End- and Slant-Rhymed Quatrains
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.