Settings xxii


By and large 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 early experience, whence he weighs up what ‘in time … was extra, unforeseen and free’ (Markings I). This poem breaks the mould.

Heaney focuses on the ‘spirit’.

Following his current ‘method’ of seeing things through fresh eyes, Heaney soul-searches, setting the current piece on a higher abstract and metaphysical plane. He refers seven unanswered questions to a highly respected precursor. If the general tone is serious the referral is more tongue-in-cheek.

Heaney acknowledges the actuality of some immaterial power source he calls spirit; hence his initial question is not ‘What is spirit’ but rather ‘where does one find it’?

Beyond the question of location he wants to know: whether ‘spirit’ is internalized and restricted (inside) or external and universal (outside); whether it is derived from within human experience (things remembered), and/or present in things created (made things); and/ or present in things as yet only figments of the imagination (things unmade).

He questions philosophical theories that place existence before essence (What came first the seabird’s cry or the soul?). Whilst the mew of a seagull in the dawn cold might betray the presence of a seabird, what if he only thought he heard it?  Does previous sensory experience prove existence in imagined form?

What becomes of the spirit after a person’s death? Does it migrate to its own resting place (roost)?  Is it to be found in the meanest of habitats (On dungy sticks In a jackdaw’s nest) or in some iconic retreat (old stone tower) haunted by the ghost of some spiritual precursor (enter W.B Yeats akin to The Master of Station Island)? Is the spirit to be sensed in the treasure house of classical theatre (a marble bust commanding the parterre)?

Can the same spirit of first experience be re-visited and upgraded (How habitable is perfected form)? And where does the spirit lie in the eternity of ‘unroofed scope’ (how inhabited the windy light?)

If, once written down, everything created by musician (held note) or poet (held line) were not open to revision for personal reasons (assailed for reassurance), then What’s the use?

If Heaney doesn’t know the answers, he knows a man who might (Set questions for the ghost of W.B.). ‘Did you ever go through this kind of soul-searching, brother?’ he asks.

He chooses Yeats as a kindred spirit, celebrated for his powers of intellect and poetic creation, his considerable work on poetic forms and systems, his promotion of all things Irish, his global celebrity (Nobel Prizewinner, a status that Heaney will share four years hence).

  • spirit: Heaney weaves the term’s different connotations into the piece: whether the non-physical part of a person which is the seat of emotions and character; the soul or the non-physical part of a person regarded as their true self and as capable of surviving physical death or separation; or the non-physical part of a person manifested as an apparition after their death; a ghost:
  • dungy: covered in excrement;
  • jackdaw: small grey-headed bird of the crow family;
  • parterre: lower auditorium of a theatre;
  • held note: sustained, prolonged musical sound;
  • assail: attack
  • for reassurance: so that doubts or fears can be eliminated;


  • In December 1923, Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. “for his inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to ‘the spirit of a whole nation”. He was aware of the symbolic value of an Irish winner so soon after Ireland had gained independence, and sought to highlight the fact at each available opportunity; Yeats is considered to be one of the few writers who completed their greatest works after being awarded the Nobel Prize; such works include The Tower (1928) andThe Winding Stair and Other Poems (1933);
  • NC 181 the sequence includes within itself the sense of how over-ambition always runs the risk of bathos. In Settings xxii very large metaphysical questions, initiated by Where does spirit live?’, climax in a parenthetical moue of embarrassment: ‘(Set questions for the ghost of W.B.)’. The poem suddenly sees itself as, reductively, an exam paper for the spirit of Yeats; which carries the implication, presumably, that Heaney is catching himself in a potentially magniloquent (using high-flown or bombastic language) Yeatsian mode;


  • 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 questions followed by a parenthesis that mimics an ‘Advanced’ level question!
  • the narrative flow is a balance between punctuation and enjambed lines;
  • vocabulary of dwelling: live, roost, nest; numinosity: spirit, soul, imagined, ghost, windy light; of non specifics: inside, outside, things made … unmade; sound: cry, note, line;
  • 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] [t],, sibilant [s] and nasal [n[ alongside front of mouth sounds [w] [f] [h];
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section