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"Follower" was first published in Seamus Heaney's 1966 anthology Death of a Naturalist. This first book of Heaney's career established his reputation as a poet almost overnight, and "Follower" is usually singled out as among the finest poems in that volume and among the most important of Heaney's poems from throughout his career. It establishes the main themes of Heaney's work, a poetry that is rooted in a sense of place in the rural Ireland of his boyhood and that laments the loss of old traditions that inevitably disappear among modern ways of life. Heaney considers that his family's traditional connection to the land and work as peasant farmers has come to an end in the modern world and must be continued by transformation into poetry. He uses the scholarly metaphor of pygmies standing on the shoulders of giants to suggest his indebtedness as a writer to his forebears' tradition of labor. He has since shaped a career based on navigation between tradition and the modern world, and on the transformation and translation of works of mythic tradition into modern English.

"Follower" has been widely republished in literary anthologies and in collections of Heaney's works, for instance in Heaney's Opened Ground: Poems 1966-1996.


Seamus Heaney was born on April 13, 1939, on the family farm of Mossbawn in County Derry, Northern Ireland. His family was Catholic, part of the minority population in Northern Ireland. He initially attended the local parish school, but soon won a scholarship to St. Columb's College, a prestigious Catholic boarding school in the city of Derry. He went on to take a First in English (the equivalent of an American bachelor's degree with honors) from the Queen's University of Belfast in 1961. He worked for two years on a teaching degree at St. Joseph's Teacher Training College, which included a year teaching English at a high School in Belfast. During this time he began to publish poems in local magazines. In 1963 he began lecturing in English at St. Joseph's. He also entered a circle of young poets patronized by Philip Hobsbaum, an established poet and a lecturer at Queen's University of Belfast. Under his patronage Heaney quickly came to the attention of prominent critics and published his first professional volume of poetry, Death of a Naturalist, including "Follower," in 1966. After this he would publish a new anthology of poetry every few years and constantly move on to more and more prestigious teaching posts. Between 1972 and 1980 he taught at Carysfort College in Dublin, which enabled him to move with his family (he married the teacher and writer Marie Devlin in 1965 and had sons Michael and Christopher in 1966 and 1968) to the Catholic Republic of Ireland. Acclaimed by critics as among the greatest living poets, in 1982 he began teaching at Harvard University and in 1989 at Oxford, maintaining his permanent residence in Dublin. Since 1994 he has made his living as a public speaker, no longer needing to teach to support himself.

In 1995 Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. The following anthology, Spirit Level, was awarded the prestigious Whitbread Prize, an honor of nearly the same rank in British letters as the Booker Prize, which, being awarded exclusively to novels, Heaney is ineligible for. His translation of Beowulf won another Whitbread in 1999. He has won innumerable lesser prizes and been awarded honorary doctoral degrees by Fordham University, Harvard University, and other schools.

Of Heaney's later poetry anthologies, perhaps the most important is Station Island (1984). Organized around his reenactment of the medieval practice of pilgrimage, Heaney considers in this volume the place and character of the poet in the modern world. One section of the book is devoted to poems inspired by the medieval Irish myth, The Madness of Sweeney, of which Heaney had published an interpretation, Sweeney Astray, the previous year. Heaney's adaptations of Greek drama, The Cure at Troy (1990), based on Sophocles' Philoctetes, and The Burial at Thebes (2004), based on Sophocles' Antigone, have also been well received. Since winning the Nobel Prize, Heaney has done an increasing number of translations out of Old and Middle English. Of these the most important is undoubtedly his rendering of Beowulf (1999), which is recognized as one of his most significant and influential works in any genre.


"Follower" consists of six four-line stanzas, or quatrains. Each stanza follows an abab rhyme scheme, meaning the first and third line of each stanza rhyme, as do the second and fourth. No particular metrical scheme is followed, and the length of the lines is determined by the ideas they contain and by grammatical breaks.

Stanza 1

Heaney takes as his subject a description of his father plowing a field. He does not use a tractor. No modern device intrudes on the scene. His father cuts through the field with an old-fashioned hand plow drawn by a horse. The use of horses (most likely a team) indicates some level of prosperity since a less successful farmer would be forced to use a cheaper draft animal such as an ox. The plough horses are well trained and respond to the plowman's voice command. The metaphor of the second and third lines is somewhat odd. The speaker views his father in profile and describes the curve of his body bent over in the act of plowing as the curve of a sail billowing out from attachment points at the handles of the plough and at the trench being cut into the sod by the plough blade. But, of course, the billowing shape in this instance is coming off the back of the plow and would suggest motion contrary to the forward progress of the plough. But, no doubt, the image is not used for its literal applicability but for its suggestion of the smooth motion of sailing, propelled by nature rather than a man-made device such as a tractor engine. The transformation of the plowman into a sail suggests that the plough as a whole is sailing over the field like a ship, and one cannot help but think that it is a vessel for the preservation of tradition, modeled, perhaps on the metaphor of the ship of the Church as the vessel preserving the faithful and Catholic tradition on the storm-tossed sea of the world. The fact that the father is stretched between the plow and the cut he is making in the ground also suggests the special connection of the farmer to the earth.

Stanza 2

The second stanza develops the theme of the father's expertise as a farmer. The process being described is a plough running over the earth to create a fold in which seed can be sown to germinate and hence produce a crop. The specialized blade that cuts into the soil and turns it over is called a moldboard. This is supported by a wooden framework with handles that allow the farmer to guide the plowing and a rigging at the head to enable the horses to pull the plough. The blade and framework together make up the plough. The pointed blade attached to the front of the moldboard that does the cutting is called a ploughshare, although Heaney makes a point of referring to it by an Irish dialectical word that is only a homonym to the English word ‘sock’; that is, it has the same sound but a completely different meaning and origin. The trailing part of the moldboard that actually turns the earth is likened by a conventional metaphor that is really a technical term to the similarly shaped anatomy of a bird. As his father plows, he leaves a solid swath of turned over soil, as opposed to a trail of broken clods of earth. This emphasizes again his father's special skill at his work, as does his control over the horses.

There is a striking enjambment between the second and third stanzas. Enjambment is the continuation of sense and grammatical units across the boundaries of metrical or formal units in poetry. In this case not only a sentence but a clause extends across the stanza break. This is a poetic representation of the continuous action of plowing: just as the plowman leaves a continuous path of sliced up earth, the poet keeps going smoothly across the stanzas. Given Heaney's love of the archaic, probably the effect he had in mind was the boustrophedon style of writing. When alphabetic writing was first introduced into Archaic Greece from the Near East, there was considerable uncertainty among scribes about the direction of the writing itself. Some chose to start at the left and write toward the right in the way that is standard in European languages (probably because of the prevalence of right-handedness). Others, however, preserved the Semitic practice of writing from right to left. A few examples survive in boustrophedon, in which the first line of a text reads from left to right, but the second from right to left, the third from left to right again, and so on, the scribe always writing the first letter of the next line directly underneath the last letter of the previous line. This type of writing is called boustrophedon from Greek words denoting the motion of plowing oxen back and forth across a field.

Stanza 3

The third stanza reiterates the early themes of the poem: the father's skill and perhaps the nautical metaphor of the first stanza, if there are references to the age of exploration under sail in the sense of navigating through the field requiring the making of a new map. The sense of repetition itself is important since once the plowman has crossed the field he must turned around and exactly repeat his procedure over and over, back and forth, until the entire field is plowed.

Stanza 4

So far the speaker has viewed his father's plowing through the eyes of memory. In the fourth stanza he suddenly sees and shows the reader his younger self, perhaps four or five years old, before he would have entered his parish school, playing in the field where his father is working. In the traditional society that Heaney was destined to leave as soon as he attended a prestigious boarding school in Derry, this is how children would have learned the routines and skills of labor on the farm, by playing and then working with their parents as they performed their age-old tasks. The likening of the long cuts made into the ground by his father's plowing through the waves left by the passage of a ship may be taken as a reemphasis of the earlier nautical metaphor. Heaney describes his young self as awkward and uncertain, unable to follow in his father's footsteps. But his father picks him up and lets him ride on his shoulders. These are powerful metaphors establishing the relationship between father and son. Heaney is unable to go forward in the tradition of his family and his father, but he is nevertheless supported and uplifted by that tradition.

Stanza 5

The fifth stanza deals with the speaker's incapacity to imitate his father's way of life. This is his desire, but his imitation is childish and exaggerated. He cannot become a plowman but can only follow behind the plowman. His father casts a shadow larger than his young body, a reference to the idea of being overshadowed by one's predecessors.

Stanza 6

In the first sentence of the last stanza Heaney characterizes his young self as a positive distraction, getting in the way of his father, and never able to keep up with him owing to his unstable awkwardness. Then, changing his perspective and tone, the speaker says that now the situation is reversed; his father is the awkward follower. Heaney's father was a peasant farmer, a man of tradition, who cannot make his way in the modern world as Heaney—a professor, writer, and poet—can do. His father's tradition is dead and his father with it, but yet it stands behind Heaney in his encounter with modernity. The fit between the two worlds is as awkward from the viewpoint of the modern as it was from the viewpoint of tradition: Heaney's childhood gracelessness was a foreshadowing of this. Young Heaney would not leave his father's footsteps, but playfully and haltingly dogged him. His father will now, however, stay behind Heaney, supporting him as a bridge to an imperishable tradition, however haltingly.



Much of Heaney's work is devoted to what, for want of a better word, may be called tradition. Tradition is the set of customs that are inherited by a culture and give it its identity. In "Follower," Heaney makes the particular craft of farming—his father's excellence at its tasks, as well as the close association between father and a son made possible by the traditional way of life in which a son was essentially apprenticed to his father for education—stand for tradition as a whole. A great deal of Heaney's later work has involved the adaptation or translation into modern English of works vital to the Western tradition including stories from Irish mythology, Greek tragedy, and the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf. In his own poetry Heaney often laments the loss of tradition. "Follower" is one of the most important examples of Heaney's treatment of tradition. It describes in loving, idealized terms the agricultural way of life that represents tradition for Heaney, in particular his father's way of life as he knew it in his own childhood. In the last stanza of the poem, there is a stark transition to Heaney's adult viewpoint, where his embrace of modernity and progress has jarringly pulled him out of the traditional way of life and left it a staggering wreck shambling behind him.

The Shoulders of Giants

In the fourth stanza of "Follower," Heaney describes his young self riding piggy-back on his father's shoulders while the elder is plowing. This is probably unlikely as a physical fact (though not impossible), but it is best taken as an allegorical reference to one of the most important themes of Western literature and culture, the idea that if modern people see farther than the ancients, it is because they are pygmies standing on the shoulders of giants. This slogan was first developed during the little Renaissance of the twelfth century when Western Europe received a great mass of Greek literature in Arabic translation, immensely enriching medieval culture. The phrase was coined by Bernard of Chartres, as quoted by Jacques Le Goff in The Birth of Europe, in the form "we are dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants," and has been repeated countless times since then. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance it meant that contemporary achievements were small and weak compared to those of Classical antiquity and that anything that seemed an advance over the ancients was only a tiny addition to the Greco-Roman foundation. The phrase continued to be popular during the Scientific Revolution, but in the less radical sense of indicating that each generation of researchers owes an enormous debt to their predecessors. In this sense the phrase has been adopted as the slogan of the Google Scholar service, which is dedicated to searching scholarly periodical literature on the Internet: "Stand on the shoulders of giants."

In more recent times, the Renaissance slogan has been used to criticize modernity. The cynical short story writer and essayist Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914) in his "Prattle" column in the San Francisco Examiner, used it to highlight the supposed insignificance of modern culture compared to that of the ancients:

My friends, we are pigmies and barbarians. We have hardly the rudiments of a true civilization; compared with the splendor of which we catch dim glimpses in the fading past, ours are as an illumination of tallow candles. We know no more than the ancients; we only know other things; but nothing in which is an assurance of perpetuity, and nothing which is truly wisdom. Our vaunted elixir vitae is the art of printing with movable types. What good will those do when posterity, struck by the inevitable intellectual blight, shall have ceased to read what is printed? Our libraries will become their stables, our books their fuel.

In Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883-85), the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche composes a parable in which a dwarf standing upon the soldiers of the ancient lawgiver Zarathustra is nevertheless unable to see the same profound insight that Zarathustra does because he is not only small in stature but also in imagination and vision, suggesting that the relatively small advances in philosophy and culture made since antiquity are insignificant compared to the original base.


  • Look through several art books with illustrations of genre paintings that provide images of peasant life in Northwestern Europe from the Middle Ages to the present. Then produce your own artistic interpretation of the characters in Heaney's "Follower."
  • What traditions does your family have? What have you learned from your parents and relatives? Write a poem describing how the ideas and wisdom you have inherited from your family will support what you intend to accomplish in the future.
  • Think of a period in history that you would like to visit. Write a short story detailing what it would be like if you went there and how you would influence the citizenry with your twenty-first century knowledge.
  • Brian Desmond's 1962 film Playboy of the Western World, an adaptation of the 1907 play by Irish playwright J.M. Synge, presents a satirical view of rural Irish life. Watch this film and discuss in a review how this film either illustrates or contrasts with the world mourned by Heaney in "Follower."

Heaney's use of the pygmies on the shoulders of giants motif seems somewhat different again. On the one hand he makes the pairing not of mythological or stereotypical figures, but of a father and son, suggesting a much stronger connection between the two halves of the metaphor than is usual, contradicting the function of the idea of size difference to emphasize the gulf between the ancients and moderns. On the other hand, the entire metaphor of learning falls apart because Heaney's academic education is in no usual sense dwarfed by his father's lack of conventional learning. Rather, what Heaney is

suggesting by these transformations is that the modern learned culture represented by himself, which is a link to the larger Western traditions of antiquity and the Renaissance, must be in some sense inferior and secondary to the traditional culture represented by his father. It is removed from the direct connection to the earth, which is the source of tradition.


The literal theme of "Follower" is plowing. This essential agricultural work has been used as a metaphor for the union of man and woman throughout the history of Western literature and going back to Mesopotamian and Egyptian literature. In this usage, the field is conceived of as feminine and the plough the masculine force. Karen Moloney, in Seamus Heaney and the Emblems of Hope has pointed out that the mythological theme of the pre-Christian Irish kings marrying the goddess earth and pledging to protect her as his wife would increasingly concern Heaney in his his later work. If we view the act of plowing in "Follower" as a symbolic marriage, it offers an explanation for the sudden appearance of young Heaney, as a sort of earth-born offspring of Ireland. The poem then takes on a dreamlike quality in which Heaney's birth and maturity, alongside the maturity and decline of his father, the succession of the generations, is compressed into a single moment. It emphasizes Heaney's rootedness in the tradition of rural Ireland.


Metrical Effects

Traditionally, poetry in English is marked by a special cadence or rhythm of the language used known as meter. For this purpose every syllable is said to be either stressed or unstressed. The meter consists of the repetition of metrical units known as feet: an iamb, for instance, is a foot consisting of an unstressed followed by a stressed syllable. The most common line of poetry in English is the iambic pentameter, that is, a line consisting of five iambs. It is almost possible to resolve the lines of Heaney's "Follower" into lines of iambic quadrameter (lines with four iambs), though with a few oddly placed pentameter lines. Given the overwhelmingly iambic character of ordinary spoken English, however, it seems more likely that Heaney is using more contemporary techniques of composition and abandoning meter as an element of the poem. He does use some metrical effects; for example, the last stanza of the poem describes awkward lurching motions and is heavy with trochees, or feet consisting of a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable, to suggest the unnatural movements.

Abab Rhyme Scheme

Rhyme was a native characteristic of Arabic poetry that was introduced during the Middle Ages into French and thence other Western European languages by troubadour poets who moved across the language border between Arabic and the Romance languages in northern Spain. Rhyme consists of having the sound at the end of one line, from the last accented syllable until its end, repeated in another line. Heaney follows this convention quite faithfully, with an abab rhyme scheme in each four-line stanza, meaning the first line rhymes with the third, and the second with the fourth. However, he frequently only rhymes the last syllable, not going back to the last accented syllable, and in many cases only matches long or short vowels rather than using syllables with the same vowels.


Heaney's "Follower" concerns the transition from a traditional way of life to a new way of life embedded in modernity. For Western civilization as a whole, this process began during the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth century. For Heaney's family and for the poet himself, this change occurred in the course of Heaney's own life and education.

In a traditional culture such as the one in which Heaney grew up in rural Ulster in the early 1940s, most people accepted the culture they were part of as given, not something to be questioned or examined. Life was based on closely held human relationships, not only within families but between individuals of differing classes, such as landowners and peasants, whose interactions created the economic fabric of culture. An individual's place in society was largely determined by his ancestry, with some exceptions, including peasant boys who became priests or sailors. Almost everyone lived as peasants, whose lives and livelihood were inextricably bound up with the natural world through their work as farmers. The perception then of an ideal life was a satisfying mixture of physical labor and wisdom that allowed one to successfully navigate society as it existed. Larger issues such as religion were also determined by family tradition. By and large culture was fixed and unchanging. This was seen to be good because it reflected a moral hierarchy and tradition that supported and transcended human existence; the individual led a good life by fulfilling his place in the societal order.

Heaney describes his boyhood life in this kind of environment in Crediting Poetry, the lecture he gave in acceptance of his Nobel Prize in 1995. He cherishes the satisfied isolation of his peasant family:

In the nineteen-forties, when I was the eldest child of an ever growing family in rural County Derry, we crowded together in the three rooms of a traditional thatched farmstead and lived a kind of den life which was more or less emotionally and intellectually proofed against the outside world.

To his boyhood self, the world seemed a place full of magic, which we may understand to mean animated with belief and meaning. The only way in which the outside world intruded was the single modern device in the family's life, the shortwave radio. Even this seemed to the young Heaney a source of divination and miracle, as magical voices talked about far-off events in a war that might as well be happening in the land of "Once upon a time." "But it was not only the earth that shook for us: the air around and above us was alive and signaling us as well," he recalled in his lecture. He did not at that time view the radio and the modern world it was a connection to as agents of change. Before he was sent to a modern school, where his parents hoped he would find the means of a life better than their own, or at least a place in the world outside their retreating livelihood, he accepted the order of the world as it was, as it had always been. "The wartime, in other words, was pre-reflective time for me. Pre-literate too. Pre-historical in its way."


  • 1940s: After the period 1920-25, when Ireland was partitioned into Northern Ireland, which continued as part of Great Britain, and the newly independent Irish Free State, political violence in Ireland sinks to a very low level.

    1960s: Northern Ireland is entering a period termed "The Troubles," a time characterized by violence between Catholic and Protestant paramilitary factions, violence that also involved and the British authorities.

    Today: Political tensions and violence have eased considerably following a number of negotiated settlements.

  • 1940s: Ulster, or Northern Ireland, has a more prosperous economy than the largely rural south because of its concentration of heavy industry, especially shipbuilding in Belfast.

    1960s: Despite the presence of industrial centers in the north, farming still accounts for a large segment of the economy in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

    Today: The economy of the Republic of Ireland has undergone a high-tech boom since the 1990s and has become one the wealthiest (per capita) countries in the world. Northern Ireland has benefited from the prosperity of its neighbor, and from relative peace, but it lags behind economically.

  • 1940s: Education beyond the equivalent of grade school is rare in rural Ireland.

    1960s: Education beyond the equivalent of grade school is still rare in rural Ireland and common only in the industrialized cities of Northern Ireland.

    Today: Education through the equivalent of high school is compulsory and college and graduate education are offered to all Irish citizens free of charge. The same is true in Northern Ireland.

Modernity brought dramatic change to every area of life, undermining and replacing almost every element of traditional ways of life, first in Western Europe and then increasingly throughout the whole world as Western culture became dominant in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment set about to examine all of the certainties that underpinned life in traditional culture—the very things that seemed to make civilized life safe and meaningful—and to expose these traditions as false or meaningless. The very nature of the universe was changed by the heliocentric revolution. The social order was overturned and shown to be built on injustice rather than justice by the French Revolution and such Enlightenment treatises as Thomas Paine's Rights of Man (1791), Jean-Jacques Rousseau's The Social Contract (1761), and eventually Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels's Communist Manifesto (1848). Social support for traditional religions also eroded as educated classes embraced deism and even atheism, while simple irreligion has become increasingly widespread, with, for instance, a dramatic decrease in church attendance in Western Europe throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Work once followed the natural rhythms of agricultural life and families worked together on farms with parents acting as teachers to their children, instructing them in the skills necessary for their lives. But the vast majority of workers were sooner or later forced to leave the land for employment in factories. This meant laboring at unfulfilling and often dangerous, repetitive work tending machines; it also meant separation of the family with fathers isolated for long hours in the factories. The twentieth century brought about two world wars, which turned the power of industrial production to the destruction of human life.


From the very beginning of Heaney's efforts to write poetry, established poets such as Philip Hobsbaum and critics like Edward Lucie-Smith acted as his patrons, so his work was quickly published and immediately gained widespread critical acceptance in the mid-1960s. Since the 1980s, he has regularly been called the greatest Irish poet since William Butler Yeats and the greatest living poet writing in English.

James Simmons was an early associate of Heaney, who studied with him under Hobsbaum. His article "The Trouble with Seamus," published in Seamus Heaney: A Collection of Critical Essays, breaks with the easy acceptance Heaney quickly gained in critical circles. He feels that Heaney, though capable of writing a few nice individual poems, was ruined by his early advancement, never having been forced to do the groundwork necessary to become a great poet. He is dismissive especially of Heaney's first volume of verse: "Most of the poems in that first book, Death of a Naturalist (1966), have the air of diligently done school exercises lacking any vision, passion or intellect." He excepts from this, however, "Follower," for its vivid, flowing language and what he terms its outspokenness.

Elmer Andrews's essay, "The Gift and the Craft," in Twentieth Century Literature, interprets "Follower" as a demarcation between two worlds: the unexamined, illiterate life of traditional Irishmen into which Heaney was born, and the self-consciously reflective world of English literature into which Heaney was educated, where direct experience is impossible and sensation must be mediated by thought. In "The Spirit' Protest," from Seamus Heaney: A Collection of Critical Essays, Andrews also singles out "Follower" as unusual among Heaney's poetry. In his view the poem "highlights the way family relationships can be a burden as well as sustaining. Here, old ways and old allegiances prevent free movement and personal development." Alan Peacock, in an essay titled "Meditations: Poet as Translator, Poet as Seer," also in SeamusHeaney: A Collection of Critical Essays, takes up the same theme, seeing the poem as defining limits the poet imposes on himself because he is unwilling to betray the tradition represented by his father. Peacock's interpretation of the poem's last stanza is standard, seeing the father's halting gait as an admission that Heaney is moving away from his beloved tradition. John Boly, a widely published professor of English at Marquette University, has offered in an article in Twentieth Century Literature a different interpretation of this final passage of the poem: "The lurching father suggests a voodoo zombie dug up by some malevolent Pedro loa and set to work in the plantations of Haiti. With no will of his own, the heroic ploughman loses control of his own limbs." This view has not been echoed by other critics.


Bradley A. Skeen

Skeen is a classics professor. In this essay, he considers "Follower" in relation to romantic and post-romantic concepts of tradition.

Heaney's "Follower" laments the loss of contact with a tradition of family, of place, and of long ages past that nevertheless sits beneath and sustains his poetical work. The boundary between the traditional way of life that has shaped human culture and modernity was drawn for the educated classes of Europe toward the end of the eighteenth century. The change from tradition to modernity has come to the rest of the world as each place has contacted and absorbed modern Western culture. For Heaney it came when he won a scholarship to St. Columb's Catholic boarding school in Derry and he was thrust from the family farm into a new world of learning. "Follower" is about the loss of tradition. In fact, the main theme of Heaney's poetic career is the sense of loss that accompanies moving away from tradition. His poems often focus on the details of his family life in his childhood before his personal break with tradition. He has tried to create an English in his poems accessible to modern audiences, but nevertheless drawn equally from the language heard in his childhood from family and neighbors, and from the heroic and archaic Anglo-Saxon he studied at university. He sees the unity between those two roots of his language not in their shared tradition, which is slight, but in their shared possession of a tradition in contrast to the more artificial language of polite English society, often called BBC English because it is recognized as the creation of a specific and very modern consensus. For this reason the magnum opus of the latter part of Heaney's career is the translation of the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, which he rendered into the remembered language of his youth. Through that work, adaptations of Irish myth (Sweeney Astray, 1983), and Greek dramas (The Cure at Troy, 1990; The Burial at Thebes, 2004), Heaney attempts to speak in the lost idiom of tradition.


  • Heaney's 1999 translation of Beowulf is acknowledged as the masterpiece of his later career. His style of translation points out similarities he sees between the epic diction of the Old English verse and the conversational speech of the peasant farmers he grew up among.
  • Kathleen Raine's Collected Poems, 1935-1980, published in 1981, presents the primary works by a leading self-avowed traditionalist poet who is interested in many of the same themes as Heaney.
  • Some Experiences of an Irish RM, published in 1899 by Edith Somerville and Violet Martin, is a series of comic short stories concerning an English Resident Magistrate attempting to bring the benefits of modern British civilization to the Irish countryside. It was followed by two more collections, Further Experiences of an Irish RM (1908) and In Mr. Knox's Country (1915). Most of the stories in these volumes were adapted into a long-running British television series, The Irish RM by Ulster Television in the 1980s.
  • Conor McCarthy's Seamus Heaney and Medieval Poetry (2008) treats Heaney's use of medieval myth and poetry in his translations and adaptations.
  • William Butler Yeats is the most famous Irish poet to precede Heaney. Like Heaney, he is an Irish poet and a Nobel Laureate who dealt extensively with Irish myth and tradition. His poems have been frequently collected and republished, for instance in the edition edited by Richard J. Finneran, The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (1989).

But what is this tradition whose loss so concerns Heaney? Tradition is the story that a culture tells about itself, that defines itself and expresses the hopes and aspirations of a people. Tradition tells this story not only in the words of poets but in every moment of life, as Heaney insists, even in the farmer plowing and digging. Tradition is true in the sense of giving an expression of cultural identity. However, it may well contain historical, mythological, or folkloric information that is not factually true from the viewpoint of logic or from a scientific examination of evidence. The apparent falsification of tradition by academic investigation does not make it any less vital. Balancing the idea of a tradition as true with the fact that it is not true makes it impossible for modern people to participate in tradition unself-consciously, as premodern people did, and leads to alienation from tradition. The alienation of modernity arises from the perception that life in a modern industrializing society fragmented tradition, that capitalism replaced class structure with class warfare, and that science and the Enlightenment held up traditional social institutions and their associated belief systems to ridicule. The bonds between man and God become ignorant superstition, the corruption of Church officials, and intolerance for freedom of thought; the bonds of man to man become the oppressive tyranny of medieval social hierarchy; the bonds of man to the world become a hindrance to scientific exploration and commercial exploitation. A man like Heaney, who desperately longs for tradition, can never participate in it again once the modern world has cast him out of his Eden; he must forever be a stranger in his own land. Modern people are doomed to stand apart from tradition and examine it from the outside, seeing through it and around it, but never again within it.

Poetry itself was one of the traditions most dramatically and directly effected by the rise of the modern world. In the traditional world, the poet of the sort who composed Beowulf is a bard. He does not tell the story of himself or of any particular individual but composes epics, or tales of a mythic hero who encounters gods and monsters. He tells the myths and legends that define the very nature of his own culture. He cannot read or write but rather composes his songs through repetition and other literary devices of the oral tradition. Though his artistry is free to shape the brilliance of each performance, he does not speak in his own voice, but in a metalanguage of lines and half-lines of verse composed by generations of bards before him, all of which he holds in his memory, selecting and recombining them into new songs the way ordinary speakers make sentences out of words. The bard holds an honored place within the social hierarchy that governs traditional society, patronized by nobles and kings, but is gratefully heard by the people as a whole at festivals and singing competitions. In the twenty-first century, however, the modern sort of poet must speak in his own unique voice and must speak only his own story: only that isolated truth is given value. The contemporary poet's relationship to his own culture is one of alienation and conflict. He is cut off from tradition. In this sense, he could not compose a true epic even if he desired to; he could, however, write about the impossibility of composing an epic. Contemporary poetry is, for the most part, read only by other poets and academics (Heaney is the great exception to this, and accounts for about two-thirds of all poetry books sold in the United Kingdom.) Forced by circumstance to be one sort of poet, Heaney perhaps longs to be the other.

Reaction against the alienation of traditional European culture effected by the advent of modernity was not long in coming in the form of the romantic movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In the twenty-first century, romanticism is considered a literary movement, but the intellectual force behind it, especially in such philosophical figures as Goethe, Schiller, and Wordsworth, recognized the transformation of culture that was happening. Many positive developments, especially for the individual, came with modernity: increased personal freedom, the intellectual certainties of science, modern sanitation, improvements in medicine, the phenomenal growth of knowledge in general, and many other advances. But the romantics nevertheless felt that something was being lost with the passing of tradition. What they aimed at was a logical syllogism, or deductive reasoning, where the thesis of tradition and the antithesis of modernity (both good things by themselves, though in radically different and mutually contradictory ways) could be reconciled because the elementary basis of tradition was still harbored within the soul of humankind. This reconciliation would then produce a wholly new synthesis that would supersede and at the same time combine the best parts of both. However, the synthesis eluded the romantics and modern culture has become increasingly distant from tradition.

More recent mainstream reactions to modernity, which may be roughly equated with postmodernism, hold that meaning is more and more invested with the individual and his perception of the world, rather than any objective reality. Even in the case of texts, authorial intent matters little compared to the critic's perception. Each individual is left alone to create his own world, finally and utterly cut free of the anchor of tradition. A different reaction to modernity is traditionalism. This is a marginal political movement that began at the start of the twentieth century in southern Europe, particularly with the writings of the French intellectual René Guénon (1886-1951) and the German-Swiss philosopher Frithjof Schuon (1907-98). The principles of traditionalism hold that human life derives its meaning from being enmeshed in a tradition that goes back to the earliest civilizations and beyond, ultimately to a source of supernatural revelation such as the Judeo-Christian Bible, the Koran, or the Chinese I-Ching; traditionalism considers all religions to be equally valid expressions of tradition. Traditionalism is less willing than romanticism to compromise with modernity or to see the good in it, but, at the same time, traditionalism lacks any definite answer to the problem of modernity and advocates waiting and preserving tradition, especially links to traditional institutions, insofar as possible until conditions change, making a revival of tradition possible.

Though today it is difficult to see how it could be brought about, traditionalism seeks nothing less than a different modernity, one that develops in support of, rather than in opposition to, tradition. This view has gained more support in the Islamic world as a political adjunct of the Sufi school than in Western Europe or the United States. The great voice of traditionalism has been the English poet Kathleen Raine (1908-2003), who used ancient Greek and Christian traditions to express the particularities of her experience, producing a body of work that is in many ways comparable to Heaney's.

Heaney has never associated himself with the traditionalist movement, and given its marginal place in European politics and intellectual life, he may well not even know of its existence. In fact, Heaney has eschewed all involvement with politics since the beginning of the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. As he says in his Nobel address, later published as Crediting Poetry, "We have terrible proof that pride in the ethnic and religious heritage can quickly degrade into the fascistic." In this way he distances himself from traditionalism as political activism, avoiding the trap some traditionalists fell into. Nevertheless, Heaney's ideas share many features in common with premises of traditionalism. His poetry is rooted in a specific place, and in the history of that place. In his Nobel lecture, he expressed this in describing a vivid accident that occurred on the morning the announcement of his Nobel Prize was made. He happened to be in Sparta and saw in the museum there a plaque dedicated to the mythical poet Orpheus:

The image moved me because of its antiquity and durability, but the description on the card moved me also because it gave a name and credence to that which I see myself as having been engaged upon for the past three decades: "Votive panel," the identification card said, "possibly set up to Orpheus by local poet. Local work of the Hellenistic period."

He does not limit inspiration to the single place of Derry or Ireland that is his. The voice of each place is equally valid:

But it strikes me that it could equally well come out of India or Africa or the Arctic or the Americas. By which I do not mean merely to consign it to the typology of folktales, or to dispute its value by questioning its culture-bound status within a multicultural context. On the contrary, its trustworthiness and its travelworthiness have to do with its local setting.

For Heaney, as for the traditionalist, the tradition of any place is as fit a subject of poetry as any other. Heaney's concept of crediting poetry is not an appreciation of poetry, or merely belief in its beauty and importance, but rather a way to use poetry to reattach to the anchor of tradition and stand against the shifting currents of the postmodern world. "What I was longing for was not quite stability but an active escape from the quicksand of relativism, a way of crediting poetry without anxiety or apology," Heaney explained in his Nobel address. He wishes to embrace poetry without distancing thought from consideration, just as the ancient bards had done, though he knows that as a modern person he cannot do so. Heaney sees himself as another kind of traditional writer, the medieval monk, preserving a tradition he cannot advance. He described it thus to the Nobel audience:

… For years I was bowed to the desk like some monk bowed over his prie-dieu, some dutiful contemplative pivoting his understanding in an attempt to bear his portion of the weight of the world, knowing himself incapable of heroic virtue or redemptive effect, but constrained by his obedience to his rule to repeat the effort and the posture.

Heaney is a pygmy standing on the shoulders of giants; using a different metaphor, he cannot build a fire himself (that is, write an epic poem), but must content himself with "blowing up sparks for a meagre heat," as he put it in his Nobel address, in other words, with writing the poetry that he does. At the same time, he is aware that many elements of modernity have grown into monstrous giants themselves and make poetry seem feeble. He wants a poetry that can equal the modern world, a poetry that would have to be myth, the literary form of tradition, and could support and create a different reality than the modern.

In the first poem in Death of a Naturalist, "Digging," Heaney establishes the profession of his father as digging, whether the small scale farming that was his main profession, or in the vegetable garden, or in his outside work cutting peat from a bog. He notes the excellence of his father in this work, a quality that is ancestral in the family going back generations. Heaney himself, however, is detached from this tradition. He does not work with a spade but with a pen. Nevertheless, he feels the imperative to continue in the same ancient tradition: he must dig with his pen. He can no longer participate in the tradition of his family, of his place, but must—not can, but must—instead keep the tradition alive through writing it. It is in this sense that Heaney is the follower of his father, even as he goes on where his father cannot follow. In "Follower" Heaney proclaims himself the follower of tradition, but is nevertheless forced to move away from a tradition that cannot follow him into the modern world.

Source: Bradley A. Skeen, Critical Essay on "Follower," in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.

John Boly

In the following excerpt, Boly discusses the speaker, eulogy, and poetic melancholy in Heaney's "Follower."

Readers of Seamus Heaney's poetry may remember the scene in "Follower" when the father, hard at work with spring ploughing, interrupts his task to reach down, pick up his little boy, and set him on his shoulders. It is an intimate detail made poignant by the speaker's point of view; now an adult, he recollects a moment in childhood shared with a father who has passed away. Composed altogether of nine such scenes, the poem serves as a funerary monument. The father and horse plough appear first, much as would the central figure of a classical frieze, and then supporting scenes encircle them: the father adjusting the coulter, pivoting the team, striding about the farm with his son following. As would be expected from the shallow depths of a bas-relief, there is no background. Though set in the bloom of an Irish spring, the poem makes no mention of wildflowers, birdsongs, the rich odors of wet steel, freshly turned earth, and weathered tack. Instead, a sculptural austerity prevails. A few clicks of the ploughman's tongue and the massive draft surge against the traces. The thick clay, doubtlessly sodden from winter rains, curls with an effortless grace. As if to defy the mystery of death, a raking light captures each detail so it is possible to feel the ploughman's eye squint as he lines up his next pass, or his son's slender arm stiffen as he dreams of one day driving the team himself.

The scene provides an ideal opportunity for poetic melancholy. The child, grown up, discovers like the creator of another cold pastoral that he may never enter the world of his beholding. Yet the tone of "Follower"'s initial persona suggests something different from longing or regret: relief, maybe even accomplishment. Homages to the dead can also serve the interests of the living, and it is not unusual for such reminiscences to become a means of containment. As Rene Girard notes in Violence and the Sacred, "With death a contagious sort of violence is let loose on the community, and the living must take steps to protect themselves against it. So they quarantine death …" (255).

The cliche about speaking no ill of the dead may present itself as an act of reverence for the deceased, but it also protects the living. The well-groomed anecdotes and recollections found in funereal genres help to edit painful memories and displace ugly secrets. It might even be possible to construct a correlative index. The more intense an effort to enshrine the dead (to seal, fix, finish them), the greater their threat. If so, the danger in "Follower" would be considerable because the initial persona resorts to one of the most powerful of mythemes to contain his father. The illud tempus, or "those times," commemorates the timeless moment when creation moved in perfect harmony with the gods. After the war between heaven and earth, historical beings were forever barred from revisiting this condition, except in the symbolism of sacred ritual (Eliade 80). It is to this forbidden place that the son transports his father, to become one of the ancient giants who towers over the mortals of subsequent ages. This mythical parent acquires the might of a Titan whom creatures, wind, and the earth itself obey. The events of his life unfold with the solemn inevitability of a sacred rite. There is no mention of his thoughts, for all is arranged in accordance with the eternal rhythms of nature. Such mastery cannot exist within human experience, and that is the point. The father, securely entombed in a timeless self-sufficiency, will never climb down from his stone monument.

Or at least that would be the case were it not for the poem's last lines. As with many of the poems in Death of a Naturalist, "Follower" does not end; it interrupts itself with the beginning of a completely different poem.

But today
It is my father who keeps stumbling
Behind me, and will not go away.

A new world emerges. Sudden shadows overtake the scene and a hitherto idealized being turns demonic. The lurching father suggests a voodoo zombi dug up by some malevolent Pedro Ioa and set to work in the plantations of Haiti. With no will of his own, the heroic ploughman loses control of his own limbs. There is no hint of what conjures this apparition from the father's sculptural repose, nor any indication of its subsequent actions. Unless, that is, this bare plot fragment is itself an act of conjuring in that it opens the way to so many counterplots. Does the father wish to accuse, judge, punish, forgive, or thank the son. The silent, grim, and reeling shadow offers no answers. For whatever reason, "Follower" ends with the dead awakened from the spell of illud tempus and returning to a "now" forever poised at the threshold of human time.

What unspoken summons leads to this unconcluding interruption? Although the poem probably has but one speaker, this dramatic character in turn comprises at least two different personas. Poetic speakers readily play distinct roles within the same work, even when the poem is a monologue. In "Follower," however, the text withholds the information needed to understand the inner conflict that generates the speaker's separate roles. The last persona might be heard as assigning blame with an insistent "It is my father who keeps stumbling / Behind me, and will not go away." But an imaginative reader could also hear the lines in a way that indicates surprise, resignation, terror, guilt, or even satisfaction. A reader is put in the situation of an outsider unexpectedly caught up in a family feud, perhaps recruited by the warring parties but given no explanation of their conflict. One interpretive move would be to rely on social convention. Suppose the second persona begrudges the harmless compliments paid by the first? What would be so wrong with glossing over memories from childhood? Did the horses lag at field's end, or the ploughshare veer to one side, or the father sometimes need to rest? Assuming that the first persona's remarks were sanitized, would that be so terrible in a reminiscence of the dead, particularly of one's father? If called upon, social convention delivers its usual swift judgment, in this instance by pronouncing the second persona to be irrational, horrid, distracted, or deeply troubled, with the choice depending on a preference for normalization, projection, displacement, or denial. But few responses are more suspect than the reflexes of social convention, however gratifying it may be to join in communal outrage.

If there are no direct connections between the speaker's beautiful memories and his puzzling self-interruption, and if a moralizing judgment is not the answer, then readers must turn to other resources. Some concepts from speech act theory may be useful here in that they distinguish otherwise simultaneous aspects of a locution. In How to Do Things with Words, John Austin quickly moves beyond an initial distinction between constatives (which assert something to be true or false about a state of affairs) and performatives (which accomplish social actions such as reassuring, misleading, belittling, inspiring, etc.) Yet his earlier formation still has considerable value for critical practice. The speaker in "Follower" clearly provides the constatives of the poem's fictional "information." At the same time, he also enacts a series of performatives, each of which plays out a drama in brief. While his constatives are restricted, his performatives are not. There is only so much information available in the poem. But how many different performatives are there? In the last lines of "Follower" for example, does the persona lament that he did not become a farmer, unearth a repressed experience, interject a screen memory that actually conceals something else, wreck a belated revenge on a tyrannical parent, shrewdly enlist one of numerous possible tactics for eliciting his listeners' sympathy, etc.? With face-to-face communications, human beings commonly identify performatives on the basis of contextual cues. "I will see you" might be a promise to someone in love with the speaker, a deliverance to someone caught in a tedious conversation, or a threat to someone who owes the speaker money. Notwithstanding the confidence many people have in their judgment, the process of identifying performatives is notoriously perilous. In the case of imaginative literature, matters are even worse. Literary works oblige readers to identify performatives mainly on the basis of internal cues, yet they deliberately omit, ambiguate, and overload such markers. To tell if an acquaintance were evening scores with a less-than-perfect parent, a listener might refer to factors such as the speaker's intonation, the nature of the occasion, their prior encounters, the genre (letter, casual remark, retort), etc. But if the only access to a speaker's performatives is through a compressed and richly metaphorical text, then the performatives' potential meanings quickly outpace calculation. Necessarily, to interpret the purely textual and thus unrestricted performatives of a literary text requires a departure from the conventions of understanding ordinary speech acts. A literary text asks its readers to consider whether its performatives include some that are unintended by a speaker, or even at odds with one another. Nor is this a strictly modern preoccupation. Shakespeare's plays offer a great many scenes in which characters sincerely believe in their benign constatives, yet enact bloodthirsty and cynical betrayals. And they virtually consist of utterances whose leading metaphors portray the cast and setting of a coherent action, yet at the same time bear within themselves a medley of divergent and even contradictory dramas.

Literary criticism has much to learn about the various elements that cue a performative, or the complex interactions that may occur among multiple performatives. One matter, though, is clear. Some performative cues are relatively apparent in that they consist of familiar generic and stylistic elements. Other cues, however, may consist of more subtle markers: a gap in narrative continuity, a shift in physical perspective, a slight discrepancy within a metaphor's source domain. As with Austin's other distinctions, the various performatives of a literary text cannot be neatly divided into so many discrete textual segments, for they are simultaneous. A passage within a work of fiction, or lines within a poem, may contain an array of performative cues. And each of these may bring into being the cast and conflict of a different social world. As a heuristic, however, the performatives of any given passage may be roughly divided between a primary set signaled by familiar and apparent markers, and a secondary set signaled by less commonly noted and thus less conspicuous markers. Adapting a term from Foucault, the performatives of these secondary markers can be considered as heterotopias. In his essay "Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias," Foucault describes a heterotopia as a space that potentially connects to any other space, yet whose internal relationships "halt, suspend, or invert" conventional relationships (350). As well as its main drama, then, a literary work's performatives may further enact a series of heterotopias or spaces of decoding. By patiently tracing these spaces of the other, it becomes possible to delve into the tacit history of a locution, even should that history be entombed within a protective funerary art.

The framing drama of "Follower" suggests an amiable scene, perhaps a pub or other informal gathering. The conversation has perhaps turned to a harmless rivalry. Whose family and kin were closest to the land? The audience is probably a small group rather than an individual, for grandiloquence such as "His shoulders globed like a full sail strung …" would be too great a risk with just one person. Its members do not know the speaker well, otherwise they would not need to be told he is talking about his own father. Most likely the audience consists of outsiders unfamiliar with the husbandry skills that were common prior to the use of farm tractors. Were they locals they would be unimpressed by the initial flourish of rural argot: "shafts," "wing," "sock," "headrig." Interestingly, the speaker draws on this lexicon for only the first two quatrains. Each term occurs once, after which he returns to a more standard diction. His brief and well-placed display of verbal expertise leaves the impression of someone, perhaps an outsider himself, who mimics a ploughman's language just long enough to assume the role. Whatever his intentions, the initial persona plays several tramps in this conversational game. His ancestors belong to a tradition of survival that reaches back to fifth-century BC tillers of millet, and his diction confers an expert's knowledge and authority. Put simply, he pulls rank.

In different circumstances, even casual companions would grow suspicious and maybe resentful. But "Follower" also conducts a ceremony for honoring the dead, a eulogy, which tightly restricts an audience's responses. Anyone within earshot of a eulogy is supposed to listen respectfully. Doing so is a social obligation because the dead, if not put to rest, may wreak havoc anywhere. Those in attendance must furthermore take the speaker at his word, lest irony or innuendo begin to unravel the pall of reverence. Eulogies are usually announced well in advance so that participants can arrive well prepared to play their attentive and supportive roles. Yet "Follower"'s band of mourners find themselves inducted without benefit of either prior notice or situational cues, so they could not possibly anticipate the consequences of the subtle net in which they are caught. Only a gradual accumulation of past tenses hints that the father has passed away, and even this remains an inference, not a fact. The eulogy's restrictions of the audience insinuate rather than announce themselves. Perhaps the father is still alive, but who would dare ask? By the time the listeners understand the drama in which they have been cast, it is too late. They have no choice but to play their assigned role.

But what about the restrictions on the speaker? Some generic codes are relevant here. A eulogy is not an encomium, which requires emotional warmth from the speaker; or a panegyric, which requires richly elaborated praise; or a tribute, which requires both profound grief and a substantial memorial, preferably one that involves heavy expense. Eulogies instead tend to be set pieces, delivered by commissioned rhetors, who do not know the deceased well, if at all. In a busy world, a eulogy offers a ready-made and convenient template, complete with fill-in blanks. All the initial persona of "Follower" need do is follow the numbers.

1. Put the deceased at center stage, but describe general features common to a role rather than specific details about an individual.

Anyone working a horse-drawn plough must adjust the share depth and angle of the moldboard according to the soil conditions, keep a solid grip on the lurching handles, turn the team at field's end, and match the furrows so as to waste neither time nor tillage. These are also the major events of the poem.

2. Keep it safe and shallow.

The two-dimensional ploughman appears entirely from the outside, just like his draft horses. The audience learns nothing of the father's thoughts, dreams, or disappointments, not even those that would be risk-free truisms such as his great love of the land or deep concern for his family.

3. To heighten the reality effect, and keep disharmonious memories at bay, weave several different occasions into a single memorable episode.

The eulogy forsakes the splays and tangles of historical time for the fight inevitability of a plot. It creates an unbroken thread, but at a high cost of exclusion.

4. End with a contrast between the ennobled past and the dismal future.

There can be no doubt concerning the difference between the father's manly prowess and the son's childish mimicry.

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.

While such dogged adherence to generic convention would make sense for a professional, especially one who is rushed or underpaid, for a son it raises questions about the purpose of his performative. Is its primary objective to conduct an act of homage to the dead? Or is this only a tactical means to another end, namely to exercise inescapable power over a conscript and submissive audience? It is a curious issue to raise, were it not for the even more curious absence of either emotion or understanding of son for father …

Source: John Boly, "Following Seamus Heaney's ‘Follower’: Toward a Performative Criticism," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 46, No. 3, Fall 2000, p. 269.

Elmer Andrews

In the following excerpt, Andrews explores the opposition of masculine and feminine elements in Heaney's poems, including "Follower."

… Everywhere in his writings Heaney is acutely sensitive to the opposition between masculine will and intelligence on the one hand, and, on the other, feminine instinct and emotion; between architectonic masculinity and natural female feeling for mystery and divination. It is the opposition between the arena of public affairs and the intimate, secret stations of "the realms of whisper." He uses it to describe the tension between English influence and Irish experience ("The feminine element for me involves the matter of Ireland and the masculine strain is drawn from involvement with English literature" [Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978, 132]). It underlies two different responses to landscape, one that is "lived, illiterate and unconscious," and one that is "learned, literate and conscious" (P, p. 131). Early poems like "Digging" and "Follower" establish his troubling self-consciousness about the relationship between "roots and reading," the lived and the learned.

In attempting to resolve these contrarieties, the example of Patrick Kavanagh was invaluable. Kavanagh, the son of a country shoemaker in Inishkeen, County Monaghan, made the move from his native parish to London in 1937, and then in 1939 to Dublin, where he spent most of the rest of his life. Kavanagh's career seemed to Heaney to parallel much in his own, especially the conflict between "the illiterate self that was tied to the little hills and earthed in the stony grey soil and the literate self that pined for ‘the City of Kings / Where art, music and letters were the real things’" (P, p. 137). The importance to Heaney of Kavanagh's "The Great Hunger" lay in the balance achieved between "intimacy with actual clay" (P, p. 122) and "the penalty of consciousness" (P, p. 118), through which Kavanagh proved the poet's imaginative self-sufficiency within his own parish. Kavanagh's assertion that "parochialism is universal, it deals with fundamentals" gave Heaney confidence in the poetic validity of his own preoccupation with his County Derry childhood. From Kavanagh's most successful work he could learn from a poet who had managed to develop ironic points of vantage on his material, which promoted the articulation of more subtle, complex feelings about the relationship between poet and place.

The pervasiveness of the masculine/feminine opposition in Heaney's writings about himself and other poets originates in a deepseated sense of his own divided feelings and experience. His poetry reflects the attempt to reconcile the tension. The poem, Heaney says, should be a "completely successful love act between the craft and the gift." But it is the gift, the initial incubatory action, he keeps reminding us, which is for him the crucial stage in the creative process. A poem, he believes, can survive stylistic blemishes that are due to inadequate crafting, but "it cannot survive a still-birth" (P, p. 49). Poetry is essentially a mystery, a corpse from the bog, a whispering from the dark, a gift from the goddess. The poet is passive receiver before he is an active maker.

There are times, however, when Heaney felt guilty or exasperated with this essentially passive role and wanted poetry to do something; when he wished to be a man of action making direct political statements rather than an equivocator, a parablist, a supplicant, or a withdrawn aesthete. From the beginning, from that opening image in the first poem in his first volume, "Digging," the shadow of a gunman is present, as if to convince us that the pen can be as mighty as the gun. He compensates for his failure to follow men of action by making promises: he'll dig with his pen he says. The theme does not become prominent until North, where art and the role of the artist come under his tormented scrutiny. By then Ulster was in a state of war.

Despite the lapse of confidence in art which North evinces—and the intensity of the anguish it occasioned should not be underestimated, as the last poem in North, "Exposure," would testify—the great bulk of Heaney's prose statements, comments to interviewers, and reviews of other writers are made from the point of view of a poet. When he turns to fellow poets, he tends to focus on their use of language, their verbal music, before theme or meaning. He never comments from the point of view of a politically committed spokesman, rarely even from a strictly academic viewpoint. He registers his appreciation of poetry as "self-delighting buds on the old bough of tradition" (P, p. 174). He takes the politically committed artist to task, in this case the Marxist, for attempting "to sweep the poetic enterprise clean of those somewhat hedonistic impulses towards the satisfactions of aural and formal play out of which poems arise, whether they aspire to delineate or to obfuscate ‘things as they are’" (P, p. 174). Typically, Paul Muldoon qualifies as "one of the very best" for "the opulence of the music, the overspill of creative joy," for his exploitation of "the language's potential for generating new meanings out of itself … this sense of buoyancy, this delight in the trickery and lechery that words are capable of" (P, p. 213).

"During the last few years," Heaney stated in 1975, "there has been considerable expectation that poets from Northern Ireland should ‘say’ something about ‘the situation.’" Heaney's comment on this demand was that "in the end they [poets] will only be worth listening to if they are saying something about and to themselves." Poetry for Heaney is its own special action, has its own mode of reality. In his review of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, who had found it impossible to make an accommodation with Soviet realities under Stalin, Heaney writes:

We live here in critical times ourselves, when the idea of poetry as an art is in danger of being overshadowed by a quest for poetry as a diagram of political attitudes. Some commentators have all the fussy literalism of an official from the ministry of truth. (P, p. 219).

What Heaney's review asserts is the urgent need to fight for the very life of poetry in a world which seems increasingly to discount it. He elevates the artist's work above the moralist's. The principle of the autonomy of art frees the artist from tendentiousness, vulgar moralizing, and political propagandizing. A cut below the surface, however, are the whole world's concerns which, by virtue of the poet's "aesthetic distance," can be treated with a kind of passionate detachment, a concerned disinterestedness. Heaney speaks as an apologist of the "religion of art." The Mandelstam review begins with this impassioned pronouncement:

"Art for Art's Sake" has become a gibe because of an inadequate notion of what art can encompass, and is usually bandied by people who are philistines anyhow. Art has a religious, a binding force, for the artist. Language is the poet's faith and the faith of his fathers and in order to go his own way and do his proper work in an agnostic time, he has to bring that faith to the point of arrogance and triumphalism. (P, p. 217).

Inevitably, however, politics come into communication with the poetical function, but legitimately only when the political situation has first been emotionally experienced and reduced to subordinate status in an aesthetically created universe of symbols. If Heaney's poetry automatically encompasses politics, he is careful that it should not serve them. In this respect the Yeatsian aesthetic is exemplary. There is a passage from Yeats's essay, "Samhain: 1905," part of which Heaney quotes at the beginning of Preoccupations:

One cannot be less than certain that the poet, though it may well be for him to have right opinions, above all if his country be at death's door, must keep all opinion that he holds to merely because he thinks it right, out of poetry, if it is to be poetry at all. At the enquiry which preceded the granting of a patent to the Abbey Theatre I was asked if Cathleen ni Houlihan was not written to affect opinion. Certainly it was not. I had a dream one night which gave me a story, and I had certain emotions about this country, and I gave those emotions expression for my own pleasure. If I had written to convince others I would have asked myself, not "Is that exactly what I think and feel?" but "How would that strike so-and-so? How will they think and feel when they have read it?" And all would be oratorical and insincere. If we understand our own minds, and the things that are striving to utter themselves through our minds, we move others, not because we have understood or thought about those others, but because all life has the same root. Coventry Patmore has said, "The end of art is peace," and the following of art is little different from the following of religion in the intense preoccupation it demands.

Like Yeats, Heaney writes political poetry; but, also like Yeats, he is not political in any doctrinaire sense. As a man like any other man, politics are part of his life: being a poet does not separate him from the concerns of common humanity. What being a poet means is that his concern cannot simply be with abstract ideas, but with ideas suffused and shaped by emotion, and absorbed at the deepest levels of consciousness. The Yeatsian declaration that poetry is "expression for my own pleasure" is echoed by Joyce's shade in "Station Island," when he advises the poet, "The main thing is to write / for the joy of it." Art and politics may come from different imaginative "levels" of the personality if the art is good, original, deep, authentic enough: if the latter is the case (that is, in the case of good writers) the artistic insight is prophetic, "true," at a deeper level, and for a longer time, than any political idea can be.

In an interview with Seamus Deane, Heaney sought to explain the political nature of his poetry:

Poetry is born out of the watermarks and colourings of the self. But that self in some ways takes its spiritual pulse from the inward spiritual structuring of the community to which it belongs; and the community to which I belong is Catholic and Nationalist. I believe that the poet's force now, and hopefully in the future, is to maintain the efficacy of his own "mythos," his own cultural and political colourings, rather than to serve any particular momentary strategy that his political leaders, his para-military organization or his own liberal self might want him to serve. I think that poetry and politics are, in different ways, an articulation, an ordering, a giving form to inchoate pieties, prejudices, world-views, or whatever. And I think that my own poetry is a kind of slow, obstinate, papish burn, emanating from the ground I was brought up on.

Heaney will not renounce tribal prejudice as the rational humanist would urge, but write out of it in such a way as to clarify his own feelings, not to encourage—or discourage—prejudice in others. That would be propaganda—the didactic achieved at the expense of the poetic. "We make out of the quarrel with others rhetoric," Yeats has said, "but out of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry." Clearly, Yeats, like Heaney, was preoccupied with the opposition between the divided selves of the poet, between the poet as poet and the poet as a human being like other human beings. "In most poets," writes C. Day Lewis, "there is an intermittent conflict between the poetic self and the rest of the man; and it is by reconciling the two, not by eliminating the one, that they can reach their full stature." Heaney strives for such a reconciliation—a reconciliation between primitive piety and rational humanism, between illiterate fidelity to origins and a sense of objective reality, between the feminine and the masculine impulses.

For Heaney, the ultimate example of this kind of synthesis is Dante. Discussing how the modern poet has used Dante, Heaney shows how Eliot discovered the political Dante, the poet with a "universal language," the artist as seer and repository of tradition, one who was prepared to submit his intelligence and sensibility to the disciplines of "philosophia" and religious orthodoxy: "Eliot's ultimate attraction is to the way Dante could turn values and judgements into poetry, the way the figure of the poet as thinker and teacher merged into the figure of the poet as expresser of a universal myth that could unify the abundance of the inner world and the confusion of the outer." All poets turn to great masters of the past to recreate them in their own image. This was the "stern and didactic" image of Dante that Eliot discovered in the struggle to embrace a religious faith. Mandelstam, on the other hand, in the effort to free himself from the pressures of Stalinist orthodoxy, discovers a different Dante: "Dante is not perceived as the mouthpiece of an orthodoxy but rather as the apotheosis of free, natural, biological process, as a hive of bees, a process of crystallization, a hurry of pigeon flights, a focus for all the impulsive, instinctive, nonutilitarian elements in the creative life."

For his own part, Heaney responds to the Dante who "could place himself in a historical world yet submit that world to scrutiny from a perspective beyond history," who "could accommodate the political and the transcendent." Dante, says Heaney, is the great model for the poet who "would explore the typical strains which the consciousness labours under in this country. The main tension is between two often contradictory commands: to be faithful to the collective historical experience and to be true to the recognitions of the emerging self." Heaney's goal is the achievement of that momentary peace in which all oppositions are reconciled in the self-contained, transcendent poetic symbol.

Source: Elmer Andrews, "The Gift and the Craft: An Approach to the Poetry of Seamus Heaney," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 31, No. 4, Winter 1985, pp. 368-79.


Andrews, Elmer, "The Gift and the Craft: An Approach to the Poetry of Seamus Heaney," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 31, 1985, pp. 368-79.

———, "The Spirit's Protest," in Seamus Heaney: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Elmer Andrews, St. Martin's, 1992, pp. 208-32.

Bierce, Ambrose, "Prattle," in Ambrose Bierce's Civilians and Soldiers in Context: A Critical Study, by Donald T. Blume, Kent State University Press, 2004, p. vii.

Boly, John, "Following Seamus Heaney's ‘Follower’: Toward a Performative Criticism," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 46, No. 3, Fall 2000, pp. 269-84.

Flemming, N. C., and Alan O'Day, The Longman Handbook of Modern Irish History since 1800, Pearson/Longman, 2005.

Heaney, Seamus, Crediting Poetry: The Nobel Lecture, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1996, pp. 3-54.

———, "Digging," in Death of a Naturalist, Faber, 1966, pp. 1-2.

———, "Follower," in Death of a Naturalist, Faber, 1966, pp. 24-25.

———, Opened Ground: Poems 1966-1996, Faber and Faber, 1998.

Le Goff, Jacques, The Birth of Europe, Blackwell Publishing, 2005, p. 150.

Lord, A. B., The Singer of Tales, Harvard University Press, 1960.

Moloney, Karen Marguerite, Seamus Heaney and the Emblems of Hope, University of Missouri Press, 2007.

Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Vol. 11: Thus Spake Zarathustra, translated by Thomas Common, Macmillan, 1911, pp. 187-93.

Niles, John D., Old English Heroic Poems and the Social Life of Texts, Brepols, 2007, pp. 141-199.

Peacock, Alan, "Meditations: Poet as Translator, Poet as Seer," in Seamus Heaney: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Elmer Andrews, St. Martin's, 1992, pp. 233-55.

Sedgwick, Mark, Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press, 2004.

Simmons, James, "The Trouble with Seamus," in Seamus Heaney: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Elmer Andrews, St. Martin's, 1992, pp. 39-66.


Adams, J. R. R., The Printed Word and the Common Man: Popular Culture in Ulster 1700-1900, Institute of Irish Studies, Queen's University Belfast, 1987.

This book provides insight into the particular character of the tradition that stands behind Heaney's life and work.

Benedict, Chantilly Victoria, trans., The Tres riches heures of Jean, Duke of Berry: Musée Conde, George Braziller, 1969.

Although "Follower" is technically set in the 1940s, its medieval imagery and the traditional backdrop of peasant farming cannot help but evoke the Middle Ages. The Tres riches heures provides beautiful and informative images showing an idealized view (in no way incommensurate with Heaney's) of peasant life and agriculture in fourteenth-century Western Europe.

Merton, Robert K., On the Shoulders of Giants: A Shanean Postscript, Free Press, 1965.

Merton give a very precise and scholarly history of the metaphor of pygmies standing on the shoulders of giants, but does so, uniquely for an academic book, in the form of an extended parody.

Parker, Michael, Seamus Heaney: The Making of the Poet, University of Iowa Press, 1993.

This is a standard scholarly biography of Heaney. It treats in particular the interaction between his life and work.