The first piece follows the aftermath of a young man’s decision to ‘go with the spiritual flow’ and undertake the pilgrimage. A dissenting voice pressures him in vain to abandon the pilgrimage and urges him to overcome the orthodoxy of his upbringing.
The early-morning Sunday sounds that summon folk to worship are sudden and urgent: A hurry of bell notes, taking wing over morning hush. Landscape, climate and time of year are evident in the water-blistered cornfields. The fleeting sounds from the bell tower (an escaped ringing) hint at freedom but are quickly silenced.
Nature is in a suspense of anticipation: silence breathed unsettled by the appearance of a countryman, pre-Christian in appearance , carrying a bow-saw, held/ stiffly up like a lyre.
His movements are those of a man accustomed to the hazel bushes of field boundaries and ditchbacks; he is engaged in repeated tree-surgery and reveals his identity as a long dead figure from Heaney’s childhood.
The poet addresses him: ‘Simon Sweeney … an old Sabbath-breaker’ (indifferent to the Church’s teaching that man should do no work on Sundays). Sweeney’s response is curt: ‘Damn all you know’; you do not ‘know’ me at all: I was your mystery man as much then, alive, as now, a ghost.
Sweeney was an invisible presence. He recalls watching Heaney of First Communion age (the moment a boy was enrolled into the Church) adding sense data that give away his own tinker background: when woodsmoke sharpened the air/ or ditches rustled.
The clues he left were those of an animal that had scent-marked its territory: you sensed my trail there/ as if it had been sprayed.
He claims he was a bogeyman haunting the mind of the boy whose inability to fall asleep (bedroom dark … wind and rain in the trees) was caused by unsettling thoughts of tinkers camped/ under a heeled-up cart … wet axle and spokes and fear of a Sweeney figure making for his door streaming from the shower.
Heaney is startled from the confrontation by Sunlight … in the hazels, a second peal of quick bell notes (both hurried and ‘alive’) and, like a dream vision, the sight and sound of a new human presence: shawled women … wading the young corn,/ their skirts brushing softly.
The women’s collective will and onward movement saddened morning with its devotional appeal for forgiveness (‘Pray for us, pray for us’), forming, mystically through the air, a field of half-remembered faces, a random file: a loosed congregation/ that straggled past and on.
Heaney’s training has already committed him to join the line and accept the terms of the pilgrimage: ready to starve himself (a fasted pilgrim, light-headed), to accept solitude by leaving home, to ‘know his place’ on the first stage of a journey round the station-beds of the island site: to face into my station.
Simon Sweeney’s anti-religious outburst warns him off such an undertaking: ‘Stay clear of all processions’. All to no avail: the pull of orthodox piety demonstrated by the sounds of voices in close contact with nature: their feet slushing through/ the tender, bladed growth leaves him powerless to escape his Catholic training: a drugged path I was set upon.
And so very early in the day, before domestic fires were lit, he joins the column what was initially a straggle is now an obedient, ordered march: those early-risers … fallen into step.
As if to salute this triumph of orthodoxy The quick bell rang again.
- bow-saw: (also known as ‘buck-saw’); with a curved wooden frame and a wide blade for cutting wood;
- lyre:a stringed musical instrument originating from Greek classical antiquity and used later in other cultures;
- hazel: a relatively small deciduous tree common in Ulster;
- First Communion: an important Catholic ceremony; a person’s (often a youngster’s) first reception of the sacrament of the holy Eucharist; the event requires preparation and training;
- limbs: branches;
- heeled-up: when the horse has been released the two-wheeled cart sits angled backwards onto its ‘heel’ rather than forwards onto its more vulnerable shafts;
- fasted: who has not eaten either out of choice or following religious instruction;
- slushing: an onomatopoeic cocktail combining sound effects: water ‘sloshes’ about in a container; ‘slush’ is melting snow
- drugged: many words (as so often in Heaney’s poetry) merit second thought: on the one hand (‘drugged … set’) suggests that pilgrimage was a tool of Catholic training numbing the individual to obedience; on the other hand the constant and repeated use of the same pathway followed by worshippers would give it the worn-down, coarse texture of ‘drugget’;
- smokes: synecdoche: the smoke stands for the early morning fire lit by rural folk;
- In this prelude to pilgrimage Heaney recalls a ‘Sabbath breaker’, the refractory Simon Sweeney who utters an anti-religious message;his Simon Sweeney character was made up of 2 people: something of a composite: of a benevolent tinker man whom he never knew personally but whose caravan caused him a slight apprehension and a neighbour whom he did know, Charlie Griffin, who went about sawing bits off trees (DOD);
- Heaney is swept along by “a crowd of shawled women” onto “a drugged path / I was set upon.” “Set” is the reverberatory (sic) word here, for the poet is determined to go back, to get to the centre of his heritage, the place in which he, like an egg, was “set.”Shaun O’Connell: from the February 1985 issue of Boston Review
- Simon Sweeney, like his royal namesake (of ‘Sweeney Astray’), belongs to an Ossianic, pre-Christian Ireland ( ) embodies pagan energy and lyricism…Although at first bluntly dismissive of the poet, Sweeney’s final words demonstrate a concern for Heaney’s welfare(MP p193);
- The sequence begins with conflicting sounds in the air, the power of the Church pitched against ‘the older recalcitrant Celtic temperament’… the pagan energy of Simon Sweeney was a trail of thought and feeling Heaney had been taught to fear ( ) the pull of conventional piety is still too strong(MP p193);
16 quintets; the piece constructed in 17 sentences (S below); no rhyme scheme;
line lengths based on 6/7 syllables; opportunity for plentiful use of enjambment;
some use of direct speech;
- S1: imaginative collective noun ‘hurry of bell-notes’ speed of delivery, alongside sounds compared with released birds; S2 from sound to silence; oxymoron: silence (personified) can be heard; personification: silence can see; shape comparison: tool with classical musical instrument;
S3 craftsman at work; the concentration of ‘gaze’;
S4/S5 dialogue with a revenant, dead and not-dead;S7 age betrayed via religious rite of passage;
S8 rich in sense data: sight, smell and sound;
S10 Heaney creates an atmosphere of fear; 10 lines totally enjambed leading to its climax;
‘bell’ becomes a motif for conscience;
S11 introduces watery metaphors associated with Ulster fenland; S13: a time of day is alive with emotions; S13 the personifications continue: morning speaks, silence listens;
S13 shows time passing using adverbs past and on; S14: ‘station’ is a key word used to describe responsibility from religious duty to position in life;
S15: ‘slushing’: watery imagery pursued with added sound; language with dual intent: ‘drugged’ alludes to both preconditioning and addiction; ‘set upon’ both determined to follow and already engaged en route;
last of the compound nouns and adjectives in the text; metonymy: ‘smokes’ for fires; ‘quick’: both the hurry of the first line and the notion of being very much alive;
- the music of the poem: fourteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text:
- alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies:S1 is rich in alveolar and post alveolar fricatives [s] and [ʃ] with bi-labial plosive [p] [b] and velar plosive [k]; S2 retains alveolar [s] and with bi-labial plosive [p] [b], alongside approximant [l]; S3 uses paired plosives: bi-labial [p] [b], velar [[k] [g] with touches of continuant [h]; S4 carries through the nasals [m] [n] from S3, reprising alveolar [s] [z]; S5 continues with nasals [m] [n] with paired alveolar plosives [t] [d]; S6 is rich in nasals [m] [n]; S7 pairs velar plosives [g] [k] then introduces bilabial [w] that punctuates S8 alongside alveolar [t]; short S9 features labio-dental fricative [f]; long S10 starts with bilabial [b] and alveolar plosive [d] then combines alveolar [t] with voiceless dental fricative [θ] (think); then voiceless velar plosive [k] joins (s) variants [s] [z] [ʃ] (shut, shower); S11persists with the (s) variants combined with velar plosive [k] and bilabial [w]; in S12 find bilabial nasal [m]; in S13 initial sibilant [s] sounds give way to labio-dental fricative [f] and velar plosive [g]; in S14 listen for alveolar [d] and [l] then a group of velar plosive [g]; in S15 initial [s], alveolar nasal [n] and post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] (shout, slush) are superseded by alveolar plosives [t] [d] and paired dental fricative [θ] (growth, path); in S16 listen for (s) varaiants; the final S17 echoes velar plosives [k] [g];