S Seamus Heaney

Follower by Seamus Heaney

‘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.

The speaker in this poem, ‘Follower’ 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.

 

Summary

‘Follower’ by Seamus Heaney is a retrospective piece that describes how the poet used to go plowing with his father in his childhood days.

The first half of this piece is a worshipful description by a son of his father, as he remembers how he looked and acted as he plowed their fields. The father is described as being powerful, strong beyond measure, and in total control of his “team.” The furrows he plows are pristine, and the son follows clumsily behind, unable to emulate his father’s strength. In the very last stanza of the poem the roles are reversed and the speaker is now the strong one with his father depending on him and following him as he plows.

You can read the full poem here.

 

Structure

Heaney’s poem is a six stanza piece, made up of quatrains, or four-line stanzas. Each line is approximately the same length and contains both slanting and perfect end word rhymes. Throughout this piece, Heaney uses both perfect and slanting end rhymes. Slanting, referring to those that only half rhyme, and perfect, being exact rhymes such as in the second stanza of the poem in which the first and third lines rhyme with “wing” and “breaking.” An example of a slanting rhyme can also be found in this stanza with the second and fourth lines, “sock” and “pluck” partially rhyme due to the organization of their consonance.

 

Poetic Devices

Heaney showcases several literary devices in his poem, ‘Follower’ that makes this heart-touching recapitulation of his childhood days dearer to the readers. Likewise, the poem begins with a simile in the second line. Here, the poet compares his father’s shoulders to “a full sail” inflated due to sea wind. There is consonance in the first line. Readers come across this device in the phrase, “worked with.” Thereafter, they find an onomatopoeia in the phrase, “his clicking tongue.”

The poet uses metonymy in the line, “And fit the bright steel-pointed sock.” Thereafter, he connects the second and third stanza by the use of enjambment. There is a personal metaphor in the “sweating team.” Moreover, in the third stanza, the poet uses instrumental metaphors to depict his father’s precise vision. Heaney also uses alliteration in this poem.

In the fourth stanza, the line, “Fell sometimes on the polished sod” contains irony. Thereafter, in the opening of the last stanza, there is a use of asyndeton. This stanza also forms an antithesis.

 

Themes

This retrospective piece, ‘Follower’ presents a bunch of themes to the readers. First of all, the theme of plowing, or broadly farming, gives readers a feel of how it feels to be on farmland, basking under the sun, feeling the smell of recently plowed land, and watching a farmer toiling hard. Through this theme, Heaney also brings an Irish touch with this theme. Thereafter, comes the most important theme of the poem, the father-son relationship. This theme is present in Heaney’s several famous poems such as ‘At a Potato Digging’, ‘Blackberry-Picking’, and in his most anthologized poem, ‘Digging’. In ‘Follower’, the poet refers to how he followed his father while he worked on the field. However, at last, the father takes the role of his son. The poet also makes use of the themes of tradition, identity, memories, retrospection, love, and family in this poem.

 

Analysis of Follower

Stanza One

Lines 1–2

My father worked with a horse-plough,
His shoulders globed like a full sail strung

The poem ‘Follower’ opens up with the description of the speaker’s father; the narrator, his son, is describing the hard work his father does on the farm. He was a hard worker, as he “worked with a horse-plough”. A “horse-plough” is a piece of basic machinery dragged through fields that cuts deep grooves into the earth for planting. The son speaks of his father in the past tense, giving the reader a hint that things may have changed since then.

One does not have to experience farm life first hand to know that farming is back-breaking work. This man worked with a horse and plowed by hand. This kind of work takes someone truly dedicated to farming.

The second line gives further visual information about the image his father makes completing his hard work, his shoulders are rounded, he’s hunched over and the shape of his back mirrors that of sails billowing out in a heavy storm. This description imbues the father with power, he is strong enough to withstand the metaphorical winds on the sea.

Moreover, the speaker describes his father’s shoulders and the way they “globed like a full sail strung”. This imagery reveals the muscles that formed from years of pure, hard work.

 

Lines 3–4

The speaker was influenced by watching his father work the “horse-plough” because he remembers the minute details of it in ‘Follower’, such as the “clicking tongue” of the horse as he strained beneath the plow.

His father walks between the “shafts and the furrow.” The “shaft” on a “horse-plough” is the part from which the farmer directs the horse, and the “furrow” refers to the grooves that are made in the ground.

While the father may be experienced with this task, and find it relatively easy, the horse is “strain[ing]” against the bridle to keep up with, or perhaps continue at all, where the farmer wants him to go. One may interpret this line in two ways, as the horse resisting, or as the horse struggling to comply with the father’s “clicking tongue.”

In the second, third, and fourth lines Heaney uses the technique of alliteration, in this case, of the S sound. The words, “sail,” “strung,” “shafts,” “strained,” and “shoulders,” come in quick succession giving a flow to these three lines. This technique is used to mirror the movement of the plow itself as it slides through the ground.

While the first and third lines are only a very slight slanting rhyme, depending on the vowels of the words “plough” and “furrow.” The perfect rhymes at the end of the second and fourth lines, “strung” and “tongue,” are strong.

 

Stanza Two

Lines 1-2

An expert. He would set the wing
And fit the bright steel-pointed sock.

The second stanza gives little room for interpretation regarding the skill level of the father. The son or the speaker immediately refers to him as “An expert” in the first line. The next few lines add another few technical farming terms into the description of the scene. The use of these words that today, will not be known to many, but very well known to few, lend an additional element of realism to this piece.

The speaker respects his father immensely, considering him an expert behind the plow. 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 refers to “wing,” the “steel-pointed sock,” the “sod,” and “headrig.” These terms will be broken down throughout each line. The next lines of the poem incorporate these terms and go into deep detail on the processes, and pieces, of plowing.

The first line of this stanza ends with a reference to “the wing.” The father is described as setting “the wing,” and fitting the “bright steel-pointed sock.” These pieces of the plow are those that do the actual digging in the ground.

 

Lines 3-4

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 this man that his son has for him.

However, here the speaker remarks his father sets the “wing” and “steel-pointed sock” so efficiently that “The sod rolled over without breaking.”

The final line of the second stanza leads into the third and the speaker draws attention to the “headrig.” This refers to the starting point of each plowed line, continuing into the third stanza this thought is finished.

The slanting rhyme is stronger in this stanza with the second and fourth line ending words, “sock” and “pluck,” coming very close to rhyming due to the organization of the consonance. Just as in the first stanza, the first and third line end words are a perfect rhyme.

 

Stanza Three

Lines 1-2

Of reins, the sweating team turned round
And back into the land. His eye

The first line of the third stanza continues the thought started in the second in which the speaker is describing how his father “At the headrig, with a single pluck/ Of reins, the sweating team turned round/ And back into the land.”

More simply, the speaker is taking advantage of the term, “headrig” and giving the reader an image of the “team,” his father and the horse, taking a turn at the end of a row. Again the father’s skill is demonstrated as with only a “pluck” of the reins he can control the horse.

To sum up, in these two lines of ‘Follower’, 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. In the next two lines, the speaker’s father was also “mapping the furrow exactly”. Therefore, this description continues the characterization of the speaker’s father as hard-working and skilled.

 

Lines 3-4

The last two lines of the third stanza describe the determination in his father’s eyes and the set of his body. This narrator is in awe of the power and ability that his father possesses. His father maps “the furrow exactly” knowing where and what to do.

Apart from that, this stanza continues the same rhyming pattern found in the second stanza. The first and third ending words rhyme perfectly, “round” and “ground.” While the second and fourth end words are slanting rhymes, “eye” and “exactly,” this time more dependent on the vowels than the consonance.

 

Stanza Four

Lines 1-2

I stumbled in his hobnailed wake,
Fell sometimes on the polished sod;

At this point in the poem, ‘Follower’ the narration takes a turn. The speaker now takes on the first-person perspective using words such as, “I” and “my.” He begins this half of the poem by contrasting his missteps to the skill his father possesses. He “stumbled in his hobnailed wake,/ Fell sometimes on the polished sod.”

His clumsy, amateur mistakes are a point of embarrassment to the speaker. He is taking off-balance steps in the holes made by his father’s own feet, and is falling on the sod that has just been plowed to a “polish.”

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”.

 

Lines 3-4

While the speaker may be embarrassed, the father does not seem to mind his mistakes and carries his son around on his back. The speaker describes this motion of being a part of his father, the “dipping” and “rising” he experienced as his father plowed.

Reading these lines, it also appears that, 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 plowed the land. This reveals a devoted father and an admiring son, different as they may be.

In this stanza, the first and third end words make a slant rhyme, “wake” and “back.” While the second and fourth make a perfect rhyme with “sod” and “plod.”

 

Stanza Five

Lines 1-2

I wanted to grow up and plough,
To close one eye, stiffen my arm.

The fifth quatrain of this poem, ‘Follower’ speaks on the boy’s wishes for his future. 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. Besides, he wanted to “stiffen [his] arm” as he went behind the plow. To summarize, he wants to emulate his father perfectly, plowing just as he did with one of his eyes closed, and a stiff arm.

The rhyme for the overall stanza is the same as the previous with the first and third lines rhyming only partially with “plough” and “follow.” While the second and fourth lines are perfect rhymes with, “arm” and “farm.”

 

Lines 3-4

This stanza concludes with a statement from the boy that alludes to the inferiority he may have felt around his father. 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.

Each time the speaker describes the father he is only spoken of in the best and strongest of terms, this time, “broad.” He is more than a father figure, he’s closer to an embodiment of the kind of person this speaker wants to be.

 

Stanza Six

Lines 1-2

I was a nuisance, tripping, falling,
Yapping always. But today

The final stanza of ‘Follower’ brings the narrative to a close and makes a tight loop on all of the desires professed by the son. He describes once more his actions as a child, how he “was a nuisance, tripping, falling,/ Yapping always.”

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 way, however, and his father’s work ethic and drive did influence him as he found his path in life.

In the following lines, the tables are going to turn. 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.

 

Lines 3-4

He is no longer this boy though, now he has become the man that his father follows. The father now looks to his son as someone he is proud of and depends on, just as the speaker did when he was young. It is now his father behind him, “and will not go away.”

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 can 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 is a good-natured way, and that he rather enjoys the way his father shows exceeding interest in his life.

Just as the father did not mind his son following him, so too the speaker treats his much older father. The whole narrative has come full circle leaving the reader with both a hopeful and solemn message. Hopeful, that one may become more than they currently are, and solemn that even when one is strong beyond measure, they may become weaker and dependent on others.

 

Historical Context

Seamus Heaney’s one of the best-known poems, ‘Follower’ was published in the book of poetry, “Death of a Naturalist” in 1966. To know the context of the poem, one has to be aware of Heaney’s early life. He was born and brought up at his family farmhouse called Mossbawn. Being the first of nine children in his family, he was close to his father, Patrick Heaney who was a farmer.

When he used to go a-plowing, his eldest son, Seamus followed him to his land. What the poet observed on the field, he wrote in this poem. This poem not only contains the scenic description of the plot, rather it is about his father. Therefore, here, he details his father’s agile movements that stroke him the most when he was a child. His father appeared to him as an awe-inspiring figure who taught him many lessons through his commitment to his work.

 

About Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney was born in April of 1939 in County Derry, Ireland, and is considered one of the most important poets of the 20th century and also one of the best-known 21st-century poets. His upbringing played an important role in the development of his poetry. He was raised on a farm and was educated at Queen’s University, majoring in English. He would eventually author over 20 volumes of poetry and criticism as well as work editing anthologies. In 1995 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. However, he turned down the offer of a laureateship of the UK. Heaney died in 2013 after teaching at both Harvard and Oxford. You can read more such interesting facts about Seamus Heaney here.

 

Similar Poetry

The following list of poems showcases similar kinds of themes present in Seamus Heaney’s ‘Follower’.

  • Farther by Owen Sheers – This poem describes a trek up Skirrid Hill which Sheers and his father took on 27th December. Here, the journey makes the father and son closer and resolve all of their problems.
  • I Will Go With My Father a-Ploughing by Joseph Campbell – In this poem, Campbell describes the months of a boy’s life as he works with his father. This poem is similar to the plot of ‘Follower’.
  • You Are Old, Father William by Lewis Carroll – Here, in this poem, the poet presents a conversation between a father and his son. This poem features the theme of the generation gap.
  • Father to Son by Elizabeth Jennings – Like the previous one, this poem also details the themes of the father-son relationship and the generation gap. Moreover, this poem is about a father’s illusions concerning his son.

You can also read about the best-known poems of Seamus Heaney and best poems about childhood memories.

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About
Allisa graduated with a degree in Secondary Education and English and taught World Literature and Composition at the high school level. She has always enjoyed writing, reading, and analysing literature.
  • Hi, This is very good stuff right here

    • Lee-James Bovey says:

      Thanks. You should try my lasagne!

  • Katrina Kenny says:

    Hi
    Thank you for your critique of Seamus Heaney. I recently joined a class here in Northern Ireland were we discussed the poem and reading through the summary I had similar identifications on the meaning and the reader experience. Thank you so for your in-depth analysis

    Katrina Kenny

    • Lee-James Bovey says:

      Hi Katrina – Thank you for the feedback. It’s so nice when you form an opinion or an understanding and you find someone else agrees with it, isn’t it? Sort of makes you feel vindicated! Glad you are enjoying poetry and our site.

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