Published in 1991 in Heaney’s Seeing Things, ‘The Pitchfork’ discusses the power normally mundane objects can hold. In this case, a farming implement—the pitchfork. The poem speaks on themes of the everyday/mundane, dreams and imagination.
The poem takes the reader through the qualities of a pitchfork, the ways one can use it, and the way it is created. These lines are detailed, showing clearly the care with which the poet, his speaker, and the anonymous male figure, want to devote to the topic.
In the last stanzas, the speaker imagines the perfection of the tool and its ability to reach out into space, past probes, and reflect starlight. At the same time, he suggests that he has been on a similar trajectory, assisted by the “open…hand” of one’s own imagination and potential.
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‘The Pitchfork’ by Seamus Heaney is a five stanza poem that’s separated into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These lines do not follow a single rhyme scheme but there are a number of instances of half-rhyme within, and at the end of lines.
These are 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. Examples can be seen throughout the text, including “came,” “raised” and “aimed” in the first stanza and “turned” and “burnish” in the first line of the third stanza.
There are also examples of perfect rhyme in ‘Pitchfork’ as well. It is not constrained to the end of the lines but can appear anywhere. For instance, “then when” in the first line of the fourth stanza.
Heaney also makes use of several poetic techniques. These include simile, alliteration and enjambment. The first, simile, is seen through comparison using “like” or “as”. In ‘The Pitchfork’ there is a great example in the fourth line of the first stanza. Here, the speaker says the pitchfork is “like a javelin,” a light-weight spear.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “Smoothness, straightness” and “sheen” in the second line of the third stanza.
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 examples throughout ‘The Pitchfork,’ including the transition between lines one and two of the first stanza and lines two and three of the fourth stanza.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
Of all implements, the pitchfork was the one(…)
It felt like a javelin, accurate and light.
In the first lines of ‘The Pitchfork,’ the speaker begins by elevating the “pitchfork” to the status of “imagined perfection”. It is the grandest and most important of all farming “implements,” or tools. The next lines of the stanza detail the experience of gripping the tool and utilizing it. Heaney does not define the “he” in these lines. It could be a male figure in the poet’s own life or an idealized male farmer.
Either way, Heaney’s speaker describes the man’s tightened hand around the handle. The poet uses a simile to compare the pitchfork to “a javelin”. It has the same power and is just as “accurate and light”.
So whether he played the warrior or the athlete(…)
Grown satiny from its own natural polish.
The second stanza picks up with the speaker considering the various roles of the male figure references in the last lines of the first stanza. This man can play at being an “athlete” or “warrior” if he chooses. He can be both as he works hard, in “earnest,” in the “chaff and sweat”. The word “chaff” refers to chopped up hay or straw.
The speaker goes into detail in the next two lines. He relays to the reader how this male figure knows the work that goes into making a pitchfork. He is aware of the “grain of tapering” and the kind of wood that he grips in his hands. It has its “own natural polish” that grows smoother through handling.
Riveted steel, turned timber, burnish, grain,(…)
The springiness, the clip and dart of it.
Going on, the speaker lists out various features of the pitchfork. These come one after another, taking up two lines. The craftsman burnishes and smoothes the tool. “Sweat-cured” is a reference to the length of time it takes to dry lumber before processing.
It is through this stanza that the speaker conveys the depth of care that goes into make this farming implement. That care is intuited and learned by the male figure and he deeply appreciates it. The last phrase, ‘clip and dart” refers to the tempo or patterned speed at which one can stab the tool.
And then when he thought of probes that reached the farthest,(…)Its prongs starlit and absolutely soundless –
The fourth stanza elaborates on the potential of the pitchfork. Its reach and influence are endless. It can travel out past the “probes that reached the farthest” into space. He images the “pitchfork sailing past” through space without a problem. It eventually reaches into the starlight, the prongs reflecting endless variations of burning stars, and soundlessness of space.
But has learned at last to follow that simple lead(…)Not in the aiming but the opening hand.
In the last five lines of ‘The Pitchfork,’ the speaker describes how this instrument of farming has surpassed its example. It came from very simple beginnings and now extends “Past its own aim, out to an other side”. In this place, one can imagine perfection.
This distant world in which the pitchfork will find itself represents a future the speaker is aiming for and has been steadily delivered into. It is due not to the “aiming” but the “opening hand,” meaning, his own willingness to open himself up to possibility and constructive action.