Sweeney’s Returns

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 explores the emotional reactions of his exiled king whose voice is dominant in the poem. In Sweeney Astray exile has torn Sweeney away from his wife Eorann (who in the legend takes another partner).The frustration of his separation and the enduring nature of physical attraction are picked up in the piece.

The speaker is in flight. Fleeting breaks in the cloud suggest he is not far from ‘home’: they would tatter a moment to reveal a familiar Ulster landscape (green peninsulas, cattle/ dormant roadways) and awaken memories of intimate domestic lie-ins in darkened bedroom (dawn-fending blind) that generate images of sexuality: clothes half-slipped ( ) eyelids glister and burgeon.

The voyeur lands and peeps in (perched on the sill), to gaze at a memory-rich scene from which he was excluded: my coffers of absence.

The ban imposed on him places him like a scout at risk behind (enemy) lines exposing him to the torment of the thrill he feels in the pit of his stomach: the throb of his breakthrough/ going on inside him unstoppably.

There is visible evidence that the woman in his life was here (a bangle lay in the sun) but a suggestion that she has ‘packed her bags’: the fleshed hyacinth had begun to divulge. She has left things in an orderly fashion (tucked and level bed).

In the bedroom mirror Sweeney sees the image of himself, not as he was, but as the emotionally tortured exile he has become: I floundered in my wild reflection.

  • tatter: offering a picture of ragged, ripped textile;
  • dawn-fending: cf. ‘fend off’ meaning ‘resist’ or ‘deflect’;
  • glister; related to ‘glisten’, to ‘shine’ or ‘glitter’;
  • burgeon: a poetic reference to a flourishing plant’s blossom;
  • coffers: 13th century Old French derivation: ‘chests’, ‘containers’;
  • bangle: exotic ringed bracelet of eastern derivation;
  • floundered: the notion of ‘sank in water’ amounts to ‘struggled to swim, survive’;
  • Heaney explores the reactions of his exiled king Sweeney whose voice is dominant in the poem’ In Sweeney Astray;
  • the poem is heavy with sexual frustration. Despite the risk of breaking his ‘bail conditions’ and trying to manufacture a sighting of her, Sweeney’s sexual impulses drive him on;
  • 3 sextets; 4 complete sentences 2 of them divided by hyphen and colon;
  • line length between 5 and 11 syllables; unrhymed;
  • in S1 Heaney uses the noun tatter as an intransitive verb; elements of the landscape are personified: dormant roadways; look out for language full of sensual suggestiveness; 2 compound adjectives the second containing a personification in the physical act of an inanimate object: dawn-fending blind;
  • image of intervening events that have been assembled in a container: coffers of absence;
  • military image: parallel risks run by a soldier and a birdman driven by lust;
  • S3 returns to use of sensual language; multiple connotations of divulge: to give out a scent; to give out information; to disclose a secret;
  • final drowning imagery and allusion to madness;
  • the music of the poem: eleven 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 the first 12 lines the consonant sounds of the title (alveolar fricative [s] and plosive [t] will echo strongly alongside the strong pairing of velar plosive [k] [g]; listen for the pair of [dʒ] in imagined and burgeon; lines 9-12 add[r] trills and alveolar [t] to the mix; the emerging bilabial pairing [b] [p] will carry into the final 6 lines; a strong cluster of alveolar plosive [d] accompanies softer nasals [n] [m];

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