Sweeney Redevivus

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.

Change is stirring. Enter Sweeney himself revived, homeless and/or the Heaney look-alike we met in Loaning III (I stirred wet sand and gathered myself)preparing for an imminent uphill struggle. A new position has to be established despite the mind-set of old that resembles a ball of wet twine, a tough, strong interlacing of water-tightened thread dense with soakage. and the fibre beginning to unravel. The twine like the characters is two-stranded.

The speaker can sniff change in the air: Another smell from the Ulster/ Irish landscape of flax processing bitter/ as night airs in a scutch-mill. Over the thirteen centuries that separate exiled king and modern poet the whole landscape has altered: The old trees were nowhere,/ the hedges thin as penwork; the open land betrays evidence of Man’s presence: hard paths ( ) sharp ridged houses.

The final triplet confirms the hybrid: each ‘twin’ can barely recognise himself: incredible to myself. One persona issurprised that his 7th century life was recorded as a legend and that Heaney has chosen to bring him back to life; the other ponders the contradictions that accompany persona development and the similarities in their twin existences: among people far too eager to believe me/ and my story, even if it happened to be true (Sweeney was a known historical figure)

  • redevivus: brought back to life, revived;
  • twine: a double-threaded (cf ‘twin’), tough string or thread; the interlacing aspect is part of the image;
  • scutch mill: a building, once a common Ulster sight; part of the flax process traditionally driven by water-wheels;
  • enclosure: historical reference to ‘privatised’ agricultural land claimed from common land and taken over by landowners; the enforced change to traditional rights of access is coloured by the history of force and resistance associated with it;
  • Sweeney is the name for a legend, … a congruence of impulses unlike the face of Heaney hitherto perceived;
  • a sonnet constructed in 4 sentences;
  • lines of variable length; no rhyme scheme;
  • the combination of punctuation and enjambed lines determines the flow and rhythm of oral delivery;
  • extended metaphor comparing head and ball of twine; the speaker’s previous mindset is associated with watery liquid state; twine image interlaces two separate strands: Heaney and Sweeney;
  • use of vocabulary contrasts what is gone, old …thin ..lost; with what is new: a starker reality bitter …hard …sharp;
  • sense data extend to smell;
  • composed ‘Sweeney’ landscape is very visual;
  • themusic 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.
  • Listen in the first sentence for voiceless alveolar fricative [s] and alveolar plosives [t] [d] to which are added velar plosive [k], bilabial [w] and alveolar nasal [n]
  • S2 persists with alveolar [t]; in S3 listen for continuant [h] sounds and aspirates; also variant (s): [s] [z] [ʃ] (sh);
  • the final sentence features bilabial nasal [m] alongside bilabial plosives [p] [b], veal [k] [g] and a final cluster of alveolar [t];

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