‘The Settle Bed’ by Seamus Heaney is a seven stanza poem that is separated into uneven sets of lines. The first two stanzas contain six lines, the third, fourth and seventh: four, and the sixth: three. Although there is no standard rhyme scheme or metrical pattern, that doesn’t mean the poem is without either. There are moments of full, half, or slant, rhyme scattered throughout the text, as well as similarities in the meter. A large number of the lines contain twelve syllables, or somewhere close to that number.
Alliteration is one of the techniques that Heaney makes use of in ‘The Settle Bed’. It occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. There is an example in the second stanza with the words “Bible” and “bead”. In the same stanza, there is another example of alliteration in line three with “unwilling” and “unbeaten”.
Enjambment is one of the most powerful techniques in this piece. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. It forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One is forced to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. A number of instances are noted within the analysis of the text.
As the story of the settle-bed is developed, Heaney makes use of an extended metaphor that compares the bed to a ship. There are tides in the headboard, and he is a lookout, climbing up above the clouds to eventually create a new life and meaning for the bed itself. Heaney also uses similes within the text, such as in line five of the first stanza with the phrase “Dry as the unkindled boards…”
Summary of The Settle Bed
The poem begins with the speaker using alliteration to describe how beds are passed on from generation to generation. The one he was willed is not a pretty piece of furniture. It’s an ugly brown, too heavy, and ark-like. The experience of being in the bed is not necessarily a pleasant one either. He hears the tides in the headboard and they bring to mind a whole history of his country and his family.
The speaker recalls the “unwilling, unbeaten” attitude of the Irish people as well as the importance of their religion. He brings up images of beads and Bibles and eventually gets to the weight of the bed in his own life. It holds its own power, connected to all the memories of those who slept in it before him.
By the end of the poem, the speaker has come to the realization that he has some power over the bed. It is within his hands, and therefore he can reimagine what its purpose is in his life.
Analysis of The Settle Bed
Willed down, waited for, in place at last and for good.
Trunk-hasped, cart-heavy, painted an ignorant brown.
Dry as the unkindled boards of a funeral ship.
My measure has been taken, my ear shuttered up.
In the first stanza of ‘The Settle Bed’ the speaker, who is Seamus Heaney himself, begins by describing an object. From the title, a reader should be aware that it is a “settle bed”. A piece of furniture that doubles as a bed and a seat. It has been “Willed down,” as in, passed down through various wills. He has “waited for” it to come into his possession. The line ends with the speaker describing how the bed has come to its last place, finally in his possession.
The next lines give some interesting image-rich details about the bed and what it looks like. It is painted an “ignorant brown,” speaking to its poor design standards. He adds that it’s quite a large bed too, it is “bin-deep” and “standing four-square”.This means that it is very solid, and in a square shape. It is so solid, he uses a simile to compare it to an ark.
In the next four lines, he brings himself into the scene. If recalls what happens if he gets into the bed. He will be surrounded, or cribbed in, “deal”. This is a kind of pine wood. It is dry, like a “funeral ship”. This comparison goes into the next lines when the speaker suggests that it is coffin-like. His measurements were taken, and the form was built around him.
Yet I hear an old sombre tide awash in the headboard:
The small hours chimed sweetly away so next thing it was
The ship metaphor continues in the second stanza of ‘The Settle Bed’. When he’s in the bed he can hear a “sombre tide…in the headboard”. It is washing around just behind his head. The regularity of the tide leads his thoughts into other parts of his life, which are also a part of the history of the bed. He references the “unwilling, unbeaten” attitude of the Irish people, particularly from Ulster, a province in the north. They are Protestant and Catholic and one can see them with Bibles and with beads.
A few other images come into the poem at the end of this stanza. There are thoughts or memories of people speaking at night and resting their “boots on the hearth”. He also brings time into the depiction. Heaney speaks about how the “small hours” of the night went by and then, using enjambment, “next thing it was / The cock on the ridge-tiles”.
The cock on the ridge-tiles.
In the long ago, yet willable forward
The enjambed line picks up in the third stanza and Heaney describes the image of a rooster on the “ridge-tiles” on the roof. He reiterates that the bed is an inheritance, it has an importance and an inescapable weight. It is “Upright” and not in any way elaborate. The bed is “rudimentary” and “unshiftably planked”. This speaks to its solidity, not just physically but mentally and historically. It is entered in the past but “willable forward,” aka, capable of moving forward through generations.
Again and again and again, cargoed with
The fourth stanza of ‘The Settle Bed’ speaks again to the weight. It is large, as previously stated, and has been continuously carted around from person to person. It sits there, with its “un-get-roundable weight”. In the last phrase, the seriousness of the bed is made clear. It is all the things the speaker has mentioned so far, but above all else, it is a generational weight. It is always going to be there, tugging at his conscience and reminding him of how important his own history is.
Imagine a dower of settle beds tumbled from heaven
The speaker then asks the reader to imagine a scene. This one is very fantastical. In it, there is a “dower” or the widow’s share of her husband’s property, worth of “settle beds” falling from the sky. They tumble down nonsensically onto the people below. They fall as if with a vengeance. This speaks to their power within Irish history but adds another element. That there is something else one can “learn from that… barrage”. In contrast with the description of the beds as “vengeful,” he adds that they are actually harmless.
Can always be reimagined, however four-square.
It happens to be. You are free as the lookout,
The fourth line of the fifth stanza is enjambed, forcing the reader down to the sixth stanza in order to find out what we can learn from “whatever is / given”. He says that what is given can be “reimagined”. Now, the speaker imbues himself and all those like him, who are the beneficiaries of wills, with a new power. They are able to change how they see the “hull-stupid” bed.
That far-seeing joker posted high over the fog,
In the last stanza of ‘The Settle-Bed’ Heaney returns to the ship metaphor and refers to himself and others as lookouts who are “free” and posted “high over the fog”. They are looking for anything that might endanger the ship, but the time above the fog has altered their perspective. When the person in this metaphor goes back down, he swears that the actual ship “had been stolen away from beneath / him”. Just as this person reimagined their place in the ship, so too can the owner of a settle bed reimagine its place in their own life. It does not have to be a burden.