The Scribes

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’s voice is dominant in a poem set in a first millennium monastery where manuscripts are being copied and preserved thanks to the monumental efforts of monk-scribes. Allegorically the title alludes to a biblical grouping of people who set themselves up as judges, precursors perhaps of the group of literati surrounding Heaney in his Belfast days whom he judged to have reacted with unwarranted unkindness following his move to the Irish Republic in 1972.

The poem starts with a concluding judgment: I never warmed to them before proceeding to the speaker’s reasons: their intellectual contribution excellent; their reactions peevish (petulant), irritable and prickly: jagged as the holly tree/ they rendered down for ink.

Never feeling totally accepted (I never belonged among them)his literary output, modestly put, was at least the equal of other members of the scriptorium/ Belfast ‘fraternity’: they could never deny me my place.

He paints the scene: externally the monastery work-room (the hush of the scriptorium); internally the unpleasant things that gathered inside the scribes like a dark growth, a black pearl blocking their pores like the lumps of ink that interfered with the smooth flow of their writing the old dry glut inside their quills.

These scribes were negative by nature: In the margin of texts of praise/ they scratched and clawed; they found fault everywhere: snarled if the day was dark ( ) too much chalk … or too little.

Building up beneath the script they were copying (Under the rumps of letters) were short-sighted myopic angers, their envy perceived even in the motifs decorating the capital letter of each section where Resentment seededin the uncurling/ fernheads.

The ninth-century scribe at work amongst them is mentally preoccupied (miles away … in my absence); looking up reveals, visually the sloped cursive of each back; he senses their antagonism: felt them/ perfect themselves against me page by page. The twentieth-century poet absent from Ulster had similar experiences.

Heaney the poet puts the jealous scribes in their place: let them remember this not inconsiderable contribution to their jealous art (his use of litotes invites us to correct what he is saying).

Sweeney can reflect to his own satisfaction that the transcription of legends from word of mouth to text has bequeathed an incredible story for Heaney to translate and the world to read.

  • jaggy: a Heaney word describing a toothed edge with sharp points;
  • rendered down: the colourings for inks used to transcribe and illuminate manuscripts came from natural products and were home-made;
  • glut: originally a sense of ‘gulp’ then ideas of fullness, repletion, satiety;
  • scriptorium: the place in a religious establishment set aside for scribes in medieval times;
  • gathered: nasty bodily substances that come together to produce painful boils on the skin are said to ‘gather’;
  • glut: suggests oversupply;
  • vellum: parchment made of calf skin, preceding paper as a writing-surface;
  • fernheads: the Springtime growth of ferns is considerable; the heads are coiled and full of energy. Such motifs were used by scribes to decorate capital letters;
  • cursive: describing ‘joined-up’ writing where the pen nib does not leave the page; its curve is applied here to the postures of the scribes;
  • I got a lot out of my system, for instance … the resentment at my ‘runner-in’ status in the south is there in The Scribes (DOD p262); other comments have suggested that for all his resentment Heaney emerges in a more honourable position than those who criticised him;
  • some later pieces imply a more unapologetic confidence in his own work; ‘The Scribes’ is an almost contemptuous jousting with … critics or peers …. ‘not inconsiderable’ contains an hauteur ( ) something of insolence (NC p131);
  • 24 lines of poetry in 5 stanzas of varying length;
  • line length between 6 and 10 syllables; unrhymed;
  • the flow of latent animosity makes effective use of enjambed lines combined with full stops;
  • S1 begins with a litotes inviting rectification; followed by a pair of conditional ‘if’ clauses, the first comparing scribes with the medieval materials they produced, the second alluding to the joint Sweeney/Heaney feeling of exile amongst one’s own;
  • the medieval workroom: Heaney employs a lexis of negative references in the simile building to a paradox: texts of praise;
  • their nature uses the onomatopoeic snarled in its form of reported speech;
  • cattle imagery of rumps and herded; plant imagery of seeded and fernheads;
  • dual meaning of myopic: the eye condition caused by continual close study of documents; its 19th century figurative use of ‘short sighted’ by nature;
  • S4 comparison: the scribes resemble the shape of their lettering;
  • the final allusion to the jealousy and competitive envy of people locked in the same activity employs a second litotes: not inconsiderable contribution;
  • 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.
  • in S(entence)1the velar [k] of the title is carried through with counterpart velar [g], paired bilabial breath [w] and alveolar [l] later [r] trills and bilabial [p] [b]; in S2/3 listen for onomatopoeic [ʃ] of hush and a cluster of middle-of-the-mouth sounds including [tʃ] of scratched and chalk; in S4 alveolars [d] an [l] combine;
  • in S5/6 listen for initial [r] trills, a cluster of nasals and emerging velar [k]; S7 is rich in [s] alongside velar [k] and bilabial plosives [b] [p];

  • the [r] trills of the final couplet confirm the bite of the remark and the [dʒ] of page is echoed in jealous ;

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