Crossings xxxvi


From cover to cover Seeing Things features a series of interfaces: journeys in and out of real world situations; between real and mythical; between secular and spiritual; between existence and annihilation; between objective and subjective; from the present into the future; between first order experience and seeing it again enhanced. Such crossings  require a range of boundaries: doors, windows, gates, casements, the road separating peace marchers from their getaway cars and running the gauntlet of murderous groups lurking in the shadows .

MP (115) provides an insight and perhaps the basis for the story: on one occasion following Bloody Sunday, Catholic Heaney attended a protest march with Protestant fellow poet Michael Longley: the latter asked him how they should answer if approached by a sectarian murder squad of unclear religious persuasion. Heaney replied simply ‘I think we should sink or swim by what we are.

Two upstanding poets amongst a group of Dante-like marchers (we, too) who imagined they were following  ‘the paths of righteousness’ as Psalm 23 puts it, confess that they found themselves in the ‘valley  of the shadow of death’, on a Dante-like civil rights journey through a hostile sectarian neighbourhood once. In darkness.

Far from ‘fearing no evil’ with all the streetlamps off they felt threatened as danger gathered and decided to pack it in (the march dispersed).

The scene is pure Dante: a stranded group of protesting souls eager to cross the road to safety. Heaney’s classical correspondence is more memorable resembling one of Dante’s head-clearing similes: the firefly glow on the hillside that concealed danger in Inferno xvi and the torches carried by the forces of order, ostensibly beckoning and reassuring (Clustered and flicked and tempted us to trust) but offering no real guarantee (unpredictable).

Like something out of Dante the herded protesters saw no alternative but to cross and did cross like stampeding cattle (panic) to safety(car/ Parked as we’d left it).

The car’s suspension (gave when we got in) brings the Dantean tale to an appropriate end mimicking the shifting buoyancy of Charon’s boat as Dante and Virgil (the faring poets) prepared to be ferried across the Styx.

  • march: the Civil Rights Movement organized marches opposing sectarian violence in Ulster; Heaney joined of them in the late 60s even though they were against the law and despite examples of marchers being singled out and treated with violence by gangs;
  • policemen: the Royal Ulster Constabulary was a protestant body and the civil rights marchers predominantly minority Catholic;
  • disperse: break up, split up;
  • scene from Dante/ herded shades/ Charon’s boat: references from the Divine Comedy where the ghosts of the dead gathered to be transported by Charon across the Styx to Hades;
  • head-clearing: cutting through the welter of ideas and images;
  • simile: emphatic comparison between two objects;
  • firefly: a beetle producing flashes of light to attract prospective mates; reference to Canto xxvi where Dante recounts the Simile of the Fireflies: a peasant looking down on the creatures’ glow fails to appreciate the hellish dangers they may be concealing;
  • cluster: bunch together;
  • flicked: now turned on, now off;
  • give: sag beneath weight;
  • faring: travelling; poets: reference to Dante’s journey through Hell, guided by the ancient Roman poet Virgil;


NC 180 severaI others in the sequence … reactivate traditional Chris­tian and classical associations in ways that join together secular and spiritual significance or enlarge the apparently routine or trivial beyond its usual bounds.  In Crossings xxxvi panic during the aftermath of a march in the North is re-imagined in Dantean terms, with the car which the friends re-enter giving ‘Like Charon’s boat under the faring poets’…These enlargements of the commonplace when it is brought into apposition with the Christian and classical are managed with tact and finesse in the sequence; there is a vibrantly authoritative assurance in Heaney’s tone and address;


  • The 48 poems of the ‘Squarings’ sequences follow an identical format (12 lines in 4 triplets}; Heaney suggests the format just happened that way: ‘given, strange and unexpected’ … ‘I didn’t quite know where it came from but I knew immediately it was there to stay’) DOD 321;
  • 4 triplets; line length based around 10 syllables; unrhymed;
  • 6-sentence structure: 1-5 in quick succession as fear builds; Christian associations; 6 divided by a dash: the marchers’ dilemma – classical association used to portray the erratic behaviour of the RUC; 6 Dante’s poets and real-life poets in apposition;
  • ostensibly affirmative ‘yes’ slowly eroded by what followed, eventually leading to a positive ending;
  • vocabulary selected to reveal Psalm 23 – potential violence in religious enclaves;
  • Dante-style language: ‘herded shades … faring poets’.
  • triple verbal cluster: ‘ clustered … flicked … tempted’;
  • warning via emphatic juxtaposition: ‘unpredicatble’ (erratic) yet ‘attractive’ (‘pleasing and magnetic, difficult to resist’;
  • 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: thirteen 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 first four lines are dominated by alveolar plosives [d] [t] and nasals [m][n] alongside front-of-mouth sounds [f] [l] [w] and sibilant [s];
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;