Settings xvii


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, subjects and emotions of primary experience, whence he weighs up what ‘in time … was extra, unforeseen and free’ (Markings I).

All about ‘the myths surrounding eels’ (DOD93)! The poem sets an old wives’ tale  alongside the non-scientific theory of an early classical scholar later discarded as poppycock.

Heaney is taken by the eel’s alleged curative power useful to him at moments when his creative ‘blood sugar’ is low.

The poet sets out to explore two teasers: why the creature is associated with magical restorative properties (the virtues of an eelskin); the creature’s provenance.

Heaney draws first from Aristotle’s totally unfeasible creation myth:  a rib of water drawn Out of the water that resembles a cursive handwritten letter: ell yielded up – a creature born of, from and in unlit watery currents (glooms and whorls and slatings of its surroundings).

The old wives’ tale had it that once caught and skinned the eelskin became something ‘extra, unforeseen’ (Rediscoverd): a magical bandage (wrist …   bound with eelskin) cascading strength (energy redounded) into joints especially vital to scribe or poet (a waterwheel/Turned in the shoulder), restoring aching limbs with miraculous speed (mill-races poured made your elbow giddy).

The renewed energy his fingers feel (unconstrained and spirited) imagines a watery hieroglyph (heads and tails that wriggled in the mud). Though Aristotle’s zoological theories as regards the mud he supposed all eels were sprung from proved spurious Heaney has spotted a neat correspondence with his own world.

As regards aching fingers Heaney noted St Columba’s plaintive ‘My hand is cramped from penwork’ in Columcille Cecinit of Human Chain.

Heaney discovered the eel fishing industry in Lough Neagh in the 1960s when he visited Ardboe on its shoreline, his future wife’s home; he reveals to DOD (93) an earlier fascination with the myths surrounding eels from the age of eleven or twelve: Eelworks III of Human Chain features classmate, Alfie Kirkwood, smelly because he wore an eelskin wrapped around ‘a lapped wrist’ ‘for strength’;

  • virtue: useful quality;
  • eel: a long, thinbony fish (anguilla anguilla);
  • Aristotle (384-322 BC, Greek philosopher and scientist) wrote the earliest known treatise on eels suggesting that they were born of “earth worms”, which he believed were formed of mud, growing from the “guts of wet soil” rather than through sexual reproduction. Many centuries passed before scientists were able to demonstrate that such spontaneous generation does not occur in nature;
  • rib: curved bone; any reference to Eve formed from the rib of Adam is equally a matter of conjecture;
  • ell: allusion to the common posture of eels resembling a cursive letter ‘L’
  • yielded up: surrendered, released;
  • glooms: dark gulfs;
  • whorls: spiralling currents;
  • slating: blueish-grey depths;
  • redound: (from Old French) abound, be plentiful;
  • waterwheel: wheel driven by flowing water to create energy;
  • mill-race: channel of swift water driving the wheel;
  • giddy: dizzy, whirling sensation;
  • unconstrained: unrestricted;
  • spirited: vigorous;
  • wriggle: writhe;
  • were sprung: came from, originated;


  • 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; variable line length between 7 and 10 syllables; unrhymed;
  • 2 questions precede 3 further sentences; the narrative flow is influenced by line length, mid-line punctuation balanced against enjambed lines;
  • Interwoven with Aristotelian theory, superstition so largely ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ in its message;
  • ‘virtue’: borrowing from archaic Latin definition to do with strength and goodness echoing the out-of-date-ness of the theory; similar archaism of ‘redound’
  • ‘rib’: metaphor echoing the long bony shape of both body part and creature;
  • vocabulary associated with ‘water’ as source of life and bodily energy;
  • correspondence with poetic creativity slowly moves centre-stage;


  • 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 plosives [d], free flow [y] [h] alongside sibilant variants [s] [z] 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;