The Poem

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

“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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 1245 words.)

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