‘Requiem for the Croppies’ by Seamus Heaney is a fourteen-line sonnet that conforms to various aspects of both the Shakespearean and Petrarchan forms. The latter is traditionally divided into two halves, the first eight lines, or octet, that is followed by the sestet, a set of six lines. The rhyme scheme in the first eight lines of ‘Requiem for the Croppies’ does not match the traditional Petrarchan pattern of ABBAABBA, instead, it is more similar to the Shakespearean pattern ABABCDCD. Although there are some half (slant) rhymes in there as well.
The last six lines reverse though, they have variability that speaks to the looseness of the sestet in the traditional Petrarchan sonnet form. Generally in this form, the final lines can follow any number of patterns. Some of the most common are CDCDCD and CDEEDC. In this case, the lines rhyme EFEFEF.
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‘Requiem for the Croppies’ begins with the speaker describing how he, and his companions have “greatcoats full of barley.” They are on the move, or as he says, “on the run”. There is no time for them to strike camp, and there are also no kitchens for them to cook in. The speaker implies that they are being attacked and are forced to flee in their own lands. He is hoping to draw the reader’s attention to the aggressive nature of the British forces. These lines also suggest that the rebellion is not as organized as it could be.
In the second quatrain, the speaker notes that the soldiers do everything they can to fight off the British. Although they are disorganized, they continually try new tactics. These are not ultimately successful as the final lines discuss the slaughter of these men at Vinegar Hill. The poem ends on a hopeful note, suggesting that the men, or others like them, would in the future once more take up the cause and fight back against the oppressive British regime.
You can read the full poem here and more Seamus Heaney poems here.
The poem was written in 1962 and speaks about the Irish Rebellion of 1798. This was an uprising against the British rule of Ireland, lead by The United Irishmen. These fighters had been influenced by the American and French revolutions. The main reason for this rebellion was their lack of influence over the British establishment that ruled them. The uprising was eventually defeated by the British forces, resulting in a death toll estimated to be somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000.
Additionally, before beginning this piece a reader should know that the word “croppies,” included very prominently in the title, references the rebels who were marked by their very short hair. This word gives the reader much of what they need to know about the poem. Especially when it is tied together with “requiem,” a word used to refer to a token of remembrance, or more specifically, a kind of Catholic mass for the souls of the dead.
The pockets of our greatcoats full of barley…
The priest lay behind ditches with the tramp.
In the first lines of ‘Requiem for the Croppies’ the speaker is immediately identified as an Irish soldier fighting in the Rebellion of 1798. He describes how he and his companions have “greatcoats full of barely.” This line speaks to the time period that the rebellion was taking place in and the style of the uniform. A greatcoat, which is also known as a “watchcoat” was most popular during the 17th and 18th centuries.
The fact that this man and those with him have “barley” in their pockets speaks to the nature of their days. They are on the move, or as he states, “on the run”. There is no time for them to strike camp, and there are also no kitchens for them to cook in. This suggests that they are just subsisting on barely alone. The ellipses at the ends of lines one and two imply that the speaker is distracted, moving from thought to thought, just as he and his compatriots are moving from place to place.
In the third line, there is an interesting moment in which the speaker draws attention to the fact that he is living this way in his “own country”. They are being attacked and are forced to flee in their own lands. The speaker is hoping to draw the reader’s attention to the aggressive nature of the British forces. These lines also hint at the fact that the rebellion is not as organized as it could be.
The fourth line states that the priest is in the “ditches with the tramp”. Usually these two people would be separate, but in the face of adversity, everyone has come together.
A people hardly marching… on the hike…
And stampede cattle into infantry,
There are more ellipses in the fifth line of ‘Requiem for the Croppies’. Here, the speaker describes how his group is “hardly marching…on the hike.” They don’t seem to be making much progress and are perhaps at risk in their current formation. The fact that they are spoken of as being on a “hike” rather than marching with purpose doesn’t bode well.
Despite the ramshackle nature of their organization, they try “new tactics…every day”. They’re doing everything they can to defeat the British. The next lines, seven, eight, and nine describe what some of these tactics are. They use a “pike” or a pointed steel-headed weapon on a long shaft, to cut “through reins and rider”. This refers to the British soldiers on horseback. They also “stampede cattle into infantry”. Taken at face value, this line suggests that they forced cows to run into the British infantrymen. They also end up “retreat[ing] through hedges where cavalry must be thrown.”
Then retreat through hedges where cavalry must be thrown.
The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave.
The speaker goes on to use another ellipse heavy line. This one, which references “Vinegar Hill” is the “fatal conclave,” or meeting. The word “conclave” also has religious connotations as it refers to the assembly of cardinals for the election of a new pope. It was at Vinegar Hill that the rebellion came to an end. It was on June 21st 1798 that the Irish and English forces had their final battle of the rebellion. The last line of this tercet returns to the poem to the agricultural imagery that was present at the beginning. Thousands of men died, “shaking scythes at cannon[s]”.
They buried us without shroud or coffin
And in August… the barley grew up out of our grave.
The “hillside” in the final lines of ‘Requiem for the Croppies’ “blushed” as it was tinted red by the blood of those lost. It was “soaked” in the loss of the soldier’s “broken wave”. The two halves of this line are connected through the water imagery. It suggests that the entire rebellion was broken against the shore, and split up into nothing.
The men were buried informally, without coffin or shroud. The last line is moving, and ultimately hopeful. It connects the poem back up to the beginning. The speaker states that months later, in August, the barely the men carried in their pockets “grew up out of [their] grave”. This speaks to a new life, and a new opportunity, sometime in the future to live and fight again.