Heaney expresses his respect and love for his father and acknowledges his own place in the family line. He goes on to illustrate a paradox that is evident twenty years on.
The poet paints the portrait of a strong, silent father from twenty years before. The man cut an impressive figure then with the stature and dignity of a tall-ship, shoulders like a full sail strung; a farmer at work in the fields, in full control of plough and horses between the shafts and the furrow.
To his admiring son he was An expert, adept at positioning the plough’s wing and bright steel-pointed sock so as to produce the perfect sod rolled over without breaking; able to control his sweating team with minimum effort and assess his task with unerring skill, Mapping the furrow exactly.
Heaney was the clumsy child who dogged his father’s heels, stumbled in his hob-nailed wake/ Fell sometimes; he was the pest who benefited from his father’s strength and love, riding on his back/ Dipping and rising to his plod.
At the time Heaney might have aspired to follow in his footsteps, to grow up and plough/ close one eye, stiffen my arm. Yet he was to learn from following In his broad shadow round the farm, a persistent nuisance, tripping, falling,/ Yapping always, that this way of life would not be for him.
Paradoxically the intervening period that would lead Heaney in the direction of poetry took its toll on his father and by ageing him reversed those early rôles: today/ It is my father who keeps stumbling / Behind me, and will not go away.
- A poem of many themes: father/son relationship; family hierarchy; paternal skills that set an example to follow; changes in life-ambitions; the ageing process;
- Heaney identifies parts of the horse-drawn-plough : wing ( a section that can be fitted to the plough such that its angle causes a cutting and upward loosening of the soil); sock (part of the blade that slices through the soil); also headrig ( the point in the field where the team and plough execute a 180 degree turn);
- 6 quatrains in each of which one of alternate lines rhymes; largely 8 syllable lines; sentence groupings (the shortest indefinite article + noun), the use of punctuation and enjambed lines define the ebb and flow of oral delivery;
- present participles illustrate the actions of a youngster (tripping/ falling/ yapping) compared with loss of balance in an old man (stumbling);
- internal echoes: [əʊ] shoulders/ globed/ follow/ shadow; [ɒ] sock/ sod/; [æ] narrowed and angled at/ Mapping;; [ɪ] wing fit;
- Pluck of reins: the gentle, sensitive action of a musical string-player is all that Heaney Senior requires to control a team of horses;
- Hob-nailed wake: Heaney uses the footwear of the ploughman to indicate the footsteps on the land he has just trodden;
- use of maritime vocabulary: full-sail strung; Mapping; wake (the sea-furrow that a boat leaves behind as it churns forward resembles the plough-furrow);
- the poet has an acute eye for detail noticing the polished sod (the sheen left by the ploughshare on the surfaces of newly sliced earth);
- Three part-rhymed stanzas portray his father; two and a half focus on the child;;
- Compared to the weakling boy, the prowess and stature of the ‘father’ figure make him a titan; this is reflected in the choice of vocabulary: globed … broad shadow;
- elegiac in tone ultimately generating an emotional response to the changes wrought by the human condition; the final two and a half lines place the deeper message in emphatic position and provide moving testimony to the effect time has had on a father now past his best;
- Heaney provides further reflections on his father’s skill with animals (Dennis O’Driscoll, Stepping Stones p.58);
- record of a changing relationship; the hero of yesteryear becomes tomorrow’s encumbrance (Michael Parker Seamus Heaney, The Making of a Poet p.64);
- the poem allows an emotion of distress to cloud … primary affiliations and allegiances (Neil Corcoran The Poetry of Seamus Heaney p.10);
- ‘stumbling’ applies both to father (age) and father/son relationships (tested);
- talking about Kavanagh in ‘From Monaghan to the Grand Canal’ Heaney refers to ‘the penalty of consciousness, the unease generated when a milieu becomes material’.