Seamus Heaney, “Shifting brilliancies”

for Emma Askew

“Shifting brilliancies” (from Squarings: Lightenings)
Seamus Heaney

Shifting brilliancies. Then winter light
In a doorway, and on the stone doorstep
A beggar shivering in silhouette.

So the particular judgement might be set:
Bare wallstead and a cold hearth rained into—
Bright puddle where the soul-free cloud-life roams.

And after the commanded journey, what?
Nothing magnificent, nothing unknown.
A gazing out from far away, alone.

And it is not particular at all,
Just old truth dawning: there is no next-time-round.
Unroofed scope. Knowledge-freshening wind.

Reading:

“Shifting brilliancies:” for a moment, our wanderer experiences a variety of beautiful, overpowering things. For a moment, a wanderer has what she seeks. She has insights, she feels more in control, the world makes sense, she’s more confident…

Suddenly, “then winter light / In a doorway, and on the stone doorstep / A beggar shivering in silhouette.” A shift of light, a turn to reality. The winter light illumines what endures, “a beggar shivering in silhouette.” Not only does this end our wanderer’s reverie, but it forces the heights of shifting brilliancies down to earth. The beggar in silhouette is not seen directly. He’s beyond a doorway and must be ascended to. Truth is heavenly, dazzling, blinding; the beggar resides in a shrine of sorts. Mysteries are all we have.

Our wanderer realizes the danger of her dreaming. A particular judgement should be set against her if she keeps looking for some secret happiness, ignoring the suffering in front of her. Yet, at the same time: she is not allowed to think, to look for answers? The solution must involve identification with the beggar. Like him, she “has” an abandoned, useless home, a “bare wallstead and a cold hearth rained into.” And just like him, her own freedom is an illusion. Only cloud-life is soul-free, unconstrained by necessities.

The rest of the poem wrestles with a beggar’s desperation. You get the distinct feeling our wanderer-speaker wants no more than to be one, if that manages to be more serious about human life. She openly questions the purpose of her own attempts to wander:

And after the commanded journey, what?
Nothing magnificent, nothing unknown.
A gazing out from far away, alone.

The questioning, “the commanded journey,” makes our wanderer-speaker-beggar aware of her futility (“Nothing magnificent”) as well as what she already possesses (“nothing unknown”). Without neglecting the ills of poverty and fortune, she sees where she stands: “gazing out from far away, alone.” To have nothing and know you have nothing stands as precondition to a genuinely universal perspective.

“…It is not particular at all / Just old truth dawning.” If insights were ecstatic before, this one, “old truth dawning,” links to sobriety. Our speaker has traveled quite a bit in this poem, from joy in revelation to the shock of failure, poverty, and death. Taking a harsher perspective brings her closer to the beggar and enables true human freedom. The “unroofed scope” and “knowledge-freshening wind” only come about by pushing oneself to see and not being willfully blind. A sense of duty remains. You could say it is to rebuild the house, to uplift the poor. The needs of the world, for a moment, and only in a most curious way, correspond with intellectual growth, an inward search.