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"Treating the Literary Literally:" The Reflexive Structure of Flann O’Brien’s ... - page 37 / 50





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During Sweeney’s lament for his cursed life, he states

I am in summer with the herons of Cuailgne with wolves in winter, at other times I am hidden in a copse. (97)

It is not so much the self-description that both engage in but the pervading images of nature that make Finn’s influence appear strongly in Sweeney’s poetry. A reflexive protagonist does not have to produce works of literature perfectly similar to those of his or her creator. This difference has been essential for both O’Brien and the narrator to distance themselves from their protagonists throughout At Swim-Two-Birds. What is more important is the biographical connection between Finn and Sweeney and their ability to produce any poetry at all. Each of these characters is a well-established piece of Irish legend, but when Finn begins telling this tale, he steps into the position of author and the similarities between Finn and Sweeney emulate the arrangement between creators and reflexive protagonists.

Sweeney is metaphorically significant to every level of the novel; even the title refers to the place where Sweeney delivers his most famous lay. However, even though a mythological character like Sweeney or Finn sets off every alarm the educated reader has, Sweeney’s character has no grand effect on the novel’s structure. Whereas Finn acts as a reflexive author, and can move through the levels of fiction unlike all others, Sweeney abides by the same rules as the other Red Swan inhabitants. The cowboys that inhabit the lowest level of the Red Swan can still trade tales because of the cellar space below them. Sweeney might deliver long pieces of poetry, but these are essentially just an unusual sort of conversation. When Sweeney meets the band of men on their way to Orlick’s birth, he is accosted by the trigger-happy cowboys and forced to explain his hiding in a tree:

Sweeney the thin-groined it is in the middle of the yew; life is very bare here, piteous Christ it is cheerless.

Grey branches have hurt me they have pierced my calves, I hang here in the yew-tree above, without chessmen, no womantryst.

I can put no faith in humans in the place they are; watercress at evening is my lot, I will not come down. (177)

It is part of Sweeney’s traditional character, created over centuries of myth-making, that he speaks in "melodious Irish" verse, even if it is in translation for the benefit of a vulgar audience. Sweeney’s lays are all part of a poetic autobiography, and do not include other creative characters. This poetry does not form a new narrative level because it has the same elements as the fireside conversation between the cowboys in the Red Swan, to be discussed later in this chapter.


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