The King of the Ditchbacks

is dedicated to John Montague, man of Letters, born in New York (1929) and brought up in Ireland. Montague dedicated his poem ‘Hearth Song’ to Heaney and worked successfully with him in recording their work for Claddagh Records (1968). DOD (p495)

In the final three poem sequence of Part 1 Heaney introduces the Sweeney of Sweeny Astray and Sweeney Redevivus (Part 3). He traces the early development of a remarkable relationship between a twentieth century living poet and a 7th century character from Irish literature who has loomed large in his poetic consciousness for more than a decade.


Contact is established with an ‘otherworldly’ presence that has invaded the poet’s space (As if a trespasser/ unbolted a forgotten gate)and left tell-tale visual evidence of his arrival (ripped the growth/ tangling its lower bars).

The anonymous presence has begun to communicate with him: dark morse along the bank. Nature offers clues to his invisible passage: a crooked wounding/ of silent, cobwebbed/grass.

His invisibility is a touch scary : If I stop/ he stops/ like the moon.

He possesses the tracking skills of the hunter, living in his feet/ and ears, weather eyed/ all pad and listening; he is a drifter with no fixed abode: a denless mover.

The figure revealed by a distorted reflection (that) shifts/ sideways to the (river’s) current is ragged yet magnetic: mothy, alluring.

The tracked one becomes haunted by a furtive, invisible shadow that has left him clues: unexpected spoor/ pollen settling.

  • As yet nameless Sweeney is a displaced, homeless, exiled denless mover who has spent over a decade in Heaney’s company;
  • morse: a sound alphabet of dots and dashes invented around 1836 for transmitting messages using electronic pulses;
  • pad: (noun) the cushion like sole of an animal foot; as a verb it suggests the stealthy movement of an animal eager not to give its presence away;
  • den: the lair, refuge of an animal;
  • spoor: an Afrikaans word for ‘trace’, ‘track that would enable a hunter to hunt down an animal’;
  • six four-line stanzas constructed as 5 sentences;
  • line length between 2 and 8 syllables; unrhymed;
  • plentiful use of enjambed lines;
  • initial as if reinforces the improbability of the situation; the repeated if introduces a standard conditional phrase;
  • communication is dealt with by sound and vision; morse requires skill to understand it;
  • synesthesia: dark (colour/ sight), morse (sound);
  • ‘crooked’ suggests the arc made by a hinged gate;
  • personification: grass feels pain, has a voice, in this case ‘silent’;
  • observed comparison: when man stops moving, moon appears to stop;
  • vocabulary of barely perceptible sound and movement;
  • the late use of present participles adds actuality to the narrative;
  • the music of the poem: across poems 1 – 3 fifteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text
  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies: Q1 is launched with beats of alveolar plosive [t] the a pair of trilled [r]alongside velar [g]; in Q2 initial continuant [h] then bilabial [b] and alveolar [d] in tandem; [k] and nasal [n] are carried into Q3 with alveolar fricative [s]; in Q4 alveolar [d] is joined by alveolar [l] and in Q5 pair of labio-dental [f] and nasals are added; Q5 features alveolar fricative [s], bilabial [p]and thepalatal nasal [ŋ]of the participles;


Heaney sets out his growing involvement with the as yet anonymous figure. Prose becomes prose-poetry.

The initial phrase serves as the bridge with the first poem of the sequence: ‘I knew I’d come across him before’.

Heaney’s subsequent desire to know more (bringing myself close to him) is at the root of time spent obsessively in his study where, enthralled despite the stops and starts of composition (each entranced hiatus), despite the stresses of the poetic challenge (chainsmoked/ stared) andwhatever the personal commitment and cost attached (I was laying myself open), the urge to find out more drove him on.

The poet’s commitment to a character in need of interpretation and the demands of rendering an Irish text into English provided a perilous personal challenge: I hung out on the limb of a translated phrase like a youngster dared to brave the dangers of a whirlpool below.

Heaney began to resemble his character (small dreamself in the branches), todevelop Dream fears, to confuse fiction and reality. The exiled king began to crop up as part of his daily domestic life: drowned … in the bath or wascut in half by a harvester, his bloody clothes …. buried in the garden.He even disturbed the poet’s sleep pattern, leaving him awake in darkness a wall’s breadth from the troubled hoofs. It was as if Sweeney’s legendary madness began to rub off on him.

Having resolved to become involved (dared these invocations) Heaney sets out in pursuit: to follow him. Tracking skills were second nature to him;what was to happen would lead him to self-discovery: as if I were coming into my own. Their closeness will make them kindred spirits.

Heaney establishes a link between the spiritual ‘calling’ of his undertaking and the disguise element he will explore in III that follows: I remembered I had been vested for this calling.

hiatus: originally a Latin word for a physical ‘opening’, ‘rupture’ later used to indicate a period of time in which there is a gap or interruption in events;

dormer: a window projecting from a roof

open: the sense of ‘public knowledge’ and ‘exposure’; ‘to lay oneself open’ to make oneself an easy target for attack, criticism or ridicule;

out on the limb:suggests that one holds an opinion or takes a personal line irrespective of other people’s judgement;

inclined: dual sense of ‘leaning forward’ physically in reverence, or having a mental disposition towards;

invocation: usage varying between ‘petitioning God’, ‘summoning an evil spirit’ and, here, ‘summoning a spirit’;

coming into my own: the phrase opens multiple possibilities all of which suit; ‘to be recognised as independent, capable’; to be successful in an undertaking, respected for it; to have achieved a voice; gain proper recognition;

vested for this calling: the original ‘loose garment’ remains implicit in the verb within the notion of ‘putting on’, ‘wearing’, ‘adopting’; the Biblical sense of ‘vocation’ is present, but the word derives from the Latin vocem ‘voice’ which adds the sound aspect of calling, an audible appeal heard;

  • I was sure I knew him: we learn of Heaney’s specific acquaintance with Sweeney through the medieval Irish poem Buile Suibhne and his subsequent translation of the work;
  • the music of the poem: across poems 1 – 3 fifteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text;
  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies. The poet is never far away from his prose. The piece is designed around consonant groups and clusters; listen out in approximate order for: voiceless alveolar fricative [s], voiceless bi-labial plosive [p] and voiced [b], voiceless alveolar plosive [t], alveolar approximant [l], voiced alveolar plosive [d], alveolar trill [r] nasals [m] [n] voiced alveolar fricative [z] voiceless velar plosive [k];


The speaker sees himself as ‘chosen’ for an initiation ritual that will blur remaining distinctions between him and his subject. The selection process has a pseudo-religious formality (I was taken aside) and his successful application taken as a privilege: I had the sense of election.

He is given a Sweeney ‘make-over’ (they dressed my head in fishnet/ and plaited leafy twigs through meshes) designed to give him a birdman Sweeney view of the world (my vision was a bird’s/ at the heart of a thicket) and lend him a Sweeney voice spoken (in character) from a shaking bush.

The disguise is complete, the speaker transformed into a King of the ditchbacks, responding Sweeney-like to his environment. Wearing the vesture of his medieval icon he goes obediently with ‘them’ into Nature to await the arrival of the birdman himself.

Nothing happens.

Hidden beneath the deciduous canopy … in silence/ No birds came despite his earnest efforts not to frighten the birdman away by disturbing the balance of nature: whispered/ or broke the watery gossamers/ if I moved a muscle.

Unlike Sweeney he is free to put an end to his self-imposed exile and accept the invitation to resume human contact at some stage, to enjoy earthly cornucopia (in harvest … when we hide in the stooked corn) and its glut of shot birds.

However he has taken the decision to proceed in his new guise, rising in thatdissimulation; top-knotted, masked in sheaves. Despite the irony that he may be shot as a result(noting the fall of birds) he has resolved to share the fate of the maddened exiled Sweeney, an outcast from his society destined to overfly his country transformed into a bird. His sacrifice is of biblical proportion: a rich young man/ leaving everything he had/ for a migrant solitude.

meshes: the open spaces in a net;

thicket: a copse or coppice (small accretion) of trees;

ditchback: rural Ulster usage to describe the natural locations immediately surrounding watercourses;

deciduous: from a Latin worddescribing trees whose leaves fall off;

wain: an archaic wheeled vehicle often depicted loaded with hay;

stooked: refers to sizeable swathes or piles of cereal stalks left on a field after harvest;

top knot: hair gathered on the top of the head (historically sported by both sexes);

  • the ‘dark morse’ of the Sweeney presence will echo through subsequent poems;
  • in a parody of Jesus‘s advice to a young man seeking the road to heaven, Heaney is poised to move in the opposite direction (a rich young man! leaving everything he had/ for a migrant solitude) turning his back on his Catholic upbringing in league with a pagan king. The ‘rich young man’ will re-appear in the final poem ‘On the Road’. In the original biblical context as reported in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and John he was urged by Jesus to abandon all secular possessions as a prerequisite to entering Heaven:
  • Heaney is searching for renewal and he will follow a different route;
  • the poem also evokes the mesmerized and obsessive process of poetic translation;
  • the poet translates himself into Sweeney and takes the decision to strike out on his own;
  • this pivotal sequence will lead us into Part 2 and 3;
  • thirteen couplets arranged in 5 sentences; unrhymed;
  • line length varies between 5 and 11 syllables; broad array of punctuation marks alongside plentiful use of enjambed lines so interesting dynamics for oral delivery;
  • some direct speech;
  • juxtaposition: authoritarian pseudo-Catholic, to be obeyed; burlesque: fancy-dress he will adopt;
  • the emerging title character is given its own line;
  • comparisons: human voice and bush voice; tree canopy and loaded cart;
  • allusion to bedewed spiders’ webs as ‘watery gossamers’
  • pronouns used to hide identity of ‘they’;
  • lyrical picture of country life that will be left behind;
  • the music of the poem: across poems 1 – 3 fifteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text;

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies: ll. 1-8 initial alveolar plosives [t] [d] are joined by voiceless alveolar fricative [s] and a series of post-alveolar fricatives [ʃ] after ‘election’ before a return to [t] [d] and a pair of labio-dental [v]; 9-13: echoed pairs of velar [k] plus the unusual [tʃ] of ‘ditch’ and [dʒ] pair of ‘edge’ and ‘pigeon’ and alveolar approximant [l]; 14-21: bilabial plosive [b] inter-reacts with bilabial [w] and echoes of bilabial nasal [m] and superseded by alveolar plosives [t] [d]; 21-26: sibilant [s] and nasal [m] combine, replaced by labio-dental plosives [f] [v] and paired alveolar [t] [d] plosives that complete the piece;

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