‘The Wife’s Tale’ by Seamus Heaney was published in Door into the Dark in 1969. It is a four stanza poem that is written in free verse. The stanzas are of different lengths with the first containing seven lines, the second: twelve, the third: seven and the fourth: nine. Free verse means that there is no consistent pattern of rhyme or rhythm. But, it doesn’t mean that the poem is without either.
One of the most easily spotted techniques in poetry, and one that is quite beneficial to the creation of rhythm (without the use of consistent rhyme), is alliteration. It occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. There are a number of examples in ‘The Wife’s Tale,’ such as “slewed” and standstill, straw” in the first stanza and “Smoking” and “saying” in the fourth stanza.
Another important technique that is commonly used within 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 six and seven of the first stanza. Another poignant moment is between lines eleven and twelve of the second stanza.
Summary of The Wife’s Tale
In the first lines of the poem the speaker, who is clearly a wife, describes how she set out the bread and butter for lunch. She was feeding the workers in the surrounding field who, once she was ready, shut off all the machinery and crunch through the field to her side. The first person there, and the man who directs the majority of the poem, tell the wife that she should feed the others first.
After feeding the men, the male speaker, who is perhaps the woman’s husband, takes her around the farm, making sure she sees the wonderful yield. It represents safety for other years, especially considering there is enough left over to sow a new crop successfully.
From there, she turns out into the field and notes the way the “forks,” or pitchforks, look like javelins stuck in the ground. Her work is over, and after looking over the now sated men, she starts home with her linen cloth.
You can read the full poem here and more Seamus Heaney poems here.
Analysis of The Wife’s Tale
When I had spread it all on linen cloth
Under the hedge, I called them over.
There was such quiet that I heard their boots
Crunching the stubble twenty yards away.
In the first stanza of ‘The Wife’s Tale’ the speaker describes how she has something “spread…all on linen cloth”. It is not until later on the poem that it becomes clear that she is referring to bread and butter. Once she was ready, she called over all the men who had been working in the field. Her words cause the thresher to turn off and the “big belt” to “slew…to a standstill”. The straw from the field froze in the jaws of the machine and everything was quiet.
As is the case with the majority of Heaney’s poems, he employed imagery as simple as it is interesting. One is drawn into his worlds and a simple line describing the sounds of the worker’s feet seems incredibly important. Through this skillful use of language Heaney is easily able to create a believable scene of work and respite that lasts throughout ‘The Wife’s Tale’.
As the title suggests, the poem is a narrative told from the perceptive of a wife. In this case, she is a farmer’s wife. Although it is not made clear, it is likely that the main male character who tries to direct the woman’s eyes is her husband.
He lay down and said, ‘Give these fellows theirs,
I’m in no hurry,’ plucking grass in handfuls
And tossing it in the air. ‘That looks well.’
It’s good clean seed. Away over there and look.’
Always this inspection has to be made
Even when I don’t know what to look for.
In the second stanza ‘The Wife’s Tale’ continues. The wife narratives the poem, informing the reader that “He” came over to where she had been sitting around her linen cloth. This other character speaks, and the wife conveys his words. He says that the wife should “‘Give these fellows theirs”. He is referring to the bread and butter, as well as the drinks, and allowing the men, who are perhaps younger than he is and have been working hard all day, their share. The man presents himself very casually, taking his time in his movements and absent-mindedly plucking grass out of the ground.
The man looks down and notices the cloth set out in front of the speaker. By using parenthesis Heaney is able to note the actions of the man without interrupting the flow of speech and action. The cloth is very white in the grass and everything appears clean and perfect. This inspires the same man to continue speaking, declaring that “‘a woman could lay out a field”.
After making this lightly crude joke, and making sure the wife understood, the man is given his buttered “thick slices”. This alludes to the fact that this is not an uncommon day.
In a string of short phrases, the speaking man tells the wife to look out at the field and take note of the “good clean seed” and how well the crops are “threshing”. The speaker admits that this has happened many times before, but she still isn’t sure what she’s supposed to be looking for.
But I ran my hand in the half-filled bags
Hooked to the slots. It was hard as shot,
As javelins might mark lost battlefields.
I moved between them back across the stubble.
The third stanza of ‘The Wife’s Tale’ is a bit shorter, lasting for only seven lines. The wife tells of how she “ran” her “hand in the half-filled bags / Hooked to the slots”. She compared the seeds she put her hands on to “shot,” an older form of ammunition. This comparison speaks to the importance of the seed and how it can mean, at the most crucial moments, life or death. The next lines go into more detail about the scene and what the wife’s immediate environment contains. She notes how the bags gaped open and were attached to “chutes [that] ran back to the still drum”.
She moved away and noticed the “forks,” meaning pitchforks, that “were stuck at angles in the ground”. They appeared to her as weapons on a battlefield. They were javelin-like and didn’t exactly make the wife feel optimistic about the scene. In fact, they seemed to allude to a “lost battlefield”. From where she was, she sets off “back across the stubble”. The wife makes sure the reader is aware that she had to move between the forks, weaving among them, giving them their space.
They lay in the ring of their own crusts and dregs,
Smoking and saying nothing. ‘There’s good yield,
And went. But they still kept their ease,
Spread out, unbuttoned, grateful, under the trees.
Next, the wife describes the farmworkers. They were laying “in the ring of their own crusts and dregs”. All around them the bits and pieces of the sandwiches the men didn’t want, were discarded. The men are quiet, spending their time smoking and “saying nothing”. The original man speaks out again, taking pride in the “good yield” they have been harvesting.
This statement strikes the wife. It seems to her that he feels as though he is part of the land itself. After this brief statement, he follows up by adding that there will be enough for them to “crush” and to sow for the next year. This guarantees the routine the wife was engaging in is going to continue.
After declaring this, the wife knows that her role is over. It was time for her to return to the house. She no longer had a claim on the work. Through very simple language, the wife describes gathering up her cups and folding up the white linen cloth. Enjambment is used at the end of line seven, so a reader has to go to line eight to see what’s going to happen next. With two simple words, the speaker describes how she “went” away from the field. Without her there, the men remained on the ground. They were relaxed and grateful for the food, drink, and land. As well as their presence in that moment “under the tree”.