The current commentaries are dedicated to friend, former colleague and published poet Michael Woods who presented me with the volume back in July 2002 ‘in time that was extra, unforeseen and free’; I am only sorry, Michael that it took me more than 15 years to thank you in the way you deserve.
Seeing Things published by Faber & Faber in 1991 is Seamus Heaney’s ninth collection. It supplements the accessibility, erudition and vitality of his earlier poems with a novel, geometrical pattern of sequences that break the Heaney mould. This, his previous and subsequent collections over more than half a century confirm Heaney’s place at the very top of the premier league of 20th century poets writing in English.
The textual commentaries that follow seek to tease out what Heaney’s poems are intimating in Seeing Things. Heaney wrote to fulfil his writerly aspirations. His ‘messages’ started life as essentially personal ones, not intended primarily for his reader; accordingly, there are moments when some serious unravelling is required. In the case of a poet as accomplished, complex and focused as Heaney, the rewards for persevering are at once enriching, fortifying and hugely pleasurable.
There are issues, too, beyond ‘the text, the whole text and nothing but the text’: there is the question of ‘style’, that is, the combination of language and poetic devices deliberately selected by the poet to carry his narrative forward; then there is the matter of Heaney’s appeal to the ear, the poem intended as a song to be heard and enjoyed or, to the mind’s eye, a picture to be ‘seen’ and felt. These issues are explored in individual commentaries and summarised at the end.
The following introductory notes, textual surveys and footnotes are largely personal. The approach is not calculated to promote any particular viewpoint.
In support of students whose first language may not be English, definitions are designed to be as helpful as possible.
The commentaries are enriched from the sources below:
Seamus Heaney: ‘Seeing Things’, Faber and Faber, 1991
Michael Parker ‘Seamus Heaney, The Making of the Poet’ published by Macmillan 1993 (MP)
Helen Vendler: ‘Seamus Heaney’ published by Harvard University Press 1998 (HV)
Neil Corcoran: ‘The Poetry of Seamus Heaney’ published by Faber 1998 (NC)
Dennis O’Driscoll: ‘Stepping Stones, Interviews with Seamus Heaney’ published by Faber 2008 (DOD)
- Selective biography
- Seeing Things – what’s in a title?
- the final unroofing
- beyond the instant of death … is there anything more?
- shades, spirits and departed souls
- lines of perception – the gridline effect
- narrow-screen effects
- full screen effects
- the bird’s-eye-view effect
- layers of perception – the sound effect
- the hieroglyph effect
- light effects
- the geometry of Part ii
- starting points: the early years
- staring points: the Irish underlay
- starting points: friends and family
- the man who saw it all
- 1973 – daughter Catherine Ann born
- 1984 – death of his mother in the year Station Island was published;
- temporary contracts at Harvard are replaced by a tenured status whereby Heaney will return to the USA as part of a pre-arranged programme; he has a clear sight of his schedule and the financial arrangements that will enable him to pay his bills and raise a family;
- 1985 – a Russian visit and contacts within the Communist bloc;
- in celebration of the 350th anniversary of Harvard in 1986 Heaney is commissioned to write ‘Villanelle for an Anniversary’, reciting it to a convocation of over 20,000 Harvard graduates and guests on 5 September;
- 1986 – death of his father Patrick in October; Heaney is ‘unroofed’ and deeply affected by his loss;
- 1987 – in the year The Haw Lantern collection is published Enniskillen is bombed on Remembrance Day;
- 1987-8 – Heaney spends the full academic year in Harvard with wife Marie, son Christopher and daughter Catherine Ann;
- 1988-9 The Government of the Tongue is published and Heaney delivers the first Richard Ellmann Memorial Lectures at Emory University, Atlanta, under the general title ‘The Place of Writing’; an International Writers’ Conference in Dun Laoghaire brought him contact with Joseph Brodsky, Les Murray and Derek Walcott; the Heaneys purchase Glanmore Cottage from Ann Saddlemyer after a period of tenancy; his fiftieth birthday is celebrated by his first visit to Rome, with wife, Marie and close friends; during the summer he is elected Oxford University Professor of Poetry; he shares a joint celebratory poetry reading at the Gate Theatre in Dublin: John Montague at sixty and Heaney at fifty;
- 1991 – Seeing Things
As a veteran of eight collections and with a ninth in the making Heaney referred to his personal pattern of creativity: renewed surges of endeavour in life or art in a recurrent cycle of three phases: getting started, keeping going and getting started again. Some books are a matter of keeping going; some – if you’re lucky – get you started again. Seeing Things was a new start.
Seeing Things – what’s in a title
The collection’s title is thought-provoking… it carries in the same phrase the twin possibility of revelation and delusion. It alludes to the challenge Heaney has set himself: (at its simplest) ‘revisit primary experience’… ‘sift through it with fresh eyes’ … ‘tease out and credit the marvels you failed to notice first time round’. Heaney hopes that the coincidental spiritual refreshment and self-awareness will bring him to a moment of epiphany… when he can genuinely say he is ‘in step with what escaped me’.
In a curious way Heaney accepts in Settings xiii that time elapsed has transformed him into a kind of revenant himself: ’Re-enter this as the adult of solitude, he tells himself, the silence forder and the definite presence you sensed withdrawing first time round’.
The death of his father, Patrick, has ‘unroofed’ him and made a major contribution to his sense of solitude. Heaney’s enhanced sense of mortality and a growing conviction that death obliterates everything are part of an in-depth reassessment of the ‘old certainties’ not least the Catholic doctrine that still resonates in his psyche despite his acknowledged lapse. The conclusion he came to was to firm up his thinking and expound it using innovative approaches … find the extra stamina and start again … ‘a second wind, a fresh start.’, as he explained to DOD (p.322)
To Helen Vendler ‘the first import of the title Seeing Things led Heaney to re-inspect the phenomenal world in the aftermath of death’ (p.138).
Heaney acknowledges the twin presence of life and death by reference to ‘air and ocean known as antecedents of each other’ (Settings xxiv) , working off each since forever and in every place; this brought fresh thinking and innovative compositional methods to the table that contrasted strongly with previous collections.
Helen Vendler summed up Heaney’s change of direction (150): It was a great surprise to many of Heaney’s readers – fresh from the archaeological rites of North, the actual Irish persons and contemporary events of ‘Station Island’ and the political parables of The Haw Lantern – to come upon the abstract, unmythologized and mostly unpolitical hieroglyphs of Seeing Things. The volume proves the degree to which, for a poet, a new sense of life must generate a new style.
HV also identifies a variant of an established poetic genre: in that Heaney has accepted the co-presence of life and death so conditionally If the stasis (state of inactivity or balance), hiatus and stillness of this knowledge permeate Seeing Things, as they do; if spirit is in the ascendancy over matter; if speculation supervenes over certainty; then Heaney has honoured the shock and rupture of death as it deserves to be honoured. He has written a new chapter in the history of elegy, foregoing (for the most part) both the mournful conventions of lament and the transcendent conventions of apotheosis (p.152).
the final unroofing
DOD wondered what impact the loss of both Heaney’s parents made on the Seeing Things collection. Heaney responded: There was … a recognition that nothing can be learned, that to be in the presence of a death is to be in the presence of something utterly simple and utterly mysterious. In my case, the experience restored the right to use words like soul and spirit,
For sure the loss of Heaney’s father was a particular blow to him: Patrick Heaney’s death in October 1986 aroused a host of associations and his father, man and ghost, superman or sorry figure, helps the poet to re-order their awkward father-son relationship.
In conversation with DOD (p 322) Heaney described the death of his father as ‘ the final ‘unroofing’ of the world … it affected me in ways that were hidden from me then and now’.
The poet’s first collection, Death of a Naturalist of 1965 features both Patrick Heaney, very much alive and gardening beneath the poet’s window, and his grandfather, who could cut turf as well as any other. Heaney noted then and will return to it in Seeing Things that grids, lines and orderliness, were part their nature – the grandfather ‘nicking and slicing’ turf in ‘Digging’ then Patrick Heaney’s ‘eye narrowed and angled at the ground, mapping the furrow exactly’, as he ploughed. In contrast, the rough and ready touchlines of a school-boy soccer pitch in a Mossbawn field in Markings suggest that at that stage Heaney still had a way to go ordering and perfecting his own compositional skills.
1.1.87 focuses on New Year’s Day, fewer than three months after Patrick Heaney’s death as the poet faces midwinter still burning with the pain of bereavement. He expresses his deepest emotional feelings in three short lines. In similar format August Night recalls the movements of his father’s hands ‘warm, small and knowledgeable’ his restless fingers ‘like two ferrets playing all by themselves’; Man and Boy contributes to a retuning of the father/ son radio: the role model whom Heaney would one day emulate in his dealings with his own children chides his 1940s children for being cheeky and, to their rolling eyes, tells unfunny jokes; The Pitchfork acknowledges another debt to a father who acted as a soul-guide in his son’s desire to seek perfection.
In Crossings xxvii Patrick Heaney’s advice to a sister reveals his reticent personality, his laboured sense of humour and his get-on-with-it attitude – all in all Heaney describes a worthy man fit for this world and for whatever came next, feet-on-the-ground, professionally strong … a Hermes figure amongst his peers … the shrewd Ulster cattle-wheeler-dealer who guided the soul of a son on his own existential journey.
Seeing Things III is set as a traditional fairy-tale with a happy ending: a fictitious face-to-face with the poet’s father alive then now dead, Heaney a boy then, now a man. MP (219) paints the picture of Heaney’s‘ generally solid, stolid father pitched off balance into a deep stream. ‘Cartwheels, barrel/ And tackle’ tumbling into a whirlpool in a fall presaging his final ‘fall’. With typical deftness, Heaney completes the picture focusing on the farmer’s hat carried ‘merrily’ along to ‘the quieter reaches’. The near disaster reduced the filial perception of his father from superman to vulnerable figure deserving of support. The image was sufficient to sweep away the awkwardnesses of father/ son relations.
Neil Corcoran (170) describes the story as an example of the collection’s ‘utter visibility’ within which a deceased yet living father in the context of a fairy tale is ‘re-presented with ‘his ghosthood immanent’ (remaining within, the opposite of transcendent). Patrick Heaney’s brush with accidental death though fictitious abides within this poem for as long as it survives in the permanent residence of writing itself.
Settings xv is an outstanding word-picture commemorating a unique ‘burnished’ memory: Heaney observes his father seeking to repay some debt or other and selecting a home-produced pork joint preserved in a salty tea-chest; Heaney feels the privilege of being grateful heir to a hard-earned treasure carefully and jealously guarded.
Used as the title of The Ash Plant his father’s iconic walking stick provides a rueful epitaph for the frail old man, in decline but fundamentally unchanged, grasping instinctively for his stick when off balance and ever dismissive of those who did not meet his high expectations: ‘I could have cut a better man out of a hedge’.
Like Aeneas in The Golden Bough whose quest is to meet his father’s shade, Heaney and his father come face to face in Crossings xxxii, not in a Virgilian underworld but amidst the running water and bridges of their shared rural Ulster landscape where the sound of familiar dialect words takes Heaney home and calms him … at a crossing point on a causey, his father’s shade engaged as his nature dictated in checking other people’s competence!
Crossings xxxiii recalls the deeply emotional moment of severance: his filial duty accomplished, Heaney walks away from the paternal home stripped now of his father’s personal effects. No more Patrick Heaney and yet the house that Patrick Heaney built now ‘stands for its own idea’, a hieroglyph of origin that keeps paternal associations alive, a dead ringer for the father who built it (‘plain, big, straight, ordinary, you know’) ever present as a surviving building and in a poem.
Man and Boy II links three generations of the male Heaney line recalling the day his grandfather died and his father’s unpreparedness for the dreadful reality that hit him out of the blue. The piece brings out the collection’s motif of circularity: the never ending cycle of life and annihilation, the leaping salmon that re-enters the pool through its own ‘concentric soundwaves’, the Irish rural farmworker with a scythe who creates a perfect circle in the centre of which he stands … the mown stubble turns clock-face, the mower resolves into the ‘grim reaper’ sending the ‘barefoot boy’ home with a message that will bring him to the door behind which his father has died; the same father, then a boy, whose ‘quick heels far away and strange as my own’ would one day carry Heaney round the farm on his shoulders and then in his turn depart this world. The present tense gives the poem immediacy; repeated ‘h’ sounds echo the breathless foreboding of the instant.
beyond the instant of death … is there anything more?
In conversation with DOD, Heaney alluded to a shyness derived from a complicated relationship with my own Catholic past. In many ways I love it and have never quite left it, and in other ways I suspect it for having given me such ready access to a compensatory supernatural vocabulary. But experiencing my parents’ deaths restored some of the verity to that vocabulary. These words, I realized, aren’t obfuscation. They have to do with the spirit of life that is within us
Heaney’s comment illustrates a dilemma of conscience before revealing how he stands in what is a big, sensitive issue for him. Those who followed Heaney’s responses to Ulster’s troubled times both on the written page and the public platform will recognize his natural reluctance to paint himself into a corner and become a spokesman for one side or the other. His sympathies however emerge clearly from the small print of his poetry.
Helen Vendler seems to have sensed that a similar mind-set applies to Seeing Things when, couching it in a conditional ‘if’ sentence, she suggests that ‘spirit is in the ascendancy over matter and speculation supervenes over certainty’ (152).
The inevitability of death could not be clearer to Heaney than it was at that moment and the issues raised are understandable: have the departed souls and spirits gone somewhere else after the moment of death? If so, was their destination the one that Catholic doctrine envisages? Or did they descend into an underworld of classical model? Or does death simply mean annihilation – absolutely nothing surviving the instant of dying.
For sure Heaney has distanced himself from orthodox belief and is happy to speak of souls and spirits. When he looks up into the airy structure where his Catholic heaven was figured to reside he sees sky, light, space and scope; he places Catholic teachings and classical mythology in apposition; he introduces the underworld haunts of departed souls.
Whether Heaney’s position on these matters is final or provisional, or indeed not his real view at all, is neither here nor there- He is a poet writing in a certain place at a certain moment in time and his feelings are those of Seeing Things as the collection hits the bookshelves in June 1991.
Also, implicit in the final phrase of his comment to DOD above, Heaney has concluded he only count for sure on life and that life is limited. He has elected (my words, not his) to take a journey over old ground, tease out the undeclared marvels of his time on earth so far and, if the hidden message of Squarings xlvi is properly understood, avoid the need to keep discussing metaphysical matters.
Lightenings I seems pivotal: in a roofless farmstead a shivering vagrant, a surrogate Heaney figure left roofless by the death of his father, waits. The notion that his individual soul will be judged after death is distant from his mind … but he has learnt that death is universal and inevitable. Looking into the space where heaven should be brings only consciousness of what the universe above and around him has to offer.
Looking upwards through eyes made ‘intensely perceptive by unignorable annihilation’ (HV138) Heaney’ surrogate mulls his dilemma: his senses perceive ‘Unroofed scope’, ‘Knowledge-freshening wind’, ‘soul-free cloud life’ and yet the old hearth and the old certainties retain an afterlife in the real Heaney’s imagination.
HV (p.136) offers her take: Heaney is reversing the religious practice of ‘raising up one’s eyes to an idealized and transcendent space’ and seeking ultimate value in what he can behold on earth, now. To deal with them he rekindles memories of primary experience. Re-sifting them through the eyes of a fifty year old has necessitated a change of style and presentation.
Lightenings I reveals that Heaney no longer believes in the ‘particular judgment’ of Catholic doctrine, discarding as fiction that one is ‘judged, alone, exposed to the gaze of God, after death’ – his new truth – ‘there is no next-time round’ emerges from ‘the central image of chilly reflection, which is no longer the family hearth with the warmth of first-order fire, but rather the inhuman but beautiful cloud-life reflected in the second order puddle of reflection (HV141). Coincidentally Heaney challenged the suggestions that ‘no next time round’ was his agnostic starting point in the collection, deflecting the comment towards the numinous correspondence with ’scope’.
In Squarings xliv, in response to a metaphysical poet’s assurance of radiant afterlife (‘All gone into the world of light’), whilst logic dictates that this thesis will be either right or wrong but not both, Heaney avers that death is final (means ‘all gone’) ergo existence is paramount and images of transience and finality are allowed to creep in: ‘dead leaf … ashes … dust’.
Lightenings xii is prompted by a dictionary definition (a ‘flaring of the spirit just before death’) … Heaney chews over the link between imminent death and a soaring of the spirit – in the bleak landscape of Calvary the ‘good thief’ in his death-agony scans ’empty space’ where he imagined heaven to be.
As if to draw a line under the issue Squarings xlvi recalls a very special Ulster landscape overtaken by the sound of Irish fiddle music. Heaney ponders then seems to nod: if some see music as a manifestation of God’s presence in the world and thereby a proof of His existence, so be it. But when the humble Irish fiddle creates a sublime moment down here on my cherished earthly patch then frankly I feel no need to spend time worrying about it.
Ultimately, for all the annihilation in the air, Heaney’s poetry is rooted very much on the side of life.
Heaney expressed the numinous connotations of ‘scope’ to DOD above, but the term opens other lines of interest: not only does it have everything to do with visibility and light but also a sense of ‘furtherance’ both the distance the eye can reach and the distance to which the mind and the imagination can stretch.
In Lightenings x the challenge facing the Wordsworthian observer astride a crag top and caught midway between the ‘diaphanous … cargoed brightness’ of the airy structure above the ‘stony up-againstness’ of earth below is to stop dithering: don’t let the brightness blind you, a voice says, enjoy the scope that the mystical space above offers you, live with the unignorable reality that one day you will depart this world. Crossings xxxi describes increasing thrust that reaches take-off speed – the poet morphs from a man behind the steering wheel of his car into the Heaney/ Sweeney birdman figure of Sweeney Redevivus lifting off to enjoy a sweeping bird’s eye view of his beautiful native Irish landscape, aerodynamic and emotionally supercharged.
‘Scope’ extends the range of intellectual and imaginative boundaries: In Squarings xxxix Heaney observes his wife taken up by the folkloric links that so interest her and the extraordinary geology of the Giant’s Causeway; in the flesh ostensibly a lean, ordinary mortal but mentally sharp, exposed to an experience that awakens new horizons and brings new scope to her mind.
Heaney links the earthly with the numinous: seen through fresh eyes in Squarings xli the cherished local river, the Moyulla, is tinged with Heaney’s new sense of annihilation that promotes fleeting pleasure, teasing contact and immersion; however in a new linkage the weeping willow branches that trail on its surface below complete an ‘electric’ circuit with the ‘airy structure’ above.
Heaney’s frisson of the numinous linked to ‘scope’ does not rest on traditional religious doctrine or language. He admitted to DOD: I’m much closer to the fundamentally Catholic mysticism in Kavanagh. My starlight came in over the half-door of a house with a clay floor, not over the dome of a Byzantine palace; and, in a hollowed-out part of the floor, there was a cat licking up the starlit milk (317).
He accepted DOD’s suggestion that WBYeats, deprived of religion in his youth proceeded to put together a do-it-yourself religion out of ‘a fardel of old stories’ but felt it did not apply to him: far from being deprived of religion in my youth, I was oversupplied.’ I lived with, and to some extent lived by, divine mysteries (318).
He articulated his enduring sense of Catholic suppression in The Biretta: the hard-edged tricorn biretta stood for: the hard line, the pulpit bark, the articulated and decided authority of unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam Ecclesiam (DOD327).
shades, spirits and departed souls
Seeing Things is rich in apparitions and departed souls from its opening snippet drawn from Virgil’s Aeneid book VI and the closing piece from Dante.
In The Golden Bough Aeneas’ quest to meet his father’s shadow will be fulfilled in the post mortem destination of souls which is Virgil’s mythological Underworld.
In the closing translation, The Crossing, from Dante’s Inferno, Canto III the poet Dante waits with fellow poet Virgil and a queue of dead souls for transport across the Styx into hell; the gruesome fate and the bullying to which the dead are exposed stands in bleak contrast to the radiant afterlife promised by metaphysical poets. Heaney is not persuaded by either representation.
In between we meet poet Philip Larkin in The Journey Back. Heaney sets Larkin’s final journey on a bus in a pre-Christmas rush hour. It’s as if he’s going home from work one more time and being allowed his own epiphany. In Field of Vision the increasingly limited outlook of old aunt Mary in her last years reinforced Heaney’s own need to move on. An August Night fixes on the nervous fidgeting of Patrick Heaney’s hands
Thomas Hardy appears in Lightenings vi portrayed as a precocious boy feigning death amongst a herd of sheep; the commotion he causes represents his initial impact on the living world – his small mass hitting water will create a mini tsunami. In Lightenings vii the ‘flaring of spirit ‘of a famed old man in his dotage figures Hardy as a very elderly man introducing himself to people as already dead and causing mild embarrassment amongst those present at social gatherings.
Dedications to Ted Hughes, John Hewitt, Tom Delaney, Richard Ellman, references to William Alfred and scenes from Pasternak’s dacha at Peredelkino recall personal friends and literary or academic giants.
In 3 Squarings’ poems, xxxxii, xlii and xlv, the apparitions of Irish forebears are conjured up: Heaney’s unorthodox metaphysics returns them uncomprehending to the territory of their previous lives; he shows reverence and affection but ‘without any ‘gloss of Christian consolation’ … ’its shades are kin in the pathos of their incomprehension and abandonment to those of the Virgilian and Dantean underworlds’(NC177).
In a collection filled with souls in transit Heaney provides ‘screens’ through which they can see and be seen or through which things physical or emotional can pass … a window, gate, skylight, porthole or casement. Their see-throughness compares with the solid door or Irish half-door that conceals who is about to step through or what lies in wait creating a suspense predicated on portent, intuition, shock or longing.
If not ‘screens’ then points where places meet, worlds meet, cultures meet, perceptions meet, where past meets present, where the ordinary meets the extraordinary, where fact meet fiction. Crossings are places where things collide, where realities or old certainties are questioned and emotions re-visited, where religion and mythology come face to face, where blessings are counted or where poetry provides the means to express new insights.
Examples abound. Virgil’s sibyl confirms to Aeneas that the key to opening ‘the King of the Underworld’s gateway ( ) black Pluto’s door’ is a golden bough; the salmon of Man and Boy re-enters the water through the concentric ripples of its leap; the black half of the half door conceals the death of his grandfather from his father; in Seeing Things II after his fictional accident Patrick Heaney stumbles through the farmyard gate a changed man; the dementia-suffering father of The Ash Plant can see his Ulster landscape through a picture window even if he can no longer make sense of it; in Field of Vision Aunt Mary follows the changing seasons through her annex window whilst her nephew, Heaney, his independence beckoning, sees the ‘well-braced gate’ both as emotional barrier and a lattice through which he can see the future; The Schoolbag breaches a crossing point between childhood and schooldays; the Glanmore bedroom window and its contested skylight let in fresh life and light; the door to the Hampton Court maze creates apprehension for a newly married couple; Pasternak’s window at Peredelkino sees into a chapter of Russian literary history; a ‘casement’ opens briefly in the Clonmacnoise poem to allow an alien sailor to experience something miraculous ‘as he had known it’; a car windscreen reveals a startled fox; a bus door opens on San Francisco’s Bay Bridge to consign a conscript to the hell of the Vietnam war; the half door of the archetypal Irish home of xl opens ‘directly into starlight’ and so on.
Access points provide for entry and exit, indeed the repeated reference to entry and its cognates become key to Heaney’s search for moments of revelation.
He offered his reader a clue as to how to ‘enter’ the Part II poems: You could think of every poem in ‘Squarings’ as the peg at the end of a tent-rope reaching up into the airy structure, but still with purchase on something earthier and more obscure.
Markings sets out the lines and grids used by boys on a meadow to define their football pitch or by a father to divide his vegetable patch or peg out the foundations of a house or envision straight furrows in a field under the plough. Together they form a body of knowledge and belong to the time it was gathered: ‘all these things entered you as if they were both the door and what came through it … they marked a spot, marked time and held it open’. In The Ash Plant, Patrick Heaney, hardly compos mentis in his last days, still follows his old working timetable by instinct ‘entered like a mirror by the morning’. Seamus Heaney, returning to Glanmore after absence feels like a trespasser: ‘I scared myself when I re-entered here, my own first breaker-in’; the newly-weds of A Royal Prospect are reluctant to enter the Hampton Court maze for fear of losing each other. The lessons taught by experiments with a rotating bicycle wheel in Wheels within Wheels entered Heaney ‘like an access of free power’.
Lightenings 1 has unfettered light enter a roofless wallstead. The sound of the sea enters the listener’s ear in Lightenings iv ‘like the steady message in a shell’. Standing before a house-door that he cannot see through (Crossings xxix) Heaney senses an absent ‘presence’ and dearly wants his deceased father to be the next person to ‘enter’. The folk who stepped through the Brigid girdle of Crossingsxxx told themselves that ‘the new life could be entered’; the humble Irish of xlv return to humble beginnings post-mortem: ‘re-enter dryness that was heaven on earth to them’.
lines of perception – the gridline effect
Heaney introduces the grids and lines in Seeing Things by which mentality re-orders the world. The marble pitch is set in concrete outside the Mossbawn farm. Heaney goes on to explain how the successive contortions of the poem’s young marble shooter are the very gridlines taken by the poet in later life to proceed with more poems. The builder’s squarings taken to refurbish Glanmore cottage in Lighteningsii are vital to secure ‘the bastion of sensation’ and the word-hoard. The railway lines of Settings xiv provide the ’immaculate line and shine’ that Heaney will one day follow. Barry Cooke’s extraordinary 1980s refurbishment in Thomastown, Co kilkenny of an abandoned handball alley (Lighteningsxii) recalls the artist’s very basic manual way of assessing perspective and size as he composes using his thumb.
As if imitating Cooke Heaney applies lines of longitude and latitude to his poetic canvasses, placing important elements at intersecting points, leading the observer’s eye into the picture, finding natural frames like doors and windows, varying pace with angled lines, composing or disrupting patterns, seeking symmetry or asymmetry.
The gates and windows he uses offer a conventional horizontal line of sight from close to far, from foreground to horizon and vice-versa. Heaney creates different effects:
The windows and gates, largely of Part I, provide those watching with an eye-level view of the actual world outside or the potential world ahead. Patrick Heaney mentally and physically incapacitated ‘stares out the big window, wondering not caring’; old aunt Mary ‘in a wheelchair’ looks ‘straight ahead’; Heaney in the same poem mulls the future through the bars of a gate; the working poet of 1973 hibernates ‘behind the dormer, staring’; the incoming light through the bedroom window of Bedside Reading raises the spirits; Pasternak’s window at Perdelkino looks out at a moment in Russian history when a creative spirit stood up to a tyrant; the personnel carrier of British soldiers in Ulster, viewed in Crossings xxvi through ‘windscreen glass’; the ice bound slide of Crossings xxviii is reflected down the length of a bottle; Heaney’s father’s ‘scatter-eyed’ return to the farm after an accident is seen from a window.
many eye-level scenes are described unframed: his father as child ‘running at ‘eye-level’ to learn his father has died; the foraging father of Settings xv with ’hurricane lamp held up at eye-level’; the hydrothermal bath with Snorri Sturluson in Settngs Xiii; the creative eye moving from foreground to horizon in search of poetic charge (Squarings xlvii)
the bird’s-eye-view effect
Heaney enables himself to exploit mystical potential by making very novel use of superimposed layers of perception – from the vast extension of the ‘airy structure’ above into the space below it, via the crag top on which the Wordsworthian observer perches to terra firma below and into domains beneath the earth.
The results are innovative and fascinating: bathed in solar light effects from above reflected back upwards by a puddle of water, the shivering, ‘unroofed’ beggar of Lightenings i mulls the dawning awareness that ‘there is no next-time-round’.
A real-life boat trip out of Inishbofin in the title poem brings an apprehensive youngster face to face with life’s abysses ‘deep, still, seeable-down-through water … as if I looked from another boat sailing through air far up’. At the same time the whiff of unignorable annihilation ‘we … loved in vain our bare, bowed, numbered heads’; the camera focussed on the ‘deserted harbour’ of Settings xxiiv dips below the surface to supplement the fullness of the moment but to remind of the apposition of life and death implicit in ‘air and ocean … antecedents of each other’.
The Clonmacnoise legend (Lightenings viii) superimposes a ship sailing above monks worshipping below and provides a magic casement through which an alien sailor experiences in a brief glimpse ‘the marvellous as he had known it’ (in parallel worlds those involved cannot survive long in a hostile atmosphere). The newly-weds of A Royal Prospect take a boat trip on the Thames where, ‘as in a black and white old grainy newsreel , their pleasure-boat sails at a level above ‘ spotlit … sunken bridges’, buffering them against unpleasant events. A memory-lane trip to the Glenshane Pass in A Retrospect takes Seamus and Marie Heaney ‘up and up’ from the valleys of history via ‘a ladder leaned against the world’ to the ’drive-in in the sky’ where they are parked..
For a brief moment an earthly mortal deprived of his father and a Norse god deprived of his catch (‘like some fabulous high-catcher coming down without the ball’) share similar feelings: Thor in A Haul is involved in a fishing mishap that leaves him all at sea … ‘at one with space, unroofed and obvious’; in Seeing Things iii Patrick Heaney, pitched into the river with all his paraphernalia, tumbles ‘off the world’; Heaney’s pitchfork in its perfect state resembles a space probe ‘sailing imperturbably through space’;
The child marble-shooter of Lightenings iii looks ahead from ‘a skylight of the world’; child Hardy amongst the sheep ‘experimented with infinity’; the ‘good thief’ of Lightenings xii scans the sky where heaven ought to be; the young sharpshooter of Settings xxi dispatches his target ‘across dark galaxies and senses he has committed a sin against ‘eternal life’; the politically unwelcome soldiers of Crossings xxvi are pictured at a crossing point between earth and hell; the notion of souls waiting in the ‘starry vestibule’ of Squarings xliv is no more likely or unlikely to Heaney at this stage than the Underworld alternatives of classical literature.
layers of perception – the sound effect
Lightenings iv provides a non-visual layer effect – the chatter of the audience in a classical Roman theatre is overtaken by a ‘stronger groundswell … resonating up through’, replaced by ‘wave upon wave’ of dramatic declamation both ‘airy’ and ‘earthed’. It is complemented in the very next piece by the mystical 3-noted melody of an ocarina instrument that bears the gridlines of the marble alley and produces ‘the ‘music of the arbitrary’ with its single-noted ‘undersong’ of breath resonating across the mouth of a bottle.
the hieroglyph effect
Seeing things produces hieroglyphs … symbolic abstractions … things that ‘stand for their own idea’ … whether ancient chiselled marks denoting ‘water’ or Chinese ideograms … from the unroofed wallstead sheltering a vagrant figure … to the house that Patrick Heaney built which keeps paternal associations alive … all these symbolic representations offset and survive the annihilating force of death.
Heaney introduces ‘hieroglyph’ in the title poem Seeing Things II that opens with ‘Claritas’. He has discovered a representation of Christ’s baptism chiselled into the façade of a cathedral and stands in awe of its claritas, its utter visibility, in which ‘the stone’s alive with what’s invisible’. He is re-expressing this visibility now in a poem having followed his Seeing Things ‘method’: seeing/ feeling once upon a time > storing/ memorializing once upon a time > revisiting/re-imagining now> crediting the extraordinary where he discovers it.
Settings xix compares memory with a city … organic, open to personal events and ‘fixed associations’ subjected now by the 50 year old mind to a system of grids and lines that place things ‘in meaningful order’ and links them to ‘ a code of images’. The house Patrick Heaney built in Crossings xxxiii ‘stood firmer than ever for its own idea’ as a paradigm of Patrick Heaney’s rigour and correction. Heaney’s desire to get to the subtle essence of things lies in his use of superlatives – things that are ‘utter’, ‘total’, or ‘sheer’ as in Settingsxxiii or things brought ‘to perfection’ as in Crossings xxviiii.
The ‘deserted harbour’ of Settings xxiv is both material presence and felt aura that generate a moment of full feeling that holds within it ‘the ever-present potential of the senses for a fuller happiness’(HV147). ‘The places I go back to have not failed but will not last’ said Heaney in Squarings xli to remind himself that hieroglyphs, here the Moyulla river, will forever abide both in his mind and his poem and, in that sense, survive the forces of annihilation.
The Cold Mountain poem (Squarings xxxvii) tells how the Chinese language and its calligraphic symbols can lead not to a single idea but to several ideas, each of them distinct one from another, and utterly visible in linguistic context. In contrast, the ‘calligraphic shocks’ of the fir trees of Crossings xxxi are deliberately part of a scene in which Heaney, driving faster and faster along a familiar road reaches take-off speed morphs into the Sweeney figure of Irish legend.
Seeing Things is super rich in luminosity … from the ‘shifting brilliances’ of the passing sky … to the glimmering ‘lucency’ of night fishing or the phosphorescence of rat poison … from the ‘burnished’ canvas of a father selecting home produced pork joints from a tea-chest … to the radiance and warmth bestowed upon long departed Irish peat-cutters ‘like a far hill in s freak of sunshine’.
Neil Corcoran (174) describes the ‘Squarings’ sequences as an opulent () lexicon of luminosity. He jots down nearly a score of words from Part II alone: brilliancies, radiance, blazing, dawning, brightness, illumination, flaring, sealight, glitter, shine, gleam, burnish, phosphorescence, beaming, shimmer, flashing, fireflies, starlight.
the geometry of Part II
The unprecedented geometrical pattern of Part II breaks the Heaney mould: It felt given, strange and unexpected, he said … I didn’t quite know where it came from, but I knew immediately it was there to stay … lines of poetry kept popping up … poems were written against the clock … I felt like a kid skimming stones, skittering and frittering across water
His comments to DOD (p.319+) provide comprehensive insights:
An inspirational flow occurred over sixteen to eighteen months from September 1988 until the end of the next year; he adapted his personal calendar to cope with what might go away: I had a year off from teaching and dedicated myself to following the impulse of the creative sprint. Those poems were, in a way, written against the clock. In a couple of hours, an hour, even less; I’d have a go and revise it later. There was an air of devil-may-careness, abandon, a certain hurtle.
He experienced an unexpected moment of lift-off … a given note. An out-of-the-blueness. The first one came through unexpectedly, but feeling as if it had been pre-formed … I’d been working for weeks in the National Library in Dublin and on the day I finished, in the library, the first words of the first poem in “Lightenings” came to me, as if they had been embossed on my tongue … I felt exhilarated. The lines were unlike what I’d been writing. So I just went with it;
He repeated the exercise provided by initial stimulus … in a couple of days I’d written the first three poems – in the order in which they eventually appeared in the book. The form operated for me as a generator of poetry (DOD320);
The marble shooting poem had given him the opportunity to explain how the squarings taken by the marble player suggested ways of proceeding with more poems. In this case the end pattern emerged: 48, a four-square pattern, each square twelve twelve-liners.
The title of the first section, ‘Lightenings’, arrived by accident, when I found a dictionary entry that gives it to mean a flaring of the spirit at the moment before death’. And there were also the attendant meanings of being unburdened and being illuminated, all of which fitted what was going on as the first poems got written.
‘Settings’ painted a set of backdrops against which personal events and dramas were played out.
The idea behind ‘Crossings’ is more complex. Heaney alludes to WB Yeats who, after the publication of The Second Coming in book form in 1921, decide to try and explain the source of some of his imagery and thinking. He gave some idea of the main elements in a System that was emerging in his own thinking involving ‘mathematical diagrams’, ‘squares and spheres, cones made up of revolving gyres intersecting each other at various angles, figures sometimes of great complexity’, but the explanation for these ‘is founded upon a single fundamental thought. The mind, whether expressed in history or in the individual life, has a precise movement, which can be quickened or slackened but cannot be fundamentally altered, and this movement can be expressed by a mathematical form and this form is the gyre.
… the final 12 ‘Squarings’ poems tidy up loose ends … confirm intrinsic Irishness … shed light on Heaney’s creative mind for ever on the qui-vive … enable him to take the measure of the self.
Heaney commented on this unprecedented turn of events: I may exaggerate but I don’t misrepresent if I say that, in general, I was subject to the poems and not the other way round (DOD);
The experience taught him the difference between les vers donnés (spontaneous/ given/ lines that came from nowhere) and les vers calculés (lines that had to be worked on). I learned what inspiration feels like but not how to summon it. Which is to say that I learned that waiting is part of the work.
Heaney perceived sonic effects as he listened internally to the words he was being fed: The excitement for me was in a pitch of voice, a feeling of being able to make swoops and connections, being able to get into little coffers of pastness, things I had remembered that never thought of writing about … At that time I was able to range all over the place, whatever kind of melt or skim or glancing was going on. And I gave myself permission, as they say, to go with it. The arbitrariness of the twelve-line form, the impulse and swiftness of it made me feel different from myself for a while. (DOD);
starting points: the early years
A summary of this part of Heaney’s life helps clarify references: he spent his early years on the family farm in Mossbawn and later, in his mid-teens, following the death of younger brother Christopher in a car accident outside the farm in 1953, at The Wood inherited from uncle Hughie Scullion; his primary education was at Anahorish school where his precocious intelligence was honed by the head-master such that he was awarded a scholarship to the highly academic St Columb’s College in Derry. The package involved exile from the family home, weekly boarding and compulsory games, not always to Heaney’s taste. It did lead, however, to a glittering future.
Markings described a kick-about soccer game set in one of our own fields at Mossbawn with improvised touch-lines marked by the young players; what it signalled in Heaney’s mind as a future poet was that the game continued as if by magic after seeing became impossible. In Three Drawings the ball punting associated with Irish-rules football games that Heaney played at St Columb’s left a symbolic mark on the poet-to-be that somehow made the unenjoyable experience worthwhile – without his punt the football would have had no forward momentum, read ‘no poetic aspirations would have been generated’; without the ball there would have been no game, read ‘no poetry composed’
The Biretta remembered from a famous painting in an Irish gallery recalls the priests’ hats Heaney saw and handled as an altar boy in his local church. His bored imagination conjured up a series of associations … from a snippet out of Caesar’s history of Gaul, to a stealth bomber, to a bronze-age boat; above all it left and an abiding memory of Catholic zealotry: the hard line, the pulpit bark, the articulated and decided authority of Catholicism.
Fun activities around the farm taught Heaney lessons: Wheels within Wheels describes the thrill of putting his bicycle to experimental use … watching and recording what happened as he pedaled the upended wheel, then, through the
gateway to progressive thinking, throwing earth and water into the mix … only to discover a whiff of annihilation: without maintenance everything seizes up! In a free frolic of imagination wheel-spinning on the farm extends to things that spin … gyrating wild-west lariats in a childhood circus-ring.
Settings xiv – viewed from middle age the railway cutting close to Heaney’s home was a melting-pot in which his future was being formed. He wandered free, an innocent abroad in sense-data-rich surroundings, alert to the marks of nature and of man. He sees it all now as a moment of stasis with everything in play and in the balance… the promise of things to come marked by positives … but on hold.
In Settings xvi the Heaney family, sensitive to the sound of rodents in barns and roof spaces and their risk to health used rat poison to control them; young Heaney was struck as much by the mystical change in the poison’s colouring as by its evident killing power.
In Settings xviii the precocious young Heaney is observed by his over-fifty-self who credits his early sense of discernment … the boy took against the smutty double-entendres of a rope salesman at a country fair and noted with some satisfaction that the self-aggrandizing fellow became the sad individual that he was once the fair ended.
Settings xxi re-visits the exhilaration of firing an air-rifle for the first and only time and hitting the target; Heaney asks himself now why he failed to recognize the destructive power of the weapon; in a re-appraisal that keeps both agnostic and Christian doors open he feels guilty of catapulting a white handkerchief ‘victim’ across ‘dark galaxies’ and committing a ‘sin’ against ‘eternal life’.
Crossings xxviii recounts how Heaney and his school chums turned a strip of ice on a frozen pond into something extraordinary; the more they slid along it the better it got – the act of sliding became an addictive pleasure, a risk worth taking, brought recognition of fear overcome and a furthering of the self.
In a further memory of adolescence: Crossings xxxv describes the revenge of hormonal weekend boarders with the first signs of facial hair and unhealthy proclivities imprisoned inside St Columb’s College in Derry. Excluded from the freedoms being enjoyed outside their school prison, their ingenious minds use a shaving mirror to deflect the sun’s rays and get their own back by disrupting the pleasure of those on the other side of the Foyle river.
starting points: the Irish underlay
The Settle Bed tells of a hulking piece of unmistakably Irish furniture inherited from an aunt. Heaney imagines it could be used to reconcile sectarian differences if it were showered down en masse – a chunk of shared Irishness to put an end to the sectarian tit-for-tat of Ulster violence. For all its ugliness Heaney credits it as ‘a fine and private place’, like Glanmore cottage which became its home.
A Retrospect: the unpredictability and changeability of water and sky prompt the poet into new and unusual takes
on his cherished local landscapes. The first piece paints a lyrical watercolour in words of an Irish lough-scape.
Itinerant tinkers appeared regularly in Heaney’s early life – wily, artful figures creating an Irish folklore rich in myths and anecdotes. Fosterling includes a tale of tinker cunning that gave a hefty boost to Heaney’s spirits: a ‘tree-clock of tin cans’, it was said, enabled a slow-witted Irish community who had sold their souls to the devil to confuse him and escape his clutches. From a later period Lightenings xi turns its lens on a ‘would-you-believe it’ moment of Irish community life revealing a disused handball alley refurbished by a close artist friend for a fellow artist, an extraordinary ‘new lamp for old’, created by Barry Cooke regarded by Heaney as a colossus in his artistic field.
Eels were familiar to Heaney via a Lough Neagh family business on his wife’s side and an earlier primary school pupil who wore a smelly eel garment. Settings xvii settles on the supposed curative property of eelskin, said to renew energy and sensitivity to the fingers. Heaney has spotted a neat correspondence with his own poetic world.
On St Brigid’s Day people traditionally stepped into and through a girdle of plaited straw, a Christian and Celtic ritual. In Crossings xxx Heaney wonders what gain they anticipated from this exercise in superstition: renewed hopes, new horizons, sharpened sensual perception … the end of winter.
Set around the running water and bridges of Heaney’s rural Ulster landscape Crossings xxxii acts as a crossing point to pastures new, chronicles early rites of passage. The sound of familiar dialect words takes Heaney home, calms him. The same rural scene that permits a father’s shade and living son to come face to face conjures up the long dead farm labourers and turf cutters of Heaney’s ken, poised to cross from the earthly shore towards whatever lay on the other side. Squarings xl revisits an archetypal Irish dwelling Heaney first met in the 1940s, … clay floored, lacking in hygiene but above all a life-foundation, wedding his whole being to intrinsic Irishness
Squarings xlv depicts a chasm separating a ‘them’ of privileged others from a humble Irish ‘us’… while the privileged ones dwell post mortem in a land of milk and honey, the poet’s Irish ilk are returned to the arid best they knew … charred images of poverty and a dominant presence that held them back, ostensibly holding things together and beaming but to Heaney’s mind without substance.
In Squarings xlvi the sound of Irish fiddle music produces a perfect moment. … the transcendental properties of the fiddle’s tune, its variations on a theme, its unstoppable forward momentum thrill both his senses and his mind. Heaney concedes that some might see it as a manifestation of God’s presence in the world and thereby a proof of His existence but for Heaney the sublimity of the music-inspired moment obviates any need to spend time debating the issue.
starting points: friends and family
As the collection peeks into the family events from the past Heaney is never far away from the action.
The title poem Seeing Things tells of a Sunday morning boating expedition out of Inishbofin recording the apprehension of all those taking part, not least child Heaney; what emerges now is the poet’s high-definition memory of superimposed layers of visibility in the sea below and his growing sense if mortality. Field of Vision recalls the increasingly limited outlook of old, immobile aunt Mary in her last years, reduced to seeing the world outside through her window; her plight alerted Heaney to the human condition and his own need to move on whatever physical and emotional barriers stood in the way.
The importance of Glanmore for the Heaney family cannot be understated – initially a rented bolt-hole in the family’s seismic move from Belfast to the Irish Republic in 1972 then, sixteen years or so later, purchased from Ann Saddlemyer. Heaney dedicates 7 sonnets of Seeing Things to the cottage and alludes to it in Lightenings ii.
Scrabble recalls evenings spent with intimate company in the early days when the cottage was at its most basic. The Cot conjures up Glanmore’s untidy garden with its basic implements, the echoes of the presence of children, the open fire, the child’s bed from which their daughter issued her first intelligible sounds, its echo of Heaney’s first home at Mossbawn with its noises and its hand-to-mouth existence. Heaney criticizes his own behaviour as a father in Scene Shifts recalling the moment when he lost his rag with his children for copying something he and friends had done and branding them as vandals; remorseful now for his double standards Heaney turns the incident into a pseudo-humorous silent-film parody.
1973, the year in which their daughter was born was also the Heaneys’ first late winter/ early spring experience in Glanmore cottage; having jettisoned his previous life in Belfast, the poet’s Curriculum Vitae now reads ‘Occupation: poet’; he is a self-employed ex-University lecturer with a growing family to feed, with no regular salary coming in and bills to pay … he has no alternative but to get on with the job!
The Lustral Sonnet poem presents Heaney’s absence from Glanmore as a classical ritual of spiritual cleansing; on his return Heaney figures himself as a ‘word-burglar’, an accumulator of intellectual possessions, an intruder breaking and entering a former tenancy ‘as a man of property’. Bedside Reading is inspired by signs of summer ivy peeping through his and Marie’s bedroom window. Heaney recalls the Odysseus and Penelope bed from Homer’s epic, its one bedpost of living growth a fitting symbol of the enduring freshness, thrill and permanence of his relationship with his wife
Heaney is faced in The Skylight with a fait accompli that happened behind his back, a battle with Marie that he lost within the ‘contested zone’ of Glanmore Cottage; as if to confess his need to be forgiven for his grumpy behaviour Heaney uses the parable of the cripple passed through a biblical ‘skylight’ to receive Christ’s foregiveness. Crossings xxv illustrates a dramatic, unexpected face-to-face with a fox on the road before revealing the equally dramatic reason for being there at all: a wife in labour.
At intervals Heaney’s collections celebrate his children. A Pillowed Head memorializes the unforgettable day his family was made complete (daughter Catherine Ann was born in April 1973) … a new dawn for a new child … her first moments of earthly existence … a quiet child, her peace disrupted by nature’s unfettered dawn chorus.
Heaney focusses a long-distance lens on the early days of marriage in A Royal Prospect which recounts an excursion he and his wife took to Hampton Court. The idyllic pictures of a man freshly married to the girl of his dreams and feeling like a king are gradually replaced by hints of a troubling disjunction: Heaney’s academic career took him away and Ulster in troubled times. The poem ends with a dose of occasional Heaney-wisdom: he and his wife are entitled to live productive lives in a fickle world where only those who do nothing are not open to criticism. Similarly, the watercolour in words of an Irish lough-scape in A Retrospect prompts Heaney to point out to Marie that though they might feel themselves on terra firma they must be on the qui-vive for elements that might undermine fortress-Heaney.
In Retrospect II their return to the Glenshane Pass as a mature couple reminds Heaney of his weekly exile from his family; he comes out with his predictable pedantic commentaries on local history but still warms to reminders of courtship days and the car windows that offered courting couples protection against prying eyes.
Two decades after the Wordsworthian Somnambulist in Wintering Out and similarly brief, the dream of The Rescue exposes the inner recesses of Heaney’s subconscious as he nobly rescues his beloved from danger! Squarings xxxviii catches Heaney in self-deprecating mode as he recounts a treasured moment spent amidst the fullness of classical Roman culture in the company of intimate friends … to chuckles from the wings, his rather pompous soliloquy into aesthetic form and civilisation is cut short by Marie.
Finally, Squarings xxxix is set on the Giant’s Causeway on Ulster’s north Antrim coast. The site is iconic for its folkloric connections and extraordinary geology. Heaney focuses from distance on his wife’s reactions as she sits squashed into the ‘Wishing Chair’ and drinks it all in. He compares her physical slightness with her considerable intellectual thirst for new experience.
the man who saw it all
Behind it all the face of Heaney himself … the youngster who experimented with a spinning bicycle wheel, water and mud … the bored altar boy imagining alternative uses for the priest’s biretta he is holding …the secondary school student who took part in sport a touch unwillingly … the weekend boarder resentful of those who were not imprisoned … the father figure with a short fuse who berated his children for copying exactly what he and friends had done… the surrogate figure in a bare wallstead left roofless by death … the Wordsworthian observer astride a crag top … the academic whose pompous soliloquy about poetic form and civilization in Rome is cut short by a wife who is dying of thirst …
Heaney’s mood and tone range from the deeply serious to the self-deprecating … the 80 poems of Seeing Things offer an enormous variety of peeks-into-the-past … every one of them fashioned by a master craftsman whose command of language, rhythm and sound turns them into a treat for the ear.