The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 934 words.)