‘Lightenings VIII’ is in Heaney’s Squarings series. It is one of the most popular of this group and deals, as the others do, with Celtic and/or Christian legends. The poem speaks on themes of religion, the divine, wonder, and the sublime. Heaney sets the poem in the 6th century in a chapel at Clonmacnoise, a monastery in County Coffaly, founded in 544.
When speaking about this poem, Heaney references Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson’s A Celtic Miscellany. It is in this work one might find a translation of the original story Heaney based the poem on. Heaney adds that when writing he “misremembered some of the details,” such as the boat hooking onto the altar rails rather than coming down to the floor.
The poem begins with the speaker setting the scene and describing the miraculous appearance of the ship. It comes from nowhere, shocking all present. The anchor drops, securing it to the “altar rail”. When a man comes down from the ship the abbot realizes he needs help and the monks do what they can to get the ship free. It sails away and all are left amazed.
You can read the full poem here.
Like the other poems in Heaney’s Squarings series, ‘Lightenings VIII’ is made up of four sets of three lines, known as tercets. These tercets are unrhymed, but they are of a similar length, with the majority containing ten syllables.
While there are no full end rhymes, there are examples of half-rhyme. These are seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. For instance, “prayers” and “air” in lines two and three.
There are also examples of internal rhyme. It is not constrained to the end of the lines but can appear anywhere. For instance, “standstill” and “will” in lines six and nine.
Heaney also makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Lightenings VIII’. These include alliteration, enjambment, and caesura. The latter, caesura, occurs when a line is split in half. Sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. For example, the eighth line: “And struggled to release it. But in vain”. Or, another example, the first line: “The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise”.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. There are a few examples in ‘Lightenings VIII,’ such as in line eleven with “ship sailed”.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines eleven and twelve.
Analysis of Lightenings VIII
The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
A ship appeared above them in the air.
In the first lines of ‘Lightenings VIII’ the speaker begins by placing the story in “Clonmacnoise”. This monastery is at the center of the poem, as are the monks who are praying within it. The “annal” or records of the year, contained the events set out in the text.
The speaker describes how on this particular occasion the monks were “at prayers” in the “oratory” or small, private chapel. It was there, in the intimacy of this space, that a “ship appeared above” the monks in the air. The legend depicts the ship as of another world that at that moment merged with the world in which the monks were existing. The apparition is described in more detail in the next three lines.
The anchor dragged along behind so deep
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,
The speaker adds that the ship appeared to be interacting physically with the monk’s world. The two were connecting. Its anchor came down and dragged along behind the ship until it caught hold of the “altar rails”. This is the section of the chapel that separates the chancel from the nave.
From the tension, the ship was brought to a halt. Enjambment is very skillfully employed in the sixth line and a reader is encouraged to move quickly to the seventh in order to find out what happens next.
A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
‘This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,’
Amazingly, a man climbs down from the ship in an attempt to free it from the altar rail. The crew was not meant to stop here, the collision of the two worlds was unintentional. The single man sent to complete this mission struggled “to release” the ship. After noting what was taking place, and in a calm, collected way, the abbot (the head monk) speaks.
He realizes that this man, from another world, “can’t bear out life here” and is soon to drown. By using the word drown the speaker places the monastery in the water, as it would be if a ship’s anchor got caught on it.
The abbot said, ‘unless we help him.’ So
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.
In the last three lines, the abbot knows he and the other monks have to help the ship get free. They did so and the “ship sailed” from the chapel. Just as the monks were amazed by the appearance of the ship, so too was the crewman amazed by the presence of the monks. He had temporarily entered into a “marvellous” world.