The poem, Follower, has many of the aspects which characterize the poems of Seamus Heaney. Having grown up in an area of Northern Ireland that greatly valued, family, hard work, and farming, Heaney’s poems often reflect all of these values at once. This poem does just that. The speaker in this poem may not directly represent the poet, but the similarities are unmistakable. The speaker thinks about his childhood, and the main person in his life at that time was his father. The speaker longed to be like his father, but felt that somehow he was inherently different. Still, he followed his father around, trying his best to act like him and to work like him. He did not know exactly how his life would be influenced by the example of his father until he was old enough to look back on his life.
The poem, which can be read in full here, opens up with the description of the speaker’s father. He was clearly a hard worker, as he “worked with a horse-plough”. One does not have to experience the farm life first hand to know that farming is back-breaking work. This man worked with a horse and plough by hand. This kind of work takes someone truly dedicated to farming. The speaker describes his father’s shoulders, and they way they “globed like a full sail strung”. This imagery reveals the muscles that formed from years of pure, hard work. The speaker was clearly influenced by watching his father work the horse-plough, because he remembers the minute details of it, such as the “clicking tongue” of the horse as he strained beneath the plough.
The speaker respects his father immensely, considering him an expert behind the plough. He describes the specifics of his father’s job in a way that allows the reader to understand that his father’s job took more than just back-breaking hard work. It took skill as well. The speaker describes the finesse behind plowing in a way that would roll the sod without breaking it, and makes the single straight lines in the field with the first attempt. This description continues to characterize the speaker as a man who takes pride in his work, is dedicated, and works hard day in and day out. The reader can quickly begin to acquire the same respect for thisman that his son has for him.
The speaker continues to describe the work his father did, and the way that he and the horse were together “the sweating team”. His sweat went back into the land, so he put his sweat into his work quite literally. The speaker’s father was also “mapping the furrow exactly”. This description continues the characterization of the speaker’s father as hard-working and skilled.
With this stanza, the speaker reveals that he is different from his father. Although he admires him greatly and tries to be like him, he seems to stumble around behind him, and he sometimes “fell…on the polished sod”. At times, the speaker was allowed to ride on his father’s back as he worked. This gives further insight into both the father and the son. The son, on one hand, did not seem to be inclined to the same kind of work his father seemed to love and thrive in. His father, however, was devoted to his son enough to take on the extra weight of the boy riding on his back as he ploughed the land. This reveals and devoted father and an admiring son, different as they may be.
The speaker reveals his childhood desires here, claiming that he “wanted to grow up and plough” and to be just like his dad. He wanted “to close one eye” as he focused on the detailed parts of farming life. He wanted to “stiffen [his] arm” as he went behind the plough. However, in the second part of this stanza, the speaker reveals that he never did grow up to be a farmer. He admits, “All I ever did was follow in his broad shadow round the farm” meaning that he never did tend the farm by himself. This implies that the speaker grew up to do something other than farming, even though he had always wanted to be like his father. It appears that he had always known that he was inherently different and not meant to be a farmer.
When the speaker looks back on his life, he realizes that as much as he admired his father, he was always more of a nuisance when he tried to help, always tripping and falling and “yapping”. Looking back, he was aware that he never could have made the kind of farmer that his dad was. He made his own way, however, and his father’s work ethic and drive did influence him as he found his own path in life. Now, as an adult, the speaker is the one to whom his father looks up. In whatever the speaker has found to do in life, it is now his father who looks up to him. His father is not experienced in his son’s profession, and yet he takes an interest and “keeps stumbling” around behind him. In this turn of events, the two have switched roles. The father, now perhaps too old to farm, has taken an interest in his son’s life, and the son is able to experience some of what his father had felt. The speaker says that his father, “will not go away” but the tone of the poem and this line is one of soft reminiscence, and so it seems as though he says this in a good natured way, and that he rather enjoys the way his father shows exceeding interest in his life. The tables have turned, and even though the speaker did not exactly follow in his father’s footsteps, he was still greatly influenced by his father’s example in his life.