Lightenings x


Heaney offered his reader a clue as to how to ‘enter’ the 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’s observer sits astride a crag top at a quarry’s edge, close to a sheer drop (Overhang of grass) where Nature clings precariously but persistently to life (seedling birch).

Heaney identifies himself as the lofty speaker (Rock-hob where you watched), a man in his fifties studying the cargoed brightness carried along by the laws of meteorology: ineffable (travelling/ Above and beyond) awesome in its fullness (sumptuous); visible even from ground level (water in its clear deep dangerous holes/ On the quarry floor).

He identifies a timeless interplay of two extremes: the ultimate fathomableness of what can be seen and passed through; the ultimate stony up-againstness of the earth-bound and impassible.

Have you, he asks himself at this moment of self-reckoning, grasped the difference between what offers infinite scope (diaphanous) and what is unyielding (massive); how did you respond (equal to or … opposite) as regards things and notions as they took shape (build-ups), disorderly (promiscuous) or volatile (weightless).

He counsels himself threefold: don’t let the brightness blind you (Shield your eyes); go for the ‘scope’ option (look up), live with an unignorable reality you cannot change: face the music.


Lightenings i and x juxtapose huge skies offering ‘shifting brilliancies’ and diaphanous scope with earth-bound situations from which to survey soul and intellect, present and future; life and death; in both cases water pools reflect the earthly order back into the airy, from surfaces with a geometry similar to the marble track of Lightenings iii.

  • seedling: young
  • quarry face: steep side of the deep pit from which materials have been extracted;
  • hob: flat shelf;
  • cargoed: (noun used as verb) transported;
  • sumptuous: splendid,  resplendent
  • above … beyond … across: prepositions of extended space;
  • ultimate: the best achievable or imaginable of its kind; final or fundamental fact or principle;
  • fathomable: within understanding;
  • stony: ‘made of stone’ but with a touch of ‘stony-faced’ suggesting ‘serious’, ‘sombre’
  • up against: in close contact, body and mind;
  • diaphanous: delicate, translucent;
  • massive: of solid bulk;
  • equal to/ opposite: fit for, up to/ at odds with;
  • build-up: gradual accumulation;
  • promiscuous: mixed, indiscriminate, transient, non-permanent; no sexual connotation here;
  • shield: protect against the glare;
  • face the music: live with the consequences of your perceptions i.e. death is inevitable;


  • HV (144) … by the time of Seeing Things mud has hardened from its nimbus-gaiety into a quarried cliff-face looming over water – Heaney’s new hieroglyph of the world governed by the intractable laws of physical necessity. The question now is not how to reconcile the sullied flesh with the lucent soul, but how – in ‘Squarings’ x – to reconcile the water of the diaphanous virtual with the rock of the massive material. The imagination must work to set mobility of mind against the immobility of the inhuman.
  • Heaney takes stock (a squaring) of himself periodically, as demonstrated, for example, in ‘Exposure’, the final poem in the ‘North’ collection of 1975;


  • 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; line length not limited to but largely based on 10 syllable lines; unrhymed;
  • 5-sentence structure; narrative flow derives from a balance between enjambed lines and mid-line punctuation; 2 questions;
  • cluster of prepositions: above and beyond … across’; neologism built on prepositions: ‘up-againstness’;
  • cluster of adjectives ‘clear deep dangerous’;
  • repetition of ‘ultimate’ like sheer or utter as a superlative;
  • neologism ‘fathomableness’


  • 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;
  • for example, the final four lines are dominated by front-of-mouth sounds [w], fricatives [f] [v] alongside bi-labial plosives [b] [p], sibilant variants [s] [z];
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;