Wheels within Wheels


The title’s reference to a ‘complicated system affected by secret or indirect influences’ (OED) is born out in practice.

A fun moment provided young Heaney with an entrance into his developing self. Born an intelligent, inquisitive youngster on the family’s rural farm, he enjoyed the thrill of putting his bicycle to experimental use, carefully noting the ‘what-happened’. He discovered the spin, motion around a central axis, force fields, gravity, and deflections dictated by the laws of physics at an early age.


The poet’s first experience of working something out for himself (first reaI grip I ever got on things) involved the art of pedaling –  not  astride his bicycle, rather with the bike upside down on  its seat and handlebars and its pedals turned manually at breakneck speed (preternaturally fast).

Heaney’s observations led to a keen interest in what was happening: the illusion of see-through (the disappearance of the spokes); see-through generating sound from nothing visible (Hummed with transparency); the invisible presence of spokes demonstrated by the disintegration of solid matter (potato), bits thrown out by centrifugal forces (hooped air); evidence of energy and gravity (Spun mush and drizzle back into your face); destruction of the most flimsy items (straw frittered).

He becomes intrinsic to the event, meeting the notion of resistance (pedal treads Worked very palpably at first against you) and the point at which the pedaling hand could no longer keep up – swept ahead into a new momentum.

The experience left its mark (entered me) providing a transformative access of free power –  Heaney is not yet familiar with the physics of centrifugal force and accepts what happened as true without Newtonian proof: has seen how pedal-thrust throws objects outwards (belief caught up and spun the objects of belief) and extends his farmyard fun beyond  earth’s gravity (orbit), to the convergent point that matches his eagerness (coterminous with longing).

  • get a grip: achieve understanding;
  • pedals: levers operated to power a bicycle one for each foot;
  • preternatural: Latin derivation ‘beyond nature’, so exceptional;
  • spoke: wire rod connecting the central hub of a wheel to its outer rim;
  • hum: low, steady sound caused by vibration and air displacement;
  • transparent: through which light passes;
  • hooped air: moving in circles, rings
  • mush: sloppy pulp;
  • drizzle: fine rain;
  • straw: dried stalk of grass;
  • fritter: fragment, shred;
  • tread: non-slip section of the pedal upon which the cyclist’s shoe rested;
  • palpable: perceptible, discernable
  • sweep ahead: go faster than the hand can turn;
  • coterminous: sharing the same boundaries or scale in space, time or meaning;


For young Heaney enough was not enough; observing things as they were (given) just opened further lines of enquiry. The youngster threw earth and water into the mix.

A deliberately chosen spot on the family farm: ‘The well’ …  more a hole/ With water in it), framed by small hawthorn trees; a pool of muddy ooze, marked by cattle (dungy … all tramped through); a sludgy (turbid sump-life) carrying the whiff of farm-yard machinery (like old chain oil).

He sets out the stages: I arrived with bike; I turned it upside down; I stabilized it (soft bottom); brought rubber and water into contact; started to pedal. He makes an immediate visual link (mill-wheel pouring at the treadles), noting that a millwheel is water-driven whilst, here, he is driving the water (reversed) and producing a wild spray (lashing a mare’s tail.

He records the sensations: the power of muddy water was invigorating (world-refreshing), its spray delicately visual (lace and dirt-suds there before my eyes); it left its mark on him (showered me), promised renewal (my own regenerate clays). Exhilaration became addictive: the quasi-spiritual halo it produced worked again and again (For weeks I made a nimbus of old glit).

Then …  harsh reality …  nothing is forever (the hub jammed, rims rusted, the chain snapped.

  • dung: animal excrement;
  • ooze: liquid flow, seepage;
  • turbid: muddy, cloudy, thick
  • sump-life: things existing in the cesspool
  • chain oil: essential to lubricate moving metal parts;
  • saddle: cycle seat;
  • handlebars: steering section with handgrips;
  • treadles: the cross-planks propelling the wheel;
  • mare’s tail: adapting a light effect of long, thin streaks of cloud or the flick of a horse’s tail to describe a water spray;
  • world-refreshing: the life-giving effect of rain after drought;
  • lace: an open patterned fabric;
  • suds: froth of dirty water;
  • regenerate: re-born, re-formed, given a new lease of life
  • nimbus: luminous cloud, halo (spiritual connotation);
  • glit: (Irish usage) ooze, slime especially green slime on water;


  • the backlash from his venture into abstraction sends Heaney spinning into the primary materiality of dirt (that) cannot resist the abstracting impulse. Dirt is made magical by ‘Wheels within Wheels’ … the child who will grow up to be the poet moves his bicycle to a mud-hole; upside down, with its saddle and handlebars submerged, it sends up by its turning wheels a shower of silt … With the terminal snapping of the chain here, and the dis­appearance of the ‘nimbus’, Heaney bids farewell to his most ambitious wish – to join the domain of mud with the domain of vision (HV 144-5).



Nothing came close to young Heaney’s exhilaration at the joys of wheel-spinning on the farm until, in a circus ring (everything is circularity) with all its razzmatazz (drumrolled and spotlit) a wild west entertainment featured Cowgirls circling, perfectly turned out (immaculate) each one at the hub of an apparently empty spinning rope (the still centre of a lariat) … perpetual motion (Perpetuum mobile), spin perfection (Sheer pirouette) within a pattern of movement (Tumblers. Jongleurs. Ring-a-rosies); he wishes it could go on forever: Stet!

  • rise to the occasion: make an impact
  • drumrolled: announced by the drumbeats;
  • wheeled in: entered moving in circles;
  • immaculate: (Latin derivation suggested a state of purity) ‘spotlessly clean’, ‘pristine’, ‘shining white’;
  • lariat: rope with a noose for catching cattle or whirled to perform with;
  • perpetuum mobile: state of perpetual unceasing motion; also musical term denoting constant repetition;
  • pirouette: (ballet routine) spinning on one foot;
  • tumbler: acrobat performing somersaults;
  • jongleur: the original French suggests ‘juggler’;
  • ring a rosies: allusion to a game where young children held hands and circled the child in the middle, referred to as the rosie after the French rosier rose
  • stet: ‘let it stand’ typesetting instruction used by editors from the subjunctive form of Latin verb stare (to stand);


  • NC 165-6 ‘Wheels within Wheels’ is one example where (via a process of the initial object > vision/ revelatory process) individual texts becoming allegories of their own creation and perfor­mance … In ‘Wheels within Wheels’, this process of transformation is itself figured as an opening or entrance in the developing self, and indeed the verb ‘enter’ and its cognates recur throughout the book.
  • MP 220 … there are some marvellous highs, par­ticularly in poems such as ‘Wheels within Wheels’ …

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.

  • 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;
  • the lines interweave alveolar plosives [t] [d],velar plosive [k] sibilant variants [s] [z] and labio dental fricatives [f] [valveolar trill [r]
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;