Settings xix


The ‘Settings’ sequence presents a chain of backdrops against which personal events and dramas were played out. Within the dynamic period preceding Seeing Things when Heaney deliberately swooped on anything that stimulated memory or association (DOD 320),  he allowed himself to be transported back by the poems that ‘came on’ to the sites, moments, models and emotions of primary experience, from where he weighed up what ‘in time … was extra, unforeseen and free’ (Markings I).

Settings xix sets out a diorama of memory à la Heaney that features things that might play/ have played a role in its genesis. The reader peeks in as if from behind glass or through a peep-hole.

Heaney paints a stage-set: something built and added to (a building or a city), equipped for maximum visibility, impact, composition and mood. (Well lighted); aesthetically pleasing (well laid out); its characters reminiscent of real circumstances (Tableaux vivants) or resemblances (costumed effigies) colour-coded from privileged kings (purple cloaks … crowns) to victims of tragedy (painted red … smeared with mud or blood).

What is on show mirrors very personal experiences tempered by associated emotions (the mind’s eye could haunt itself), the experiential effect (learn to read/ Its own contents) and the opportunity to re-classify his universe (meaningful order); ars poetica textbooks of old suggested linking things recalled (familiar places) within some kind of hieroglyphic mnemonic (code of images).

Heaney gives a neutral, ‘I-imagined-all-poets-would-do-it-like-this’ shrug: when something with poetic charge (portent) hit him he knew exactly how to respond (blinked and concentrated).

  • tableau vivant: “living picture”; term, borrowed from the French language, describing a still group of suitably costumed actors or artist’s models, carefully posed and often theatrically lit;
  • effigy: model of a person, figurine;
  • cloak: loose over-garment hanging from the shoulders;
  • smeared: streaked;
  • mind’s eye: memory of real events or imagination;
  • fixed: already decided, unchangeable;
  • meaningful order: that makes sense, that fits the chronology;
  • deliberately: intentionally, after careful thought;
  • code of image: symbol that becomes readable;
  • portent: sign, token, omen, what it stood for;
  • blink: close the eye briefly;


  • NC (183) takes the view that the sequence also celebrates the way memory may act restoratively within language and form. In Settings xix, this becomes explicit, with its image of ‘Memory as a building or a city’ and its citation of the ‘code of images’ which was part of the disciplined ‘art of memory’ in the Renaissance: (art of memory; Latin ars memoriae is any of a number of a loosely associated mnemonic devices, principles and techniques used to organize memory impressions, improve recall, and assist in the combination and ‘invention’ of ideas);
  • NC 183-4 ‘Squarings’ is a series of hymns to portent and concentration, since to know portent in a setting is fully to appreciate the miraculousness of the ordinary, and to concentrate properly is to assimilate setting in a way that will eventually enable the reproduction of it in the new setting of the poem. The geometry of the sequence is, then, the plotting of a graph of the trajectory in which portent and concentration become self-aware enough to articulate them­selves; a process in which, as Settings xi has it, ‘accident got tricked into accuracy’, in which desire exceeds restraint, achieve­ment catches up with intimation, reach coincides with grasp in poems lucidly mobile with their own meanings;


  • 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;
  • 2 sentences; the narrative flow of the first (to do with data and provenance) is split by dash, colon and mid-line punctuation balanced against enjambed lines; the second short sentence focuses on dealing with the poetic charge of memory;
  • vocabulary of designs by which the mind orders its reality: ‘building’ ‘city’, ‘ fixed associations’ ‘meaningful order’;
  • veiled references to historical and contemporary disorder, say a Shakespeare play/ the troubles in Ulster;
  • ‘red’ either ‘painted’ as denoting wealth or ‘smeared’ denoting violence;
  • poetic tips rather than a discourse on method: Heaney replaces learned rhetoric of ancient theorists by his own responses to poetic charge: ‘blinked’, ‘concentrated’;
  • 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 four lines are dominated by alveolar sounds – [l] and plosives [d] [t] alongside velar plosives [k] [g[ , bilabial plosives [p] [b], 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;