Settings xviii


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

A precocious youngster comments on a fall from power; his over-fifty-self credits that early discrimination.

Attending a rural Ulster get-together of countrymen (fair-hill), young Heaney takes a dislike to a rope salesman.

He watches the smutty routine of an individual who thinks highly of himself (a foul-mouthed god of hemp) but who gives his basic instincts away (come down to rut). The man’s presentation is loud and brash (stumped about) and his double-entendres are heavy with male sexual innuendo (how thick it … how long and strong… take it into your own hand/ And feel it).

Product-quality (perfect, tight-bound wares),as demonstrated by the loops of rope that surround him, has attracted a crowd of onlookers (circle round him).

The youngster senses an irony: the salesman’s lack of constraint and the restraining nature of his product – reins … belly-bands and halters; he notes a waning of audience interest (slippage) evident even to a novice  (knee-high among the farmers).

What the youngster sensed already was that the rope man was his own worst enemy, that his intemperate insinuations (freedoms) would be anathema (menaced) to the conservative Ulster farming community of the period (turn their backs).

Sure enough, once the fair ends, the salesman’s influence is replaced by powerlessness – his audience has dispersed (fair-hill emptied), leaving him with no alternative but to pack up (break the circle) and push off (start loading).

  • foul-mouthed: obscene, using crude language;
  • hemp: family of plants producing fibre for rope;
  • rut: a sexual connotation (of deer ‘engage in the mating process’);
  • stump about: walk around noisily and angrily
  • rope: made of twisted strands of hemp or other materials
  • tight-bound: the individual strands densely packed for strength
  • ware: manufactured article;
  • reins/ belly bands/ halters: items of horse tack used with horse-drawn vehicles;
  • slippage: failure to meet an ideal, target;
  • knee-high: height of a small child amongst adults
  • turn ones back on: reject, walk away from;
  • fair-hill: hunger and poverty drove many Ulster folk to seek work, often seasonal, in agriculture or domestic service; hiring fairs connected job-seekers with potential employers’; at their peak, they took place in more than 80 towns across Ulster and were generally held twice a year in May (the beginning of the harvest season) and November ( for preparation of the ground and planting); Patrick Heaney preferred the-cut-and-thrust of traditional cattle markets to what he saw as watered-down events;
  • break the circle: both of rope looped around him and the people gathered around;


  • Heaney’s caricatures are generally kindly: his portrayal of a paternal uncle, ‘stage Irishman’, wheeler-dealer on a rural  fair day with the poet’s own father appears in ‘Ancestral Photograph’ (Death of a Naturalist); his picture of bewildered academics starved of a night’s sleep in ‘Dawn’ (Wintering Out) is infused with good humour; ‘Navvy’ of North confers god-like status on a humble labourer; the Uncle Hughie peat digger of ‘Kinship V’ (North) is equally looked up to in his community as ‘god of the waggon’; the journeyman tailor of At Banagher (Spirit Level) demonstrates the enlightened calm of a Buddha; even the Protestant lambeg drummer of ‘Orange Drums’ (North) is figured as noisy and absurd. Not so the rope salesman!


  • 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;


  • 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 final triplet interweaves bi-labial plosives [b] [p], alveolar plosives [d] [t] and voiced dental fricative [th], velar plosives [g] [k], sibilant [s]] and nasal [n];
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;