Seeing Things

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Seamus Heaney is an archaeologist-poet, using pen and paper rather than spade and excavation to uncover the past. His collection called Seeing Things contains fewer localized historical references to the poet’s Ireland or to its political history than his previous works, but it nevertheless continues the poet’s search. His father—Heaney’s haunting, sometimes overwhelming immediate connection with what was—also appears less often as a figure in this collection, for Seeing Things has aesthetics as its fundamental theme. Its poems focus on homely, mundane phenomena; these are mostly nature-related, the things one would expect an Irish poet reared on his family’s farm to notice. Even so, they establish points of nature reference that virtually anyone can understand, even the most urban city- dweller.

Each in its individual way, the poems of Seeing Things suggest the author’s perception of the present in terms of personal and family history. Even so, each poem extends this perception and universalizes it. Heaney’s preoccupation with the imagery of archaeology (digging, tools, holes, plantings, and artifacts) springs from his own readings in this discipline, particularly the archaeology of northern Europe. He sees a clear relationship between the bog cultures of the Iron Age and the land-dependent life of the Irish farmer. In Heaney’s early verse, archeological imagery appears more as a way to uncover his own identity, perhaps to answer the personal question of how generations of farmers who lived by the spade could produce a single poet. Heaney’s answer, or at any rate his rationalization, is that his father and grandfather tilled the same land, upturning and uncovering the soil which nourished past growth. As a poet he does this, too, on the same farm but with pen and paper. The roots he uncovers are not literal but the essence of himself, and by extension the essence of humanity.

It is this collective human aesthetic which Heaney emphasizes in Seeing Things. As its title implies, the collection suggests ways of perception readers will recognize as akin to their own. To imply that historical as well as literary legacies play some part in this collective awareness, Heaney frames his collection with his own translations of passages from Vergil’s Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.) and Dante Alighieri’s Inferno (c. 1320). In doing so, he illustrates his conception of the legacy history confers, for Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320) reformulates Vergilian epic in terms appropriate to medieval Christianity. Dante’s poem also utilizes historical particulars of the poet’s own times and, through the medium of allegory, views them anagogically (emphasizing hidden spiritual meanings) and teleologically (emphasizing overall design and final purpose). This, minus the apparatus of allegory, is essentially Heaney’s method in Seeing Things.

His Vergil passage, Aeneid 6.98-148, describes Aeneas’ search for the Golden Bough, his passport to the Underworld and to the ghost of his father. His Dante passage, Inferno 3.82-129, describes the reluctance of Charon, demon-boatman of the Underworld, to ferry the living Pilgrim across the Styx, the river of the dead. Dante’s Vergil silences Charon by insisting that the Pilgrim (because he is also a divinely empowered poet) has the right, indeed is impelled, to make the journey. Heaney, like his predecessor poets, has found his own Golden Bough and is similarly driven to make a comparable poet’s journey. He carries with him the intellectual baggage of poets who have made the journey before him but also the artist’s responsibility to explain the experience anew, seeing it in universal terms meaningful for his own readers.

Heaney has traveled many miles from the Ireland of his past. He lives in Dublin, teaches each year at Harvard University, and holds the post of Professor of Poetry at Oxford University. Nevertheless, the slightest of circumstances can impel him to make the journey back to his old self. It may be Philip Larkin’s shade who quotes the words Dante’s Pilgrim speaks before he makes the journey toward Paradise. The shadow of Larkin recalls the ghost of Creusa, the dead wife of Aeneas who warns the hero to leave burning Troy, just as it suggests any number of characters in the works of James Joyce who offer a route toward the instant of self-discovery and insight Joyce identifies as “epiphany.” Heaney is an established poet who has read much and traveled far, yet the journey back is easy. It is similarly easy for Aeneas to descend into Avernus, but to reverse the step and return with what is meaningful, this is the work and the labor.

Primarily because Heaney appreciates the difficulty of drawing universalized experience from the personal, many of his poems emphasize patterns of everyday life. Marking out the foundations of a house with pegs and string so that its corners will be true describes the process of orderly beginning. Even so, establishing a grid with pegs and string is precisely what archaeologists do when beginning an excavation. The process of marking the boundaries for planning a life thus corresponds exactly to the means by which one reveals a life that was. In both what is and what was the mechanics of order, justification, and the true prevail.


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The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Seeing Things” contains two sections. In the first, as the poem begins, the speaker is being helped into a small boat that will carry him and other passengers from Inishbofin, a small island off the coast of northwestern Ireland, to the mainland. He mentions what he sees, smells, and hears as they are helped into the shifting boat that is sitting low in the water. They sit together in “nervous twos and threes,” obeying the boatmen’s commands. Although the sea is calm, the speaker suddenly becomes anxious because of the motion of the boat as the diesel engine is started. As the boat proceeds over the water, he has the experience of mentally looking down from above at the boat and passengers—as if he were in “another boat/ Sailing through air”—as they fare “riskily” to their destination.

The second section begins with a single Latin word, claritas, which means “clearness” or “brightness,” a splendor of objects affecting the sight; it also means “clearness to the mind.” The speaker, having just experienced the literal waves of the sea, now looks at water carved in stone on a cathedral facade. He describes the sculptor’s lines as “Hard and thin and sinuous”; playful fish are cavorting about. The main image in the stone carving is a figure of Jesus being baptized by his cousin John the Baptist, an event which prompts the speaker to write, “The stone’s alive with what’s invisible.” The “invisible” may refer to another occurrence in that same biblical scene. The gospel writer records that a voice from a cloud was heard proclaiming, “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.” After the baptism, Jesus took decisive action and embarked on his public life.

The poem concludes with a reference to an atmospheric condition. The heat of the afternoon creates wavy, visible lines of heat in the air. These waves, like the waves of the sea and the water on the cathedral carving, prompt the speaker to reflect on life. He sees life as something dynamic, significant, and capable of sharp changes: The wavering air is “Like the zig-zag hieroglyph for life itself.”

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Although the poem is unrhymed, its cadences carry a lilting Irish rhythm in phrases such as “shilly-shallied,” “nobody speaking,” “but even so,” “Swayed for balance,” and “hurrying off.” The poet uses devices such as alliteration, assonance, and consonance to approximate the quiet sounds of water on a Sunday morning—a repetition of s, l, and the short u sound in the lines “Inishbofin on a Sunday morning./ Sunlight, turfsmoke, seagulls, boatslip, diesel.”

Seamus Heaney’s use of unusual adjectives or epithets extends the meaning of the poem. He refers to claritas as a “dry-eyed Latin word,” signifying a literal, physical condition for seeing things clearly. Then he describes the carving of Jesus as having “unwet knees,” an observation that indicates how closely the poet studied the image and, consequently, why he was able to make some original associations with the water image. The “zig-zag hieroglyph” of the poem’s last line unifies the poem, since it refers to all the water images and relates the zig-zag image to life’s low and high points, to life’s shilly-shallying (indecisive) moments, and to positive commitments.

“Seeing Things,” as its title implies, is a poem about vision. The fusion of abstract and concrete, of natural and supernatural, is central to Heaney’s visionary enthusiasm. Through the use of the image of waves and moving water in different...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Cumae (KYU-mee). Ancient town in Italy, believed to be the seat of an oracle whom the hero Aeneas is addressing in Heaney’s opening poem, “The Golden Bough,” translated loosely from a passage in Vergil’s Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553). The references to the Greek underworld—Avernus, Tartarus, the River Acheron—find their counterparts in Heaney’s closing poem in the volume. In this way, Heaney places Seeing Things—with its many elegies—within the realm of the spirits.


*Inishbofin. One of many small islands off the west coast of Ireland, the site of medieval monastic settlements. The speaker in the book’s title poem imaginatively likens the boat that travels to the island to that of Charon, the ferryman who carries souls across the mythical River Styx.


*Glanmore. Location in County Wicklow, south of Dublin. The sonnet sequence “Glanmore Revisited” updates the “Glanmore Sonnets” which appeared in Heaney’s 1976 collection Field Work. Heaney derives renewal from the quiet, natural setting, moving from feelings of being under siege in the first sonnet to the lifting of spirits in “Lustral Sonnet” and “The Skylight.”


*Dungannon. Town in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland. In “A Retrospect,” a character points out nearby Glenshane Pass, quoting a seventeenth century British military dispatch comparing the local inhabitants to “Virgil’s ghosts.”


*Clonmacnoise (klahn-mak-NOYZ). Monastery established in the sixth century south of Athlone along the River Shannon in central Ireland. For centuries the monks here produced or preserved various illuminated manuscripts and also kept records of daily life, from which Heaney amplifies the anecdote related in “Squarings.”

*Lough Neagh

*Lough Neagh (lock nay). Largest lake in the British Isles, located in Northern Ireland, a place of fascination and reminiscence for Heaney.

*Giant’s Causeway

*Giant’s Causeway. Natural rock formation on the Antrim coast in Northern Ireland, where massive hexagonal pillars of stone appear to have been placed or fitted in conjunction with each other, as if by some “giant.”


*Coleraine (kole-RAYN). Township on the River Bann in Northern Ireland. Heaney uses the place as a landmark for personal and poetic revelation in “Squarings.”


(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Baley, John. “Seeing Things.” Review of Seeing Things, by Seamus Heaney. New York Review of Books 39 (June 25, 1992): 14-16. An overview of the work and its context in Heaney’s oeuvre.

Burris, Sidney. The Poetry of Resistance: Seamus Heaney and the Pastoral Tradition. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1990. The first full-length study of Heaney’s work. Notes and index.

Hirsch, Edward. Review of Seeing Things, by Seamus Heaney. The New York Times Book Review 97 (May 17, 1992): 7. A short review hailing the latest book by the Nobel laureate.

Morrison, Blake. Seamus Heaney. London: Methuen, 1982. A good first reference for Heaney’s life and works.

Salamagundi 80 (Fall, 1988). The entire issue is devoted to Heaney. Studies, a bibliography, an interview, and more.