organisms found growing in both fresh and salt water;
  • a sonnet, 7 couplets composed in 5 sentences, of which 3 in the final couplet; line length between 5 and 10 syllables; unrhymed;
  • balance between enjambed lines and other punctuation marks;
  • 2 questions, the second to do with mortality where indolent pleasure superseded serious thought;
  • look out for vocabulary; that suggests indolence and languor; that illustrates the privileged life of the subject protected from outdoor activity; that alludes to her mature age and body-shape;
  • neat description of upward and downward movement in C1;
  • adjectives used to describe the underprivileged in C3 illustrate the woman’s haughty indifference to such people;
  • verbs describing the mortality-bird are both associated with colour: piping is both a sound and a decorative device; tackling appears to be a neologism coined perhaps for its allusion to the decorative feathers surrounding the bird’s throat;
  • the final line epitomizes a languor that freezes the canvas in time;
  • the music of the poem: nine 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 consonant sounds of the title are echoed in S(entence)1: alveolars (plosive [t] and fricative [s]) take in emerging voiceless bi-labial plosive [p];in S2 listen for velar [k] pair, alliterative labio-dental [f] of firm-fleshed and emerging bilabial [b] alongside [p] both carried into S3; the final couplet employs voiced velar plosive [g] and (s) variants;

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