On the Road

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.

Heaney will confirm he is on the path to renewal.

He is adept at titles. The speaker is on a literal journey behind the wheel of his car. At the same time, in this his ‘book of changes’ (line 70), the poet is on his way, ‘on the road’ to where he wants to be, to what he wants to become.

Onward progress comes to meet him: The road ahead ..reeling in at a steady speed; splashy Irish climate is all around: the verges dripped. The feel of the steering wheel in his hands is symbolic of a hard-won victory like a wrested trophy.

The driver’s mind wanders, entering a trance state that made all roads one transporting him lyrically to two favoured holiday haunts eight hundred miles apart: the idyllic seraph-haunted, Tuscan/ footpath of Italy and green/ oak alleys of Dordogne in France.

On a third track through corn, Heaney comes across the rich young man (already appearing in previous pieces, not unlike himself, blessed with health and intelligence if not material wealth but plagued with guilt-feelings of having not done things right, desperate to learn what changes and sacrifices must be made: Master, what must I/ do to be saved?)Such would be the question the sinner might routinely ask of God and part of Heaney’s Catholic training.

Or introduces the final road on which ten years before his and Sweeney ‘s lives became intertwined, where the poet became aware of an overhead, airborne presence seeking to speak to him: the bird with an earth-red back…/ wheeled over me in visitation. In short the moment when change became a possibility.

The reply is taken directlyfrom The Acts of the Apostles: Sell all you have/ and give to the poor.

Sweeney is already deprived of everything; he has nothing to sell but he does have a destiny to meet. The energised ‘voice’ is up and away escaping into Sweeney-time: like a human soul/ that plumes from the mouth celebrating existence to a different medieval music: undulant, tenor/ black-letter latin.

The resultant flight involves both personae. Sympathy for Noah’s dove might suggests that better times lie ahead as their frantic flight unfolds but the shadow/ crossing the deerpath (the track followed by the creature that will feature in the prehistoric cave drawings in the poem’s final lines and doubles as the nervous ‘deer of poetry’ first met in this collection in A Migration) is still panicked.

Churches might offer a landing site. If I came to earth then it was via an unorthodox entrance (by way of/ a small east window/ I once squeezed through).Orthodox faith is being replaced (scaling heaven/ by superstition) and the birdman is becoming indifferent to the Church’s judgement: drunk and happy on a church gable.

Nights spent on the slab of exile would bring dejection. He would flee human contact in a cleft of that churchyard wall and watch from there the cold unpromising stonework on which queues of superstitious devotees could be observed making vows: hand after hand … wearing away/ at the cold, hard-breasted/ votive granite.

Jesus’ injunction to follow me sends Sweeney/ Heaney not upwards in search of Heaven but downwards into a subterranean cave-world reminiscent of the Dordogne. The collection will end where it started, underground.They descend through a high cave mouth into an oaten sun-warmed cliff( ) to the deepest chamber. They experience the sounds, touch and textures of darkness,: soft-nubbed (the texture of rock), clay floored (the feel of foot-fall), face-brush (the touch of cobwebs), wing-flap (the presence of bats).

They find discover the evidence of human endeavour from pagan pre-historic times preserved on the cave walls: a drinking deer … cut into the rock. Close examination reveals an animal at one with the surface it was incised into: haunch and neck rise with the contours ( ) outline curves. The poet senses kinship: a face that expresses the shortcomings of previous experience: strained/ expectant muzzle … nostril flared/ at a dried-up source.

In a collection that represents a poet’s journey from old existence to renewed self (my book of changes) the deer is hugely significant. The old, cold stone-faced vigil of obedient conformity is suddenly shattered when, in the poet’s imagination, the still-life creature suddenly takes life (the long dumbfounded/ spirit broke cover), shaking up what has been stale and debilitating: to raise a dust/ in the font of exhaustion.

  • wrested: acquired after a show of strength involving wrenching and pulling;
  • trophy: originally (1600s) referring to ‘spoils’, ‘things won in war’, an ’emblem’, ‘monument of victory’;
  • seraph: first used by John Milton (1667) literally ‘burning one’, suggestive of burning, winged angels;
  • Tuscan: from the Italian region of Tuscany;
  • Dordogne: area of south-western France rich in cave systems; the best example, perhaps, at Lascaux features deer on its walls; also a popular tourist destination for the British;
  • parquet: patterned wooden flooring as opposed to mosaic (of tiles, stone);
  • flint: a hard rock that could be worked into Stone-Age tools and artefacts;
  • jet: a semi- precious deep black lignite rock, used for polished, decorative items;
  • undulant: (derived from and) resembling the shape of waves ( Latin undae)
  • tenor: high male voice;
  • black-letter: script referred to as black letter (not confined to black in colour) indicates a time change of some 500 years from Roman period Latin to Gothic times coinciding broadly with the transcriptions taking place in monasteries;
  • Noah’s Dove: from Genesis; the bird sent out twice from the Ark by Noah that returned bearing an olive leaf, demonstrating that the Flood was receding;
  • nubbed: reference to the non-smooth, lumpy surface of objects
  • drinking deer: cave paintings such as those found at Lascaux in the Dordogne area featured deer amongst the selection; they are not confined to Lascaux, of course;
  • what must I do to be saved?: (Acts 16 v.30), the jailer’s (the sinner’s) question in the search for salvation;
  • sell all you have … And follow me: Jesus’s injunction reported in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and John;
  • muzzle: snout or nose;
  • book of changes: On the Road may be read as a kind of summary of Heaney’s career to date and the statement of an intention for the future as it inherits and brings to fulfilment the volume’s imagery of journeying, pilgrimage, quest and migration … space suddenly filled by a rich young man’s question about salvation (NC p132);
  • flared nostril:a sign ofanimal instinct that smells water even when the natural spring has run dry;
  • font: Latin word (fons) for ‘fountain’, ‘basin’, later adopted by the Church for baptism;in this poem the figurative low point from which new inspiration may rise;
  • This closing poem witnesses the second appearance of ‘the rich young
    man'(whose material security gets in the way of spiritual development) who in his search for salvation must dispose of everything he possesses;
  • Flight leads into the realm of art in the shape of cave drawings;
  • Perhaps the arid font offers some promise of renewal; the point of desolation from which new inspiration may arise;if much of Heaney ‘s previous work is from a dried up source then a high degree of directed energy and effort will be required to fashion further change and development;
  • the instruction to the ‘rich young man’ whether it is made in the realm of religion or of art and whether a response to it is a real possibility or a chimera is one that haunts the poem(NC p127);
  • Heaney’s earlier source is now dried up … Sweeney’s has become the name for a restless dissatisfaction with the work already done ( ) for what Helen Vendler has called ‘the breaking of style’ (Harvard University Press 1995) a Sweeney ‘morse’ that will never be quite absent from future work (NC p134);
  • On the Road’ starts with sensual enjoyment of nature before a moral brake is applied; (as regards) what constitutes an exemplary life ( ) the role models are far more likely to be artists than religious ( ) the rich young man, largely because of the gifts accruing from his Catholic home and education, makes the break with the faith of his fathers even harder ( ) he can never be utterly free of the Word which caused and enabled his flight( ) The very images he employs emphasize his cultural and linguistic indebtedness ( ) figures drawn from medieval monasticism (‘black letter latin’) ( ) the panicked shadow/ crossing the deerpath of poetry. Heaney seeks a move away from his fixed past – fifteen years of violence, alienation and growth- to learning how to stand his ground ‘determinedly in the local plight’; ( ) a roosting place abroad ( ) delicate fluent picture of a deer drinking … another image of his old self ( ) the promise of a fresh identity (MP p209);
  • Station Island is a book of changes bringing to completion the first stage of Heaney’s poetic development: far from aridity, the final images are generative (MP p210);
  • 19 quartets forming 13 complete sentences; line length between 3 and 8 syllables; unrhymed;
  • considerable use made of enjambed lines in a piece that contains quotation and a question;
  • Q1 contains a cinematic trick based around a fishing image;
  • Q2: comparison steering wheel/ a hard-won prize; Q3/4 offer mental pictures of 2 particular geographical areas; compound adjectives allude in the first case to its mythological associations and, in the second, to its prolific tree; the third ‘area’ is spiritual with a question as yet unanswered; the final area is Sweeney’s dramatised world of Irish myth and fiction: adjectives describe, colour, texture;
  • Q8 comparison: poet/ birdman Sweeney lookalike/ character from a story told in pictures; weave of emotions taking in classical, biblical and medieval allusions;
  • the Sweeney voice predominates in Q10 describing events from ‘Sweeney Astray’; lines rich in enjambment calling for sustained smooth delivery;
  • Q14 transports both figures from Ireland to the Dordogne; climate vocabulary; the sense data of compound adjectives accompany the cave descent;
  • Q16-19 paint the picture of the cave drawing of the deer that is/ was the catalyst for the change that has taken place within the speaker; initial description is replaced by signs of imminent reaction to the aridity of context/ personal circumstances;
  • the still-life image will, film-like, take life and ignite Heaney’s need for something ‘different’;
  • 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 Q(uatrain)1 the voiced alveolar [d] of the title re-echoes and is carried through alongside its voiceless [t] counterpart; fricative [s] will carry over into Q2 alongside a cluster of [r] trills; in Q3 [t] [d] are carried through and labio-dental fricative [f] introduced; in Q4 listen for the strong presence of velar [k]; Q5 offers alveolar [d] and Q6 breaths of [w] into Q7 alongside labio-dental [f] [v]; nasals [m] [n] are a strong presene in Q8 and alveoalr [l] added; the fricative [s] of Q9 is joined by velar [k] carried into Q10 and beyond initially with bilabial [w] and a cluster of alveolar [s]; in Q13/14 listen for velar [k] and labio-denatl plosive pair [f] [v] preceding a cluster of nasals particularly bilabial [m];
  • the prominent alveolar [d] of Q15 carries into 16, interwoven initially with bilabials [p] [b] and a cluster of labio-dental [f]; Q16 is rich in velar [k];
  • in Q18 listen for alveolars [t] [d] and a chorus of nasals; labio-dental [f] and its voiced pairing [v] recur across the final 8 lines alongside a final cluster of alveolar [s]; in the midst a strong combination of alveolar plosives [t] [d].

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