‘A Constable Calls’ is the second in a six-part series known as “Singing School”. It is the perfect example of the verse that made Heaney so popular in his native Ireland and then all over the world. The poem tells a very simple story using colloquial diction and a clear syntactic style that all readers should be able to understand. It addresses themes of fear, oppression, and everyday concerns of normal people, while also crafting a mood interpretably by anyone who approaches the narrative.
Explore A Constable Calls
Summary of A Constable Calls
The poem is told from Heaney’s perspective, as a young boy, and a grown man looking back on the events. He senses the tension in the room, analyzes the reason for the policeman’s visit, and even takes on some of his father’s guilt at hiding crops. The policeman quizzes his father over what he did or did not report in taxes and luckily, leaves without realizing there was something he didn’t mention.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure and Poetic Techniques
‘A Constable Calls’ by Seamus Heaney is a nine stanza poem that’s separated into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The lines are similar in length though, ranging from around four to nine syllables each.
Heaney also makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘A Constable Calls’. These include alliteration, allusion, and enjambment. The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “slightly sweating” in stanza three and “buttoned,” “braid,” and “butt” in stanza five.
An allusion is an expression that’s meant to call something specific to the mind without directly stating it. In the first stanza, the poet hints at danger by describing the “dynamo” as “cocked back”. This alludes to the action of a gun and changes the mood from curious to foreboding.
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. There are examples throughout ‘A Constable Calls’ such as in the transitions between lines two and three of the first stanza and one and two of the third.
Analysis of A Constable Calls
His bicycle stood at the window-sill,
Its fat black handlegrips
In the first stanza of ‘A Constable Calls’ the speaker, who is Heaney as a young child, begins by describing someone’s bicycle. It is leaning against the window-sill of his house. These lines are straightforward, descriptive, and clear. The young speaker is obviously curious about this bike and understands it enough to be able to describe it in detail. He takes note of the mudguard and of the “black handlegrips”. These grips are “fat,” alluding to a bike that’s heavy-duty and built with purpose.
Heating in sunlight, the “spud”
Of the boot of the law.
It’s in the second stanza of ‘A Constable Calls’ that the mood changes from curious to foreboding. As the boy looks closer he sees that the “dynamo” is gleaming and cocked back” like a gun. This alludes to the purpose and danger inherent in this person’s visit to his home. They aren’t there for a purely social occasion or to share the good news.
While the bike is stationary right now, Heaney hints at the power that was previously running through it. The “boot of the law” used to be on the “pedal treads” but for the moment they are “relieved” of its pressure and hanging loose. It becomes clear that this bike belongs to a law enforcement officer of some kind.
His cap was upside down
In his slightly sweating hair.
The narrative of ‘A Constable Calls’ jumps into the house where the policeman is sitting. The man is in a chair with his “cap” on the floor next to him. These details are unimportant in the larger scheme of things but they address the mood of the scene as the young boy slowly becomes aware of what’s going on. Step by step he becomes acquainted with the scene. Heaney takes note of the line his cap left through his “slightly sweating hair” and a reader is left, for now, to wonder what’s going on here.
He had unstrapped
In acres, roods, and perches.
The fourth stanza comes less from a young boy’s perspective and more from Heaney’s contemporary mind as he has come to understand the pressures his father was under. The policeman is there to check up on his father and make sure that he has paid all the appropriate taxes on what his land produces. This is referred to as the “tillage returns”. It is addressed in “acres, roods, and perches”.
Arithmetic and fear.
Looped into the revolver butt.
The first line of the fifth stanza of ‘A Constable Calls’ is short, to the point, and addresses everything the father is concerned with at this moment. He’s scared that he’s going to be found out he was, in fact, hiding parts of his production. Math and fear are intertwined together here as he tries to convince the policeman.
The young speaker is stuck “starting at the polished holster” of the policeman’s revolver. He too feels the tension of the moment and knows that his family could be in danger.
“Any other root crops?
Of turnips where the seed ran out
The next lines of ‘A Constable Calls’ contain a bit of the conversation between the policeman and the father. He suggests that perhaps the father forgot to count some of his crops. The father replies, “No”. Heaney knows this isn’t entirely true as there was a “line / Of turnips where the seed ran out / In the potato field”.
In the potato field? I assumed
He stood up, shifted the baton-case
His fear increases as he knows this piece of information is very close to being discovered. He takes on his father’s guilt in this moment. The young Heaney starts to think the worst. He imagines the “black hole in the barracks” where his father, or even Heaney himself, could end up.
The policeman was satisfied by the father’s answers. He stands up in the fourth line. Heaney enjambs the line right as he shifts the “baton-case”. This alludes one final time to the danger the could rain down upon them.
Further round on his belt,
And looked at me as he said goodbye.
The last two stanzas of ‘A Constable Calls’ depict the policeman rearranging his belt, book, and cap and saying goodbye to Heaney. The ledger in which the policeman had been noting the figure is described as a “domesday book”. This is a reference to a manuscript of the “Great Survey” of England in the mid-1000s. It was put together to determine what taxes were owed by those living under King Edward the Confessor. The word “domesday” is the Middle English version of “doomsday”.
A shadow bobbed in the window.
And the bicycle ticked, ticked, ticked.
The final stanza of ‘A Constable Calls’ takes the reader back outside and to the bike that began the entire narrative. The policeman gets back on, snapping the “carrier spring / Over the ledger” and moves away. Heaney makes use of repetition in the last lines as the bike’s spokes “tick” into the distance. The relief is only temporary as the man is sure to be back again next year.