On Seamus Heaney's "The Settle Bed"

In the last several years I’ve fallen in love with Seamus Heaney’s verse. As with all poets, only some of his poems connect with me. However, as I spend more time with Heaney, more of his poems make that connection. The one I’m working on or through these days is “The Settle Bed.”

I got into a conversation about books with a friend, and I mentioned I’d been reading Heaney a lot. He responded with a line from “The Settle Bed”:

...whatever is given
Can always be reimagined...

It knocked me down. I went in search of it. I needed the context, and what I found was a dense, strange poem. The quoted line is actually half a line carried into half of the next one, stretching across a stanza break. Without my friend, I may never have seen it, let alone heard the simple, undeniable truth it conveys.

So I started working through the poem. I began with the subject. What’s a settle bed? I had to look it up because it’s not part of my cultural world. It’s a piece of furniture, made of wood that doubles as a seat and a bed. Often a long-enduring piece of craftsmanship, it would be passed down the generations in Irish families. Now, with the object coming into focus, the poem’s density begins to dissipate.

Much of the poem describes this heavy, wooden inheritance in its many meanings. It’s concrete—trunk-haspedcart-heavy, and standing four-square as an ark. The kennings Heaney uses evoke the seemingly ancient quality of this inheritance. They also evoke the roughness of the piece itself like the Anglo-Saxon culture from which the kenning is borrowed. Hasped is an Ulster word—the area of Ireland where Heaney’s family came from—which he uses in his translation of Beowulf. As Grendel flees the mead house after being bested by Beowulf, Heaney describes him as Hasped and hooped, and hirpling in pain. The words are out of time but not indecipherable; they echo. Grendel is locked, encircled, and limping in pain. The modern rendering makes the sense more immediate, and it’s still beautiful imagery capturing Grendel’s mortal wound consuming his being mentally, emotionally, and physically. But the modern version lacks the power of the repeated aitches and loses the gravity found in these curious words that belong to us and, yet, are unfamiliar.

I digress a little. The settle bed is described in concrete and heavy language. It is physically imposing and far from beautiful. The speaker lies in it, and a history of the sound of the people and their endurance opens up. If you stop here and ponder this inheritance, you might assume the settle bed is a treasure—the revelation and possession of one’s own history—but Heaney, in one of those thoughts broken across stanzas, reveals the burden of this inheritance: But to conquer that weight. The settle bed, cart-heavy, is now also an emotional and personal burden. The fascination with cultural history and discovering who you are through your family history is an indulgence of the modern era. We move fast, technology outpaces us, and we move far away. Our cultural history has meaning for us, but there is a lot that an individual can do to make it more or less a part of their identity. The settle bed reminds us of a different cultural legacy, one that binds you and is un-get-roundable.

Imagination is Heaney’s solution to lifting that weight. He falls into an absurd daydream in which a dower of settle beds falls from the sky as if God were reigning down hellfire. The absurdity contrasts sharply with the rooted, immutable history of the people. And here we get the full thought containing the kernel I began with:

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.

The act of imagination frees the individual from the bounds of history, family, and the expectations they carry. We as individuals are born into this world into a particular situation as part of specific history. It’s easy to think our lives are predetermined. You will sleep in the settle bed of your grandparents; you will live their lives. But this is not the case. The human being is a creative creature, and the settle bed you inherit is not actually your grandparents’ settle bed: it is your settle bed. You have the capacity to determine its meaning. The settle bed does not change. It is still four square and plank-thick, but you are new and have an opportunity to change the world because whatever is given can always be reimagined.

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
Sigh-life 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 come 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 stolen away from beneath him.