Seamus Heaney - A Constable Calls - Poetry Analysis

Oct 142012

A Constable Calls

Heaney provides the ingredients of a a compelling psychological drama: an atmosphere of threat; an attentive youngster; an interrogation; a father’s lie; a moral dilemma that tests the innocence of the listening child; the threat receding. The ‘poem-film-director’ employs all the zooms, pans and slow-motions of cinematic technique.

The boy’s eye is the camera, his ear records the sounds.

The first two stanzas follow the child’s curiosity: he examines an anonymous visitor’s bicycle in some detail; (like its rider) it is a standard-model, robust and immaculately turned out, from the rubber cowl of a mud-splasher to its dynamo. The boy notes fat black handlegrips and pedal treads hanging.

Then the poet injects a change of mood, a sense of threat: the dynamo (out of use during daylight) is cocked back just as the firing lever of a revolver or the safety-catch of a grenade might be in threatening circumstances.The child’s ‘eye’ comes to rest on pedals that reveal the authority of the rider: the boot of the law.

The visitor has been admitted and child’s attention is drawn to his cap and the visible marks indicating that it has just been removed: its line of pressure ran like a bevel/ In his slightly sweating hair. Beyond this reference to his hair the policeman remains an embodiment rather than a ‘face’.

The constable’s mission is revealed by his heavy ledger with its record of tillage returns/ In acres, roods and perches; he is here to enforce legal regulations as a means to ensuring the honesty of income-tax returns. The boy senses what is involved (a moment of arithmetic and fear); his gaze settles on the weapon he knows to be sheathed in the officer’s polished holster; in slow motion his eye follows a trail from buttoned flap and braid cord to revolver butt.

The boy is party to the conversation and knows there is something untrue in his father’s claims. He talks to himself: But was there not a line/ Of turnips where the seed ran out..? Though ‘good’ the boy is not innocent; his assumption of small guilts suggests he already differentiates between ‘truth’ and ‘lie’ so much so that he reminds himself of what can happen to liars who are found out: the black hole of the barracks.

In his slow, methodical way the officer prepare to leave. The boy’s attention is drawn to other symbols of his authority, the policeman’s baton-case, and the ‘medieval’ domesday book he is carrying.

The constable’s eyes pierce the boy’s soul.

His deliberate preparations completed the officer remounts his bicycle. Heaney describes the melting of tension in a musical ‘morendo’: the sound of the departing bicycle dwindled and died: ticked,ticked, ticked.

  • The poem is a tour de force, a simple and hugely atmospheric monument in the Yeatsian Singing School sense;

  • the speaker is a child yet mature with insights into the use of language, metaphor and abstract ideas: the boot of the law; arithmetic and fear; small guilts;

  • boot of the law. Heaney reworks an old figurative idiom: the long arm of the law was said to ‘tap criminals of the shoulder’ that is, arrest them.The use of ‘boot’ adds connotations of repression associated with the behaviour of some officers during this period;

  • black hole: contemporaryschool history included horror tales of imprisonment such as the Black Hole of Calcutta; more modern readings might suggest those cosmic phenomena into which all matter is seen to disappear;

  • Domesday book: the record in 1086 of a survey of England conducted as a census for taxation purposes and civil control;

  • ledger: “account book,” c.1400; Originally a substantial book that lies permanently in a place (especially a large copy of a breviary in a church). Sense of “book of accounts” fits neatly with the Domesday book reference;

  • tillage: till’ in the sense of ‘cultivate (land)’ is nearly as old as the Domesday Book; tillage refers to the extent of cultivated land and indirectly what is produced from it;

  • acres, roods and perches measures of calculation used before the advent, much later, of metric values, hectares and the like; measures of land used, perhaps, to reinforce what Heaney regards as a repressive medieval practice in modern times: acre:in late O.E. ‘the amount of land a yoke of oxen could plough in a day;rood: O.E. rod “pole,” varying from 6 to 8 yards; also “measure of land,” prop. 40 square (40 x 40) poles or perches; perch:‘unit of linear measurement”’ (5.5 yards), also ‘measuring rod, pole, bar’ used to measure this length (13c.); ‘measure of land equal to a square lineal perch’ (usually 160 to the acre);

  • mangold or mangelwurzel: root vegetable from beet family grown for animal fodder; marrow stem: a brassica vegetable from the kale family;

  • 9 quatrains; no rhyme scheme; lines of widely differing length from 4 to 9 syllables

  • the piece’s sentence structure, use of punctuation and enjambed lines complement the drama: early observation uses 2 quatrains; reaction to the constable’s movements increases sentence turn-over; the interrogation sequence is short and snappy; the child’s discomfort changes the dynamic of the narrative; preparation for departure and moving away revert to the pace of poem’s outset;

  • 11 principal assonant effects emerge:

[ʌ] [ɪ] [æ] [i:] [e] [ai] [ɔː] [eə] [u:] [ʊ] [ei]

His bicycle stood at the window-sill,
rubber cowl of a mud-splasher
Skirting the
front mudguard,
fat black handlegrips

Heating in sunlight, the “spud
Of the
dynamo gleaming and cocked back,
pedal treads hanging relieved
Of the boot of the

His cap was upside down
On the
floor, next his chair.
line of its pressure ran like a bevel
In his
slightly sweating hair.

He had unstrapped
heavy ledger, and my father
making tillage returns
acres, roods, and perches.

Arithmetic and fear.
I sat staring at the polished holster
With its
buttoned flap, the braid cord
Looped into the revolver butt.

“Any other root crops?
Mangolds? Marrowstems? Anything likethat?”
“No.” But was there not a
Of turnips where the
seedran out

In the potato field? I assumed
guiltsand sat
Imagining the black hole in the barracks.
stood up, shifted the baton-case

Further round on his belt,
Closed the domesday book,
Fitted his
cap back with two hands,
looked at me as he said goodbye.

A shadow bobbed in the window.
He was
snapping the carrier spring
Over the ledger.
His boot pushed off

And the bicycle ticked, ticked, ticked.

  • overall the policeman and bilabial plosive [b] become associated, the child with sibilant [s];sentence 1 is rich in plosives, bilabial [b] [p] then velar [k] [g]; stanza 3 introduces sibilant variant [s] [sh] [z]; its alveolar [l] recurs in stanza 4; stanza 5 has sat staring then reverts to percussive bilabial plosives [b] [p]; nasals [n] [m] echo through stanza 6; in 7: [s] assumed/ Small guilts and sat; imagined punishment reverts to hard [b] sounds, softening in 8 to alveolar [d]; the final stanza zooms into alveolar [t].