Seeing Things

Seeing Things

by Seamus Heaney


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Seeing Things (1991), as Edward Hirsch wrote in The New York Times Book Review, "is a book of thresholds and crossings, of losses balanced by marvels, of casting and gathering and the hushed, contrary air between water and sky, earth and heaven." Along with translations from the Aeneid and the Inferno, this book offers several poems about Heaney's late father.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374523893
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 04/01/1993
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 128
Sales rank: 739,363
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.29(d)

About the Author

Seamus Heaney received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995.

Read an Excerpt

Seeing Things

By Seamus Heaney

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 1991 Seamus Heaney
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-52389-3



The Journey Back

    Larkin's shade surprised me. He quoted Dante:

    'Daylight was going and the umber air
    Soothing every creature on the earth,
    Freeing them from their labours everywhere.

    I alone was girding myself to face
    The ordeal of my journey and my duty

    And not a thing had changed, as rush-hour buses

    Bore the drained and laden through the city.
    I might have been a wise king setting out
    Under the Christmas lights — except that

    It felt more like the forewarned journey back
    Into the heartland of the ordinary.
    Still my old self. Ready to knock one back.

    A nine-to-five man who had seen poetry.'



    We marked the pitch: four jackets for four goalposts,
    That was all. The corners and the squares
    Were there like longitude and latitude
    Under the bumpy ground, to be
    Agreed about or disagreed about
    When the time came. And then we picked the teams
    And crossed the line our called names drew between us.

    Youngsters shouting their heads off in a field
    As the light died and they kept on playing
    Because by then they were playing in their heads
    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 ...
    It was quick and constant, a game that never need
    Be played out. Some limit had been passed,
    There was fleetness, furtherance, untiredness
    In time that was extra, unforeseen and free.


    You also loved lines pegged out in the garden,
    The spade nicking the first straight edge along
    The tight white string. Or string stretched perfectly
    To mark the outline of a house foundation,
    Pale timber battens set at right angles
    For every corner, each freshly sawn new board
    Spick and span in the oddly passive grass.
    Or the imaginary line straight down
    A field of grazing, to be ploughed open
    From the rod stuck in one headrig to the rod
    Stuck in the other.


      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.
    A mower parted the bronze sea of corn.
    A windlass hauled the centre out of water.
    Two men with a cross-cut kept it swimming
    Into a felled beech backwards and forwards
    So that they seemed to row the steady earth.

    Three Drawings

    1. THE POINT

    Those were the days —
    booting a leather football
    truer and farther
    than you ever expected!

    It went rattling
    hard and fast
    over daisies and benweeds,
    it thumped

    but it sang too,
    a kind of dry, ringing
    foreclosure of sound.
    Or else, a great catch

    and a cry from the touch-line
    to Point her! That spring
    and unhampered smash-through!
    Was it you

    or the ball that kept going
    beyond you, amazingly
    higher and higher
    and ruefully free?

    2. THE PULSE

    The effortlessness
    of a spinning reel. One quick
    flick of the wrist
    and your minnow sped away

    whispering and silky
    and nimbly laden.
    It seemed to be all rise
    and shine, the very opposite

    of uphill going — it was pure
    duration, and when it ended,
    the pulse of the cast line
    entering water

    was smaller in your hand
    than the remembered heartbeat
    of a bird. Then, after all of that
    runaway give, you were glad

    when you reeled in and found
    yourself strung, heel-tip
    to rod-tip, into the river's
    steady purchase and thrum.

    3. A HAUL

    The one that got away
    from Thor and the giant Hymir
    was the world-serpent itself.
    The god had baited his line

    with an ox-head, spun it high
    and plunged it into the depths.
    But the big haul came to an end
    when Thor's foot went through the boards

    and Hymir panicked and cut
    the line with a bait-knife. Then
    roll-over, turmoil, whiplash!
    A Milky Way in the water.

    The hole he smashed in the boat
    opened, the way Thor's head
    opened out there on the sea.
    He felt at one with space,

    unroofed and obvious —
    surprised in his empty arms
    like some fabulous high-catcher
    coming down without the ball.

    Casting and Gathering

    for Ted Hughes

    Years and years ago, these sounds took sides:

    On the left bank, a green silk tapered cast
    Went whispering through the air, saying hush
    And lush, entirely free, no matter whether
    It swished above the hayfield or the river.

    On the right bank, like a speeded-up corncrake,
    A sharp ratcheting went on and on
    Cutting across the stillness as another
    Fisherman gathered line-lengths off his reel.

    I am still standing there, awake and dreamy,
    I have grown older and can see them both
    Moving their arms and rods, working away,
    Each one absorbed, proofed by the sounds he's making.

    One sound is saying, 'You are not worth tuppence,
    But neither is anybody. Watch it! Be severe.'
    The other says, 'Go with it! Give and swerve.
    You are everything you feel beside the river.'

    I love hushed air. I trust contrariness.
    Years and years go past and I do not move
    For I see that when one man casts, the other gathers
    And then vice versa, without changing sides.

    Man and Boy


    'Catch the old one first'
    (My father's joke was also old, and heavy
    And predictable), 'then the young ones
    Will all follow, and Bob's your uncle.'

    On slow bright river evenings, the sweet time
    Made him afraid we'd take too much for granted
    And so our spirits must be lightly checked.

    Blessed be down-to-earth! Blessed be highs!
    Blessed be the detachment of dumb love
    In that broad-backed, low-set man
    Who feared debt all his life, but now and then
    Could make a splash like the salmon he said was
    'As big as a wee pork pig by the sound of it'.


    In earshot of the pool where the salmon jumped
    Back through its own unheard concentric soundwaves
    A mower leans forever on his scythe.

    He has mown himself to the centre of the field
    And stands in a final perfect ring
    Of sunlit stubble.

    'Go and tell your father,' the mower says
    (He said it to my father who told me),
    'I have it mowed as clean as a new sixpence.'

    My father is a barefoot boy with news,
    Running at eye-level with weeds and stooks
    On the afternoon of his own father's death.

    The open, black half of the half-door waits.
    I feel much heat and hurry in the air.
    I feel his legs and quick heels far away

    And strange as my own — when he will piggyback me
    At a great height, light-headed and thin-boned,
    Like a witless elder rescued from the fire.

    Seeing Things


    Inishbofin on a Sunday morning.
    Sunlight, turfsmoke, seagulls, boatslip, diesel.
    One by one we were being handed down
    Into a boat that dipped and shilly-shallied
    Scaresomely every time. We sat tight
    On short cross-benches, in nervous twos and threes,
    Obedient, newly close, nobody speaking
    Except the boatmen, as the gunwales sank
    And seemed they might ship water any minute.
    The sea was very calm but even so,
    When the engine kicked and our ferryman
    Swayed for balance, reaching for the tiller,
    I panicked at the shiftiness and heft
    Of the craft itself. What guaranteed us —
    That quick response and buoyancy and swim —
    Kept me in agony. All the time
    As we went sailing evenly across
    The deep, still, seeable-down-into water,
    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.


    Claritas. The dry-eyed Latin word
    Is perfect for the carved stone of the water
    Where Jesus stands up to his unwet knees
    And John the Baptist pours out more water
    Over his head: all this in bright sunlight
    On the façade of a cathedral. Lines
    Hard and thin and sinuous represent
    The flowing river. Down between the lines
    Little antic fish are all go. Nothing else.
    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 zigzag hieroglyph for life itself.


    Once upon a time my undrowned father
    Walked into our yard. He had gone to spray
    Potatoes in a field on the riverbank
    And wouldn't bring me with him. The horse-sprayer
    Was too big and newfangled, bluestone might
    Burn me in the eyes, the horse was fresh, I
    Might scare the horse, and so on. I threw stones
    At a bird on the shed roof, as much for
    The clatter of the stones as anything,
    But when he came back, I was inside the house
    And saw him out the window, scatter-eyed
    And daunted, strange without his hat,
    His step unguided, his ghosthood immanent.
    When he was turning on the riverbank,
    The horse had rusted and reared up and pitched
    Cart and sprayer and everything off balance,
    So the whole rig went over into a deep
    Whirlpool, hoofs, chains, shafts, cartwheels, barrel
    And tackle, all tumbling off the world,
    And the hat already merrily swept along
    The quieter reaches. 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 Ash Plant

    He'll never rise again but he is ready.
    Entered like a mirror by the morning,
    He stares out the big window, wondering,
    Not caring if the day is bright or cloudy.

    An upstairs outlook on the whole country.
    First milk-lorries, first smoke, cattle, trees
    In damp opulence above damp hedges —
    He has it to himself, he is like a sentry

    Forgotten and unable to remember
    The whys and wherefores of his lofty station,
    Wakening relieved yet in position,
    Disencumbered as a breaking comber.

    As his head goes light with light, his wasting hand
    Gropes desperately and finds the phantom limb
    Of an ash plant in his grasp, which steadies him.
    Now he has found his touch he can stand his ground

    Or wield the stick like a silver bough and come
    Walking again among us: the quoted judge.
    I could have cut a better man out of the hedge!
    God might have said the same, remembering Adam.


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

    An August Night

    His hands were warm and small and knowledgeable.
    When I saw them again last night, they were two ferrets,
    Playing all by themselves in a moonlit field.

    Field of Vision

    I remember this woman who sat for years
    In a wheelchair, looking straight ahead
    Out the window at sycamore trees unleafing
    And leafing at the far end of the lane.

    Straight out past the TV in the corner,
    The stunted, agitated hawthorn bush,
    The same small calves with their backs to wind and rain,
    The same acre of ragwort, the same mountain.

    She was steadfast as the big window itself.
    Her brow was clear as the chrome bits of the chair.
    She never lamented once and she never
    Carried a spare ounce of emotional weight.

    Face to face with her was an education
    Of the sort you got across a well-braced gate —
    One of those lean, clean, iron, roadside ones
    Between two whitewashed pillars, where you could see

    Deeper into the country than you expected
    And discovered that the field behind the hedge
    Grew more distinctly strange as you kept standing
    Focused and drawn in by what barred the way.

    The Pitchfork

    Of all implements, the pitchfork was the one
    That came near to an imagined perfection:
    When he tightened his raised hand and aimed with it,
    It felt like a javelin, accurate and light.

    So whether he played the warrior or the athlete
    Or worked in earnest in the chaff and sweat,
    He loved its grain of tapering, dark-flecked ash
    Grown satiny from its own natural polish.

    Riveted steel, turned timber, burnish, grain,
    Smoothness, straightness, roundness, length and sheen.
    Sweat-cured, sharpened, balanced, tested, fitted.
    The springiness, the clip and dart of it.

    And then when he thought of probes that reached the farthest,
    He would see the shaft of a pitchfork sailing past
    Evenly, imperturbably through space,
    Its prongs starlit and absolutely soundless —

    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.

    A Basket of Chestnuts

    There's a shadow-boost, a giddy strange assistance
    That happens when you swing a loaded basket.
    The lightness of the thing seems to diminish
    The actual weight of what's being hoisted in it.

    For a split second your hands feel unburdened,
    Outstripped, dismayed, passed through.
    Then just as unexpectedly comes rebound —
    Downthrust and comeback ratifying you.

    I recollect this basket full of chestnuts,
    A really solid gather-up, all drag
    And lustre, opulent and gravid
    And golden-bowelled as a moneybag.

    And I wish they could be painted, known for what
    Pigment might see beyond them, what the reach
    Of sense despairs of as it fails to reach it,
    Especially the thwarted sense of touch.

    Since Edward Maguire visited our house
    In the autumn of 1973,
    A basketful of chestnuts shines between us,
    One that he did not paint when he painted me —

    Although it was what he thought he'd maybe use
    As a decoy or a coffer for the light
    He captured in the toecaps of my shoes.
    But it wasn't in the picture and is not.

    What's there is comeback, especially for him.
    In oils and brushwork we are ratified.
    And the basket shines and foxfire chestnuts gleam
    Where he passed through, unburdened and dismayed.

    The Biretta

    Like Gaul, the biretta was divided
    Into three parts: triple-finned black serge,
    A shipshape pillbox, its every slope and edge
    Trimly articulated and decided.

    Its insides were crimped satin; it was heavy too
    But sported a light flossy tassel
    That the backs of my fingers remember well,
    And it left a dark red line on the priest's brow.

    I received it into my hand from the hand
    Of whoever was celebrant, one thin
    Fastidious movement up and out and in
    In the name of the Father and of the Son AND

    Of the Holy Ghost
... I placed it on the steps
    Where it seemed to batten down, even half-resist
    All of the brisk proceedings of the Mass —
    The chalice drunk off and the patted lips.

    The first time I saw one, I heard a shout
    As an El Greco ascetic rose before me
    Preaching hellfire, saurian and stormy,
    Adze-head on the rampage in the pulpit.

    Sanctuaries. Marble. Kneeling boards. Vocation.
    Some it made look squashed, some clean and tall.
    It was antique as armour in a hall
    And put the wind up me and my generation.

    Now I turn it upside down and it is a boat —
    A paper boat, or the one that wafts into
    The first lines of the Purgatorio
    As poetry lifts its eyes and clears its throat.

    Or maybe that small boat out of the Bronze Age
    Where the oars are needles and the worked gold frail
    As the intact half of a hatched-out shell,
    Refined beyond the dross into sheer image.

    But in the end it's as likely to be the one
    In Matthew Lawless's painting The Sick Call,
    Where the scene is out on a river and it's all
    Solid, pathetic and Irish Victorian.

    In which case, however, his reverence wears a hat.
    Undaunting, half-domestic, loved in crises,
    He sits listening as each long oar dips and rises,
    Sad for his worthy life and fit for it.

    The Settle Bed

    Willed down, waited for, in place at last and for good.
    Trunk-hasped, cart-heavy, painted an ignorant brown.
    And pew-strait, bin-deep, standing four-square as an ark.

    If I lie in it, I am cribbed in seasoned deal
    Dry as the unkindled boards of a funeral ship.
    My measure has been taken, my ear shuttered up.

    Yet I hear an old sombre tide awash in the headboard:
    Unpathetic och ochs and och hohs, the long bedtime
    Anthems of Ulster, unwilling, unbeaten,

    Protestant, Catholic, the Bible, the beads,
    Long talks at gables by moonlight, boots on the hearth,
    The small hours chimed sweetly away so next thing it was

    The cock on the ridge-tiles.
      And now this is 'an inheritance'—
    Upright, rudimentary, unshiftably planked
    In the long ago, yet willable forward

    Again and again and again, cargoed with
    Its own dumb, tongue-and-groove worthiness
    And un-get-roundable weight. But to conquer that weight,

    Imagine a dower of settle beds tumbled from heaven
    Like some nonsensical vengeance on the people,
    Then learn from that harmless barrage 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 had got himself down
    The actual ship had been stolen away from beneath him.

    The Schoolbag

    in memoriam John Hewitt

    My handsewn leather schoolbag. Forty years.
    Poet, you were nel mezzo del cammin
    When I shouldered it, half-full of blue-lined jotters,
    And saw the classroom charts, the displayed bean,

    The wallmap with its spray of shipping lanes
    Describing arcs across the blue North Channel ...
    And in the middle of the road to school,
    Ox-eye daisies and wild dandelions.

    Learning's easy carried! The bag is light,
    Scuffed and supple and unemptiable
    As an itinerant school conjuror's hat.
    So take it, for a word-hoard and a handsel,

    As you step out trig and look back all at once
    Like a child on his first morning leaving parents.


Excerpted from Seeing Things by Seamus Heaney. Copyright © 1991 Seamus Heaney. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


The Golden Bough,
The Journey Back,
Three Drawings,
3. A HAUL,
Casting and Gathering,
Man and Boy,
Seeing Things,
The Ash Plant,
An August Night,
Field of Vision,
The Pitchfork,
A Basket of Chestnuts,
The Biretta,
The Settle Bed,
The Schoolbag,
Glanmore Revisited,
4. 1973,
A Pillowed Head,
A Royal Prospect,
A Retrospect,
The Rescue,
Wheels within Wheels,
The Sounds of Rain,
1. Lightenings,
2. Settings,
3. Crossings,
4. Squarings,
The Crossing,

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