In A Nutshell
Seamus Heaney comes from a long line of farmers. The poet from Northern Ireland was born into a tradition of farming, which valued hard, physical labor, and exceptional skill in the field (pun intended). If you've ever woken up with the roosters (real ones, not the cock-a-doodle-do alarm tone) or plowed the fields, you know that farming is tough stuff. Much of Heaney's work, and particularly the early poems included in Death of a Naturalist (1966)—like "Follower," or you can also check out "Digging"—reflects the autobiographical elements of his close relationship to nature, family, and hard work (usually all three together).
Many of the speakers in the poems of Death of a Naturalist also seem to struggle with their identity. They too value nature, family, and hard work, but also feel that they're different from the tradition from which they sprang. It's tempting (though always dangerous; poets can really trick us with their active imaginations) to think of Heaney's speakers as a reflection of himself. He did, in fact, break away from the family tradition of farming and manual labor to become a scholar and poet. Regardless of the accuracy of the likeness, "Follower" is one the best examples in the book of a speaker who both gives props to his heritage and recognizes a different identity for himself.
In "Follower," we have a boy who follows his farmer dad around while he plows the fields (sounds fun, right?). He adores his dad—the boy thinks he has superhuman strength and skill—and wants to be just like him. But instead of "following" in his dad's footsteps, he grows up to find his own path. By the end of the poem, in a somewhat surprising and totally adorbs (but kind of weepy) turn of events, his dad, in his old age, spends most of his time following his son around.
Why Should I Care?
We've all had our "Be Like Mike" moments, even if they're more like "Be Like Lebron" or "Be like Rhianna" moments today. We're especially impressionable to role models as youngsters. Whether it's an older brother or sister, a parent, an actor, or famous athlete, part of growing up is dreaming of who you could one day be like. Of course, we end up taking our own paths and shaping our own, unique identities, but our role models help us discover our individuality by the influence (hopefully positive) that they have on us. Okay, maybe you never will be able to reverse dunk, but your years playing basketball will teach you teamwork, discipline, and sacrifice that will help you be awesome in your own path.
This poem is a great example of that. Even though the boy spends tons of energy on trying to be like his father, it's clear that he's going to be a very different person altogether. But it doesn't matter; the father's influence is still important in shaping who the boy will be in later years. As Heaney flashes to the present day at the end of the poem, we get a glimpse of two completely different men with an extremely close (if troubled) bond. In other words, it doesn't really matter that you never really end up like the role model you chose to follow while growing up. What matters is the influence the role model has on you—not to make you more like him or her—but to make you uniquely, and awesomely, you. High five, gang.