The Master

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 describes a ‘master-class’.

The speaker pays tribute to an anonymous ‘master’ whose opinions are respected and valued and who is a giant against whom to measure himself. Heaney indicated he was reworking the meal at which he first met Czeslaw Milosz in California (note below).

Heaney sets the poem in a medieval, Gothic ruin. The ‘master’, pictured as inward looking and emblematic of a former time, is living without a roof over his head: He dwelt in himself/ like a rook in an unroofed tower.

To reach him involves personal challenges of fitness and vertigo: maintain a climb up … not flinch. The speaker keeps his eyes lowered out of deference though he knows his approach will be monitored from the Master’s coign of seclusion.

The ‘master-class ‘ began calmly and steadily. The teacher revealed his wisdom deliberately, step by step (unclasping his book of withholding/ a page at a time);nothing surprising or visionary in his method (arcane), just old-fashioned pedagogy: the old rules/ we all had inscribed on our slates.

The unfolding of the master-class is expressed metaphorically, each point made following the precise pattern of a medieval manuscript: Each character blocked on the parchment secure in its volume and measure; each proposition given its space; each opinion better for having stood the test of time (Like quarrymen’s hammers and wedges proofed/ by intransigent service);well constructed opinions leading to easier exchanges and opening further lines of enquiry: Like coping stones where you rest/ in the balm of the wellspring. The poem recalls the Californian seafood meal in Away from it all.

The after-feeling of coming face to face with Milosz was that of craftsman and apprentice: Heaney came away feeling flimsy, dazed to the point of losing his balance down/ the unrailed stairs on the wall.

The ‘rook’ image of the first couplet recurs at the end: the master’s purpose and venture are strengths that the pupil takes away with him: a wingflap above me.

  • coign: archaic spelling of word denoting ‘a projecting corner from which to observe’;
  • arcane: ‘secret’, ‘hidden’, ‘guarded’;
  • slates: the natural stone that when split produced a flat surface that could be written on; used in the classroom before the advent of books and pencils
  • blocked: individual letters, upright and separate in their own space; for example capital letters in illuminated texts;
  • maxim: ‘precept’, ‘principle’,Latin derivation, the ‘maxima’ were the ‘greatest, most important propositions’;
  • wedges: tools with which to split rock;
  • proofed: that have stood the test of use;
  • intransigent: where no compromise is possible;
  • coping stones: the uppermost cap stones on a wall;
  • balm: a soothing, aromatic ointment; figuratively a soothing influence;
  • wellspring: the literal source of a spring or river; here perhaps the source of creativity;
  • flimsy: ‘fragile’, ‘lacking strength’;
  • Heaney commented: I got a lot out of my system. But there’s positive stuff secluded in the poems as well. The Master for example is a transmogrified account of meeting Czeslaw Milosz ( ) the character as I imagine him – unhistrionic, unmysterious clear spoken, his authority deriving from veteran rather than visionary experience(DOD p262);
  • earlier commentators suggested Yeats as the master;
  • the master is portrayed within a medieval frame; he is reclusive; getting to him is upwards and arduous for the pupil;
  • at a different level there is nothing revolutionary or unexpected about the process of versification, if this is what the speaker is alluding to; the master teaches: ‘just the old rules
  • Heaney’s measuring of himself against this magisterial authority which has sounded the Sweeney note of enterprising, wily self-assertion is also ( ) combined with an envious humility ( ) a bold but wary inspection (NC p129);
  • 7 sentences composed 5 stanzas of different length;
  • line length between 5 and 7 syllables; unrhymed;
  • considerable use made of enjambed lines;
  • Heaney’s model for the medieval Master is anonymous; he is describing a man difficult to access, mentally, physically, socially;
  • initial comparison master and rook indicates the relative discomfort and remote vantage point the master has chosen; repeated vocabulary eye; archaic vocabulary: coign;
  • attention turns to the lessons taught using terms associated with routine of scribe-work and reference to the learned texts involved;
  • S4 compares the fine calligraphic work with hard labour, as a total necessity ‘like it or lump it’ ; secondly a source of personal satisfaction and a way ahead: balm of the wellspring;
  • the rook image is carried through: the pupil feels weak compared with the birdlike daring of the Master;
  • the music of the poem: fifteen 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.

  • S(entence)1 is marked by an echo of trill [r]; S2 start and finishes with velar [k] with interim bilabial nasal [m] and voiceless labio-dental fricative [f];
  • in S3 listen for further velar [k] plus the alveolar fricatives: [dʒ] of page (later intransigent) and [tʃ] of parchment; finally bilabial nasals [m]; in S4/5 velar [k] combines with alveolar fricative [s] and paired bilabial plosives [p] [b]; the final quatrain opens with labio dental fricatives [f] [v] and ends with nasals [n] [m];

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