‘The Seed Cutters’ by Seamus Heaney as first published in TSL in 1975. It is a fourteen-line poem that mostly follows the traditional pattern of a Shakespearean sonnet. It made up of three quatrains, or sets of four lines, and one concluding couplet or set of two rhyming lines. The poem follows a consistent rhyme scheme that conforms to the pattern of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG and is partially written in iambic pentameter. This means that some of the lines contain five sets of two beats, known as metrical feet. The first is unstressed and the second stressed. It sounds something like da-DUM, da-DUM.
Heaney also makes use of a number of other poetic techniques. These include enjambment, caesura, and alliteration. The latter, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “windbreak wind” in the fourth line and “taking their time” in the eighth.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. This occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. It 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. For example, the transition between lines seven and eight.
Caesura, meaning a break or pause in a line of poetry, often near the middle, is used throughout ‘The Seed Cutters’. It occurs most prominently within the last lines of the text as the statements become more contemplative and less descriptive.
You can read the full poem here.
Summary of The Seed Cutters
The poem begins with the speaker describing how the seed cutters work. In this instance, they are huddled together in a half-circle, trying to keep out of the wind. It isn’t working, making their jobs all the harder. They are engaging in a practice that has been going on for centuries. The speaker states that he could look all the way back to the paintings of Pieter Brueghel the Elder and see men doing the same thing.
The image Heaney crafts in ‘The Seed Cutters’ is just as compositionally appealing and artistically significant as any Breughel created. In the last lines the speaker considers the part everyone, the farmers and fighters, and those who are both, have to play in the scene. He imagines his community as a sculpted or painted frieze in which everyone is anonymous.
Analysis of The Seed Cutters
They seem hundreds of years away. Breughel,
You’ll know them if I can get them true.
They kneel under the hedge in a half circle
Behind a windbreak wind is breaking through.
In the first four lines of ‘The Seed Cutters,’ the speaker begins by addressing the traditional practices of farmworkers. The act of kneeling and cutting seeds has been going for decades and now, takes the speaker back to a simpler time. Heaney’s speaker is able to escape from his modern world and look back “hundreds of years ago”. The practice of seed cutting would still be going on.
He could even look at old paintings, scubas those done by the Flemish artist Pieter Breughel the Elder who lived in the mid-1500s. The “seed cutters” work on their hands and knees now just as they did back then. It is likely that Heaney was familiar with this practice from his own youth as his father worked as a farmer.
The men have done their best to try and shield themselves from the wind. They are positioned behind a “windbreak”. It is not clear what this “windbreak” is, but it isn’t doing its job. The wind is still getting through. They are consistently and constantly exposed to the elements, making their job all the more difficult.
In the second quatrain of ‘The Seed Cutters’ the speaker addresses something a reader should already be aware of, the men working are “seed cutters”. This piece of information was provided in the title, but adding into the poem, especially in such a concise way, says something about the men. Their job is so much a part of their life that they can be defined by it.
Heaney gives a few details about what the men are handling and moving amongst on the ground. The seed sprouts are all around these men, “Buried under the straw.” They don’t rush to complete their job because there’s no reason to. The men are able to take their time in their work. Heaney begins to describe the movement of the knives before the line is enjambed, forcing a reader down to line nine in the next quatrain.
The speaker describes in this section of ‘The Seed Cutters’ the way the men “Lazily” and slowly cut “each root”. These “fall…apart” in there hands and reveal a “milky gleam”. He describes the sight as if it is a composition, one that could perhaps hang next to Brueghel’s in a museum. There is the whiteness of the root, then the “dark watermark” at the center. There is a clear juxtaposition going on here between light and dark.
When one considers the political moment Heaney was writing in (during The Troubles in Northern Ireland) this makes a lot of sense. He was reminiscing on the past but was at the same time unable to break himself away entirely from the present.
He outwardly exclaims for lost customs in the twelfth line, adding in, “O calendar customs!” The speaker is clearly wishing for the traditional structure of older calendars in which saints days abounded.
Yellowing over them, compose the frieze
With all of us there, our anonymities.
The word “frieze” is used in the thirteenth line of this poem, and in the first line of the concluding couplet. The word refers to a painted or sculpted decoration. Here, the speaker is addressing the fact that everyone is playing a part in this composition. All of us” are part of the story, in “our anonymities”. There is no individuality in this final image. This is at once suggestive of more peaceful times and of a present that has lost its way.