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.
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.
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.
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.
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 title of this poem is ambiguous - it shows how the young Heaney followed his father literally and metaphorically.
The child sees farming as simply imitating his father's actions (“close one eye, stiffen my arm”), but later learns how skilled the work is. He recalls his admiration of his father then; but now his father walks behind (this metaphor runs through the poem). Effectively their positions are reversed. His father is not literally behind him, but the poet is troubled by his memory: perhaps he feels guilt at not carrying on the tradition of farming, or feels he cannot live up to his father's example.
The poem has several developed metaphors, such as the child's following in his father's footsteps and wanting to be like him. The father is sturdy while the child falls - his feet are not big enough for him to be steady on the uneven land.
There are many nautical references:
· The father's shoulders are like the billowing sail of a ship.
· The “sod” rolls over “without breaking” (like a wave).
· The child stumbles “in his wake” and dips and rises on his father's back.
· “Mapping the furrow” is like navigating a ship.
In these images the farmer is not shown as simple but highly skilled.
Heaney uses specialized terms (a special lexicon or register) from ploughing - terms such as “wing”, “sock” and “headrig”. There are many active verbs - “rolled”, “stumbled”, “tripping”, “falling” and “yapping”. There are lots of monosyllables and colloquial vocabulary, frequently as the rhyme word at the end of line. Some of these terms sound like their meaning (onomatopoeia), like “clicking”, “pluck” and “yapping”.
The metre of the poems is more or less iambic (in tetrameters - four poetic feet/eight syllables to each line) and rhymed in quatrains (stanzas of four lines). We see a phrase without a verb written as sentence: “An expert”. The poet uses contrast - apart from the general contrast of past and present we note how:
· The father's control is effortless (“clicking tongue” or “single pluck/Of reins”) while the powerful horses (“sweating team”) strain, and how
· The young Seamus “wanted to grow up and plough.” but all he “ever did was follow”.