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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‘Child of Our Time’ by Eavan Boland

There is great irony in the fact that I am putting the finishing touches to this blogpost the morning after the dreadful terrorist attack on Paris on Friday 13th November, 2015.  The great sense of outrage and helplessness described in this poem after the events of 17th May, 1974 transcends time and place.  All Irish thoughts and prayers are with the innocent  victims of this barbaric premeditated attack on the people of France.

   getmediafile

 CHILD OF OUR TIME

Yesterday I knew no lullaby

But you have taught me overnight to order

This song, which takes from your final cry

Its tune, from your unreasoned end its reason;

Its rhythm from the discord of your murder,

Its motive from the fact you cannot listen.

 

We who should have known how to instruct

With rhymes for your waking, rhythms for your sleep,

Names for the animals you took to bed,

Tales to distract, legends to protect

Later an idiom for you to keep

And living, learn, must learn from you, dead

 

To make our broken images rebuild

Themselves around your limbs, your broken

Image, find for your sake whose life our idle

Talk has cost, a new language.  Child

Of our time, our times have robbed your cradle.

Sleep in a world your final sleep has woken.

– Eavan Boland

BACKGROUND NOTE

‘The Troubles’ began in Northern Ireland in the Summer of 1969 and during the early Seventies the violence escalated.  It was a time when, as Eavan Boland herself says, ‘the sounds of death from the television were heard almost daily’.  Attitudes in the Irish Republic were at best ambivalent, with many remaining detached and turning a blind eye while others became involved and active.

 On the 17th May, 1974 a coordinated series of four car bombs were detonated during rush hour traffic in Dublin and Monaghan, killing 34 civilians including two infants and a full term unborn child and its mother.  In all, 27 died in Dublin as a result of the three car bombs detonated there and 7 died as a result of the Monaghan bomb. This poem,  ‘Child of our Time’, from the collection The War Horse (1975), is Eavan Boland’s response to this barbaric event.

Eavan Boland herself describes the genesis of the poem:

I wrote it inspired – and I use the words with care – by a photograph I saw two days later on the front of a national newspaper whose most arresting feature was the expression on the face of the fireman who lifted that child, an expression of tenderness as if he were lifting his own child from its cradle to its mother’s breast.

Further on in this article entitled ‘The Weasel’s Tooth’ (Irish Times, 7th June, 1974), she writes of, ‘that greatest of obscenities, the murder of the innocents’ and refers to the poem as, ‘one among many other statements of outrage’.

The infant victims of the bombings include Anne Marie O’Brien (5 months) and her sister Jacqueline (17 months) along with their parents John (24) and Anna (22) – the entire family killed in the Parnell Street explosion.  Baby Doherty, was the full term unborn child of Talbot Street bomb victim, Collette Doherty. Three months later in August, 1974, Baby Martha O’Neill, the stillborn daughter of Edward (39) and Martha O’Neill was delivered.  Edward was killed, and his two sons seriously injured in the Parnell Street bombing.

So, it is obvious that there is heartbreak and unbearable loss at the centre of the poem and to further expand this notion of bereaved families, the poet dedicates this beautiful poem to Aengus, a friend’s child, the victim of a cot death.  So, although the poem is rooted in the conflict in Northern Ireland and the overspill of that conflict south to Dublin and Monaghan, the poem is addressed to all families who suffer loss and it highlights the damage inflicted on children in all wars and all situations and obviously from a casual look at our local and international news stories today, it is as relevant now as it was then in 1974.

COMMENTARY

This is a beautifully constructed formal lament or elegy and because the victim is a child it is couched in the language of a lullaby, suitable for a young child.  The words used eloquently pinpoint this: it is a ‘song’, ‘a lullaby’ which has a ‘rhythm’ and a ‘tune’.  Bedtime is that sacred time which Boland refers to in many of her poems when parent and child are never closer.  Here bedtime is conjured up with ‘rhymes’, and ‘tales’ and ‘legends’.  Despite the focus on musical terms the poet wants to point out the horrible juxtaposition of the child’s ‘final cry’.  The poet’s outrage at this meaningless terrorist act is stated unambiguously at the end of the fifth line with her use of the word ‘murder’ which jolts us into outrage as well.  Death is final and the child cannot ‘listen’ anymore to our feeble justifications for political violence.

The second stanza evokes a stereotypical happy childhood lived in a secure home, safe in the natural ‘rhythms’ of life, waking and sleeping, playing with favoured soft toys.  The child is protected by language, ‘tales to distract, legends to protect’ – indeed much of the poem is couched very cleverly in language terminology.  Indeed it is normally the adults, the parents, who develop and teach the young a language they can use to explain the world that surrounds them.  This natural cycle has been subverted here and it is now the child who instructs us:

And living, learn, must learn from you, dead.

The sound patterns and structure of the poem illustrate the chaos and confusion that reigns within the poet after such an atrocity and tries to mirror the immediate aftermath of a car bomb explosion in a busy rush hour street.  The poet manages this by creating opposing tensions within the poem: waking/sleeping, adults/child, the ‘living’/’dead’, ‘song’/‘cry’, ‘tune’/’discord’.  The poet struggles to impose some sort of order on the chaotic aftermath and so there are three stanzas with six lines in each.  Each stanza seems to represent a phase, a stage in the process of coming to terms with the awful events which have occurred:

Stanza 1: This death is meaningless

Stanza 2: We are responsible

Stanza 3: There is an urgent lesson to be learnt

The poem can, and should, be read as a comment on the failure of communication.  The only way forward from this conflict and violence is described as a ‘new language’.  Our ‘idle talk’ about Nationalism and Unionism, North and South has given us this ‘broken image’ of a dead baby being carried from the carnage of a street bomb by a fireman and used the following morning in the newspapers to encapsulate the tragedy.  The dead child becomes, for the poet, an emblem of hope as her eternal sleep is juxtaposed with the world waking up to the absurdity of indiscriminate violence.  The poet ends with an exquisite metaphor of ‘robbing the cradle’, an image that sharply contrasts violence and the innocence of childhood.  ‘Our times’ have done this, we are all responsible. Our ‘tales’ and ‘legends’ and our interpretations of history have created quarrels and division and the hopeful plea from the poet is that the child’s needless death will encourage us to ‘wake up’ and think differently.

As I said at the beginning this poem is an elegy and traditionally the functions of an elegy were to lament, to praise and to console.  The tone of the poem oscillates between tenderness and outrage throughout.  There is also another important dimension to this poem which is also in-keeping with an elegy and that is its political dimension.  In hindsight, this powerful poem has become, like Longley’s “Ceasefire”, a clarion call for change.  The poet’s anger is not directed at the bombers but at society in general who have allowed this situation to develop and fester and get out of control.

This is why we need poets like Boland to act as our trailblazers and as Mark Hederman has so eloquently put it, ‘to express what they perceive in a prophetic and irresistible rhythm, shape and form.’  Our poets and artists are forever busy, whether in their studios or their nurseries, ‘writing the icon of our future face, preparing the skins that can carry the new wine, digging the trenches into which the waters can flow…’  Boland wrote these game changing verses in her suburban home where she was busy raising her young family.  However, it still took some time for her voice to be heard, for the critical mass to tip things in favour of peace; it took an Enniskillen, a Shankill and an Omagh atrocity for the penny to drop that we in Ireland needed ‘a new language’, a new way of communicating with one another that does not include violence and murder of innocent children and pregnant women.  From her suburban vantage point, this woman has done the state and our republic some service.

Works Cited:

Hederman, Mark P., (2001), The Haunted Inkwell: Art and our Future, The Columba Press, Dublin.

 

The scene in Talbot Street shortly after the explosion.

The scene in Talbot Street shortly after the explosion.