The First Kingdom

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 and Sweeney share a joint exile the first as result of a conscious decision to ‘clear the decks’ of what went before, the second imposed by a bishop’s curse. The speakers paint a caricature of the culture and hierarchies of the Irish amongst whom they lived.

The social hierarchy of Ulster is the subject of parody: The royal roads were cow paths. Its ‘monarchy’ is of nursery-rhyme proportions: a milk-maid queen mother hunkered on a stool massaging the cows’ teats as if playing the harpstrings of milk/ into a wooden pail.

On the next rung down are nobles; they used seasoned sticks asweapons with which to dominate their animals (lorded it over the hindquarters of cattle), an aristocracy of farmers, wheelers and dealers who did business by the cartful, barrowful and bucketful.

Conversation was a litany of misfortunes etched on people’s memories: a backward rote of names and mishaps/ bad harvests, fires, unfair settlements/ deaths in floods, murders and miscarriages.

The speaker assesses what the value of his rights to it all amounts towhen all seems so much at odds with their acclamations of approval. His reaction has ranged from one extreme to the other I blew hot and blew cold.

He sums up the inhabitants of his First Kingdom: their duplicitous attitude to others: two-faced and accommodating; their old instincts of seed, breed and generation; theirGod-fearing, unyielding natures (piousand exacting). Regrettably, and here lies the rub, the collective nature has led to and accepted loss of face and indignity: demeaned. The final emphatic adjective is a powerful reminder of the Irish predicament unimporved over the centuries.

  • queen mother: title reserved for a widowed queen;
  • hunkered: sitting crouched;
  • rote: ‘by heart’ as in ‘rote-learning’;
  • miscarriages: original sense of ‘mistakes’ or ‘errors’ became associated with ‘injustices’
  • acclamation: the loud sound of approval;
  • two-faced: deceitful; facing two ways and changing the message to suit the circumstances;
  • blew hot … and cold: was changeable, uncertain about an issue; alternated between interest, enthusiasm and disinterest, indifference;
  • demeaned: the verb offers 2 layers of suggestion, the first to do with ‘loss of dignity’; the second with ‘predictable behaviour’;
  • 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);
  • The poem adopts a wry attitude to an Irish hierarchy presented as a kind of nursery-rhyme burlesque. It picks out the utter lack of sophistication of daily activity, simplistic measurements and a history of nothing but set-backs; a sense of disillusionment is shared by both personae;
  • At moments when Heaney despairs that so little has changed in Ulster in the intervening period, the French epigram Plus ça change plus c’est la même chose (first used by Jean-Baptiste Karr in 1849 and literally translated ‘the more things change, the more they are the same) springs repeatedly to mind in the Sweeney Redevivus section.
  • ‘First Kingdom’ plunges immediately into mock heroic (illustrating) the unheroic, inglorious history of this ‘backward’ people ( ) Praise for their endurance is outweighed by scorn and sorrow (generated by their) submissiveness to State and Church and circumstance (MP p206);
  • 9 sentences grouped in 3 verses of varying length;
  • line length between 5 and 10 syllables; no rhyme scheme;
  • a balance between enjambed lines and other punctuation marks; the question involves self-assessment by the commentator;
  • V1 offers slightly mocking contrasts: royal roads… cow paths; queen … hunkered.. stool; comparison with a 3-dimensional woodcut; nobles are humble farmers who lorded it;
  • V2 repeat of ‘ful’ in amounts of declining volume where no amount is exact (pondered);
  • history non-changing backward rote; enumeration of extreme misfortune and injustice etched on human memory, nouns and adjectives;
  • in V3 the commentator ponders his assessment: double-edged ambiguity reflected in the literal/ metaphorical contrasts: blew hot and cold/ two-faced; parallel agricultural/ human regeneration ensures unchanging patterns; image pursued in the survival implication of holding on; the final 3 adjectives refer unambiguously to the Irish people rising to the final crescendo of demeaned;
  • 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.
  • In S1-2 initial [r] trill is replaced by a weave of velar [k], alveolar [t] and alveolar fricative [s]; S3-4 feature nasals [m] [n] alongside bilabial [p] [b] sibilant [s] and labio-dental [f]; in the final stanza listen for breaths of bilabial [w], clusters of [k] amidst alveolar [t] and bilabial plosives [p] [b];

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