Lightenings xii


The title of the first section, ‘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).

The message that emerges is that Heaney accepted the ‘attendant meanings’ readily enough but had greater difficulty coming to terms with a definition linking imminent death with a soaring of the spirit; he finds an example that encapsulated his dilemma but does not solve it.

He is weighing the Catholic teachings to which he was exposed against the doubts generated by his personal experience of mortality, most recently the death of his father and his acknowledgement that his own days on earth are numbered.

The first triplet speaks for itself: the introduction leads to the dictionary definition of the word ‘lightening’, identifying it as a kind of miraculous intensity and joy that people feel at leaving this world for a better place (phenomenal instant when the spirit flares/ With pure exhilaration before death) when they cling to the belief that individual repentance will bring redemption and a place in heaven.

Heaney’s exclamation mark suggests that that he no longer shares any such conviction.

His narrative shifts to the bleak landscape of Calvary, where Christ and two thieves were crucified. Heaney thinks he knows of a man who might shed some light on the issue, not Christ Himself whose feelings and words are well rehearsed, but the ‘good thief’ who repented on the cross alongside the Great Redeemer (on Christ’s right hand) at the Crucifixion site (on a promontory). Heaney takes us into the consciousness of the man who heard Christ’s promise and who, literally and metaphorically, is ‘dying to know’.

As he waits to die, death’s inexorable approach transmits nothing positive or transcendental to his anguished mind: his eyes see nothing where heaven ought to be (Scanning empty space); his body feels no respite from unendurable pain (body-racked); he cannot begin to conceive (untranslatable) of the perfect bliss he is suffering pain for (ached) to the very limit of his being (moon-rim of his forehead).

He feels only the painful wounds of crucifixion imprinted like nail craters on the dark side of his brain.

And the fulfillment of Christ’s echoing promise (This day thou shalt be with Me in Paradise)? Until the instant immediately following death (as yet, as yet …) neither the good thief nor Heaney nor we, nor anyone can possibly know … at this point, however,  happy transcendental outcomes do not strike Heaney as too promising.

  • phenomenal: extraordinary, miraculous;
  • spirit: Heaney is aware of the different connotations, whether the non-physical part of a person which stores emotions and character (the soul?) or the non-physical part of a person regarded as their true self and as capable of surviving physical death or separation:
  • flare: shine with sudden intensity;
  • exhilaration: Latin provenance ‘a gladdening’;
  • hark to: listen to;
  • promise: proleptic indication of what will be;
  • right hand: regarded as the more important side (cf. ‘right-hand man’);
  • promontory: reference here to Calvary, also called Golgotha, where Christ was crucified;
  • racked: riven with pain;
  • bliss: perfect joy;
  • rim: outer shape
  • dark-side: the further unseen face of the moon;


  • HV (150):  The anguish of the knowledge of death in Seeing Things is usually expressed in deliberately muted ways. But it can be seen explicitly in two ‘bookends’ ( ) one of which represents the good thief – whose death is immi­nent … Though the excruciating suffering of the thief stands to be alleviated through Christ’s promise – ‘This day thou shalt be with me in Paradise’ – it is the suffering that dominates Heaney’s almost surreal description of the good thief’s death-agony, as he scans ’empty space’ where heaven should be;


  • this day etc: Luke’s Gospel (23:32-43) recounts the story running through Heaney’s head: despite his agony the crucified Christ prayed for those who were putting him to death and in doing so procured the forgiveness of sin; the thieves between whom Jesus was crucified demonstrated opposing sides of human nature the first unrepentant (bad thief) to the last; the second repentant and critical of those abusing Jesus (good thief). In response to the plea ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus answered him, ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise’;
  • Christ is represented in this piece. NC comments on His other appearances (p40): the Christ figure of ’Limbo’ of ‘Wintering Out ‘ was a figure of the most intense exclusion and ineffectualness (‘Even Christ’s palms, unhealed,/ Smart and cannot fish there’)’ ; in ‘Westering’ (of the same collection) Christ is portrayed as a figure of lonely unconnectedness ( ) ‘weighing by his hands in the moon’s gravity’.


  • 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 largely based on 10 syllable; some random rhyme but no scheme;
  • 3-sentence structure the first a short question the other two split by colons, the second ending with an apostrophe; narrative flow is interrupted by punctuation-pauses; the final line is an unearthly sotto voce;
  • faith-generated vocabulary (‘phenomenal’, ‘flares’, ‘exhilaration’) contrasts starkly with the bleakness of Calvary and the anguish of the thief;
  • elusive ‘moon’ image adds a lunar light effect to an otherwise dark earthly representation (‘so paint’); comparison: moon and human head, stigmata and moon features


  • 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 alveolar plosives [t] [d] alongside bi-labial plosives [b] [p], sibilant variants [s] [z][sh] and nasals [m] [n];
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;