Seamus Heaney: The Inter-Poetic Journey

Leonard O’Brian
Department of Philosophy
Scottsdale Community College
Community College Humanities Association
Southwestern Division Conference
12 October 1996

Seeing Things appeared in 1991.1 It was Seamus Heaney’s last published volume before the Nobel Committee honored him in 1995. This remarkable book bears reading, and re-reading.2 The poems, as we return to them, become progressively richer, raising in new ways our earlier questions, doubts, and intimations of meaning. The speaker in one of Heaney’s own poems says,

Strange how things in the offing, once they’re sensed,
Convert to things foreknown;
And how what’s come upon is manifest
Only in light of what has been gone through.

However the poet may have intended this statement, it applies to his own work: These poems manifest more meaning the more we go through them, and the more we go through. Seeing Things initiates a journey rather than identifying a destination.

Heaney sustains a sense of the open journey partly through certain techniques and partly through certain ideas. The techniques include ambiguity of reference, re-conceptualization—or even de-conceptualization—of time, and a particular use of metaphor. That use may be dubbed, “inter-poetic metaphor.” Analysis of several poems will illustrate all three techniques, but inter-poetic metaphor requires mention at the outset.

Inter-poetic metaphor can be introduced through two suppositions. First, suppose that, when we human beings encounter metaphors, we like to understand them. Indeed, we tend to keep working at them until we do understand them. Second, suppose that some metaphors are inexplicable. The two sides of such metaphors actually share no properties; strictly speaking, they have nothing in common though they do resemble each other. Such metaphors would preclude complete explication. They would invite our continuing examination. Instead of terminating in a destination, they would initiate a journey. Rather than foreclosing on answers, they would open a path of inquiry.

Now, Heaney’s work is not distinguished either by the use of metaphor, or the use of inexplicable metaphor. Virtually all poetry uses metaphors, and, arguably, no metaphors are fully explicable, strictly speaking. But Heaney’s work is unusual in two ways. First, his metaphors often occur between poems, not merely within poems. Second, they occur between poems in a particularly provocative way: The poems themselves become metaphors, they become metaphors for each other. An idea that appears in one poem appears in another, but so differently, that we can only say that the poems are analogues to one another. Together, the two poems comprise an analogy. By the nature of the case, a poem is, itself, more complex than any metaphor that it contains. Since Heaney’s poems sometimes are metaphors, his metaphors display unusual complexity. Generally, metaphors in poems exhibit a degree of inexplicability; but, in Heaney’s case, poems that serve as metaphors can virtually defy attempts at explication. Thus, this poetry draws us into a journey. Together with the aforementioned ambiguity of reference and temporal re-conceptualization, inter-poetic metaphor contributes to keeping the path open, maintaining the poetic journey. These techniques produce what might be called, “essential heurism.”

Beyond technique, heurism inheres in the poetic content. Interrelated ideas that emerge repeatedly but variously include, first, the concept of journey or quest, the journey down and the journey back; second, the concept of memory, which relates to journey in the sense of journey down into the past, which is remembered, and up again into the remembering present; third, the concept of the father, whom we remember from our childhood and whom we associate with the journey of our maturation; fourth, the concept of insight, epiphany, or apprehension of the numinous, which may attend the journey of our lives; fifth, the concept of water, which symbolizes journeys and the cleansing of out past; finally, the concept of poetry itself, a means of having insights through intellectual and emotional journeys.

The title of this book, Seeing Things, manages to touch on most of these themes through its ambiguity: We can “see things” veridically, that is, we can ascertain objects that exist in our environment; we can “see things” inveridically, that is, we can imagine to exist that which does not; and we can “see things” numinously, as in the expression, “I saw God.” The journey of our lives might be characterized as tours and detours in and around, through and between, these several ways of seeing things.

Seeing Things begins and ends in memory, at the former extremity with Heaney’s translation from Virgil’s Aeneid, at the latter with Heaney’s translation from Dante’s Inferno. That the contemporary poet would frame his work with classics suggests the importance of memory, of the journey down into our past, of our intellectual and spiritual fathers. Indeed, the inaugural poem describes Aeneas himself as having just had a vision of his departed father, who has urged him to visit the Sibyl of Cumae and seek her assistance in going to the underworld. Aeneas has traveled to the Sibyl. In her presence he now prays for “one look, one face-to-face meeting with my dear father.”

He was praying like that and holding on to the altar
When the 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.

Heaney’s poem, “The Journey Back,” follows immediately. The two works interrelate unmistakably. “The Journey Back” is a journey back, from the classical world to the present. Moreover, in the classical work, Virgil recounts Aeneas’s trip to the underworld, and is warned about the journey back. In the contemporary work, Larkin quotes Dante about the latter’s journey to the underworld, when Virgil accompanied Dante; and Larkin describes himself as feeling as if he is on a forewarned journey back “Into the heartland of the ordinary.” The connection between the poems is unavoidable, but seemingly inexplicable. In contrast to the ancient prophecy, the twentieth century sojourner, the late English poet Phillip Larkin, seems to have returned easily, still his old self. Heaney’s perspicuous syntax underscores this apparent ease of return: The transition, from Larkin’s quoting the medieval source to his expressing his own experiences in the secular city, occurs without syntactic break, just a seamless move from italics to non-italics. It appears, then, that the contemporary return contravenes the ancient prophecy.

Well, not exactly. The seemingly easy return belies what Larkin had experienced before the return: He has seen poetry. This is the numinous ‘see,’ the ‘see’ in ‘I saw God.’ Heaney does not have Larkin say that he has encountered poetry, or read poetry, or even written poetry. Phillip Larkin has seen poetry. This kind of vision suggests epiphany, poetry that has changed the poet, much as a man would be changed by a vision of his departed father. From this perspective, we might draw a distinction: The movement back into the ordinary can be easy externally—we come back, call the publican for a pint the way that we always have—but we’ve been changed internally. Perhaps the point, we are tempted to say, is that the real changes are personal and difficult, not reflected in the conventions of overt behavior and demeanor.

Again, not exactly. Heaney, after all, had he merely wanted Larkin to convey the interiority of true change, could have had him say so: Larkin would have noted the irony between the easy trip to the pub and the trial of the interior journey back. He doesn’t. Indeed, Larkin treats the journey back as if it’s external: The journey back and the trip to the pub seem coterminous. Thus, the relation between the Sibyl’s prophecy of difficulty and Larkin’s forewarned journey back appears inexplicable, though some relation is unavoidable; and we’re left to puzzle this one—which is to say, Seamus Heaney has put his readers on a journey.

This connection between the two poems—unavoidable but inexplicable—recalls the medieval theologian who influenced Dante, and remains to influence Heaney’s own Catholicism, Thomas Aquinas. Thomas said that attributions to God must be expressed through language that derives its meaning from human relations; but, since God transcends human experience, every attribution to God must mean something other than what it means in ordinary discourse. If we say, “God is love,” the love that we predicate of God cannot be the same love that we predicate of human beings. More precisely, the divine love must not only differ from the love that we predicate of human beings; it must share no property with human love. Between any divine and human predication no shared properties exist. But the divine predication is not, thereby, rendered unintelligible. This was Thomas’s doctrine of analogical language in theology. By extension, we might say that these two journeys in Seeing Things share no properties, though they bear an intelligible, analogical relation to each other. They comprise an inter-poetic metaphor.

This book begins and ends in memory, and many poems within the volume reflect memories. The phrase, ‘seeing things’ applies not only as the title of the book, but as a heading for three poems, entitled I, II, and III. These three involve diverse settings, yet each consists of memories; and, from three different perspectives, they examine the concept of insight. Further, in their different ways, they all examine insight through the image of water. Poem I revisits a child’s frightening experience of human contingency on the sea, a virtual archetype of uncontrollable, unpredictable, endlessly feinting and moving power. The sea supports the boat, but can end our lives in the whimsy of a swell. By contrast, poem II invokes symbols of certainty, solidity, and permanence from medieval theology and architecture. The visceral experience of an endlessly changing ocean seems superseded by intellectual experience that has fixed our mental lives in stone on the cathedral facade. Yet these experiences resemble one another, under the surface. To use Tillich’s phrase, the icons “point beyond themselves” to moving fish and

…what’s invisible:
Waterweed, stirred sand-grains hurrying off,
The shadowy, unshadowed stream itself.

In poem III, the speaker, presumably a boy, remembers the nearly fatal accident of his father. The fear that this poem expresses recalls the visceral, pre-intellectual fear recounted in poem I, on the ocean. But in III, no ocean threatens or portends. The accident is unexpected. It occurs on a farm stream that the boy and father have undoubtedly visited often with no cause for concern. Yet, in both poems, water serves as a prism for insight. In poem I, water occasions the apprehension of contingency; in III, water brings the boy closer to his father—the near drowning serves, in a sense, as baptism of their relationship.

That afternoon
I saw him face to face, he came to me
With his damp footprints out of the river,
And there was nothing between us there
That might not still be happily ever after.

The three poems interrelate as metaphors. For example, the “bare, bowed, numbered heads” of poem I clearly anticipate, in poem II, the head of Jesus, on which John pours water; but the former heads are numbered, fundamentally contingent, whereas that of Jesus cannot but connote resurrection and immortality. Both the bare heads of poem I and the head of Jesus in poem II relate to the father’s loss of his hat in poem III. The loss foreshadows death, but the father in fact survives, in this phase of Seeing Things; the nearly fatal immersion clarifies and cleanses the relationship between father and son. The interactions between mortality and immortality, between baptism and immortality, and between baptism and mortality, resist complete analysis. They become the more complex when placed in the context of the Aeneid: In that poem, a living son goes down to have a face-to-face meeting with his dead father; in poem III, after the father goes down, he returns, alive, to meet for the first time his living son.

Poems viii and ix in the series called “Lightenings” re-invoke and re-imagine the themes of memory, water, journey, and insight. Boats figure prominently in both poems, but quite differently. They serve as metaphysical mirror images of each other, reversing one another and our usual ways of seeing things. In viii, a seemingly transcendent or fantastic boat enters history, hooking itself to the very structure of the chapel; then we discover that, from the visitor’s perspective, the truly marvelous consists not of the ostensibly transcendent realm, but of the ostensibly ordinary realm. Our usual understanding of the mundane and transcendent is reversed. Poem ix reverses this reversal. In ix, a presumably historical or ordinary boat comes to be associated, in the speaker’s mind, with transcendence, “the eye of heaven,” the epiphany. These reversals of the above and below, interact with the reversals of the Aeneid and poem III of “Seeing Things,” the son, in the former, going down to see the father before coming up, and the father, in the latter, going down, to be seen by the son after he comes up. These poems bear to one another inexplicable but intelligible relationships.

Thus, Heaney keeps the path of inquiry open, keeps us wondering and questioning, through unanalyzable inter-poetic metaphors. He also uses ambiguity of reference and temporal re-conceptualization. Ambiguity insulates poems viii and ix from conclusive analysis. In viii, did the visitor depart because he would drown? The abbot said he would drown, but why should we trust abbots, epistemically tainted denizens of a world which dismisses the marvelous as the ordinary? Did the visitor leave because he somehow forgot or lost interest in the marvelous? One may fail to see the marvelous that veritably fills one’s eyes, but, if one has seen it, how does one lose interest in it or forget it?

Similarly, in ix, the very identity of this presumably historical boat is ambiguous: Is it a boat, harboring in the waterweeds near shore? Is it a weathered curragh, pulled in retirement onto the grassy land? Is it figurative, an infant’s cradle? Are the “three sisters” the infant’s aunts, or are they nuns? The speaker has grown in insight and perceptiveness, “Open now as the eye of heaven was then.… ” Is he open in the sense that, as an infant, the sun was bright and apparent, a naturalistic openness? Or does his openness partake of a divine knowledge, like the eye of heaven’s God? Is the adjectival form of ‘steady’ to be understood adverbially as modifying the verb, ‘talking,’ or is it working adjectively to refer to the steady boat? Presumably, it does both, but by analogy, since steady talking and steady boats are only related analogically.

The final line of the last sentence re-conceptualizes time. The line resists explication.

      I remember little treble
Timber-notes their smart heels struck from planks,
Me cradled in an elbow like a secret

Open now as the eye of heaven was then
Above three sisters talking, talking steady
In a boat the ground still falls and falls from under.

‘The ground still falls and falls from under’ appears to conjoin two restrictive clauses that modify ‘boat,’ but what do they mean? Elision of ‘still falls and’ produces ‘In a boat that the ground… falls from under,’ evoking a somewhat disoriented image of earth as lake bottom or sea bottom that deepens as one looks away from shore, disturbing one’s ordinary perceptual moorings. Unusual as this image may be, the other conjunct—’In a boat that the ground still falls…’—seems even more difficult. Why the two uses of ‘falls?’ Perhaps they express different tenses, two different present tenses: ‘falls from under’ conveys one kind, the present with respect to experience in 1941-2; whereas ‘still falls’ conveys another kind of present, the contemporary present. If so, syntax reverses history, the contemporary present preceding the present experience in 1941-2. Thus, the line might be translated into prose as, ‘In a boat that the ground still falls from under today as it fell from under 50 years ago.’ This translation does not come easily. It entails irony: The content of the poem concerns dependability, steadiness, a boat that did not rock and does not rock; but the poem, in a sense, rocks our ordinary ways of thinking and communicating about time, not to mention space. The poem seems to say that some things, the most important and dependable things, the things epiphanal, cannot be said in ordinary syntax, or thought about in ordinary temporal conceptualizations. Heaney thereby associates this most ordinary of experiences—infancy, maturation—with the epiphanal, which is unanalyzable, approaching ineffability.

Frequently in Seeing Things, the speaker seeks his father. In poem III of “Lightenings,” the speaker has seen his father near to death after the accident on the riverbank. In other poems, he watches his father age. In “The Ash Plant,” the speaker says of his father, “He’ll never rise again but he is ready.” That paradoxical pronouncement compresses the ambiguities, frustrations, and persistent purposiveness that suffuse aging. The older man, we are told, will wield a cane, a “stick like a silver bough.” This expression subtly alludes to the first poem of the volume, “The Golden Bough,” perhaps suggesting that even the classical myths, like icons on a cathedral, fail to capture some of the actual processes of our aging, which are here represented as “the silver bough.” Yet to age is to live and change: Even this paradigmatic accouterment of the elderly, the cane, lives as an “ash plant in his grasp,” and lives in his perception—or misperception?—as a “phantom limb.”

Between the father’s death and the speaker’s continuing life lies the shortest poem in Seeing Things.


Dangerous pavements.
But I face the ice this year
With my father’s stick.

This commemoration requires only a date to mark the indelible moment of loss. “Dangerous pavements” summarizes all the contingencies that the speaker himself will face, and to which he knows that he must eventually succumb. The father’s legacy can only delay, not halt, the natural processes. The poem’s brevity suggests the brevity of life. Moreover, like the austerity of the title, the brevity reminds us that, of some experiences, little need be said, perhaps because, with firm comprehension, little may be said. As with poem ix, in which the ordinary facts of infancy and maturation are associated with the numinous and ineffable, so the numinous and ineffable are associated with the ordinary here; but here the ordinary facts are maturation and death.

The intertwined ideas of memory, journey, insight, and water recur in the volume’s penultimate poem. Poem ix of “Lightenings” had pointed to the epiphanal in ordinary experience by confounding our ordinary use of tense. Similarly, poem xlviii in the series, “Squarings,” points to the epiphanal by relying on temporal ambiguity in two ways. The poem divides into two parts of two tercets each. The two parts serve as analogues to each other. The first part asserts temporal ambiguity in three abstract, epistemological propositions. The second part envisions or imagines temporal ambiguity in a single luminous linguistic stream of vacillations between direct experience, anticipation, and memory.

These two parts do not merely re-state one another. Heaney separates the second from the first with a conspicuously unreflective idiom: “At any rate.” The speaker’s attention is re-directed. The two types of cognition differ in the speaker’s experience, the former bearing on the latter analogically, much as symbols on a cathedral point beyond themselves to the “shadowy, unshadowed stream of life itself.” The search continues.

Strange how things in the offing, once they’re sensed,
Convert to things foreknown;
And how what’s come upon is manifest

Only in light of what has been gone through.
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
Where wind got saltier, the sky more hurried

And silver lame shivered on the Bann
Out in mid-channel between the painted poles,
That day I’ll be in step with what escaped me. 


  1. (Back to text) Seamus Heaney, Seeing Things, (Faber and Faber, 1991).

  2. (Back to text) Participants in the Mesa Community College Colloquium assisted me with their helpful comments on several of Heaney’s poems. I particularly wish to thank my colleagues, Don Castro and Don Choice, in the English Department of Mesa Community College, for extended conversations on especially problematic poems in Seeing Things; this paper benefits considerably from their insights.

EssaysBrian Flatgard