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Of the Seamus Heaney poems I have read about his father, this is one that makes me sad. It is obvious from all of Heaney's poetry that he loved and admired his dad, but this poem, "Follower," carries something beyond reminiscence: there is melancholy, too.
Heaney begins by describing the work his dad does on the farm—plowing, but not with a tractor: he is using a horse-plough, and it is very hard work. He uses a simile to describe his father's shoulders as he walks down the lines created by the blade—guiding the horse with just a sound.
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.
Heaney praises his father's skill, calling him here an "expert." The process of plowing goes on, and the skill is evident with the line:
The sod rolled over without breaking.
This man plows straight; the blade is sharp. He approaches physical labor like an art. The team of horses, now sweating, turns and creates a new row. Heaney's father studies and calculates, and then navigates the horses to make it so:
Narrowed and angled at the ground,
Mapping the furrow exactly.
The focus of the poem noticeably shifts here. Now Heaney introduces himself—as a youngster—into the landscape. Here are the memories of a young boy with his father, relaying an acknowledgement of his young years and their clumsiness (delivered without apology), followed by pleasure—reminiscent of Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz"—seeing the world through the eyes of his childhood. He draws up the past for the reader's vicarious pleasure—with details that evoke (if we're lucky) a feeling of nostalgia for those simpler times with a parent or grandparent. It's a feeling that is almost painful in the yearning and pleasure it draws us to. For after his stumbling, his father takes him up to ride on his back; we can imagine the glee of a child holding on tightly with the rise and fall that follows his father's gait.
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.
The poem shifts ever so slightly again—Heaney wanted to grow up just like his father; he wanted to learn to plow with the grace and skill his dad exhibited in the field. But Heaney speaks literally and figuratively alluding to the past and present—to the way things turned out: he was only able to follow in his father's shadow—never able to be the farmer or man his father was.
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.
Heaney recalls that he was forever talking and tripping: sees himself as a nuisance while his father worked. His writing takes a melancholy turn as Heaney reports that today, his father stumbles behind him, and "will not go away."
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 last two lines may mean that his father is aging and can no longer keep up. Or Heaney may have made choices that his father struggled with, and this knowledge is what "will not go away." The roles have been reversed, and there seems to be regret for Heaney in the truth of this, as well as the knowledge that his father, the strongest and most skilled farmer, has lost that—lost the things that defined his father for Heaney when he was young.
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