The First Flight

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.

The poem comes closest yet to the language and events of Sweeney Astray. The speaker refers to their moment of transfiguration (Sweeney into a bird, Heaney into new determination) as more trance than bodily convulsion: more sleepwalk than spasm both locked into a period of social convulsion in Ireland: a time when the times were also in spasm (Heaney is caught up in the Troubles of Northern Ireland; Sweeney was present at the battle of Moira of 637 fought between Irish pretenders and witnessed the advent of Christianity). The twin events caused huge personal damage: the ties and the knots running through us/ split open/ down the lines of the grain. Both periods drove wedges between and within people opening splits at the most vulnerable points: down the lines of the grain

Metamorphosis dictated readjustment: fleeing the turbulence or being exiled from it demanded a new personal communion with nature and fresh discovery (the acoustic of frost).Exposure to the elements, new smells and sounds (of birdlife) required a relearning process (the meaning of woodnote).

Whilst the bird’s eye view offers a means of observation and judgment (my shadow over the field … a spin-off)it leaves the speakers vulnerable (my empty place an excuse) to those pursuing them with whatever axe to grind: shifts in the camp, old rehearsals/ of debts and betrayals. In Sweeney Astray birdman Sweeney was regularly stalked by individuals with a stone in each pocket/ to whistle and bill me back in.Heaney suffered the criticism of those jealous of him or seeking to get at him or use him. His and Sweeney’s common response is of bird-like panic and flight: I would collide and cascade/ through leaves … my point of repose knocked askew.

Their involvement with their past (mired in attachment) has brought unjust responses: they began to pronounce me afeeder off battlefields (Sweeney was judged to have ignored military protocol at Moira and Heaney to have failed to speak up for Catholics in the Troubles).

Flight amounted to escape: I mastered new rungs of the air; they placed themselves out of reach (Sweeney in Glen Bolcain, Heaney the Irish Republic) to watch both political events unfolding (bonfires on hills / hosting and fasting / levies from Scotland) and the perceived duplicity of fellow men: people of art/ diverting their rhythmical chants. Heaney still smarts from the critical responses of former poetic allies in Belfast to his previous North collection.

Such folk were unable to cope with the onslaught of winds/ (the pressures I would welcome). The sameforces have enabled him (and Heaney is not ego-driven) to rise above them in quality: climb at the top of my bent.

  • spasm: a sudden convulsion;
  • grain: refers to the arrangement/ direction of wood fibres;
  • acoustic of frost: to do with sound; (for example ‘acoustics’ contribute’ the fitness of a building to be of benefit to music-making); Heaney ‘hears’ the sound properties of a phenomenon that produces no sound (listen to the Winter movement of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons);
  • spin-off: a side-effect seen as beneficial;
  • bill: elusive usage; possible combination of ‘bid’ and ‘call’;
  • mired: caught up in difficulties as if bogged down in mud;
  • rungs: the rods or staves of a ladder on which the foot is placed;
  • hosting: gathered in a multitude like an army;
  • levies: things raised, soldiers, funds, here, perhaps ‘reinforcements’;
  • the top of my bent: operating at optimum capacity;
  • given the double personae, the title opens several lines of enquiry: fleeing one’s roots, taking to the air, a series of rising steps; for example the poet’s flight from Belfast to Glanmore may be viewed as a bird ’s migration;
  • the acutely critical perspectives of … the culture and values with which Heaney was brought up operate in the two sardonic poems which succeed ‘In the Beech’(MP p206);

  • Heaney confirms the hybrid character to DOD; he felt that Australian poet friend Vincent Buckley didn’t altogether like the Sweeney Redevivus poems especially the clean pair of heels Heaney/ Sweeney was showing in ‘First Flight’ and ‘Drifting Off’ (p261);
  • sections 11 and 14 of Sweeney Astray reflect similar events and;

  • commentators have noted Heaney’s celebration with Joycean disdain at outwitting adverse criticism;
  • 11 triplets built into 4 sentences; variable line length between 3 and 9 syllables; no rhyme scheme;
  • the abundant use of enjambed lines often suggests the movements and tempo of bodies in flight;
  • T1 repeats nouns: spasm now anatomical, now metaphorical; yet draws attention to nasty realities, medieval or contemporary history;
  • comparison: people/ wood being roughly treated; inbuilt textures common to nature and man: lines of the grain;
  • T3/4: vocabulary of heightened senses; use of synaesthesia: acoustic (hearing) frost (sight/touch); neat association of birdsong and environment: woodnote;
  • T5 vocabulary stressing negative human reactions and the shallowness of relationships;
  • T6 uses the imagery of beaters seeking to cause alarm; T7 features the vocabulary of panic;
  • T9 introduces comparison air/ ladder in rungs of the air; classical implication of hosting (reference to armies); T10 draws together of exiled king and poet suffering at the hands of the anonymous herd of people of art and dismissive of rhythmical chants; final parallel between the soaring potential of flight and personal success: top of my bent;
  • 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.
  • T(riplet)1 interweaves voiceless alveolar fricative [s] with voiceless alveolar plosive [t] and bilabial nasal [m]; T2 prefers alveolar nasal [n]; in T3 velar plosive [k] combines with alveolar approximant [l]; in T4 nasal [n] is joined by breaths of bilabial [w]; T5 uses paired bilabvial plosives [p] [b] and returns to alveolar [t] which echoes in T6 alongside sibilant [s] and velar [k], the latter recurring inT7 together with velar [k] a a pair of bilabial [p]; in T8 listen for nasals [m] [n] alongside alveolar plosives [t] [d] and a pair of voiceless labio-dental fricatives [f]; T9 introduces trill [r] with nasal [n] and a pair of continuants [h]; in T10 listen for bilabial plosives [f] [v] and snappy alveolar [t] sounds; the final T interweaves alveolar [d] [t] with paired breaths of [w], velar [k] and both nasals [m] [n];

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