‘The Barn’ by Seamus Heaney is a five stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, or quatrains. The quatrains follow a loose rhyme scheme that almost conforms to the pattern of ABAB CDCD. There are moments in which the rhymes are closer to half, or slant rhymes, rather than full.
An example of this occurring can be seen between lines one and three in the second stanza. These words, “concrete” and “slit,” rhyme because of consonance, or consonant sounds at the end of the words.
The lines are different lengths and while the majority do contain ten syllables, others stretch out to eleven or twelve. There are other elements of the text which provide the text with rhythmic patterns, such as alliteration and compounded words. The second line of the first stanza is a great example of alliteration. The “s” sound is repeated three times within this line, with “solid as cement” and “sacks.” Another is at the beginning of the second stanza with “chilly concrete.”
You can read the full poem here.
Summary of The Barn
The poem begins with the speaker giving a few details about the barn. It contained corn grains, some in piles, some in sacks. There is an intimidating collection, or “armoury,” of farm tools in the back. The atmosphere is expanded when the speaker describes how cold the building is, and how little light and air gets in.
There are also birds, bats, and rats in the barn. These scare the speaker, especially at night. One is forced to cower, face-down on the floor to avoid the pecking of these birds and the flight of the bats. The poem concludes with a cliff-hanger as the sacks of corn turn into creatures that advance on the speaker.
Analysis of The Barn
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins by describing the interior of a barn. These are recollections and Heaney chose to write in second person. This means that the reader is included as part of the narrative.
There was “Threshed corn,” in the barn. This is a process which separates the grain from the stalks. Therefore, they were “piled” in the barn. These grains appeared to the speaker like “grit of ivory.” Here, Heaney used a simile to compare the small grains of corn to grit, or ground up, ivory. The piles have a value to the speaker, and his family, that is similar to ivory.
There were the piles, and then there were bags which were “solid as cement.” This second simile shows that a good amount of the corn was ready to be moved away from the barn. It was contained within sacks, push to their limit. These were sewn up so that they could be “lugged.”
In the barn there is an overwhelming “musky dark.” This sets the scene further. It is clear that this isn’t a place filled with life and light. It fits into the general dream-like qualities of the text. Hidden back in the dark is an “armoury.” With the line break at the end of line three, and the use of enjambment, a reader is forced down to the fourth line in order to learn what the “armoury” is made up of. It isn’t traditional weapons, but “farm yard implements.”
These metal tools take on a foreboding presence in the barn, as if they have been, or could be, used for something evil. Some of these are “harness[es]” and “plough-socks.”
In the second stanza the speaker acknowledges the floor. It is “mouse-grey” and “smooth.” It is made of “concrete” which is inescapably “cold.” The atmosphere continues to darken and become confining as the speaker adds that “There were no windows.” Instead, there are only “two narrow shafts / Of gilded motes.” This refers to two streams of light which come through the ceiling, “High in each gable.”
They are “narrow,” come in through the triangular top of the roof, and let in little light. What does come in, lights up “motes,” or specks of dust floating in the air. The dream-like quality of the scene is increased. There is no chance of any air or heat from the outside coming in, as there is only “one door.”
While it is cold within the barn, the atmosphere outside is very different. It is entirely “summer” outside. The “zinc” used on the roof has heated up, “like an oven.” This speaks to a real contrast between the outside and inside. It also shows how sustained the atmosphere within the barn is. It is like its own ecosystem, sustaining its own environment.
The tools previously mentioned as “arms” take on an even more foreboding presence in the scene. They have edges, are clean and sharp. There are the “pitchfork’s prongs” to contend with.
The fact that the narration moves clearly into the second person in these lines places the reader within the scene. They are invited to feel what the narrator felt when he experienced the things.
These objects emerged into the light when the speaker entered the barn and suddenly, there were “cobwebs clogging up your lungs.” There was an unmistakable pressure from the sides of the barn, and the objects within. They appeared to grow closer, advancing on the speaker, or in this case, the reader.
In the fourth stanza the speaker describes how one would want to “scuttle fast” back outside and into the “sunlit yard” and the heat. The speaker also describes what it’s like to be in the barn at night. At night, there are the “bats…on the wing.” They fly from the rafters of the barn.
There was another living presence in the barn, rats, which stare out at the speaker from “piles of grain in corners.” They are as scary as any other image presented so far. They appear to be “fierce” and “unblinking.”
In the final four lines the speaker describes how the darkness acted like a “gulf.” It seemed wall-less, bottomless and without a roof in which he was, and now the speaker is, trapped.
He recalls what it was like to “be poked up” by “birds” which came down through the “air-slits.” There are things to fear from all sides of the barn and this forces the speaker to “lay face-down” and try to block out the “fear above.” Just when he got into a position in which he could ignore the birds and bats, the sacks around him move in “like great blind rats.”
This is a great example of how one’s emotional state can be imbued on to inanimate objects. Heaney uses personification to make these lifeless bags of grain into intimidating, rat-like creatures.