Monday, March 20, 2017

Sweeney Astray

Buile Suibhne is an ancient Irish tale of a king, often referred to as Mad Sweeney, who is driven insane by the curse of St. Ronan. Suibhne's name appears as early as the ninth century, and the tale is believed to have taken on its current form by the twelfth. It represents the conflict between paganism and the rise of Christianity. Seamus Heaney entitled his English translation Sweeney Astray. Sweeney is also the central character in T.S. Eliot's incomplete verse drama Sweeney Agonistes.

In the legend, Suibhne, trying to prevent the building of a church in his territory, threw Ronan's Psalter into the lake, and tried to drag him away. At the Battle of Mag Rath (637 A.D.) Suibhne speared to death one of the saint's psalmists who was blessing the troops with holy water. Ronan cursed him, saying he would wander like a bird and die by a spear.

Heaney says in his introduction, "For example, insofar as Sweeney is also a figure of the artist, displaced, guilty, assuaging himself by his utterance, it is possible to read the work as an aspect of the quarrel between free creative imagination and the constraints of religious, political, and domestic obligation..."

At the end of Heaney's translation St. Moling speaks the following words:

from Sweeney Astray

I am standing beside Sweeney's grave
remembering him. Wherever he
loved and nested and removed to
will always be dear to me.

Because Sweeney loved Glen Bolcain,
I learned to love it, too. He'll miss
all the fresh streams tumbling down,
all the beds of watercress.

He would drink his sup of water from
the well beyond that we have called
The Madman's Well; and now his name
keeps brimming in its sandy cold.

I waited long but knew he'd come.
I welcomed, sped him as a guest.
With holy viaticum
I limed him for the Holy Ghost.

Because Mad Sweeney was a pilgrim
to the lip of every well
and every green-banked, cress-topped stream,
their water's his memorial.

Now, if it is the will of God,
rise, Sweeney, take this guiding hand
that has to lay you in the sod
and draw the dark blinds of the ground.

I ask a blessing, by Sweeney's grave.
His memory rises in my breast.
His soul roosts in the tree of love.
His body sinks in its clay nest.

This post was suggested by my friend Burl Horniachek.

Entry written by D.S. Martin. His latest poetry collection, Conspiracy of Light: Poems Inspired by the Legacy of C.S. Lewis, is available from Wipf & Stock as is his earlier award-winning collection, Poiema.