Seeing Things


The title poem, a triptych, explores variations on the theme of ‘visibility’: a primary experience that taught of life’s impermanence; stone chiseled to produce liquid images; a telling face-to-face with a father, dead yet still alive.

Annihilation, whereby ultimately everything is reduced to nothingness, lurks ineluctably in the background.


A poem about ‘utterness’: the visibility of primary experience raised to high-definition status.

Once upon a time the infant Heaney was treated to a Sunday morning outing en famille to Inishbofin island. The scene provided a feast for his young senses: glare (Sunlight), sight and smell (turf smoke), sound (seagulls), perspective (boatslip), an invasive odour (diesel).

The individual youngsters present were handled carefully (One by one … handed down) … the boat lurched erratically dipped and shilly-shallied scaresomely … insecurity was etched on faces (tight nervous) … folk did as they were told (obedient) … nuzzled up to each other (newly close), not a word spoken except the boatmen. 

The  ‘what-if-ness’ of the moment scared them – supposing the gunwales sank … they might ship water any minute. Growing steadiness was jolted when the engine kicked, even the boatman swayed for balance.

Unexpected forces (shiftiness and heft) bred panic in him, though now he understands the counter forces that kept the craft afloat (quick response and buoyancy and swim).

As they settled into the trip (sailing evenly) above crystal-clear water (still, seeable-down-into), Heaney conjured up an otherworldly way of seeing it all … hovering above it and looking down from another boat Sailing through air, far up, From there he is able to assess how riskily we fared into the morning, poignantly acknowledging the sense of life’s impermanence only visible now – the near and dear of yesteryear loved in vain because now departed this life – the bare, bowed ( ) heads  of the  nervous group of half a century before. whose days were numbered.

  • Inishbofin: small island off the coast of Connemara, Galway; a holiday spot;
  • turfsmoke: rural Irish fires routinely used peat instead of coal;
  • boatslip: place where boats were moved from land into water;
  • shilly-shallied: created uncertainty, confusion;
  • sit tight: stay put. resolutely where you are;
  • gunwale: upper edge of the side of the boat;
  • ship water: take water in;
  • ferryman: man in charge of the craft;
  • tiller: part of the steering system;
  • shiftiness: perplexing movement
  • heft: bullk, weight
  • craft: vessel, boat;
  • guaranteed: ensured we would not sink;
  • buoyancy: ability to stay afloat;
  • seeable-down into: clear, revealing detail of the sea-floor below the sea’s surface;
  • fare: travel, set forth;


  • NC (168-70): the poet remembers himself as a child, terrified on the dipping boat, and perceiving his family in a simile which places him in an else­where like that of the crewman of ‘Lightenings viii’ (the Clonmacnoise poem);
  • The poem identifies here a very distinct and memor­able phase of childhood perception and self-perception: the moment when the first knowledge that one’s parents will die shadows everything … The emo­tional and psychological vertigo of the moment is brilliantly captured … in the des­peration and pathos of the concluding line, whose heavily allit­erated plosives bring, as it were, a lump to the poem’s throat at the same moment at which they bring the resigned knowledge of inevitability. (id)
  • The poem’s first section remembers a family boat-trip to Inishbofin, a small island off the coast of The literal journey and its panic is matched ( ) with the Dante translated in ‘The Crossing’, since the boatman here is, as Charon is there, a ‘ferryman’ (id);


  • 22 lines of poetry in single verse; line length based on 10 syllables; unrhymed
  • 6-sentence structure with a balance in favour of punctuation that enumerates (l.2) or echoes the tension of the moment in a staccato section with multiple commas; the calmer boat-in-the-air section largely enjambed;
  • effective description of instability on water;
  • unusual continuous verb form ‘we went sailing’
  • Heaney is en famille: ‘we’;
  • annihilation lurking: ‘vain … numbered’;
  • the triple adjectives of the final line resemble warning strokes of fate;



‘ in that utter visibility The stone’s alive with what’s invisible’

What kind of distance, Heaney wonders, separates objects as we see them, the ways in which they are represented and the truths they hid from me at first sight. He will perceive a graphic similarity between the ‘man-made’ stylization of a stone-carver representing water and the hieroglyphic distortions of sunlight on the human consciousness.

As he examines a detailed stone carving he chooses Claritas, an unemotional dry-eyed Latin word to best describe liquid effect (perfect for the carved tone of the water).

The carving on the façade of a cathedral depicts Jesus being baptized, up to his unwet knees. How, Heaney wonders, could a stone relief represent wetness in bright sunlight. – how could the chisel strokes of a  static art form (Lines/ Hard and thin and sinuous) be capable of giving visual movement to the river Jordan.

Just let the poetic imagination read between the lines and the river is full of life (Little antic fish ( ) all go) – that is all it takes: Nothing else.

For Heaney’s there is more – his sighting of a lifeless work of devotion and his vibrant hieroglyphic extension have produced utter visibility and given it life: The stone’s alive with what’s invisible.

He adds living detail and movement of his own (Waterweed, stirred sand-grains hurrying off) , elements that  light-bound shadowy … unshadowed stone cannot provide.

Spending all afternoon on the cathedral steps has exposed him and his wife to the shimmering heat that distorts reality (heat wavered on the step), to the point where they feel giddy (the air we stood up to our eyes in wavered).

Its flickering zig-zag shape becomes a symbol of consciousness (hieroglyph for life itself) life’s impermanence  contradicted by the enduring power of the poetic word in print.


  • claritas: Latin claritas : of light “brightness, splendour,”; of sound, “clearness;” figuratively “celebrity, renown, fame,” from clarare “make clear,” from clarus “clear”;
  • as a free-standing, multi-purpose word ‘clarity does not do Heaney’s choice justice; to its connotations of ‘brightness’, ‘splendour may be added the James Joyce/ Steven Dedalus sense, of spiritual ‘radiance’ suggestive of God’s presence in all things made;
  • tone: property, quality;
  • John the Baptist: Jewish preacher and prophet, a contemporary of Jesus whom he baptized; later beheaded by Herod Antipas after denouncing the latter’s marriage to Herodias, the wife of Herod’s brother Philip (Matt. 14:1-12).
  • façade: street-facing front of a building;
  • sinuous: with many curves;
  • antic: (archaic) bizarre, stylized;
  • all go: busy, active;
  • stirred: disturbed (by the current);
  • waver: quiver;
  • hieroglyph: a figure/representation of a familiar object standing for a word or sound, especially in the system of writing used on monuments in ancient Egypt, here the symbol for something living as opposed to dead;
  • zig zag: the hieroglyph used generally to denote ‘water’ the source of all life;


  • a single verse of 16 lines based on 10 syllables; unrhymed
  • seven-sentence structure with copious enjambment as the eye moves across the detail;
  • oxymoron: ‘shadowy … unshadowed’;
  • echo: ‘up to his knees … up to our eyes


  • HV (142-3):  In the genesis of Seeing Things, the collection, Heaney con­templates an aesthetic in which the medium would be far from thing represented. … Nothing could be more unlike real water than the ‘hard and thin and sinu­ous’ lines that symbolize the river in which Jesus stands. Is there, the poem asks, a mode of representation which would be not literal but hieroglyphic? … If so  the merest indices can summon up in the beholder’s mind all the properties of water … The poet urges himself to trust the comparable ‘utter visibil­ity’ of language … and to believe that his reader can supply the implications.
  • NC (168-70) The stone alive with what’s invisible here is a metaphor for the way the material of an art may radiate the inapprehensible (extraordinary, unbelievable). As such, the metaphor applies to the act of writing too;
  • The second poem is introduced by the Latin word ’claritas’ the claritas of ‘Seeing Things’ itself is an utter visibility in which the memory of a family voyage to Inishbofin is re-presented and again made visible under the aspect of writing, and in which an invisible – because dead – father is re-presented with ‘his ghosthood immanent’ (remaining within, opposite of transcendent) in more than one sense. It abides within him in life as the result of his brush with accidental death; but it also abides within this poem for as long as the poem survives, in the permanent residence of writing itself (id)
  • The religious icon of the poem – a representation on the facade of a cathedral of the baptism of Christ – outshines its proper conditions by acting as an emblem not of doctrinal Christianity, but of the way an art – in this case, figures shown in sculptural relief – captures and manifests the otherwise unperceivable … The stone alive with what’s invisible here is a metaphor for the way the material of an art may radiate the inapprehensible (extraordinary, unbelievable). As such, the metaphor applies to the act of writing too, since the ziz-zag Egyptian hieroglyph for life is also inscribed on, and read off, stone (id).


The final poem, framed as a traditional fairy-tale (Once upon a time … happily ever after) anticipates a happy ending. The drama (Heaney never actually witnessed it) leads to a face-to-face meeting between the poet’s father, and Heaney, boy then, now a man. What happened revealed his father in a different light.

The man crossing the entrance to the Mossbawn farmyard  was my undrowned father who had survived a life-threatening accident by the skin of his teeth.  His job to spray potatoes had been fraught with danger (horse-sprayer… too big … new-fangled, bluestone … burn me …  horse … fresh…  scare) sufficient to leave young Heaney at home.

The resentful youngster threw stones at a bird on the shed roof (regarded by superstitious locals as a bad omen) in order to let off steam (for the clatter of the stones).

Patrick Heaney’s return is witnessed from inside the family dwelling (out the window), the ‘narrow-screen’ ploy that Heaney will adopt frequently in the collection.

What he sees is at total odds with his previous image of his dad: a man as if concussed (scatter-eyed), fearful (daunted), disoriented (his step unguided) … the ‘shadow’ of his former self (his ghosthood immanent).

The dynamics of the drama are recorded as in a screen-play: the relative normality of the start … sudden danger (horse had rusted and reared up) … ensuing mayhem: (everything off balance … whole rig … deep whirlpool). Every last detail is caught on camera (hoof, chain, shafts, cartwheel, barrel and tackle), everything engulfed by the river as if tumbling off the world … except for the unmistakable symbol of his father’s presence the hat … merrily swept along the quiet reaches.

No need for Heaney, Aeneas-like, to descend into the netherworld in search of his father: he came to me with his damp footprints out of the river.

The near disaster has reduced the filial image of his father as superman (I saw him face to face) to that of a sorry figure in need of support. Barriers between father and son were instantly swept away (nothing between us there); new feelings that might not still be happily ever after destined to endure beyond death’s intrusion memorialized in a poem.

The piece has revealed a shift: With the passing of time, awe of the living father has given way to an affectionate acceptance of a fellow man, flawed and mortal like himself (MP217).

  • spray: water artificially;
  • horse-sprayer: contemporary equipment before tractors;
  • new-fangled: up to the minute
  • bluestone:
  • fresh: raw, untrained;
  • clatter: rattling sound of bouncing stones
  • scatter-eyed: cross-eyed, squinting ()sign of dizziness);
  • daunted: unsettled, frightened;
  • (ghost) -hood: – hood: word-forming element meaning “state or condition of being,”
  • immanent: inherent, inside him; the same word with spiritual connotations of ‘on earth’, ‘earth-bound’ is often contrasted with transcendent:
  • rusted: shied;
  • rig: the whole kit, appliance, set-up;
  • reaches: stretch of river between two bends;
  • face to face: stripped of any father/ son awkwardness;


  • The third poem craftily avoids sentimentality …  The last lines capture the illumination of a son seeing his father ‘face to face’ for the first time, without the halo (MP 217);
  • NC (167-8): there comes a scene of mutual recognition and self-revelation between father and son … the poem concludes with an image of eternal reciprocity, of redemptive and consolatory memory, which must now cope, in place of orthodox Catholicism, with the father’s actual death.
  • these are lines which restore to the beloved father the vivid reality of his presence in the only way now possible: in the texture and pres­sure of poetic language and form … which there­fore give subtle emotional and psychological credibility to the poem’s whole conception of the way a dead father may be held as a permanent ghost in the memory of his son (id);


  • Twenty five lines in a single verse; largely 10 syllable lines; unrhymed;
  • 6-sentence structure; the combination of punctuation and enjambed lines indicates Heaney’s preferred rhythmic flow;
  • frantic enumeration (l.18) of things swallowed;
  • we hear the voice of the behind the indirectly reported reason;
  • film-like presentation calls out for occasional music that ebbs and flows like the action;
  • Ulster usage: ‘bring me’ rather than ‘take me’;
  • Interesting un- adjectives: proleptic ‘undrowned’, ‘unguided’;


  • 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 interweave nasals [m] [n] and labio-dental fricatives [f][v] with bilabial plosives [p] [b], alveolar plosive [t] [d], sibilant variants [s] [z][sh] and alveolar [l];
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section