Seamus Heaney often wrote about figures from the countryside where he grew up. What comes through are his feelings of respect and admiration for their skills, and this poem, Thatcher, is no exception. Having spent much of my childhood at my relative’s farm near where Heaney spent his childhood in County Derry, I can identify with much of what he writes. Two of my uncles were farmers; they looked ordinary and unremarkable but they were well-known for their skills of ‘divining,’ (where a person uses sticks or ‘divining rods’ to source water underground in fields.) Often they travelled considerable distances to other farms when their dowsing skills were required. When Heaney recollects these people in his poetry he seems to imbue them with a mystical, other-worldly quality, which is evident here when he refers to the Thatcher’s ‘Midas Touch’. This could in part be because these are memories from his childhood, and when we recall how we viewed our elders from a child’s perspective, it was often with a sense of wonder or even awe, as they did what a child would consider to be impossible.
You can read a little about the tradition of Irish thatched cottages as well as the whole poem here.
Structure and Form
Heaney sets the poem up in such a way that the reader is intrigued. He chooses to place the word ‘Bespoke’ at the start of the verse, so this implies that this is a very specific job, which has been long anticipated. This contrasts then with the arrival of the thatcher, who does not initially sound like a very reliable character. He simply ‘turned up some morning’ without arrangement, ‘unexpectedly’, which suggests a relaxed attitude to his trade.This could demonstrate the laid-back atmosphere of the countryside fifty or sixty years ago, in contrast to the busyness of city life and our hectic schedules today. What follows is an almost comedic image of a man riding a bicycle, managing to balance a ladder and a bag of knives at the same time. We might expect a tradesman to be burdened with heavy equipment but this is not the case. Even Heaney’s use of the idiosyncratic verb ‘slung’ suggests a casualness. However, when he arrives and looks about: ‘He eyed the old rigging, poked at the eaves,’ we become aware that there may be more to him than meets the eye. The verb ‘eyed’ shows a certain expertise as he considers the job at hand.
There is more activity in this verse as we sense the physicality of the work. This is achieved through Heaney’s use of the active verbs ‘opened’, and ‘handled’. The long assonance in this sentence helps us picture him getting underway with the task at hand. Heaney uses enjambment so the first quatrain spills in to the second, and this rhyming ‘eaves’ with ‘sheaves’ (internal rhyme) shows an ease and dexterity of movement. The thatcher has arrived, he has observed the job and he is starting work; opening and sorting and making a start. We get a sense of his natural instinct for his materials through the words ‘flicked’ and twisted’ which convey his deft movements: a mere ‘flick’ indicates whether the rods will hold. But this is the mere prelude to his future activity, and the colon at the end of the fourth line acts as a spring-board into the action to come. By naming the different types of wood, ‘hazel and willow’ Heaney adds authenticity to the poem, and also a certain lyricism with these beautiful names.
Here we have further evidence that this is a true craftsman at work as he climbs his ladder with his ‘well-honed blades’. The sibilance of the second line:
And snipped at straw and sharpened ends of rods
suggests his efficiency and competence. This is yet more tactile imagery which helps us visualise him at work. The use of onomatopoeia in ‘snipped’ almost allows us to hear him as well.
The image of him bending the rods so that they can be used
for pinning down his world, handful by handful
is my favourite in the poem. It shows that the thatcher works in a manner which is steady and controlled. He has the vision to see his end result, even though he works ‘handful by handful’ to turn this raw product into something extraordinary. It is here where the poem seems to ‘lift off’ and show that these country workmen had magic in their fingertips. We can almost imagine the young Heaney looking up, with awe in his eyes and a crick in his neck.
A whole thatched roof however, does not materialise overnight, and the fourth stanza shows the hours, indeed days which the thatcher must spend ‘couchant’ to complete his task. We thus admire his dexterity even more when we consider that he must work in what is clearly an uncomfortable position, almost lying down along the roof, while he ‘stitched all together’. However, Heaney has used this word ‘couchant’ for its connotations with heraldry, as the symbol of a ‘couchant lion’ with a raised head, used to be shown to indicate prestige. It is thus used here to elevate the task of a humble workman, to show that the quality of his work is something to be revered.
Again here there is an abundance of active verbs to show how the thatcher is utterly absorbed and committed to doing a perfect job. When we look closely at the lines:
Couchant for days on sods above the rafters,
He shaved and flushed the butts, stitched all together
we see the proliferation of ‘s’ sounds which again create the impression of an ease and fluidity of movement. This occurs particularly when the ‘sh’ sounds appear together in the second line. It suggests that the task comes together seamlessly, to create this ‘sloped honeycomb’, the sound of which almost makes us lick our lips as the words slide effortlessly off the tongue, in contrast to the harsh sounding ‘stubble patch’. It is no coincidence that Heaney should have chosen this image from nature to describe the finished product. It is as though the thatcher has performed a sort of alchemy to transform this ‘stubble patch’ into something as intricate and beautiful as honeycomb.
The whole poem builds towards this line, as onlookers are left agog when they see his handiwork. In Greek mythology Midas was a king who could turn anything he touched to gold. This didn’t work out so well for him, but in modern day parlance the Midas touch suggests someone with a talent for making money, or a gift for doing something extremely well. Heaney has thus used this allusion to make us appreciate the thatcher’s skill.
About Seamus Heaney
Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) was one of Ireland’s best loved poets. He took much of his inspiration from the people and the land of his birth.