Seeing Things and then “Seeing Things”


“Fish” by jpbohannon, 2017

One of Seamus Heaney’s later collections of poetry was entitled Seeing Things, and indeed the Irish poet was a master of detailed observation.  His career was built on seeing and noticing things.

Seeing Things

Andrew Barker, in his on-line lecture on Heaney’s early poem “Digging,”  comments on the phrase “seeing things,” saying that we usually mean one of two things when we say it.

The first is what he is emphasizing in Heaney’s poems, the art of closely observing detail: in the case of “Digging,” the sound of a spade sliding through gravel, the squelch of the turf being sliced from the bog, the coolness of potatoes fresh from the ground.

But, Barker points out, there is also another meaning of someone “seeing things”– where it does not refer to someone with keenness of perception, but to someone who sees things that are not there. “He’s seeing things” quite often means that someone is seeing things that are not visible to others, someone who is delusional or fantasizing.

And then Barker names the poet William Butler Yeats as one who sees things that are not there.

I’ve let that percolate in my mind for a while.  And then I thought of Yeats’ poem, “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” perhaps my favorite poem of all and one that I can recite at will.

The poem goes like this:

The Song of Wandering Aengus

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread.
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.
When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name.
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

Apart from the subtle rhymes (“wand” and “wood” or “moon” and “sun”) or the beautiful images of “moth like stars” and “a glimmering girl/with apple blossom in her hair,” the poem is notable because Yeats is seeing things that are not necessarily visible.

(Do I need to mention that a silver trout transforms into a human female as the speaker turns to “blow the fire a-flame.”)

And yet there is a larger truth sitting on that cottage floor and running out the door. A larger truth that has the speaker spending his lifetime chasing that vision–and believing that he will catch it.

I used the word “vision” purposefully,  for it is in that unseen vision that Yeats reveals a truth, a truth about passion, aspiration, dreams and goals. It is the dream of what one wants and the dedication of following that dream, of chasing that dream “till time and times are done.”  For it is in chasing the dream–not in catching it– that a full life resides.

Yeats saw that truth…and saw it in a way not visible to most. (Never mind, that Yeats actually spent much of his life chasing after his “glimmering girl,” Maude Gonne.  That’s beside the point!)

Certainly, we are all not going to fully realize our dreams; we will not all achieve what we set out to do. And often times not attaining what we thought we wanted may be the best thing to happens to us.  But the chase must continue –and it defines our lives.  If we are not looking forward–through “hollow lands and hilly lands”–if we have given up on that “glimmering girl,” then we are merely alive.

As I have said, this is one of my favorite poems–and it has often been put to music. If you search YouTube for “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” you will find scores of versions done by everyone from Christy Moore or The Waterboys to Dave Van Ronk and Judy Collins. Donovan did a version, as did Don MacLean on banjo.

Anyway, below is my favorite version, by Christy Moore.  Give it a listen…


Hugh MacDiarmid, Robert Burns and My Father

Hugh MacDiarmid

Hugh MacDiarmid times 4

No’ wan in fifty kens a wurd Burns wrote
But misapplied is a’body’s property
And gin there was his like alive the day
They’d be the last a kennin’ haund to gi’e–

Croose London Scotties wi’ their braw shirt fronts
And a’ their fancy freen’s, rejoicin’
That Simlah gatherings in Timbuctoo,
Bagdad — and Hell, nae doot–are voicin’

Burns’ sentiments o’ universal love,
In pidgin English or in wild-fowl Scots,
And toastin’ ane wha’s nocht to them but an
Excuse for faitherin’ Genius wi’ their thochts.

A’ they’ve to say was aften said afore
A lad was born in Kyle to blaw aboot.
What unco fate mak’s him the dumpin’-grun’
For a’ the sloppy rubbish they jaw oot?

Mair nonsense has been uttered in his name
Than in ony’s barrin’ liberty and Christ.
If this keeps spreedin’ as the drink declines,
Syne turns to tea, wae’s me for the Zeitgeist!

Rabbie, wad’st thou wert here–the warld hath need,
And Scotland mair sae, o’ the like o’ thee!
The whisky that aince moved your lyre’s become
A laxative for a loquacity.

from “A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle” (lines 41-64)
Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978)

I got involved with this poem yesterday–a poem that I had long forgotten and had once loved dearly.  A student of a friend of mine got in a bit of trouble with it and an art project he was doing. Just a few bad decisions.

Anyway, he was also out of his depth. The poem is nearly a hundred pages long, close to 3000 lines long, and written in the Scots dialect. In it MacDiarmid is bemoaning the present state of the world ( (“Rabbie, wad’st thou wert here–the warld hath need”) and calling for a certain national identity through a link to the past. And of course, as a early-twentieth century Scots poet, for Hugh MacDiarmid that link is Robert Burns.

I have always had an affinity for Burns.  We share the same birthday and hit some of life’s milestones at the same time. But my introduction to him was from my father. My father was not a academic man; he had finished high-school and then out to work. But he had always been a wide-ranging and voracious reader.  And he had a extraordinary memory for the poems he had read in school. Even in old age, he could recite poems that he had learned as a youth.  The one I remember most was Robert Burns’ “To A Louse.”  I remember it because it was his way of teaching humility, of teaching his children not to become too full of themselves.  As a child, I loved the poem because it dealt with the humorous situation of spying a louse crawling in the wig of the elegant lady in front of him at church.  Her social airs and superciliousness are punctured by the creature burrowing through her hair, unknown to her but visible to those in the pew behind.

But making fun of the rich lady was not the point.  The lesson my father was offering was directed to us.  Burns ends the poem with a prayer:

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!

How perfect.  How humbling. What an antidote to hubris!

I grew older, life went by, and I began reading seriously on my own. Suddenly, many of the pieces that my dad had recited came back into my life.  And I took to Burns. (Even, his most anthologized–”To A Mouse, on Turning up her Nest with a Plough”–is a plea for empathy and understanding among all creatures, not only between humans, although that too certainly is implied. And it was there that I first recognized my father’s oft recited quote about the frequent ruinations of the “best laid plans.”)

In the section of Hugh MacDiarmid’s poem above, the speaker laments the caricature that has been made of Robert Burns over the years. The Burns’ suppers held around the world, the saccharine versions of “Auld Lang Syne” that punctuate each passing year (and that omit most poignant verses), the iconic being that he has been puffed up as, emptied of all the genius, vitality, politics and love that made him what he was.

Instead, MacDiarmid yearns for that great lover of liberty,  the lover of life, the lover of Scotland. For instance, here is Burns simply singing the praises of his love–and stating that even death would not sever its bond:

Fair and lovely as thou art,
Thou hast stown my very heart;
I can die–but canna part,
My bonie dearie.
(“Ca’ the Yowes,”  lines 20-24)

Here in 1792–70 years before the American Emancipation Proclamation–Burns writes about the anguish of a Senegalese leaving his home on a slave ship for the shores of Virginia.  It is not the politics that are most important here (although they are important) it is the humanizing of a black man in 1792, the compassion and empathy for the slave’s lot. One can feel the slave’s weariness. One can feel his “bitter tear.”

The Slave’s Lament

It was in sweet Senegal that my foes did me enthral,
For the lands of Virginia,-ginia, O:
Torn from that lovely shore, and must never see it more;
And alas! I am weary, weary O:
Torn from that lovely shore, and must never see it more;
And alas! I am weary, weary O.

All on that charming coast is no bitter snow and frost,
Like the lands of Virginia,-ginia, O:
There streams for ever flow, and there flowers for ever blow,
And alas! I am weary, weary O:
There streams for ever flow, and there flowers for ever blow,
And alas! I am weary, weary O:

The burden I must bear, while the cruel scourge I fear,
In the lands of Virginia,-ginia, O;
And I think on friends most dear, with the bitter, bitter tear,
And alas! I am weary, weary O:
And I think on friends most dear, with the bitter, bitter tear,
And alas! I am weary, weary O:

But for me, it is the love poems that stand out. While some here in the 21st century might bash his promiscuity,  I see it as his inordinate zeal and love of life. I believe the truth of his love poems–they are not simply lines to bed a willing lass–and I see them as some of the tenderest poems ever written. Here is one in which he has been played false…and his heart is breaking:

Ye banks and braes o’ bonnie Doon

Ye banks and braes o’ bonnie Doon,
How can ye bloom sae fair!
How can ye chant, ye little birds,
And I sae fu’ o’ care!

Thou’ll break my heart, thou bonnie bird
That sings upon the bough;
Thou minds me o’ the happy days
When my fause Luve was true.

Thou’ll break my heart, thou bonnie bird
That sings beside thy mate;
For sae I sat, and sae I sang,
And wist na o’ my fate.

Aft hae I roved by bonnie Doon
To see the woodbine twine,
And ilka bird sang o’ its love;
And sae did I o’ mine.

Wi’ lightsome heart I pu’d a rose
Frae aff its thorny tree;
And my fause luver staw the rose,
But left the thorn wi’ me.

From a boy in trouble in a friend’s school, to a poem by Hugh MacDiarmid, to Robert Burns, to my dad.  The mind shifts easily from one thing to another. This is not a scholarly piece–my dad would find no worth in that–but a post about things I love and loved.

My father outside a pub in Dublin