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...
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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 of symbolizing “life itself.” It is a stunning poem and a perfect example of the method of the book as a whole.
“Pitchfork” is a detailed description of an ordinary farm tool; however, it reveals a world beyond it as well. The speaker of the poem asks an imagined observer to “see the shaft of a pitchfork sailing past/ Evenly, imperturbably through space.” It is being controlled and aimed by the worker. That movement into space reveals a place where “perfection” can be imagined “Not in the aiming but the opening hand.” The completion of this simple act leads to images of generosity and a “perfection” that can only be achieved by no longer trying to reach it or aim at it. This state clearly suggests the Zen achievement of mastery by not desiring.
“The Skylight” is another poem that plays with opposing perspectives. The woman in the poem desires “skylights” to open the roof and her world while the male speaker likes it “low and closed.” He gives in and, when the slates are removed, “Sky entered and held surprise wide open.” The speaker is not disgruntled by this change but transformed. He describes his new condition as a sick man who “Was lowered through the roof, had his sins forgiven,/ Was healed, took up his bed and walked away.” The poem is humorous in tone, and while the speaker is renewed, he no longer is in possession of his snug room, as he is displaced after the transformation.
“Fosterling” is the last poem in the first part of the book. The speaker describes his affection for a picture of windmills with “heavy greenness” and filled with “in-placeness.” The image of “heaviness” is transferred in the second stanza to the poet’s own “heaviness of being.” Poetry is now not “the music of what happens,” as Heaney called it earlier, but “the doldrums of what happens.” He speaks of having waited fifty years to “credit marvels,” but with this faith all is transformed. The images are now of brightness and lightness; it is a time to be “dazzled.” Faith in a world and experience beyond the ordinary transforms his perspective and opens a new world to him.
Part 2 is called “Squarings.” The second poem in the “Lightenings” section is a definition of “lightenings.” The speaker poses a few obvious definitions, such as “illumination,” and then moves to a higher one. It is “A phenomenal instant when the spirit flares/ With pure exhilaration before death.” This is immediately exemplified with the story of the good thief next to Christ on the cross. He is to be transported into a new world by the command of Jesus; however, he is still “untranslatable,” since he remains “body racked.” He aches for the transformation and has “nail craters” on his brain rather than his hands. The desired transformation is achieved by language, by the italicized words of Christ: “This Day thou shalt be with Me in Paradise.” These words concentrate on the translation from one state to another by the means of language, the material of the poetic imagination.
Poem 18 plays with two types of life: bondage and freedom. A rope-man appears to a group of farmers with his wares to sell. He lives a life free of obligations and confinement. As a result, his life on the road “menaced them with freedoms/ They were going to turn their backs on.” When the circle formed by the seller and the buyers breaks up, the farmers see the rope-man’s “powerlessness” along with his supposed freedom. He breaks the magic circle that had been established and starts “loading.” His freedom is only an illusion; his only power comes from his brief connection with those who have rejected freedom for a settled domestic life.
The second section of “lightenings” deals with an important element in Heaney’s poetry. It describes a “reroofing” in elaborate detail. The verbs dominate: “roof it,” “relocate the bedrock,” “sink every impulse.” There is an important turn in the last stanza. The poet-speaker demands that his place and art “Secure/ The bastion of sensation.” It must deal with images, not ideas. So the last commands are “Do not waver/ Into language. Do not waver in it.” The differences between the two are worth noting. To waver “into” language is to move away from things. To waver “in it” is to wallow in words and not what they are emblem of; it is to create an art that has no essential connection to the world.
Poem 8 is one of the best examples of the movement between two worlds. It describes an event recorded in the “annals” when a magical ship appeared to the monks of Clonmacnoise. The anchor of the ship “hooked itself on the altar rails.” A crewman tries to release the anchor but fails to do so. The abbot then asks the monks to help because “This man can’t bear our life here and will drown.” The monks manage to free the ship “and the man climbed back/ Out of the marvellous as he had known it.” An ordinary world is, to this mysterious traveler, “marvellous.” What creates this sense of wonder is a change in perspective from one world to another. The poem is, perhaps, the most direct example of a movement between two worlds, a theme that dominates the book as a whole.
Poem 48 is the last in the sequence, and it unites many of the diverse worlds explored in the earlier poems. The poem plays with time and human knowledge of it. For example, what one anticipates in the future soon becomes the past, and one can only understand the present by the past. There is, apparently, a continual movement between states of time. After this definition, the poem shifts to images of a time “when light breaks over me” as it did on one occasion in the past. When that moment of illumination returns, “I’ll be in step with what escaped me.” The future is now united with present and past in a moment of true understanding and an obliteration of the earlier separateness. The book continually plays with different worlds that remain separate and distinct, and it is no accident that the last poem shows them coming together.
Seeing Things has an important place in Heaney’s work as a whole. He began by writing poems about his rural background, then explored the political divisions that exist in Northern Ireland in his middle period, and in this work returns to a world of things. If those “things” are truly seen, they will be found to suggest other worlds and experiences related to but beyond them. It is his most rooted and his most transcendent book, but it also shows Heaney’s refusal to be tied to one style or subject; he is continually renewing his style and his art.