An Analysis of ‘Follower’ by Seamus Heaney

                             

Follower

 

My father worked with a horse plough,
His shoulders globed like a full sail strung
Between the shafts and the furrow.
The horses strained at his clicking tongue.

An expert. He would set the wing
And fit the bright-pointed sock.
The sod rolled over without breaking.
At the headrig, with a single pluck.

Of reins, the sweating team turned round
And back into the land. His eye
Narrowed and angled at the ground,
Mapping the furrow exactly.

I stumbled in his hobnailed wake,
Fell sometimes on the polished sod;
Sometimes he rode me on his back
Dipping and rising to his plod.

I wanted to grow up and plough,
To close one eye, stiffen my arm.
All I ever did was follow
In his broad shadow around the farm.

I was a nuisance, tripping, falling,
Yapping always. But today
It is my father who keeps stumbling
Behind me, and will not go away.

– from Death of a Naturalist, 1966

 

Commentary:  This poem appears in Heaney’s first collection, Death of a Naturalist, published in 1966. In this collection, Heaney is keen to introduce himself and tell us where he comes from. The collection includes poems such as ‘Digging’, ‘Churning Day’, ‘Early Purges’, ‘The Diviner’ and ‘Follower’.  All of these poems reflect his farming background and they depict a world view and country crafts and skills that are now redundant and no longer to be readily seen in the Irish countryside.  We are introduced to men who dig in gardens, men who cut turf, who sell their cattle at the local fair, and who rid the farmyard of unwanted kittens.  Heaney tells us that he intends to follow in their footsteps – to dig ‘down and down for the good turf’, to plough his lonely furrow as a poet.

The theme of this poem is the relationship between father and son.  In poetry, fathers are constant ghostly shadows offering nostalgic, intimate images of a safe and tender childhood.  Heaney explores this theme here in ‘Follower’ and in many other poems like ‘Digging’ and ‘The Harvest Bow’.  In ‘The Harvest Bow’, Seamus Heaney’s father, Patrick, emerges as a strong ‘tongue tied’ man, a man of action and of few words.  He has fashioned the harvest bow for his son as a ‘throwaway love-knot of straw’.  The poem is a tender exploration of the Father/Son relationship and it is clear that an unspoken understanding has grown between them, lovingly expressed by the harvest bow which Heaney fingers and reads ‘like braille ….. gleaning the unsaid off the palpable’.  Heaney then translates what he has read and puts it into words which he fashions and plaits and weaves into a tender ‘love-knot’ of a poem.  In ‘Digging’ he explores other aspects of this same theme.  He looks down from his window and paints a rather unflattering picture of his father, ‘his straining rump among the flowerbeds’ reminds him of a scene twenty years earlier as his father was digging out potatoes on the home farm.  Here, in ‘Follower’ he juxtaposes his father’s patience with him as a child with his own grown up impatience and annoyance,

                                                But today

It is my father who keeps stumbling

Behind me, and will not go away.

The poem is titled ‘Follower’ and Heaney invites us to explore the various meanings of the word as it is used today – he follows in his father’s footsteps, we follow Man United, she is a follower of Christ, a disciple.  The poem ends with a denouement when the roles are suddenly reversed and now the father is seen ‘stumbling behind me’.  The great irony here, of course, is that Heaney was not a follower – he was a trailblazer, a man outstanding in his own field, so to speak!  Mark Patrick Hederman OSB,  former Abbot of Glenstal Abbey, County Limerick, uses a lovely analogy to describe poets and other artists in his book, The Haunted Inkwell– he says that artists are like the dove that Noah released from the Ark after 40 days to check if the waters were receding. Eventually, the third dove brought back an olive branch – we need trailblazers and scouts like that to go before us, to take the risks, and help us explore our unchartered waters.  Heaney is a poet, like Kavanagh and Hartnett, who has remained attached to his home place and the values and the traditions of his parents, ‘All I know is a door into the dark’.  We can be grateful that our poets are pioneers, working at the frontier of language.  They are translators, translating for us events that we cannot grasp.

These early poems in Death of a Naturalist are all metaphors, endeavouring to crystallise the meaning of art and the role of the artist in our world – the poet is described as gardener, turf-cutter, as diviner, as smithy, as ploughman.  He celebrates this local craftsmanship – the diviner, the digger, the blacksmith and the breadmaker and he hankers back to his childhood and the community of that childhood for several reasons.  Indeed, part of the excitement of reading his poetry is the way in which he leads you from the parish of Anahorish in County Derry outwards in space and time, making connections with kindred spirits, both living and dead, so that he verifies for us Patrick Kavanagh’s belief that the local is universal.  For example in  ‘The Forge’, he appears at first glance to be looking back with fond nostalgia at the work of the local village blacksmith, Barney Devlin.  However, the real subject of the poem is the mystery of the creative process – writing poetry is like ‘a door into the dark’.  The work of the forge serves, therefore, as an extended metaphor for the creative work and craftsmanship of poetry.

In ‘Follower’, like ‘Digging’, he continues to use this extended metaphor as he focuses on his father as farmer and ploughman.  His father is ‘an expert’.  He recalls precious scenes and memories from his childhood with great accuracy.  He mentions the plough and all its individual parts, ‘the shafts’, ‘the wing’, ‘the bright steel-pointed sock’, the horse’s ‘headrig’.  The opening lines cleverly introduce the simile of his father’s shoulders ‘globed like a full sail’ and he then follows this with the exquisite metaphor of his father as ancient mariner using angles and eyesight ‘mapping the furrow exactly’ while the young Heaney struggles and stumbles ‘in his hob-nailed wake’.  His childhood is spent in his father’s shadow and he decides that ‘I wanted to grow up and plough’.  Similar to ‘Digging’, the very first poem in Death of a Naturalist, he wants to follow in his father and grandfather’s footsteps and dig except he realises that ‘I’ve no spade to follow men like them’.  Instead, he decides that he will follow in their footsteps but instead of a spade he will dig with his pen:

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I’ll dig with it.

‘Follower’ ends with a jolt.  The poet is suddenly back in the present, the childhood reverie over.  He juxtaposes the past with the present: his youthful self,

.. was a nuisance, tripping, falling,

Yapping always.

This memory is sharply contrasted with the awkward reality that time has passed and now it is his ageing father who is the ‘nuisance’,

It is my father who keeps stumbling

Behind me and will not go away.

During the last three verses, the poet returns to the present time and he says that nowadays his father is the one who is stumbling behind him because of his age. The word ‘Behind’ used by Seamus Heaney in the last verse, forces us to accept the total reversal of roles which have taken place.  The poet is no longer the follower and now his once stoical and patient father struggles to keep up as his impatient twenty-seven-year-old son sets sail on his own adventure.  He has finally moved out of his father’s shadow and now must plough his own unique and lonely furrow.

The poem is one of many which pays homage to the poet’s humble beginnings in Bellaghy, Mossbawn, and Anahorish.  It is interesting to note that many of the later poems in this collection, Death of a Naturalist, describe his developing relationship with Marie Devlin, his future wife (the collection is dedicated to her).  Surefooted, he begins his odyssey away from Mossbawn and on to Belfast, Glanmore, Oxford and Harvard, and into our hearts forever.

At+the+headrig,+with+a+single+pluck

 

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The Treatment of Women in Seamus Heaney’s Poetry – a feminist critique.

"Seamus Heaney in Toner's Bog" by Liam O'Neill

“Seamus Heaney in Toner’s Bog” by Liam O’Neill

 

Patricia Coughlan*, in a very thought-provoking article, finds two opposing but possibly complimentary representations of sex roles in Heaney’s poetry:

  • A dominant masculine figure who explores, describes, loves and has compassion for a passive feminine figure, and
  • A woman who ‘dooms, destroys, puzzles and encompasses the man, but also assists him to his self-discovery: the mother stereotype, but merged intriguingly with the spouse.’

It is easy enough to identify the first representation as the speaker of the poems.  Coughlan traces male activities and attitudes of the speakers in Heaney’s first book, Death of a Naturalist – ploughing, digging, and its equivalent, writing – as well as significant male attitudes, such as the importance of following in the footsteps of ancestors and imitating their prowess, in poems such as ‘Digging’, ‘Follower’, and ‘Ancestral Photograph’.  She traces the development of male identity in such poems as ‘Death of a Naturalist’ and ‘An Advancement of Learning’, where the young boy passes a test of male courage in facing up to a rat.  The identification of the speaker with the natural maleness of creatures such as the bull and the trout (‘Outlaw’ and ‘The Trout’) is noticed in the second volume, Door into the Dark.

Heaney views the creative process as a particularly male activity in ‘The Forge’ – the violence of the activity, the archetypal maleness of the protagonist, leading to the suggestion that the truth of art is forged out of violence and brute strength.  But the poetic process of ‘seeing things’ in the later poetry is a more spiritual, even intuitive practice.  The image of the poet changes to one of seer, or mediator between states of awareness (‘Field of Vision’, ‘Lightenings VIII’, ‘St. Kevin and the Blackbird’.

Something of the prowess of ancestors is present in the speaker’s celebration of his father’s gift in ‘The Harvest Bow’.  It is a quintessentially male prowess (‘lapped the spurs on a lifetime of game cocks’), yet the skill involved in making the bow exhibits an understanding of the spirit and a delicate craftsmanship.  Indeed plaiting the bow is a female art form, at least in traditional thinking.  So perhaps sex roles are not so clear-cut here, as the male ancestor is celebrated for his prowess at a feminine craft.

The representation of woman in the poems on the Leaving Cert. course leads to the consideration of a number of issues.

WOMAN AS LOVER

Consider ‘Twice Shy’ and ‘Valediction’.  In ‘Twice Shy’ woman is the love object; perhaps there is even a suggestion in the imagery of being victim to the male (‘tremulously we held / As hawk and prey apart’).  But this is balanced just after this by an equality of rights, by the mutual recognition that each had a past and that each had a right to be cautious, even timorous, in the new relationship (‘Our juvenilia / Had taught us both to wait’).

In ‘Valediction’, roles are reversed.  Not only is the woman the source of stability in the speaker’s life but she is in complete control of the relationship, ‘Until you resume command / Self is in mutiny’.  Nevertheless the image of woman here is traditional and somewhat stereotyped: an object of beauty, defined by dress and pretty, natural allusions such as the frilled blouse, the smile, and the ‘flower-tender voice’.  So in these poems there seems to be a traditional visual concept of woman, combined with a more varied understanding of role, both as love object and as controlling force.

Woman in ‘The Skunk’ is very much sex object, alluring, exciting in a primitive, animal way:

stirred

By the sootfall of your things at bedtime,

Your head-down, tail-up hunt in a bottom drawer

For the black plunge-neck nightdress.

Here she is an object of desire, observed with controlled voyeurism by the speaker.

WOMAN AS MOTHER

In ‘Mossbawn: 1.  Sunlight’ the female figure is associated with traditional domestic skills, in this instance baking.  The mother figure (in this case, his aunt, Mary Heaney) is one of the central props in Heaney’s ideal picture of rural life.  His aunt is characterised as being ‘broad-lapped’ signifying her warm and loving nature and her kitchen is a womb of security for the young boy, radiating warmth, nurture, and love, as well as being a forger of identity, offering links with tradition and values mediated by the female figures.

A feminist critique would argue that this representation is denying women the freedom to develop fully, by giving them fixed roles within the domestic environment and by associating them with what is maternal rather than with any intellectual activity.  As Patricia Coughlan says: ‘Woman, the primary inhabiter and constituent of the domestic realm, is admiringly observed, centre stage but silent.’

 THE EARTH AS FEMALE

Nature – the earth and both the physical territory and the political spirit of Ireland – is viewed as feminine by Heaney.  There was a hint of this in the soft, preserving, womb-like quality of the earth in ‘Bogland’.  This feminine aspect becomes explicitly sexual in such poems as ‘Rite of Spring’ and ‘Undine’.  But the female principle is destructive to man in such poems as ‘The Tollund Man’, where the male is sacrificed to the goddess, who is female lover, killer, and principle of new life and growth, all at once.

She tightened her torc on him

And opened her fen,

Those dark juices working

Him to a saint’s kept body.

Coughlan feels that the female energy here is represented as ‘both inert and devouring’ and that if the poem is understood, ‘as a way of thinking about women rather than about Irish political murder, it reveals an intense alienation from the female.’  But can it be divorced from its political context?  And was not Caitlín Ní hUallacháin always the femme fatale of Irish political revolutionaries?  And hadn’t this fatalistic attraction almost a frisson of sexual passion about it, coupled with maternal devotion?  The poem reveals the danger of the attraction, but surely it was a willing consummation?  The poet envies Tollund Man ‘his sad freedom’, so perhaps the poem reveals less an intense alienation than a fatalistic attraction to the female.

The feminist critique certainly throws some light on central aspects of Heaney’s writing – among them a very traditional view of woman – but there is too much complexity in his vision to allow us to view the encounter of the sexes in his poetry as simply antagonistic.

 

 

Portrait of Seamus Heaney by Paul McCloskey. (www.paulmccloskeyart.com)

Portrait of Seamus Heaney by Paul McCloskey. (www.paulmccloskeyart.com)

 *  ‘Bog Queens’: The Representation of Women in the Poetry of John Montague and Seamus Heaney by Patricia Coughlan, in Theorising Ireland, ed. Clare Connolly, pages 41-60. NY: Palmgrove, 2003.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Elizabeth Bishop: The Poet’s Poet

bishop-bio

Elizabeth Bishop has garnered the reputation of being one of the finest, one of the most formally perfect, poets of the second half of the twentieth century.  Irish poets Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon have testified in lectures and in essays on her poetry, to the unchallengeable subtlety of her work.  And if she has been called a poet’s poet she is also pre-eminently a reader’s poet, and a poet whom it is always a serious joy to teach – students come alive when asked to discuss her work, partly because she communicates with an eager, unforced directness, partly because of the wit, the sheer pizazz and style with which she writes.

In the 1980s, there was a serious resistance to her work: she never came out as a lesbian, refused to appear in all-women anthologies, guarded her privacy and did not take direct political stances like her friend Robert Lowell.  She was seen as insufficiently political, a misreading of her work, which identifies with black Americans, and with the struggle of the poor and oppressed in South America.  But she, wisely, does not draw attention to those themes.  She designs beautiful cadences, perfect shapes, and then she runs a counter-theme against them: ugliness, bad taste, rough or unbroken surfaces and sounds infiltrate her paradise of pure form and make it both more ideal and more real.

In ‘Cape Breton’, she draws our attention to the “weaving water”, and then offsets it with “hackmatack”, the name of a hard American spruce much admired by Walt Whitman.  She also introduces an “irregular nervous saw-tooth edge”, and a “rough-adzed pole”.  A gifted amateur painter, she designs a composition which plays the rough against the smooth, and allows a coded unhappiness and anxiety to disturb the surface of her art.

Bishop’s personal life – like many other poets – was often unhappy – two lovers committed suicide – and she became an alcoholic as a young woman.  Behind the formal façade of her poems, there is a homeless, orphaned imagination, whose loneliness was expressed in her insatiable letter-writing and in late-night phone calls to friends.

She was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, on February 11th, 1911.  Her mother was from Nova Scotia, her father, who was half Canadian, half American, died in 1911, eight months after she was born.  Her mother became deeply disorientated over the next five years, was diagnosed as permanently insane in 1916 and died in a public sanatorium in Nova Scotia in 1934.  Bishop lived alternately with her grandparents in Nova Scotia and New England, and later with an aunt.  She suffered poor health and hadn’t much formal education until she was fifteen.  In 1930 she attended Vassar College and joined a brilliant generation there.

Bishop impressed everyone she met – she was musical, very well read, and was also a painter with a great knowledge of the visual arts.    She was a compulsive traveller, who manages to avoid all the pitfalls of tourist verse.

The roots of Bishop’s art can be traced to her undergraduate years at Vassar, and rather unusually it is to a single academic essay that we must turn to understand her idea of form and beauty.  As an undergraduate she read a famous essay by the distinguished scholar, M. W. Croll.  It was called ‘The Baroque Style in Prose’ and is one of the classic essays on prose style (it can be found in a collection of essays called The English Language, edited by George Watson).  Croll’s concept of baroque style – ‘not a thought, but a mind thinking’ – spoke to Bishop like a vocation.  She quoted Croll’s essay in letters to friends, because what she admired in the baroque was the “ardour” and dramatic energy and immediacy of an idea as it was formulated and experienced.  The result is a poetry of intense visual and vocal power, where the play of rhythm, rhyme, spoken inflection and carefully composed, sometimes abraded images, has a spontaneity and deft authority whose perfect cadences create that “unique feeling of timeliness” which she sought and admired in poetry.

We can see this in ‘Cape Breton’ where she places against the rapid movement of the song-sparrow songs as they float upward “freely, dispassionately, through the mist” – the sudden short, heavily stressed line “in brown-wet, fine, torn fish-nets”.  It’s this difference of movement and texture that makes Bishop such a continuously interesting and alive poet.

We can see her delight in rapidly changing tones and surfaces in one of her wittiest and most painterly poems, ‘Seascape’, where she describes “white herons got up as angels,/flying as high as they want”.  She is making the picture baroque, and her delicate ear starts a run of ee sounds: the herons fly “in tiers and tiers of immaculate reflections”.  In the next line the word “region” picks up the ee sound, then hands it on to bright green leaves edged neatly with bird-droppings”.

The reason why Bishop appeals so strongly to fellow poets can be seen in the sudden uncomfortable word “edged”, which brings in the idea of a margin and the marginal, as it abruptly breaks the pair of ee sounds in “green leaves”, before letting the sound come back with emphasis in “neatly”.  The two ds in “edged” are echoed in “bird droppings” to design an uncomfortable, deliberately bad-taste moment.  That moment of unease frays against the aesthetic surface she is designing, a surface she reasserts by transforming their faecal randomness into “illumination in silver”.  This use of images of discomfort and unease also suffuses Seamus Heaney’s poetry from Death of a Naturalist on – it is as though he has developed the ontological anxiety in her poetry into a form of social and political anxiety.

In Bishop, this tension between the aesthetic and a type of anti-aesthetic effect is one expression of her puritan upbringing – it introduces an anxiety into the delineation of a beautiful image, and this discomfiting effect then helps strengthen and make more flexible the particular aesthetic moment.

Bishop was also a gifted short story writer (her collected prose has been published), and she was also a marvellous translator. Many of her translations came out of the fifteen years she spent in Brazil, where she moved in 1952 to live with Lota de Macedo Soares.  She moved back to New York in 1967, and it was there that Lota committed suicide later that year.

Though Bishop continued to travel, she based herself in Boston and died there on October 6th, 1979.  She is one of the greatest American poets of the last century, and is the subject of many books, essays and academic dissertations; 35 years after her death, her work is revered and admired more than ever.

Edited extracts from an essay by Tom Paulin first published in The Irish Times, Saturday, September 11th 2004.

 

The Cabot Trail, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

The Cabot Trail, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia