Seamus Heaney was born in Northern Ireland in 1939 and went on to become one of the most important poetic voices of the twentieth century. His enduring interest in identity and the legacy of violence meant his work came to be associated with the period of political and religious violence known as The Troubles. His remarkable talents were recognized numerous times throughout his life, most famously when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995.
‘Docker‘ is taken from Heaney’s first major collection, published when he was just twenty-seven years old. Its mature and thoughtful attitude to complex themes foreshadows the poise and clarity with which Heaney would go on to depict one of the most divisive periods in modern British and Irish history.
‘Docker‘ depicts the life of a dockworker in Belfast and his hard, impenetrable exterior.
Set in mid-century Belfast, the poem details aspects of his life at work and his time spent drinking. His steely external appearance foreshadows his intolerance of the Catholic faith and the poem is imbued with the imagery of fortification and impenetrable borders, constantly threatening the enactment of violence in Northern Ireland. Furthermore, the poem’s central figure conflates the normally juxtaposed states of labor and leisure in order to blur the boundaries between various states of being.
You can read the full poem here.
Seamus Heaney was born and grew up in Northern Ireland and ‘Docker’ was first published in 1966, as part of Heaney’s celebrated first major collection Death of a Naturalist. Whereas much of the collection is concerned with coming of age and determining one’s adult identity, this poem depicts an older man, whose life is defined by a series of opposing forces. It is important to be aware that Heaney was writing at a time when the religious and political future of Northern Ireland was extremely contentious. There is little consensus as to when this period of instability descended into what is known as The Troubles but most historians agree that it began in the late 1960s, just a few years after Heaney wrote this poem.
There, in the corner, staring at his drink.
The cap juts like a gantry’s crossbeam,
Cowling plated forehead and sledgehead jaw.
Speech is clamped in the lips’ vice.
The first stanza describes the titular docker in the corner of a pub, staring at his drink. He is unmistakably a dock worker, as the manner in which he is described suggests that he has begun to physically embody his profession. This could be designed to mirror the religious divide in Northern Ireland, where one’s religion became virtually synonymous with their outward persona and defined the ways in which they were perceived.
Heaney’s use of the simile “like a gantry’s crossbeam” exemplifies this association to the docks, while its application to a soft cap suggests that even the gentler aspects of the docker’s appearance have become hardened and rigid. This is further emphasized by the verb “juts” which indicates he is an intrusive, angular presence in the room, one that is unlikely to seek or enjoy the company of others. Likewise, the hyperbolic description of his jaw as “plated” implies he is intolerant of others because it clearly presents him as an impermeable force.
Finally, Heaney metaphorically suggests that the docker’s “speech is clamped in the lips’ vice” which suggests that the docker may well be experiencing an internal conflict in addition to his opposition to those around him. It implies that, not only will he not allow the ideas of others to reach him but that he is unwilling to express himself and thus polices his own language firmly. Heaney could be attempting to convey the difficulty in ever establishing a feeling of permanent peace in an environment so resistant to meaningful dialogue.
That fist would drop a hammer on a Catholic-
Smiles all round his sleek pint of porter.
The second stanza goes on to outline the docker’s prejudice against the Catholic faith and his desire to see violence used against them. The opening line states that the docker would use his fist to drop a hammer on a Catholic which can be viewed as microcosmic of the ways in which violence can escalate. The line begins with the threat of the docker’s fist yet, by the end, there is the threat he might use a hammer as a weapon. Heaney uses the line to outline the dangers of violence in any form, given how quickly it can run out of control.
The second line uses the aside “oh yes” to establish an impersonal response to this threat. This casual response juxtaposes the severity of the threat, perhaps reminding the reader how commonplace these threats were in this environment. This is reinforced by the use of the phrase “that kind of thing” which illustrates the everyday nature of violence by not needing to name it explicitly.
The poet then speculates that the docker would only tolerate a Catholic priest’s white-collar if he envisioned it to be the white head of a beer. This comparison is likely intended to showcase the docker’s prejudiced attitudes, as it is clearly intended to be found insulting and rude. However, Heaney could also be making the point that both alcohol and religion are means by which people escape their everyday lives and, in the case of this poem, are routed towards violence.
Mosaic imperatives bang home like rivets;
A factory horn will blare the Resurrection.
Stanza three focuses on the docker’s preoccupation with being ordered around and controlled. It begins by using the simile when it describes how “imperatives bang home like rivets” which establishes, in the docker’s mind, a connection between authority and violence. Furthermore, the reference to “rivets” is another way in which the imagery of his profession appears to define his experience of everyday life. Rivets are metal fasteners used to bond metal together. This suggests he blames his superiors for making him so hard and intransigent, as their treatment of him has manufactured his exterior.
The second line conflates the docker’s religious experience with his life at work by metaphorically claiming that “God is a foreman.” This indicates that he regards all figures of authority as interchangeable as they all treat him the same way. It could also be designed to show his disillusionment with faith, as it focuses on the depiction of God as a punisher, rather than the new testament depiction of a healer and loving father figure. The God/foreman figure is responsible for partitioning the docker’s life into “shifts of work and leisure” which establishes a dichotomy that could mirror the religious divide in Northern Ireland. Moreover, the idea that leisure can come in “shifts” implies the Docker cannot glean any pleasure from it, in spite of its ordinary associations, because it is formulated like work and so resembles it.
Finally, Heaney uses the biblical allusion to the trumpet that will signal the rebirth of Christ to refer to the horn that is used by foremen on the docks. Not only does this continue the trend of using anachronistic religious imagery in the context of the docks but it can be read as a link back to alcohol. By using the word “horn” as opposed to the biblical trumpet, Heaney used a term that also refers to a drinking vessel, further blurring the boundaries between work, leisure, religion, and alcohol.
He sits, strong and blunt as a Celtic cross,
At slammed door and smoker’s cough in the hall
The final stanza continues the conflation between work, leisure, and religious practice, using a simile to liken the Docker to “a Celtic cross” upon his return home. Likewise, the silence he desires allows his living room to be viewed as both a sacred area worthy of respect and also emphasizes the authoritarian manner in which he commands his home life.
The third line clearly expresses the fact his family is afraid of him and his capability for domestic violence is foreshadowed by the ominous “slammed door” which, perhaps ironically, breaks the silence he seemed keen to maintain. This implies his behavior to be erratic and arbitrary, much like the foreman and God which he earlier resented.
‘Docker‘ appears to be about a dockworker in Belfast who observes him in the pub and at home, as well as imagining him at work. The poem uses the character to explore deeper questions related to faith, prejudice, and violence.
A gantry cross beam refers to the angular section of a crane, almost certainly inspired by the many cranes which dominated the area around the Belfast docks when the poem was written. The dockworker’s cap is likened to one of these crossbeams to show his hard, unwelcoming exterior.
The poem was written in Belfast where Heaney was a lecturer, having recently married. The location is significant as Heaney had become part of a literary circle that included the poets Michael Longley and Derek Mahon.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Docker‘ might want to explore more of Seamus Heaney’s poetry. For example:
- ‘Anything Can Happen‘ – Another four quatrain poem in which Heaney reimagines Horace’s Odes. Published in 2006, it is an interesting poem to read in dialogue with ‘Docker‘.
- ‘The Tollund Man‘ – A poem inspired by the discovery of the preserved remains of a prehistoric man which Heaney uses to draw parallels with The Troubles.
Some other poems which might be of interest include:
- ‘Belfast Confetti‘ by Ciaran Carson – The poem similarly explores how external events related to The Troubles influence a figure’s persona.
- ‘Child of Our Time‘ by Eavan Boland – The poem acts as a reminder that the innocent are the ones who often suffer the most as a result of both violent individuals and historical moments.