‘The Harvest Bow’ was published in Heaney’s 1979 collection Field Work. It is one of the best-known poems from that collection. Heaney takes a nostalgic and caring tone in this work as he deals with his own memories and emotional connection to childhood. The mood itself is nostalgic and contemplative as the poet considers themes of tradition, father/son relationships, and happiness.
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Summary of The Harvest Bow
The poem takes the reader through a series of memories that begin with the poet speaking to a single person. This person is never named, only referred to in the second person as “you”. They are most certainly Heaney’s father or a father figure of some kind. The poet looks back on his past and is brought to the moments in which his father was crafting the traditional harvest bow. This scene is peaceful and is made more so by the father’s own “mellow…silence”.
Heaney takes his time describing his father’s hands, their skills, experience, and the different materials they dealt with during his life. His father’s hands became so experienced that he could do things like crafting the harvest bow as a sleepwalker would. The tasks came to him automatically, without a period of planning.
Through the next sections of the poem, the poet looks back to times he and his father walked through the wheat field. He’d carry the fishing rod and his father would “Whack” the grasses. The poem concludes with an image of the poet hanging the harvest bow above their dresser and considering how it came into his life. He also thinks about the important role it plays in his memoirs as a symbol for a time of safety and happiness.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure of the Poem
‘The Harvest Bow’ by Seamus Heaney is a five stanza poem that’s separated into sets of six lines, known as sestets. These lines do not follow a single pattern of rhyme but Heaney does make significant use of half-rhyme at the end of many lines. 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, “twist” and “rust” in lines three and four of the first stanza and “sticks” and “cocks” in lines one and two of the second stanza.
Heaney also makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘The Harvest Bow’. These include alliteration, symbolism, enjambment, and simile. The first of these, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “smoke straight” in the fourth line of the third stanza and “deal dresser” in line three of the fifth stanza.
Symbolism is when a poet uses objects, colors, sounds, or places to represent something else. In this case, the harvest bow is used as a symbol for sustained familial relationships and love, particularly that between a father and a son. It also touches on themes of tradition. A harvest bow is a decorative knot made from the wheat of a harvest. They are often twisted, braided, and then hung on the wall.
A simile is a comparison between two unlike things that uses the words “like” or “as”. A poet uses this kind of figurative language to say that one thing is similar to another, not like metaphor, that it “is” another. There are a few examples within the text, such as in line four of the final stanza: “Like a drawn snare”. Here, the poet is comparing the hung bow to a “drawn snare” from which “corn” rather than an animal has slipped.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It 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 several examples throughout ‘The Harvest Bow’ including the transition between lines one and two of the first stanza and three and four of the fifth.
Analysis of The Harvest Bow
As you plaited the harvest bow
You implicated the mellowed silence in you
Into a knowable corona,
A throwaway love-knot of straw.
In the first stanza of this poem the speaker, who is also likely the poet himself, begins by speaking in the second person. He describes “you” and a few actions “you” took. By starting in the second person he draws the reader into the narrative, making them a part of the story. But, it is not to an unknown listener he’s directing his words, rather his father with whom he shared the experiences outlined in the text.
Heaney describes how his father “plaited,” or braided, “the harvest bow”. This is a traditional practice that for Heaney brings up a certain mood and feeling of his youth. He recalls seeing this father work on the bow and recognizes a transmutation of his father’s nature into the form. He “implicated” his own “mellow silence” into the wheat he was braiding.
Unlike a human being that grows more physically downtrodden with age, the bow is not going to rust. Rather, it “brightens was ti tightens twist by twist”. Here, a reader can see Heaney makes use of internal rhyme. The words “brightens” and “tightens” are complete or perfect rhymes situated within a line of text. They speak to the regularity of the braided bow and his father’s practiced hands.
As his father works on it the bow becomes a “knowable corona,” or the bright eye of the sun. The bow is compared through the use of a metaphor to a “throwaway love-knot of straw”. Despite its reverential description in the previous lines, Heaney notes that it’s only made from leftover straw. It can be thrown away at any time and will be at some time in the future.
Hands that aged round ashplants and cane sticks
And lapped the spurs on a lifetime of game cocks
I tell and finger it like braille,
Gleaning the unsaid off the palpable,
In the second stanza, the poet picks the poem up again by depicting his father’s hands. He thinks about their history. His father’s own process of aging was marked by “ashplants and cane sticks” and hard work. He can see that hard work embodied in his father’s hands. The next lines give the reader a sense of the life his father lived and the “lifetime” of experience that’s contained in his hands. For example, “lapp[ing]” the spurs of fighting gamecocks.
These practices were so engrained that his father’s hands moved like a sleepwalker. They handled everything automatically. The poet moves back to the harvest bow in the fifth line.
And if I spy into its golden loops
You with a harvest bow in your lapel,
In the third stanza of ‘The Harvest Bow’, the speaker looks back on the creation of the harvest bow and is taken into a series of memories. He can recall the times the two spent walking “between the railway slopes”. These thoughts are clear and punctuated by a landscape filled with agricultural symbols. There are ploughs in the hedges and an “auction notice on an outhouse wall”. Then, in amongst it all, directing the poet’s memories is his father with the “harvest bow in [his] lapel”.
These memories have a very clear warmth to them. They are comforting, and Heaney’s tone is peaceful and nostalgic as he remembers them. This poem is only one example of Heaney’s tendency to look towards childhood as a place of refuge. The majority of his most popular poems were written during the period of The Troubles in Ireland. The fears, struggles, and losses of everyday life inspired him to look to his youth as a time of safety and happiness. Another example of nostalgia in Heaney’s poetry can be found in ‘Sunlight’. This poem depicts his aunt’s kitchen and the way she imbued love into everything she did, such as her cooking.
Me with the fishing rod, already homesick
Still tongue-tied in the straw tied by your hand.
The memories of Heaney’s walk with his father are continued into the next six lines. He recalls how he carried “the fishing rod” and his father walked ahead of him “Whacking the tips off weeds and bushes”. Just as the poet creates rhythm in these lines, so too does Heaney’s father as he beats the grasses around him. The noise, movement, and memory are all “out of time,” lost to the past but still a part of Heaney’s present.
In the fifth line of this stanza, he mentions the “original townland”. This is likely a reference to an old-fashioned way of dividing land that was used in Ireland. It could be referring to how the land was divided in years past, again, another reference to tradition and memory.
The end of art is peace
Could be the motto of this frail device
Slipped lately by the spirit of the corn
Yet burnished by its passage, and still warm.
In the last six lines, the poet zooms back to consider the relevance of the harvest bow as a symbol of love and peace. He states, “The end of art is peace”. That could be, he adds, the “motto of this frail device”. Here, he is referring to the bow and how it brings him back to the sights and sounds mentioned in the previous stanzas.
He explains how he has pinned the bow “on our deal dresser”. The word “deal” refers to the type of wood the dresser is made out of. It’s a soft timber, likely pine or fir. The addition of the word creates a pleasing moment of alliteration. It is with a final simile that the poet concludes the poem. He compares the bow to a “drawn snare,” or a trap that’s been pulled tight around an animal’s foot.
But this trap has been “Slipped lately by the spirit of the corn”. The wheat is a representative of something that’s gone, the spirit of the corn. But, the corn didn’t leave it untouched. It’s “still warm” from its presence. This connects to the emotions Heaney ties into the tradition of the harvest bow. Then, also how his own memories move through time.