Squarings xlii


Heaney offers his reader a clue as to how to ‘enter’ the poems: You could think of every poem in ‘Squarings’ as the peg at the end of a tent-rope reaching up into the airy structure, but still with purchase on something earth­ier and more obscure (DOD 320);

Heaney blends events, emotions and thoughts that have graced his existential presence: Ulster landscapes and dialect; traditional turf cutting; Ulster mind-sets; old Ireland overtaken by modernism; environmental concerns. This poem highlights  the ghosts of Irish stock in an image of rare beauty.

The lyrical scenes (Heather and kesh and turf stacks reappear) of Heaney’s Ulster spring still to his mind Summer by summer still, sight and sound alike (grasshoppers and all).

The places he goes back to have not failed (see xli) but things have changed: the appropriation of land for development (same yet rarer fields) will come as a disppointment to the privileged ones who lived their lives out here (the nearly blessed).

Heaney pictures the overworked, underfed peat-cutters (gaunt ones in their shirtsleeves stooped and dug) who took pride in their day’s labour (stood alone at dusk surveying bog-banks) – departed souls  (Apparitions now) yet still representative-Irish (active still) … keen defenders of the tribal area (territorial), shrewd in their husbandry (sure of their ground) and still casting an eye over what happens(Still interested).

Long dead shades, unaware of the decline Heaney has noted: how far The country … has been pushed back puzzled by man’s deleterious impact on natural habitats (how long the lark has stopped outside these fields) that now seem irreversible (unstoppable to them).

Heaney, a transient presence with a rare gift of expression at his finger-tips, floods this former generation with light, warmth and reverence: Caught like a far hill in a freak of sunshine.

  • kesh: (Ulster usage) track, lane;
  • turf-stack: peat in an ordered pile;
  • grasshopper: plant-eating grassland insect with long hind legs used for jumping and producing a chirping sound;
  • nearly blessed: deserving of favour and happiness but never quite achieving it;
  • gaunt: lean, haggard from hunger or suffering;
  • stooped: both bending and hunched;
  • bog-banks: slopes from which peat has been removed;
  • sure of their ground: a once confident in their work and at home in difficult terrain;
  • country of the shades: some underworld location where the ghosts of these dead wander side by side;
  • (sky)lark: small energetic songbird that sings as it flies; common in the Ulster summer
  • freak: chance, rarely spotted;


NC (179) perceives a ‘Squarings’ pattern: ‘For certain ones what was written may come true’ {xlv) recurs in a number of poems in the sequence … a speculative proposition gives rise to ruminative meditation which then modulates into the self-corrective production of an enduring image, emblem or figure … the afterlife is ren­dered with absolute local specificity: the dead once more ( ) are anchored in the ground of their previous dwelling. The phrase ‘heaven on earth’, that cliché of extravagant temporal fulfillment perhaps an ironic reflection  on Irish circumstances, serves now to define the only conceivable posthu­mous fulfilment too; that is, an intensification of the quotidian realities of their existences.


  • 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;
  • single sentence divided by colon and dash;
  • the narrative flow is a smooth balance between punctuation (some of it mid-line) and enjambed lines;
  • local usages: ‘kesh … turf stacks … bog-banks’;
  • environmental concerns generated by progress: ‘same yet rarer … pushed back … lark has stopped;
  • vocabulary of the dead yet alive – still in the poet’s memory from the period when he witnessed them or photographs of even earlier: ‘gaunt ones … shirtsleeves … apparitions … active still’; Dantean ‘shades’;
  • repetition of ‘still’;


  • 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: thirteen 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 first four lines are rich in alveolar plosives [t] [d], sibilant variations [s] [sh][z] front-of-mouth sounds [f][v] [l] [w] 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;