The Hermit

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.

In contrast to the Ronan missionary figure of The Cleric (see previous poem) Heaney focuses attention on an equally emblematic figure of early Christian history. Hermits generally chose seclusion and ascetic self-sacrifice to the Ronan-style big-impact approach..

The anonymous hermit guards the plot of land he has appropriated against insurgents: he prowled the rim of his clearing. His life has undergone a root-and-branch reorganisation: his decision to leave family and friends behind is final: the blade of choice had not spared one stump of affection. No remnant of his past is spared.

The metaphorical leading edge of the hermit’s work breaks the top surface of the soil, echoing the strength of his calling like a ploughshare interred to sustaIn the whole field/of force. The hermit is part of a figurative team working in unison: the horse’s labour, the bitted/ and high-drawn sideways curve/ of the horse’s neck; the ploughman’s unerring skill: aim held fast in the wrists and elbows.

Spiritual benefit is all the greater in proportion to the difficulty involved: the more brutal the pull/ and the drive, the deeper and quieter the work of refreshment. Brashness of manner à la Bishop Ronanhas no place in this hermit’s world.

  • ploughshare: the cutting edge of the plough immediately behind the coulter that breaks the earth initially;
  • interred: Latin in terram (‘in the earth’, ‘buried’);
  • bitted: verbal usage based on the noun ‘bit,the metal mouthpiece of a horse’s bridle used to control the animal;
  • refreshment: either physical, mental or spiritual revival;
  • a poem offers an alternatives way of bringing about ‘refreshment’; voluntary exile is put forward as a very effective starting-point;
  • the poet uses the metaphor of the ploughshare and stresses that the real ‘work’ goes on beneath the surface;
  • 4 triplets; lines between 6 and 8 syllables, unrhymed;
  • a single sentence; the hyphen is followed by a kind of pseudo-mathematical hypothesis;
  • almost total use of enjambed lines;
  • in T1 concrete and abstract in tandem: blade of choice/ stump of affection;
  • clearing significant: both a natural feature and a symbol of shifting obstacles to evangelical aspiration;
  • hermit compared physically with a wild animal (prowled) and, in his ambitions, with a ploughshare;
  • agricultural comparison pursued: the single-minded faith of the man, the single function of the tool amount to a powerful phenomenon of nature: field of force;
  • T3 extends the image from ploughshare to ploughman;
  • the final hypothesis plays on contrasts: pull/ drive; brutal/ quieter leading to the final emphasis on refreshment with its multiple suggestions of renewal, sustenance and reward;
  • the music of the poem: twelve 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.
  • initial bilabials [p] [b] are over taken by [s [z] variants from voiceless alveolar fricative [tʃ] as in choice and voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] as in affection; then introducing alveolar [t] then labio-dental [f], echoed velar [k] and trilled [r] culminating with onomatopoeic [ʃ] in refreshment;

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