Settings xxiii

The ‘Settings’ sequence presents a chain of backdrops against which personal happenings 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).

Recalling a symposium (Heaney does not tell us when or where) of specialists and literary figures  Heaney recounts an excursion – the poet identifies Danish poet Ivan Malinowski on the same tour whose death in 1989 introduces an short Heaney-style tribute to a kindred spirit.

Later mention of the emblematic figure of an Icelandic poet and mythologist, Snorri Sturluson’ gives the general location away. The outing provides an Icelandic context (saga country) and features two poets, himself and Malinowski, ever alert to instances with poetic charge. The Dane’s poem reflects post-war militarism and loss of ancient traditions (nuclear submarines … an abandoned whaling station).

Heaney, thrilled (frisson) but paying only half attention to the content, is on a different tack: looking to seize the pure essence of a moment (a poem of utter evening) set in a different age (thirteenth century) against the ageless backdrop of high latitudes in summer (weird midnight sun setting) and in the presence of an iconic Icelander (at eye-level with Snorri Sturluson) as he savours a moment of hydrothermal bliss (bathe in a hot spring) and relaxes undisturbed after his day-job (milking time) beneath a warm shower (Laved).

The moment offers Sturluson time and space to pursue the majestic thoughts of a man who was both poet and leading statesman (ensconced in the throne-room of his mind).

  • saga country: the 9th, 10th, and early 11th centuries in Iceland are referred to as the Saga Age featuring the Sagas of Icelanders (largely family sagas), prose narratives based on historical events alleged to have happened;
  • Ivan Malinowski: Danish poet and political commentator (1926-89);
  • whaling station: coastal facility in which the carcasses of whales are processed
  • frisson: shiver of excitement, thrill;
  • utter: quintessential
  • Snorri Sturluson (1179 –1241) Icelandic historian, poet, and politician; elected twice as lawspeaker at the Icelandic parliament, the Althing; author of the Prose Edda or Younger Edda, which consisting of a narrative of Norse mythology, the Skaldskapormal, a book of poetic language, and the Hattotal, a list of verse forms.
  • as a historian and mythographer, he proposed the hypothesis (in the Prose Edda) that mythological gods begin as human war leaders and kings whose funeral sites develop cults; as people call upon the dead war leader as they go to battle, or the dead king as they face tribal hardship, they begin to venerate the figure; eventually, the king or warrior is remembered only as a god. He also proposed that as tribes defeat others, they explain their victory by proposing that their own gods were in battle with the gods of the others;
  • lave: wash under pouring water;
  • ensconced: firmly settled, lodged;
  • 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;
  • 3 sentences: a fellow poet at work; Heaney half listening; Heaney building the setting we have just read;
  • legato flow based on enjambed lines;
  • the modern world is not a better world: modern militarism ‘nuclear submarine’ and declining natural resources ‘abandoned whaling station’ contrast with the untroubled purity of Sturluson’s ancient civilization;
  • 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 [t][d] and front of mouth sounds [l] [v] [f] [b] [h] alongside sibilants [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;