Seamus Heaney: Seeing Things (1991) - Extracts

The quotations held on these pages comprise a commonplace record of the author’s best-known writings in prose and verse as met with chiefly in articles, reviews, monographs and student essays and copied to this electronic notebook for purposes of research only. The resultant compilation is neither intended nor believed to constitute a re-publication of the poet’s work.

“The Golden Bough”
‘But one thing I pray for especially: since they say it is here / That the King of the Underworld's gateway is to be found, / Among these shadowy marshes where Acheron comes flooding through, / I pray for one look,. one face-to-face meeting with my dear father. / Teach me the way and open the holy doors wide. [; 1]; ‘[t]he prophetess started to speak: “Blood relation of gods / Trojan, son of Anchises, the way down to Avernus is easy, / Day and night black Pluto's door stands open. But to retrace your steps and get back to upper air, / This is the real task and the real undertaking. / A few have been able to do it sons of gods Favoured by Jupiter the Just, or exalted to heaven. In a blaze of heroic glory.”' ([Aeneid, Book VI, ll.98-148]; Seeing Things, London: Faber & Faber 1991, pp.1-2.)

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Part I
Markings”: ‘And the actual kicked ball came to them like a dream heaviness, and their own hard / Breathing in the dark and skids on grass / Sounded like effort in another world … / Some limit had been passed, / There was fleetness, furtherance, untiredness / In time that was extra,unforseen and free.’ [8] III: ‘All these things entered you / As if they were both the door and what came through it. / They marked the spot, marked time and held it open. […]’ (pp.8-9.)

Seeing Things”: ‘[…] it was as if I looked from another boat / Sailing through air, far up, and could see / How riskily we fared into the morning, / And loved in vain our bare, bowed, numbered heads.’ [16; II:} ‘Claritas. The dry-eyed Latin Word / Is perfect for the carved stone of water / Where Jesus stands up to his unwet knees / … And yet in that utter visibility / The stone’s alive with what’s invisible: Waterweed, stirred sand-grains hurrying off, / The shadowy, unshadowed stream itself. / All afternoon, heat wavered on the steps, / And the air we stood up to our eyes in wavered / Like the zig-zag hieroglyph for life itself.’ (pp.16-17.) [For page-format version, see under attached.]

The Pitchfork”: […] But has learned at last to follow that simple lead / Past its own aim, out to an other side / Where perfection - or nearness to it - is imagined / Not in the aiming but the opening hand.’ (p.23).

The Settle Bed”: ‘[…] Then learn [..] that whatever is given // Can always be reimagined, however four-square, / Plank-thick, hull-stupid and out of its time / It happens to be. You are free as the lookout, // That far-seeing joker posted high over the fog, / Who declared by the time that he got himself down / The actual ship had been stolen away from beneath him.’ (p.29.)

Glanmore Revisited” - (“Scrabble”, i.m. Tom Delaney, archaeologist): ‘[…] it felt remembered even then, an old / Rightness half-imagined or foretold, / As green-sticks hissed and spate into the ashes / And whatever rampaged out there couldn’t reach us, / Firelit, shuttered, slated and stone-walled. // Year after year, our game of Scrabble: love / Taken for granted like any other word / That was chanced on and allowed within the rules. / So “scrabble” let it be. Intransitive. / Meaning to scratch or rake at something hard. / Which is what he hears. Our scraping, clinking tools.’ (p.31).

Wheels within Wheels”: ‘The first grip I ever got on things / was when I learned the art of pedalling / (By hand) a bike turned upside down, and drove / Its back wheel preternaturally fast. / I loved the disappearance of the spokes […] Something about the way those pedal treads / Worked very palpably at first against yo / And then began to sweep into your hand ahead / Into a new momentum - that all entered me / Like an access of free power, as if as if belief / Caught up and spun the objects of belief / In an orbit coterminous with longing.’ (p.46.)

Fosterling”: ‘[…] I can’t remember never having known / The immanent hydraulics of the land / Of glar and glit and dailigone. / My silting hope. My lowlands of the mind. // Heaviness of being. And poetry / Sluggish in the doldrums of what happens. / Me waiting until I was nearly fifty / To credit marvels. / Like the tree clock of tin cans / The tinkers made. So long for air to brighten, / Time to be dazzled and the heart to lighten.’ (p.50.)

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Part II: Squarings
[I - “Lightnings”]
iii: ‘Squarings? In the game of marbles, squarings / Were all those anglings, aimings, feints and squints / You were allowed before you’d shoot, all those / Hunkerings, tensings, pressures of the thumn / Test-outs and pull-back, re-envisagings, /All the ways your arms kept hoping towards / Blind certainties that were going to prevail / Beyond the one-off moment of the pitch. […]’ (p.56.)

v: ‘Three marble holes thumbed in the concrete road / Before the concrete hardened still remained / Three decades after the marble-player canished // Into Australia. Three stops to play / The music of the arbitrary … old hay in its flimsy afterlife … Ocarina earth. / Three listening posts up on some hard-baked tier / Above the resonating amphorae.’ (p.59.)

vi: ‘Once as a child, out in a field of sheep, / Thomas Hardy pretended to be dead / And lay down flat among their dainty shins. // In that sniffed-at, bleated-into, grassy space / He experimented with infiinity. / His small cool brown was like an anvil waiting / For sky to make it sing the perfect pitch / Of his dumb being, and that stir he caused / In the fleece-hustle was the original // Of a ripple that would travel eighty years / Outward from there, to be the same ripple / Inside him at its last circumference.’

vii: (‘I misremembered. He went down on all fours […] Their witless eyes and liability / To panic made him feel less alone, / Made proleptic sorrow stand a moment / Over him, perfectly known and sure. / And then the flock’s dismay went swimming on / Into the blinks and murmurs and deflections /// He’d know at parties in renowned old age / When sometimes he imagined himself a ghost / And circulated with that perspective.’) ( p.61.)

viii: ‘“The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise / Were all at prayers inside the oratory / A ship appeared above them in the air […] A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope and struggled to release it [i.e., the dragging anchor]. But in vain. / “This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,” // The abbot said, “unless we help him.” So / They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back / Out of the marvellous as he had known it.’ (p.62.)

xii: ‘And lightening? One meaning of that / Beyond the usual sense of alleviation, / Illumination, and so on, is this: // A phenomenal instant when the spirit flares / With pure exhilaration before death - / The good thief in us harking to the promise! // So paint him on Christ’s right hand, on a promontory / Scanning empty space, so body-racked he seems / Untranslatable in the bliss // Ached for at the moon-rim of his forehead, / By nail-craters on the dark side of his brain: / This day though shalt be with Me in Paradise.’ (p.66.)

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[II - “Settings”]
: ‘[…] Re-enter this as the adult of solitude, / The silence-forder and the definite / Presence you sensed withdrawing first time round.’ (p.69).

xiv: ‘[…] Nothing prevailed, whatever was in store / witnessed itself already taking place / In a time marked by assent and by hiatus.’ (p.70.)

xv: ‘That night I owned the piled grain of Egypt. / I watched the sentry’s torchlight on the hoard. / I stood in the door, unseen and blazed upon.’ (p.71.)

xix: ‘Memory as a building or a city, / Well lighted, well laid out, appointed with / Tableaux vivants and costumed effigies - // Statues in purple cloaks, or painte dred, / Ones wearing crowns, ones smeared with mud or blood: / So that the mind’s eye could haunt itself // With fixed assocaitions and learn to read / its own contents in meaningful order, / Ancient textbooks recommended that // Familiar places be linked deliberately / With a code of images. You knew the portent / In each setting, you blinked and concentrated.’ (p.75.)

xxi: ‘Once and only once I fired a gun […] the sin it was against eternal life - / Another phrase dilating in new light’ (p.77.)

xxii: ‘Where does the spirit live? Inside or outside / Things remembered, made things, things unmade? / What came first, the seabird’s cry or the soul // Imagined in the dawn cold when it cried? / Where does it root at last? On dungy sticks / In a jackdaw’s nest up ion the old stone tower // Or a marble bust commanding the parterre? / How habitable is perfected form? / And how inhabited the windy light? // What’s the use of a held note or a held line / That cannot be assailed for reassurance? / Set questions for the shade of W.B.’ (p.78.) [Note: Heaney ends his 1989 essay on Yeats with the sentence, ‘It is the unconsoled modernity of this central achievement, which is to be found in the plays too, notably in At The Hawk’s Well, that allows Yeats to abide our questions, even though it is fair that the questions continue to be pressed.’ (See Heaney, ‘In the Midst of the Force Field’ (The Irish Times, 28 Jan. 1989; rep. in Jonathan Allison, ed., Yeats’s Political Identities, Michigan UP 1996, p.260; copy in Ricorso LIBRARY, “Criticism / Major Authors / W. B. Yeats”, infra.)

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[III: - “Crossings”]
xxv: [of encounter with a fox]: ‘Let rebirth come through water, through desire, / Through crawling backwards across clinic floors: / I have to cross back through that startled iris.’ (p.83.)

xxxii: ‘Running water never disappointed. / Crossing water always furthered something. / Stepping stones were stations of the soul. // A kesh could mean the track some called a causey / Raised above the wetness of the bog, / Or the causey where it bridged old drains and streams. // It steadies me to tell these things. Also / I cannot mention keshes or the ford / Without my father’s shade appearing to me // On a path towards sunset, eyeing spades and clothes / That turf cuffters stowed perhaps or souls cast off / Before they crossed the log that spans the burn.’ (p.90.)

xxxiv: ‘Yeats said, To those who see spirits, human skin / For a long time afterwards appears most coarse. / […] I share the bus / From San Francisco Airport into Berkeley / With one other passenger, who’s dropped / At Treasury Island military base […] Vietnam-bound, / he could have been one of the newly dead come back, // Unsurprisable but still disappointed, / Having to bear his farmboy self again / His shaving cuts, his otherworldly brow.’ (p.92.)

xxxv: ‘Shaving cuts. The pallor of bad habits. / Sunday afternoons, when summer idled / And couples walked the road along the Foyle, // We brought a shaving mirror to our window / In the top storey of the boarders’ dorms: / Lovers in the happy valley, cars // Eager-backed and silent, the absolute river / Between us and it all. / We tilted the glass up / Into the sun and found the range and shone / A flitting light on what we could not have. / Brightness played over them in chancy sweeps / Like flashes from a god's shield or a dance-floor.’ (p.93.)

xxxvi: ‘And yes, my friend, we too walked through a valley. / Once. In darkness. With all the streetlamps off. // Scene from Dante, made more memorable / By one of his head-clearing similes - Fireflies, say, since the policemen’s torches // Clustered and flicked and tempted us to trusts / Their unpredictable, attractive light. / We were like herded shades who had to cross // And did cross, in a panic, to the car / Parked as we'd left it, that gave when we got in / Like Charon’s boat under the faring poets.’ (p.94.)

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[IV - “Squarings”]
xxxix: ‘When you sat, far-eyed and cold, in the basalt throne / of the “wishing chair” at the Giant’s Causeway […] You gathered force out of the world-tree’s hardness. / If you stretched your hand forth, things might turn to stone. […] salts of the earth / The wishing chair gave a savour to, its kepl / And ozone freshening your outlook / Beyond the range you thought you’d settle for.’ (p.99.)

xl: ‘I was four but turned four hundred maybe / Encountering the ancient dampish feel / Of a clay floor. […] Ground of being. / Body’s deep obedience / To all its shifting tenses. A half-door / Opening directly into starlight. // Out of that earth house I inherited / A stack of memory-weights / To load me, hand and foot, in the scale of things.’ (p.100.)

xliv: ‘All gone into the world of light? Perhaps / As we read the line sheer forms do crowd / The starry vestibule. Otherwise / They do not. What lucency survives / Is blanched as works on nightlines I would lift, /Ungratified if always well prepared // For nothng there - which was only what had been there. / Although in fact it is more like a caught line shapping, / That moment of admission of All gone, // When the roid butt loses touch and the tip drools / And eddies swirl a dead leaf past in silence / Swifter (it seems) than the water s passage. (p.104; see note on Henry Vaughan, infra.)

xlv: ‘For certain ones what was written may come true: They shall live on in the distance / At the mouths of rivers. // For our ones, no. They will re-enter / Dryness that was heaven on earth to them, / Happy to eat the scones baked out of clay. // […] For our ones, snuff / And hob-soot and the heat off ashes. / And a judge who comes between them and the sun / In a pillar of radiant house-dust. (p.105.)

xlvi: ‘[…] And in a slated house the fiddle going // Like a flat stone skimmed at sunset / Or the irrevocable slipstream of flat earth / Still fleeing behind space. // Was music once a proof of God’s existence? / As long as it admits things beyond measure / That supposition stands. // So let the ear attend like a farmhouse window / In placid light, where the extravagant / Passed once under full sail into the longed-for.’ (p.106.)

xlviii: ‘Strange how things in the offing, once they’re sensed / Convert to things foreknown; […] Seventh heaven may be / The whole truth of a sixth sense come to pass. // At any rate, when light breaks over me / The way it did on the road beyond Coleraine […] That day I’ll be in step with what escaped me.’ (p.108; End.)

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“The Crossing” (Inferno, Canto III, lines 82-129).
‘And there in a boat that came heading towards us / Was an old man, his hair snow-white with age / Raging and bawling , “Woe to you, wicked spirits! / O never hope to see the heavenly skies! / I come to bring you to the other shore, / To eternal darkness, to the fire and ice. / And you there, you, the living soul, separate / Yourself from those others who are dead.” […] Then all together, bitterly weeping, [they] made / Their way towards the accursed shore that waits / For every man who does not fear his God. […] the bad seed of Adam, at a signal / Pitched themselves off that shore one by one […]’.

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