The Cleric

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.

Initially Sweeney’s is the dominant voice. His story and its aftermath are narrated in Sweeney Astray. Both poems focus on responses to the actions of a missionary priest, anonymous in this piece but identified as Ronan in Sweeney Astray. The advent of Christianity is portrayed in this piece as a trampling invasion and an appropriation of Irish people and land.

Initial signs emerge of an ‘alien’ presence. Sweeney’s response (echoing his feelings in Sweeney Astray) is of growing resentment. Some signs he sees target non-human targets (new words prayed at cows in the byre) or intrude upon customary local practices (on the crock and the hidden still). The odour of Christianity begins to dominate customary smells (fumes from his censer/ in the first smokes of morning).

Words exhausted the cleric begins to appropriate pieces of farming land (through gaps) on which to build places of worship (stepping out sites,/ sinking his crozier deep/ in the fort-heath – pre-Christian strongholds).

Sweeney is infuriated that the man did not confine his evangelism to the humourless, hymn-singing zealots (cramp-jawed abbesses and intoners) ready to follow (dibbling round the enclosure). Heaney’s Voice has no truck with the linguistic (Latin … blather of love) and ‘political’ paraphernalia the man brought with him (parchments and scheming in letters). He and his baggage are immigrant (shipped over the water).

Initial missionary soft soap was quickly replaced by authoritarian control (he overbore) – if not carrot then stick, imposition if not persuasion (unctions and orders), whatever required to achieve success in his mission (he had to get in on the ground).

Sweeney reflects on the outcome –  banners and  religious structures (standards/ on his gables and spires) that led to his exile and ranting marginalisation (ousted me to the marches/ of skulking and whingeing). Reflect for an instant on how this might apply to Seamus Heaney, poet and public voice, and his sense of his own shortcomings.

Heaney’s ‘Incertus’ voice reminds him of his own loss of Catholic faith, his move to the Irish Republic, those academic contracts in America and holidays in Europe (Or did I desert?).

After conIideration Heaney/Sweeney can, however reluctantly, acknowledge a debt (Give him his due) of awakening (he opened my path) to a land offering great potential (a kingdom/ of such scope), freedom from previous duties and obligations (neuter allegiance), a realm where his loyalty will continue to fall prey to its its twists and turns (my emptiness reigns at its whim).

  • byre: regional word for ‘cowshed’;
  • crock: ‘pot’, ‘vessel’, ‘pitcher’;
  • still: the apparatus for distilling alcohol into spirits;
  • censer: the vessel in which incense is burnt, formally as part of religious ceremonies;
  • crozier: the staff carried by a bishop that denotes his pastoral, shepherd-like rôle;
  • abbesses: female equivalent of ‘abbot’;
  • intoners: a person who sings, chants or recites for example as part of a religious litany;
  • dibbling: a fascinating choice blending notions of making holes for planting (‘dibbing’) and ‘having an amateurish shot at’ (‘dabbling’);
  • blather: foolish mutter, tongue-wagging;
  • overbore: used the power of authority to suppress, bore down on;
  • unctions: the original sense of anointings as a religious rite took on a figurative sense of ‘obsequious fawning’ (‘unctuous)’;
  • standards: flags around which people rallied in support;
  • marches: borderlands next to frontiers;
  • skulking: of Scandinavian derivation, ‘shirking’, ‘malingering’;
  • neuter: originally a grammatical term indicating for example a noun neither masculine nor feminine in gender; so, ‘neither one thing nor the other’, ‘on neither side’;
  • the tone is scornful from the start: Christianity was new words prayed at cows;
  • The St Ronan of Sweeney Astray may be in the poet’s mind; however more broadly the earliest Christian figures were mainly of Scottish origin; St Patrick himself (originally sold as a slave) came to Ireland from outside;
  • the voice insists that the Christian method was coercive
  • what seemed like exile and rejection(Sweeney) or religious lapse (Heaney) turns out to be a blessing in disguise, freeing their hybrid will from previous attachments, duties and obligations;
  • ‘Sweeney’ under whatever name … is a salutory protection (for Heaney) ‘The Cleric’ seems to acknowledge that having once had faith any future sense of freedom from it will be defined by it ; both personae are affected: Sweeney never opted in; Heaney needs to clear his head (NC p132);
  • 9 triplets composed in 5 sentences; line length between 4 and 9 syllables;
  • no rhyme scheme but assonant repetitions create interesting line-end echoes in places (e.g. T4);
  • ample use of enjambment;
  • in T1/2 listen for the fusion of ‘new’ spiritual and age-old Irish elements, ‘signs’ and sense data;
  • T3 presents a bishop/quantity-surveyor persona; T4/5 take an anti-clerical pot-shot at the unappealing aspects of monastic life;
  • dual suggestion of overbore: chose irrespective of the feeling of others; tested the patience of those who observed impotently;
  • ‘carrot and stick’ approach: unctions and orders;
  • Land-grabbing depicted as a military take-over: organised Church reducing the individual to impotent complaint and self-inquisition(the single question betrays the observers’ presence);
  • Aesop-like fable ending to do with ‘clouds’ and ‘silver linings: the narrow Kingdom of Heaven is replaced by the vast kingdom of the heavens and opportunity for personal fulfilment;
  • 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.
  • T(riplet)1interweaves plosives: velar [k], bilabial [b], alveoaler [d]; In T2 listren for nasal sounds: bilabial [m] and alveolar [n] and alveolar fricative [s]; T3 offers bilabial [p] and velar [k];
  • bilabial [b] echoes through T4; in T5 note alveolar continuant [l] in tandem with bilabials, particularly [b]; aveolar [d]combines with velar [k] [g] in T6; T7 interweaves [s] [z] variants with nasal [m]; T8 offers alveolar [d] repeats; T9 uses bilabial sounds: opening with plosive [p] and ending with emphatic nasal [m];

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