Squarings xliv


Heaney revealed to DOD (p.325) ‘Shortly after I came home. I was pouncing for twelve lines on all kinds of occasions, chance sentences from my reading, chance sightings of dictionary entries ( ) chance visits to places that unlocked the word hoard’.

Heaney also offered 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 revisits an old ‘certainty’ and, using a fishing parallel, sets out how his convictions have changed.

He pounces on a snippet from a Henry Vaughan poem he is reading that confidently anticipates a radiant afterlife for departed souls (All gone into the world of light).

‘Well,’ (I place words in Heaney’s mouth) ‘you could  be right, Mister Vaughan – the poet tries to imagine some celestial sphere (starry vestibule) where a host (crowd) of Insubstantial (sheer) presences waits Dante-like in the ‘airy structure’ for something to happen – ‘or on the other hand you could be wrong’ … otherwise not.

Heaney’s lapsed Catholic view permits him to conclude that everything comes to nothing. He finds an dimmer alternative to Vaughan’s celestial glow: (What lucency survives) has earthly properties clear to the night fisherman in him (blanched as worms on nightlines I would lift).

Like the angler who feels unrewarded by (ungratified) and yet reconciled to (well prepared for) having caught nothing, there comes a moment when Heaneyhas to admit there’s nothing there (moment of admission of All gone) that he has lost the fish … the faith… that had been on his hook (what had been there) – the lapsed Catholic acknowledges he has discarded any truths his faith once clung to (like a caught line snapping).

The loss of the fish is clear(the rod butt loses touch); insubstantial drips of water are all that remain (the tip drools). The turbulent river (eddies swirl) offers onlya sign of transience (dead leaf) that travels faster, as human existence seems to do, than the normal laws of nature might suggest (Swifter (it seems) than the water’s passage).

  • All gone into the world of light? Heaney borrows from a poem by Henry Vaughan (1621-95, Welsh author, physician and metaphysical poet chiefly known for his religious poetry contained in Silex Scintillans); Vaughan’s beginning reads They are all gone into the world of light!/And I alone sit ling’ring here; /Their very memory is fair and bright,/ And my sad thoughts doth clear.
  • sheer: dual possibility – total, absolute and indistinct;
  • form: perceptible shape of something recognizable;
  • vestibule: anteroom affording entrance;
  • lucent: (archaic form) luminous; astro-physics can differentiate between the intrinsic brightness of a celestial object and what the eye perceives diminished by distance and time-travel;
  • nightlines: bait cast at night;
  • caught line: fishing-line entangled in weed or snagged by rock;
  • rod butt: the thicker, grip-end of the fishing rod;
  • drool: dribble water drops;
  • lose touch: receive no sense data from underwater;
  • eddy: swirl, whirlpool;


The elegiac hymn possesses an appealing simplicity, picking up spiritual images of the world Vaughan lives in. Heaney foreshortens the quote and makes of it a question, retaining the pronoun ‘they’ expanded to ‘all’ to suggest intimacy. However, whilst Vaughan may be commemorating saints and prophets, lost kings and soldier comrades from his troubled Civil War period, Heaney recalls unsung figures from the Ulster world he loves. Heaney’s question indicates the distance between Vaughan’s faith and his own lapse and uncertainty as to the post-mortem (unattributed);

MP 221 Perhaps the only afterlife is the one created by the imagination, he suspects, yet, paradoxically, the more space Heaney puts between himself and orthodox belief, the less embarrassed he is speaking of souls and spirits. As many reviewers have pointed out, there is a growing conviction that “there is no next-time round” (I), that “All gone into a world of light?” means “All gone” ( ) dead leaf swirling, ashes and house-dust;

NC 177 Lightenings xii is accompanied in the sequence by several others which similarly register the death of the old certainties … Henry Vaughan’s seven­teenth-century metaphysical assurance that the dead are ‘all gone into the world of light’ is phrased instead as an opening question and then placed under sceptical agnostic scrutiny. This ultimately reduces the quotation to only its first two words( ) merely ‘All gone’. That ‘moment of admission’ is married in this poem, as is often the case in ‘Squarings’, to a definitively revelatory image, here drawn from the art of fishing ( ) The reflexiveness of the meditation (Heaney meditates and is affected by it) is explicit in the wry or rueful parenthesis ‘(it seems)’ which makes the lines melancholy, but alert too, and not about to give way to either self-pity or self-dramatization.


  • 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 9-13 syllables; triple end-of-line rhyme but no scheme;;
  • 5-sentence structure: 1 quotation couched as a question; 2-3 the postulate will be right or wrong; 4 the fishing metaphor unfolds based on the poet’s one-time activities; 5 religious lapse underlines the importance of earthly existence, all too fleeting;
  • the narrative flow is a smooth balance between punctuation (some of it mid-line) and enjambed lines;
  • the original question reduced to ‘all gone’ by Heaney’s sense of annihilation
  • ‘airy structure’: ‘sheer forms …starry vestibule … lucency;
  • ‘something earth­ier’: the fishing context;
  • ‘more obscure’: the ‘metaphysical’ message inside the metaphor;
  • vocabulary light versus dark, solid versus insubstantial;
  • dramatic qualities of the thinking that ultimately destroys old certainties: ‘what had been there … that moment of admission’;
  • portent of annihilation: ‘dead leaf’;


  • 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 first four lines combine front-of-mouth sounds fricatives [f] [v] and [l] [w], alveolar plosives [t] [d], sibilants [s][z [sh]];
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;