Within ‘The Other Side’ Heaney delves into themes of division and difference, religion, as well as reconciliation. The poem is divided into three parts and depicts the relationship between Heaney and one of his neighbors from his youth, a man named Johnny Junkin. Although he is not named in the text, Heaney added this detail in interviews later.
The poem depicts the relationship between young Heaney and a neighbor who lives next door. At first, the relationship is a poor one. The neighbor is a Protestant “stranger” and speaks poorly of the family and their lands. Heaney speaks for a time about his youth, his siblings, and the habits of his family and then reintroduces the neighbor back into the poem.
As time passes, and the stanzas go on, the man becomes friendlier. By the end of ‘The Other Side,’ the neighbor has come to the Heaney home in order to get to know the family better and show a kindness he didn’t exhibit before. The text ends with young Heaney wondering if he should make amends with this person or go back inside.
‘The Other Side’ by Seamus Heaney is a three-part poem that’s divided into uneven sets of stanzas. The majority of the stanzas contain three lines, known as tercets, but there are a couple of exceptions. In the second section, the first stanza is six lines long and the poem ends with a single line stanzas.
Each section of the pome contains a different number of stanzas, the first section has seven, the second section: three and the fourth: seven again. Heaney did not choose to give this piece a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern, but there are similarities in line length, especially within the second section where there are four to six syllables per line.
Although the lines do not have perfect end rhymes, there are examples of half-rhyme within the text. 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. These appear both at the end of lines and within them. For instance, “away” and “shaken” in lines two and three of the second stanza of the first section. or, in the fifth stanza of that same section, “like,” “side,” and “white”.
Heaney makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘The Other Side’. These include alliteration, enjambment, simile, and caesura. The latter, caesura occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text.
A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might proceed an important turn or transition in the text. For example, line three of the third stanza in the third section of the poem. It reads: “and says I, I might as well call”. Or, another example, line one of the sixth stanza in that same section. It reads: “Should I slip away, I wonder”.
Alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, in the first section, in the first stanza, “sedge,” “shadow,” and “stream”. Or, in stanza five in that same section, “stand,” “side,” and “swinging”.
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 within ‘The Other Side,’ these include the transitions between lines one and two of the third stanza in the first section or that between lines two and three of the third stanza in the second section.
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 is an example in the fifth stanza of the second section. It reads: “as if he were a party to / lovemaking or a stranger’s weeping”.
A metaphor, or a comparison between two unlike things that does not use “like” or “as” is also present in the text. When using this technique a poet is saying that one thing is another thing, they aren’t just similar. There is an example in the third stanza of the second section. It reads: “His brain was a whitewashed kitchen / hung with texts, swept tidy”.
Stanzas One and Two
In the first stanzas of ‘The Other Side,’ the speaker, who is Heaney in the 70s as he looks back on his youth, begins by describing the actions of a stranger on the poet’s family’s land. Young Heaney listened in and watched as another person, “laid his shadow / on the stream”. This person, who was named by Heaney as Johnny Junkin later, was moving through the “sedge” or wetland grasses and marigold flowers before he said out loud “It’s as poor as Lazarus, that ground”.
Junkin was referring to Heaney’s family’s lands and comparing them, through a simile, to the beggar Lazarus brought back to life by Christ four days after his death. The story can be found in the New Testament Gospels.
The stranger moved off, or “brushed away,” through the “shaken leafage”.
Stanzas Three and Four
Next, Heaney considers his own land, the stranger’s proclamation, and decides to dismiss what he said as misplaced superiority. This is a demonstration of the divide between Protestants and Catholics at this time in Ireland. Heaney’s family, Catholics, owned this barren land, and the stranger, a protestant was the owner of plentiful lands. The stranger’s “lea” or open arable land touched the speaker’s own “fallow,” or land that is unplanted in order to regain fertility.
He thinks Junkin’s words are “fabulous” and dismisses them.
Stanzas Five, Six, and Seven
Heaney looks back on the stranger, who is apparently a white-haired man, and recalls his actions from the past. When this person would “stand like that / on the other side” he’d swing his blackthorn walking stick. Junkin would hit at the “marsh weeds” and would use his privilege to lord over “our scraggy acres”.
Heaney is well aware of the divisions between Protestants and Catholics and the unhelpful nature of this man’s attitude towards his neighbor’s lands. He predicts in the next lines that the future is going to be bleak. This is seen through the pollen that drifts “to our bank”. It is a symbol of “next season’s tares”. In the Bible, tares refer to a harmful weed that looks like wheat.
The first stanza of part two is the longest of the poem. In these lines, Heaney brings the poem away from directly addressing the landscape and into his home. He speaks about his siblings and how they’d all delve into the stories of “Lazarus, the Pharaoh, Solomon” as well as “David and Goliath”. By spending time with these stories the children became accustomed to concepts and problems that would’ve otherwise been “too big” for their youth.
Stanzas Two and Three
These next lines take the reader back to the neighbor who had at the beginning of the poem made proclamations about Heaney’s lands. He, rudely, expresses his belief that Heaney’s family does not follow “the Book at all”. This is, of course, a reference to the Bible.
The third stanza is a combination of similes and metaphors that depict Junkin’s brain as a “whitewashed kitchen” that is as tidy “as the body” of the church. His thoughts are restricted by the texts he’s read and his mind clean of any independent thought.
Stanzas One and Two
The third section of ‘The Other Side’ begins with another memory from the poet’s own youth. He remembers how there were times when the family would “hear his step round the gable”. (Gable refers to the wall at the end of a specific part of the roof.)
They knew their neighbor was outside their home just by the sound and pattern of his footsteps. It was a distraction for the children “when the rosary” or prayers, were “dragging” on.
Junkin would wait outside their home, showing some amount of respect, until “after the litany”. The third line of the second stanza is enjambed, encouraging the reader to move quickly down to the third stanza to conclude the thought. Heaney describes how in these moments they’d hear his “casual whistle…/ on the doorstep”.
Stanzas Three and Four
In these stanzas of ‘The Other Side’, the relationship between the Heaney family and Junkin is in a better condition. He’d greet them kindly, suggesting that he was just walking or “dandering” by and decided to “call,” or stop in. Words like “dandering” or phrases like “right-looking” help place the poem in a time and place. Just from these dialectic changes in speech a reader should know they are hearing from someone who originates from South Derry.
The poem concludes with a dilemma of sorts. Heaney recalls going outside his home to greet the neighbor, who is no longer the “stranger” of the first stanzas. While they are friendlier now, they aren’t well-known to one another.
Stanzas Five, Six, and Seven
Junkin and Heaney don’t know what to speak about in these lines. With his walking stick Junkin “taps a little tune… / shyly”. He’s unsure where to look, what to do with his hands, or what to say but it’s clear he wants to be friendly.
Heaney wondered what he should do as well. He was torn between staying outside and starting a process of reconciliation by touching his shoulder and talking about the weather. Or, he remembers thinking, should he “slip away?” The poem ends without an answer to this question.