A Daylight Art

for Norman MacCaig

In this fascinating poem Heaney seeks to shed light on tantalizing questions. What is self-doubt?  What is ‘art’? Where does it begin and where does it end? Is there a place alongside ‘art’ for ‘art form’? Where does he stand?

He shines his lamp on what makes people tick – historical or classical figures or characters in tragic drama  – and finally what makes him tick. He claims his ‘light’ is generated from pursuits he follows, the ‘art’ writing poetry and the ‘art form’ of catching fish!

Jacques Louis David’s canvas of Socrates pictures him on his death couch (day he was to take the poison), holding forth to friends, supporters and gaolers. Heaney is perplexed that, after a lifetime of learned dialoguing involving reason, reflection and interrogation Socrates confessed to a total volte-face (putting Aesop’s fables into verse).

Not, Heaney suggests, to do with ‘philosophy’ per se – (not because Socrates loved wisdom) nor fear of being put to the test (advocated the examined life) but rather down to a dream claiming a relationship between the philosophical (lÒgow – rational account) and the poetic (mËyow – myth, story).

Heaney turns his focus on the imaginings of power-brokers of history whether victims, perpetrators or empire builders (Caesar, now, or Herod or Constantine) and the ruthless megalomaniacs of tragedy (any number of Shakespearean kings) – all sharing the pressure-cooker of temperament until they could control it no longer (bursting at the end like dams).

Heaney spells out how, in these cases, inherited psychologies or psychoses (original panoramas) remain dormant (lie submerged) until the pressure is overwhelming (have to rise again) and things turn nasty (the death scenes). One finds such narratives credible (believe in their believing dreams).

Heaney is baffled (hardly Socrates) – a man revealing a recurrent dream with one instruction practise the art that he had never questioned until his moment of doubt that philosophy might not be an ‘art’ at all.

Heaney turns finally to himself: whilst appreciating Socrates as a fellow man with a natural gift he has had no second thoughts himself (happypractising the right one from the start). He offers two corroborators, one an undisputable ‘art’ (poetry), the second regarded by many as an ‘art form’ (fishing): they cause him no nightmares (whose nights are dreamless), come from deep within (deep-sunk panoramas), surface (rise) and shine brightly sifted through narrow apertures the rod’s eye or the nib’s eye).

  • Norman MacCaig (1910-96): studied classics at the University of Edinburgh; registered as a conscientious objector during WWII spending time in prison; reader in poetry at the University of Stirling; his mother’s Highland ancestry was an important part of his identity; wrote only in English—something of an anomaly for a Scottish poet of his generation; his poetry frequently drew on the Highland landscape and Gaelic culture which he loved; published by Oxford University Press;
  • Socrates: b. circa 470 BC, in Athens, Greece. His students included Plato. His so-called “Socratic method,” laid the groundwork for Western systems of logic and philosophy. In 399, Socrates was brought before a jury of around 500 Athenians on charges of not recognizing the official State gods, of inventing new deities, and of corrupting the youth of Athens. An equally likely reason for this trial was Socrates’ close association with a number of men who had fallen out of political favour in Athens. Socrates was found guilty by a narrow margin and sentenced to death by hemlock poisoning. He accepted this judgment rather than fleeing into exile.
  • philosophy : defined in original Greek as ‘love of wisdom’;
  • Aesop: (6th century BC), Greek storyteller; the animal fables associated with him came from many sources, initially communicated orally. Intended to illustrate a lesson or moral they went one step further than fun tale thereby moving into the realm of allegory
  • Herod (37 BC – 4 AD): a nasty piece of work who ruled Judea with an iron fist murdering relatives and friends including his own wife; he ordered the slaughter of all male children under the age of two to prevent the new-born Jesus from usurping him
  • Constantine: Roman emperor 306–37AD ; known as Constantine the Great; ruthless in his defence of Roman Empire from potential invading tribes to north and west; initially accepted the persecution of early Christians but then became the first Roman emperor to be converted to Christianity and in 324 making Christianity a state religion;
  • Shakespearean kings: it is worth noting that across Shakespeare’s work something like 75 deaths occur on stage! Titus Andronicus tops of the league with a body count of fourteen over five acts; King Lear‘s body count is an impressive ten; Hamlet accounts for nine; Macbeth leaves eight dead by the end, Romeo and Juliet a modest six;
  • practise the art: as a philosopher discussing, reflecting, asking questions;
  • dam: the major cause of dam failure results from massive water build-up and frail construction;
  • panorama: the original topography that was flooded;
  • rod: to which the fishing line is attached;
  • nib: pointed part of the pen that forms the written words on paper;


  • ‘A Daylight Art’, takes off from Plato’s account in the Phaedo of the philosopher Socrates’s dream that he may have practised the wrong art all his life (NC137);
  • ‘A Daylight Art’ uses the story of Socrates versifying Aesop; Heaney’s essay ‘Atlas of Civilization’, on the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, opens with the same story, in order to expand it into the generous conceit that what Herbert writes is the kind of ‘ideal poetry of reality’ which Socrates himself might have written, had he written poetry (NC138).


  • 7 triplets (T) + a free standing line; line length of 10-11 syllables; unrhymed;
  • 10 sentence construct if we include include narrative divided by dash or colon; occasional enjambed passages;
  • T1/2 reported story about Socrates surrounded by followers even on his execution couch in prison; ‘dream’ motif appears
  • assonant effects: [ei] day…take…fables; [i:] Socrates…he…Aesop…because…reason…dream
  • alliterative chains: alveolar [t/d], front of mouth [f/v], sibilant [s/z] variants;
  • T3/4 focus on classical and literary figures and their common entrenched psychoses that lead to tragedy; dreams deemed believable;
  • assonant effects: : [ai] Constantine…like…lie…rise [i:]Caesar…Shakespeare..scenes…believe…believing dreams; both these overflow into T5/6;
  • alliterative chains: nasals [m/n]; sibilant variants, bilabial [b/p];
  • T 5/6/: Socrates admitting he might actually have messed up as regards his definition of art; overlap T6 into 7 +1 line: Heaney slips in a non-literary recreation as an art form!
  • assonant effects: [i:] Socrates…he….dream..recurring…repeating…dreamless..mean…philosophy…happy overlapping into T7 poetry…dreamless…deep
  • alliterative chains: sibilants and nasals, labio dental [f]
  • the last 4 lines are dominated by the assonance sound of light [ai]nights…rise…like daylight…eye…eye and alliterative sibilants [s/z/sh]
  • 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;
  • syllables without highlight are largely the unstressed sound as in common, little [ə]

  • 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;
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;

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