Last updated on September 9th, 2022 at 03:35 pm
About the poet:
Seamus Justin Heaney was an Irish poet, playwright, translator, and lecturer. He received the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature.
Heaney was a professor at Harvard from 1981 to 1997 and also its Poet in Residence from 1988 to 2006. Between 1989 and 1994, he was also the Professor of Poetry at Oxford and, in 1996, was made a Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres. Other awards won by him include the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize (1968), the E. M. Forster Award (1975), the PEN Translation Prize (1985), the Golden Wreath of Poetry (2001), the T. S. Eliot Prize (2006) and two Whitbread Prizes (1996 and 1999). In the year 2012, he was awarded the Lifetime Recognition Award from the Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry. His literary papers can be found at the National Library of Ireland.
Heaney was born on 13th April 1939, at the family in Northern Ireland. In 1957, Heaney started pursuing a course in English Language and Literature at Queen’s University, Belfast. At this time, he found a copy of Ted Hughes‘s Lupercal, which spurred him to write poetry. Heaney’s first book, Eleven Poems, was published in 1965 for the Queen’s University Festival. Faber and Faber brought out his first major volume, called Death of a Naturalist in 1966. In 1968, Heaney took part in a reading tour called Room to Rhyme, which led to much exposure for the poet’s work.
When Aosdána, the national Irish Arts Council, was established in 1981, Heaney was among those elected into its first group. In 1997, he was elected a Saoi as well, that is, as one of its five elders and its highest honour. While receiving an honorary doctorate from Fordham University in 1982, Heaney delivered the commencement address in a 46-stanza poem entitled “Verses for a Fordham Commencement”. Heaney died in the Blackrock Clinic in Dublin on 30th August 2013 following a short illness.
“Follower” by Seamus Heaney was published as part of his poetry collection entitled Death of a Naturalist in 1966. The poem is autobiographical in nature. In particular, it is about how Heaney admired and followed his father.
In this poem, Heaney reflects and looks back almost nostalgically at the tradition of Irish farming through a description of his father’s expertise in plowing the land at the family farm.
The poet places himself in his childhood and gives the reader his own point of view about the personal relationship that he had with his father. The development of this relationship from admiration to irritation is reflected in the lines, “But today/It is my father who keeps stumbling/Behind me, and will not go away.” This is a cycle which can easily be related to all over the world in many different situations.
The setting of Follower:
This poem is set in Heaney’s family farm, where he was born and brought up. As we have said before, that farm was located in Ireland. So the farm represents Ireland’s agricultural past. Like W. B. Yeats before him, Heaney’s poetry is aimed at looking back at the glorious past of Ireland in order to give the Irish people the confidence to assert that their own culture is in no way inferior to English culture. Hence the image of the farm is used by Heaney to build up a sense of national identity for his fellow Irish readers.
Stanza-wise Summary of Follower:
The poem consists of 6 stanzas. Each of these stanzas is again made up of 4 lines. Hence, the entire poem consists of 24 lines in total. This poem is written in the first person. Hence, we can equate the speaker of the poem with the poet himself.
My father worked with a horse-plough,
His shoulders globed like a full sail strung
Between the shafts and the furrow.
The horse strained at his clicking tongue.
In this stanza, the poet describes how his father worked on their family farm in order to earn their bread. He says that his father would plough the land with a horse-drawn implement. While doing so, his shoulders would become rounded as one hand of his was placed on the shafts that attached the horse to the plough, and the other one was bent on to the ground that was being ploughed. Whenever the poet sees this, he thinks it looks like a sail on a ship that has swelled up because of the flow of the wind into a similarly rounded shape. The horse that was pulling the plough would follow his father’s every instruction in the form of the clicking sounds he made when he wanted anything done, and that is why the horse never went out of control.
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
It is in this stanza that the poet’s great admiration of his father first finds expression. He calls his father an expert at what he does, that is, at farming. Since the poet speaks in the voice of his childhood self, he makes it clear to us that he did not know all the technical terms for the implements that his father used. He only describes them by the shapes they resemble. So he says that his father would set up the thing that looked like a bird’s wing, and fit the thing that looked like a sock that had been torn by a sharp and pointy bit of steel into the ground. As a result of these actions of his father’s the crop would easily be rolled over in one piece.
Of reins, the sweating team turned round
And back into the land. His eye
Narrowed and angled at the ground,
Mapping the furrow exactly.
Continuing from the last line of the previous stanza, the poet says that his father only had to pull on the reins of the horse in order to put the over-turned crop back into the land in one smooth go. After this, he would survey the hollow part of the ground that he had dug up and subsequently filled with the upturned crop by narrowing his eyes for a clearer picture and angling them for a more precise image.
I stumbled in his hob-nailed wake,
Fell sometimes on the polished sod;
Sometimes he rode me on his back
Dipping and rising to his plod.
In this stanza, the poet’s focus finally shifts from his father to his childhood self. He says that while his father was expertly ploughing the land, he himself only stumbled as he stood behind his father’s hobnailed boots. He would even fall on the ground sometimes. However, it is not as if his father ignored him. At times his father would let him ride on his back so that the poet would dip up and back down in accordance with his father’s style of walking.
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.
In this stanza, the poet says that as a child, he wants to be a farmer too when he grows up. He wants to close one eye to make his vision more precise like his father used to, and he wants to make his arm rigid in order to pull on the reins of the horse like his father as well. That is why he always follows his father around and stays under his shadow as he walks all over the farm engaging in his daily tasks.
I was a nuisance, tripping, falling,
Yapping always. But today
It is my father who keeps stumbling
Behind me, and will not go away.
In this stanza, the poet says that his father is not flattered with being followed around by him. Instead, the poet manages to irritate and annoy his father by tripping over things, falling down, and talking incessantly. However, when he has grown up, and at present, the roles of father and son, of leader and follower have been reversed. Now it is his father who keeps following him and sometimes stumbling. It is his father who will not leave him alone to do his work.
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