Analysis of Poem "Follower" by Seamus Heaney

Updated on March 6, 2018
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Seamus Heaney in 1970
Seamus Heaney in 1970 | Source

Seamus Heaney and Follower

Follower is a poem that focuses on the relationship between father and son, shifting in perspective from past to present, giving the reader an insight into a son's reaction to the passing of time and that same father grown old.

It is an autobiographical poem that throws light on the speaker's observations as a child and the influence of the father as he worked the land with the child following. There is a deep but almost hidden respect for the father, acknowledged as an expert.

First published in 1966 in the book Death of a Naturalist, Follower is one of many early poems Heaney wrote about his family and in particular his father. Most of these finely crafted poems are based in the farmlands and peaty boglands of County Derry, where the poet was born and raised.

  • Follower is a straightforward lyrical poem and is an excellent example of Heaney's use of rural language within a controlled syntax that is full of long and short vowels, contrasting consonants and varied rhythms.

Throughout there is the quality of keen observation and a quiet depth of purpose. The reader is placed directly alongside the speaker, into the field being furrowed, into the mind of a child now facing life as a man, and the frustrating reversal of roles.

Follower

My father worked with a horse-plough

His shoulders globed like a full sail strung

Between the shafts and the furrow.

The horses strained at his clicking tongue.


An expert. He would set the wing

And fit the bright steel-pointed sock.

The sod rolled over without breaking.

At the headrig, with a single pluck


Of reins the sweating team turned round

And back into the land. His eye

Narrowed and angled at the ground,

Mapping the furrow exactly.


I stumbled in his hob-nailed wake,

Fell sometimes on his polished sod;

Sometimes he rode me on his back

Dipping and rising to his plod.


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.


I was a nuisance, tripping, falling,

Yapping always. But today

It is my father who keeps stumbling

Behind me, and will not go away.

Summary of Follower

Follower is basically a poem of two halves, the neat, short lines a sort of mirror of ploughed fields ready for cultivation.

The first three stanzas focus on the father figure working the land with his horses, expertly creating furrows with the plough on the farm Heaney grew up on in Mossbawn.

This is the past, the speaker looking back in admiration at the way his father controlled the scene, with pluck and click, with hand, tongue and eye.

The fourth stanza changes perspective slightly. The first person 'I' enters the scene, the child, recalling just how he experienced his father's presence on the farm as they went up and down the field.

The speaker did have an urge to follow his father on to the land, to become a farmer...but didn't fulfil his childhood wants. He was in awe of his father. As a child he followed but only as a stumbler, a yapper, a tripper, a faller.

In the final stanza the turn or twist occurs. But today...the reader is thrown forwards into the present only to discover that the speaker is now in control, is the one moving forward, and behind him is the father, rather reduced in his role, perhaps too old to walk properly, clinging on.

This is a kind of cruel but inevitable reversal. Such a contrast to those past days when the father had energy and control but who is now it turns out, a follower himself.

Analysis of Follower - Rhyme and Metre (Meter in American English)

Rhyme

Follower has a rhyme scheme of abab for each stanza, but the rhymes aren't always full, they're often slant (or near) rhyme, or both.

This mix of full and slant tends to challenge the reader, who hears the full rhyme such as round/ground but then has to strain somewhat to relate strung/tongue. Full rhyme brings familiar sound and sense, whilst slant rhyme relates to dissonance.

This pattern continues right through the poem, so there is never a feeling of security in full rhyme, but an undercurrent of uncertainty follows the reader because of the near misses of rhyme.

Metre (Meter in American English)

There is a mix of feet throughout this poem though overall it can be scanned as iambic tetrameter, that is, iambic beats are the more obvious but others - trochee, pyrrhic and spondee also enter into the equation.

This mixture makes for a more varied and interesting read and brings the lines to life, connecting the physicality of the language with the action of the man and the horses and the rural rhythms.

  • So for example, the first stanza:

My fat / her worked / with a / horse-plough

His shoul / ders globed / like a full / sail strung

Between / the shafts / and the / furrow.

The hor / ses strained / at his click / ing tongue.

It's clear that each line starts off with iambic feet dominant, a steady da-DUM da-DUM reflecting the action of ploughing, but as each line progresses anapaests and spondees appear, which alter the beat with their different stress effects.

  • Some lines are pure iambic tetrameter:

I stum / bled in / his hob- /nailed wake,

  • whilst others have trochee and pyrrhic:

Mapping / the furr / ow ex / actly.

More Analysis of Follower - Poetic Devices

Follower is a rhyming poem of 6 stanzas, with 24 lines in total. It has a neat and formal look on the page.

Tone

This poem has a serious tone and a matter of fact approach to a memory of a father working the land. There is a sense of respect and dignity as the child watches the man, perhaps learning from him. Humility also comes through.

Language/Diction

Note the use of rural and agricultural language, a reflection of the poet's upbringing on a working farm. Such words as horse-plough, shafts, furrow,wing, steel-pointed sock, sod, headrig, hob-nailed, reins.

Enjambment

Some lines have no punctuation at the end and carry meaning on to the next line. Each stanza has a line or two of enjambment, stanza 2 carrying on to stanza 3, as if mirroring the action of the horses as they ended a field length of ploughing.

Alliteration

Alliteration helps with sound texture and brings added interest for the reader. Note the following:

full sail strung

steel-pointed sock

sweating team turned

Repetition

There are words repeated in stanza 3 - sometimes, and the verb stumbled occurs in the third and last stanzas, connecting the child with the father.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Andrew Spacey

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