by Michael Woods
The central idea in the poem is the way the relationship between parents and children shifts through time, and their cyclical nature. Heaney moves from the perspective of a young, admiring son to an exasperated one. The child literally followed in his father’s footsteps as he ploughed or worked around the farm but he also follows him in a generational way. Finally, he is ruefully aware of his father’s dependence upon him, realising that his responsibility “will not go away” (line 24).
The opening stanza presents the poet’s father as a very strong farmer whose physical strength is prodigious. Heaney presents his younger self’s admiration for his father. The description of his “shoulders globed like a full sail strung” creates a strong visual image of physical effort, the assonantal rhyme of the ‘o’ sounds helps to reinforce this phonically. Also, there is a mythic suggestion here, as if the poet’s father could be Atlas holding the whole of the earth. The muscular tension and effort required for ploughing is finely conveyed through the likening in a simile of his father’s shirted back to a “full sail”; the rhyming of “strung” and “tongue” accentuates this through sound. The poet’s father’s control and mastery is also emphasised in line four:
“The horses strained at his clicking tongue”
This shows that the man is able to control tonnes of horseflesh with just a click of the tongue. There is, though, enormous strength required, too. What Heaney emphasises here, though, is the importance of technique combined with brute strength. Ploughing is a very precise art.
The second stanza opens with a short sentence that sums up the ploughman in just two words; he is “An expert.” Like all skilled exponents of a particular art, the poet’s father knows hi equipment intimately. Heaney describes carefully the precise details of the plough’s parts; everything is done properly. We are able to hear the clank of metal in the alliterated t’s in the words “set”, “fit”, “bright” and “steel-pointed”. The expertise claimed for the father by the admiring son is proven in the actual execution of the work in hand. Satisfyingly, “The sod rolled over without breaking.” This is akin to peeling an apple all in one go but it is a great deal more difficult. The fourth line of the stanza is linked by both sense and enjambment to the third stanza in a brilliant poetic touch:
“At the headrig, with a single pluck
of reins, the sweating team turned round
and back into the land.”
The headrig is at the extreme end of the furrow at eh edge of a field where the ploughman must turn (rather like a hairpin bend on a road) and return to start a new furrow. The turn is imitated by the verse being enjambed. The Latin word for turn is “versus” and it is clear that Heaney is deliberately employing this idea as the uses the word “turned”. His father’s consummate skill and control is again emphasised; all he needs to do is give “a single / pluck of reins” to make the horses turn. Of course, the “sweating team” comprises his father and his team of horses. The cooperation between and beast is presented here and it is intimately connected with the land. The remainder of the stanza concentrated on the precision of the poet’s father’s work. Terms normally associated with mathematics and cartography are employed:
Narrowed and angled at the ground,
Mapping the furrow exactly
The words “angled”, “mapped” and “exactly” tell us that the business of ploughing is very skilled and that being good at it requires a great deal of know how; there is a good deal more to it than meets the eye.
The first three stanzas concentrate on the poet’s father but the last three focus upon his own position as a child. Stanza four emphasises the child’s clumsiness in comparison with his skilled father, he “stumbled in his hobnailed wake”. The alliterated b’s with their plosive sound emphasise the physicality of the situation, while “wake” ties in with “sail” in stanza one – the boy is like a small boat in the wake of a big ship. The words “stumbled” and “fell” also prepare us for the idea of an old man becoming like the dependent child. There is a very effective rhythmical device in “dipping and rising to his plod”. Here, Heaney describes riding on his father’s back as he ploughed. This again emphasises the enormous strength of the father but also captures the up and down movement of his progress along the field through the use of vowel amplitude i.e. the short ‘i’ in ‘dipping’ and the long ‘i’ in ‘rising’.
Like all little boys, the poet wanted to emulate his father. The fact that he observed him minutely is revealed as he has clearly noticed that in order to achieve a good line he had to “close one eye”, and to keep control of the plough he had to “stiffen” an arm. The size of his father is emphasised again and his “broad shadow” is something that the child will be under until he is an independent adult.
The concluding stanza both develops the way in which the poet as boy felt as if he was a “nuisance, tripping, falling, / Yapping always.” (lines 21-2) and also presents us with another “turn” or volte face as the relationship between father and son shifts in time. This is signalled by the word “But” and the shift in tense of the verbs from past to present. This poem is an affectionate portrait of a strong man but it is also honest about the way we can all feel impatient with our parents at times.