The Settle Bed

Heaney pictures a massive piece of Irish furniture that came to live and belong in Glanmore Cottage.  The inherited gift smacked of Ulster’s past and is used as a metaphor for shared heritage and a better future.

The settle bed came as a bequest (willed down), known in advance (waited for), eventually installed (in place at last) and permanent (for good). Its properties reveal its character and style: foldable and hinged (trunk-hasped); weighing a ton (cart-heavy); crudely decorated (painted an ignorant brown); as narrow as church seating (pew-strait); cavernous (bin-deep); all in all, a hallowed object (standing four-square as an ark).

To lie in it was to be encoffined (cribbed in seasoned deal), waiting like a Viking hero for cremation (dry as the unkindled boards of a funeral ship); perfect for Heaney’s frame (my measure … taken); sound-proofed (my ear shuttered up).

The settle bed represents an old sombre tide of continuity awash in the headboard: proud Ulsterisms (unpathetic och ochs och hohs); the rousing songs that kept folk up (long bedtime anthems); a defiant Ulster not prepared to kowtow to British rule (unwilling, unbeaten), tolerance within the Catholic Heaney family (the Bible, the beads); neighbourly communications (long talks at gables by moonlight), conviviality (boots on the hearth) … even all night sessions (small hours chimed sweetly away) overtaken by daybreak (cock on the ridge-tiles).

Set solid in Heaney’s consciousness, the bed proclaims the values of old Ireland (planked in the long ago): honest (upright); uncomplicated (rudimentary); immovable (unshiftably planked); a ‘relic’ to be handed on (willable forward); standing for all that it is unsophisticated dumb, tongue-and-groove worthiness; in the way (un-get-roundable weight).

A settle bed with the potential to reconcile differences (conquer that weight) – not intimidating, rather a light and airborne gift from above (dower) urging escape from the tit-for-tat of violence (nonsensical vengeance), one of a shower of settle beds (harmless barrage).

Heaney claims his entitlement as a poet (whatever is given can always be reimagined) to figure the settle bed as an agent of reconciliation if he wishes, however limited (four-square), backward (Plank-thick, hull-stupid) or outmoded it may seem.

Why not imagine a different, better reality (You are free as a lookout)?  He weaves the hope into an example of Irish humour: an old tale says that, from his crow’s nest post high over the fog, a far-seeing joker declared in all seriousness that the Ireland he found when he clambered down again bore no resemblance to the one he remembered before he shinned up: the actual ship had been stolen away from beneath him.

The crewman in the Clonmacnoise legend of Lightenigs viii will have a similar tale to tell his crewmates in the floating boat.

  • settle bed: large piece of old fashioned furniture with double purpose, sit on (settle) by day, sleep in by night; use of a hinged seat permitted both functions;
  • willed: happening as if as a result of mental power;
  • for good: for evermore, for keeps; the play on words ‘of benefit’ also applies;
  • hasp: hinged metal fastening;
  • ignorant: probably ‘rough and ready’; the general sense of “lacking wisdom or knowledge, unaware” seems incongruous applied to a colour; a related Latin word  ignotus suggests“unknown, strange, unrecognized, unfamiliar”;
  • pew-strait: as narrow, confined as the distance between rows of church seats;
  • bin-deep: with the depth of a capacious container;
  • four square: firm, solid without curves;
  • ark: reference to the chest that contained the Israelites’ holy laws as they wandered through the wilderness in the book of Exodus;
  • crib: child’s bed with high sides;
  • seasoned deal: of long matured pine;
  • unkindled: no fire involved;
  • funeral-ship: reference to Viking tradition of cremating prominent dead in their longship;
  • measure: both physical size and disposition;
  • shuttered: covered to muffle sound
  • sombre: serious, grave;
  • headboard: large panel at the head of the bed;
  • unpathetic: not evoking emotion, composed;
  • anthem: rousing songs of praise;
  • gable: triangular upper part at the end of a ridged roof;
  • small hours: early hours after midnight (fewer clock chimes required);
  • ridge: line where the two sloping sides meet:
  • rudimentary: basic, simple;
  • cargo: load carried by a ship;
  • tongue and groove: interlocking planks;
  • worthy: solid, admirable;
  • un-get-roundable: tight to the wall;
  • dower: things given, left as part of marriage or inheritance (note: rhymes with shower);
  • tumble: shower down
  • vengeance: punishment;
  • barrage: bombardment;
  • hull: framework, infrastructure
  • lookout: sailor stationed to keep watch for danger;
  • joker: recounter of witty, silly stories;
  • Heaney chatted about it with DOD (326) It belonged to a distant cousin of my father’s, an old cailleach (divine hag, creative deity from Celtic mythology) in County Derry, Biddy Carmichael, who left it to me in her will. A big, high-backed, fold-out, wooden box-bed, as heavy as a piano: vernacular furniture with a capital V … it belonged in the cottage (Glanmore) … It was, as the poem says, the given that can always be reimagined, and I don’t believe it could have attained that state outside of the cottage. Although I’ve never actually slept in it, I do consider the settle bed ‘a fine and private place’. Like the cottage itself.
  • MP (220) there are some marvellous highs, par­ticularly in poems such as ‘The Settle Bed’ (where things) excite the poet and prompt new and unusual angles of vision;
  • HV (150-1): Seeing Things proves the degree to which, for a poet, a new sense of life must generate a new style … the suspended time of recognition rather than action … the inheritance represented by the bed is that of Ulster itself, ‘unwilling, unbeaten’, its solidity and permanence a matter of both admir­ing attachment and sceptical disenchantment … This poem is one of only four in Seeing Things to refer with any specificity to the conflict in Northern Ireland … Here political anachronism and the atavisms of immobile attitudes … are lightened or loosened into a surreal ‘dower’ created by the imagination: the inheritance of the settle bed handed on, but with a difference. The word dower‘ proposes the settle-bed as an inheritance which will cement a marriage, which will be the agent of reconciliation; and, in doing so, it transforms the in-placement of Ulster historical and political experience into the imaginative else­where of an alternative coexistence. That this remains an option only in the surreal world of imagination, not in any existing political actuality is clear from the way the vision is offered in, precisely, the terms of the conflict… nonsensical vengeance, harmless barrage;
  • its final image – the lookout who loses his ship in the fog – joins those images of the miraculous or visionary ships in ‘Seeing Things’ and ‘Squarings’ and does tentatively figure an alternative future; the settle bed finally willed forward in all its historical solidity, but as something entirely other than itself ;
  • 9 triplets framing a 9-sentence structure; line length based on 12 syllables; unrhymed;
  • enumeration-rich with visual or more abstract description reflected in the early frequency of punctuation; later enjambments smooth the flow;
  • adjective-rich: initially via plethora of past participles and compound words (‘trunk-hasped’ etc.); compounds associating the furniture with Irish backwardness: ‘plank-thick’, ‘hull-stupid’;
  • oxymoronic intention: ‘harmless barrage’, ‘far-seeing … fog’;
  • tense change in mid-poem moves from description to recall; imperative ‘imagine’ extends to all with an interest in the issues;
  • 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 lines interweave bilabial plosives [b][p], interlabial [w], velar plosive [k] with alveolar plosives [t] [d] and sibilant [s];
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;