Three scenes present themselves from memory: the first associated with gaelic football games such as were played at his school (St Columb’s College in Derry), the second from of a pleasure day spent on the riverbank and the third from Norse mythology. On the poet’s journey of re-envisioning, each will fuel the revelatory process going on in Heaney’s mind.
- The Point
An image of schooldays is suddenly posted on Heaney’s mind-screen (Those were the days – booting a leather football) drawing the acknowledgement that schooling was there to push Heaney as an individual truer and farther than you ever expected!
The two principal skills of the game were kicking and catching. The football he kicked crossed uncultured, unfertile surfaces (rattling hard and fast over daisies and benweeds), made a dull impact (thumped) and yet carried a particular, as yet unaesthetic music (it sang too, a kind of dry, ringing) before fading away (foreclosure of sound). Enter allegory: school was not the best incubator for a young student with a bent for poetry; nevertheless the desire was present and had to be furthered; sonic charge was to be found in unexpected places; poetic impulses needed to be grabbed before they disppeared.
Heaney imagines the arena in which his talent makes a great catch, prompting exhortations from the touch-line to make an impact on the score ( Point her!). ‘Was that really me,’ Heaney is asking himself, ‘with the technique to make a great kick (spring and unhampered mash-through!); enter allegory.
Was it you, Seamus, ‘young and aspiring’, Heaney asks himself, ‘or the ball, the poetic missile you launched, with its limitless potential’ (going beyond you, amazingly higher and higher) that in the end found an orbit for itself: ruefully free.
Reduced to its simplest, footballer and poet are one and the same: without the catch, nothing to work with … without the kick the ball would have had no momentum – no poetic aspirations would have been met … without the ball no game would have been played – no poetry composed.
- Heaney would have been obliged to play at his secondary school, a game which scored one point for a rugby-like conversion kick and three for a soccer-like goal. Heaney joined in rather unenthusiastically; he would have preferred to spend his time in the school library; this feeling does not emerge, however, until the irony of the final line;
- point: a gaelic football goal is H shaped, the lower section is called the ‘goal’ and the upper the ‘point’;
- point: as a verb go for a 1 point score between the uprights
- boot: kick (players wore special footwear known as football-boots)
- true: exact, accurate, where you aimed it, honest;
- hard and fast: (as a phrase) fixed, set; (as words) with force and at high speed;
- benweed: yellow flowered ragwort of the daisy family common in Mossbawn fields;
- foreclosure: borrowing from financial sources to suggest something about to be repossessed;
- touch-line: boundary line of a games-pitch;
- spring: sudden jump upwards and forwards;
- unhampered: unobstructed;
- smash-through: violent kicking action;
- rueful: regretful;
- 5 verses of 4 lines; line length between 2 and 8 syllables; no rhyme scheme;
- action effects of multiple short phrases some with apostrophes and a longer cadence with enjambments and question mark;
- The Pulse
In a moment of completeness Heaney’s heart and soul are in perfect step with environment and activity. The barely perceptible sensation felt by the fly-fisherman is akin to the tiny vibration of creative impulses within the poet. The instant when the man and his river meld into a single frame provides the ‘marvel’ to be credited.
Helen Vendler expresses it in her own erudite way; ‘such a self-aware book must also contain a nostalgia for first-order experience. This is most acutely felt in ‘The Pulse’. The pulse of the cast line entering water is evoked as the fleetest version of the tactile (‘smaller in your hand / than the remembered heartbeat / of a bird’), and then, to ‘touch evanescent’ is added ‘touch resistant’ (139-40) .
Heaney revealed to DOD (p95) that in fact he was not a seasoned fisherman himself: I wanted to fish with a fly and just never stayed at it long enough to cast, so that effort fizzled out … But inside my sixty-eight-year-old- arm there’s a totally enlivened twelve-year-old one, feeling the bite.
Everything comes together! When Heaney has a line, fishing or poetic, to cast it is effortless thanks to the fine engineering of his spinning reel … its sudden man-powered release (One quick flick of the wrist) generates momentum (your minnow sped away) … its nuances of sound and smoothness are barely perceptible (whispering and silky) … its skilled construction holds it all together in flight (nimbly laden) … its contribution is in upbeat tune with the activity (all rise and shine) … the moment is one of pleasurable relief (the very opposite of uphill going) … time slows down to offer pure duration between the fly propelled and its watery touch-down.
The poet’s fishing-fly transmits a tiny landing pulse as imperceptible as the life signs of nestlings Heaney handled as a boy: smaller in your hand than the remembered heartbeat of a bird.
After the cast with all its runaway give comes the moment of retrieval (you reeled in) – angler, nature and the forces that govern it are in perfect stasis (yourself strung, heel-tip to rod-tip, into the river’s steady purchase and thrum).
- pulse: single barely perceptible vibration
- reel: cylinder onto which fishing-line is wound;
- flick: sudden quick movement
- minnow: tiny freshwater fish acting as fishing lure;
- whispering: akin to very soft speech;
- silky: soft like silk, smooth-touch;
- nimbly: deftly, skilfully;
- laden: loaded, attached to the fishing-hook;
- rise and shine: informal phrase meaning ‘wake up and get out of bed’ reworked relative to fish rising to the bait, their silver bodies glinting;
- uphill going: proving difficult (e.g. riding a bicycle uphill:
- duration: fullness of time, as long as it takes;
- cast: thrown, propelled;
- runaway: fishing line released by the reel as the hooked fish makes a dash for it:
- reel in: wind in
- strung: joined/as one by the fishing-line
- tip: pointed/ rounded end;
- purchase: a pulling force;
- thrum: low, steady rhythmic sound;
- MP (220) : fishing is again seen as analogous to the act of, the ‘achieve of’ poetic creation, that feeling of completeness, of ratification;
- Repeatedly in Seeing Things it is the unpredictability and change ability of water and sky which excite the poet and prompt new and unusual angles of vision (id);
- 5 verses of 4 lines;
- 4 sentence structure; little interim punctuation makes for almost continuous flow; line length between 3 and 7 syllables; no rhyme scheme;
- contrast: the ease of a gravity led transit of the fishing fly; its opposite ‘uphill going’ of life’s other activities;
- vocabulary of nuances of movement, sound, perception;
- personal pronoun ‘you’ referring to anyone engaged in this activity, including Heaney himself (ironically he wasn’t a fisherman!);
- image of angler and river fused into a single interdependent unit;
3 A Haul
The gentle stasis of a perfect fly-fishing scene is replaced by an incident of fishing mayhem from Norse mythology. Heaney recounts the prodigious tale of Thor in pursuit of the World Serpent and spots a correspondence.
In the world of Norse titans (Thor and the giant Hymer) it was no trivial fish that got away, rather the monstrous the world-serpent itself.
Baited with an appropriately massive ox-head the cast was equally colossal: spun high / plunged into the depth. Reeling in the catch however (the big haul) ended in double disaster: Thor’s foot went through the boards and his fishing companion panicked and cut the line with a bait-knife.
The resulting jerk caused pandemonium: violent loss of buoyancy (roll-over, turmoil, whiplash), a maelstrom (Milky Way) of water effects, a boat with a hole in it, a major Norse god stunned (Thor’s head opened), feeling all-at-sea at one with space , looking round for support (unroofed), deprived of dignity (obvious).
For a moment poet and Norse god are alike: Heaney, vulnerable and exposed following the loss of his remaining parent, Thor with no world-serpent within his grasp – each is taken aback (surprised in his empty arms), In Gaelic football terms, both are flummoxed like some fabulous high-catcher coming down without the ball.
Helen Vendler expresses it in her own way: by the time of Seeing Things, there can be no prospect of one’s resumption into the unthinking thrum of the living current. It is as though a portcullis had dropped between Heaney and materiality: he sees the world, he relishes it, he responds to it – but ‘surprised in his empty arms’ (139-40)
- the one that got away: fisherman’s referral to a fish that escaped;
- Thor: mythological Scandinavian god of thunder and weather, son of Odin;
- Hymer: in Norse mythology, giant who was the father of the god Tyr; said to own a large kettle and it was to get this that Tyr paid a visit to him. During that visit Thor went fishing with Hymer and caught the monstrous World Serpent. According to one version Thor killed the monster, but according to another Hymer cut his line just when the two mighty enemies were looking at each other. This scene is one of the most popular in Viking-age art and is often referred to in poetry;
- World serpent; monster with a grip on the world and what happens there;
- bait: something placed on the fishing hook to entice, attract;
- spin: cast spinning into the air:
- haul: a load pulled in; also describes the promise of spoils and the effort required to pu;ll it in;
- boards: lengths of planking from which the vessel was fashioned;
- roll-over: capsize;
- turmoil: confusion;
- whiplash: severe jolt (as in a car accident);
- Milky Way: band of faint stars forming the galaxy of which the solar system is part;
- space: the open universe;
- fabulous: both extraordinary and mythical (the stuff of fable);
- high-catcher: being able to catch ahigh ball is one of the most important aspects of a Gaelic footballer’s game, vital in order to gain possession of the ball;
- 5 verses of 4 lines; unrhymed; lines between 5 and 8 syllables;
- 7-sentence structure; intense activity and apostrophe of shorter sentences; calmer end sequence with enjambed lines;
- vocabulary of titanic activity contrasts with new consciousness at the end;
- fishing cliché : ‘the one that got away’;
- keyword emerging: ‘roofless’;
- 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: fourteen 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 labio-dental fricatives [v] [f] with bilabial plosives [p] [b] alveolar plosives [t] [d] and velar plosives [k] [g;
- a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;