‘That heavy greenness fostered by water’

The epigraph is taken  from John Montague’s The Water Carrier in which the poet as a child fetched water for domestic use from two outdoor sources  and recounts the emotions he still feels. Heaney’s Fosterling is here to sing the praises of that same landscape.

The poet returns to the lost domain of childhood as a fosterling: before he reached twenty he had left his farming background behind and moved to Queen’s University Belfast as an undergraduate. Taken over by an entirely different lifestyle he would never permanently return to his childhood home.

Now over fifty years of age, a poet, he remembers fondly the wall-print of an Irish landscape hanging  in his Anahorish first school classroom.

Heaney confesses to moments of despondency and the folk lore that cheered him up.  He is in transition, looking at things anew, and  his collection is poised to move into ‘Squarings’, four groupings of twelve poems of 12 lines each, almost all of them fillled with ‘air’, ‘dazzle’ and ‘light’.

The elements that captured Heaney’s  young attention  were predominantly born of the rain-soaked  Irish climate: its profuse setting (heavy greenness); its images of windmills standing like boats (rigged arms and sails); its symbols of steady Irish industry (millhouses’ still outlines) especially those in watery settings (Their in-placeness/ Still more in place when mirrored in canals).

There was not a single Irish phenomenon (I can’t remember never having known) where infrastructure was not founded on water (immanent hydraulics of a land) with its dialectal lexis of mud and ooze (glar and glit and flood at dailigone). 

Living distantly and caught up in a different clockwork weighed on Heaney’s mind (silting hope), creating moments of depression (lowlands of the mind) and lethargy (Heaviness of being) reflected in listless poetic output (poetry/ Sluggish in the doldrums of what happens).

He scolds himself for having waited so long (nearly fifty) to ‘see again’ and acknowledge what was extraordinary around him (credit marvels). He provides an uplifting example (the tree-clock) [see below].

He intends Part II of Seeing Things to be a place where light and life prevail (air to brighten), where wondrous spectacles appear (Time to be dazzled) and the spirits soar (heart to lighten). The poem’s final word will adapt to become the title of the first Squarings‘ sequence.

  • ‘foster’ opens multiple lines: the rearing of children who are not one’s own, the promotion of desirable things, the development of feelings within oneself
  • fosterling: the product of those lines;
  • -ling: added to a word to indicate a diminutuve, small version on the noun;
  • rigged: resembling a waterfront, masts and rigging;
  • in-place: befitting the surroundings; in this case redolent of Ulster;
  • immanent: intrinsic, fundamental;
  • hydraulics: infrastructure held up by water;
  • glar: (Irish usage) soft liquid mud;
  • glit: (Irish usage) ooze, slime especially green slime on water;
  • dailigone: (Irish usage) twilight, evening;
  • silt: become blocked with sediment;
  • sluggish: lethargic;
  • doldrums: stagnation, gloom, ennui;
  • credit: express belief, confidence in
  • tree-clock: conceptual contraption
  • tinker: member of the itinerant community moving from place to place and eking out a living mending kettles, pots and pans;


  • In conversation with DOD (317) Heaney reflected on the poems in Seeing Things that ‘credit marvels’: It all started from that image of ‘the tree-clock of tin cans / The tinkers made’. Not a very clear image, not even to me. I’d heard a story years before, in Wicklow, about people in a certain district who’d made a pact with the devil. I can’t remem­ber what boon they were granted, but in exchange they agreed that the devil would come at a certain time on a certain day to collect their souls. And of course as the hour neared the panic heightened until, at the last minute, this band of tinsmiths – tinkers – landed and proposed to build a fantastic tin clock in a tree and set the time wrong. Then once that’s done, the devil arrives and discovers he has made a mistake, has arrived too late and broken the agreement, so the people are released. What stayed with me was the image of that strange flashing tin­ flanged tree, just asking to be written about. It reveals moments when the poet needed a metaphorical hand up from moments of depression: the tree-clock pointed an Orphic hand up towards the light.
  • In an earlier poem, ‘Song’ in Field Work, Heaney alludes to an old Irish folk tale: ‘the music of what happens’ said great Fionn, “that is the greatest music in the world” ‘Fosterling’ attests that, if ‘what happens’ has its music, it also has its ‘doldrums’, its dullness or de­pressions, and that there is a place of ‘marvels’ which may coexist with the hydraulics of these lowlands, just as the mar­vellous’ coexists with the usual in the contingent worlds of the Lightenings’  … ‘Fosterling’ is a deliberately transitional poem whose final word is already almost part of the sequence which follows in Part II, ‘Squar­ings’, which opens with the sequence-within-a-sequence that is ‘Lightenings’  itself. (NC173)


  • Sonnet form (octet + sextet); mini change after l.7 from objective/ visual to subjective/ emotional; volta after l. 10 provides initial example of ‘marvel’ based on a Wicklow tale in which cunning Irish tinkers defeat the devil;
  • lines based on 10 syllables; unrhymed;
  • 10-sentencce structure, its flow reflected in the balance between enjambed (e.g. emotional legato) and punctuated (e.g. finger pointing out detail) sections;
  • subtitle of Irish vocabulary; vocabulary of watery terms extended to the gloomy mental state described;
  • metaphor: windmills as sailing ships;
  • imperative addressed to poet himself: ‘long for’;
  • 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: eleven 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;
  • the final lines, for example interweave bilabial plosives [p] [b], alveolar plosives [t] [d], velar plosive [k][g] sibilant variants [s] [z] [sh], nasals [m] [n] and alveolar [l];
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;