In the poem, ‘Last Look’ by Seamus Heaney, the tale is told of an older man who is standing stationary and staring blankly toward a physical “field,” but who is seeing something much deeper than the physical details that are present. Rather, the narrator of the poem reveals that the man is reflecting on his own history and is caught up in reminiscing of things that are in his extended past.
While no indication is given as to who this narrator is, the theory that he knows this older fellow is logical, given the number of details that are provided for the past of the older man. Essentially, either the narrator knows the older man or the envisioning of the past is based largely on presumed suppositions. In order for this to be a credible account then, the reader must assume that the narrator does know the “gaz[er],” and this tendency to reflect on youth as years roll on seems to be the primary focus of this four-stanza work. The full poem can be listened to here.
Last Look Analysis
We came upon him, stilled
gazing into a field
of blossoming potatoes,
but he seemed not to hear
in his long watchfulness
by the clifftop fuchsias.
The scene is set with this first stanza since at least two people—“We”—find someone standing so he is “gazing into a field of blossoming potatoes,” and the notion that this “gazing” man has journeyed to arrive at his current position is evident in that “his trouser bottoms [were] wet.” This is a typical complication that arises when one walks through a field of dew-covered or rain-covered plants, and clearly there are plants surrounding the terrain that could have allowed that liquid to find place on his clothing. Not only is he looking at “blossoming potatoes,” but the narrator also mentions that “weeds that flourished in the verge flailed against [the] car.” The combination of details shows that this “gazing” man has walked through these plants while they were wet to stare at a certain “field.” The determined stance to get there indicates that the “field” means something to him, possibly that it is deeply connected to his past.
In addition, the “gazing” man is so transfixed by the scene that nothing seems to gain his attention. The narrator even comments that “he seemed not to hear” noise since he was so occupied in observing the “clifftop fuchsias.” There is a bit of contradiction in that statement though because earlier in the stanza, “a field” is noted to include “potatoes,” and now the narrator instead says the staring man’s “long watchfulness” is on flowers. While this does hint at the possibility that the narrator cannot be trusted since his story changes, it is also possible that both details are legitimate traits of the overall scene that the “gazing” man is facing. Perhaps there is “a field of blossoming potatoes” with a “clifftop of fuchsias” in close enough proximity that looking in one direction would encompass them all.
Given the level of depth that will come later in ‘Last Look’, the most likely of the two options could be that both details are visible since it is later revealed that this fellow is seeing something beyond his physical surroundings because he is reflecting on his own life. Like life can come with various elements that intertwine, perhaps Heaney is painting an equally unique vision of mismatched elements through combining these two elements.
While little to no information is given about the physical traits of this man, one hint of his older age is offered by Heaney calling his observation “long watchfulness.” If he truly is “gazing” out and pondering his life, the notion that it is a “long” vision shows a lengthy life.
He paid no heed that day,
by a bush in the roadside.
This particular stanza could provide clues about the “gazing” man’s history since it utilizes metaphors that are relevant to a farm-based lifestyle, like “sheep’s wool,” “barbed wire,” and “hay,” but the meaning behind the uses of these details can be boosted above a geographic marker or a career indication. Both of the referenced concepts are things that are by nature left behind. A “sheep” that loses its “wool,” for instance, continues on with its life, but the “wool” can never move away from the “barbed wire” of its own accord. It is rather at the mercy of other elements, like the wind, in regard to what will become of it.
On a similar note, the “old lock of hay” can never alter its own fate, though the “bush in the roadside” was able to remove it from its course. From there, the “hay” had no choice but to be left behind “from a passing load,” though the driver of that “load” would not have been hindered by losing a single “lock of hay.” What this means, altogether, is that the person “gazing” probably feels alone and without the ability to alter his own fate, which can be the case as a person ages and health issues and such begin to weigh them down.
Combined with the first stanza’s mention of the “gaz[er]” being “still and oblivious,” it is possible that this is a person who suffers from some kind of dementia and has lost a great deal of independence from the detail, though this concept is speculation rather than fact.
What is definite in the stanza though is the returned evidence that this “gazing” fellow is an older man since the “lock of hay” that is addressed is labeled as “old.” Adding that trait to the object of comparison solidifies the notion that the person being compared to the “lock of hay” shares that same quality.
He was back in his twenties,
Drama between hedges
if he met a Model Ford.
Of all of the stanzas in ‘Last Look’, this third one requires more trust than any of the others because the reader is depending on the narrator to voice the unspoken thoughts of this “gazing” man. Essentially, as was earlier mentioned, there are two possibilities in this context. One is that the narrator is imagining his own take on where the older man’s thoughts are, which would make these concepts unreliable. The other is that the narrator knows the older man and would, therefore, have an understanding of where the “gaz[er’s]” mind would go. Given that doubting the narrator at this point could make the entire plot of the poem void—maybe there was no person “gazing” in this manner at all—the safest choice is to believe that the narrator is familiar enough with the older fellow to know that “in his twenties” he “travel[ed] Donegal in the grocery cart” and all of the like details that are presented.
What can be gathered, overall, from this stanza is that the older man is envisioning a life where he was more capable and active, reflecting on his youth in a way that is common as a person ages. Since he is diving so fiercely into these younger moments, it is clear that he prefers his earlier life in comparison to the life he now leads, which is reasonable given the previous evidence that he feels left behind and yearns for a previous level of independence. These previous years, in essence, are his glory days, and he faces the “field” that could have accommodated those memories to relive them so fiercely that nothing can shake him from his reverie.
If Niamh had ridden up
to make the wide strand sweet
could have drawn him out
from the covert of his gaze.
This stanza’s main idea is a statement of how strongly this older fellow is focused on his previous years and reminiscing since “Niamh,” who is a mythological figure of Irish royalty, would not be able to catch his attention “from the covert of his gaze.” From this detail, readers can assume that the location of this poem is Ireland, but it also validates that nothing within his proximity would be enough to compare to the years and memories he has left behind—not even “if [a mythological creature] had ridden up” with her physical loveliness and loud “hoofbeats.” His past, as it were, is too entrancing.
What the reader can garner from the overall poem is that as the years pass, youth and yesteryears can be enticing, and the past can be so alluring as to override all elements of the present. Regardless of what physical or mental issue this “gaz[er]” might suffer from, the lure of youth remains strong among many, drawing people into recollections as they age.
About Seamus Heaney
Seamus Heaney was an Irish poet, born in 1939. As a writer and an editor, he created and contributed to a series of works that continue to be of significance in the literary world. In addition, he is a Nobel Prize winner, and his homeland has been known to surface heavily within his written works, as is the case with “Last Look.” He passed away in 2013, but his works keep his name alive.