In light-hearted, self-deprecating mood Heaney recounts a moment spent amidst the fullness of classical Roman culture in the company of intimate friends.
In the history-steeped setting (we knew it) of the Capitol by moonlight Heaney and his friends derive immense pleasure (transports) from what enticed them to take the climb (temptation on the height). They appreciate being there (privileged) albeit late in the day even, perhaps, in middle-age (belated).
Heaney is suddenly taken by the desire (moved me) to express a personal view (prophesy against) aimed at the superior aloofness given out by the stone dear to the Romans (beloved stand-offishness of marble) and the self-congratulatory propaganda chiselled into it (all emulation of stone-cut verses).
As if declaiming to Romans in the forum he expresses disapproval of Roman expressions of superiority (Down with form triumphant) and preferring (long live!) representations of backwardness striving to improve (Form mendicant and convalescent).
He is waiting for the moment (We attend) when time will credit humble proto-Irish things that sustain life (pure water) or icons of faith (prayer-wheel).
Heaney pokes fun at himself: he failed to notice that no one had waited to listen to his homily save one (a voice replied) – a wife accustomed to his ways but now impatient to move on and treating him as she would a child (Of course we do) … there are more pressing things than a lecture on civilization – destination: the ‘Forum Café’; she is dying of thirst (What’ll you have?)!
- Capitol: reference to the Capitoline, one of the seven hills of ancient Rome, site of the temple of Jupiter;
- transports: strong emotions;
- temptation: a thing that appeals, flatters, seduces, inveigles, persuades, entices; often with a connotation of ‘towards doing something wrong or unwise’;
- belated: overtaken by night;
- moved; was inspired to;
- stand-offish: aloof, coldly distant;
- emulate: imitate, match;
- stone-cut: carved into stone surfaces;
- form: format, style; architecture might refer to them as Orders;
- mendicant: given to begging, reliant on alms;
- convalescent: original Latin derivation suggests ‘thriving’ ‘growing strong’; recuperating, making progress;
- attend: Old French derivation suggests ‘await’ ‘anticipate’
- prayer-wheel: Heaney’s reference remain elusive: revolving cylinders are still used by Tibetan Buddhists to symbolize the repetition of the prayer inscribed upon them, however medieval ‘wheels’ such as the one found in the Westphalian Liesborn Gospels demonstrated a European approach to Christian values expressed within a circular matrix;
In dialogue with DOD (p.3240) Heaney placed the poem within the context of the collection as a whole: ‘Seeing Things was ‘a new start’. There, for once, the old saw came true: life began, or began again, at fifty….Marie and I went to Rome for a holiday with Bernard (fellow academic and writer of books on prominent Irish literary figures) and Jane McCabe. And the Irish Times published a selection of the twelve liners as a celebration.
Heaney revealed his sudden feeding-frenzy to DOD (p,325) : Shortly after I came home (from a trip to Rome in 1989), 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. I wanted, if possible, something nonchalant yet definite. ‘Unfussy and believable’, as I say in the section about Han-Shan’s Cold Mountain poems .
NC 181 In Crossings xxxviii, a moonlight visit to the Capitol in Rome involves a knowing assurance about being ‘privileged and belated’, about being the social and cultural inheritor of thousands of years of Western European culture, This provokes an articulation from the poet of an inbuilt resistance to what he calls ‘form triumphant’, which is the marble form of the Roman monument itself, but which is also, by implication, the form of these poems too, inheriting from their Dantean sources. The poet’s allegiance to ‘Form mendicant and convalescent’ is, however, itself undercut by the voice of a companion which challenges the self-dramatization of the utterance itself, pulling the poet back from his vaguely ludicrous ceremonious speech into the thumpingly ordinary heartland with an inquiry about what he wants to drink. Although the scruple (uncertainty) with which Heaney includes these self-reducing moments in ‘Squarings’ makes for a certain corrective comedy in the sequence, they run the risk of themselves appearing bathetic (trivial, even ludicrous). Emphasizing the degree to which an oracular tone has in fact established itself as viable and reliable in the sequence, they represent the final survival of uncertainty in an aesthetic which has in fact overcome it.
- 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 10 and 12 syllables; unrhymed;
- 6-sentence structure: 1 an acknowledged privilege of historical site; 2/3 adoption of a university lecturer’s pompous mode; future will deliver humble alternatives to replace high culture; 4 back to reality; an important holiday pleasure being sidelined;
- Narrative flow determined by the balance of punctuation and enjambed lines;
- Direct speech: a decisive intervention recalled;
- The narrative moves from the group ‘we’, to a slightly pompous ‘me’ followed by an abrupt return to the plural ‘we’.
- 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 triplet interweaves front-of-mouth sounds [f] [v] [w], bi-labial plosives [b] [p], alveolar plosives [t] [d];
- a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;