Settings xiv


The ‘Settings’ sequence presents a chain of backdrops against which personal events and dramas were played out. Within the dynamic of Seeing Things Heaney  deliberately swooped on anything that stimulated memory or association (DOD 320),  willingly transported back by the poems that ‘came on’ to the sites and moments of primary experience; his aim is to credit the ‘marvels’ he failed to recognize first time round.

The railway cutting close to Heaney’s childhood home in Mossbawn becomes the melting-pot in which his future was being formed.

An ‘ordinary’ afternoon from the 1940s awakens within Heaney a sense of the extraordinary and is treated with classical splendour – a boy standing on his local railway trackfigured as an innocent abroad (seraph) in sumptuous surroundings (on gold leaf).

Sights and sounds invade his senses: natural life (larks, grasshoppers, cuckoos); hints of human presence (dogbarks); mid-1940s’ military activity – trainer planes angling back and to (Cutting and modulating and drawing off).

His young eye spots hieroglyphs: the wavy lines of shimmering heat, the pristine, parallel railway tracks (immaculate line), the intricate design of a concealed incline (shine of cogged rails).

Pure and blessed nature (Dog daisies … like vestals) sat alongside railway ballast (hot stones) engulfed by growth (clover-meshed) and stained by passing trains (streaked with engine oil).

Heaney ponders anew this 1940’s moment, frozen into a single frame: nothing disturbed the balance on that special day (Air spanned); no trains came through (passage waited); the scales of fate tipped neither one way nor the other (the balance rode); everything was poised (Nothing prevailed).

Forty years on, the things that were to shape his future (whatever was in store) were already in play that day (Witnessed itself already taking place), a proleptic promise marked by positives (assent) but on hold (hiatus).

  • seraph: angelic concept associated with purity;
  • gold leaf: gold beaten to a very thin sheet;
  • lark: early-day, active summer songbird;
  • grasshopper: grassland insect with powerful hind legs for jumping;
  • trainer: for putting pilots through their paces;
  • cut/ modulate: stop/start the engine in flight/ adjust the engine’s patterns;
  • immaculate: perfectly laid out;
  • cogged: with a toothed rail to help locomotives up slopes;
  • dog daisy: very common daisy
  • vestal: symbolic of purity;
  • clover: herbaceous field and hedgerow plan;
  • mesh: intersecting pattern, criss-cross;
  • span: overlie
  • ride: remain delicately poised between two choices;
  • prevail: gain ascendancy;
  • in store: (proleptic) about to happen but already happening;
  • witness: watch, take note
  • assent: permission;
  • hiatus: suspension, (on) hold


NC (183) The self is, ‘Fosterling’ tells us, that of a poet ‘nearly fifty’, and losses are therefore those of common biographical experience; the absences sharpen individual poems into poignancy (leaving a cloud hanging over the poet) resolve others into melancholy (leaving him down in the dumps). Indeed, the losses extend beyond those of death and a traditional metaphysic of interpretation; they extend, in fact, to all of the remembered experiences ( ) and, as such, ‘Squarings’ may be thought to take off from the insights of ‘Hailstones’ in The Haw Lantern;

NC (180) the studied casualness of the remembered temporal setting is crossed immediately with the exultation of the transformative experi­ence, the ‘I’ as seraph carrying strong Miltonic resonance.  These enlargements of the commonplace when it is brought into apposition with the Christian and classical are managed with tact and finesse in the sequence; there is a vibrantly authoritative assurance in Heaney’s tone and address;

  • 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 based on 10 syllables; unrhymed;
  • 5-sentence structure, the narrative flow is a balance between enjambed lines and punctuated phrases;
  • use of a ‘classical, spiritual representation on canvas to raise the ordinary to extraordinary status;
  • sights and sounds described specifically (‘dogbarks’) or see-through (‘wavered’);
  • man’s presence/ progress deemed less positive than nature’s: ‘planes’, ‘streaked with engine-oil’;
  • vocabulary of inertia relates to the present and puts the future on hold;


  • 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: twelve 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 triplet interweaves bi-labial plosives [b] [p], alveolar plosives [t][d] and fricative [th], sibilant variants [s] [z] front-of-mouth [v] [w] [w] 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;