Lightenings i


Heaney offered his reader a clue as to how to ‘enter’ the Squarings 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 (DOD 320).

This first Lightening‘s airiness resides in the dazzling sky above, its earthiness in the roofless ‘Irish’ farmstead in which a vagrant figure waits ; its obscurity, more personal and complicated, derives from the poet’s own whirl of feelings involving the loss of both parents (‘the final unroofing of the world’ – DOD322) and his exposure to what Helen Vendler refers to as ‘unignorable annihilation’ (138).

HV offers her own key to this first and pivotal poem: ‘Unroofed’ is … the word which generates the first of the ‘Squarings’, as the poet brilliantly abstracts – in the image of the many derelict roofless cottages found in Ireland – what it is to find oneself alone in the family house after the deaths of one’s parents. Though at first the poem’s shivering beggar-surrogate leads Heaney to summon up the Christian fiction of the ‘particular judgement’ – when one is judged, alone, exposed to the gaze of God, after death – he discards that fiction for the truth: ‘there is no next-time­ round’. What one is faced with in the ruined family house, says Heaney’s final line, is ‘Unroofed scope’ (p140).

The poem’s eye-camera descends sharply from see-through to material before being bounced back into upper air.

The airy structure is dazzling and fluid (Shifting brilliancies). Its chilly winter light reaches into a derelict structure to reveal an abandoned beggar shivering in silhouette, a Heaney surrogate wrestling to keep body and soul intact.

Past teachings have insisted that the ‘beggar-Heaney’ will face God’s judgment after death (So the particular judgement might be set)  – his circumstances are bleak: a man metaphorically unroofed by loss; without a roof over his head (Bare wallstead); all trace of founding-family erased (a cold hearth rained into).

His downcast eye is lifted skywards via the mirror image of reflection (Bright puddle) that reveals unbounded elemental freedom (cloud-life roams) unencumbered by the trammels of metaphysics (soul-free).

Born without choice into life’s commanded journey Heaney asks what may to be expected when, inevitably, it ends.

It does not appear promising: no celestial reception (Nothing magnificent), the humdrum (nothing unknown), mental blankness (A gazing out), a solitary distancing (far away, alone).

Experience has taught him that death is universal (not particular at all). He rejects the old religious projections as fabrication (old truth dawning) … no afterlife, nothing beyond the instant of death (no next-time-round).

What he has a-plenty is all round him: Unroofed scope, a cosmos to ponder … knowledge-freshening wind to blow old stuff away and see things through fresh eyes.

So long for air to brighten, said Fosterling, Time to be dazzled and the heart to lighten.

  • shift: change position in small amounts;
  • brilliance: intense brightness;
  • particular judgment: (Roman Catholic) the judgment God passes on a soul at the moment it is separated from the body, immediately after death; note also general judgment: final judgment of all humankind made by God after the resurrection of the dead;
  • wallstead: farmstead: farm and its buildings
  • soul: a spiritual, invisible, immaterial part of human being (or animal) regarded as immortal;
  • roam: wander around aimlessly;
  • gaze: stare fixedly if vacantly;
  • particular: used to pick out an individual
  • no next-time-round: no resurrection of the soul;
  • scope: extent, range, sweep;


  • the beauty and indifference of seemingly timeless earth, contrasts with the chilly thoughts and emotions of a time-bound man, who concludes he should grasp his one-off opportunity to make the best of life and expect nothing beyond;
  • as regards titles, says Heaney, ‘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 (DOD321)
  • ‘tent-ropes’ from this and ensuing Squarings will lead to Heaney’s ‘trapdoors of perception’ that permit glimpses of the miraculous, hieroglyphs offering the poet fullness of feeling, the notion that Heaney returns to these moments as a ghost himself, the clash between repressive Catholic preparations for the afterlife and Heaney’s developing sense that nothing survives the instant of death;
  • disturbingly antithetical (directly opposed or contrasted; mutually incompatible terms – brilliancies, beggar; light, silhouette; bare, bright – prepare the reader for 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. One cannot deny the beauty of the free drift of the clouds, but the puddle refuses to be transparent to the spiritual. A flood of resigned nega­tions follows – Nothing nothing, not, no next-time – but is checked by ‘scope’ and ‘wind’. ‘Le vent se leve; il faut tenter de vivre,’ says Valéry in ‘Le Cimetiere Marin’, in a parallel refusal of the death-temptation (HV141);
  • MP 221 As the first poem of ‘Lightenings implies, Seeing Things is full of ‘Unroofed scope’, ‘Knowledge-freshening wind’, ‘soul-free cloud­ life’. Though the old hearth, and the old certainties, may now be cold, they retain an afterlife in his imagination. One cannot imagine Heaney not returning to them to rekindle memory, to admit ‘things beyond measure’(xlvi), to relish ‘the dazzle of the impossible’ (Station Island’, X). ‘I trust contrariness’, he says early on in the collection. ‘Squarings’, like so much of his poetry since Death of a Naturalist, exemplifies his determination to keep faith with his ‘Plain, big, straight, ordinary’ origins (XXXIII), and his preparedness to flash beyond them like light from ‘a god’s shield’ (XXXV) or a ‘goldfinch over ploughland’ (XXX).
  • NC (176): the image of a stone doorstep, shivering beggar and an abandoned house with its hearth rained into images which resolve themselves into a cumulative one – ‘Bright puddle where the soul-free cloud-life roams’. Here, the compound adjective ‘soul-free’, which punningly suggests both ‘free as’ a soul and ‘unencumbered by’ one, erases the orthodox Christian concept of the soul as the principle in human beings which may survive death and gain immortality. The poem then reads out of that image an oblique question and statement about the absence of an afterlife: And after the commanded journey, what? … ‘there is no next-time round. / Unroofed scope. Knowledge-freshening wind’. The sense of permanent absence here has its elegiac quality …


  • The 48 poems of the ‘Squarings’ sequences follow an identical format (12 lines in 4 triplets}; Heaney suggests it 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 based on 10 syllable lines;
  • 9-sentence structure including a question mark makes for detachment and separation of thoughts rather than smooth flow; some very loose rhymes but no scheme;
  • vocabulary of chill and colourlessness;
  • compound noun (‘cloud-life’) and adjectives (‘soul-free, ‘knowledge-freshening’);
  • profusion of abstract references;
  • cluster of negatives;
  • Catholic notion of post mortem judgment; metaphysical references;
  • metonymic effects: life ‘the commanded journey’; afterlife ‘next-time-round’;


  • 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;
  • the first triplet, for example interweave bilabial plosives [p] [b], alveolar plosives [t] [d], sibilant variants [s] [sh], nasal[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