The Poem

“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...

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Forms and Devices

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.”