In ‘Man and Boy’ Heaney discusses his relationship with his father, Patrick Heaney through memories that relate his father’s boyhood to his own. The death of Heaney’s father was a monumental event in his life, something that Heaney describes as impacting him in ways that spanned his lifetime. This poem delves into themes of death, family relationships, and memory.
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Summary of Man and Boy
The poem brings the reader to a natural setting, outside by a pond with father and son fishing. There, the speaker recalls his father’s actions, his love, his jokes, and his no-nonsense approach to life. In the second half of the poem, he looks back in time to moments when his father was a boy himself. He can see his father running to meet his own father, (Heaney’s grandfather) right before discovering that he has passed away.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure of Man and Boy
‘Man and Boy’ by Seamus Heaney is a two-part poem that is divided into one set of thirteen lines and a set of eighteen. In the first part, the lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern, but they do all contain close to ten syllables each. There is a distinct lack of end-punctuation in this section of the poem, especially compared to part two.
The second part of the poem is also unrhymed without a metrical pattern to unite the lines but there are numerous examples of end-punctuation. Therefore, there are also more completed thoughts contained within each line.
Additionally, there are several examples of half-rhyme. These are seen at the ends of lines as well as within them, a technique known as internal rhyme. Half-rhyme, also known as slant or partial rhyme, is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. For example, “old,” “joke,” “also,” and “old” in lines one and two as well as “detached,” “backed” and “a splash” in lines nine, ten, and twelve.
Poetic Techniques in Man and Boy
Heaney makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Man and Boy’. These include but are not limited to an oxymoron, enjambment, and allusion. The first of these, an oxymoron, is a phrase that includes two opposites. These are set against each other ignorer to emphasize that which they are describing. For example, “unheard…soundwaves” in the second part of the poem. This creates a mysterious and more memorable image.
Enjambment 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 ‘Man and Boy’ but more in the first part than the second. For example, the transition between lines two and three as well as three and four.
An allusion is an expression that’s meant to call something specific to the mind without directly stating it. There is an interesting example in the last lines of the poem as Heaney depicts himself as a young boy being carried by his father, a reversal of the image that appears towards the beginning of the Aeneid where the title character carries his weak father away from Troy.
Analysis of Man and Boy
“Catch the old one first,”
(My father’s joke was also old, and heavy
Made him afraid we’d take too much for granted
And so our spirits must be lightly checked.
In the first lines of ‘Man and Boy,’ the speaker begins recalling words his father spoke to him. These are included in the speech marks in the first line. His father told him to always “Catch the old one first” and the “young ones / Will all follow”. This is a clever and memorable reference to fishing.
Heaney uses parentheses in the next lines to include indirect thoughts. These come from the narrator and recall how the joke was met by the children. It was well-used and “predictable” but is still part of a tender memory. There is a clearly nostalgic mood to these lines and the next as the speaker looks back on a time when he spent “slow bright…evenings” by the river with his father. They were “sweet time[s]” of the past. His father was concerned that they’d “take too much for granted” and not realize the importance of what they had in these moments.
Blessed be down-to-earth! Blessed be highs!
“As big as a wee pork pig by the sound of it.”
In the next lines of ‘Man and Boy,’ the speaker expresses praise for his father and for his no-nonsense approach to life. He blesses the “highs” of his youth and the love that he knew his father held for him but wasn’t always demonstrated. He can still recall it in the body of his father, “broad-backed” and “low-set”. The father was a man with good common sense and a well-honed ability to take care of the speaker and the rest of the family.
The speaker comes back around to another joke, included in quotation marks. There is a good example of an oxymoron in these lines with the phrase “big as a wee pork pig”. A close reader will also find an example of internal rhyme in these lines as well. Additionally, there are a few examples of alliteration to be found, for instance in phrases like “pork pig”.
In earshot of the pool where the salmon jumped
Back through its own unheard concentric soundwaves
A mower leans forever on his scythe.
“Go and tell your father,” the mower says
(He said it to my father who told me)
“I have it mowed as clean as a new sixpence.”
In the first part of the second section of ‘Man and Boy,’ The speaker keeps the reader in the same landscape as the first part of the poem. There, he brings in images of the “pool where the salmon jumped” and the image of the “concentric soundwaves” that appear in the water. They are “unheard…soundwaves,” another example of an oxymoron.
A memory is created, one that feels dream-like and strange. There was a man, a “mower,” the speaker says who has “mown himself to the centre of the field”. This appears to be a traditional figure of a reaper, holding a “scythe”. This figure speaks to Heaney’s father (while he’s a young boy) and tells him to “go and tell your father,” (Heaney’s grandfather) that the mowing is down. The grasses have been mowed “as clean as a new sixpence”.
My father is a barefoot boy with news,
Running at eye-level with weeds and stooks
On the afternoon of his own father’s death.
And strange as my own — when he will piggyback me
At a great height, light-headed and thin-boned,
Like a witless elder rescued from the fire.
The memory continues into the next lines with the speaker, Heaney, supposedly watching his father as a young boy moves through the fields. He is “Running at eye-level with weds and stooks,” or sheaves of grain.
This was the evening of Heaney’s grandfather’s death. The mower was indeed a grim reaper figure, there it informs the boy of the death. This fact waits for the young boy behind the door of the house. It is “black” and dark, alluding to what’s going to be discovered inside.
Heaney, who is only an observer of this memory can feel “much heat and hurry in the air”. He can also experience the movement of the youth’s legs from “far away”. This was something that reminded him of exactly how he felt when his father carried him on his back, “light-headed and thin-boned”. Heaney finishes this poem interestingly. He alludes to the events of the Aeneid where Aeneas reduces his father, Anchises, from the fires of Troy. But, rather than carrying his father on his own back, he is being carried by his father. A clear demonstration of their relationship.