Settings xvi


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),  allowing himself to be transported back by the poems that ‘came on’ to the sites, substances and emotions of primary experience, whence he weighs up what ‘in time  was extra, unforeseen and free’(Markings I).

Heaney recalls a childhood rodent killer of massive proportions. Witnessed within the Heaney farmstead the deadly power of shop-bought Rat poison awakens myriad  associations both contemporary and classical.

Heaney’s young attention was particularly taken by the mystical change in the substance’s colouring, from dull, reddy-brown blood pudding to light-catching phosphorescent; its thick consistency when applied (spread … blade) was accompanied by a sour pungency (rancid).

Above all, Frankenstein-like, it seemed to bear a latent electric-charge (sparky) that sharpened the youngster’s consciousness (Brought everything to life), preparing him somehow for the uncontrolled human behaviour he would meet subsequently: Ulster’s civil strife (news of murder); ‘illicit’ intimate activity (parked car occupied by lovers); blood-sports in Spain (stories of bull victims).

Had (if) the legendary anger of Achilles featured by Homer in the Iliad been offered as a comparison it would have borne no greater a threat to those around (heightened the world-danger) than fresh rat-poison with its unearthly electric property (Corposant) spread on mouldy, dried-up crusts and fatally attractive to hungry rats.

For the poet now in his fifties the poison’s reek and risk were a necessary peril during his happy childhood and successful, too, if the frozen rat corpses (windfall freezing on the outhouse roof) were to be believed.

  • blood pudding: dark coloured sausage made of oatmeal and animal’s blood;
  • phosphorescent: luminous;
  • sparky: seeming to carry and electric charge;
  • rancid: bitter, sour;
  • bull victims: matadors killed in a corrida; people killed in bull-runs;
  • muse: creative inspiration;
  • Achilles: Greek hero of the Trojan War celebrated Homer’s Iliad; killed when an arrow shot by Paris pierced his ‘Achilles’ heel; his anger is the subject of Jacques Louis David’s 1819 canvas of the same name depicting the moment from Greek mythology when Greek legend Agamemnon reveals to him that his daughter, far from becoming Achilles’ bride as promised, will be sacrificed to appease the goddess Artemis; Heaney pursues Agamemnon’s tragic fate in Mycenae Lookout of Spirit Level;
  • corposant: (scientific) electrical discharge with a corona; associated in legend with St Elmo’s fire, mysterious light appearing on ships’ masts;
  • mould: furry fungal growth;
  • reek: unpleasant smell;
  • risk: exposure to danger;
  • windfall: fruit (generally) fallen from a tree; stuff deposited by the wind;
  • NC (180): rat-poison takes on a Homeric gloss, its phosphorescence as exciting as ‘the anger of Achilles’… These enlargements of the commonplace when it is brought into apposition with the 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 first and longest divided by colon and dash; narrative flow enjoys numerous enjambed lines;
  • commonplace rat poison enters realm of the extraordinary via reference to an otherworldly electrical dimension (as with St Elmo’s fire, Frankenstein’s monster?): ‘phosphorescent … sparky … shine … corposant’;
  • irony: the substance that triggers memory in the poet kills rats!
  • potential pun: windfall – the context suggests it is not a reference to orchard fruit!


  • 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 alveolar plosives [t] [d], velar plosive [k], interlabial [w] velar plosive [k], labio dental fricative [f] sibilant variants [s] [z] and nasal [m]
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;