Follower, Heaney: thoughts on metre and language

Follower -note the lack of an article suggesting the whole range of potential meanings and sub-meanings to the word. Heaney is writing literally of a boy who followed his father around the fields and farm in his youth and who is now in his turn followed by a father who, The last line suggests, will remain following Heaney for perpetuity in his subconscious, since Heaney is a true ‘follower’ – a devotee or believer in a creed; his father and his indelible links to the land which he farmed. The poem needs to be taken alongside ‘Digging’ since in this poem, the ‘good turf’ seems to be being explored. Heaney begins by placing his father firmly in the foreground of the poem by placing him as the opening words, the iambic stress falling clearly on ‘father’ before breaking in this line to allow a spondee on the compound noun –‘horse-plough’ -a tool of weight, size and import and thus stressed – Heaney, always looking for the vernacular rather than for iambic purity uses a pyrrhic to speed over the inconsequential ‘with a’. In the second line he diverges again: ‘His should/ers globed/ like a full/ sail strung / between /the shafts/ and the/ furrow’. He mixes iambs, pyrrhic, anapaest (like a full) and a final trochee suggesting the preparation is reaching a conclusion and the ploughing can begin.  The rhythm has an underlying iambic tetrameter, but this will not be fully established until the ploughing begins. At this stage the stresses allow words to leap into prominence – the immense monosyllable ‘globed’ -with its wide-open vowel indicates an immensity and a wonder in the young boy’s mind and the row of stressed syllables at the ‘full sail strung’ indicate the power and grandeur of this image; his father likened to a great sailing ship ploughing the waves. The nautical images can be further found in the idea of navigation and mapping in stanza three and a series of words taken from seafaring: ‘wake’ ‘breaking’. It is as though the field is his ocean – a vast untamed element brought into docility by his father. An expert. Heaney’s placing of this statement at the beginning of stanza 2 suggests his pride in his father and his recognition that the skills shown make him a rare breed.

It is at this point that the metre settles down into its tetrametric pattern.




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 hobnailed wake,

Fell sometimes on the 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


In Stanzas 2 and 3 Heaney establish the expertise of his father using his own expertise as a poet. His control of the iambic tetrameter across lines linked with enjambment or end-stopped mimics the control shown by his father when ploughing. There are variations. The line ‘The sod rolled over without breaking’ carries an extra 9th syllable indicative of the earth rolling from the cut of the plough. The language is significant too – in the face of father (such pride in that term, rather than a more familiar dad or ‘the old man’) the very earth submits, rolling over like a dog hoping to be petted as well as being likened to a seamless unbroken wave of earth in this rural ocean. His father’s skill is emphasised by the monosyllable ‘pluck’ which closes the stanza- such a delicate movement which controls the team of horses –‘sweating’ in contrast to the perceived relaxation of the father – across the enjambment much as they are controlled around the turn at the end of the field, pausing after the turn at the caesura in line 10 since a new course needs to be plotted and here Heaney substitutes trochees into the first feet of lines 11 and 12 as though to emphasise the care taken over this skilful task. There is more than one expert on show here.


The overall structure of the poem seems simple – almost balled like in the four-line stanzas with what appears to be an ABAB rhyme scheme, but closer inspection sets a different tone: the rhyming is not pure. Heaney uses half rhymes in each stanza almost as though he wishes to undercut the child-like serenity of the ballad form. This poem is not a simple retelling of a hero, but it is something more complex as Heaney is mining for the truth of his relationship. As he introduces the Volta at the start of stanza 4 the focus shifts to the poet himself.


With hindsight Heaney recognises his failings. His attempts to ‘follow’ show an increase in metrical variation, until the final stanza in which the lines: ‘I was a nuisance, tripping, falling,/ Yapping always. But today /It is my father who keeps stumbling/ Behind me, and will not go away’ show a range of devices and techniques -metrical variety, enjambment, caesura before reaching the final message with the extra syllable suggesting the lone figure of the parent following behind. IN his lexical choice, Heaney is like a little puppy (yapping) who seems barely able to walk and is clearly in the way. His father, however, has, in the present, begun to lose his certainty and in the ‘stumbling’ is presented as in need of help himself. We must allow some awareness of the potential frustration evident in the closing words, especially with the stressed syllable being so clearly on the adverb of parting, yet I feel that Heaney has come full circle. He recognises how frustrated his father must have been with his intrusions and recalls how his father ‘rode him’ on his back when he could walk no more. Such love is now shown to his father. The verb ‘rode’ is used in an unusual manner; clearly Heaney is riding his father, ‘dipping and rising’ as one might on a great horse or as a small boat might on the sea. Yet the verb clearly seems to place the father in control – the boy seems to be part of the team being driven by the father, a further extension of his skills.


The penultimate stanza seems to carry regret, the stress falling on wanted seems to carry a sense of desire in its musicality far greater than any intensifying adverb might convey and similarly the sorrow in ‘All I /ever /did was/ follow’ -a line of perfect trochaic tetrameter serves to emphasise the difference between the father – naturally at ease in the iambs and gentle unvoiced alliteration of stanzas 1-3 where sibilants are run against the soft fricatives f and th almost creating the sound of the plough skimming through the soil as the father worked – and prepares the reader for the recognition discussed in the final stanza.


Heaney is digging into the past in this poem. The past tense of the opening prepares us for the fact that his father ploughs no more and the choice of imagery from the great days of sailing ships and of the weighty ploughing tools long vanished from farms in the second half of the twentieth century when the poem was written, emphasised by the wonderfully unpoetic technical lexis around ‘headrig’ steel-pointed sock’, ‘shafts’, ‘hob-nailed’ but through which Heaney’s love and respect for the land which is ‘polished’ by his father’s actions shines, prepares us for the journey into the past. One established as the driving force for this collection in the poem ‘Digging’ and here used to examine heritage, rather than the personal growth and overcoming of fear seen in many of the poems in the collection.