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. Think monks of the Dark Ages, think also intellectuals in 1960s’ Belfast. Allegory is never far away – the title alludes to a biblical groupings of people who set themselves up as judges reflected in the group of literati surrounding Heaney in his Belfast days whom he judged to have responded 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 contributions first rate (excellent) but their reactions peevish (petulant), irritable and prickly (jagged as the holly tree/ they rendered down for ink).

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

He paints the scene: on the outside the monastery work-room seemed studiously calm (the hush of the scriptorium). Below the surface, however, less pleasant issues built up (gathered) inside the scribes likened to a dark growth (a black pearl) blocking their pores just as lumps of ink interfered with the smooth flow of their writing (the old dry glut inside their quills).

To him these men were negative scrabblers (In the margin of texts of praise/ they scratched and clawed) who found fault everywhere (snarled if the day was dark) and were impossible to please (too much chalk … or too little).

Beneath the script they were copying (Under the rumps of letters) their fuses were short and vision short-sighted (myopic angers), their envy  perceived  in the motifs decorating the initial character (capital) of each section (resentment seeded in the uncurling/ fernheads).

Imagining himself a ninth-century scribe at work amongst them, his creative spirit is mentally preoccupied (miles away … in my absence). Looking around is revealing – letter-shaped body postures (sloped cursive of each back), a sense of competitive pique (felt them/ perfect themselves against me page by page).

Heaney seeks to expose their disrespect (let them remember this not inconsiderable contribution to their jealous art) . As a poet who wrote copiously throughout his working-life he uses litotes as if, perhaps, to invite them to repent.

The Dark Ages’ transcription of legends from word of mouth to published text has bequeathed an incredible storehouse for Heaney to dip into and, at a moment of more recent recall, provided him a perfect opportunity to return fire.

  • 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);
  • After Heaney’s death, his wife Marie  indicated that whatever her husband’s natural kindness towards her, the family and mankind in general Heaney was totally sure of his poetry … ‘he knew he was good!’ So is it presumptuous or just plain honest for Heaney to suggest (my words) that ‘the Belfast group wanted to be as good a poet as I was but were not as good … in the end they showed it and eased my conscience as regards cutting ties with the North and moving, lock, stock and barrel, to the Irish Republic?
  • 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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