A Retrospect


Layers of perception: the Heaneys share a loughscape before returning to a familiar mountainside vantage-point. The mature stage they have reached in life is reflected in both pieces particularly the second.


MP (220): Repeatedly in Seeing Things it is the unpredictability and change­-ability of water and sky which excite the poet and prompt new and unusual angles of vision.

A watercolour in words of an Irish lough-scape dominated by liquidity. To all appearances (apparently) the land is afloat and the man-made gives way to the dominant element: Every road bridging or skirting waterTerra firma is water-locked if not waterlogged (islanded), each landmass a fortress with its own defences (field drains still as moats), guarded by tall, erect plants (A bulrush sentried).

Heaney ventures into the water (Wade barefoot), familiar with the properties of the lough floor beneath his feet … its bounciness (spongy … soft); its temperature (ice-cold marsh); the peat layer  (bog water seeping through); his weight borne by a lattice of netted weed.

In total contrast to the mud in which it grows the bulrush Heaney has gone in search of appears Perennially anomalous and dry, softly draped and silky Like chalk or velvet.

Familiar with washes of paint and water, the poet describes the landscape in painterly terms: Everything ran into water-colour that softened lines and blurred meeting points – (skyline … full up to the lip … earth ( ) going to brim over, each seeking to overwhelm the other.

He and Marie have learnt to spot furtive changes (the first stealth of flood), that might threaten disruption to fortress-Heaney: the swim and flow/ From hidden springs … a river in the road.

  • retrospect: survey of past events; as with prospect the words root lies in the Latin specere ‘to look at’, ‘see’; here to look backwards in time;
  • drain: runaway channel for rainwater;
  • moat: defensive ditch around a stronghold;
  • bulrush: tall reed-like water plant with a velvety head;
  • sentried: kept guard over;
  • lough: Irish word for ‘lake’;
  • wade: walk through water;
  • spongy: porous, springy, elastic;
  • water: wet, peaty ground;
  • netted: enmeshed, interlocking;
  • perennial: long-lasting, continually recurring;
  • anomalous: peculiar, incongruous;
  • water-colour: water soluble paints produce paler tinges;
  • lip: edge
  • brim over: be so full as to overflow;
  • stealth: secret rise;


  • 5 triplets in a 5 sentence structure including 2 colons;
  • dynamic flow governed by the balance of punctuation and enjambed lines
  • line length based on 10/11 syllables; rhyming pattern axa byb czc etc – final triplet wff;
  • parenthesis of water/peat inter-reaction;
  • noun ‘island’ used as a verb;
  • vocabulary of liquidity; water colour techniques; pastel shades;
  • metaphor: natural surroundings as a water container
  • personification: bulrush/ soldier on sentry duty; vocabulary of defensive positions


The Heaneys on another trip, a familiar route up to Glenshane Pass, an emotionally charged reminder to Heaney of his weekly exile from his family (his ‘Trail of Tears’ … the road to boarding school) – an outing routinely accompanied by his learned commentaries on local history: English invaders enforcing  land confiscation and quelling uprisings by the wild ‘uncivilized’ Irish; the latter as unimpressed by the status of James 1’s representative (the King’s deputy) as Virgil’s ghosts  would have been surprised to see Aeneas alive in Hell.

He and Marie have come there to enjoy the feel of the valley out behind, on a journey between superimposed layers of reality (a ladder leaned against the world), with a built-in apprehension that they might fall back from the select, rarefied air of their current circumstances into the total air and emptiness of a previous life they carried on their shoulders.

The route takes them skywards (the old road  Went up and up) as did the thrill of past activities and sensations (lover country … drive-in in the sky) with its silent witnesses – parked car playing possum, favourable time of day (twilight) amidst the vastness of the airy structure (cloud moved/ Smokily in the deep of polished roofs), protection from prying eyes (dormant windscreens).

Now he and Marie feel a touch out of place (astray in the hill-fort of all pleasures) – the heated passion of old has been replaced by a calmer sensitivity to the surroundings (air was other breath and grass a whisper) – yet unable still to dislodge of the repressive sexual mores of 1950s Ulster (empowered but still somehow constrained).

As Young marrieds, free to ‘do it’ at home (the licit within doors), being there as old marrieds takes something away from the sweetness that had lured them – no need for a hillside bed in which to lie together (nest in rushes), no evidence of bodyweight (heather bells unbruised), no aphrodisiac (Iove-drink of the mountain streams untasted).

They sit there as representatives of Irishness (the fasted eyes of wild inhabitants), parked where the Glenshane overlook (brae) drops steeply (sheer) into a landscape of historical occupation (baronies and cantreds), at a level above look-down-through dam water, clear (open) to the mind’s eye and worth savouring (the visit lasted).

So they sat, lost in thoughts beyond the self (gazed beyond themselves) until ‘he’ brought it all to an end using a clutch start (brake off  … freewheeled into gear) (no longer possible in modern vehicles). The jolt as the engine fired generated immediate, predictable cries of surprise (their usual old/ high-pitched strain) before dying away (gradual declension).

  • Glenshane Pass: pass through the Sperrin Mountains between Heaney’s home and Derry where he attended St Columb’s College as a weekly boarder;
  • ‘Trail of Tears’: in 1838 and 1839, as part of US President Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal policy, the Cherokee nation was forced to give up its lands east of the Mississippi River and to migrate to an area in present-day Oklahoma. The Cherokee people called this journey the “Trail of Tears,” because of its devastating effects;
  • boarding school: where students remain in residence overnight rather than returning home each evening;
  • Sir John Davies: British poet, lawyer and Member of Parliament, later appointed Attorney General; arrived in Dublin in 1603 following events in Ireland and reporting his findings to Whitehall; Davies became heavily involved in government efforts to establish a plantation in the lately rebellious province of Ulster. In September 1607, he delivered to Cecil his report of the Flight of the Earls, a seminal event in Irish history and, before long, had travelled into the absent earls’ territories to lay indictments against them there. In August 1608, he went with Chichester to view the lands turned over to the British state, reporting that the people “wondered as much to see the king’s deputy as the ghosts in Vurgil wondered to see AEneas alive in hell[sic]”. In October he was in England, pushing for theplantation of the province.
  • Arthur Chichester (1563-1625); Lord Deputy of Ireland imposed by the British crown; leading figure in the so-called Ulster Plantations that appropriated land replacing Irish landowners by non-Catholic Scots; in the Dungannon area in 1608;
  • Virgil/ Aeneas: see the collection’s first poem The Golden Bough
  • lover country: where couples could share intimacy in private;
  • drive-in: without leaving their vehicle;
  • play possum: pretend to be asleep;
  • dormant: slumbering, resting;
  • hill-fort: type of earthworks used as a fortified refuge or defended settlement, located to exploit a rise in elevation for defensive advantage. They are typically European and of the Bronze and Iron Ages;
  • empowered: entitled, permitted;
  • constrained: checked;
  • licit: permissible, allowed
  • fall short: fail to achieve;
  • lure: tempt, entice;
  • nest: snug hidey-hole, retreat
  • rushes: tall wetland plants;
  • heather bells purple flowered heathland plant;
  • unbruised: injured, flatten;
  • love-drink: elixir:
  • fasted: hungry, starved
  • brae: hillside, steep slope;
  • barony: territorial divisions of Ireland after 16th century;
  • cantred: Anglo-Norman territorial divisions of Ireland;
  • Heaney describes a method of starting the car without using the starter-motor: with the ignition turned on and thecar in gear with the clutch depressed, the handbrake is slowly released (eased), the car gains momentum (freewheel), the clutch is engaged (into gear)  and the engine springs to life;
  • declension: return to calm normality;


  • 6 verses of varying length in 9 sentences; line length based on 10 syllables; unrhymed;
  • balance between punctuated and enjambed lines marks the dynamic flow;
  • autobiographical; the Heaneys thinly disguised as ‘they’;
  • adjective used as noun: ‘the licit’;
  • oxymoron effect: ‘empowered … constrained’;
  • personification effect: windscreens sleep; cars assume animal qualities (‘possum’);
  • part of the new aesthetic of Seeing Things lies in the abundance of light effects and angles: close and distant; openings that reveal vast open spaces; reflections confined to puddles;
  • also the collection’s translucence – the contrast of ‘diaphanous’ see-through limpidity and dense impenetrable ‘mass’; challenging the poet’s word hoard, demanding of the reader;
  • also via the variety of new angles: horizontal or vertical meeting points where things seen are re-seen’, alternative ‘realities’ that create crossing points; vertical points where layers of perception are superimposed one on top the other;


  • Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to.
  • the music of the poem: fourteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text:


  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats, soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies; this is sonic engineering of the first order;
  • for example, the final four lines lines interweave bi-labial plosives [b] [p], alveolar plosives [t] [d],velar plosives [k] [g] sibilant variants [s] [z] and labio dental fricatives [f] [v];
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;