Lightenings iv


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).

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

Heaney composes a study in the production, transmission, reception and effects of sound as it impacts on a pleasure moment. The transcendental sounds of a dramatic performance ascend through the roofless structure of an earth-bound arena into infinite space.

He is watching an open-air performance in a Roman theatre. As the spectacle develops he becomes fascinated by the acoustic. The ocean of sound produced by the sea of faces looking down on the central acting space is gradually overtaken by a deeper, as yet shapeless, music (another/ Stronger groundswell coming through). Heaney has heard this pervasive intensity somewhere before: the steady message in a shell/ Held to the ear in earshot of the sea.

The sound resolves into the wavelengths of speech (words being spoken on the scene) bouncing off the stage’s physical obstacles (Resonating up through the walls of urns).  

The sound ebbs and flows: flux (arrived) followed by reflux (cordoned air rolled back), in tidal highs and lows of classical delivery (wave upon wave/ Of classic mouthfuls amplified and faded.

Perched high up on a tribune, beneath the sky, the poet experiences the electric surge linking earth-bound with infinite space (how airy and how earthed ) – a live current (Bare to the world), dizzying (light-headed), fast moving (volatile), held together across rise and fall (tides) or when one phrase pauses before the next: (the rests in music).

  • groundswell: growing amplification
  • steady: constant, unwavering;
  • earshot: range over which one can hear;
  • urn: large rounded vase;
  • cordon: sealed off, enclosed;
  • airy: delicate, floating;
  • earthed: with an electrical connection to the ground
  • bare: exposed to electric shock;
  • light-headed: giddy, dizzy;
  • volatile: both quick-changing and fleeting, flying, winged;
  • rest: pause in a bar where no music is played;


  • 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 (line 3 of only 8 adds emphasis);
  • 5-sentence structure; a balanced flow that includes enjambed lines following the ebb and flow of the poem’s musicality; unrhymed;
  • subtle vocabulary unites acoustic science and water; also electric discharge (‘earthed … bare … volatile’)
  • zeugma effect (‘rests in tides or music’);
  • 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 final triplet makes heavy use of alveolar plosives [t] [d] alongside dental fricative [th] sibilant variants [s] [z] and continuant [h];
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;