The Old Icons

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.

Representations of Irishmen of earlier times, each a political vignette, bringing with it the sad realisation that in Ireland Plus ça change plus c’est la même chose’. The pictures have iconic status. Heaney’s voice is dominant.

The speaker asks himself Why he has he clung onto three particular pictures so long after the events portrayed: when it was all over.

The first, an etching, is of a political prisoner, deliberately posed in defiance: A patriot withfolded arms in a shaft of light; there are other badges of honour: barred cell window … sentenced face. For Heaney the contemporary British internment without trial policy and hunger strikes have produced modern counterparts.

The second oleograph depicts banned Catholic practices of a previous age in the most trying conditions: snowy hills … outlawed priest; in the background the laboured arrival of the occupying forces of Protestant repression (redcoats) and in the middle ground the fleet-footed lookout coming like a fox to bring warning. The minority Catholic community in Ulster is still oppressed by fundamentalist Protestants who are seemingly favoured by the Law.

The third drawing depicts a historical gathering . Heaney knows the aftermath. The revolutionaries are sedition-mongers of unmistakeable middle-class Irish provenance (well turned out … clasped brogues and waistcoats) They have set themselves up for betrayal; their Judas, a known figure, poses in their midst (neat cuffs, third from the left, at rear). He stands out as different, more compelling than the rest. The betrayal he is hatching will benefit neither him nor the rest: his rack/ and others’ ruin.

The traitor by the very rhythm of his name has set a precedent for acts of betrayal that do incalculable damage: dear-bought treacheries/grown transparent now and inestimable. Informer is a dirty word in contemporary Ulster and carries summary punishment whenever discovered.

All three pictures commemorate Ireland’s unending cycles of violence.

  • icon: an image, picture or representation associated particularly with the Eastern (Byzantine) Church;
  • oleograph: reference to 19th century commercial colour reproduction using separate sets for separate colours in a step-by-step overlay method;
  • sedition wasa term used by government to describe conduct or language used to incite rebellion against it, or bringing the threat of civil disorder;
  • mongers: Old English reference to dealers and merchants (fishmonger, ironmonger) contains overtones of ‘disreputable’;
  • after the Insurrection Act of 1794 it became even more dangerous to express any kind of dissent; the traitor in this picture remains anonymous to the reader but infiltration and denunciation practised then were still common in 1970s Ulster;
  • brogues: a strong outdoor Irish shoe sometimes with leather decoration;
  • legend: beyondthe more obvious suggestion of ‘story of old,’ ‘narrative of a past event’ Heaney will be aware of the French légende that provides a key to interpreting something or a footnote comment including names;
  • neat-cuffs: the bottom of a shirt sleeve, perhaps with a button to secure it; the informer did not have ragged appearance;
  • rack and ruin: (late 16th century) the two components are all but synonymous (‘rack’ and ‘wrack’ meaning ‘wreckage); Heaney’s use opens up connotations of the Germanic word describing a barred frame upon which victims were tortured by stretching, the possible figurative fate of the informer;
  • Helen Vendler offers her eloquent take on the piece: ‘The poet contemplates a collection of pictures he cannot bear to throw away… one is an etching of a patriot in jail …. one is an oleograph of a clandestine outdoor mass in penal times … soon to be undone by the arrival of British soldiers; and the third is a drawing of a 1798 revolutionary committee soon to be betrayed by one of its members … though treachery will out, its results diffused through history remain, forever, incalculable Seamus Heaney (Harvard University Press,1998)(p103);
  • The last composition seems to epitomise Ireland’s history for Heaney … a continuing narrative of aspirations and treacheries … Though Heaney would like to believe he had outgrown these formative images, they clearly retain a grip on him … dear-bought is the reward of opting out (MPp207);
  • The much used French epigram Plus ça change plus c’est la même chose of Jean-Baptiste Karr (1849) (word-for-word translation ‘the more things change, the more they remain the same)springs repeatedly to mind in the Sweeney Redevivus section. Heaney might well despair that so little has changed;
  • 5 triplets preceded by a single line posing a question that is eventually answered;
  • 4 sentences containing a balance of enjambed line and variously positioned punctuation marks the choreography, the ebb and flow of oral delivery; line length of 10 and more syllables; unrhymed;
  • T1: save the imprisoned patriot all the nouns modified; T2: look for contrasts; colouring, human effort betraying political sympathy; the poet expresses a picture’s composition with great balance;
  • T3 offers local colour in the dress of the group; vocabulary stressing their search for freedom and its repercussions for them; the ‘Judas’ in their midst; T5 rises to a musical climax (inestimable) in its sequence of adjectives;
  • powerful adverb now drawing history and assessment of it into the present;
  • the music of the poem: thirteen 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 velar [k] of the title will maintain a strong presence in the first 13 lines; initial [w] breaths are soon replaced by stronger plosive sounds, alveolar [t] and emerging bilabial [b] [p]; into S(entence)2 fricative [s] increase in regularity and velar [k] recurs more prominently, joined after l.8 by nasal [m] [n]; in the final triplet listen for trilled [r] sounds and a clutch of alveolar [t];

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