The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 934

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“Field Work” is a love poem in four parts. It begins with a reasonably traditional joining of nature poetry and love poetry, seems to call itself into question, then resolves in an act of human contact and an assertion of the “perfection” of the beloved. The beloved is unidentified. So, too, is the landscape, although most of the details—“sally” or willow trees, furze, wildflowers, and currant shrubs—fit the Wicklow countryside often evoked in the book from which the poem comes (and to which the poem gives its title). Seamus Heaney often writes about the work on the Derry farm of his childhood, so the title of the poem at first suggests another evocation of farming; the “field work” here, however, amounts to a kind of peeling away of mistaken vision and literary allusion in order to find the actuality of the beloved.

Part 1 of the poem seems to be an observation of an idealized landscape of green ferns, breeze-rustled trees, and “perfect” nesting birds. The poet’s vision is sharp enough to focus on a particular and apparently unromantic, unpastoral detail: a vaccination mark on the upper arm of an as-yet-undefined “you.” A train comes by to interrupt the poet’s vision—indeed, to block his line of sight—and to intrude a harsh “coal smell” into the bucolic scene. The poet’s eye is echoed by the “perfect eye” of “nesting blackbirds” and the “big” eye of cattle on the passing train.

Part 2 begins with a surprise: The vaccination mark so carefully seen in part 1 now seems to be an error; the beloved’s vaccination is not on her upper arm but on her thigh. The possibility that vision has been distorted by a kind of literary learning arises when the poet seems almost to argue with himself as to whether the woman he watches is woman or dryad, human or a mythological wood-nymph. The smells that seemed such an intrusion in part 1 return more pleasantly, as a “mothering smell”—but, troublingly, one that arises apparently from a pile of old and rotting wood.

The poet’s eye or mind shifts to the moon, sadly to be seen only at a distance and in fact only remembered, not seen (the rest of the poem occurs in daylight, as far as one can tell). There is another suggestion of distortion, as well, in the image of the round coin nailed to the mast of the Pequod by Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab in Moby Dick (1851)—a prize for whoever first sights the great white whale. The ship’s officers look upon the coin and “interpret” it very differently, each according to his disposition and background. But the coin here seems to represent not the variousness of human understanding, but constancy; it remains “brilliant” despite the ship’s long voyage “across Atlantic and Pacific waters.”

Interestingly, when Heaney decided whether to include the poem in the substantial collection Selected Poems, 1966-1987 (1990), he omitted this part of the poem and reprinted only parts 1, 3, and 4. Perhaps the denial of the first two lines of the section made the first part seem too opaque; or perhaps, given its invocation of dryads and Captain Ahab, the whole section seemed too literary and allusive.

Part 3 makes another sudden jump, from the imagined world of the Pequod into the messy reality of nature, in the form of mud slicks, weedy water, and leaves. Yet the poem insists that these are “not” what the poet and the poem wish to draw our attention to. After nine lines of negatives—a prolonged and insistent effort to direct and focus the reader’s and the poet’s unreliable vision—the poem turns the reader’s eyes toward what it does want its audience to see: a single flower, a sunflower “braced” to a wall to support its great height. It is “all mouth and eye”—the O which is the center of its blossom dominates the petals of the flower; puzzlingly, it is “dreaming umber”—a word that will reappear more comprehensibly at the poem’s end. Unlike the mess of mud, reminiscent of the ring-wormed chestnuts in part 2, in the section’s opening lines, the flower stands apparently alone and aloof, suggesting a love that can withstand and indeed deny the muddy actualities of life. Yet the wall it stands against is “pebble-dashed” and thus like the water full of “pock-marked” leaves in the first stanza of the section, suggesting that such beauty and certainty must be seen within a context of disorder.

In part 4, the poem consists of three sentences spread out over twenty lines of poetry. The poem, as if to prepare its audience by contrast for the assertion of the final lines, reaches a low point of unpleasantness: a smell again, this time the “cat-piss smell” of the blossom of a currant shrub, unlike the sunflower of part 3 in that it is pink. Now the poet no longer relies upon the dubious and often distorted eye; he makes physical contact, touching the beloved for the first time in the poem, to place a moldy thumbprint on her hand, another O-shape, now not like a vaccination mark but like a birthmark, umber like the dream of the sunflower. The final lines are a clear and direct assertion of love:

you are stained, stainedto perfection.

The image both contains and conquers much of the poem’s unpleasantness; the mark is a stain but also a sign of love. It may just be that the stain is necessary; it is what makes the perfection. Perhaps love requires such acts of possession.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 311

The poem operates mostly as plain speech, avoiding decorative language and only occasionally (in the allusiveness of the dryad and the doubloon, for example) demanding some learning on the part of the reader. What is more relevant to the poem’s working its way toward the final assertion is some firsthand knowledge of nature; perhaps that is the “field work” (the work of the naturalist) to which the title refers. The four sections do not follow any fixed stanza pattern and eschew all rhyme; parts 1 and 3 employ free-verse tercets but differ in line length (part 1 employs a line of ten to twelve syllables, while part 3 varies much more, from four to ten syllables). Part 2 is arranged in unrhymed couplets, ranging from six to ten syllables per line. Part 4 is one continuous stanza, unrhymed and with short free-verse lines (three to six syllables). Offsetting this apparent randomness are recurrent metaphoric and actual instances of the shape of an O, which appears variously as a vaccination mark, a bird’s eye, a distant moon, a doubloon, a sunflower, and finally a thumbprint on the beloved’s hand. There are as well recurrent smells, not always pleasant by any means, but all likely to be encountered in a country landscape.

Yet the poem often seems at odds with itself, not only when it harps on the word “not” in part 3 but also in the apparent denial, in part 2, of the central image in part 1. In a very small space, the poem engenders a kind of tense dialogue, although the lovers do not speak to each other, and only at the very end do they touch. The poem is more enigmatic than most Heaney poems, although he is often a love poet and even more often a poet of nature—even of unpleasant and rather frightening nature, as in his famous “Death of a Naturalist.”