‘A Call’ is a short, moving poem that speaks on the difficulties in the poet’s own relationship with his father. It represents the regret he later felt after not engaging on a deeper level with his father when he felt the desire to.
The poem begins with the speaker on the phone with his mother. She is setting the phone down in order to get the poet’s father. The next stanza is made up of Heaney’s thoughts during the interval in which the phone is left unattended. He is able to visualize his father in his garden, weeding.
When Heaney’s father gets on the phone the poet immediately struck with the urge to tell him that he loves him. But, only “nearly”. He doesn’t do it, something he came to regret.
You can read the full poem here.
‘A Call’ by Seamus Heaney is a four stanza poem that’s separated into uneven sets of lines. The first contains three lines, the second: seven, the third: four, and the fourth: three. Heaney did not close to use a rhyme scheme in ‘A Call,’ nor do the lines stick to a specific meter. There are moments of half-rhyme though. These are seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. For example, the third line of the second stanza with “Touching, inspecting, separating”. Or, in the sixth line of that same stanza with “Pleased,” “feel,” “each” and “weed”.
Heaney also makes use of several other poetic techniques. These include alliteration and enjambment. The former occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For instance, “separating” and “Stalk” in lines three and four of the second stanza.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. It can be seen throughout ‘A Call’ but an example includes the transition between lines two and three of the first stanza with the phrases, “he took the chance / To do a bit of weeding”.
Analysis of A Call
‘Hold on,’ she said, ‘I’ll just run out and get him.
To do a bit of weeding.’
In the first stanza of ‘A Call,’ the speaker begins by making use of dialogue. The woman speaking is Heaney’s mother. He’s recalling a memory from his youth, a regret he wished he could go back and relive. His mother starts off the poem by saying “‘Hold on’”. This is a jolting beginning to the lines. It’s meant to surprise the reader, draw them in, in order to find out what’s going to come next. It’s not often one is asked to stop or pause while at the start of a line of verse.
The mother continues on, telling the young Heaney that she’s going to “run out and get him”. The “him” in this line is the poet’s father. He is outside taking advantage of the weather and doing “a bit of weeding”. As was so common in Heaney’s poetry he makes use of scenes and experiences that are exceedingly normal, and therefore relatable. It was this ability, to make the mundane thrilling and moving, which elevated him to the level of one of the best-loved poets of the 20th century.
So I saw him
Down on his hands and knees beside the leek rig,
Pleased to feel each little weed-root break,
But rueful also…
The second line jumps to the poet’s perspective. From the words his mother spoke to him, he can imagine his father outside, “Down on his hands and knees”. He’s likely “beside the leek rig”. A “rig” in this context is a specific area of the garden dedicated to one vegetable.
It is easy for Heaney to imagine his father feeling his way across the ground, making simple, very human movements. He gathers the plants, “separating one / Stalk from the other”. Everything is regulated and habitual. His father knows the garden well. In fact, this is not the only time Heaney depicted his father as a gardener. He also appears in his garden in ‘Death of Naturalist‘.
Heaney knows his father well enough to predict his reactions to the gardening process. He imagines his pleasure and his rueful expression as he feels “each little weed-root break”. The last line of this stanza, as well as the last line of the third stanza, ends with an ellipse. It drifts off…leaving a reader to contemplate the speaker’s state of mind.
Then found myself listening to
Of mirror glass and sunstruck pendulums…
In the next three lines of ‘A Call,’ Heaney describes how at that moment he was reflecting on his father and his father’s relationship to the land, and likely his own relationship to his father (which was fraught). From the other end of the phone line, he can hear into the house where his mother left the phone “unattended”. He can decipher the “grave ticking of hall clocks”. From this reference, as well as that to pendulums in the last line, a reader should interpret a larger theme of time, and the progression of time. This call was important to Heaney for some reason. This stanza, as well as the final stanza, provide the only real clues.
The final lines of this section are meditative but also foreboding. They allude to a lack of time or the possibility that time is about to run out.
And found myself then thinking: if it were nowadays,
Next thing he spoke and I nearly said I loved him.
In the fourth stanza, the allusions to time and death are confirmed. The speaker describes how he “found” himself “then thinking” about “Death” (as a personified, embodied force that moves and chooses the victims of its own accord) and how the ticking of clocks and the swinging of pendulums would be its manner of summoning “Everyman”. The capitalization of “Everyman” in the second line is interesting. It emphasizes the fact that the “Everyman” is a wide, all-encompassing category. It really means “every man” not a specific kind of man, such as he who takes pleasure from simple things, like gardening.
The last line is incredibly moving. It also alludes to the relationship at the heart of this short poem. When Heaney finally got on the line with his father, he “nearly said [he] loved him”. The “nearly” in this line strikes at the center of everything the poet is feeling regretful about while composing this piece. Time was running out and he could’ve spoken the words out loud, but couldn’t quite do it.