The quatrains with regular rhyme (both end and slant) make for built-in sound effects. Heaney also establishes a predictable rhythm, too (even if the meter is not consistent), with lines that are consistently 8 or 9 syllables. If you think about the action in the poem—the way the father plows up and down each row—you'll see how the methodical action really corresponds with the predictability of the lines and stanzas in the poem. And that's no coincidence at the hands of sound master Heaney.
Though the rhyme is probably what stands out the most in terms of sound, Heaney is using some other elements of sound, especially at the beginning of the poem, to draw you into the poem. It's practically like sonic hypnosis. Listen closely (you're getting very sleepy…).
In the first stanza and even trickling into the second, we get something called sibilance, which is the close repetition of S sounds. For example, in the first stanza you'll see: "horse," "his shoulders," "sail strung," and "horse strained." All those S sounds really swish us along, maybe trying to mimic the smoothness with which the father is able to plow because he is so skilled.
You'll also notice lots of consonance (the close repetition of consonant sounds) too, especially in the first couple of stanzas: "clicking," "sock," "breaking," "pluck." The hard K sounds really stand out, as if Heaney is using them to convey the hard nature of the work.
The smooth and steady sound Heaney achieves with a combination of even lines, rhyme, and consonance make for an easy-to-read, almost hypnotic poem. You know how you tend to zone out if you're doing the same thing over and over again, especially when it comes to physical activity? Well, in this case you're lulled into a steady rhythm with all of these evenly-placed sound effects. They sound like the horse as it plods continuously through the field, and the slow and steady sound of the plow turning over the earth with every hypnotic step. Now… snap out of it!
The title really makes us want to dive into the poem to discover who is following whom, and who is the leader. Maybe it could be a mysterious poem (think crime show stalker), or maybe it could be a poem about devotion—romantic devotion, religious devotion—our imaginations are going wild even before we've hit the first line.
Once we dive into the poem, we discover the title is working on a bunch of different levels. Most of the poem is dedicated to describing how the son literally follows his dad around the field, but we also see how the son figuratively wants to follow in his father's footsteps (to be a strong and skilled farmer like him). By the end of the poem, Heaney turns things around completely. Now the father is following the son. The idea of following is persistent in this poem, but it doesn't always follow the same direction. Here's hoping we can keep up.
Anyone down for a trip to the Irish countryside? This poem will take you there without the cost of airfare or the hassle of the TSA (yes, you can keep your shoes on—though we won't tell if you don't). For the most part, this poem takes place in a field that is being plowed by the boy's father and a team of horses. And the scenes are all recalled from the memory of his childhood (we know because it's told in the past tense).
Heaney does a characteristically good job of describing the richness of the land, and the difficulty of the work. In line 7 he writes, "The sod rolled over without breaking" and you get both a vivid picture of a big, rich chunk of soil and how skilled the father is. When he writes in lines 9–10, "the sweating team turned round/ And back into the land," you can almost hear the horses breathing and sweating into the dark soil. Heaney creates a great sensory experience for us, especially in the beginning of the poem.
At the end of the poem, Heaney hits fast forward, and suddenly we're in the present day—"But today"—(22). It's not clear where we are exactly (though it seems likely that we're no longer in a field), and the father has taken over the role of the son as follower. Appropriately enough, that shift in the relationship happens alongside a shift in the setting. We get two men (father and son), two times (past and present), and two settings (the farm and somewhere in modern day). We also get two very different relationships to go with these settings. Pretty slick work there, Seamus.
Get ready to get dirt under your fingernails. The speaker is the son of a farmer. He admires his father, and spends much of his young years following him around the field, stumbling and chatting, trying to keep up while his father works diligently. You can see the admiration for his father, especially in the earlier parts of the poem: "The horse strained at his clicking tongue./ An expert" (4-5). He goes on to further explain how crazy skilled he is that he can turn over sod without breaking it, and he can manage his team like a pro: "The sod rolled over without breaking. At the headrig, with a single pluck/ Of reins the sweating team turned round" (8-9). He's the baddest in the biz, and his son is full of admiration.
Most of the poem is told in the past tense, as the speaker looks back to his childhood, and his relationship to his father and his father's work, but at the very end, we're snapped into the present tense. Now, the young boy has grown into a man, and the tables have turned: his father follows him around all the time, and he can't seem to find a way to shake him. The final lines read: "But today/ It is my father who keeps stumbling/ Behind me, and will not go away" (23-24). The speaker seems to have shaken the desire to be like his dad and is a little taken aback, a touch annoyed that his dad follows him around now.
In the end, then, the speaker's relationship with this dad is the real focus of this poem. Their reversals are complete, an now it's Dad's turn to stumble and be annoying. This seems to speak to a deeper rift between father and son. There must have been a time when they were on equal footing (neither one stumbling or annoying), but they seem to have missed it in this poem.
But don't bust out the Kleenex just yet. It seems that last phrase—"will not go away"—also offers the possibility of comfort, right? However they annoy one another, our speaker and his father still have each other. Silver lining alert, gang.
As long as you're paying attention, you won't likely get lost in this poem. The action is fairly straightforward, but be prepared for a surprise ending. Your standard gear will do for this one, so just relax and enjoy the hike.
Loafers beware: Heaney has a habit of glorifying hard work, particularly manual labor, in his poetry. Often, just as in this poem, there is a member of the younger generation looking up to a man of the older generation, and admiring his hard-working attitude and skill. (Just check out "Digging" for another example.)
While Heaney himself is more of an intellectual man (as are many of the speakers of his poems—coincidence?), his poems really do hanker after getting your hands dirty with some good old-fashioned hard work. Dirt and elbow grease abound in Seamus Heaney's poetry, so quit your goldbricking and roll up your sleeves.
Heaney's keeping things tight and orderly in this poem. Each stanza (group of lines) is made up of four, alternately rhyming lines to make an ABAB rhyme scheme. So, the first line in each stanza rhymes with the third line, and the second line rhymes with the fourth.
But let's listen closely for a minute. If you lend your ear to the page, you'll notice that some of the rhymes are a bit… off. Check out stanza 2, for example, where "sock" is meant to rhyme with "pluck" (lines 6 and 8). Sure they kind of rhyme, at least in their ending sound. This is an example of near rhyme, or slant rhyme. In fact, in almost every stanza you'll find one true end rhyme pair and another slant rhyme pair. So we get two perfect rhymes, for example in stanza 4 ("sod" and "plod"), and we get two near rhymes ("wake" and "back").
Well, what up with that? We think this is actually kind of brilliant. Think about it: the speaker is describing how he wants to be like this dad. That's a kind of loving bond that seems appropriate to a perfect rhyming pair. However, it's painfully obvious that the speaker will never be like his dad, what with all his remedial plow skills. So, we get these frustrated near rhymes to go with this almost-but-not-quite feeling. Pretty neat, huh?
The end- and near-rhymes continue unwaveringly in the remaining four stanzas. You'll notice that the lines are all pretty much the same length, too. Count them out—each line is 8 or 9 syllables long. That kind of consistency makes for a very steady rhythm throughout the poem. If you look closely, you'll find lines that fall neatly into iambic tetrameter. No need to freak out, though. An iamb is just a two-syllable pair where the stress falls on the second syllable (say "alarm" out loud and you'll hear a real, live iamb). Four of these iambs put together make up iambic tetrameter ("tetra-" means four). So, we get regular rhythms like:
The horse strained at his clicking tongue. (4)
Hear that daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM? That's iambic tetrameter for you. Still, while you'll hear it in some lines in the poem, you won't hear it in any consistent way. In that sense, the rhythm acts a bit like those slant rhymes, coming near to a sense of harmony, but never quite getting it exactly. On the surface, things look regular enough. Heaney doesn't zig and zag with the length of his lines; he runs them to just about the same length every time. Maybe something he learned from his farming days. But once you get into the actual rhythms of this poem, you feel like you're stumbling all over the place, just like the speaker did as a young boy.
Heaney is so successful in letting the reader know that the speaker adores his father without even having to tell us. Through the speaker's almost obsessed attention, we get it. We're introduced to every element of the father's work, and the details of every phase. His dad seems physically larger than life, and more capable than the average man. Here are a few places where the son's point of view really elevates the father from normal guy to hero status:
While a huge chunk of the poem shows the boy following his dad around the field while he plows, there are some subtler forms of following going on, too. We see the speaker literally follow his dad, but he also makes it pretty clear that he wants to be like him when he grows up—to follow in his footsteps and take the same path in life, probably to become a skilled farmer like him. While that doesn't seem to happen (maybe he does end up being like the old man in some ways, but he doesn't become a farmer), the end of the poem flips the script: the roles are reversed, and the father now follows the son around.
This poem is strictly a father-son thing. There is no romance within a hundred yards of these two.