Lightenings ix


Heaney offers 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);

Three triplets revisit a childhood moment when child-Heaney felt totally happy, comfortable and secure; the final triplet reveals the sadness of a poet in his fifties for whom the loss of those who nursed him on that day undermines the old certainties.

The insecurity generated by the scary boat movement at Inishbofin (Seeing Things I) is replaced: the craft in which they stand on  Lough Neagh within a few miles of the Heaney farm at Mossbawn might well be grounded (did not rock or wobble once).

Heaney recounts the outing very precisely: a boat in a reassuring position (in long grass); the traditional day of rest (one Sunday afternoon) when he was about two years old (nineteen forty-one or two); summer (heat); a visual memory of animals present (cattle near the hedge), herd behaviour (Jostling and skittering) that contrast with the calm of the human grouping; a smell memory redolent of 1940s’ ‘Sunday best’, emanating from tweed skirt and tweed sleeve and strong because his nose was buried in the fabric (I nursed on).

Sounds, too: the high pitched musicality of kicks (little treble timber notes … struck from planks) made by the women’s fashionable shoes (their smart heels) … the ‘me’ of yesteryear cradled in an elbow, not yet presented to the public at large (like a secret), since becoming the man he is (Open now as the eye of heaven was then).

What heaven was also keeping an eye on at that moment was his mother and her two sisters (three sisters talking, talking steady on a boat) since taken from him one by one … and he knows that one day he will disappear in his turn: the ground still falls and falls from under.

  • wobble: move unsteadily from side to side;
  • Lough Neagh: large Northern Irish freshwater lake;
  • jostle: push and shove;
  • skitter: shift nervously;
  • redolent: strongly suggestive of, closely identified with;
  • nurse on: nestle against (suggestive of baby feeding);
  • treble: high-pitched (treble is the highest range of young voices)
  • timber: boat’s planking;
  • cradle: carry lovingly:
  • open secret: supposed secret in fact known to many;
  • ‘eye of heaven’: a phrase Shakespeare uses in Sonnet 18 with reference to the passage of time and its ravaging effect on human life; the borrowing contributes to what HV (p.138)refers to as the sense of ‘unignorable annihilation’ prominent in Seeing Things;
  • three sisters: almost certainly Heaney’s mother and her sisters Mary and Sarah;


  • 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 based on 10 syllable lines; unrhymed;
  • 3-sentence structure; all heavy with enjambed lines creating an almost uninterrupted flow of consciousness;
  • early vocabulary of stable security; final line pictures life as overtaken by subsidence; the boat didn’t wobble but life did!
  • local geography (Lough Neagh); 1940s period manners of dress and in-family-ness
  • 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 four lines lines interweave bi-labial plosives [b] [p], alveolar plosives [t] [d],velar plosives [k] [g], nasals [m[ [n] and labio dental fricatives [f] [v];
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;