The Markings triptych sets out Heaney’s new parameters: revisit and redefine first order experiences through the eyes of a fifty year old poet, tease out and ‘credit marvels’ he failed to spot first time round.

Helen Vendler puts it another way:  Heaney is concerned here with our immaterial extrapolations from the material … pretended boundaries,  imagined grids and lines are the latitude and longi­tude lines ( ) by which mentality orders the world. They become more visible to the poet as ghostly returner than they were to him as first-time encounterer. 


The ‘Markings’ poem … is set in one of our own fields at Mossbawn where a crowd of us would gather up in the summer evening and play until the light died – but what I remember is the way we kept going and even kept seeing the ball after it had got dark.

Rudimentary preparations for a football match: the boundaries (marked the pitch); the area where goals were scored (four jackets for four goalposts); touchlines (the corners and the squares like longitude and latitude) of particular importance when squabbles ensued (things agreed about or disagreed about when the time came) on the rugged, uneven Mossbawn pitch (bumpy thistly ground).

Team selection – each captain picked players in turn, creating opposing teams and defining team loyalties: we picked the teams and crossed the line our called names drew between us.

The kick-off’s loud enthusiasm (youngsters shouting their heads off) slowly dissolved into into an unreal scenario actual kicked ball ( ) like a dream heaviness where growing darkness was no impediment (they kept on playing … playing in their heads), to the sounds of unearthly exertion (hard breathing in the dark and skids on grass like effort in another world).

Allegory generates an analogy for the extra-vision and extra-timeness of poetry, ‘a game that never need / Be played out’, a game played with improvised markings but with unlimited possibilities (Seamus Heaney speaking to DOD (339)

By playing in the dark the youngsters had defied physical and scientific laws (some limit had been passed), earned godlike speed (fleetness), went beyond the ordinary (furtherance), enjoyed endless stamina (untiredness) … and were treated to an extra dimension (time that was extra, unforeseen and free). Therein lay the marvel worth crediting now.

  • mark: indicate the position of;
  • corners: a rectangular pitch has four;
  • square: area in front of the goal;
  • longitude: pole-to-pole indicators of distance east to west;
  • latitude: distance indicators north and south of the earth’s equator;
  • thistle: plant with prickly stem and purple flowers
  • called names: players waited to be picked by captains;
  • draw a line: set a limit, place on opposite sides;
  • shout your heads off: (informal) make a lot of noise;
  • light died: it grew darker;
  • in their heads:, by instinctive routine without conscious thought, in their imagination;
  • skid: slide out of control;
  • played out: played to a conclusion, time-bound;
  • fleetness: nimbleness, agility;
  • furtherance: advancement, forward movement
  • untiredness: neologism; state of not being fatigued
  • time … extra: pun on ‘extra-time’ (time added to the end of a match to secure a result); because Heaney’s game could go on forever ‘time … extra’ refers to prolongation of a pleasurable moment;


Heaney introduces the figure of his deceased father Patrick Heaney for the first time in the collection.

The improvised touch-lines marked by young footballers contrast strongly with his father’s meticulousness -whether in the vegetable plot (lines pegged out in the garden straight edgetight white string), within the tight tolerances of building construction (string stretched perfectly to mark the foundation), wooden corner pegs at exactly 90 degrees set at right angles, made-to-measure (freshly sawn) and trim (spick and span) – or, out on the land, lining things up with his farmer’s eye and guiding horse team and plough unerringly along the imaginary line straight down a field of grazing between the rod stuck in one headrig to the rod stuck in the other.

  • peg out: stretch between two spikes;
  • nick: make a shallow, visible mark
  • battens: strips of wood used as markers;
  • spick and span: neat, in mint condition; ‘spick’ cf. ‘spike’ + ‘span’ new
  • grazing: grass suitable for pasture;
  • rod: metal bar
  • headrig: space at each end of a field for the plough and horses to turn around;


Heaney tries to explain the revelatory process aligning first order experiences and poetry.

Events that happened left a mark somewhere in his memory (All these things entered you). There remained a barrier through which he could not see precisely what lay behind  –  door and memory were both part of revelation (As if they were both the door and what came through it).

Heaney suggests he was not in automatic control: on occasion the poetry controlled him and not he the poetry: memories with poetic charge turned up in context (marked the spot) waited there (marked time), held the door open for him to access them!

He provides a trilogy of rural Irish scenes, the first relating to food and agriculture (A mower parted the bronze sea of corn); the second to the life-giving wells of ‘Personal Helicon’ (a windlass hauled the centre out of water); the third to do with working together – Two men with a cross-cut … a felled beech, their shared backwards and forwards motion in step with the rhythms of rural life: they seemed to row the steady earth.

  • mark time: march on the spot; spend time waiting for something interesting to happen;
  • bronze: yellow-brown in colour;
  • windlass: winch/ crane mechanism;
  • cross-cut: saw used to cut wood across the grain;
  • row: propel using oars;
  • the lines and gridlines of Markings herald the geometric Squarings sequences;
  • In conversation with DOD (p319) Heaney explained how the collection’s texts linked up: the relation­ship between individual poems in the different sections has some­ thing of the splish-splash, one-after-anotherness of stones skittering and frittering across water;


  • the collection’s themes, motifs, moods and key words pop up at intervals just as a flat stone rebounds across the water’s surface. In Man and Boy the Grim Reaper figure will stand at the centre of a mown field and the house door will wait half open to announce the death of Heaney’s grandfather to his own father;
  • MP (219) feels that not all the poems reach the level of the high points The first part of ‘Markings’, for example, bumps on unremarkably like a heavy football, despite attempts to loft it upwards with three abstract nouns, three abstract adjectives. Other poems similarly insist on cataloguing rather than creating effects … In an interview with Clive Wimer- for BBC Radio 3 in 1990, Heaney spoke of his desire to create a poetry which resembled ‘window glass’ rather than ‘stained glass’. At times, unfortunately, the windows look out on limited prospects, and spareness of style matches slightness of content.
  • NC (165-6) suggests how in many of the poems the initial object generates a revelatory process, individual texts becoming allegories of their own creation and perfor­mance. Markings introduces a process of transformation is itself figured as an opening or entrance in the developing self, and indeed the verb ‘enter’ and its cognates recur throughout the book.


  • three pieces of varied length; line length generally of 10 syllables; unrhymed;
  • I : a 5 sentence, 18 line structure with copious enjambment;
  • geometric language of markings and angles;
  • dimensions: from modest design ‘pitch’ to world design ‘longitude and latitude’;
  • contrast as children squabble : ‘agree’, ‘disagree’;
  • a pitch marking becomes a social and recreational division- teams face to face;
  • contrast: the vocabulary of evidence that a game is continuing despite nightfall; its dream-like parallel;
  • vocabulary associated with what is limited/ is unlimited; abstract nouns and adjectives that seek to elevate personal and general gain from the experience;
  • II : a 5 sentence, 11 line structure; limited punctuation and plentiful enjambment create the dynamic flow;
  • personal pronoun addresses his father
  • vocabulary of the perfectionist, both the measurable dimensions of the builder and eye accuracy of the ploughman;
  • III : a five sentence structure of eight lines of poetry, offering pauses; unrhymed; lines based on 10 syllables
  • space and time side by side;
  • movement built into water imagery: a mower like a ship’s prow slicing through a ‘sea of corn’; a windlass like a dredger; the back-and forth of woodcutters like swimmers or rowers


  • ‘Enter’ and its cognates will become a key words in a collection that uses see-through trapdoors, window frames and gates through which perception passes. A door is different – you cannot see what lies beyond it without it opening;
  • 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: fourteen 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 first lines assemble labio-dental fricative [f], velar plosives [k] [g], bi labial nasal [m] alveolar nasal [n] and  alveolar plosive [t];
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;