Settings xx


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 and emotions of previous experience, from where he weighed up what ‘in time … was extra, unforeseen and free’ (Markings I).

Behind every picture lurks a story. On tour the poet stands at a picture post-card site in Central Moscow (Red Square) and sifts what he sees against what he ‘knows’ about the Kremlin building: its brick wall ostensibly nothing out of the ordinary (unthreatening in scale) yet over time a symbol of repression – just right for people/ To behave well whether subjected to tyrannical rule (under), incarcerated (inside) or just warned to keep unguarded comments to themselves (outside).

The square’s vastness (big cleared space) sets the poet’s head spinning (dizzying); its uneven configuration (heave and sweep of cobbles) acting as a launch-pad (beamed up) into the airborne world he once shared with the legendary Sweeney (my dream of flying) over Ireland’s old cart road and his accompanying bird-like feelings of release and loftiness (all the air/ Fanning off beneath my neck and breastbone).

Heaney’s allusion to the Irish king exiled by a repressive church extends to a distinguished Russian literary figure who faced up to a tyrant and got away with his life: The cloud-roamer, was it, Stalin called Pasternak?

So, what has this scene from Russia’s terrible history unearthed in Heaney? Footage of improvised ’dirty’ devices of World War II (Plosive horse-dung on 1940s’ roads)? Or memory a non-conformist Pasternak safeguarding priceless written word and refusing to incriminate his fellows (protected joys) from tyrannical threats (newsreel bomb-hits) that failed to quell the creative spirit (as harmless as dust-puffs)?

  • Red Square is the vast central square in Moscow, Russia, witness to so many of Russia’s high profile political events; the Kremlin, former royal citadel and currently the official residence of the President of Russia; became an icon of repressive political regimes especially post WWII;
  • unthreatening: not hostile or frightening;
  • scale: size (physical versus symbolic);
  • heave: rise and fall, uneven surface;
  • sweep: expansive area;
  • beam up: not so far from a sci-fi catch phrase from popular culture (‘Beam me up, Scottie’) enabling magical transportation by radio beam from one place to another;
  • fanning off: as air waves passing solid objects are diverted by aerodynamic forces;
  • breastbone: sternum;
  • Pasternak/Stalin/cloud-roamer: allusion to the despotic post-WWII period in Russia during which Josef Stalin suppressed free-speech and disposed of creative spirits deemed critical. Bernard O’Donoghue (‘Northern Irish Poetry and the Russian Turn’ (page uncertain) suggests an oblique reference to one such victim, Josef Mandelstam, whom Heaney met and much admired. Certainly Stalin phoned Pasternak in search of evidence to incriminate Mandelstam; furthermore Stalin regarded Pasternak as an ‘extravagant poet living remote from reality’;
  • Heaney visited Moscow with his wife  in 1985 (hosted by Yevgeny Yevtushenko); this included a visit to the literary complex at Peredelkino where Pasternak took refuge from the mainstream and where he is buried; see also In Search of Rain in Part I.
  • protected joys: elusive;
  • plosive: shortening of explosive, exploding booby trap
  • newsreel: short film of news, current affairs originally part of a cinema programme;
  • dust-puff: dust thrown up by bullets hitting soil harmlessly;

*Heaney alludes to the figure of Sweeney, the exiled 7th century Irish king of his Sweeney Astray. In Station Island (1984) Heaney takes to the air alongside Sweeney, exiled as a bird (‘cloud roamer’) by a bishop’s curse and distanced (Pasternak-like) from the threat of the social and political epicentre;

HV (146):  In Seeing Things almost every hieroglyph inscribes within itself its own annihilation: ‘The places I go back to have not failed / But will not last’ (Squarings xli). The violence of the Second World War is dissolved into ‘newsreel bomb-hits as harmless as dust-puffs’ (Settings xx);


  • 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;
  • 7 sentences including a question in parenthesis the early narrative flow balances punctuation and enjambed lines; the final four lines form separate sentences;
  • oxymoronic effect: ‘unthreatening’ but with hidden threat ‘just right’;
  • triple prepositions ‘under, inside or outside’ the Kremlin wall;
  • cobblestones figured as wing-shaped ‘heave’ ‘sweep’ leading to ‘dream of flying’; shared reputation as ‘cloud roamer’ Pasternak judged by a tyrant, Heaney by following his writerly aspirations;


  • 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: eleven 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] [t], alongside bi-labial plosives [b] [p] and other front-of-mouth sounds [f] [l][w], 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;