Seeing Things Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Seeing Things, Seamus Heaney’s tenth book of poems, is a collection united by the theme of movement between two worlds. The first and last poems in the book are translations; the opening poem is a translation of the “Golden Bough” passage from book 6 of the Aeneid (30-19 b.c.e.) that deals with obtaining the fruit on that bough to gain entrance to the underworld. The ending poem is a translation of a section in canto 3 of Dante’s Inferno (c. 1320). It deals with crossing over to the underworld on Charon’s boat. Thus the two translations that frame the book deal with access to the wonders and knowledge to be gained in another world. The poems in the book are clearly related to this introduction and conclusion. They speak of ordinary things rendered in illuminating detail, which can lead to moments of transcendence or a crossing between two different worlds.

Seeing Things is divided into two distinct sections. In part 1, the lyrics are connected to the translations that deal with the entrance into another world; this is especially so in the first poem, “The Journey Back.” The one who has returned from the other world is not an epic hero like Aeneas or Odysseus but a modern poet—Philip Larkin—who celebrated the ordinary world. Upon his return, he finds that “not a thing had changed.” The dreary world of the street remains unaltered. He is also “Still my old self. Ready to knock one back.” He may remain ordinary, “a-nine-to-five man,” but he had “seen poetry.” He had dwelt for a while in a world that is ruled by the imagination rather than the nine-to-five world. So there is some traffic between two very different worlds. It is a perfect introductory poem to the sequence.

“Markings” is a series of short poems on marking off things or defining them. For example, the first section speaks about the soccer field marked off by “four jackets,” and the description is of an everyday event. It acquires a dream state as “Some limit had been passed,” and the participants enter a world in which time is “extra, unforeseen and free.” The terms come directly from the world of soccer, but they convey the sense of a magical moment beyond the confines of the ordinary world.

“Three Drawings” deals with common activities such as soccer and fishing; however, in stanzas 4 and 5 of “The Point,” the ordinary game is, once more, transformed as the speaker asks the question “Was it you/ or the ball that kept going/ beyond you, amazingly/ higher and higher/ and ruefully free?” The freedom echoes “Markings,” but now it is impossible to separate the boy and the ball; they have become one. It is a rueful freedom that evades capture and goes beyond the control of the boy or anyone else.

“Man and Boy” crisscrosses the worlds of father and son in its second section. A mower tells a boy to inform his father about his completed work on mowing the meadow. The boy becomes the poet’s father who runs “at eye-level with weeds and stooks” to experience his father’s death. The poet speaks of connecting with the “heat” and “quick legs” of that boy. The boy of the poem becomes the father carrying the boy who is now the poet. The generations are encapsulated in the crossing roles. The poet is the adult sympathizing with his then younger father. He is then turned into a child who is now described as “a witless elder escaped from the fire.” The events that are described are commonplace, but the continual shifting of roles, a motion from one world to another, haunts human experience and is filled with wonder.

The title poem of the collection is divided into three parts. The second section, perhaps the most interesting, begins with a Joycean word, “Claritas.” Joyce uses it in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) as one of the elements necessary for beauty; it is a “radiance,” a revelation of the thing itself. Heaney then describes a scene of Jesus being baptized represented in a stone facade of the cathedral: “lines hard and thin and sinuous represent/ The flowing river.” The scene is directly portrayed in its “utter visibility.” However, the stone is “alive with what’s invisible.” Heaney then evokes an imaginative world of “stirred sand-grains” and “unshadowed stream”; the scene is created by the imagination rather than by what is observed. The ending of the poem evokes another magical world beyond the facade on the cathedral but related to it. The heat is alive as it “wavered on the steps,” and the “air we stood up to our eyes in wavered/ Like the zigzag hieroglyph for life itself.” The most ordinary thing in this world—air—suddenly becomes alive and capable...

(The entire section is 1952 words.)