Squarings xxxix


Heaney offers his reader a clue as to how to ‘enter’ the Squarings 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).

Visiting a site on Ulster’s north Antrim coast, iconic both for its folkloric connections (Giant) and its extraordinary geology (Causeway), Heaney focuses on his wife’s reactions and ponders its impact on her.

Whether from visual memory or snapshot, wife Marie is seated in the ‘Wishing Chair’, distant and preoccupied (far-eyed), exposed to the chill volcanic rock (cold) yet regal (throne), sitting sensibly (the small of your back erect)  and wisely as ever  (solid sense).

Heaney is reminded of American First Nations culture: Marie is the young child (papoose), sitting constricted (strapped), feeding hungrily on the ambiance (like maple syrup at sap-time).

He may be thinking of his Antaeus from the ‘North’ collection, a ‘giant’ figure from Greek/ North African mythology, invincible in combat as long as he retained contact with the earth that renewed his strength.  Marie’s strength derives from Gaelic folklore (force out of the world-tree’s hardness) placing her at the top of the mythological power chain: If you stretched your hand forth, things might turn to stone.

In reality Marie is just (only) a vulnerable human being: cold (goose-fleshed) and slight (skin and bone) visiting a Heritage site (wonder of the world) that can be explained geologically (Lava crystallized) but generates fascinating  tales of folklore (salts of the earth the wishing chair gave a savour to) before ever science cstepped in …  where seaside smells (kelp and ozone) are invigorating (freshening your outlook) and the whole scene awakens new scope in Marie’s mind beyond the range you thought you’d settled for.

  • far-eyed: far away, of people distracted by other thoughts: Seamus Heaney’s wife Marie, featured in the poem, was preparing ‘Over Nine Waves’, a book of Irish legends, to be published by Faber in 1994, action-packed stories of ancient heroes, huge battles, attempted invasions, prophecies and spells, clashes between the underworld and the real world, abductions, love affairs and so on, many of them traceable back to Norse origins; the  Giant’s Causeway would chime perfectly with her contemporaneous interests;
  • basalt: volcanic rock;
  • Giant’s Causeway; a truly spectacular UNESCO World Heritage site on the N coast of Co Antrim; it is made up of some 40k interlocking basalt columns mainly hexagonal in shape; over 60 million years nature has carved the land into extraordinary formations that have sent the human imagination into overdrive and generated dreamy and fantastical myths from Gaelic mythology;
  • wishing chair; natural feature of the causeway; sit on it and make a wish;
  • small of the back: point level with the waist where the spine curves;
  • papoose: both American Indian child and the bag in which it was toted;
  • sap-time: early spring when the sap is said to rise;
  • world-tree: in Norse mythology, Yggdrasil is theworld tree, attested in the Poetic Edda, compiled in the 13th century from earlier traditional sources, and the Prose Edda, written in the 13th century by Snorri Sturluson (see also  Settings xxiii); the immense ash tree is central and considered very sacred;
  • goose-flesh: skin state produced by cold, fear, excitement or pleasure;
  • salt: naturally occurring crystalline substance;
  • salts of the earth: phrase extended to refer to honest, straightforward people;
  • kelp: pungent brown seaweed;
  • ozone: pungent gas associated with wind blowing off the sea;
  • range: compass, bounds, place on a scale of values;


  • 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 between 9  and 12 syllables; unrhymed;
  • 4-sentence structure: 1 a visual memory renewed; 2 associations and imaginings from another culture and 3 the imaginary reincarnation of the focus-figure; 4 prevailing physical effects on the focus-figure and potential for mental furtherance;
  • narrative flow determined by the balance of punctuation and enjambed lines especially in sentence 4;
  • compound adjectives and nouns useful for economical conflation of ideas and images; from ‘far-eyed’ to ‘goose-fleshed’;
  • simile compares two ambiances, Irish and American first-nation;
  • personal pronoun ‘you’ gives the focus-figure away; this is autobiographical;


  • 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 interweave front-of-mouth sounds [f] [l] [v] [w], alveolar plosives [t] [d], 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;