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Follower by Seamus Heaney | Summary And Analysis

Critical Appreciation of Follower by Seamus Heaney

 

“Follower” by Seamus Heaney, is a poem that deals with themes of admiration, respect, and the evolution of the relationship between father and son. Heaney, as a child, lived on a farm and was expected to take over from his father. This poem is seen to be autobiographical, as he did not become a farmer as was expected of him. Still, he sees the beauty of these practices, and the poem is full of technical words relating to agriculture. The poem was published in 1966 in Death of a Naturalist.

This 24-line poem is split into six quatrains, that is, four-line stanzas. The rhyme scheme can be recognized as ABAB, but Heaney employs slant rhymes in the poem as well.  In this type of rhyme, the words have similar sounds but do not sound identical. Slant rhyme is also called half rhyme, near rhyme, or oblique rhyme.

 

Follower | Summary And Analysis

Follower | Analysis, Lines 1-4

My father worked with a horse-plough,

His shoulders globed like a full sail strung

Between the shafts and the furrow.

The horses strained at his clicking tongue.

The poet’s father was a farmer who used to plough the fields with a horse-plough. A horse-plough entails two horses that pull the furrow wheel, which cuts and levels the soil. It requires the farmer to walk alongside to support the machinery, so if a horse-plough covers 2 acres a day, the farmer would have walked those 2 acres as well. The shaft of the plough is the two long rods connected to the plough that the farmer holds, and the furrow is the deep line that is made in the soil.

The farmer was a strong man, and this is represented by the simile “His shoulders globed like a full sail strung”. In the eyes of his young son, the father was vast and majestic like the sails of a ship. This also shows that as a sail harnesses the power of the wind to move the ship, this strength of the father is what helped him plough the fields. He was the master of the horses; they were used to him, and they clearly had been doing this for a significant amount of time as they followed just the clicks of his tongue. He had no compulsion to shout or make demands, a gentle click of the tongue was enough for the horses to follow him.

The strength of the father is immediately shown to us in the second line, and synecdoche is used to describe this. In the line “His shoulders globed like a full sail strung, the shoulders represent the strong arms of the father. The single part represents the whole. He is described as muscular, and magnificent.

Here, the beginning of a metaphor that will be used throughout the poem can be established. The father’s movements and tasks are compared to the sea or a ship and spoken about in nautical terms, and this thread is followed through the poem.

 

Follower | Analysis, Lines 5-12

An expert. He would set the wing

And fit the bright steel-pointed sock.

The sod rolled over without breaking.

At the headrig, with a single pluck

 

Of reins, the sweating team turned round

And back into the land. His eye

Narrowed and angled at the ground,

Mapping the furrow exactly.

 

The son sees his father as an expert in his craft, as he perfectly sets his tools to execute his results. This poem uses several farming terms, and there is a juxtaposition of sea terms versus farming terms. The act of farming is grounded and down to earth, while seafaring is characterized by rolling waves and instability.

The wing of a plough is the part that cuts through the soil, and it needs to be angled properly to accomplish this. It works in tandem with the steel pointed sock, and they together drag up the soil as the farmer steers and the horse pulls the plough. The sod is overturned by the plough to get more nutrients into the furrow, and it is ideal to have it unbroken.

While the poet’s father ploughs, the dirt overturns and does not break or crumble. It remains intact and again displays the expertise of the father in his craft. The words used are, again, reminiscent of the sea, as the waves roll and break against the land. However, contrary to the waves, the land rolls when the father ploughs it, but does not break.

They reach the headrig, which is a swathe of land that remains unploughed till the end, to make it easy to turn the plough. With a single flick and the aforementioned click, they move up and down the field together to fulfil a common goal. The sharp eye of the farmer helps him move with assurance as he already knows the exact angle and route that is needed. His eye is angled, similar to how the wing must be angled. So, his eye and the wing are both angled to till the soil, the eye sees, and the wing executes. The father was fully engrossed in his work and focused on accomplishing his job to the best of his ability. The furrows are perfectly mapped, again like the ship maps its route, the farmer maps theirs.

Here, slant rhyme is used in “sock…pluck” and “eye…exactly

 

Follower | Analysis,  Lines 13-20

I stumbled in his hobnailed wake,

Fell sometimes on the polished sod;

Sometimes he rode me on his back

Dipping and rising to his plod.

 

I wanted to grow up and plough,

To close one eye, stiffen my arm.

All I ever did was follow

In his broad shadow round the farm.

The farmer walked gracefully and confidently, and his son blundered around behind him. The farmer wears hobnailed boots, which help to reinforce the soles of the boots. It helps to maintain grip and reduce sliding and slipping. The father thus did not slip, while his son fell into the unbroken soil.

The poet repeats that the sod is perfect, and he is the one who falls into it and ruins it. He directly contrasts the confidence of his father with his own unsteadiness. There is a lack of anger or malice in this, which shows that the father was not annoyed by the breaking of the polished sod and went with it peacefully. They were ploughing the fields together, and he was carried on his father’s back, and he would move up and down as his father walked. This “Dipping and rising” is reminiscent of the movement of a ship as it sails on the sea.

The poet moves from the son’s view of the father to his view of himself. He admired his father and was inspired by him and wanted to emulate his career and actions. He wanted to exude the same strength and assurance, as well as the mastery of his work. All he did was walk in the shadow of his father, wanting to be on an equal footing as he saw his father as a role model. Here, we can explicitly see that the son was the follower, and his father, the leader. Their strong bond comes to fruition as the inspiration and awe that the son feels for his father.

He expresses again that his father was a huge man, as seen in “In his broad shadow round the farm. His father is broad in the eyes of his son, which can also portray how young the son is at this time.

Here, slant rhyme is used again in “…wake…back

 

Follower | Analysis, Lines 21-24

I was a nuisance, tripping, falling,

Yapping always. But today

It is my father who keeps stumbling

Behind me, and will not go away.

 

The son saw himself as a nuisance, or a bother, on the farm. He tumbled about here and there and talked a mile a minute. He was the total opposite of his father at that time, as his father was seen as a gentle, smooth, sure worker, and the son was more of an inconvenience than anything else. This, of course, is in the eyes of the son and does not reflect the emotion of the father.

In the last two lines of the poem, there is a complete shift from childhood to adulthood. The child is no longer stumbling around behind the figure of his father, and instead, he is now the one who walks with confidence, and his father stumbles behind him. The father becomes the follower, and the son is the leader. The father is a nuisance who “will not go away” while the son walks with assurance.

The admiration and awe for his father seem to dissipate, as does the respect. The relationship shifts from past to present, and this shows how the relationship changed now that the father is old. The childish actions of the son earlier in the poem are now reflected in the father, seen in the use of “stumbled”. The son becomes the leader, and his father is the follower.

Based on the poet’s life, as well as the assertion that all he ever did was follow, we can also assume that the son did not become a farmer, and moved ahead to other things, while his father trailed behind him. He did not take the reins from his father, and the man was left stumbling about and being a burden.

The line “Yapping always” again reinforces the strength of their relationship, and this is directly contrasted with the end of the poem, where his father is seen as an inconvenience. The dignity and respect given to his father are completely broken by saying that he “will not go away”.

 

 

Follower | About The Poet

Seamus Heaney was born on 13 April 1939, in the United Kingdom.

He was known as an Irish poet, translator, and playwright. His ancestors were farmers, and he broke the mold by becoming a writer. He was one of the major contributors to poetry in Ireland and is numbered among the greatest and most well-known poets.

Heaney’s style of writing is usually mild and peaceful, and his poetry was meant to be something that people of all places and times could connect with. He often wrote about childhood memories and nostalgia, but sometimes dealt with more serious topics like the end of life, war, and other existential themes.

He began publishing poetry in 1962 and was critically acclaimed almost immediately. He was the recipient of several awards in his lifetime, some of which are the Nobel prize for Literature in 1995, the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2006, and the E.M. Forster Award in 1975. He was one of the five elders of the Irish Arts Council and was bestowed with their highest honour, the title of Saoi, in 1997.

Heaney published over 20 volumes of poetry, and his first major volume was “Death of a Naturalist”. One of his most famous works is his translation of the Anglo-Saxon epic “Beowulf”. Some notable works of his are “Human Chain”, “Field Works”, and “Wintering Out”.

He died on 30 August 2013, in Ireland.

 

 

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