Heaney’s docker illustrates the sectarian stance adopted by bigoted unionist Protestant
working-men towards the Catholic minority as the poet sensed it in the mid 20th century. He exposes the threatening prejudice lurking beneath the dour, uncompromising exterior of a dockworker.
The man sits silent and alone in the corner of a public bar staring at his drink. He is moulded by the dockside environment in which he works: Cap/ like a gantry’s crossbeam/ Cowling plated forehead and sledgehead jaw. His tightly sealed mouth (Speech … clamped in the lips’ vice) is suggestive of a man who communicates only when he has to, who neither questions his beliefs, nor will have them challenged.
The docker’s unremitting Protestant nature (That fist would drop a hammer on a Catholic) affirms the ever-present threat of sectarian division. Heaney comments on the irony he perceives: The only Roman collar he tolerates/ Smiles all round his sleek pint of porter; hypocritically the dark stout’s frothy head resembling a priest’ dog-collar would be acceptable to him whatever his religious convictions.
Heaney’ reflects on this Protestant ship-builder’s code of narrow, unbending regulations: Mosaic imperatives like rivets. The man’s rigorous routine of work and his stubborn religious beliefs are fused: God is a foreman with certain definite views/ Who orders life in shifts of work and leisure; a factory horn sounds the end of his working day bringing him Resurrection.
The poet imagines the same characteristics, strong and blunt as a Celtic cross, as they affect the man’s domestic environment: a menacing, bullying presence in the home where, under the influence of alcohol, the demand for silence and an armchair will be an unchallenged requirement, and where, once alerted by the slammed door and smoker’s cough in the hall, his wife and children will (more than just a simple future tense; rather a modal auxiliary that amounts to ‘whether they like it or not’!) be quiet.
- the portrait of a manual worker in Belfast; hard, protestant and male; his features moulded from his working environment; his uncompromising nature equally affecting those close to him;
- gantry: an overhead structure for lifting heavy weights supporting a travelling crane;
- cowling: hood-shaped metal covers;
- sledge: the heaviest manual hammer;
- plates: smooth rigid sheets of metal routinely used in ship-building;
- rivets: nails beaten into permanent position that hold metal plates together and seen from outside to form patterns;
- porter: a thick dark beer;
- mosaic: patterns of tiles used to make up pictures;
- Roman: a typically disparaging reference to Catholics amongst Protestant bigots;
- in industries that operated 24 hours each day, the workers were organised in 8-hour shifts, the ends of which would marked by a siren;
- to help clarify the reference to Resurrection and trumpets: the biblical notion of the Second Coming of Christ and the re-awakening of the dead in Christ was supposedly accompanied by trumpet blast; stretching this context, the docker is released from his job to become a man of leisure;
- 4 quatrains of mainly 10 syllable lines without a formal rhyme scheme; the single 7-syllable line stresses the silent, repressed anger: Speech is clamped in the lips’ vice;
- Heaney chooses the vocabulary of intolerance and latent violence; his only cheerful reference (smiles) applies to drink;
- to convey the idea of sociological cause and effect Heaney paints the surreal picture of a human face made up of dockside equipment; his use of shipbuilding imagery (rivets) is ideal in demonstrating the fixity of conviction (Mosaic imperatives);
- assonant effects: life in shifts; collar/ tolerates; tonight/ quiet; imperatives/ rivets;
- alliteration: plated/ speech/ clamped; pint of porter; Celtic/ cross/ clearly; sits/ strong;
- vocabulary of repressed hatred that will flare quickly: sledgehead jaw/ hammer/ ; bang home; slammed; blunt (as in heavy, blunt instrument with which damage is inflicted)
- mosaic imperatives: patterns of absolute conviction and priority;
- Heaney read the poem to the Belfast group led by Philip Hobsbaum (to whom Blackberry Picking is dedicated) in late 1963;
- Michael Parker in Seamus Heaney, The Making of a Poet asks to what extent the poem is born of wounded political and religious sensibilities rather than nostalgia (p.40);
- Heaney is aware of the realities in Belfast at the time. Shipbuilders, Harland and Wolff, for example, aimed their recruitment policy in favour of Protestants;
- to MP the poem illustrates Heaney’s resentment towards a status-quo which still treated Catholics as conquered stock (ibid p.55) and sees him as an aggravated young Catholic male;
- … depicts mines and myths left over from previous conflicts (ibid p.62)
- a satirical poem dating from 1963 … addresses itself to the sectarian present (ibid p.71). a man who personifies menace and prejudice (ibid p.71)